You’d recognise him as first class straight away. Out of the taxi, cut sharply against the sunny late afternoon rush hour, he glided among others’ shuffling. Holding the phone to his ear and smiling as he spoke, his expensive shoulder bag balanced perfectly with his stride, the glass doors of Euston Station themselves seemed to pay homage as they slid open to welcome him. He bought an Espresso Macchiato and a freshly squeezed orange juice.at a kiosk. The young Latvian girl who served him looked as if she felt blessed by his gleaming smile, his diamond eyes, his power.
He sat in an aisle seat and opened his laptop. His brown hands, immaculately manicured fingers opened three windows. Already the palm oil shares were up, his tax accountant had saved him £8,000 by transferring profit from the sale of a racehorse to a pension fund, and Barcelona had just gone a goal up against Roma. At the very edge of peripheral vision he was computing the woman who sat in the aisle seat facing him diagonally, the only other passenger in the carriage. He noted that she was assessing him peripherally too, and that she knew that he knew that she was doing so. Their eyes met fully for one twenty fourth of a second, enough for each of them to assess and agree that there existed the initial possibility of doing business.
He settled back to watch the football fullscreen. The soft intercom chimed its bell.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am Gordon, your train manager, and on behalf of Virgin West Coast, I’d like to welcome you aboard the 1834 London Euston to Glasgow Pedolino service. We’ll be calling at Warrington Bank Quay and Preston only, and we’re scheduled to arrive into Glasgow Central at 2327. First Class accommodation is situated at the rear of the train. Forward carriages are for customers carrying prebooked Apex tickets. We’ll be leaving in a few minutes and shortly aftewards the shop in Coach C will be open for newspapers, magazines, hot and cold snacks, and drinks. Virgin West Coast in collaboration with its business partner Orange offers free WiFi to all customers, and if you set your web browser to scan for the Orange Virgin service the welcome page will take you through the steps to log on.
None of this he heard. Why should he? His attention was fully on the football. The train slid out as smoothly as a politician’s tongue. He didn’t notice the movement until a shaft of silver sunlight darkened his screen. Annoyed, he adjusted the computer into the shade but he knew that the woman had noticed his irritation, seen him lose his face for a moment. A large black fly landed on his keyboard, and he flicked at it with one finger, hoping his face had not wavered. The fly buzzed around his head and was joined by another.
In a moment, ladies and gentlemen, I shall be moving through the train with a colleague. Please have your tickets, travel documentation or other official authorisation ready for inspection.
The announcement took his attention from the football. He felt insulted by its officious tone, by the idea of some jumped-up railway porter claiming power over him. It was getting warm. He would complain about the air conditioning. There was an unpleasant odour rising from the seats, a smell like illness. Then the train braked harshly, suddenly, and again, and slowed and stopped. His oranje juice spilled across the table. Flies descended on the sticky mess.
He did not try to hide his annoyance and looked at the woman to mirror his reaction. She barely registered his appeal, seemingly contemptuous of his over-reaction to a trifling matter, and she returned to her fashion magazine. The train stood five minutes, barely ten miles from Euston. Outside, the light glowed like it was filled with tiny grey particles. The intercom gently pinged.
This is your train manager. On behalf of Virgin West Coast I’d like to apologise for this delay to your journey and for any inconvenience this may cause. I’ll inform you as soon as I know why we are stopped between stations and hopefully it won’t be long before we’re on our way again. In the meantime, you may like to know that the shop in Carriage C will be opening shortly for the sale of newspapers, magazines, hot and cold snacks and drinks.
He went down the train to buy a malt whiskey, astonished at how full the second class coaches were and furious that he had to queue almost twenty minutes. Returning to his seat, the train still had not moved. The signal to his laptop had failed, and he tried to watch the game on his iPhone. The only images he could receive were of fragmented, snowy footage from faraway television broadcasts in the Middle East and Africa. Then his iPhone too went dead.
Outside, a grey darkness had descended, and the interior lights of the train seemed thin and watery. He stared frankly at the woman. She seemed to have aged thirty years. She was asleep, her mouth open and spittle running down her chin, her face a network of creases and purple veins. The intercom pinged.
Once again, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of Virgin West Coast I would like to apologise for the delay and hope this does not inconvenience you too much. Our unscheduled stop is because the train in front has not yet departed. We are awaiting a shunting engine to tow us back a few miles to another line so that we can detour around the blockage.
He fell into a fitful doze and was startled awake by a thud and clanking as an engine coupled itself behind him. The light in his carriage was a dim yellow and rancid with flies, and outside all was near darkness. He felt himself slowly being pulled backwards for five minutes, then over some points and so to another halt. They seemed to be in a tunnel, he could see lanterns on the walls. Another train slowly reversed past them. It had wooden sides, and it too was washed inside with a jaundiced yellow. Figures in the carriages of the moving train sat bolt upright like mannequins dressed in Victorian clothes, almost all of them men. But one turned his head towards the delayed train as his window passed , and he raised his hat, stiffly, mechanically, his face twisted into a sardonic and malevolent grin.
