Travel by Train by Chris Green
I have never taken much notice of the station at Nevermore. In my experience, the train always passes through it without stopping. Nevermore appears to be a place of little significance. It has no Wikipedia page and is difficult to find on the map. All I have ever registered about the station is that it has two large clocks, one on each platform, and both show the incorrect time. Each one displays a different incorrect time from the other. I would not even have noticed this had Rebecca not pointed it out. She is forever telling me how unobservant I am.
One Saturday morning, my train slows down unexpectedly coming into Nevermore and, to my surprise, stops at Platform 1. An announcement comes over the speakers that this is Nevermore and you change here for West Bo, Kesterton Stoney, Farminster and Lynesend, places I have never heard of. Could it be that I simply don’t get enough? Rebecca keeps telling me I’m too set in my ways. It is a split-second decision, but to prove her wrong, I decide it could be fun to find out where these unfamiliar places are. I will be able to get a ticket on the train. It will be an adventure. Better than looking for a birthday present for her in Smartown. I can get one online instead. I’ve got a fair idea what she wants.
The station is unmanned. The station buildings are in poor repair and the advertising posters are hopelessly out of date. Torn images of steam trains and seaside towns from the 1960s. Surprising Things Happen When You Travel by Train one of them says. Paradise is Just a Short Train Ride Away says another. There is also a faded advert for Massey Ferguson tractors. Perhaps in the distant past, there was a farming community in the area, and the station provided a means to transport produce up and down the line, since which time it has gradually fallen into disuse.
There are no timetables, so I have no way of knowing what time the promised train arrives or which platform it will arrive at. I can’t imagine I will have a long wait. Connections in railway timetables need to be organised with great care, seldom leaving a gap of more than a few minutes. As I have no recollection of a loop line branching off in either direction, I am not sure which direction to expect the train to come from. The station is deserted, so there is no one I can ask. I figure I may as well stay on Platform 1 to wait. Should I be on the wrong platform, I will be able to make it over the old footbridge easily enough when the moment comes.
Trains pass in both directions. I can tell from some distance they are not going to stop here. If anything, they appear to speed up to pass through the station. It looks like it might, after all, be a long wait for my connection. There are no signs of habitation nearby, so again, there is no one to ask for information. To add to my troubles, my phone has no reception here, so I cannot access Trainline to find out about train departures or whether any of the regular mainline services are scheduled to stop here.
I am stranded. I wish I’d taken the car. Doing your bit for the environment is all very well, but it has its limits. I can’t even give Rebecca an update about where I am. Not that she would be keen to come and collect me. She has a golf tournament of some sort today. I have never taken much interest. A good walk spoiled, in my view. As the afternoon passes, I feel panic setting in. Finally, in early evening, an odd-looking two-car multiple unit pulls in. It is not a design that I’ve seen before nor is the orange and black livery of the coaches one I recognise. Perhaps it belongs to a new operator, but unless you are familiar with the logo, it is difficult to speculate who this might be. It is late in the day, and I feel I have no choice but to board the train and hope I arrive at somewhere nearer to civilization where if the worst comes to the worst, I can use the phone to call a cab to get me back home. I am greeted with a cheery voice welcoming me aboard the 12:15 to Lynesend, calling at West Bo, Kesterton Stoney and Farminster. 12: 15? My watch says 6:45. I look at the station clock. Bewilderingly, this says 12:15, so by this timeline, the train is running on time. Nevertheless, something is badly wrong here.
There are few passengers on board. Just four in my coach. Clearly, these people must know where they have come from and where they are going and will be able to fill me in with information about the line so that I can get my bearings. And perhaps they can explain what is going on with the time.
Which of them should I strike up a conversation with? The young fellow in the Changhong Multimedia t-shirt, listening to hip-hop on giant-sized headphones, looks to be a non-starter. He is unlikely to be communicative. The David Icke lookalike reading Robinson Crusoe might have learning difficulties. Best not to disturb him. He is not going to be the most informed. The fellow in the dark suit with the Men in Black sunglasses, fidgeting with his jacket pockets, looks like he might be reaching for his gun. He could be a hitman. Or perhaps a spy. Probably not, but he looks the impulsive type. I think it is wise to give him a wide berth. The woman with the pink hair seems to be my best bet for a conversation. She looks friendly. As she is about half my age, to avoid it looking like I am a pervert planning to hit on her, I take the window seat across from her on the opposite side of the train.
I introduce myself, and she says her name is Arial. As in the font. I explain that I can’t get anything from my phone around here. No phone signal, no internet.
‘That’s strange,’ she says. ‘There’s normally good coverage. You could use mine, but I’m getting off at the next shop. I’m going to a wands exhibition in West Bo. Are you interested in wands?’
‘I must confess I know little about wands.’
‘But you must have heard of the West Bo Wands Fair. It’s world-famous.’
Our conversation is interrupted by the train slowing down.
‘We are just coming into West Bo,’ the conductor says. ‘West Bo is the next station stop. Change here for Ruggerton and Darwymple. For those remaining on the train, I have been informed that we may experience delays, as there are reports of a large marsupial on the track between West Bo and Kesterton Stoney. We apologise for any inconvenience.’
Two more places I’ve not heard of and marsupials on the track. At least that is what it sounded like. It is getting curiouser and curiouser.
Arial bids me farewell and gets off the train. Her place is taken by an ageing hippy in full jumble sale regalia. Crusty wisps of lank hair hang down his crevassed face. Where’s his dog, I wonder? Perhaps he has come from the wands exhibition, and they don’t allow dogs. Doubtful though the prospect might seem, I’m relying on him being a mine of information on the Nevermore-Lynesend line.
