Three Short Stories about the East Coast Main Line
Created on Sept. 2, 2016, 12:57 p.m.
I was sitting next to the East Coast Main Line in a small field between York and Peterborough when the woman appeared. Her arrival was completely unexpected - the only other people who had permit for this section of the line were my colleagues, railway engineers also working on the decommissioning.
Most people who worked for the railways had already been sacked. We were lucky to be kept on. A few of the electronic boxes that monitored the track needed their software wiped and hardware taken out and we'd been asked to do it as a final job before leaving.
I was assigned a part of the line that cut deep through the countryside. When I arrived all I could see for miles around were fields and mouldy wooden fences. It was mid winter and the air was clear - not a cloud in the sky. I knelt down at the first box. The ground was dry, solid, and there was a steady breeze over my shoulder.
It was enjoyable working outside in the fresh air. I normally worked from Newcastle train station - which was filthy in comparison. Although even that was quiet now the trains had stopped. Inside it's like a military bunker - large open spaces held up by angular concrete slabs. The emptiness has attracted a rather large homeless population. Wandering around the complex it isn't long before you find one curled up in a dirty corner and have to move him or her on.
Ninety percent of the homeless people are immigrants. They came all at once - the day Porter released their personal devices. In the transport industry we had already been hit hard a few years earlier when Porter released their freight transporters, but the personal devices were the thing that really destroyed our industry and any future prospects for myself and my friends.
At the time the Tory government were only interested in singing the praises of Porter. Every few days a fat southerner with a posh accept would appear on the news talking about the boost in productivity or the drop in commute times. Labour were no different - Porter was their baby too - it had put the UK back on the map and all but solved global warming in just a few months.
And then everything went totally fucked when a bunch of Vietnamese immigrants washed up dead on Whitburn Bay. They'd been sold porters on the black market with misconfigured permits. It was said their permits had appeared to have access to a hub in Sunderland but had actually targeted a point several miles out to sea. The images of their bodies, brown skin bloated under wet puffer jackets, had been all over the news for months. Suddenly the immigrants were the real victims.
A flock of geese flew over the railway in formation, honking loudly. I sat down for a quick break and got my phone out to fiddle with. Looking over the fields I had a strong impulse to text my ex-girlfriend. She had always talked about quiet places like this when she mentioned settling down. She said that in these places you had more space to think, more time to adjust and learn how to raise a family.
My father was also from the countryside. He was from Cumbria - a county I'd never visited. I'd seen a couple of my mum's old pictures of the two of them together but until the age of ten never actually met him. In the pictures he was tall with a beard and closely cropped hair, wearing skinny jeans and a lumberjack shirt. He stood with a slight hunch, his arm around my mother. They had split just before I was born (for reasons I still do not know) and my mother had raised me in Newcastle alone.
The only time I saw my father in the flesh was one Christmas day. He stepped through the door looking haggard and old, put his coat on the hanger, walked through to the kitchen, and spoke very little throughout Christmas dinner. After pudding he wished us all well, pickup his coat back off the hook, and left. Before Porter I guess that was the first time I really saw someone appear and disappear so quickly.
But now everyone is disappearing. Friends vanished from the pub after a night out, and the streets just a few meters away from work are completely deserted come 5PM. People disappear with the same bored expression they used waiting for the bus.
Seeing someone appear - now that is different. That is still quite rare. In most cases people only appear at Porter Hubs, safely hidden from view inside private cubicles. It is considered somewhat dangerous to appear randomly outside - who knows what could be there already.
At the railway decommissioning all of the electronic boxes took me a little longer than expected. By the time I was finished the sun was starting to set over the trees and I was exhausted from being on my knees all day. It was also getting properly cold - the wind was blowing a strong breeze across the fields. I packed up my toolbox and walked over to the embankment to sit down. I wasn't keen to port home just yet. I wanted to wait until the sun had set completely. It was while I was waiting that the woman appeared.
She appeared facing away from me, fumbling around with her phone. Looking up she scanned her surroundings, twisting around quickly and seeing me right away. She froze on the spot, staring directly at me. Slowly I pushed myself off the embankment with my arm out as if I were approaching a wild animal.
The woman was Asian. She looked a little younger than me, small, with long black hair down to her shoulders and a blue raincoat which was covered in small drops of water indicating it had been raining where she had ported from. On her back was a large purple camping rucksack and hanging over one arm was a brown handbag.
