It’s out of control.
The thought nudged its way into the foreground of her mind, unfurled itself and began to fill out with detail;
It’s out of control. No-one’s in charge. No-one at the wheel.
And just as quickly, she realised that whatever had been in her mind beforehand had been elbowed aside so deftly and with such force as to remove it from her memory entirely – in fact she was dimly aware that she had no recollection at all of how she came to be there, or what she had been doing. She let out a small gasp, then instantly admonished herself – she wasn’t the type to give in to the bleating panic that tugged at her right then. She was a pragmatist, not a panicker. Still…
THIS IS A RUNAWAY TRAIN!!!
‘I wouldn’t worry about it.’
The calm voice caught her attention. She wasn’t alone. Across the green-trimmed table from her, on the opposite bench, leant against the window and seemingly enjoying the view, was a man. His seat put his back to the direction of travel, she hated that, always had, didn’t know how anyone could stand it – but the serene look on his face suggested that he liked it just fine. Outside, the lush, vivid greens of mid-summer rushed by, crisp and sharp in the clear sunlight. If the train hadn’t been traveling at such speed, there would likely be birdsong in the air. Instead, there was the chuntering of great wheels devouring track, apace with the gentle motion that rocked her in her seat, comforting in the backs of her thighs and the small of her back. Dance-like, swaying. It was almost soporific – in fact it was soporific, although…
A RUNAWAY TRAIN!!!
‘Really, I wouldn’t worry about it.’
And he offered her a small smile to go with that, such as you might offer a child when reassuring them that the sun will, in fact rise again tomorrow. He turned back to his view. He struck her then, amid her distress, as possibly the neatest man she’d ever seen. At that, she realised she couldn’t actually remember the last man she’d seen – any man she’d seen, for that matter, at any time, ever. Nevertheless, he was a neat man. He possessed one of those immaculately shiny, finely-shaped bald heads that seem designed for hair loss. He was of indistinct race, with a fullness to his features and an epicanthal fold to his eyes, and the serenity she’d noticed a moment before seemed his default expression. He was dressed in neutral colours, pale cream shirt, dark trousers. His eyes were brown, a good match for the burr walnut that adorned the carriage in abundance.
Panic threatened to seize her then, and her heart thrashed in her chest as she resisted the urge to shake him by the shoulders and shout into his face – in fact she shouted aloud anyhow;
‘Don’t you know this is a runaway train?! We'll be smashed to smithereens at any second, and you’re – ‘
‘Enjoying the view – lovely, isn’t it?’
She’d unwittingly jumped to her feet – the rocking motion now thrummed through the carpet to her bare soles, and she reflexively scrunched her toes in the short pile. Her hands were thrown up in dramatic gesticulation, feeling foolish she dropped them to her sides. Was this person mad?
‘Are you mad?’ she asked him, plainly.
‘I don’t think so,’ that small smile again, ‘are you?’
Maybe I am.
Maybe she was.
‘I’m not wearing any shoes.’ She observed dazedly.
‘Were you planning on going outside?’ he asked,
‘Why not sit down, enjoy the view, since you’re not going outside, and you aren’t wearing any shoes?’
She felt a strong urge to do exactly as the man suggested – a pull to the comfort of the upholstered bench seats, to be ensconced in dark green leather and rich walnut. Maybe they'd open a window, let in some of summer air rushing by…
No, no, no it’s a runaway train!!!
‘We’ve got to stop it! We’ve got to get it stopped, or get off, or… I don’t know – we’ve got to DO SOMETHING!’ she let out in a burst.
The neat man turned to the window.
‘I’ll wait here.’ he said.
He wasn’t wearing any shoes either.
She fled through the door of the little private booth, noticing the lightness in her step – how thin she was. Was she usually thin? Her blouse, turned back at the wrists, seemed generous to say the least – had it ever been tight, had she ever filled it? She didn’t know.
At this, she gave herself to her panic, and ran barefoot down the timber-floored corridor toward the front of the train. The carriage was divided into private booths like the one she’d just left, trimmed in green leather and polished wood, all empty, but once she’d stumbled at speed through the first covered gangway, she was into the sleeper section. She paused, panting lightly. Each compartment presented itself to the corridor as a tall, timber door, with a small window next to it – shuttered when the occupants were asleep. All the little windows in the carriage were shuttered.
They must all be sleeping!
She began to hammer wildly on the solid doors and the little windows, running as she went, calling out maniacally;
“IT’S A RUNAWAY TRAIN!! GET UP, GET OUT, FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR LIVES, THE TRAIN IS A RUNAWAY!!!”
And so on.
She didn’t look back as she ran, to see the doors open or the shutters snap back, bewildered passengers leaning out at the commotion, bleary-eyed and outraged. If she had, she’d have been disappointed – no one appeared, outraged or otherwise. She hoped they’d heed her warning – what if they thought it was a prank, or that she was simply mad?
Maybe she was.
Without looking, she ran full-tilt into the next gangway, viciously stubbing the toes of her right foot and crashing through the vestibule into the next carriage. Hopping on her left foot and nursing her injured right, she thought the toes might be broken.
‘Ouch, that must’ve hurt like mad!’
A concerned voice announced the arrival of a well-presented bar-keep, maitre d-type man, tucking a cloth into the pocket of his apron as he hurried toward her, both hands held out to take hers and help her into the nearest chair. He succeeded in taking her hands for the briefest of moments, his warm and dry, hers tremored and clammy. She had an instant to feel embarrassed, before the realisation of impending doom rammed home again, and she shook their hands apart.
‘You’ve got to come with me, we’ve got to get to the driver’s compartment, th-th-the cockpit or whatever, we’ve got to get to the controls – right now, we’ve got to get to the controls!’
The concern in his face was genuine, but he let out a friendly laugh and wiped his hands on his apron.
‘Whatever for?!’ he exclaimed.
‘This is a RUNAWAY TRAIN!!’ She burst out, ‘A RUN-A-WAY TRAIN!! We’ll all be killed!’
The bar-maitre-d-type backed away, spread his palms, and dried his teeth in an expression of mock solemnity,
‘I’m afraid that’s not my department.’
‘I can, however,’ he went on, suavely pulling out a chair, ‘offer you brunch that’ll make you forget all about it.’
Stubbed toes were all but forgotten as she picked her feet up and ran, dodging delicately dressed tables, dodging the smiling lunatic inviting her to take brunch while hurtling at breakneck speed towards certain destruction, dodging the ornate bar, resplendent in brass and dark green marble. Her heart thudded in her temples, blood rushed in her ears, and she took the gangway without slowing.
More seating in the next carriage – second class. She felt a small, entirely pointless bloom of warmth at the fact she’d been seated in first. First class on a runaway train, what an achievement.
The carriage was still pretty plush, in that old-fashioned wood/brass/carpet/leather style, laid out with wide benches, facing mostly forwards with every fifth facing back – for parties who wanted to talk face-to-face, and who were made up at least partly of those who could stand to travel facing backwards. Her heart thudded insistently. Unignorable, dominating, like the sound of her breathing, ragged and hoarse. The length of the carriage, with its seemingly endless rows of deserted seating, inspired an awful claustrophobia in her – although almost not in a spatial way, more a sort of claustrophobia of choice. A confinement, to a single possibility. Forwards.
The carriage was lit by natural light from large windows, but the light had lost its brilliance, and carried instead a hint of greyness. Trees rushed by still, although indistinct and fleeting. The threat of rain, maybe a storm, added a new aspect of urgency – as though if the weather broke, all hope would be dashed, the train would be broken on some set of misaligned points, derailed and smashed amongst a patch of trees, or utterly shattered apart in a head-on collision with some unstoppable freight behemoth. And her, broken, smashed and utterly shattered along with it. She began to run again, in the direction of the driver’s cab, of the great engine itself.
About halfway down the carriage, she noticed a man sitting quietly in one of the rows facing toward her – he was sitting so perfectly still that he’d escaped her attention at first. With mounting horror, she recognised his outfit as that of the engineer – a caricature of greasy-handed intrepidity, rough grey cord dungarees, matching cap, dirty white shirt and dirtier red neckerchief. He touched the cap,
‘Mor-ning,’ he called out jovially, ‘what rush?!’
‘You’re not even facing the right way!!’ she shrieked at him, and continued to hurtle down the carriage, past the engineer, past the empty rows, through the last door and out into the open air.
Finally – the tender (the word pressed itself, unbidden, into her mind, origin unknown), high and mountainous with coal, her own ominous black peak to scale. Some 20-odd foot ahead of her, invisible behind the great, dark pile, someone must be hurling the filthy carbonous fuel into the firebox to keep this death machine moving along at such a rate. Here, outside, the sense of speed was incredibly heightened, turbulent air whipping her hair across her face. She scooped it back and deftly stowed it in a rugged bun at the back of her head, and briefly wondered what she looked like – she had run the entire way without catching her reflection in a single pane of glass, or a single mirror, despite the abundance of both onboard. She found that fact very odd indeed.
The steam whistle suddenly screamed, louder than seemed possible, electrifying her bones, and when after an age it fell silent, she was up, scrabbling up the great heap of dirty coal with a desperation that had been growing since she came to her senses back in the comfort of the private car. She was going to stop it – stop the runaway, it would be her who brought it under control, her who averted disaster.
The coal tumbled loosely under her clawed fingers, and she felt it grind its way in deep under her nails, felt the sharpness of the dust scrub her skin raw. None of that mattered, in the face of disaster. She scaled the black mountain for what seemed like far too long – the tender should only be twenty-odd foot long, she should be in the cab by now, seizing the throttle, jamming the brakes on hard. Instead, she couldn’t even see the cab, only the black horizon of coal ahead of her, as though she were crawling across the surface of some filthy globe, spinning at speed to keep her static, wear her out. For a vertiginous moment, she felt if she stopped crawling, she might slip backwards off the dirty, spinning globe and onto the tracks, beneath the carriages.
The wind thrashed her now, her eyes streaming, cheeks buffeted by the gale – the train seemed to be speeding up. She was slowing down. From nowhere, she felt a tilting sensation, as though she’d been shinning along see-saw and reached the tipping point. She began tumbling forward – was she coming down the other side?! Tumbling too fast, still somehow nothing in sight, just that awful black horizon, grey sky behind it as she locked her arms out in front of her, palms skidding and grinding against the lumps – trying desperately to somehow grip with her knees, with the tops of her feet, grazed raw and filthy. The skidding, tumbling motion sent impacts shuddering up through her shoulders, the backs of her arms screamed at her in protest, and when the coals parted, her wrists finally sank deep into the black mass, her face plunged down to the surface and sharp fear closed her eyes against the impact.
And then sudden warmth bloomed within her, and she was warm, warm and comfortable after the cold. And somehow, clean-feeling. A feeling of space around her – sudden stillness after full-on sensory assault. She took a deep, easy breath. No dust, no harshness to the air. A gentle rocking in her shoulders.
Still on the train?...
Her forehead wrinkled. She let her eyes open, and focused on her hands, folded neatly in her lap, left over right, thumbs touching. Nails clipped and business-like, hands lightly lined, like she was getting old.
Am I getting old? Am I already old?
‘I wouldn’t worry about it.’
The voice froze her solid – as though every muscle in her body was locked, and she took in her surroundings in a rapid staccato of realisations. Warm leather on the backs of her thighs. The carpet underfoot. Clear sunlight. Brass, polished timber.
The neat man.
The spell broke, and she bolted from her seat. She never looked directly at the neat man, just caught enough of him in her peripherals to do the trick of firing her from the carriage as though shot from a cannon. At full sprint, she took the gangway gracefully, sidestepping without a stumble, and amid the maelstrom of panicked, paranoid, tumbling thoughts she wondered for a second if she might be an athlete.
She thundered on, her bare feet thudding into the carpet – the sleeper car, no hammering on windows and doors now – no time to waste. Get to the controls, stop the train. Anything else was a waste of effort. Stop the train, then figure it all out.
Stop the train.
She didn’t stub her toes this time, only burst into the dining car without slowing down, and when the barman stepped toward her, she neatly slipped past him, without a glance into his welcoming face. Past the perfectly-dressed tables, the chairs, the ornate bar, crystal glasses hanging like icy, glittering bats at roost. The next gangway, breath ragged now, burning in her chest. Past the seated, statue-still engineer.
And back to the tender. Scrabbling up the heap, thinking only of the controls in the cab, the throttle lever, the way this colossus would bleed speed as soon as she relaxed that one control, the release, the sheer relief it would bring. The steam whistle, shrill and terrifying. The tumbling, the panic, the plunging into the coal mountain.
And then back. Back in the carriage.
Again - the neat man, the sleeper car, the barman, the engineer – the tender. Like turning the pages of a comic book, her feverish mind running hotter and hotter, round and round again, until…
Her hands, folded neatly in her lap. Her body felt rested, but her mind, her spirit, her soul felt worn out. Frayed. A sigh rose and escaped from her lips unbidden – the thought of another mad dash through the train, another dreadful scramble over the treacherous coal deflated her where she sat. She looked across to the neat man, and found him already looking back at her. Wordlessly, he flicked his eyes from her to the window and back, raised his eyebrows in an unspoken invitation.
When she shifted in her seat, he turned his gaze to the world outside, and as she shuffled all the way across to the window the smallest beginnings of a smile quirked his lips. She sat with both elbows on the table, hands propping her chin. Her face was turned to the window, and she breathed softly and evenly. Her shoulders rocked to the train’s beat.
‘Lovely, isn’t it?’ said the neat man, without looking at her.
Beyond the glass, a perfect blue sky wore a scattered adornment of soft, harmless, pure white clouds, and the sun in its glory dappled the landscape below with silhouettes of them. It was farmland mostly, gently rolling hills neatly divided up into vaguely rhomboid shapes by hedges or dry-stone walls – perfect lateral rows of crops, indistinguishable at distance as anything other than a linear pattern, like giant quilts of textured fabric. Black and white dairy cows stood in the vivid green of unplanted fields in between those given to the crops – bending to feed, or peering aimlessly about. Trees rushed past in the foreground, clumped together or standing alone, proud and massive. English oak, regal and imposing, surreally vivid in sunlight that could only belong to a summer morning. A great orchard rushed by – plums, and images of the luscious, bountiful, yellow/red and purple fruits arose in her mind to accompany the view – she fancied she could smell the gorgeous, sweet aroma of them from where she sat, and she took a deep purposeful breath into her nose as though to capture it – when the breath escaped, she felt the tension within her begin to lift, to soften its grip.
‘So,’ she said eventually, ‘how many times have you been around then?’
‘Oh, I’d say… enough to have lost count?’
She let that sink in. She considered asking him what it meant, and instead said,
‘So there’s no stopping it?’
With a small smile, he shook his head.
‘And no getting off?’
‘Well, you could jump, but…’ he spread his hands in a vague gesture, ‘well, then you’d be gone.’
Gone. What did that mean?
A small part of her was panicking again, wanted to be fighting for control. But the most part, the best part, was taking the tonic of the perfect view, the pleasant surroundings and the lovely peace that washed over her as she breathed softly, in and out. After so much stress and frantic upheaval, it felt good – and that seemed more important.
‘Are you real?’ she asked.
‘Of course,’ he exclaimed, ‘everything is real.’
‘I mean, you know – is this all real? The train, you, this – this scenery outside, is it all real? Are we real?’
‘Everything is real.’ he said simply, through the small smile.
She thought for a while.
‘What comes next?’
The neat man opened his mouth, but she cut him off,
‘Wouldn’t worry about it?’
And his small smile broke into an honest grin – infectious enough to fetch a smile up onto her own lips. It felt good, but strange – it was her first for a while. She clasped her hands and turned her palms outward, stretched, and slid along the seat to get out.
‘I suppose I’ll see you soon.’
‘I’ll be here.’