Our conversation gets off to a promising start when he tells me he knows everything about the area. But then he broadens the discussion to talk about space.
‘We are all made out of stars,’ he says. ‘A huge cloud of gas that had been swirling around since the Big Bang and the dusty remains of an old star that had exploded long ago. Imagine that for a moment, man! The spinning gas and cosmic dust were of course a long way apart, but then by a stroke of good fortune, a nearby star exploded and sent a shock-wave of light and energy rippling across space, pushing some of the gas and dust towards each other. Cool stuff, huh! The gas and dust became a seething ball of matter, which got bigger and bigger because of gravity. This became the Earth. And here we are hundreds of thousands of years later on this train hurtling through space on a smaller level.’
I begin to wonder if I mightn’t have been better off talking to the hitman or Robinson Crusoe.
As they clear whatever is blocking the line, in the carriage, we head further into deep space. The train picks up again and twenty-nine minutes late, we arrive at Kesterton Stoney, change here for Madwich and Hope’s End. Two more places I’ve not heard of. Hitman and Robinson Crusoe both leave the train, and I am left to explore the cosmos further with our hippy, who, it turns out, is called Buzz. After Buzz Aldrin. That would put him in his early fifties. He looks about eighty.
‘We are expecting further delays between Kesterton Stoney and Farminster,’ the conductor says. ‘This time, it is because a spaceship has landed close to the line.’
I think this must be some kind of a joke, but Buzz becomes positively animated at the announcement. It appears this is something he has been expecting. He tells me the area is the prime location for close encounters in the whole country, perhaps the world. He reels off examples of previous visits and boasts of a collection of pictures he has at home. To his chagrin, the conductor comes back on to say that it isn’t a spaceship after all, and we will soon be arriving in Farminster.
‘You see, don’t you, that they are covering it up,’ Buzz says? ‘Every time they think there may be signs of contact, they decide it would be too dangerous to let the public know, and they hush it up. Anyway, Farminster is where I get off, so I will be able to find out for myself.’
Only the fellow in the Changhong t-shirt is left. I debate whether to go over and interrupt his hip-hop music. It turns out I don’t need to. He takes off his headphones and comes over. He sits in the seat next to mine.
‘I hope you don’t mind,’ he says. ‘But for the last ten minutes, I’ve been wondering where I might know you from. Just now it struck me. You’re Mr Sloman, aren’t you? From Normal Terrace in Oldcastle.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Do I know you?’
‘I thought it was you. I’m Andy Handy. I came to fix your TV last year.’
‘Ah, yes! I remember you now.’
‘It was the easiest job I’ve ever had. All I had to do was plug the aerial in, if you recall. I’m guessing you are not very observant. It doesn’t matter. Some people are, some people aren’t. That’s just the way it goes.’
Should I try to blame the oversight on Rebecca? But that would be unfair. Andy is right. I don’t always notice things that others can see.
I laugh and tell Andy how embarrassed I was when he pointed it out.
‘What brings you out this way, Mr Sloman? Not many people travel to Lynesend without a reason. I think you will agree that the area is full of surprises.’
‘Why did I come out here?’ I say. ‘Good question. I wish I knew.’
‘I moved out here a few months ago,’ he says. ‘Sure, it’s a little out of the way, but it’s an interesting place. Everyone says this part of the country is simply not like anywhere else. You never know what to expect. We have some odd customs. You may have noticed, we have our own currency, the Lynesend Guinea. You can buy cannabis and marijuana over the counter in the pharmacies, you are bound by law to plant a tree in your garden every year, and there are one or two places you can get your car converted to run on comfrey. And recently, we’ve started driving on the right-hand side of the road. A word of advice, though. If you are going to travel by train in these parts, you are likely to encounter some very strange people. Some of them may not be quite what they seem. If in doubt, it’s best to ignore them and read a book or listen to some music like I do.’
‘Tickets please,’ the conductor calls out, making her way along the aisle towards me. She is wearing an orange uniform with black graphics to match the train’s livery.
I ask her for a return from Nevermore to Lynesend, hoping that there is a return train, and ask for information about the service.
‘The next train from Lynesend leaves at 6:40,’ she says
‘So I’ve missed it,’ I say, looking at my watch which says 7:55.
‘You have hours yet,’ she laughs. ‘It’s only half-past one.’
‘And it connects with the Oldcastle to Smartown service?’
‘Yes. You will be able to travel by train in both directions from Nevermore tomorrow. Which way will you be going? Up the line or down the line?’
‘Back to Oldcastle.’
‘11:11 tomorrow morning. Remember there is a ninety-minute time difference between the up the line and the down the line services.’
‘Why is that?’ I ask.
The conductor looks at me blankly, as if I’ve just asked her to explain String Theory.
‘Nobody is sure why it is,’ Andy says. ‘I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that when the railways introduced standardised time, there were riots in these parts. So they simply let them carry on with the times they had been using.’
‘Sounds like an apocryphal tale,’ I say.
‘It could well be,’ Andy says. ‘Who can tell? Time is a slippery customer. Even Einstein struggled to get to grips with it. Best not to think about it too much.’
Presumably it is 8 o’clock back in the golfing world, so Rebecca’s game should have finished by now. It will cost me dearly, but I am going to have to bite the bullet and ask her to come and pick me up. If I catch the train back to Nevermore, I’m sure her satnav will be able to find the station. I purchase my ticket, get off at Lynesend with Andy, and thank him for his help. I tell him I will keep his advice about fellow passengers in mind on the return journey. But after this debacle, it might be a long time before I travel by train again. It’s too stressful.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved