The lady on the train
Knitting needles, water bottles and a blinding hangover.
The first thing I noticed wasn’t the speed, or the acceleration but the fact that my tongue no longer felt like my tongue, but rather a sandpaper covered sock stuck to the roof of my mouth. There was an intense, persistent throb radiating around the inside of my skull. As I peeled open my reluctant eyes and absorbed the harsh strip lighting above my head, a faint wave of nausea passed over me. A hangover, I deduced. My left cheek was oddly cold and, I slowly realised, had adhered itself, presumably with my own sleep-induced saliva, to the train window. I had the sensation that there was something slightly sticky lodged somewhere behind my ear. Attempting, but failing to examine it in my reflection, I looked past the mirror image of myself and into the pitch-black void which lay beyond the glass. I had the strong sense that we were speeding through the countryside, the lack of even a prick of light from a car or house or a single lowly streetlight made conspicuous by its absence. We were, it seemed, very far from anywhere.
It was at that point I noticed someone else reflected in the carriage window, someone who was watching me with a keen but detached, almost professional interest. The piercing and intelligent eyes struck me first: inquisitive, watchful and with more than a glint of dark humour. Perhaps I’d been snoring. The shock of white hair surrounding the eyes gave their recipient’s age away - this diminutive, slightly amused lady, had seen her threescore and ten some time ago. As if to complete the archetype of her character, she was observing me whilst ferociously knitting what appeared to be the sleeve of a child’s cardigan and periodically sipping from a plastic beaker containing what I strongly suspected to be sherry.
‘How’s the head?’ she asked knowingly, further wrinkling her pale pink forehead and I wondered with the hot flush of anticipated embarrassment what drunken bad behaviour she may have witnessed.
‘There’s water if you need it,’ she added, nodding at a half-filled bottle which despite being directly on the table in front of me, I clearly hadn’t noticed. Murmuring a barely audible croak of thanks I drank it down in one or two greedy gulps. It was lukewarm and tasted faintly bitter but the enthusiasm with which I downed it caused me to wonder when I had last had anything to drink.
‘It’s been a while,’ commented the old lady, with a faint twinkle. For a second I thought that she had read my mind. Of course not. She was referring to the length of time for which I had been asleep.
‘Yes I suppose it has,’ I said politely but with a clear undertone of not wanting to continue the conversation. She was, however, wilfully oblivious to my subtext.
‘You’ll need to be getting on with it then,’ she said firmly, still not breaking the knit-one-purl-one pattern which I had belatedly noticed was exactly mimicking the rhythm of the fast-moving train. It was astonishing to me how quickly her fingers were snapping away: almost a blur. They seemed to move faster with each stitch, and as she upped the tempo of her shiny metallic needles, click-clack-click-clack, it felt as though the train’s wheels accelerated to match: an omnipotent metronome conducting the very speed at which we travelled. Bizarre how alcohol plays tricks with the senses, I thought.
‘Well?’ she said. There was more discernible disapproval this time. Don’t bite, I thought, don’t ask. Close your eyes, feign another snooze, she’ll lose interest. You can sleep until you get there - where is it I am going again? I looked for the Next Station sign above the exit door but there wasn’t one. I reflected that I must have been dreadfully inebriated if I was unable to recall my destination or indeed, where I was coming from. A nap was what I needed, just a quick nap. I could feel the first heavy waves of sleep lapping at my consciousness when I was jolted awake by a sudden sharp stab.
With a speed and force I would not have anticipated from such a small and frankly spindly looking old lady, she had jumped from her seat and used her knitting needle to give me a judicious and far from painless jab to the arm. Now that same knitting needle was pointed firmly at the bridge of my nose, forcing me to go slightly cross-eyed. It occurred to me they made quite excellent weapons those needles, light, sharp and acceptable anywhere. Her eyes, now definitively transitioned from twinkly amusement to steely determination were firmly fixed on mine as she hissed,
‘Wake up you stupid oaf - can’t you see he’s going to run us off the tracks?’
More slowly than I cared to admit, the salient details of the situation in which I found myself came into focus. There was an angry old lady, staring me down in what appeared to be an otherwise empty train carriage, in a fast moving night train to a currently unknown destination. I had a ferocious hangover and apparently some not insignificant memory loss. The angry old lady had now seated herself and returned to the child’s cardigan however her venomous stare left me in no uncertain terms that there was a situation underway for which she seemed to hold me entirely responsible.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said feebly, the Englishman’s natural first recourse.
