Schrödinger’s Cat by Chris Green
(no cats were harmed in the writing of this story)
The train doesn’t stop. There are no stations, no visible settlements. No landmarks, no buildings, no farms, nothing. I don’t know where the train is heading. The terrain comprises miles upon miles of wilderness, woodland and barren scrub. I can’t remember anything else. When did I start out? It feels as if I’ve been on the train for days now, weeks, months maybe. It as if I’ve always been on the train. Each day, the same as the last. Day in day out. All down the line, the diesel drumming. The monotonous rhythm of the wheels. The train pulling purposefully along the tracks. The alien landscape passing by, camouflaged by grimy carriage windows. Bewilderment and foreboding. A growing sense of hopelessness.
How did I come to be aboard? Why is there no-one else on the train? Why do I have such a long train all to myself? It must be sixteen coaches long. What happened to the others? Where is my partner, Julie? Jennie? Jackie? Was she with me? Or did I have other companions? I have no recollection now of the chain of events. But surely someone must know what is going on. Someone, for instance, must be driving the train. The driver will know where we are headed. But I’ve no way of communicating with the him. I’ve tried pulling the safety cord to stop the train but this doesn’t work. Meanwhile, the train travels ever onward towards an unknown destination.
I don’t think we’ve passed any other trains. Or have we? Perhaps there was another train back in the dim and distant past. Going through the mountains in the opposite direction. Mountains? Where were the mountains? I have a nagging feeling we passed through mountains earlier but I can’t be certain. The mind plays its tricks. Davos would know. Davos? …… David perhaps? Davy? No, wait! Davy is dead, isn’t he?. …… Am I dead too? If I’m not, I don’t even understand how I have managed to stay alive. I have had no food or water.
A tune keeps coming into my head. It seems familiar but I can’t make out what it is or where I might have heard it. It flits in and out, sounding a little different each time. Variations perhaps on a theme. The same tune but with different instruments. Piano and violins. Now guitars and saxophone. It probably has words too but these are not coming through yet.
‘Posso vedere il tuo biglietto per favore,’ a man’s voice says, from out of nowhere.
A ticket collector but I can see no-one. Where is the voice coming from and why is he talking to me in Italian?
‘Can I see your ticket please?’ he says, this time in English.
‘I don’t have a ticket,’ I say. ‘Who are you and why am I on the train?’
‘You have to have a valid ticket to travel on this line,’ he says. ‘The penalty for not having one is imprisonment. You would not like prison. It is a very inhospitable place.’
Still I see no-one. The strange thought occurs to me that it could be me that is speaking. Perhaps I am the ticket collector.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep a grip on reality. Here I am now in the deserted environs of an old town. It might be because I am fatigued from the long journey but I can’t put a geographical location to this place. There are no features that might offer a clue. Unless the train took a circuitous route, this will be a long way from ……. Where will it be a long way from? Home? Work? The place where they design skeuomorphs for digital devices? No, that can’t be right. Where did that idea come from? I must be thinking of someone else. Perhaps Janie designs skeuomorphs. What are skeuomorphs anyway?
From the weak wintry light, I sense this place has a northerly aspect. This in itself is not much help. North is big. It could be anywhere, Cumbria, Wroclaw, Novosibirsk. There is nothing that might offer a clue. There are no signs of life. No people, no animals, no birds. There are no vehicles, no roadsigns, no advertising displays. Not even any graffiti. Nothing at all that might point the way. The town has been completely abandoned. Rows of ramshackle buildings stand empty. Houses are in an advanced state of collapse, overtaken by forbidding brambles. Forests of weeds have colonised the dirt-track roads. The place is more rundown than the Tokers End council estate back home? Tokers End? Now, where is Tokers End? …….. It’s near ….. down the road from …… I drive through it sometimes. On my way to …… The supermarket? The studio? The Mondegreen Research Centre? No, it’s not coming. What are mondegreens, I wonder?
How did I come to be here? Did the train to nowhere finally stop? Is this where it brought me? There are huge gaps in my cognition. Might it even be something to do with what the ticket collector told me? Might this be the penalty for not having a ticket? I suppose there’s nothing to do but explore this wasteland and see where I end up. The wind blows dust along the silent empty streets. The colour has drained out of the sky. It’s as if someone has found a way to release despair into the atmosphere. Something terrible must have happened here to drive the people away. And by the looks of it, not recently. No-one has been here for a long time.
Here’s that tune again. Bouncing around in my head. It is up-tempo. It has an infectious piano riff and a backbeat. I still can’t make out the words but it has a sing-along chorus. La-de-da-de-da-de-la. La-de-da-de-la-la. It’s as if others are singing it with me. In harmony. It offers a welcome distraction from my dire predicament.
I’m back on the mystery train. I do not understand how this has come about. Just now I was sheltering in a derelict house in the deserted old town. Having trekked for miles and searched in vain for signs of life in the badlands, I was exhausted. It was a rough night. A storm whipped up. The wind howled in the eaves. I was trying to get some sleep. Or could it be I was dreaming I was in a derelict old house? It was certainly the stuff of nightmares. Whichever, here I am now back on the never-ending track. I sense I may not be alone on the train. I can hear movement in the next carriage. It sounds as if they are moving furniture around, beds or something. Can I hear muted voices or is this wishful thinking? The connecting door between the carriages is locked. I call out but it appears they cannot hear me. I shout louder. I try each of the languages I know, Italian, French, German. But to no avail. Through the grill, I can see shadows moving but the distance is somehow so great, they might as well be in another world.
As the train goes around a bend, I see a station up ahead. A long single platform with random structures along it. It looks like there are one or two figures standing in the shadows of what might be a waiting room. For a moment I imagine they have come to meet me. Perhaps they will take me for a tasty meal in a fast-food restaurant nearby. Prezzo or Nandos. I’m certain now that I must be hungry. What about that place where they do the spicy chicken wings? While I am salivating, the people on the platform vanish. Perhaps they were never there. The train doesn’t even slow down, let alone stop. It is going too fast for me to even make out the name of the station. Would it help if I could? I get the feeling it wouldn’t shed any light on where I was or where the train was heading. For the time being, it looks as if the food will have to wait.
Night comes around again and the stars come out. There is a full Moon and I can make out the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas, who holds up the sky and Pleione, the protectress of sailing. That’s a lot of information coming through all of a sudden. Where has this come from? Gradually, it occurs to me. My daughter, Lucy used to tell me about the night sky. I feel remembering I have a daughter is something of a breakthrough. It connects me somehow to the normal, everyday world, the world outside of the train. I haven’t seen Lucy for a while though, have I? Perhaps she is with her mum, Jilly? Judy? Jody? Or perhaps she moved in with Kurt. Kurt, Kurt? Who is Kurt? Wasn’t he the one who shot himself? That must be a different Kurt. No matter. I recollect I used to visit Lucy in Scotland. She studied Physics at St Andrews. It always seemed to be snowing when I went up. I remember her telling me one time about a thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat. If you place a cat and something that could kill the cat, let’s say a radioactive atom, in a box and seal it, you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive until you open the box, so until you open the box, the cat is, in a sense, both dead and alive. I’m not sure they actually did this experiment at the university but who knows? Perhaps I am nothing more than a thought experiment. Perhaps the train is my sealed box and paradoxically, like Schrödinger’s Cat, I am both dead and alive.
By and by, the train slows down. I wonder if, at last, it is going to stop. I can see faint lights shimmering in the distance. Might these be coming from a town? Might we be arriving somewhere at last? Somewhere that I might possibly recognise? I can see one or two roads and think I can make out the headlights of vehicles. But to my disappointment, we do not stop. The train picks up speed again and we head off once more into the night.
My phone rings, which is odd because didn’t realise I had a phone with me on the train. I search in my pockets but this merely confirms that I don’t have a phone. The phone I don’t have keeps ringing so I answer it.
‘We’ll be with you soon,’ says a voice. The line is a bit crackly but I think I recognise the voice. It sounds like Jeannie.
‘Will you bring Lucy?’ I say. I haven’t seen her for such a long time.’
‘We’ll be with you soon,’ the voice repeats and the call ends.
I find I still don’t have a phone.
Just before daylight, I sense a change in the situation. I can no longer feel the rocking motion of the train. I can no longer hear the pulsing sound of the wheels on the tracks. Instead, I hear ambient background noise, the hum of air conditioning, the clinking of cutlery, the hubbub of voices. It feels as if a numbness is lifting. Like I am waking up from a long sleep. And the tune is back. It has a reggae beat now. I’ll need to get Robbie and Bob to work on this. Rhythm sections understands reggae rhythms better, the downstrokes on the offbeat and the 2/4 or 4/4 time. Wait! ……. That’s it! The tune I keep hearing is one of mine. I’m a songwriter, a musician. I’m in a band. We have had hits. We are called …… No, the name’s not coming to me yet. But I believe we are quite famous. I can visualise us playing at large stadiums.
It’s coming back to me now. We were on a European tour. We were in between gigs. I remember that Davy, our keyboard player and I were keen to take in The Alps. The Eiger. The Matterhorn. The Jungfrau. All those spectacular snow-capped wonders we had heard about. We took a train from Davos. The Glacier Express. I think we may have taken something else too, something psychoactive to enhance the experience. Something specially made up for us by a Swiss chemist who came to one of our concerts. A freak storm broke out. There was an accident. There was mass panic. On account of my injuries, along with a number of others, I was airlifted to safety. Then nothing. That’s it. A complete blank. I must have passed out in the helicopter. I have been unconscious for …. How long have I been out for? A long time, it seems. Possibly days. It certainly feels like days. And here I am holed up in ……. Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève, it says on my chart. At least I’m alive. No radioactive atom in the metaphorical box then.
Ah, there’s a lady in a white coat. She’s coming over. She will be able to tell me how long I’ve been here and what is going on. She will be able to let me know when Josie and Lucy are arriving. I’d better ask her about Davy too. Find out what happened to Davy? Is he here in the hospital as well? Or didn’t he make it? She’s bound to have information. Perhaps she will know what my band is called too. She has probably been listening to us on those headphones she has around her neck.
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved