[Fiction] Train — Ali Ackland-Snow

The dumb machine splutters out the last of the tickets. People fumble with their cards and purses. 

‘All ready to go?’ says the train manager. 

‘Aye aye captain’ says the driver. 

‘We’re all stocked up. Ready when you are.’

‘Ah, there’s the whistle!’

With that, the train rolls away from the station.  

The first hour

She put on a summer dress because it is June. A dress and a pair of wedged sandals. And a smart hat for the rain. Another hat for the sun, wide-brimmed. With this mixing of the seasons she is on the verge of looking eccentric, which is unacceptable. On the train she speaks at length on the phone, to the consternation of the other passengers. She says,

‘Gemma is now the talk of the Cotswolds because of her husband being so famous. She’s been trying on thousands of things to keep and wear to the party. She’s just delightful…’

A man grunts in protest but it’s ineffectual. This man wears a chequered shirt and has low self-esteem. He returns to Candy Crush.

‘The colour of the trousers is all wrong – they’re too purple. They’re not actually purple, they’re blue. I hate this, it really annoys me. It just becomes a saga. And it takes so much time.’

Another man doesn’t notice her, except for her slender legs. He’s got his own call to make. He reads and replies to emails, readying himself for the dressing-down he plans to give a colleague at the office. Colleague, but more like underling. Colleague who earns less than him. He scans the sales figures, jittery about meeting the regional manager at two. 

‘She said she wanted to try another one. She was like, “I just spent a thousand pounds, could I have it but in blue and white? Could I have it for Ascot?” I said Ascot’s next week, like duh! She said “so”. I said they’re made to order. She said “please, please”. She was going on about how everyone who works for me is “really thin, the crew are so thin, all really thin people”, I was like for god’s sake. I just said uh ok I just want you to understand everything. This is my little business I’m building from scratch, ok. Now you can let me dress you, and you can trust me, or you S-H-I-T all over my staff. Now what’s it gonna be?’

Down the carriage there’s a rhythmic thud. A young man taps his foot in time to the music that plays through wireless headphones. Old-school De la Soul, naturally. He nods and sways and a girl opposite thinks fuck I hate it when people dance to their music on public transport. What a loser! He is oblivious, twirling a lock of hair. 

‘She’s got obviously quite a lot of bitterness in her life, so that’s what that’s about. Bored and bitter. Her house is beautiful but an absolute mess. Obviously got loads of money…’

Now the sales guy picks up his phone: ‘James hi, hi. Yeah just read through them this morning. Been up all night, got to bed at about four in the end. Just working on the presentation. I don’t wanna, listen I don’t wanna throw anyone under the bus, but the mess they left that presentation in… I don’t wanna name any names, but you know who they are. Just really silly little errors. Yeah…’

The train has rolled to a stop in some provincial town and another man has got on, an older man. The woman he sits down next to sighs when he sits down because he stinks. Not in a helpless sort of way, but in a fuck-capitalism sort of way. A defiant way. Like body odour and brown teeth are acts of resistance. The woman isn’t having it, because she chained herself to plenty of fences in her youth, continues to go on marches (the occasional march) and shares all the right things on Facebook. She won’t countenance this smelly man. ‘Excuse me’, she says, and heads to another carriage. 

Smelly Man has no qualms about leaning over to Mr Sales Manager, ‘Excuse me, this is a quiet carriage, can’t you read the sign?’

This makes the Woman in Fashion awkward and begin to speak in hushed tones. ‘Anyway darling, I better go, I’m on a train. Yeah just coming back from Frank’s. It was a crazy night. I’ll tell you all about it. A really good networking opportunity actually. Yeah, anyway. Lots of love. Say hi to Dana for me. Bye dude, bye.’ 

Sales Manager has also found a way to wind up his call, trying to make it seem perfectly natural and not at all premature. He hates the old guy telling him what to do. He hates his greasy hair and the stained Tupperware peeping out of his rucksack. 

Silence nearly falls. And then: ‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen this is your train manager speaking. We’re just being held at a red signal at the moment due to contamination on the track. We should be moving shortly but we’ll keep you updated. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause to your journey this morning.’

A collective sigh washes over the carriage. One buxom woman pipes up ‘Contamination? What does that mean, mud? Or cows?’

‘Cows walking across the track, yes it can be that’, says an elderly lady, who had been looking out the window wistfully. 

‘I know!’ The Buxom Woman chuckles. 

Don’t you dare start a conversation with me, thinks Grumpy Girl. She’s thankful that the elderly lady did the answering for everyone else. She can tell that other people are thankful too. She looks upon the elderly lady, who is avian and really quite beautiful. Graceful like a falcon, not a sparrow. The Buxom Woman speaks again:

‘Funny word to use though, isn’t it? Contamination.’

‘It certainly is.’

Then the return of almost-silence, except for the shuffling of people in their seats. Impatient shuffling, the checking of phones in a mindless way. A train that’s stationary for too long has a funny way of making people all too aware that they’re sitting in a metal tube with a bunch of strangers. The Woman in Fashion thinks it’s really bloody annoying, and Sod’s Law to happen this morning of all mornings, when she’s due to go for coffee with her most famous client.  

The boy with the headphones hasn’t heard a thing, but he registers the stillness of the train. Taking off the headphones he says to Grumpy Girl, ‘do you know why we’re not moving?’

‘There’s “contamination on the track” or something. Apparently we’ll be moving soon – “apparently”.’

‘Right, yeah… Cheers.’ He returns to the music, breezy and golden.

The second hour

But they don’t get moving soon, not remotely. Yet more promises from the train manager about how as soon as they have more information, as soon as they do, they’ll pass it on. ‘As I say ladies and gentlemen I do apologize for any inconvenience caused to your journey today. Toilet facilities are located in carriages C, E and G, and Karen our hospitality manager will be making her way through the carriages with hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and other refreshments.’

The Woman in Fashion bangs on the window but it is resolutely shut. These are the types of windows designed never to be opened, on account of continuous and merciless air conditioning. She wraps her cashmere shawl around her tighter, thinking about how she always corrects people when they compliment her on her shawl, saying ‘No, it is a scarf’. 

The minutes go by, people start talking. Grumpy Girl becomes resigned to it all, deciding to view the situation as a nice morning off work and a chance to finish season two of Killing Eve. When the public Wi-Fi times out, she rips through her data, unflinching. 

The kid with the headphones lumbers through the carriage, heading for the toilet. He has a funny gait, hips leading and arms always suspended in front of him like a T-Rex. The Woman in Fashion notices him as he goes by, notices his clothes. 

The Buxom Woman rings her husband, asks him if he wouldn’t mind picking up the kids from school, since she’s going to have to stay later in the office today, because of the ruddy train. He sounds miffed about it, really put out, which she finds hurtful. She hangs up the phone and sighs, hoping for a sympathetic eye-roll from a sympathetic woman.

The third hour

In the third hour, the Woman in Fashion thinks fuck it I’m having a drink. She heads to the refreshment carriage and sees that the kid with the headphones is already there, ordering a G and T. Not a kid, she thinks, a young man.

‘I’ll have the same’, she purrs to the bloke behind the bar, who is unimpressed by tiny women.  