‘Sorry won’t save the day,’ she replied, although I thought I detected a slight mollification in her tone. I waited for further elucidation; there was none.
For Pete’s sake woman, throw me a bone.
‘What have I done?’ I eventually managed sheepishly - intrigued to hear and yet equally dreading whatever it was she was about to say.
‘Done? What have you done? A good many things I shouldn’t wonder but that’s hardly the point is it?’ The clicking of the knitting needles grew very loud. I wanted to ask her if she could please knit more quietly.
Instead I swallowed hard. My throat felt as though I’d ingested a bucket of sharp gravel.
‘May I ask then, what is the point?’
She looked at me again, this time with a slight tilt of the head. A new train of thought had clearly occurred to her.
‘You don’t know where you are, do you? Oh for goodness’ sake!’ she said, taking a sip of the suspected sherry. ‘I mean, I knew you’d had a bit of a bump but you’d really think it would take more than that to…well, never mind that, I mean, how can you not realise - haven’t you even noticed the blindingly obvious?’
As she said it, I realised suddenly that I had in fact noticed. Noticed without realising. Noticed many things but failed to put them together. Noticed that this train was strangely empty, devoid of not only passengers, but staff. Noticed that there were neither signs nor announcements or indeed any clues whatsoever as to where we were going. Noticed that what I thought was a hangover was far more consistent with a bump to the head. Did I fall? Was I pushed? Why couldn’t I remember where we were going? But most of all, why hadn't I noticed that this train to nowhere wasn’t just moving far, far, far too quickly, but was gathering unnatural speed as it went, hurtling itself forward faster and faster with every passing second and that it could only be a matter of minutes before we were forced off the rails entirely?
A look of horror clearly passed across my face like a shadow. My elderly companion gave me a satisfied smile.
‘So, as I said - time to be getting on with it.’ She was almost triumphant.
‘Why, stopping the deranged fool who has decided to drive this train into oblivion of course.’
So many questions. I plumped for the one which seemed most pressing.
‘And how exactly, am I supposed to do that?’
‘Well, you’re a Police Officer - don’t they teach you this kind of thing?’
I stared at her, absorbing this new information which I had both known and not known at the same time. How did she know things I didn’t? I looked down. My uniform. My life came swimming back to me and I absorbed the recollections gratefully. Facts flooded into my mind like a film on fast forward. I was a Police Constable. We’d just wrapped a big case. My first arrest. I was on my way home after drinks with the boys. I’d had a few too many. I’d got on the train - the wrong train it would appear. Then…nothing. The next thing I remembered was waking up in this carriage with my Marple-esque observer and what felt like a bear trampling inside my brain. But still, this was more context than I’d had for a while and I felt marginally better for it. And right on cue, as though to remind me that all was still very much not well, the train picked up speed again.
‘Quickly’, she said. ‘We haven’t much time.’ With a flurry of activity she started tidying up her knitting detritus, throwing needles and wool, and other bits and pieces, a purse and something bigger and metallic, a flask maybe, into a large carpet bag on the seat next to her. That last item she seemed sheepish about putting away, as though she hadn’t wanted me to see it. Embarrassed about the sherry perhaps. The sudden fit of organisation seemed to me to be an unnecessary step for a life or death mission but then that’s the force of habit.
‘What are we going to do?’ I said as much to myself as to her and started frantically searching my pockets, for what I wasn’t quite sure. They were surprisingly empty. No wallet. No ID. Not even a ticket - how had I boarded this train? I glanced downwards - my police radio was lying just underneath the table giving me a temporary flash of hope. I pressed the switch rapidly over and over as though my life depended on it, which in a way, I suppose it did.
‘It’s dead, you fool,’ she said, looking rather pleased with herself. ‘Don’t you think I would have thought of that?’
I looked at her more closely. The conversation of the last ten minutes replayed in my mind. Something else occurred to me.
‘Who is 'he'?’ I said.
‘You said I had to stop a deranged fool - who is he? Did you see him? Did he hit me on the head?’
She looked faintly annoyed for a second.
‘I don’t know who he is - some nutter I suppose. He ran past me earlier, right through this carriage. He didn’t see me I doubt - went straight past. Then you came stumbling in. Your head was bleeding a bit so I presumed he’d given you a right wallop.’
The policeman in me instinctively knew there were flaws here somewhere but I didn’t have time to press her. We needed to stop this godforsaken train.
‘OK - I’ll go to the driver’s compartment. I have my truncheon - hopefully I can knock him out and take control.’
‘Can you drive a train?’ she said with more of a wry smile than seemed appropriate in the circumstances. Perhaps she was in shock, I thought; it makes people do strange things.
‘I can find a brake,’ I retorted, with rather more conviction than I felt.
‘Sounds like a plan to me,’ she said. ‘Off you trot,’ and nodded in the direction of the driver’s compartment.
I tried to say something. None of the usual pleasantries seemed appropriate to the gravity of the situation. I gave a curt nod and left her calmly seated, her hands folded in her lap as though awaiting her final destination. As I pressed the exit button to the next carriage and the door swung open, I thought I heard a small stifled cry. I took a deep breath and walked into the next compartment.
It was almost identical to the one I’d just left. Vacant, but here and there was evidence of both recent human occupation and the speed with which the train was moving: an empty coffee cup rolled incessantly back and forth across the width of the carriage, gaining momentum with each crossing. Newspapers flew across tables as the train swung from side to side. It was hard work just staying upright. Holding onto the seat backs to propel myself forward, I staggered down the aisle, lurching from one seat to another, bashing into tables as I went. The sheer velocity was forcing the wheels to screech across the rails; it sounded like foxes fighting or a chorus of crying cats: high pitched and pained. Above the windows was a “Carriage B” sign. Assuming A was the front carriage I had one more to go before I reached the train driver’s cabin - and whatever was waiting for me there. When I got to the vestibule and pressed the exit button, I noticed a smear of blood across the door. It was still wet.
One carriage left. At the end of this would be the driver’s cab. I reached back and clutched my truncheon. One good smack and I could knock someone out, I confidently told myself. And I had the element of surprise in my favour. I fixed my sights on the innocuous looking door at the end of the carriage. As I tried to focus on its red “No Entry” sign I noticed my vision was blurring around the edges. Subtly at first, it quickly became distorted and the twisting gangway ahead rose up before my eyes, as though I were wearing somebody else's glasses, with a far stronger prescription than my own. The screeching of the train grew ever louder and sounded more and more like an orchestra of human screams. I moved forwards but with each step I realised I had less and less control over my coordination. I felt drunk, more than drunk. The bump on my head must have been much worse than I thought. Stumbling slowly forward, something nagged at my memory but it was like a small mosquito around my head - I knew it was there but I couldn’t see it, let alone grab hold of it.
I reached the vestibule connecting to the Driver’s carriage barely able to stand. I felt a sudden urge to throw up. I hesitated for a second, considering whether I should just sit down, right here and let fate take its course. Wasn’t it better to just let the train crash as surely it eventually must? Or should I push forward, in one last ditch attempt at valiance? Would I even be of any use given that I could barely stand? And who was the suicidal train thief behind the door? Was he armed? Was there more than one? I realised how completely and utterly unprepared I was. One solitary truncheon was of little comfort. This operation was futile. I sank to the floor, doomed, exhausted and parched. I couldn’t collect my thoughts. If only I had some water, even some of that tepid, bitter water the old lady had given me would do.
The water. Of course. With a flash of clarity the pieces of the puzzle fell together and the true reality of the situation dawned on me. How had I got everything so backward? I staggered to my feet and hurled myself at the door to the driver’s compartment - almost entirely certain now there was nothing there to fear. Unlocked, it flew open to reveal the train driver slumped forward over the wheel, a slab of heavy wood jammed up against the accelerator, forcing the driverless train to keep up its momentum long after its master had ceased to breathe. Pulling the dead driver back in his seat, I saw a dark shadow of blood across his chest and in the middle, right through his heart, two metallic knitting needles.
I pulled the brake hard - too hard apparently, as we lurched violently and suddenly to a stop. There fell an acute, black silence. Whether from the fear, the relief or the drugs she had evidently put in that water, I collapsed to the floor of the cab, shivering and allowing my eyes to slowly close. And just before they did, at the very edge of my vision and my consciousness, I saw a pink and wrinkled hand appear, clutching something long, sharp and glinting in its fist.