The Parliamentary Trains


The photo above is entitled Night Train 2 by Joanna McCunn and is used in accordance to her Creative Commons licence.

For the past month, since finishing another set of revisions on Icarus Down, I’ve been between books.

That can be a hard period. Writing a book is rather like running a marathon. You’re in it for a long haul, so very focused on the finish line. You give of yourself day after day as the words come out, and then, suddenly, the race ends. It’s been shown that some marathon runners experience depression after races, as they wonder ‘now what?’ The period after finishing a book has also been likened to the post-partum period after giving birth to a child.

I’ve had other projects to occupy my time, but I’ve still been rattling around. I needed another book. I wanted to know what the next story to come out of me would be.

Then, earlier this week, something clicked.

The seed came from this idea that struck me two years ago, about phantom (but real) trains that were plying the tracks while most of us were asleep. What if our hero (or heroine) stumbled across them? What were they being used for? The answer surprised me, and led me to start writing. Before I realized what happened, I was 2000 words in.

It’s still extremely early days, and the material below is very close to a first draft, but here’s what I have:

Later, Victoria Redding would say that it was her high heeled shoes that saved her life.

She’d never worn them before. In fact, she’d never worn high heels before, other than that time years earlier when she’d secretly borrowed a pair from her mother to totter around the house in.

But, her mother said, it was the national mock parliament, and when would you ever get the chance again to make a good impression in such austere place? It was time to be proud, and show yourself off. After all, Victoria and her classmate Shelly had been the representatives hand picked from her school to attend. There was a trip by train into the big city. There were get-togethers with some of the most powerful people in the country. And there was an after party — the first big party her parents had said she could attend on her own. She needed to wear something special.

With help from friends, she’d settled on pumps, black, to go with a tasteful black skirt, black jacket and white blouse. Her mother had lent her a broach to go with the ensemble and called her a star, but Victoria was most impressed with her shoes. She liked how they made her calves look, and she was surprised at how comfortable they were to stand or walk in. They added to her height, and made her feel like a true adult, as she stood up on the front benches and give her speech on the Rights of Free People.

They were even comfortable at the after party, as she chatted with professors and fellow students, balancing hors d’oeuvres on a paper plate. They were comfortable even as she gabbled nervously when the Speaker of the House of Commons came over to shake her hand and compliment her on her speech. They were comfortable she walked out of the ballroom, onto the street, politely declining Shelly’s offer to spend more time on the town, and head to the train station.

What she didn’t realize, until she reached the station and realized that she had less than a minute to get to the platform in time for the last train, was how hard they would be to run in.

She tried. Her red ponytail flew behind her like a streamer as she dashed across the Great Hall, tripped and fell on her face. She got a few steps further before they betrayed her on the stairs. In frustration, she whisked off her shoes and charged up to the platform, her stocking feet slapping the tile, and then the concrete as she rushed for the nearest door of the train. She was just a few steps away when the doors closed.

She didn’t stop. She charged, shouting “wait!” and waving frantically during those first few seconds when she kept pace with and almost overtook the rear door, but then the train picked up speed. Even then she kept running, long after it was obvious she wasn’t going to make it. She didn’t stop until the train cleared the platform and ran out into the night.

She stood, doubled over, hands on her knees, breathing heavily, looking in the direction the train had gone. The red taillights faded into a single speck among the lamps of the city. Just above the horizon, the light from a shooting star flared, and was gone.

Victoria swore, kicked the ground, and remembered too late that she had her shoes in her hand.

She hopped to a bench and sat to massage her toe. She glared at the end of the platform, as though her stare alone could bring the train back. It didn’t. So, she caught her breath, and wondered what she was going to do next.

She was trapped in the big city, but she wasn’t helpless. She had her purse, and her cellphone. She could hail a cab, or even go to a hotel — though either would mean having to call her parents and explain what had happened. That was what she’d dreaded the most: her first big trip, alone, to the big city, and she’d messed it up. She knew her parents weren’t going to be angry with her, only disappointed. Which was worse.

But what choice did she have? She sighed, and pulled on her shoes.

“Missed your train?”

The voice made her look up. Across from her on the next platform, separated by a moat with two train tracks, was an older woman. Her dark hair was streaked with silver, and she was dressed smartly, with grey slacks and jacket over a white blouse. And she looked familiar.

“You’re—” she began.

The woman nodded. “I saw you at the mock parliament. You’re Victoria Redding. Excellent speech. The Speaker was very impressed.”

The compliment was as welcome as any other for Victoria, but maybe not just now in this time and place.

“My name’s Margaret Turner,” the woman added. “I doubt you’ve heard of me.”

Victoria hadn’t, but she didn’t say so.

“So, you missed your train?” Margaret said again, nodding in the direction the train had gone.

Victoria sighed. There was no use in denying it. “Yeah,” she said. Victoria Redding, front-bencher in the mock parliament, budding speech-writer, who couldn’t get to the train on time. “It’s stupid, really.” She pointed at her feet. “Shoes.”

Margaret Turner tilted her head and looked at Victoria a long moment. Victoria looked back, frowning. What was she looking at her like that for? As the silence stretched, Victoria decided the conversation was over, and she might as well phone her parents.

“Where were you headed?” Margaret added, as Victoria stood up.

“Newcastle,” she replied. She’d already admitted her foolishness, so she might as well admit how much distance was involved.

“I’m heading out that way,” Margaret replied. “Can I can offer you a lift?”

Victoria stopped, and turned back. She frowned at Margaret, but if Margaret was making a joke, she wasn’t laughing. “You can give me a ride?”

Margaret nodded. “The train’s due in five minutes.”

Wait a minute, she wasn’t talking about a car ride? She pointed in the direction her train had gone. “What are you talking about? That was the last train.”

Margaret gave her a wry smile. “That’s the good thing about this city. You miss one train, and there’s always another in a few minutes.”

“Nono.” Victoria pointed again. “That was the last train. And besides, you’re standing on the wrong platform.”

“The last commuter train,” Margaret replied. She beckoned. “Come on over. My train departs in—” She looked at her watch “—four minutes. It can get you to Newcastle before the last commuter train arrives.”

Victoria cocked her head and looked hard at Margaret. If this was some guy, she would have just walked away, and kept her hand on the can of mace her mother had stuffed in her purse in case the guy followed her. But this wasn’t some guy. This was a woman who was old enough to be her mother. And a stranger. Who seemed to know some way to Newcastle that Victoria didn’t. But there were no other trains tonight. She was sure of it. Were there? She looked around for the nearest map.

Margaret must have misinterpreted Victoria’s hesitation, because she added, “Don’t bother with the stairs, just hop the tracks.”

Victoria turned back. “You’re not supposed to cross the tracks.”

Margaret shrugged. “There are plenty of things you’re not supposed to do, that you do anyway because you need to. If you take the stairs, you won’t find your way here. If you want this ride, you’re going to have to cross the tracks. It’s perfectly safe right now. Look both ways; both tracks are clear. Just walk carefully, but come over now, or you’ll miss the train. And then you’ll be stuck.”

Victoria didn’t usually break the rules, but something inside her — a rebellious spirit or some instinct — urged her forward, so she found herself stepping forward, carefully stepping down onto the ballast, walking carefully on the ties so as not to trip on the rails. Margaret offered her mottled hand and helped her onto the platform.

“There, now, see?” said Margaret. “Perfectly safe.”

Back the way Victoria had come, past the platform she’d missed her train on, another line of double-decker cars pulled in and opened their doors. The westbound train, Victoria realized. Going completely the opposite direction from where she needed to go, but absolutely, positively the last train of the night, she was sure. If they weren’t boarding that, what were they waiting to board?

Margaret nodded down the tracks. “Here it is.”

Victoria heard the engine whine before she saw the engine. The blat of the horn pulled her attention to a single self-propelled car that was pulling up on their track. The headlights were dim. The lights inside were dim. And instead of the bright colours of the commuter train still boarding passengers two platforms over, the colours of this railcar were muted and dusty.

But the car pulled up in front of them, and stopped.

Victoria stared as the door pulled open and a porter came down the steps, carrying a step stool. “What the heck?”

“Express run,” Margaret said casually. “Not many people know about this train.” She stepped forward, motioning for Victoria to follow, and presented her ticket to the porter. “Two for Newcastle.”

The porter glanced at the ticket, then frowned. He looked over Margaret’s shoulder, straight at Victoria. Victoria wondered if he’d seen her cross the tracks illegally.

“She’s with me,” said Margaret.

The porter’s head whipped round at Margaret, astonished.

But Margaret held her ground. “Read the ticket. Margaret Turner, plus one.”

The porter stared a moment, and Victoria thought he wasn’t going to let them aboard. But finally he stepped aside. Margaret took the first step, then looked back. “Coming?”

Victoria hesitated. This was awkward. But then she thought about the hassle she’d have calling her parents to book a cab ride or a hotel room, and she followed Margaret aboard. She’d heard stories of ghost trains, but they were only stories. If somebody was trying to kidnap her, they were unlikely to do it by train. Still, she couldn’t quell the feeling of trepidation as she followed Margaret aboard.

The inside of the train car was like any other, with two sets of double seats lined up with the windows, but it looked older than the commuter trains Victoria was used to. The seat covers were fabric, their reds and browns faded. The curtains drawn across the windows were a dusty red.

The lights were dim. The car was half full, but quiet. Most of the passengers — all of whom were seated — were asleep, heads flopped against their headrests.

Margaret pointed. “There’s two empty seats. You want the window?”

The train lurched, then moved forward. The horn blatted again. Victoria eased herself into the window seat and looked out as the night-lit buildings of the city passed. Another streak of light crossed the sky, but Victoria hardly noticed. There were so many shooting stars these days.

Victoria heard Margaret settle in beside her and she looked away from the window. “Thank you for this,” she said. “How much do I owe you for the ticket?”

Margaret waved her hand airily. “Don’t worry about it.” Then she coughed and looked away. “I had an extra one. So, do you see a life for yourself in politics?”

Victoria blushed. She hadn’t expected this night to turn into an interview. “I… liked it — speaking before parliament. I care about these issues. But… let me finish high school, first, and then see what happens.”

“But you’re involved at school?”

“I belong to the school’s Organization for Women,” Victoria replied. “And I volunteer for Planned Parenthood.”

“Good for you,” said Margaret. “You believe these rights are worth fighting for.”

“All rights are,” said Victoria. “If we’re not free, what’s the point?”

“Indeed.” Margaret scratched her wrist. It looked like some nervous gesture. “I think that sometimes too many people forget that.”

Victoria was polite, but it had been a long day. She settled back into her seat, and let the train gently rock her. The lights of towns passed. She glanced at the car around her, at the people in the seats. All wore suits. All looked well to do. But the lights were dim and the woodwork was fading. She couldn’t even see the logo of the train company anywhere. She’d checked out the Internet to be sure of the times the trains left. How could she have missed this.

Newcastle was the first stop, and Margaret and Victoriawere the only ones to get off. They stepped off onto the secondary platform, and had to walk around the gap between a closed gate and a fence in order to get to the parking lot. Victoria checked the time on her cellphone. It was another five minutes before her train was due to arrive.

“Your parents picking you up here?” Margaret asked.

“Yes,” said Victoria. She started to say something more, but was interrupted when the railcar blatted its horn and pulled away. “Thank you,” she said, when the noise faded. “I’d have been really stuck without that trip. Why don’t they advertise it more? They’re losing business.”

Margaret shrugged. Then she looked at Victoria seriously. “It’s probably best if you don’t advertise this train too widely. Some people like to keep their secrets.” She gave her a smile. “I’m glad I could help, Ms. Redding. Have a good night.”

She walked off into the parking lot. There was the slam of a car door, the cough of an engine, then taillights pulled into the night. Victoria stared after them.

Behind Victoria, the train of double-decker cars pulled into the platform. And Victoria’s father pulled up in the car.

As I said, it’s still very early days. I’m debating with myself whether this story should be told in the third person (above) or in the first (from Victoria’s point of view). The scene itself may not even make it to the final draft (assuming I get that far), but I know enough about the tale, now, to push ahead, explore Victoria’s world, and discover what is about to happen.

At least, that’s what will happen, later. Something has come up, and I have another set of revisions for Icarus Down to do this month.

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