Ping. The train in front has been towed back behind us but unfortunately another incident further up the line near Watford Junction means that we will have to move forward on a branch line. Because the train in front is now behind us on the only available line to Euston we cannot return there. I repeat, there is no going back. On behalf of Virgin West Coast I would like to apologise for this delay to your journey and hope it does not cause you too much inconvenience.
In the yellow darkness he tried to compose himself, to laugh at himself for becoming upset by a mere train journey delay. He decided to find the train manager and demand that at the first available opportunity he, and any other passenger who so desired, could disembark from the train and continue their journies in an alternative manner. He groped his way along the aisle and almost immediately stumbled over the body of the woman who had fallen and lay cold and lifeless. He kicked her under the seat and continued to the door at the top of the carriage but found it would not open. Then, the train started again.
It was now almost completely dark. As the train gathered speed it broke out of the tunnel and he could see clearly through the window the shapes of high buildings, mostly broken, and fires burning on the ground around which sat circles of people. He found his way back to his seat and tried his iPhone again. Nothing. Completely dead.
Ping. This is your train manager. Because of unforseen problems in the Watford area and breaking news of unrest in the south west of Ireland, for your health and safety communication between carriages has been suspended until further information becomes available. The train has been diverted to avoid problems at Watford Junction and to bypass unrest in the Midlands and Welsh border area. We shall shortly be making an unscheduled station stop at a temporary station to take on board a consignment of people from holding areas in the area. Once again, on behalf of Virgin West Coast, may I apologise for the delays the service is experiencing this evening and hope that any inconvenience is slight.
The buildings thinned out to a few stumps of wall, and no fires burned. The train entered a floodlit yard the size of several football pitches, with large warehouses at the perimeters. It stopped at a long platform, thronged with people who rushed towards the train, breaking through lines of soldiers with rifles who tried to push them back. Hands covered the window, curled and clawing then eyes, eyes without faces, eyes without heads, eyes desperate and terror stricken.
The window at which he sat crashed inwards and a heavy iron bar smashed into the table. A vicious looking rat-faced man tried to crawl into the train and was pulled back by two guards, his abdomen unfurling on the broken glass. Shots were fired. Screaming rose from the retreating crowd. Men came to repair the window, and soon horizontal wooden slats were fixed over the damage.
Then he heard the doors of his carriage slide open, and looked out to see that the soldiers had made corridors to each door down which what seemed to be hundreds of people were being prodded. Soon, the carriage filled up, and he was engulfed in the screams of babies, the crying of children, the moanings of the old and sick, and curses and prayers. The light from outside lit up the dishevelled passengers, animated scarecrows, rags for clothes, carrying pitiful bundles. What appeared to be three families pushed in at his table, he had barely a few inches to breathe, his head stuck hard against the wooden laths of the window. Each breath felt like it may be his last, so heavy the weight that bore down on his chest. Then the train moved again. He slept or passed out.
When he opened his eyes it was to grey light and grey, empty land passing by
punctuated by a few dead trees but otherwise blank to the horizon.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of Virgin West Coast I’d like to apologise for the ongoing delay to your journey and hope that you are not seriously inconvenienced. We shall shortly be arriving into an unscheduled station stop where the train will take on cargo, customers from the failed Northern Rail 2110 service from Norwich, and itemised persons travelling with escort agencies towards their final destination. Owing to unforseen circumstances I regret to say that the shop and the trolley service for first class customers is temporarily suspended.
He looked throught the slats with one eye as the train slowed into a station. Much like the earlier station it was packed with what seemed to be thousands of people herded into a community of sickness and fear and death. Four fingers came through the slat and touched his head, the hand of a young woman, then it was ripped suddenly away. Again, queues were formed, and hundreds were packed between lines of soldiers into the suffocating carriage. The stink of sickness and excrement, of rot and decay hit the newcomers who gagged and choked and vomited. Soon only his nose and his eye were not pressed down upon by the bodies around him. He could see heading towards the front carriages of the train, a long line of men chained together. Each carried upon his back a coffin.
He’d prided himself upon his equanimity and steadiness of character. He well knew how powerful a man he was, how respected and revered. By a single phone call millions of dollars of cash would go one way or the other around the world. A brief text was all that was needed for other powerful men to seek his favour or do his bidding. Yet now he felt powerless, a tiny cell in the body of a suffocating and suffering and terrified heap of humanity being drawn once more along the track as the train moved out.
An eye, a nose, a terrible weight upon his chest: this was all, this and his mind. He tried to think of good times in his life. He could think of none. Whatever goodness he had encountered in his life, whoever good he had met, whoever kind had reached out to him, he had never stayed long enough to experience. He raced ahead always. Never had he known a moment of goodness. Never had he known a moment. And now he realised, with what horror you may imagine, where he had always been racing towards.
Ping. Ladies and gentleman, this is Gordon your train manager speaking. We shall shortly be arriving into our final destination. Please have your authorisation papers ready for inspection when alighting from this service and you will be taken care of by Virgin station personnel. Please remember to take with you any personal belongings and items of luggage. On behalf of Virgin West Coast I’d like to thank you for travelling with us. We hope you had a pleasant journey.