Out Of Time by Chris Green
The moment Kimberley steps into the refreshment room, she knows something is wrong. Railway station cafés should be a hub of activity in the morning. This one is deathly quiet. It is almost empty. There are five people and each is seated at a separate table, staring blankly into space. They all register an expression of boredom and gloom. As Kimberley casts her glance from one to the other, no one meets her gaze. There are no signs of life behind the counter. The chances of a cup of tea or a sandwich for the journey ahead are not looking good.
The colours of the room are muted, just a step up from monochrome. It is as if an autumn fog has descended on the space. Or years and years of cigarette smoke have accumulated. The bentwood chairs and grubby checked pattern table cloths belong to a bygone age. The timetable behind a pane of cracked glass is dog-eared and smudged. On the walls, there are a few railway posters like the ones she has seen in the museum. Is Your Journey Really Necessary, reads one of them. A vintage cigarette vending machine advertises Gold Flake and Craven A. It’s like a set from Brief Encounter. The clock on the wall appears to be stopped at quarter to eight. It is now nine-thirty. Her train is due at nine-thirty-nine. Kimberley checks her watch. Her watch also says quarter to eight. A chill runs through her.
She hears the roar of a train arriving. Perhaps it is her train. As she tries to get back onto the platform, she is held back by an invisible wall. She pushes and shoves and ducks and parries. However, she tries to negotiate the obstacle, she cannot find a way through. Panic rises in her. Something is seriously wrong. Frightened and distraught, she watches through the window as the train passes through the station without even slowing down. It is a long train, with perhaps sixteen carriages. She is used to seeing shorter trains. She is used to them stopping at the station. No sooner has the thunderous sound subsided than she hears the rumble of a train approaching from the opposite direction. This one too is a leviathan with sixteen carriages. It travels through the station at breakneck speed. After it has passed, Kimberley notices that both platforms are completely empty. She is certain that there were passengers waiting when she arrived. What has happened to everyone?
She tries to think back to when she parked the Qashqai in the station car park. Was there anything unusual? Were there any anomalies she might have picked up on? So far as she can recall, the car park was nearly full. There was the purposeful bustle you might expect at the station on a Friday morning. She even remembers passing the time of day with a man in a wheelchair and moving out of the way for an Asian woman with several small children in tow. She remembers the announcement about an earlier train being seventeen minutes late. It was not until she stepped into the refreshment area that she noticed anything out of the ordinary.
Kimberley desperately needs to talk to someone. She can’t phone Dan. He is under the impression that she is going to her sick mother’s overnight. And she can’t phone Ramon. He might not have left for their tryst yet and his wife might pick up. She decides to call their friend Ben at the secret base. He will know what is happening. Maybe she has inadvertently happened by a sophisticated military exercise. Perhaps there was something on the local news or in the local paper warning of this and she had missed it. She searches in her handbag for her phone. It is not there. Frantically she rifles through her overnight bag. It is not there. She doesn’t have her phone. She never travels without her phone. At home, she doesn’t even go upstairs without her phone.
She looks around the room. No one has moved. Slowly the blurry figures come into focus. They are so motionless that they might be mannequins. The weary-looking soldier in Second World War army uniform seems to be studying a poster on the opposite wall which is telling him to Dig for Victory. He has a khaki kitbag on the table beside him. It has a faded name and a number stamped on it. The middle-aged woman in the brown 1950s New Look twin set is nursing a bone china teacup. She picks the cup up and returns it to the saucer. The cup appears to be empty. Is she waiting for service? Kimberley wonders. It doesn’t look like this is going to happen anytime soon. There is a thick layer of dust on the service hatch. The balding man in the checked jacket with the wide lapels and the disco collared shirt twists the sides of a Rubik’s cube this way and that. It seems he is doing so more to exercise his hands than with the hope of solving the puzzle. Kimberley ignores the Iggy Pop lookalike in the biker’s jacket and ripped jeans who is lighting a cigarette and goes over to the lady in the purple jumpsuit with the big 1980s hair. Somehow she looks the most approachable of the bunch.
‘Have you been here long?’ she asks. It seems a banal question, but how do you start a conversation with a dummy.
Big Hair continues staring straight ahead. Perhaps she did not hear. Perhaps she cannot see her. Perhaps none of them can see her. Perhaps she is invisible to them. Perhaps they are invisible to each other.
‘She don’t talk much, that one,’ says Iggy Pop. He turns towards Kimberley. Kimberley notices that he has about fourteen earrings in each ear to add to the copious nasal jewellery. ‘She was here before me. She’s been here a long time.’
‘When did you arrive?’ asks Kimberley.
‘Me! I’ve been here since 1995,’ he says. ‘I was the last to arrive.’
She swallows hard, trying to take the information in.
‘Time doesn’t mean a lot here,’ says Rubik Cube. I’ve been here since 1976.’
New Look picks up her teacup, puts it to her lips and then places it back in the saucer.
The cup and saucer rattle as another train speeds through the station. Kimberley watches it through the window. It is a perfectly ordinary present-day train, with modern livery on the carriages.
‘No use looking out there, love’ says Iggy Pop. ‘The trains don’t stop here.’
‘I’ve been here since 1945,’ says the weary-looking soldier, digging around in his kitbag. He takes out a small round aluminium pan and holds it out. ‘Here’s my mess tin. Are you going to cook us something nice? I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’
‘You’ve been here since 1945,’ she repeats, aghast.
‘I shouldn’t worry about it too much,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘A minute’s the same as a year here. Why don’t you sit down? You’ll get used to it.’
‘It’s nothing at all really,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Here have a cigarette love.’
‘Did they find out who shot JR?’ says Big Hair, breaking her silence. ‘I think it was Bobby.’
Kimberley goes behind the counter and into the kitchen area in the hope of finding an exit. There isn’t one. There isn’t even a back wall. She finds herself staring into a void. The laws of physics itself are being challenged here.
‘Could have saved you the trouble, love,’ says Iggy Pop, as she comes back in to join them. ‘Don’t you think that we haven’t all tried to get out the back way?’
‘What is this place? What is going on?’ she shouts, at no one in particular.
No one in particular answers.
‘Or it might have been Pamela,’ says Big Hair. ‘She always hated JR.’
Working in an office, Kimberley is not used to thinking outside the box. She doesn’t even like sci-fi. She only reads romance novels. She wishes Ramon were here, or even Dan. Her head is pounding like a jungle drum, as she struggles to come up with some kind of rational explanation. This is not a dream. She is wide awake. She is trapped. There is no way out. She is really here, in this impossible situation with a group of people who say they have been stuck here for years. It is beyond supernatural or scary.
‘What do you do for food and drink,’ Kimberley asks.
‘Is someone making tea?’ says New Look, clinking her china cup against her saucer.
‘Blimey, you got her to talk,’ says Iggy Pop.
‘Make me something nice. I’ve got me mess tin. I’ve only had a bar of chocolate,’ says Weary Tommy.
‘You’ll get used to it,’ says Rubik Cube.
‘Have a cigarette, darlin,’ says Iggy Pop.
These people are looney tunes, thinks Kimberley. Mad as a box of frogs. They have gone stir crazy. And she is stuck with them. When she was seven she had an imaginary friend called Lucy. Lucy went everywhere with her. Lucy became frightened by some ghoulish gargoyles in the stone mason’s yard that they passed on the way to school. Day by day Lucy became more afraid. She was obsessed, haunted even by the gargoyles. The problem was that this was the only way to school. There was nothing Kimberley could do about it. They had to go that way. They had no choice. This is exactly how Kimberley feels now, stuck here with this grotesque group of ghouls. Lucy of course eventually died, drowned in the lagoon when Kimberley’s parents took them to Venice.
The ghouls here in this twenty-first-century railway refreshment room appear not to have aged at all during their stay. Their appearance is exactly as it would have been when they arrived years ago. The soldier for instance still looks about nineteen. Kimberley does a quick calculation in her head. He should be nearly a hundred. He has been here the longest and the others arrived one by one. They have all been trapped here since their arrival. They are all relics from times gone by. God forbid that she be destined to spend the rest of her days with these fossils in this decaying hell hole.
The windows rattle as a slow freight train pulls through. Kimberley frantically tries the exit again but finds that the invisible force still holds her back. How on earth did she get in here? Also, if there was an opening when someone new arrived, why hadn’t one of the prisoners used the moment as an opportunity to get out?
‘The windows are made of unbreakable glass too, in case that’s what you were thinking,’ says Rubik Cube.
‘Nothing’s going to change, love,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Take my word.’
‘It might have been Cliff Barnes,’ says Big Hair. ‘He was always up to no good.’
Kimberley’s mind is in turmoil. Why did she arrange a weekend away with Ramon? If she had not taken to deceiving Dan, none of this would be happening. To take things back a step further, if Dan had shown more interest in her and not spent so much time training his virtual horses she would not have started having an affair with Ramon. Perhaps she should have spared a thought too for Ramon’s wife. Jackie, Janet, Jill? She can’t even remember his wife’s name. But, who can foresee a trail of consequences? It’s pointless even going there.
More to the point, why are these freaks here and what is she doing in this circus? What could possibly be the connection between them? Do they all share something in common? Including herself? There is nothing to be gained by being precious. She has to get to know them. She needs to test out her skill at detection. She was a big fan of heartthrob Italian TV detective, Aurelio Zen, and was mortified when the series was prematurely axed. Zen used to befriend the suspects to discover their deep dark secrets. With the thought of the dashing Aurelio Zen, she gains some composure.
‘Yes, I will have a cigarette,’ she says to Iggy Pop.
Iggy Pop offers her one from a Players Number 6 King Size packet. Kimberley is not sure, but she feels that this brand disappeared from sale about thirty years ago.
‘Out of interest, where do you get them?’ she says. ‘You can’t have an unlimited supply and the cigarette machine on the wall looks empty.’
‘Aha, that would be telling,’ says Iggy Pop. Might the edgy Aurelio Zen have delivered a swift blow to the head at this point? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
‘Can I have a fag too?’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’
‘What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?’ says Rubik Cube.
‘It could have been Jock Ewing who shot JR, or was Jock already dead?’ says Big Hair.
Kimberley can see that even the sophisticated Aurelio Zen might have trouble getting information from this motley crew.
‘Has anyone else dropped by?’ Kimberley asks them, trying a new tack. ‘Over the years?’
‘The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once, and nothing happens here, so what does that tell you?’ says Rubik Cube.
‘It suggests that there is no time like the present, or no time but the present, or something like that,’ says Kimberley.
‘That’s right so it’s as if I’ve always been here then,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘And I still can’t get the red squares lined up.’
‘I’ve been here since 1953,’ says New Look. ‘Things were different then. They had tea dances with a caller and a proper band. Victor used to take me. Of course, my husband didn’t know. I don’t think he would have approved.’
‘My, my,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that why you are wearing that pretty brown dress? Is that for Victor?’
‘This is a Christian Dior dress,’ says New Look, apparently pleased to be getting some attention. ‘Victor and I used to go dancing every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon,’ she continues. ‘And sometimes afterwards, we would go to a hotel. But I can’t do that now the trains don’t stop.’
Kimberley is unnerved by this. This is too close to home. She is wearing a Jigsaw pencil skirt and has Janet Reger lingerie on for the very same reason. She has dressed to please Ramon. And were they not also going to a hotel later for their clandestine liaison?
Iggy Pop interrupts her reverie. ‘All I done was sell someone else’s Beamer,’ he says. ‘I had this duplicate set of keys, see, and a duplicate log book. I can’t even remember how I came by them. I’m not a bad man, not really.’
‘I think I’m probably a bad man,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I deserted, you know. That’s how I came to be catching the train. I should have been in Normandy, helping to push back the Bosch to secure the new front, but I missed my Maddie. I thought she might be going with another fellow. She’d stopped sending me letters, so I had to come home to make sure there was nothing going on.’
The Aurelio Zen strategy appears to be working. She is drawing them out of themselves. They are no longer coming out with gibberish but talking about matters that she is able to comprehend.
‘Anyway, to cut a long story short,’ Iggy Pop continues. ‘I drop the motor off with the geezer and have to catch the train, so I come along here to the station and next thing I know I’m caught up in this mad hatter’s tea party.’
New Look starts to say something about just killing time here but the noise of a passing express drowns her out.
‘Of course, JR might have shot himself,’ says Big Hair. ‘I never thought of that.’
‘I used to cheat at poker,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used marked packs of cards.’
‘So you think we are all here because we’ve done something corrupt or cruel,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that where this is heading?’
‘We used to play Dealer’s Choice and then I would nominate wildcards that were the easiest to spot,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘So, I couldn’t really lose.’
‘I expect a lot of people cheat at cards. I expect casinos cheat at cards,’ says Kimberley.
‘The thing about it was that I played with friends,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used to make money out of my friends. I came here to catch a train to go and pick up a Triumph Stag that I had accepted in lieu of a debt from one of my best friends. I’d say that makes me an absolute cad.’
‘I used to tell my husband I was at the Women’s Institute,’ says New Look. ‘I knew that he would never look for me there.’
‘I didn’t tell Maddie of what I got up to in Montmartre of course,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘When I had a forty-eight-hour pass. What those French girls can do would make your hair curl.’
It is becoming like a confessional. Kimberley considers the information they have shared. Herself included, they have all done things they know to be wrong. And they were all passing through this station in the process of committing their misdemeanours. You could say that there was a connection here, but millions of people must have passed through the station, and who hasn’t done something they know to be wrong? She remembers the time she sold her mother’s diamond cluster engagement ring to the Wurzel Gummage hippy at the antiques market when she was seventeen to get the money to go to a Robbie Williams concert at Knebworth. And worse, sleeping with Dan’s best man, Chas, on her hen night. She had definitely instigated this. She remembers she had turned up uninvited at Chas’s flat at 2 in the morning. Everyone has their dirty secrets.
So where does this leave her? Kimberley wonders if she might be overthinking it. Is she looking for meaning where there is none? What they are experiencing could just be an unexplained blip in the space-time continuum. And because something has gone wrong with relativity, there is no time in this space. They are out of time. This is nowhere. Cause and effect might have no place here. Perhaps there is no why. After all, no-one here has mentioned anything that might warrant a life sentence of this mind-bending purgatory. No one has killed anyone. Not even Weary Tommy, who was in the perfect position to have done so, appears to have killed anyone.
‘I think it was me that shot JR,’ says Big Hair.
Kimberley notices the clock on the wall has moved on to five to eight. Time is no longer standing still. Her heart skips a beat. The shadowy figures occupying the room slowly fade from sight. The stale air is clearing. The room is lighting up. She can hear a train approaching. Is it slowing down?
Copyright © Chris Green 2022: All rights reserved