‘Such a fucking long wait might as well get pissed I say,’ says the Young Man.  

‘It’s gotta be illegal hasn’t it? To keep us trapped here for so long. No bloody information.’

‘Yeah I know man.’

She looks at the barman, at his slightly sweating face. 

‘Do you have any information?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t.’

‘They don’t tell you anything?’

‘I know as much as you. Six pounds eighty.’ 

The Woman in Fashion brandishes a card. ‘Can I tap tap?’

‘Need your receipt?’

‘No no, thank you.’ She turns to the Young Man, who has returned to his phone. She is determined. ‘Well, cheers.’

‘Cheers.’

They talk about inane things and he starts to find her quite attractive – or rather, to find himself quite attractive as he talks to this older woman, this cougar of a woman. He notices the weightiness of her statement necklace and the lustrous fabric of her dress. Very House of Hackney. (She despises the term ‘statement necklace’ because it reeks of high street fashion, the worst kind. She admits this to him, hoping he doesn’t judge her. Hoping he finds her frank and beguiling.)

‘I like your style by the way. It’s very urban chic.’ She peers over his grubby tracksuit and trainers, skimming his shielded crotch and landing on his blue eyes. 

‘Yeah yeah thanks. I’m actually a fashion student so…’ 

‘No way?’

‘Yeah…’ 

‘I knew there was something interesting about you. I’m in fashion too – I’m a stylist.’

‘Ah wicked. Yeah I’m thinking about maybe going into styling. But it seems like such a hard thing to break into.’

She snorts. ‘You bet. But you know if you’ve got talent, if you’ve got an eye… that’s all it takes, you’ve just got to have an eye.’

‘Yeah I’ve done a couple of modules on styling and I do find like a lot of high street brands, I don’t really like the way they style the models. It’s all very samey.’

Tell me about it.’

‘Like don’t get me wrong some people are doing some interesting things, but so much of the time all the models end up looking like fucking Kardashians.’

‘Oh my God don’t get me started on stilettos and cycling shorts. It’s like kooky has become the new norm. But kooky was never flattering. You know, least of all on women with curves, to be honest.’

‘Yeah man.’ He is about to venture that he’s pleased, at least, that the models are becoming more diverse, more tits and bums. But she cuts in: 

‘Do you model? You look like you model.’

‘No man, I don’t actually. No, no. Well apart from like, I did a couple of shoots back in first year, mostly my own designs. But I sort of prefer to be behind the camera, you know?’

‘It’s a shame cos you’ve really got the looks for it,’ she says, and he blushes. 

She’s polished off the drink, and he’s polished off his. She’s making overtures to the judgmental barman, thirsty for another. Mild inebriation permits her to say: 

‘Yeah you’ve got one of those really interesting ethnically-ambiguous faces. That’s all the rage right now.’

Inwardly he winces, thinking about what his Egyptian father and half-Barbadian mother would say. They would say, ‘western capitalism is only interested in people insofar as they are products,’ and look grave. But he’s looking at this woman’s aquiline nose and perfect make-up and general daintiness, and thinking about various sexual acts. She’s already bought him another double, which he stirs with a wooden stick. The woman watches his hands, noticing their smallness. No matter, she thinks. But why ‘no matter?’ Of course it doesn’t matter! What is she planning to do with his hands? There are no sexual thoughts circling her head. Only the vague hope that the train remains stationary, for quite some time, on this stretch of track in a vast floodplain between two stations.

The fourth hour

‘We’re very sorry to keep you waiting ladies and gentleman and do appreciate your patience. Very sorry to inform you that we will be waiting here for quite a bit longer. There’s a technical problem with the train but we are doing our very best to fix it. We’ve had an engineer come and look at it but we’re waiting now for another engineer. We are quite a few miles from any station, unfortunately. Sort of the worst place to break down. Uh… In the meantime, sit back, relax. Make use of the refreshments cart in carriage A, still open for business. Karen will also be moving through the carriages selling hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and refreshments for you to enjoy in your seats.’

The Buxom Woman has produced some cheese straws from her bag, which she shares with the elderly lady, who eats very carefully, not spilling a crumb. 

‘I forgot to have breakfast, and now it’s lunch-time I suppose. Will be dinner before we know it!’

The elderly lady, whose face is so expressive and whose lips are tinged with berry, says, ‘Oh yes.’

‘And my husband will have to pick the kids up from school. Nothing I can do if I’m trapped on a train in the middle of nowhere!’ she scoffs.

‘How long have you been married?’

‘Seven years on Tuesday. Don’t know where the time has gone, honestly.’

‘It does just fly by doesn’t it?’

‘It does when you have three kids in quick succession, I can tell you that,’ and she laughs in a joyless way. 

‘Ah, what are their names?’

By now, season two of Killing Eve has finished and the Grumpy Girl’s mobile data has run out, so truly she’s cast adrift. There is a book in her handbag, but one she chose in a dutiful sort of way: a history of the Vietnam War bought in advance of a trip. She can’t bring herself to read it. She begins to wish she was the one talking to this beautiful old lady with the exquisite wrinkly smile. She is interested to know about her life, the things she’s done and the lovers she’s had, but the fat woman is hogging her. Terrible word, fat. Grumpy Girl tells herself she doesn’t mean it in a mean way, just a descriptive way. 

The Buxom Woman is going on and on about her husband and the kids, and about how weirdly she lost her appetite after giving birth, and thought it must be the stress, but in fact it was to do with hormones. A friend of hers put on a lot of weight after babies and that’s purely to do with hormones, not about anything she eats. There are not enough studies done into post-natal hormone changes, she thinks. The elderly lady remembers very well what an emotional wreck she was after having her child, but Grumpy Girl reckons she’s only saying this to be generous. 

Mr Sales Manager’s ears are pricking up because his audiobook has come to an end and he thinks he recognizes the Buxom Woman’s voice. Is that someone’s wife, a colleague’s wife? Or one of the mothers at the school? One of the bossy women who helped out with the costumes at the dance school, when he was in that show as a Dancing Dad? It was a spy thriller he was listening to, very pacey and suspenseful. Any other kind of book is a waste of time. 

There’s clearly a lot of time to kill, so he thinks he may as well lean across the aisle and say: 

‘Excuse me, do I know you? I think I recognize you.’

The Buxom Woman thinks he could be any one of the slightly-greying cologne-spraying men in her life. One of the dullards someone at her work decided to marry? Could be. She might have seen him at the school gates. His wrists are so hairy. Wait, was he a Dancing Dad? Her husband was nearly a Dancing Dad but backed out before the first rehearsal. He was too ungainly to dance. He knew it, she knew it. It didn’t need to be said. And anyway, the other blokes were already friends – a laddish group, of sorts. Needless to say they were all leaden on the dancefloor. 

‘Umm, yes. Your daughter does ballet, is it? My daughter does ballet. Same dance school.’

‘Ah, that was it. Knew there was some connection.’

‘Right, yeah… Well what about this train?’

‘Oh, I know, bloody ridiculous.’

‘How long’s it been now? What, about four hours?’

‘Yeah, I make it about four. Finished a whole audiobook!’

‘Oh right! God we’ve been chatting haven’t we, chatting away?’ she says, turning to the elderly lady who has been staring out the window, but now smiles and looks thoughtful. 

‘Yes… Well time always goes faster when you’re talking doesn’t it?’

‘What’s your name by the way?’ says the Sales Manager to the Buxom Woman. 

‘Jess.’

‘Jess, good to meet you. I’m Derek.’ They shake hands across the aisle and the Grumpy Girl watches their hands meet through the gap between two chairs, and decides she’s on her side now. 

So Jess is her name. Her wedding day is something she thinks about often and it makes her queasy. It was one of those times when she had to remember to be smiling, when the cameras flashed and relatives gushed at her horrible dress. Self-consciously she wore a bolero to cover her upper arms. But it was the happiest day of her life because before that, spinsterhood had been starting to loom. Dreadful! (Enticing?) She feels for the childless women at work, and for the single mothers who sometimes ask her to babysit their kids when they go on dates. There’s something sordid in it. 

Thank god she doesn’t have to bother with all that any more, with the dread of fancying someone or having someone fancy you, and negotiating the get-together in a natural way. They met at a work do, he asked her to dinner. They went on seven dates then had sex. The sex was functional but unfulfilling. But it got better. He took her to Paris, it was romantic. He proposed to her, she said yes. She yielded to the life she saw others having. They married on a bright March day and nothing of note happened. ‘Hubby’ is a horrid word, but she uses it anyway. 

Sales Manager Derek is really talking at her now and she has lost her only ally, what with the elderly lady having fallen asleep. She finds herself saying things to the Sales Manager she doesn’t really mean, and hopes other people aren’t putting her and him in the same bracket. How porcine he is, she thinks. How very much like her unremarkable husband. 

The Grumpy Girl has been listening and listening, constructing all sorts of stories about what the Sales Manager does in his spare time (angling) and what Jess watches on TV (Keith Lemon) and what fantasies she employs to escape from her boring marriage. The Grumpy Girl is the sort of person people think is really nice and open-hearted, when actually she’s a judgmental bitch. But she does this thing of keeping her judgments private, turning them over in her mind and evaluating her prejudices, sort of. She feels a fair amount of guilt for those split-second measures she takes of people. Her guilt is interrupted though, by the crackle of the speakers:

‘Good afternoon ladies and gentleman, it is afternoon now. Crikey. You’ll be pleased to know we have some new information so listen up. The technical fault with the engine has been fixed but we’re still being held at a red signal. We don’t know why that is. I know as much as you do at this stage. The driver and I are listening out for any more information and will let you know as soon as we have it. Do apologise.’

More sighing, more shaking of heads and exasperated looks. The Smelly Man is huffing and puffing, as he has been the whole time, only now his huffs are more like shouts and everyone around him is uncomfortable. 

‘This is absolutely ridiculous. Where is this train manager, where is she? They clearly do know what’s going on and they don’t want to tell us.’

A sympathetic few murmur in assent. 

‘Doesn’t anyone have a smart phone they could look it up on? Isn’t that the purpose of these things?’

A youngish man shakes his head. ‘Nothing on the website.’

The Smelly Man puffs again. ‘I’m certain they’re in breach of the law here. You cannot keep people like cattle on public transport for,’ he checks his watch, ‘four hours and thirty-eight minutes.’

A woman who looks like a mouse pipes up, ‘well I’m sure we’ll get our money back.’ Sales Manager is certain they will. And if they don’t, he’ll make sure of it.

The Mouse Woman says, ‘well it would be a disgrace if we didn’t.’

The fifth hour

Meanwhile in the refreshments carriage, the Woman in Fashion and the Young Man have hardly noticed the passing of time, so excruciating to everyone else. Any rules restricting alcohol consumption have gone out the window: the barman is obliging and they are deep in the fuzz of drunkenness. She watches herself begin to drape over the bar and he is conscious of holding her gaze, the way he knows makes women feel a little disarmed but deeply flattered. In fact, the barman has thought ‘screw it’ and started doing shots, after eight months of sobriety. How disappointed all the people in his life who care will be. 

‘Could we get some music in here? I feel like we need music. I wanna dance.’

‘You know I’m actually a DJ’, says the Young Man, and she laughs. 

‘Of course you are.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘I’m saying you look like a DJ.’

‘A few hours ago you were saying I look like a model.’

‘Yeah, well, same difference. What is it you DJ? DJ, is that a verb?’

‘House mainly, a bit of reggaeton. You know reggaeton?’

‘Oh yeah, sure.’

‘Oh sure, yeah yeah sure. Yo name me some artists.’

By some miracle, music has started to play in the refreshments carriage. Neither the man nor the woman – nor the barman – register its beginning, but it does something to their bodies. The Woman in Fashion tries to do that poised dancing where you hold your arms aloft as if in arabesque and rotate the hips. The Young Man pumps his chest and waggles a finger, while the barman shakes his head smiling. 

And in this way they dance for some time, working their way around the tiny floor. The Woman in Fashion and the Young Man feel like the only two in the carriage, though of course the barman comes and goes. Their dancing feels conspiratorial, delicious. She lets her cashmere scarf – not shawl – drop to the floor, and lets her dress strap fall away from her shoulder and hang about her upper arm. 

The sixth hour

‘Ok, ladies and gentlemen. We do have an update, it’s a very uh… you might want to listen carefully to this one. So if your neighbour is wearing headphones please do politely signal to them to remove said headphones, so that everyone is informed of the current situation. I don’t know how to say this but… now please do not be alarmed, there really is no cause for alarm – ’ 

‘Oh bloody get on with it!’ says the Stinky Man, throwing his arms in the air and nearly knocking out the Mouse Woman. 

‘There is a man. On the track. About… a hundred metres, or so, in front of us. He is lying down on the tracks. He has been there for some time. The driver and I made the decision to not inform passengers earlier because we thought the situation could be resolved quickly, and we could get on with our journey today.’

Everyone is perfectly still, ears inclined to the speakers. Those who try to speak are swiftly silenced by reproachful glances. 

‘But unfortunately, we have not been able to remove said man from the track. We informed the local police and they have been out there on the track talking to him. They have a professional negotiator out there right now. For safety reasons we are unable to disembark from the train.’

A long pause. So long the Stinky Man says ‘And?’ but all that is heard is the crackle of the speakers.  

‘Now this man has a gun…’

A gasp rushes around the seats, stiff and arranged like soldiers on a march. The people in the seats are hot and fluid. People say ‘A gun?’ to check they heard correctly, but they know they heard correctly. Nothing is scarier than a gun. Nothing on earth, except perhaps a bomb or a tsunami. A gun can kill from a distance, unseen. Some feel the need to say ‘what sort of gun?’ as if that matters, as if they know anything about it. Others say ‘blimey you’d think we’re in America’ and some agree that it’s all Trump’s fault. The guy on the track must be an American, that’s that. And obviously people are trying to take cover, wondering aloud if the windows are bulletproof, which of course they’re not. 

‘Now the police have confirmed that this gun is real. I repeat the gun is real and… but, we have good reason to believe that passengers are not in immediate danger. The police have reported that the man is pointing the gun at his own head. Ok. This man is making threats to end his own life, as it were. Uhh, now reports have just come in, this is some sort of protest, we believe. Some sort of climate, protest. Now I can’t give any more information as of yet. But we do know that this man has a gun, and he is threatening to use said gun on himself, as a protest against the climate.’

‘A protest against the climate?’ the passengers repeat with puzzled looks. They look at each other with furrowed brows. Everyone wants to say the most sensible thing. 

‘A protest against climate change is what I think he means,’ says the Stinky Man, which was obvious to everyone. People float phrases like ‘fossil fuel’ and ‘renewable energy’, hoping that others will catch them from the air and make something satisfactory from them. They get it. So this maverick has a problem with train fuel. But why pick on trains? Try planes. It’s been done before, say the well-informed, remember the Heathrow Five? The Swindon One, they’ll call it. People laugh darkly. 

… 

In the refreshments carriage, the Woman in Fashion, the Young Man and the barman have been sort of attentive, overcome mostly by an alcoholic wooziness. 

‘A gun to the head! Fuck…’

‘Man that’s some heavy shit man.’

‘First I’ve heard of it’, says the barman, whose name is Arnold. 

The Fashion Woman looks at nothing in particular, aghast. ‘That’s so terrible! That’s so scary and terrible.’ The situation is indeed so ‘heavy’ that no-one in the refreshments cart can summon an adequate response. 

She looks directly at the Young Man. ‘Ok, if you had a gun to the head, what would you do?’

‘You what? If someone’s pointing a gun at me what would I do? I’d fucking use my karate training, chop chop, get ‘em on the ground, break their ankles, you know what I’m saying. Not kill them or anything deep like that, just make sure they can’t run after me. And then I’d run fucking as fast as my legs would carry me – ’

She looks delighted but is bored. ‘No, I mean. I mean what if it was your last moments on earth, you know you’re going to be shot. How would you spend them?’ And with that she inches closer to him. ‘Say Arnold here had a gun to your head, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can choose to do one more thing before your life ends. Like a last meal, but it could be anything. What would you do?’ Her fingers, miming the eye of a gun, are pressed against his skull now. 

‘Probably call my mum.’ 

She spits out her vodka and diet coke. ‘That’s a rubbish answer. Come on, you can do better than that. Say your mum’s already been shot, for argument’s sake.’

‘My mum’s been shot? Oh alright, my mum’s shot, I’m about to be shot, I think I’d just be like, “mate, get it over with.” ’

They both notice that Arnold has disappeared into a cupboard. Probably a cupboard where they store the plastic-lined paper cups and things like that. Or maybe to a different carriage altogether. There’s a sense he won’t be coming back for a while. The Woman in Fashion looks at the young, beautiful man in front of her.

‘You’re about to die. Wouldn’t you want to live a little?’

And with that they kiss, easy as. Real passionate kissing – snogging – and groping and writhing. She puts her back to the bar so that he can grind his pelvis against hers. Soon she begins to feel a hardness in his trousers and knows she must be doing something right. He pulls down the flimsy straps of her dress and she near tears off his grubby t-shirt, revealing a skinny-but-flabby body. But oh well, she thinks. With his physique and my age, we’re square. He draws back to take in her pert tits, with a serious and almost worried look. 

‘Do you like what you see?’ she says, and then thinks why the fuck did I say that, but it doesn’t matter because he does like what he sees and is getting stuck right in. A generous lover, she muses. That makes a change!

Outside the refreshments carriage things are getting heated, but not in that way. After the initial discussions a sort of hysteria mounted. People are calling their loved ones and telling them they love them. Mostly they feel shy saying that word – love – in front of perfect strangers, but some are totally unabashed, pouring out their hearts to their girlfriends and mothers and husbands and children, etcetera. The Smelly Man has no-one to call and the Grumpy Girl notices this. She’s about to feel sorry for him but then he says: 

‘Well I don’t know what you’re all getting so upset about, it’s just one man with a gun.’ That sets off a sharp intake of horrified breath among the other passengers who say things like ‘how could you say that’ and ‘well maybe you don’t understand what it’s like to have children.’ 

‘What’s one man strapped to the tracks, with a gun pointed at his own head, going to do to a train full of people?’

And of course no-one has any sensible answer to that. 

Jess has gone off to the toilet to have a little weep, because she is overcome with emotion and doesn’t want people patting her on the arm and saying ‘there there’. She locks the bathroom door, breathing in the stench of poo and bleach. She’s not crying about anything in particular, just a general sense that her life ended before it ever began. Strangely she doesn’t feel that affected by the man on the track – not in a callous way, it’s just that her mind hasn’t framed him as a real person, but rather as a nuisance or a story. 

She sits on the toilet and does a wee, looking down at her knickers to see if her period has started, which would explain the weeping. Nothing yet. She gives her crotch a sniff because sometimes you can tell from the smell. There might be a hint of something metallic in the air but it’s hard to tell amidst the general smell of shit and bleach. She realizes she doesn’t know what happens to piss and shit on a train. Does it go directly onto the tracks? That would be vile. As a child she believed that aeroplanes expelled frozen shits from the sky as a matter of course, and that if they landed on people’s heads then that was their tough luck. But it turns out this is a rare occurrence. She remembers other funny things. There was a BA flight that did an emergency landing because one of the passengers did such a smelly poo. She makes herself giddy. Why can’t she have laughs like this with her husband? His sense of humour is so boring: Live at the Apollo on repeat. Any sort of quip about whiney wives is his bag. He scoffs at the toilet jokes and tells off the children when they make one, and she has to go along with it. A psychologist on Loose Women said there’s a danger of “chipping away at children’s characters” if you’re too strict. Her laughing turns to crying again and she really indulges it, giving in to a flood of despair. 

Outside the bathroom door, the elderly lady is listening to the blubbering and is concerned. She knocks on the door, saying ‘Jess? Jess love, are you in there?’ Jess is stumped for several seconds, hardly able to believe that this sweet ancient woman should be so caring. A meek ‘yes’ is all she can manage. She opens the door and the elderly lady shuffles in. 

For a few moments the two women rearrange themselves so that Jess’ trousers are pulled back up and they are both positioned comfortably in the tiny space. The elderly lady seems totally unphased by the pooey smell and the little wads of moist toilet paper everywhere. 

‘Now then. What’s the matter? Is it the gentleman on the track?’

‘No, not really. Is that horrible of me? I hope they sort him out soon and stop him topping himself but… I don’t know. I just sometimes wonder, I wonder if I’ve made the right decisions. I think I’m very unhappy.’ Jess’s face collapses again in the folds of a great sob. 

‘What sort of decisions my dear? Marriage? Professional?’

‘Oh, everything. Marriage, mainly.’

‘He doesn’t hit you does he?’

‘No no no no, nothing like that. He’s just…so… unbelievably boring.’

‘Ah, the chronically dull, they’re a curse on society.’

‘And he tells me I should give up my job and focus on ‘looking after the kids’ and it’s alright because we’re “financially stable”, I wish we weren’t “financially stable”, it’s so boring. Do you know what I mean?’

‘And what about the sex?’

‘Sex? Oh, non-existent. Not since the kids. Not since the youngest was born.’

‘You must be joking.’

‘No. We never seem to find the time. Or he’s not interested, or I’m not interested… At night we read our books then turn out the light and go to sleep. I gave him a blowjob at Christmas, just ’cause I thought… it’s a tradition, isn’t it?’

