By Elaine Currie
It was one of those things that, looking back, Mazie had trouble pinning a start on.
The mundane, every day, every evening journey no more impinged upon her consciousness than waiting for the kettle to boil or queuing at the post office. In the summer she sat drowsing as the train rocked and grated, gazing out at the potentially sunny day she was going to miss at her nine till five. In winter she ignored the sodden streets with their neon signs and red brake lights preferring a romantic novel to alternate urban lives glimpsed through rain smeared glass.
So when did it start? In the summer, she decided, one stuffy early evening as the train slowed to walking pace and she found herself unconsciously wishing that if it did grind to a halt then it wouldn’t be in the tunnel up ahead. No, hang on, if she was feeling uneasy about the tunnel then she must have already noticed the bricked up niches. Spring then. That’s right, early spring.
Her granddad had worked on the lines, walking the tracks, hammering in the pins that kept the rails straight and snug to the ground, looking for signs of buckling in hot weather or checking the points. He was the one who’d told her how they used to set charges on the tracks to warn of oncoming trains. And, he explained about the niches. Man sized niches in tunnels, under wide bridge arches or cut into steep, brick embankments. Anywhere in fact that a man had nowhere to scurry to, no bramble covered bank or scrubby patch of grass to stand astride before the unstoppable force of a heavy goods train met its all too soft target, degrading a man to a messy pulp of red and grey flesh. ‘I saw it happen once,’ he’d said. ‘Like spreading jam on bread it was.’ She’d been about ten at the time and it had put her off toast for weeks.
And now the niches were being filled.
It troubled her at a deep, unfathomable level. But why? If they weren’t needed then what did it matter? Maybe now there was an app to warn workers that a train was on its way. She fantasised about how it would work. The beeping noise getting faster as the train got nearer, a little bit like the reversing signal on her sister’s car. Or maybe it was structural, the niches being filled in to add strength to the centuries old structures which must be getting stressed after all these years.
And another thing. As an aspiring flat owner, Mazie was not one to approve of graffiti, or street art as it was called now, hating the way badly spelt, imitation words were sprayed over the garages or fences of what must be somebody’s property. The insidious creep of this vandalism was unstoppable, no wall too high, no tunnel too dark to prevent night time marauders misusing spray paint. This blight of modern living got everywhere. Apart from on newly filled niches. Not one that she could see had so much as a smudge of paint defacing its smooth, grey facade. Maybe some genius had developed anti-paint concrete. No, she told herself. That was just silly.
‘The next station is…’
Grabbing her shopping bag and making sure NOT to forget her umbrella, she alighted as she always did, right opposite the station exit. Her selection was always the same. Second carriage going up, fifth carriage coming home. She stood down the far end of platform one first thing in the morning, oppose the news kiosk on platform nine coming back, one of a small group of commuters that alighted at this out of the way suburban station to reclaim their cars, get picked up by their spouse or do what she did and walk the half mile home.
When she first moved here she delighted in the brisk walk past the mixed build of old and new properties, along a widening street harbouring a 24/7 grocers, a fish & chip shop and a one man taxi firm. If it was still light she’d cut through a back alley that opened onto her Victorian terrace row. If it was late at night or she was not feeling lucky she’d continue in a loop, sticking to pavements lit by corporate lamp posts. When it was wet, windy and dark she barely noticed the houses, scurrying past with her hood up and her head down. While on a warm summers evening she’d peer into gardens, delighting in the sight of a small tree in bloom or a pretty hanging basket. Not that she knew anything about plants or gardening, just that flowers cheered her up. Today though she noticed how many windows were boarded up and the number of lawns that needed cutting. Well, there was always a plan for redevelopment being proposed somewhere and, which must also explain why all three businesses had shut up shop. Taking the long way around she told herself that it was because the evening was still warm and she needed the exercise. The next morning she was running late, scooting down the alleyway and out the other end without though or any detectable harm.
“It’s been cancelled.” The man tapping on his phone may have been talking to himself or to her.
“Again?” she asked.
He didn’t look up. “A waste of a season ticket but I’m getting the bus.”
As she watched him disappear she noticed she was alone on the platform, a nagging doubt creeping up on her that it was a Bank Holiday and she’d somehow forgotten it. Her own phone came out, the front display categorically not mentioning public holidays, weekend activities or the end of civilisation. A few taps more and the train timetable showed a few lines of red, one highlighting the 07:49. Drat. It was annoying her usual train had been cancelled, but that had been happening a lot lately. She phoned her boss, offering to stay late and make up time. The stingy bastard accepted. Clambering onto the less than crowded 08:22 she made for a window seat, facing forward which was a bit of luck at last, and picked up her reader. Flicking to her news feed she skimmed through stories on population decline and pollution, settling on a gossip column before catching the latest fashion trends. Distracted by ephemera it wasn’t until the train slowed at its final destination that she glanced up and noticed the scratches. Curious, she rubbed her fingers over the marks. They were on the outside, deep enough to catch the light in wide grooves that cut through grime as well as reinforced plastic. There wasn’t much time to speculate about what could have made them. A dog thrown from a bridge? A graffiti artist who’d taken to carving his tag indelibly into what wasn’t his? Within seconds passengers were brushing past, hurrying to disembark before those waiting on platform nine barged on like a flood of zombies. Some people just had no manners.
It was late when she finally trudged up the steps to the mainline that night. She was tired, fed up and contemplating moving house as well as changing jobs. Being hungry didn’t help her mood either. As she waited on the now deserted platform she contemplated her dilemma. She couldn’t move closer in because housing cost too much, if she moved further out the commute would be longer and more expensive. If she got a job nearer her flat it wouldn’t pay so well so she would have difficulty paying the rent, but at least she wouldn’t have to put up with this crappy train service. Even now, last thing at night the stupid train was late, dead slow as it crawled into the station, jerking to a halt as if the driver had suddenly remembered the brakes. No one got off, the doors remaining firmly shut as she Jabbed at the button, cursing until it opened. Just what she needed she thought, nipping on board as it began immediately to close. It had better open the other end, she’d be furious if she ended up in a locked train at a shunting yard. She was in mid-stride when she noticed the smell. What was that, had something died in here? Her stomach churned. If someone had puked in the carriage she’d be adding to it soon. With a jolt the train started to move back down the line. Catching up on its schedule she supposed. With a groan Mazie swung into the nearest front facing seat to rummage for her phone. And where had that got to? With the clarity of a high definition photo she could see it plugged into her work desk, charging. Well, it was there until Monday. Great. How could things get worse?
It was only then that she turned to the only entertainment left, the view out of the window, where the station lights were being replaced with half lit tower blocks and car jammed streets. That’s funny, she thought. This must be the same carriage I was in this morning, and the very same seat. The very same window.
Lifting her fingers she ran them over the scratches between her and the city lights.
The deep grooves slashed into the glass were on the inside now.