The sun hung in the sky like an amber gemstone, and a crisp breeze carried the scent of Spring. It was a perfect day for a train ride.
Dan Purvis rattled the keys in his pocket as he stepped aboard the newly refurbished Rail Class 350e, which was fresh from the depot and nearly unrecognisable from the last time he had seen it. The scruffy green ‘ironing board’ seats had been replaced by modern grey contour chairs, and each one sported a USB socket and adjustable armrests. An electronic destination ticker marked the end of every carriage, and bright LCD billboards displayed adverts and local information. Only an experienced train operator like Dan could recognise the 350e for the relic it was–twenty-years old and missing its fourth carriage–but the thing was, he loved the relics.
Maybe because I’m a relic too. My knees have certainly seen better days.
Trains were like people, in a way. Each had history and a personality; each rattled and rolled in its own distinct way; and each possessed its own set of groans and grumbles. After eighteen years in the industry, Dan knew every train in the fleet from its bolts to its windscreen wipers, and this one he always thought of as ‘Shorty’–because of the ongoing issues with its fourth carriage.
Today, Dan was running the route between the quiet hamlet of Whitegale and the bustling platforms of Birmingham’s New Street Station. It was his preferred route, because he lived in Whitegale. The forty-five minute journey was second-nature to him, and typically uneventful.
Yet, that afternoon, he was feeling oddly excited. Perhaps it was the welcome scent of Spring in the air after a particularly dreary winter. Or perhaps he’d merely slept well. Whatever the reason, he was light on his feet and smiling as he passed through the rear carriage–something he liked to do before every shift, to check everything was in order. He nodded to each passenger as he strolled through the aisle, and even stopped to check out one of the bright new ad displays. The thirty-second clip it played tried desperately to convince him to buy a Le Grande Mar ‘Good Guy’ robotic vacuum cleaner, and by the time it finished, he was actually in two minds about getting one for his wife, Sharon. Housework wasn’t as easy for her lately. The two of them were getting old. If only he had the money to retire and be with her, but his pension was still a decade away.
Married thirty years, I can barely believe it. I can’t even remember what we were like in our twenties.
In love. We were in love.
We still are.
Dan’s cheery mood turned sour when he entered the middle carriage and spotted a pair of ‘roadmen’. The ne’er-do-wells were everywhere lately, spilling out of Birmingham’s urban centres and causing havoc in the surrounding towns and villages. Along with dealing drugs, the hooded youths seemed hellbent on committing whatever crime they could, for little to no reason. Three stabbings in Whitegale during this last year alone. People were frightened to step foot outside their homes.
This country is getting worse. In every way.
As expected, the two roadmen glared at Dan as he walked by them. One was a white lad with bright, staring eyes, while the other was a slightly older black youth. Both had their hoods up over their heads and bandanas over their mouths–a key part of their identity. A braver man might have told them to show their faces, but Dan could only ignore them and hope they went on their merry way at the next stop. It wasn’t worth provoking them. The amount of stories he could tell about courageous train drivers taking on troublemakers was endless, and very few of them ended well for the driver.
It shouldn’t be our job to worry about thugs. The police should arrest them.
When did this country fall victim to sociopathic children?
To keep from losing his temper, Dan marched into the final carriage, which was the same as the other two, except it had no toilet cubicle and housed a cramped operator’s cabin at the front. Four passengers occupied this section of the train–an old couple sitting together, holding hands; a heavyset black man in a shirt and tie; and a long-legged, middle-aged gentleman in loose jeans and an olive-green jumper. The afternoon shift was quiet, and it wouldn’t be until five o’ clock that the passenger count increased by any noticeable measure. Dan would be running people back and forth until ten.
And back home before Sharon falls asleep hopefully. Maybe we can even catch an hour of television together.
Bradley Martin, the dawn shift operator Dan that was relieving, stood outside the door to the operator’s cabin. He was yawning and stretching, his eyes bloodshot. The poor sod would have been at the King’s Heath depot at five-thirty that morning. It was now one-pm. Dan hadn’t taken a dawn shift in years. He felt tired at the mere thought of it.