‘Is it?’

‘He probably got it off the telly. From Michael McIntyre.’

‘Right. It sounds like you need to explore yourself.

‘What?’

‘Work up a better intimate relationship with yourself. That’s the place to start. You can’t enjoy sex with another person if you can’t enjoy it with yourself.’

‘Oh, no – ’

‘Go on. Right here, right now. I’ll leave, of course.’

Explore myself? I’ve never – I’ve never done it.’

‘Never!’ The Elderly Lady is speechless, her face contorted in searing honesty. ‘I’m astonished. This isn’t right. This must be remedied right now. Here, I’ll spray some of my perfume and you can forget about the pong. Just sit back and relax, and let your index finger lead the way.’ She says this holding aloft her index finger in the way of a science teacher. 

‘I – I don’t think it’s my thing.

‘It’s everyone’s thing, once they’ve tried it.’

‘No really… ok. Ok the thing is. I’ve been nervous to try it – I’ve not had the time, partly – but also I’ve been nervous. The kind of person I’d like to “shag” doesn’t look anything like my husband.’

The elderly lady laughs at that, a real guffaw. ‘Well of course he doesn’t! That’s the whole point of fantasy. It’s the only thing sustaining marriages.’

‘No what I mean is, the person, the people in my fantasies. It’s not men it’s women! Oh god I said it.’

‘Fine then, women it is! Or both. Up to you.’

‘Both? Oh should I leave my husband? Should I? He’s so annoying. He puts so much grease in his hair. It stinks.’

The elderly woman looks grave now. ‘That isn’t something you can decide in the toilet of a stationary train. But what you can do, right now, is give yourself the love you deserve.’ And with that, and with a devilish wink, she is gone, shuffling back along the aisle without a care for the disapproving tuts and stares. 

Jess sits alone again in the toilet, pondering the enormity of the conversation just had. A world of possibility is opening up to her. Absent-mindedly, her hand finds its way to her crotch, and tunnels under her waistband and does the rubbing thing, and the flicking thing, and before she knows it she’s having a good time – a really great time – without ever having to think about it at all. 

The train manager gives some meaningless announcement about how hard they are working to resolve the issue. Jess hardly hears it. And the Woman in Fashion is distracted too, although the initial excitement of becoming naked with another person is giving way to the beginnings of disappointment. 

Back in the seats, people are up in arms about the man on the track and what a selfish man he is. They’ve taken the view that probably they won’t be shot, and so really this thing is a terrible inconvenience. They tell each other what they would be doing right now if it weren’t for this stupid man, and exchange stories about someone they knew once who was held at gunpoint and things like that. Among some, a merry fatalism creeps in. The smokers have had enough of the dreadful cravings, lighting up cigarettes in defiance of the signs and of the others. People cough in objection and say they’ve got asthma, but the smokers say they’ve got addiction, but the asthmatics say that’s not the same. One man proudly brandishes a JUUL, but looks rather like a robot puffing away on it. Smoke and vape emissions fill the air and the AC system and with all the trapped farts the whole train smells pretty nasty.

Jess returns to her seat, feeling wonderfully naughty and warm down there. The elderly lady gives her a conspiratorial wink. Jess feels like a teenager having just tried weed. She imagines the cracks in her mother’s powdery make-up, her mother who says words like ‘labia’ and ‘penis’ to prove how relaxed she is about the whole thing. Jess reflects briefly on her adolescence. They were never taught to ‘love themselves’ at school. What a waste of enjoyment. That’s the real problem, thinks Jess: there needs to be better sex education in schools. She’ll start a campaign. Girls must love themselves. She’ll be really cool about it with her daughters, really open and honest. Except, she probably won’t. 

The seventh hour

The woman who moved to another carriage, because of the Smelly Man, is a little torn about the whole thing. Evidently it’s a dreadful situation, but won’t it get people talking? About climate change, that is, and the impending doom and the need to act now. Sure, martyrs are annoying, but you’ve got to admire his tenacity. She wishes she had been as committed to a cause just once in her life. Perhaps it’s a male thing, to be so ardent, to be so sure. Her daughter would call her ‘essentialist’ for that. Her mind wanders, her bum and thighs go numb. She tenses her legs like the doctor told her. She scrapes her tongue around her teeth which feel dirty from dehydration. 

Meanwhile a retired couple across the table are in no such ethical quandary. ‘Let him shoot himself, I say. Shove his body to one side and let us get on with our day.’ The wife chuckles. ‘You can’t say things like that, Roger.’ ‘Oh yes I can’, says Roger. And so on and so forth. The point is that they agree with each other entirely, in everything they say. 

The Torn Woman is moved to think the absolute opposite of everything this beige couple think. In fact she finds herself, privately, holding views far more radical than she’d normally feel comfortable in, and then thinks well that’s the polarised political climate for you. She ponders that. She wonders why nothing about the train has come up on her news app, but then why would the news happen to know about a train stuck on a floodplain, behind a suicidal man? Twitter must be going mad, but she doesn’t have Twitter because life is short.

Roger and his wife continue speaking in platitudes. All meaningless, the Torn Woman thinks. Doubtless they don’t give a toss about the environment. She notices that Roger has a brilliant ear for imitation, remembering all the lines from all the comedy geniuses of the seventies. The Two Ronnies and people like that. He’s reciting a Peter Sellers skit, to the word, and his wife is rolling her eyes and laughing. She looks to someone across the aisle and says ‘He always does this’, with great fondness. 

The Torn Woman gets a text from her son. He’s in Colombia on a gap year but just got an email from a university confirming his place. The university he really wanted. He’s absolutely chuffed and his mother is chuffed, brimming with emotional pride. His father is dead, she’s a widow. She wishes he could know about their son’s achievement. She hopes that somewhere, in some realm, he knows, and is smiling from the aether. 

The retired couple notice the tears collecting in her eyes and rather than looking away awkwardly, they face the situation square-on and say ‘My dear, are you alright? Here, have a tissue.’

She tells them about her son and the university and the dead father, and about how proud he would be. Especially because when he was a teenager the son went through a rough patch, went a bit off the rails. And his father never lived to see him get back on the rails, which is the great shame. The heart attack got him first. The retired couple listen with great sorrow and feeling, squeezing her hand and offering a biscuit. They ask all about her husband and say what a wonderful man he was, by the sounds of it. A real honourable gentleman. His son will surely follow in his footsteps. It’s such a pity there’s no champagne because news like this calls for celebration. When Karen comes by with the refreshments trolley they ask for the strongest thing she’s got but all she’s got is coffee. 

So the three of them have a coffee: Roger, his wife Joy, and the woman whose name is Priya. And Priya begins to feel that she judged this pair too soon, thinking they were narrow-minded and such-like. They shy from certain topics for fear of disagreement, but that doesn’t stop them becoming friends, this retired couple and the woman who moved to sit here because of the Smelly Man in the other carriage. 

Oh, and she tells them about the Smelly Man and they howl with laughter. 

The eighth hour 

Eight hours in, the fights begin to break out. Nothing major, just the sort of scuffles that are bound to happen when a group of commuters is trapped on an unmoving train for so long, the AC aggressively sucking all the moisture from the air and Karen of the refreshments trolley having run out of refreshments. 

Derek, the Sales Manager, has been dragged into an altercation. A man in front is complaining that the man behind is kicking his seat. The kicker denies, so the complainant appeals to Derek: ‘didn’t you see it? You’re sitting next to him.’ 

Derek looks up from his phone. ‘Didn’t notice actually, sorry mate.’

The bloke next to him is outraged by this. He wanted Derek to say ‘Slander! He wasn’t kicking your seat’, but instead he’s sitting on the fence, like all beta men do. He turns on Derek:

‘You can see I wasn’t doing anything, why don’t you tell this smug bastard I wasn’t doing anything?’ 

‘Listen, I’m just trying to read my emails,’ says Derek, hoping this will calm things down.

But the kicker is far from calm. He’s starting to think that this middling sales manager next to him is even more offensive than the smug bastard in front. In fact he’s been eyeing Derek for many hours now, watching the way he wriggles his fingers before typing out an email, listening to the condescending way he speaks to people on the phone. The pictures of snotty children on his keyring. And as for his small-talk with the woman across the aisle, that was just embarrassing. 

‘Ok, I see. You witness injustice and do nothing about it. Nice one.’

Derek is hoping that the man in front – the one who started it all – will come to his aid here. He forces a laugh. ‘Come on mate it’s hardly injustice.’

But the bloke in front has gone back to the Financial Times, clearing his throat loudly in that confident manner of cocksure lawyers. Derek is beginning to sweat, despite the air con. The kicker continues:

‘Yes, it is. I’ve been wrongly accused. But it’s alright, I get it. You’re not prepared to speak up for others.’

The lawyer in front rolls his eyes. Derek says in hushed tones, ‘hey now, I won’t have you disrespect me. That’s enough alright?’

‘Disrespect is not a verb,’ says the man who was accused of kicking, ‘it is a noun.’

Derek is starting to get a bit riled up. Who is this wiry bloke anyway, and why does he so insist that he, Derek, defend him against accusations of kicking? And that affront to his assertiveness was the end. No-one calls him unassertive. He turns to face the wiry man, to look him dead in the eye:

‘Do you know the line of work I’m in, mate?’

‘By the sounds of it, something irredeemably boring. Let me guess, your company – the middle rung of which you occupy – offers some unnecessary service to the public sector at a large price. It was founded by one Martin Martins, who went to university but wasn’t clever enough to do something complex or industrious. But he’s got a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit and a superiority complex. So he hires uninspiring individuals such as yourself to peddle this meaningless product, and offers a few perks like golfing weekends and corporate tickets to some League One football match.’

Derek has been smiling cynically and nodding throughout, partly to distract himself from the feeling of having been laid upon a table and anatomized for all to see. The wiry man concludes his speech and Derek lands a right hook on his bony jaw.

‘It’s software for measuring efficiency in the workplace. We work with the British Army. And guess what, it pays the bills, and it pays for my wife’s haircuts and for Sky TV and holidays to Greece. So you can shut your gob, you little prick – ’

‘Boys, boys, you stop that. Enough of your fighting.’ A woman with a magisterial voice puts an end to it all. Others have gathered round to take a look but now nod appreciatively to her and scurry back to their seats. 

‘Boys boys, always fighting…’ she continues, tutting in an amused sort of way to no-one in particular. 

The Woman in Fashion and the Young Man are entering that stage of drunkenness when the headache sets in and the mouth feels revolting, and the world vaguely spins but not in a good way. They are sitting on the floor of the refreshments cart, legs splayed, nearly sleeping but unable to sleep. The Woman in Fashion is thinking she’d like to put on a fresh thong. The young man is getting all sad and deep. 

‘I dunno man, sometimes I just think… my parents like, they worked so hard to give me all this opportunity, and am I just wasting it on fashion?’

‘Fashion matters. It’s all that matters.’

‘But what does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t help anyone, it’s just shallow. It’s just a few people deciding “we should all wear this”, and then the next season, “no we should wear this” ’

‘It’s art. Oh who fucking cares. Blah di blah.’

‘My parents came to this country with nothing. They’ve given me so much… sacrificed so much for me man…’

The woman pushes her hat further down her forehead and drifts into sleep. The man sinks into a state of self-loathing. He decides that this woman that he’s just had sex with, performed oral sex on and done all sorts with, is actually just dumb. He loathes himself because normally he sleeps with intelligent women – those who can actually appreciate his SoundCloud. He peers at the sleeping woman, disgusted. Her make-up is terrible, neat enough but grotesquely thick, like the make-up they put on dead bodies. She has no natural beauty. She’s unnaturally thin. She treats him like a shiny toy. The Young Man has the looming sense that this is what fashion is. She’s a perfect symbol, this drunk old woman. His next project will be a two-fingers up to her and all her pathetic friends. Anti-establishment, counter-cultural, all that sort of thing. Anti-vanity. It could be the start of something. He wants to thank her, actually, for leading him to this revelation. And he wants to thank the man on the tracks for making it happen. The project will be called: Trigger on the Tracks, and all the pieces will represent the juxtaposition between stillness and movement, conformity and protest. Ha! 

   Arnold returns to his bar to find everything in disarray, clothes scattered everywhere. He says to the Young Man, ‘what have you been up to?’ and the Young Man has no answer. 

The ninth hour

People can hardly believe they’ve been eight hours on this train. Some do the maths, ‘a working day! We’ve spent an entire working day sitting here!’ And others remark, ‘Yeah or a full night’s sleep’. Someone says ‘wow I wish I only spent eight hours at work and had as much as eight hours sleep!’ and the Grumpy Girl thinks what a show-off. She’s exhausted herself thinking about the suicidal man, picturing his life and answering her friends’ excited questions on the group chat, and now she tries to read the book on Vietnam. She gets a page in before she needs to find a pen to underline the facts of frank colonialism. She makes connections with the current state of things: Saudi Arabia, British arms, Yemen, Brexit, Brexit, Syria, Isis, narco-terrorism, Brexit… She despairs, wonders how she or anyone gets up in the morning. The entire world falls into a ghastly picture of exploitation and indifference. She will be glad to be so informed when she goes on holiday. She makes a mental note to raise the subject with her father when she sees him at the hospital later. 

The Wiry Man makes a show of rubbing his sore jaw and threatening legal action. The Sales Manager is determined not to look his way. Some people across the aisle are touting him as a sort of hero, standing up to pompous gits like the Wiry Man. The lawyer in front couldn’t give a shit. 

Besides, there are more fights now, more flirting and more friendship-making. Two men in their thirties are boxing in the space between the toilets and the doors. One squirt of a boy is trying to get everyone to place bets on who will win what round. Most people are uninterested except for one girl who says she always gets on better with boys anyway. She quite enjoys watching the men hit each other. She can hardly pick a favourite. They don’t seem to notice her but she cheers them on. When she returns to her seat in a mild hump, the squirt of a boy tries to talk to her about conspiracy theories but she’s having none of it. 

The Mouse Woman is more than happy to talk about conspiracy theories so she interjects with opinions on 9/11. The Squirt Boy reckons she’s pretty weird, all too much like that primary school teacher who, putting on her wetsuit on the residential trip to Devon, revealed pubic hair down to her knees. But this woman has some interesting things to say about insurance scams, so he speaks to her in earnest and they pass the time.

And so on. The train manager says something every now and then and they all ignore her. Why won’t she speak to them face-to-face? What a coward. Clearly the negotiations are failing utterly. People are beginning to think the man should get on with it and shoot himself. Helicopters sound overhead and they think ah, they must be bringing in another negotiator. They picture the scene along the track: tens of police cars, a SWAT team and ambulances on hand for when finally he pulls the trigger. They are almost willing him to do it, these people trapped inside a train. It is infuriating that the windows do not permit them to see in front of the train, where all this drama is playing out. Flirting and fighting amongst themselves doesn’t match up to it. There’s the smell of sweat and pheromones or whatever it is, the smell of combat… 

The Grumpy Girl has trapped wind. Her hands pressed together rest on her sternum and she feels through them the beating of her heart. Constant. Never skips a beat. She closes her eyes, listening to sighs of frustration, sighs of performance, languid chatter. The chatter becomes a chorus of hums, harmonious. A report floats down the train about some dirty pair in the refreshments cart who have been having it off. She’s hardly surprised. Some say it was a threesome with the barman. Others say they thought he had a funny look about him. She smiles, feeling for the first time goodwill towards these people all around her. She can’t wait to tell the whole story to her father. 

Jess also is in a meditative state. The masturbation really calmed her. How stress-free her life will be, now she plans to make a habit of it. The elderly lady opposite looks like an angel sleeping. Perfectly still. 

The Woman in Fashion comes to on the floor of the refreshments cart, head throbbing. Her downstairs feel sticky. Gross. The Young Man has gone. She smells his heady perfume on her skin. She remembers how she was just hours before, all cat-eyed and whining for his attention. How embarrassing. He must be half her age, used to radiant edgy girls with tight skin. Models, probably. That old familiar post-coital wretchedness sinks in. Gathering her things, she thinks of all the men to whom she’s meted out affection, glad she never gave herself away. This was just a blip. She’ll never see this boy again. He has no future in fashion, naïve kid that he is. 

She heads for the toilet, resolving to stay there until this disaster is done and she can dash from the train without catching his eye. She spots her scarf on the floor and suddenly hates it. She leaves it there, a token of folly. 

Priya, Roger and his wife have exhausted all conversation and sit now in contented silence. This carriage is sparse and quiet. Afternoon sunshine warms the glass. All the fervour and animosity is beyond the sliding doors. Priya feels no need for entertainment. Then it occurs to her to open the notes on her phone and write something to her husband. Nothing lengthy or thought-out – just an account of her day, her weird static day. Her present surroundings. She tells him about their son and about Roger and his wife Joy, lovely Joy. And about how they would never have made friends if it weren’t for this bizarre situation. She’s got plans to be a better citizen. Whatever that means. 

Others along the carriages of this train have discovered the loves of their lives, so they hope. Two teenagers have bravely stated their romantic interest and now sit awkwardly on the unmoving vehicle, like a sentence without a full stop. There’s nothing more to say or do, other than to kiss. Hearing about the lovers in the refreshment cart made them both blush and change the subject. 

Another couple have decided to get married, causing a swell of applause. But now their necks are cramped from turning towards each other and they doze open-mouthed like elderly couples. 

The tenth hour

Helicopters continue to circle ahead, destroying the pockets of peace and aggravating feuds. First a tick in the distance then the noise grows to something unbearable. Some people had half forgotten about the man on the tracks but the noises bring back the image of him arrestingly. The police must be having a dreadful time of it, is the general consensus. Some pity the man – he must be mentally deranged – but many don’t. Or he must be a tool in the machinations of a wider organization, so say the conspiracy theorists. 

The air conditioning falls silent. Oh dear, knowing glances shoot along the aisles. Now only the groans of helicopters and the too-loud shifting of bodies in their seats, sweating and excreting bodies. The heat triumphs very quickly. The boxers next to the toilet are really going for it now, scratching and kicking each other in turns. Even the woman with the magisterial voice cannot shame them into peace. Meanwhile people take to banging on the windows, desperate to escape the train come what may. Anything is more desirable than this heat. And the heat stinks, because the air is trapped. This is a modern train, no quaint windows on the doors through which hands reach to open them. Someone wonders how long it would take for them to suffocate. 

There is mess everywhere. Upon noticing it, the Grumpy Girl is wrenched from her reverie. Why hadn’t she noticed it before? Wrappers upon plastic wrappers, milk-encrusted cups, half-eaten sandwiches, stray crisps, crumbs, spills of smelly tuna mayonnaise, napkins stained with flapjack grease, oversized muffins, shrivelled teabags, plastic bags, paper bags, forgotten crusts, crushed peanuts: food food food, and none of it delicious. The bread of an egg sandwich looks like toast, but this is just with staleness. The Grumpy Girl is grumpy again, looking upon this grotesque display. All she hears is munching and crunching and then:

‘IT’S ALL OVER, YOU’RE… -EM GO NOW.’ Not the overhead speakers but a voice outside the train, vaguely penetrating the rip of helicopters. A man with a megaphone. Though his voice is resplendent and he could have been an actor, not every word carries. 

‘I KNOW YOU WANT TO LINDA, ANDR-. YOU’RE GOING TO… HOME TO… FAMILIES.’

Flutters of ‘who the hell are they?’ and ‘what did they say?’ animate the carriages. People are too exhausted to muster much mental power.  

‘Oh bloody Christ’ says the Smelly Man, and for once everyone agrees with him. 

‘LET’S END THIS… PEACE- WAY, OK? NO SHOTS FIRED.’

Darts of ‘what the fuck?’ prickle the lazy mood with fright. ‘Shots? Did he say shots?’ Some people see this as an opportunity to come into their own:

‘Ok, everyone calm down,’ says the lawyer who has by now, read every page of the Financial Times.

But no-one pays him any heed. Their bellies are heavy with sandwiches and Coca-Cola but now they whisper furiously to one another, newly scared of their surroundings. The train feels less and less like a fortress against a crazy man. Who is Andrew and who is Linda? Confusion reigns. In seconds the word on every lip is ‘terrorism’ and the Mouse Woman says she knew this was how she would die. After some moments nothing can be done about the new fear and so it begins to settle. 

The speakers crackle and swift as meerkats the people listen. 

‘This is your train manager speaking. Your train manager Linda.’ People are aghast. Linda! Sighs of ‘shh!’ wash among the trapped passengers.

‘I’m sure you’re wondering why we have remained here stationary for so long. Well here’s the answer.’ She pauses. ‘There is no gentleman on the track. Without your knowing it you have been part of a social experiment. Some might say that we have been keeping you hostage. This is in part true, but – ’

‘PUT YOUR WEAPONS DOWN,’ says the megaphone. 

‘Don’t worry, there are no weapons. That’s not what this is about. It’s just what we had to tell them so they would take us seriously. They imagine that we have committed atrocious acts of violence and torture against you, and that you have been very afraid. But surely you will agree that this is not the case. In the words of Shakespeare, you have eaten, drunk and been merry. Some of you have tasted of carnal pleasures.’ This causes a look of disgust to be passed around between people, agreeing it was a poor choice of words. 

‘What Andrew the driver and myself have shown today, is that you are hostage to your own desires.

Privately Grumpy Girl remarks that it sounds rather like Linda is reading from a script, without adding any interesting inflections. Linda lacks charisma. And with a speech like this she ought to be giving it her all.

‘You are trapped by your desire to impress other people, to seem je ne sais quoi in social situations. You try to transcend the body but you are at the mercy of your bodily functions, your confectionary and sexual appetites and the cycles of ingestion and excretion, light and dark.’ Suppressing a burp, Grumpy Girl wonders if she has a point. 

‘Throughout the day myself and Andrew have gained insight into mechanisms of conflict. We have watched you group together, express tribal energies through violence, or break down the boundaries that separate us. But you have kept up the mask of politeness, played along with social rules, or tried to. Within your psyches your intrinsic desires are at war with the demands of courtesy, civility. This tension is killing you slowly, causing irreparable damage to your nervous cells by disrupting their natural vibrations.’

Eyes are rolling now and heads are in hands. Mouse Woman offers up useful information: ‘I know these words! Taken straight from a website! Yeah, THE GREAT VIBRATION. All sorts of things on there. It’s all about how we can understand ourselves if we understand our radiations. There’s a different radiation for love, aggression, you name it. Every different disease has one. Same with crystals and metals. And you can learn a lot from the teachings of this occult group called um… well I can’t remember now. But the main point is we get our energy, well the whole universe gets its energy from this concentration of energy some call it Vril – ’

Everyone wants the Mouse Woman to shut up now, she’s said her piece. They can’t help but feel a little cheated. Being hostage to the whims of an ecological warrior is almost ennobling, but a pseudo-scientific maniac? Most agree this was a waste of time. They can’t even tell their friends and family that they narrowly escaped death. And people are starting to wonder what Andrew, the driver, has to say for himself. And Linda continues to rattle on about vibrations and conflict and is really getting into the swing of it now.

All this time the Woman In Fashion has been sitting in the foetid toilet nursing a hangover, listening attentively to Linda. She is one of the few passengers with whom the speech resonates – indeed the whole event seems suddenly life-changing. She thinks of all the shallow people she fawns over daily, to whom she puffs her plumage but in doing so makes herself small. She thinks about her own internal battle, her constant need to please and impress and how tiring it all is, and how it could be shortening her life. And meanwhile she’s not getting on with the actual living and so this calls for a new start, a fresh leaf, or whatever it is. She needs a return to her harmonious vibration

‘I hope Andrew doesn’t mind me speaking for the both of us when I say that it has been very interesting watching you all. Hasn’t it Andrew?’ A grunt is heard through the crackle. Some wonder if Andrew himself is held hostage, duct tape across his mouth and rope around his wrists. ‘It was his idea actually, or was it? Was it yours or was it mine? Well it was both of our ideas. We’re both very interested in psychology. Sociology. I’d been doing some reading and… yeah. It’s a marvel what becomes of people when you throw them together in a confined space. We shall have a marvellous time watching through the videos won’t we Andrew, won’t we?’

‘Oh yes,’ says Andrew. 

Videos! ‘They’ll get a lot of time for that’, says the lawyer, meaning prison. ‘That’s a gross infringement of our right to a private life.’

‘Yeah but there’s CCTV anyway on a train isn’t there?’ says Derek, feeling dead smug as people nod. 

People are beginning to think this Linda is a maniac – she doesn’t sound well up there, all frenzied. The helicopters chug louder and she speaks faster, anxious not to miss any crucial points.   

‘But we’re not bad people, no no. No we weren’t trying to hurt you. Not our fault you started hitting each other. Ey? We just wanted to see what would happen. And it was interesting, wasn’t it? You can all say you were part of something very interesting indeed. They’ll try and demonize us, sure, I can already hear the things they’ll say about us. Paint us up to be all kinds of devil. But are we any worse than say, a petty thief? Or a rapist. No, we’re definitely not as bad as a rapist. We’re just interested in science, social science. You know, in years to come, when this has all blown over, they’ll remember us as heroes. I think that’s it Andrew, they’ll think we’re blooming marvellous. Ahead of our time. Cutting-edge researchers. The vibrations emanating from this train right now are bloody mental. I can almost feel it. Can you feel it? Can you all feel it in there? Your spirits are all in a tangled mess fighting each other and fighting themselves and yet, in a way, you are one. Listen. I can hear a musical note made out of all the other musical notes. It’s really quite beautiful. You look like children on Christmas morning, innocent as anything.’

There’s a tender silence. 

‘YOU KNOW YOU’RE GOING TO DO THE RIGHT THING. DON’T YOU?’

This rings loud and clear, and everyone waits in perfect stillness. 

‘Yes yes we’ll do the right thing. We’ll do the right thing. We can go home now, Andrew. We’ve done the right thing.’

And that’s that: the doors open with a satisfying exhalation and people can hardly believe it. Obediently they file out of the stinking train, jumping down into the arms of the emergency services who treat them with efficient gentleness. Two wheelchair users are lowered to safety. Ambulance staff bring out the elderly lady on a stretcher because she has not woken from her sleep and nothing will rouse her. Jess is inconsolable, wondering what will become of her fragile angel.

There is evening light like an ink spill across the floodplain. Its expanse makes them dizzy. The police attempt to shepherd the people into groups and lines but all they want to do is run. They run, frolic and roll about like children, ecstatic with liberty and the feel of ground beneath their feet. The police commissioner agrees to let them ‘stretch their legs’ before taking statements. 

Linda and Andrew are marched out handcuffed amid cheers and jeers. There is time to make a brief appraisal of their appearance. The free people regard Linda, whose haircut is short and sensible, and whose shoes are brown. They take little note of Andrew who is unremarkable. The generous sorts look upon the pair as victims of their own delusions. Many wonder what on earth possessed them but these are questions for the lawyers. Both are pushed into police cars and driven away. A replacement driver will arrive shortly, says the megaphone. For now the train stands empty. 

Well, almost. One backside remains rigid on a sweaty seat. It is the backside of the man with a chequered shirt and low self-esteem. He got fed up with Candy Crush after the second level, because his fingers are so clumsy, and it made him self-conscious. He’d left his earphones and his Kindle at home and felt so unmoored. He’s never been the nosy sort but – being too shy to speak and with nothing to entertain him – he let his eyes watch the people around him. He hardly had a single thought. He sat through the commotion, the terror, the waxing and waning of fear and anger. He watched it all unfold. No one, not once, looked at him. Nine hours. And now he takes in the stale empty train. Outside people are running in a vast flat field, expressions of pure joy. He cannot bring himself to join them just yet. He has the feeling of emerging from a general anaesthetic. He blinks. A buzz floats from a nearby window. A wandering bee finds itself on the inner side of glass and wriggling against its indifference, desperate to be let out. 

*

Ali Ackland-Snow works in development at a TV production company based in London. She has performed her poetry at Blindside Theatre’s Tell ’em Tuesday; had a short playperformed at Theatre 503; and had two short films produced when she was a student. She studied History at university and has a degree in the History of Medicine.