Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Carriage C (story 3)

This is the third installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...

From one reluctant sliding door to the other, Carriage C was, at its heart, a linear world. The well-trodden, aisle carpet accentuated its nature with a weft of faded coloured lines. The ranked exhibition of seats was hung with a matrix of dashed lines on their tired upholstery. At their sides, pitted and slightly sticky arm rests seemed to point the way to somewhere – even as they held their occupants in place – and atop each one stood the ranks of fatuous reservation cards and bright orange hand-holds. The spaces between were obliged to echo this relentless theme, which was reflected by the metallic grills of a faltering ventilation system and by fluorescent lights in the ceiling, and by the luggage racks to the side. Around and about this world, in the streaking universe in which it sat, only filial shapes seemed to exist in the pallid evening light: tracks beneath, cirrus above, fences and power cables to the side. A straight line, made up of rows, moving linearly through life. Neither Carriage C nor any part of the train could have discerned at departure the significance of this particular set of lines-in-motion, this one date, this precise time. Complexity, discovery or empathy may dawn as lines branch or intersect or entwine, but ignorance rather than simplicity will partner the parallel or the orthogonal. Carriage C had already been, and was destined again to become the incubator of each.

None of this can be the concern of a watcher. They are never told the reasons why; their duty is to watch and to listen, unnoticed, and then to synthesise and report. That’s their job, it’s what they’re trained to do: embed themselves into a group in order to dig deep and range wide. There is a sort of beauty to the immersion process, at first anyway. But each time a diligently created and wholly inhabited character is set aside at the end of a run, a little more of the watcher is lost. Some begin to find it more difficult to relocate themselves, whilst others give up the attempt and fade away from the inside. Beauty begins to die and only the beast thrives; the Adams and the Eves have eaten of the fruit and then must come The Fall; judgement will surely follow.








I was sat in my preferred rear-facing aisle seat. Opposite me sat Patrick – never, ever Pat – with an unopened book of word searches on the table in front of him. In the window seat next to him was John, who’d reluctantly closed the cover on his Tablet when he realised that there was no WiFi on the train but who still couldn’t bring himself to return it to his day-bag. Ros sat across from John, next to me, mostly content to gaze out of the window and to smile. On the other side of the aisle, and joining the conversation in their necessarily semi-detached fashion, sat Cheryl, George, Kez and Charlie. We’d be joined from time to time by the more sociable of the passers-by on their way to the toilets, each one being quietly cursed by Cheryl until the engaged light went out again. When he was satisfied that the hare was running well within his own group of immediate neighbours, Phil would kneel on his seat in order to peer over our table and drop an occasional aerial tit-bit into our midst. Together, our coach represented the young singles from last year’s intake.

We all agreed that few, if any of the passengers would ever have been in a chartered carriage before, let alone a whole train. It had taken several return trips to achieve the transfer using old London buses, the ‘Heritage Fleet’, replete with burly ‘conductor’ on the door. The station’s concourse had been largely devoid of people until we filled it. Pretty much the entire institute was on the trip – along with their partners and dependant offspring. At least, that’s what Phil told us, and he should know given whose desk it is he reputedly perches on so often. There had been a lot of suspicion, even hostility, when it was announced that we were being privatised, especially with the project finally edging towards the breakthrough everyone had been working such long hours to achieve. We rehearsed the arguments again in our little group at one end of the carriage – a location chosen in order that Cheryl could get to the toilets easily, although having seen them that proximity seemed less desirable – and it was universally acknowledged that our fears had been misguided. Well, almost universally. The ever-questioning Charlie had steadfastly declined to join the club and was still frowning now. Nobody quite followed her arguments through to any conclusion however. I made a real effort to support her though, and I could see she had a point or two but come on, I asked: how could it be all that bad to be taken over by a concern prepared to whisk us all off on a three-week trip? OK, the promised luxury hadn’t yet materialised, but we were on a train in the UK for goodness sake – ‘luxury’ would be more than a little surprising at this juncture. Set all that alongside the new salary package though … well, who cares?

Cheryl had dropped out of the banter and was staring at the ‘engaged’ light, which had been on for some time now.
“Sorry, got to go. I’ll pop along to the other end of the carriage; maybe the loo in the next one is free.”

She threaded herself out of her seat, then turned and walked towards the hoped-for sanctuary as briskly as the train would permit, one hand-hold to the next, until she disappeared through the sliding door. There had been a transient lull whilst we silently acknowledged her declaration, and a couple of us even turned towards her in order to offer a sympathetic smile, but the chatter picked up its pace again as she crossed our invisible border. Charlie, on the other hand, went quiet and simply stared after Cheryl; one eyebrow was slightly raised, I noticed, as though quizzical.

The late afternoon autumnal sun was good to see after a week of wall-to-wall clouds, but as it sank in the sky it dawned on me that I was likely to get dazzled fairly soon. For a moment I toyed with the idea of grabbing Cheryl’s seat whilst she was away; I’d explain myself away by saying something about being more sociable perhaps. In all likelihood I would have stayed where I was anyway, but spotting the pull-down blind eased the decision-making process. Almost as the request that the blind be pulled down had left my lips, the train went into a tunnel. Those who had travelled this line before ought to have expected it, but we’d all been so wrapped up in our little conversations that it seemed to come as a mildly irritating surprise. Had there been any mobile signal to start with I’d probably have joined in with the usual muttered annoyance, but no-one had picked anything up since we left the station; well, not in our group anyway. Much more surprising, and annoying, was the fact that the train’s brakes were slammed on once we were a few seconds in, and along with their screeching the carriage lights flickered and then went out. The transition from sunshine to tunnel-darkness left all of us sightless for a while, even with the benefit of the train’s so-called emergency lights – which didn’t seem even vaguely fit-for-purpose. Once the brakes had finally been eased off and back into silence, and when the lights had been reborn, no-one spoke until, a short while later, the train began to accelerate towards normality again. It was rapidly growing dark outside now and the fluorescent tube lighting in the carriage accentuated the change. Most people had lost all sense of where we were.

“What was that all about?”
There could be no answer to Charlie’s rhetorical question of course, beyond resigned shoulder shrugs.
“Cheryl’s taking her time isn’t she? I’m going to see if I can find a buffet car anyway so I’ll check on her as I pass. Anyone want anything?”
There were too many coffee- and tea-deprived people for one pair of hands to satisfy so I offered to go with her. Curiously, I felt my heart rate go up a little as I did so, but maybe it was just my stressed imagination; either way, this could be a golden opportunity. Charlie didn’t say no; in fact she didn’t say anything at all.

I couldn’t decide whether to walk in front of her or to follow and it all got a little farcical before we set off along the aisle. I ended up leading the way, but wishing I wasn’t. Two sliding doors later and we were in the next carriage. The toilet was vacant, no Cheryl. Charlie, now frowning in puzzlement and with something of an edge to her voice, thought she’d either had to walk to the next one or had decided to get something from the buffet herself, so we walked on. This time Charlie was in front, but walking faster than was comfortable given the imposition of random sideways lurches as the train adjusted itself to some new peculiarity in the tracks. The last thing I wanted was to end up on someone’s lap or to be spread across a table; looking ungainly was not an ambition right now. The next toilet emptied its middle-aged occupant as we approached. It certainly wasn’t Cheryl.
“The next carriage is the buffet car, she must be in there.”

Charlie didn’t turn or offer any acknowledgement of my helpful comment; maybe she didn’t hear. She walked on, if anything the pace was faster still.

The buffet car was empty and it took only a second to register the obvious fact of Cheryl’s continued absence. Surely she hadn’t walked even further? Charlie almost ran through to the other end, but the door to what must be the executives’ First Class carriages was not only locked but blacked out. I couldn’t see Charlie’s face properly until she turned back towards me. The frown was still there, but something new and vaguely contagious had been added: was it fear, or anger? I had no clear idea what to do or say, so I did what I always do: rush in like the foolish character I have become.
“Huh! I didn’t realise our bosses were that stand-offish; I’ll get us a drink: tea without sugar, yes?”
I turned, neither expecting nor getting a reply, and only then remembered that the buffet was unstaffed.

“Try not to be too much of an idiot, this is serious. I’m worried. I still don’t know exactly why I am, but I am. And it’s not just about Cheryl, although I’m sure she’s a part of it. I think we need to get back to the others and take stock: maybe someone has a piece of the jigsaw I’m missing.”
She started to retrace her steps at the same rapid pace she had adopted for the walk here, but we got no further than the buffet car’s sliding door. This too was now locked, and although done more crudely using plastic sheeting taped to the far side, it was also blacked out. We just stared at each other, momentarily transfixed within our respective worlds of confusion, but there was a familiar sound at the other end of the car. The door to the First Class carriages had slid open; we turned to see three people, a woman and two men, walking past the counter and towards us. They stopped a couple of metres away.

Cheryl had two guys standing close behind her shoulders, both dressed like the conductors on our ‘heritage buses’. I recognised one of them, or thought I did.

It was Charlie who spoke first.

Cheryl stared impassively towards Charlie; she seemed not to register my presence at all.
“You still haven’t quite put it all together have you Charlie? But you’ve begun to get much closer and if you had only listened more carefully to Phil’s gossip and thought about its pedigree I think you’d have seen enough of the truth to have made the jump. You’re certainly clever enough; I’ve always given you credit for that. It’s the fact that you’re also such a very inquisitive person that tipped the scale in terms of my interest though; I’ve been staying close to you for a reason.” 
A hint of a wry smile played momentarily across her face. 
“I can see there’s a dawning of some sense of the reality of where this is all heading. It’s too late. You’ve walked into a swamp in which, whether you know it or not, you’re already sinking. Your colleagues are about to begin a new life at our replacement facility. They’ll be exceptionally well looked after as long as their work for us remains as good as it was. You, however, will not be joining them.”

Her face turned towards me with her eyes following a second or so later, after they had released Charlie’s incredulous stare. In that small act she had tacitly handed Charlie over to one of the conductors; without noticeable effort, he moved behind her and covered her mouth. Her attempts to break loose were futile; only her eyes were free, expressing the shocked supremacy of primitive emotion in their stare.
“Your file suggests a well-trained and effective watcher but, how shall I put it, you seem to have developed a tendency to be a little naïve, or downright sloppy of late. I’ve been evaluating you as a side-line: watching the watcher if you will. I’m sorry about that; one doesn’t like to undermine a colleague – even a colleague one’s never met before. You will be re-assigned.”

By the time she had finished speaking, the contents of a small syringe had already been emptied high up into the back of Charlie’s neck. Released from her conductor’s grip, she dropped to the floor in silence. Only then did I realise how much I had grown to like her or, rather, the idea of her.

I barely had time to see the taser before it was fired.


Refreshment trolleys had started to ply their way back and forth through their carriage and all its neighbours within minutes of the buffet car’s closure, and the fact that everything was free served only to enliven the nascent holiday mood. Perhaps it was the sheer volume of food consumed, but most people relaxed into silence after a while or drifted into a shallow sleep. Given the growing darkness, no-one had paid attention to the route the train began taking after it had left the tunnel, and the fact that their dimly lit terminus wasn’t immediately recognisable seemed to cause no great concern. Save for a few whining children, they left the train quietly, still feeling a little groggy but glad to have been told that their baggage would be taken care of by porters. It took no more than ten or fifteen minutes of gentle but efficient shepherding to funnel a train-load of people from the quiet platform into a couple of covered passageways that lead directly onto the waiting cruise ship. No-one had yet missed the two recent recruits from carriage C, and over the next day or so they would choose to believe the well-crafted rumours about them that Phil would whisper into their ears.

But I have a copy of the surveillance files, all neatly cross-linked using voice pattern and keyword analysis, and with the individuals’ movements tracked using both gait and facial recognition software. So, I know the truth, or at least I know something closer to it, and now also do you: take care …

© R.J. Newport, October-December 2016.

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