Seeing Dan, Bradley waved wearily. He had unbuttoned the buttons on his sleeves on his shirt and rolled them up to his elbows, revealing a tattoo of a boxing kangaroo of all things. “You okay to drop me off at Ronchurch, mate?”
“Of course,” said Dan. “How was your morning?”
“Busy, as always. Can’t all get the cushy afternoon shifts, can we?”
Dan grinned. “Do this as long as I have, and you’ll have your pick of shifts.”
“Hey, this is just temporary, mate. That’s what I said four years ago and I’m sticking to it.”
“It’s what we all say. This life has a way of keeping you. Perhaps it’s the calming thrum of the motors and the quiet dignity of getting people where they need to go.”
“Or maybe it’s the steady pay cheque, mate. Anyway…” Bradley stood aside to allow Dan inside the cabin. “Your chariot awaits, sir.”
There wasn’t enough room inside the cabin for two, so Bradley sat outside on a nearby passenger seat. The younger man immediately pulled out his mobile phone and began tapping away with a stylus on a screen four times the size of Dan’s. At some point in his late forties, technology had progressed without him. Television had got thinner and mobile phones larger, but suddenly it all ceased to interest him. For him, progress had slowed shortly after the arrival of self checkout at the supermarkets. He just hoped to retire before trains started operating themselves.
Dan watched Bradley tapping away at his screen and grinned. Honey. I’m on my way home. Bradley had recently got married and his wife was six months pregnant. Dan was slightly envious. He held few regrets in life, but having never had children was one of them. Not that it had been his fault.
It’s no one’s fault. Just a twist of fate.
Fate can be a sonofabitch.
Dan closed the operator cabin’s door and stuck his master key into the console. After performing a quick systems check, he started up the electric motors and signed his name into the operator’s log. Each carriage was self-propelled, but the main thrust came from the motor carriage up front. Like the rest of the train, the operator’s cabin had also been upgraded, and now held the latest radio equipment and GSM-R signalling module, as well as a higher resolution CCTV display. The cabin even had a new car smell.
By the end of the year, every 350e in the fleet would have been upgraded, and there was even talk of removing the inhibitor on the motors, allowing the trains to reach their full speed of one-hundred-and-ten miles per hour instead of the current one-hundred.
That’s good, because I’ve got a need for speed. The older I get, the less time there seems to be to wait around. Time… It’s the most precious thing.
A knock on the door. Bradley’s voice.
Dan opened the door and asked what his colleague wanted.
“I forgot to warn you,” said Bradley. “There’s a right mess on the tracks about two miles up. Might turn your stomach if you’re not prepared for it.”
Dan frowned. “What is it?”
“A bloodbath, mate. The foxes must have had a good night.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll keep an eye out.”
Bradley nodded downwards. “Talking of bloodbaths. What on earth d’you do to your hand?”
Dan glanced downwards and saw blood staining his left hand. He rotated his wrist, but there was no wound on his palm or on the backs of his knuckles. The edge of his cuff was tinged red. “I have no idea. I’m not even sure it’s my blood.”
Bradley grimaced. “Best get yourself cleaned up. Don’t want to get an infection at your age.”
“I’m fifty-five. It’s hardly geriatric.”
“It ain’t young, mate.” Bradley chuckled. “Anyway, be prepared for the mess on the tracks. It’s a shocker.”
Dan nodded and slipped back inside the cabin. Dead animals on the tracks was not uncommon. Sometimes they got hit by trains. Other times, small prey got hunted out on the open tracks where they found themselves penned in by wire fences and steep embankments. It was not uncommon, so for Bradley to mention it…
There were a few minutes left before departure, so Dan used the time to open up the first aid box on the wall. He unbuttoned his sleeve and exposed the cause of the bleeding, a short, deep gash marking his wrist about four-inches up from his palm. Now that he was aware of the injury, it throbbed and stung, so he quickly covered the cut with a medium-sized plaster and then used antiseptic gauze to clean the blood off his hand. He could do nothing about his stained shirt cuff.
It was time to leave.
Dan honked the departure horn and waited another two minutes before closing the carriage doors. With a throaty whine, the train began to move, battling inertia and gradually picking up speed. By the time the rear carriage left Whitegale’s single, seventy-foot concrete platform, Dan had got the motor up to fifteen-miles an hour. By the time he reached Ronchurch, he would only be doing sixty. Once passed Longbridge, he might get as high as ninety.
A few minutes later, as Bradley had warned, the train approached a massacre. Dark blood stained the track for almost a dozen-metres, and glistening entrails coated the rails like chunky tomato salsa. The carcasses appeared to be rabbits. Five or six of them slaughtered in a neat, evenly spaced line. Dan put a fist to his mouth and fought a convulsion in his throat. It really was stomach-turning. At least with the massacre being in the centre of the tracks, none of the passengers would see it.
The blood on the tracks caused a temporary loss of friction, but nothing to worry about–just a slight wobble–and within seconds, the train hurtled past and left the oddly arranged mess behind.
Dan eyed the CCTV monitor, studying the two roadmen to see if they were behaving. The hooded youths appeared to be chatting with two other passengers–a lad and a girl–on the other side of the aisle. If those passengers knew what was good for them, they’d avoid an argument. It was never worth it.
Ten-minutes passed, and the train approached Ronchurch Station. Dan applied the brakes evenly and pulled down on the thrust lever, bringing Shorty to a smooth, controlled stop. Once the last of the momentum bled away, and the wheels settled on the rails, Dan hit the door release. No passengers waited on the platform, but he still needed to linger the requisite amount of time–one minute–or else he would run ahead of schedule.
Bradley knocked on the door, and Dan opened it with a smile. “You off, mate?”
“Yeah, another day done. I’m not working tomorrow, so I’ll probably see you Wednesday. Give my love to Sharon for me.”
Dan cleared his throat. “Yeah, sure thing, and I hope everything’s okay with the baby. Go safe, Bradley.”
Bradley went to turn away, but stopped and turned back. “Hey, did you see what I was talking about on the tracks? I think it’s burned into my retinas.”
“It was a bloodbath, just like you said. Try not to think about it.”
“I’ll try, but it was so strange, the way the bodies were all arranged in a line along the tracks. Oh, and that’s not the only weird thing I saw today. Pay attention to the bridge up ahead. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a work of art. Some people have too much time on their hands, I swear.”
“Sounds like you’ve had quite the day, Bradley. Try to enjoy your afternoon.”
“You too, mate. See ya!” Bradley exited the train through the nearest passenger door and headed towards the concrete steps that led out of the station and onto the main road.
Dan waited out the rest of the minute and closed the doors, then got Shorty moving again. He checked the dot matrix for upcoming line information.
The tunnel Bradley had spoken of was half-a-mile ahead, where Ronchurch’s main road passed above the single train track. A passing place lay on the other side of the tunnel to allow more trains to run the route simultaneously, and there he would likely meet old David Moss or Imran Riaz running passengers in the opposite direction. Longtime railwaymen like Dan. David and his wife had even spent a week on Spain with Dan and Sharon, although the man had got a tad too drunk, a tad too often for Dan’s liking.
There’s enjoying a drink, and then there’s enjoying a drink.
When the train approached the tunnel, Dan didn’t immediately spot the thing that had captured Bradley’s attention, but gradually it came into view. A crude, circular effigy made of bones and scraps of cloth. In the centre was a cow’s skull, and the whole thing hung from a short length of rope attached to the steel railing running alongside the main road above.
Dan shook his head and sighed. “Witchcraft. Alive and well in 2022. Who would have thought it? The world is stranger than people realise.”
He pushed upwards on the thrust lever and sped the train into the pitch-black tunnel. The CCTV monitor flickered with interference. The gash on his wrist throbbed. For a split-second, Dan had a feeling that he shouldn’t have come in today. He should have stayed at home with Sharon.
But it was too late now.