Something about the setting sun, my tiredness, and the way this woman had appeared and was looking at me created an overpowering feeling of panic and worry. In that moment all I wanted was to protect both myself and this woman from whatever was going to happen next. Through the eyes of this frightened woman a strange thought started to form in my head - a thought which at the time I felt was the only way to protect us both from any future harm.
I would approach this woman. I would persuade her to set up her tent in this exact field. I would port to my house and back to get my own camping gear, along with some food and drinks, and I would set up my own tent alongside hers. We would cook some food, drink some beer, and talk - I would persuade her that there was no need to move anywhere.
This field would become our new home - nestled away, miles from everything else - in a part of the world where nothing changes. We would be left to live together and that would protect us. Living in this field - that was the only way we would be able to remain completely protected from whatever was going to happen next.
But even as I was thinking this the woman was looking away and starting to wrestle with the buttons on her phone. She shouted something at me in Chinese or Vietnamese which obviously I couldn't understand.
I tried to shout back she had already ported away. The air she had occupied seemed to vibrate and shake in gloom. I sat back down on the embankment. The final edge of the sun was just starting to dip over the horizon and, before I could react, it was night.
I was standing in a small, muddy field next to the East Coast Main Line when I met the boy. It was a field I had seen many times from the train, located somewhere between York and Peterborough, but this was the first time I had actually stood in it. In my heart I had suspected something would happen in this field, but I had not imagined it would include this boy.
I'd seen many fields from the train, having worked for almost thirty years as a train driver, but most of the hundreds of miles of track passed by as an interchangeable green blur. I can't remember when I'd first noticed this particular field but for whatever reason I did, and once a place like that has been recognised it is almost impossible to forget. Every day as the train passed my brain would uncontrollable think "that's that field".
The field was on one of my favourite sections of the line, a part of the landscape which is almost completely deserted. The only things there are fields connected by old wooden fences and farm tracks. It always looked so peaceful and as we passed I often used to imagine myself lying in the center of the field just looking at the sky.
My retirement was coming up and a strange idea related to this field started to form in my head. I foolishly mentioned this idea to one of my younger colleagues and it spread around the whole staff. A number of people came up to me and said it would be a good thing to do for "a guy like me" - whatever that meant. The other staff started to make it clear they weren't going to let me back out of doing it.
So in the end I was forced to do it. I found the exact location of the field on a map, looked for a walking route to the nearest town and, on the last day of the job, packed my rucksack, and got into the cabin of a train heading south. I was going to be dropped off near the field I had seen so many times and walk from there into town. It was a kind of adventure to see off my days working for the railway. I felt apprehensive and, for the first time in years, excited.
It was winter, and sitting in the cabin as we slowly approached the field the heat and vibrations in cabin seemed amplified. I desperately wanted to turn to the driver and tell him to forget it but before I could do anything he was pushing me out of the cabin, and then the train had left me behind and accelerated out of sight.
Slowly I walked toward the field, clambering over the fence and walking into the dead center. It was just as I had imagined - a brisk, cold clear day - clouds moving quickly overhead - puddles glazed with ice - frost tracing the outlines of brown leaves. And it was quiet - so beautifully quiet. I wasn't a train driver any longer. Now I was an astronaut stepping foot on a new planet.
I started to think I could hear noises - like there was a kind of sniffing sound, or a swallowing noise and then - out of nowhere - there was a high pitched wail and a young boy burst from behind the trees and ran toward me in an awkwardly crouched position, his arms above his head as if he'd been caught in a shoot out.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Said the boy his red face and eyes watering.
He looked around ten or eleven years old. He had a closely cut head of hair, skinny arms, and white teeth that pushed out his gums.
"I know it was stupid," said the boy.
"I just want to go home now. Please! I don't want to be in trouble."
The boy's hands were clenching and unclenching, grasping at the cold air, and as I stepped forward he grabbed me around the waist. His shoes and trousers were covered in mud all the way up to the knees.
"I didn't know how to cross the train tracks. You're the police aren't you. I saw you getting off the train."
I wasn't sure how to reply. I wasn't the police - but I also wasn't a train driver any more, and even if I said I was - that wouldn't explain why I'd gotten off the train at the field.
"I'm just walking into town," I said. "Where do you live?"
"I'm running away from home - so I'm not going back," the boy replied.
"I'll take you into town - you can decide what to do after that."
The boy looked away but I started walking irregardless, looking back to see if he was following.
"My parents killed oscar," the boy said. "That's my dog. He was ill but I think he would have been okay. I just liked him - I don't really like any of the rest of them."
Ahead was a farm track which ran in a long steady slope up to a T-junction with a tarmacked road. Little streams of water ran down the muddy gullies either side of the path and the leaves in the hedges shook with the breeze. There was a rattling sound behind me. The boy, now following, was looking down at his feet, weaving across the road and bashing at the hedges with a stick he'd picked up.
"Where's your partner?" The boy asked.
There was an unavoidable twinge in my stomach. Partner? I wondered if he meant my police partner?
"I don't have a partner", I said. "Oh", said the boy. There was a short silence.
"I used to have one, but she died years ago."
"Oh", said the boy again, looking down and dragging his stick along the ground.
"I'm not really a policeman. I used to be a train driver. She died just after I started working for the railway. That was my only partner."
I could hear every one of the boy's footsteps squelching in the mud along the farm track.
"Oscar is my partner," said the boy.
A small farm building was now visible over the hedgerows - it was metal barn, attached to some kind of industrial tank, from which a thin plume of white smoke was rising. The structures appeared to be in the process of collapsing, holding each other up, the sun partially reflected in their rusty hulls. If one fell the other would be left there - an awkward diagonal silhouette cutting across the horizon, waiting for something to come and push it over.
There was another rattling sound. Now the boy had found a new game. He was dragging his stick along the little diverts and grooves created by water flows across the road, watching the stick swerve this way and that. He started running, pulling the stick faster and watching it bounce over the mud, settling into one path then jumping out and finding another. He ran past and out into the road ahead. When he was about 50 meters away he stopped and threw his stick high up in the air, looking upward and trying to catch it as it fell. The stick landed in the hedgerow, and a single, startled grouse clumsily flapped its way out of the undergrowth and into the air.
The boy reached the T-junction where the farm track became tarmacked road and turned around. I indicated to the boy to turn to the left. He spun 270 degrees balancing on his stick and started steadily marching down the road.
From behind I heard the gentle shaking of the air that signaled a car was approaching. The sound grew until eventually a black Volvo with one of the windows rolled down drove past. The car was slowing down and out of the window a bald head appeared and started shouting.
The boy up ahead froze on the spot. The car pulled up beside him and a man jumped out the car and grabbed the boy by the arm.
"Don't you ever do that again James," the man said and he bundled the boy into the car, accelerating quickly, rolling the window down again. The sound of the exhaust echoed around.
For a second I struggled to keep my balance, as if I had been physically tied to the car that had taken the boy away so quickly. I hoisted my rucksack back onto my back and steadied myself. Although I felt I should have been glad that the boy had been picked up again by his parents I could not help feeling a wave of sadness - at least now I would be able to complete the original walk I had planned over those last few days before my retirement.
Unconsciously I picked up my pace. All I could really think about now was getting into town. I forced myself to think about some other retirement plans. In my head I began drafting some articles I thought I might write for some kind of political blog.
I rehearsed these articles until I had made it back into town and had reached the pub I had booked a room for that evening. Inside the windows it was dark. A red carpet covered the floor, and spread over it were several wooden tables. Two old guys were sitting several stools apart at the bar. A middle aged woman with black hair was behind the bar, playing on her phone with one hand, while simultaneously washing glasses with the other.
I looked into the pub window for several minutes but some physical force stopped me from entering the doors. I shuffled my rucksack from shoulder to shoulder. After several minutes of peering into the window I turned around and walked to the edge of the town. I called a taxi to take me to Doncaster train station. When I arrived there was an hour to wait for the next train to Newcastle. I went into the toilets and I sat quietly until it was just a few minutes before the train would arrive. Then I went out onto the platform and boarded the next train that would take me back to my single bedroom flat.
You can't see the train line from our house, but on a quiet day you can just about hear it. From the garage I can often hear the gentle shake as the train goes by - a low rumble - the high frequencies all filtered out by the hedgerows of the surrounding fields. The train line and another farm house about a mile north are the only things anywhere near our house - the two lone signals that someone else might actually exist in this part of the countryside.
About a year ago I started taking daily walks to the nearby section of the railway - a part of the East Coast Main Line between York and Peterborough. In the morning I would leave the house, taking an old farm track to the adjacent field and just stand there. The distance was perfect for me because I am not in very good shape - a thing that is somewhat entailed by the fact that I spend most of my time indoors, don't have a job, a girlfriend, or even really any real-life friends.
I talk regularly to a few people online, but the only person I speak to in person is my father when I bump into him around the house. When I meet people face-to-face I am left with a feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong - that the conversation has somehow set some dreadful set of events into motion. Ironically, this walk to the train line was actually a thing my father had recommended to try and help some of these issues.
I spend most of my time in the garage working on electronics, building what I call "monitoring devices". One of my devices sits just outside the garage fixed to a nearby tree. It has an accelerometer on measures the trees movement throughout the day. Most days I go and download the data from it to study. I am not really interested in any serious analysis but I plot graphs to see how the data looks on the page. Collecting this is somehow therapeutic to me, somewhat like the impulse that makes me pause during the day and listen out when I know the train will be passing.
My daily walk to the train line inspired me to build another monitoring device - one to measure vibrations. I tightly duct taped it to one of the rails of the train line below the range of the train wheels.
I remember the first time I collected the data from this device. The wind was unusually strong and looking down at the path I could see frantic ripples being blown across the puddles. I pulled my hood up and put my headphones in but my music was distorted by the wind - with every large gust there would be a rushing sound, like someone sweeping a broom across a concrete floor. When I finally reached the railway I knelt down and connected a USB cable from my phone to the device.
Suddenly the music stopped, and the sound coming from my headphones was replaced by white noise. I unplugging my headphones and plugged them back in. A notification popped up.
"Now Playing - 5e42218984efe6362f7a93ac2de3ffca.raw by d7e3d3145cba195bf967ac2a5d52682a".
The music player must have interpreted the vibration data collected by the device as audio data and started automatically playing it. Ignoring the noise, I squatted down again, but the volume of the noise increased and then, audible through the noise, I started to hear a distorted voice. It was a high pitched voice - a woman's voice - speaking fast, in a kind of anxious, worried tone and it appeared to be saying my name.
In the background I could hear a repeated thumping noise like a train going over railway sleepers.
"Please... say something...", the voice said, followed by unintelligible mutterings.
Then the thumping stopped and there was a long section of quiet buzzing. Finally I heard the voice say one more thing, almost too quiet to hear.
"Is anyone there?"
And it was gone. I stood up and looked around. The wind clutched at my hood, pressing it into the side of my face. There was a "ding" on my phone to indicate the download of the data was complete. I closed the program and headed back home facing the mud as I walked.
On the walk I tried to rationally consider the voice I'd heard in the data. I imagined the trains rolling over the tracks, their schedule producing vibrations which were somehow amplifying, adding up, and interweaving until they produced the thing I had heard - that regular thumping sound and the voice. Something about this seemed possible - but it was too bizarre to be a complete coincidence. It must have been done on purpose - some train scheduler - a mathematician who had worked out they could produce some message by scheduling the trains at certain times - a little trick they had done to entertain themselves.
But the voice had mentioned my name directly, so it seemed the person must have known me, and although I could not remember the last time I had interacted with anyone of the opposite sex I felt sure I had somehow recognized the woman's voice.
Perhaps it was one of the girls who had gone to my secondary school - forgotten long ago - now a woman living several miles down the line. She could be interested in electronics too - found me on one of the electronics forums - attached her own device to the rails - a circuit with a tiny electromagnetic hammer programmed to hit the metal rails thousands of times a second, producing vibrations in the shape of pre-recorded audio waves I had heard. It was a message intended for me - that much was clear - it was a message only a person like me would have a chance of hearing. I saw a faceless woman hunched over the rails in a raincoat, hair poking out of her hood, long nimble fingers attaching her device to the rails, just as I had with mine.
So the next day I returned to the train line at the same exact time. I wanted to perform everything precisely as I had the day before to ensure the process repeated. I put on the same music I had been listening to previously and plugged the USB cable into the device at the same time. As before, my phone automatically stopped playing the music, and started playing the data from the device. Eventually the background thumping began, and then I again heard the sound of the woman's voice.
"Daniel..Daniel....", the voice said, followed by a large section of incomprehensible noise.
"Talk to me...please..", the voice said.
The thumping stopped and the noise died down. Then there was a period of quiet, followed by one more barely audible utterance.
"Is anyone there?"
Twice more I returned to the railway and each time I heard the voice. Always it said similar things - repeatedly saying my name - somehow asking me to talk to it - and finally, after some pause, saying it was alone.
The next time I returned to the device things changed. The wind had died down and it was warm with thick cloud cover. Flies swarmed around the puddles and the hedgerows. I walked down the path quickly and, waiting for the same exact moment as the days before, plugged my USB cable into the device.
White noise filled my head, and I turned to sit down. At first there was nothing different about this noise - it rippled and vibrated with the same intensity as the previous days - as if thousands of wires were being scraped around the inside of my skull. But as I sat and waited the noise didn't stop. Instead it grew, and a panic started to build that I would not hear the woman. Then as the volume of the noise peaked there was a click and the music player stopped.
I stood up and started walking home. The window of mud that passed under my feet seemed to slide past at a frantic speed.
I needed to build a hammering device like the one that was being used to communicate with me. I headed to the garage and quickly ordered several electrical components off the internet including an electromagnetic hammer and several transformers. I started a list of components I would need for the device, but each time I attempted to calculate which kind of capacitor I would need I was unable to concentrate. The whole thing was making me feel feverish and in the end I just sat there staring into space for several hours.
It was like the whole of my life had been building up to this task. It was a task that could not have been designed for anyone else - could not have happened to anyone else - and yet, just as it had been with exams at school, even though I was self taught with years of practice, somehow I was still going to fail it.
The problem was, although I knew enough about electronics, I was not a strong programmer and this device required a substantial amount of programming. I would have to write some code to do a bit of audio processing and this was way beyond my experience. I could learn it given time - but it would likely take me several weeks and I had no idea if the woman would still be there in that time.
I started with what I could - building the circuit board. Unable to wait for the components to arrive I started to salvage as many parts from other projects as I could - recklessly pulling apart weeks of soldering and laying out everything I could find in preparation for assembly. One thing I needed was an SD card - something to store the audio messages I intended to send. In the corner of my eye I spotted a circuit board hanging from the back wall of the garage. It was one of the first devices I'd ever built - a monitoring device that recorded the sounds of the garage - and the SD card that was meant to be inserted into a slot on the bottom was missing.
The SD card that should have been in the device on the wall monitoring the sounds of the garage was strapped to the bottom of the rails of the East Coast Main Line. I must have taken it out and forgotten all about it. The music player on my phone hadn't been playing back the vibrations of the railway line - it had been playing back recordings from the garage.
And I knew the source of the recordings. They were many years old, and it wasn't a woman's voice on the recordings. It was a male voice - mostly my father's. The frequency had been warped by the music player. It had played the recordings back faster, higher pitched, like a old record player spinning too fast.
I was immediately taken back to being a teenager, when I had often spent time in the garage. I would go in there and lock all the doors, sit in the corner, and switch off the lights. It was cooler than the other rooms. Smells of petrol and varnish would fill the volume - cold air would radiate up from the concrete below and, in the total darkness, I felt as if I were in outer space, sitting on the hull of some gigantic spacecraft. Staring into the blankness and tilting my head left or right would cause the reflective metallic cans and tools to glimmer in the light that seeped through the gaps in the door.
Each reflection was like a star, and its flicker encoded a hidden message from an alien civilisation intended for me to decipher. Everything - every light, sound and smell contained a message. I had always suspected this was the case, but in the dark garage, with every other distraction gone, it was finally clear that all of these messages were real and being produced exclusively for me.
If I could, I would steal a bottle of whisky from the spirits cabinet and take it in with me. This made the stars softer and brighter, and each message became deeper and longer. As I drunk the world drifted away until it felt like the wall behind me was several thousand light years away. Then, as the final stars drifted away, blurring into the darkness, I would start crying, because it meant that in my drunken state I knew no one was sending me messages anymore.
This was where the recordings I'd heard started. Whenever I did this my father would hear me crying and come to the door of the garage, banging on it and calling my name, demanding I talk to him but I would stay silent and eventually he would get tired and leave.
It was then, that on the recordings, there was the second voice - a voice that was not my father's and little more than a high pitched whisper - a minor vibration down a thousand miles of train track - passing through the universe unmonitored and undetected. This voice was my own voice, and standing alone in that windy field by the train tracks it had echoed back to me the question I could never seem to answer: "Is anyone there?"