The End of the Line
You have always been the gregarious type. You hate to be on your own even for an hour or two. So finding yourself alone on this station platform makes you uncomfortable, especially at a station that hardly deserves to be called one. There is a bench halfway along the platform on the other side of the track and, on this side, a shelter that would accommodate no more than half a dozen people, with a timetable on its wall. You were expecting something better at the end of the line.
When the next train came, you thought earlier, it would stay for some minutes before it departed again. If you did not wander off too far you would hear it approaching and have plenty of time to come back. You walked out through a gap in the rotting wooden fence and onto a deserted lane that ran beside the station. There were no cars parked outside. It must have been raining – the edges of the road were damp but most of its surface had dried in the cold wind. A film of desiccated mud colored the road reddish-brown, complementing the pallid winter grass along the verges. You saw no houses – not even in the distance. You looked back in the hope that there might be some that way, beyond the station, but there were none. All around, across the barren, brown countryside there was no sign of human presence. No buildings, no telephone lines, no electricity pylons, nothing.
After walking on for a few minutes, with the wind in your face, you came upon a gate into a birch wood beside the lane. You lifted the latch and went through.
A narrow path threaded between the silver-grey stems, most of them too thin and weak to be described as trunks. Not a vestige of a leaf clung to the twigs and branches. A few hundred metres into the wood you found a little pond. You stopped and stared into the tea-brown water. There were no fish. Nothing moved beneath the surface and the water was perfectly still. No insects skated on it or hovered over it. You heard no sounds – no distant traffic or planes, no barking dogs, no birdsong, no bees. There was not the faintest rustle of twigs or grass. The wind was blowing too steadily to set them oscillating.
The path led round the perimeter of the pond and you followed it. The soft soil deadened your footsteps and they did not break the silence. You thought you saw a movement at ground level among the distant trees. A rabbit, perhaps? But it was only your imagination – something created by your eye or your mind in an effort to bring a hint of life into the scene. As you completed the circuit of the pond you stopped and listened again. You could not even hear your own breathing or heartbeat.
Why did your progress along the path draw out no earthy smell? In a damp, birch forest, why were there no smells of fungi? The sky was that drab grey-brown that portends the approach of snow. Why was there no taste of snow in the air? You were cold but it was an inner cold – more an inner hopelessness. Your hands and feet, your bare head, felt nothing – neither cold nor warmth. Looking at the lifeless grass and trees, the bare earth of the path, the pond, the sky, all of them brown or grey, you felt as though you inhabited an old, sepia picture. With a shudder, you started walking again, along the path, into the lane, and towards the station.
The steady, cold wind was in your face. You had thought it was in your face when you went the other way. You turned round. The wind was still in your face. You turned this way and that. It did not matter. Whichever way you stood, you felt the same chilling stream of air in your eyes and against your cheeks.
That was when you quickened your pace and hurried back.
Now, as you stand on the platform, it occurs to you that although you have been hoping a train will come you do not know when one is due, or even if there will be another one today. What if the one you arrived on was the last and you had to face a night here by yourself? You go over to the timetable. It is not like any you have seen before. Under ‘Arrivals’ there is only one entry – 3.58 p.m. The time is marked with an asterisk. You refer to the bottom of the sheet, expecting it to read ‘Monday to Friday except bank holidays’, or something like that. Instead there is just a date – ‘17th February’. That is the date today.
You must get away. You look eagerly at the timetable. There is a heading ‘Departures’ but there are no entries under it. You ask yourself why you chose to come to this dismal place and realize you do not know – you do not immediately remember anything before you got on the train. Did you leave the car at the station? How long did you put on the ticket for the car park?
The journey – you do remember that. You had been the only passenger. The only person on the train – you had not even been visited by a ticket collector. Confused memories start to come back and with them feelings of regret, of lost opportunities, of gloom such as you have never known before. There is so much you did not do in your life; so much you should have done. There is so much you did in your life; so much you should not have done.
Standing on the platform behind the buffers you look along the line. In the distance it fades away. Not the shrinkage of perspective. Not the obscurity of mist or haze. It just fades.
You had expected something better at the end of the line.
lives in rural North Yorkshire. He grew up in South Derbyshire, where, he says, he had the good fortune to be taught by an enthusiastic and inspiring English teacher. In addition to his fiction writing, he is widely known for his articles about caving and his scientific writing.