She opened the door quietly, stepped through and shut it with a satisfying clunk, leaving the neat man to stare at the view alone. The timber floor was cool underfoot after the carpet – in fact the corridor was a lot cooler than the booth, shaded, well-ventilated. She hadn’t noticed before – in fact there was probably a lot she hadn’t noticed, consumed as she’d been by the need to get the train under control. The more she ignored it now, the more the urgency faded. The idea that she was a woman of action, and not the type to sit around enjoying the view and exchanging nonsense with strangers when there was an emergency underway, had started to feel a bit artificial. A pragmatist, not a panicker – she saw herself now as the inheritor of such a view, and not in fact the author. What, in fact, was she the author of? Did it matter at all? Maybe not. Maybe to be the creator of any idea was to later become its unwilling inheritor. Maybe less thought, less creation was better. She practised as she walked, ignoring the voice inside as it clamoured for her attention with less and less success. She passed through the gangway without crashing through either of the doors, and entered the sleeper carriage in near silence.
As she strolled past the doors and shuttered windows, the carriage seemed a lot longer than she remembered – it had felt like only a handful of compartments, but now she saw it was a good deal more. Twenty-two sets of doors and windows she counted, looking back the way she came to be sure. Panic contracted perspective, she could see that now.
She didn’t stub her toes on the next gangway.
The barman was expecting her. He was standing next to a pulled-out chair at a two-seater table, more-or-less exactly as he had been the first time she’d met him, right when she had side-stepped him and fled, limping, down the dining carriage.
‘Brunch for one?’ inclining his head toward the seat.
She realised then that she was completely famished, weak at the knees with it in fact, and she took the seat without ceremony. Before he could speak, she cut in,
‘I’m sorry about – well, you know…‘
‘Not at all,’ he said with grace, ‘happens to the best of us.’
‘Oh yes. All the time…’
She gave him an inquiring look, which he ignored.
‘Does the lady require a menu?’ he asked, with just the right amount of mock pomp.
‘I’ll have whatever you recommend,’ a smell drifted down the carriage, fit to make her stomach ache, ‘it all smells quite…perfect…’
The barman disappeared, leaving her with her thoughts. Although hunger, and delicious cooking smells kept prodding their way to front and centre, the overall theme was one of amazement. Speeding toward destruction – and dealing with it by quietly waiting for brunch. Surely there was something she could do, some way to get it all under control again – assuming, that was, that it had actually ever been under control at all. She had, however, tried already. Tried pretty much as hard as she thought she could. Maybe she’d been attacking the problem from the wrong angle – perhaps it was a matter for reason, rather than force.
Was she a reasonable woman?
The barman was approaching, carrying a tray, and she fidgeted in her seat – half eagerly peering at the contents, half feigning nonchalance. The tray bore what she thought might well be the finest-looking brunch she’d ever seen – although of course she’d couldn’t actually remember any other brunch she’d actually seen, at any time before, ever.
Eggs Florentine, the eggs so perfectly poached as to seem almost artificial. Muffins lightly crisped, spinach wilted just right, hollandaise perfect in colour, a dusting of cayenne to pick it all up. There was coffee, fresh, earthy (Ethiopian she thought, and wondered immediately just how she would know), golden sugar which she wouldn’t use, but found pleasing in any case, and a little porcelain cup of whole milk, whiter than she would’ve thought possible. A solitary cinnamon roll, dusted with powdered sugar, to close her palette at the end, perfect with the coffee.
When he set it all down in front of her, she felt practically dizzy with desire for it all. It was all she could do to hide her salivation, but she coolly poured herself a small cup from the French press, stirred it and artfully marked her coffee with the chilled milk, swilling it gently in the cup while she looked up at him.
She looked from him to the seat opposite her and back, in a manner that reminded her of the neat man only moments earlier.
The barman sat down, gratefully. She wondered how long he’d been standing with the chair pulled out, waiting for her to turn up.
‘Back there,’ she said ‘in first class –’
‘The shoeless guy?’ he interrupted her.
She kept her eyes on his, took a tiny sip of her coffee, and nodded. He gave a quiet little laugh.
‘He does love that view, doesn’t he?’
‘Well, it’s not a bad one, as they go. But he told me there was no way to stop it – no way to get the train under control, no way to get off. Is that true?’ She sipped the coffee again, and with an effort managed not to show her satisfaction.
‘You could jump – but then you’d be –‘
‘Gone, yes – got that. No way to stop the train, and then get off, is what I mean?’
‘As you know, it’s not my department – and your friend back there knows a lot better than me, but no, I don’t think there is.’
‘Great.’ She said quietly to herself, looking down. Inwardly, she was a little surprised at how little despair she was actually feeling at the fact. It’s hard to feel despair with a fine plate in front of you.
‘I just serve the cuisine,’ the barman said, standing to leave the table, ‘but why is it you want to get off?’
‘Well I suppose…‘ she groped for an answer, ‘what else should I do?’
He gave her a smile not unlike that of the shoeless, neat man himself.
‘Enjoy your brunch.’
And he was gone.
As she ate the Eggs Florentine, she felt comfort rise within her, and she chewed slowly, savouring each moment, each movement of flavour on her tongue. She rolled the thought through her head playfully – what else should I do? She found no obvious answer – instead found the most fitting thing to be for her to quietly enjoy the cinnamon roll with the smoky coffee, and not to rush through any of it at all. So that’s exactly what she did.
The barman was behind the enormous bar, idly polishing a glass when she stood up and looked around, so she stacked her dishes up and made her way over.
He nodded a silent thanks as she placed them on the bar, and she lingered a moment before she left.
‘Thanks for brunch – it was delightful. Do I er – owe you anything?’
‘My pleasure, anytime. On the house, so to speak.’
‘Can you…’ she thought for a second, ‘is there anything you can tell me?’
‘About the food, or...’
‘I suppose anything useful at all?’ she said hopefully.
‘Hmmm,’ said the barman, ‘the word weird originally meant a person’s destiny.’
‘Very helpful,’ she said, nodding, ‘Bye then.’
‘Mor-ning!’ the engineer called out, through the whiskers of his thick moustache, ‘where’s your rush?!’
A parody of their earlier encounter. She hadn’t noticed the rough lilt of his accent before – surely a progeny of the valleys.
‘My rush,’ she said, as she strolled down the aisle towards him, ‘has left me at last.’
And at this point, it seemed like it truly had. As the glorious food settled within her, it seemed to have melted her anxieties away, and replaced them with a soft contentment. With a little sigh, she sat down opposite him, feeling oddly like they were some mis-matched travelling companions, off for a day out in the country. A smile creased his rugged features, and she returned it.
‘Can you at least tell me why you’re facing the wrong way?’
‘Well, if you ask me,’ he said, ‘this is the right way!’
‘No, I don’t mean as a passenger – I mean you’re facing the wrong way as the person who’s supposed to be driving the train!’
‘Now who told you I’m supposed to be doing that then?’ he said through a grin.
‘You’re not here to drive the train?’
‘Nope! I’m just here in case things get…’
‘Out of control?’ she suggested.
The engineer’s shoulders shook with laughter at that, and went on shaking for a while.
‘I guess you could say that!’ he guffawed, tears in the dirty creases of his eyes.
Surprising herself, she realised she’d been chuckling along with him.
‘Have you noticed the sun is still shining?’ he asked her, dabbing at his eyes with an ancient handkerchief.
She hadn’t – but it was, just as brilliantly as when she’d opened her eyes back with the neat man. She looked out at the sun-drenched glory of the countryside, no threat of rain or storm in sight.
‘What will you do now then, my dear? Back scrabblin’ up the coal heap like a-don’t-know-what, is it?’ he asked her.
A yawn rose to her lips, suddenly.
‘I might go back the way I came. Might even have a nap in one of the sleepers – I’m almost sure I can find one free.’
The engineer nodded wordlessly.
‘Can you tell me one thing though, before I do?’ she asked, sitting forward ‘where does this all lead – I might go back over the coal heap, back to the carriage, over and over and over again. Will it ever come to an end?’
‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he asked her, and sat forward in his seat, stuffing the hanky into the front pocket of his dungarees in a way that reminded her of the barman,
‘Sooner or later my dear, we’ll simply run out of track.’
About the author
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters