06 June 2015

from The Case of the Gilded Fly, chapter 1, Prologue in Railway Trains (Edmund Crispin)

To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.   And travellers in general are divided into these two classes; the first apologetically haul down their luggage from the racks on to the seats, where it remains until the end of the journey, an encumbrance and a mass of sharp, unexpected edges; the second continue to stare gloomily out of the window at the waste of woods and fields into which, by some witless godling, the station has been inexplicably dumped, and at the lines of goods trucks from all parts of the country, assembled like the isle of lost ships of current myth, in the middle of a Sargasso Sea.  A persistent accompaniment of dark muttering and shouting, together with a brisk tearing of wood and metal reminiscent of early Walpurgis Night in a local cemetery, suggest to the more imaginative of the passengers that the engine is being dismantled and put together again.  The delay in Didcot station amounts as a rule to twenty minutes or more.

Then there are about three fausses sorties, involving a tremendous crashing and jolting of machinery which buffets the passengers into a state of abject submission.  With infinite reluctance, the cortège gets on the move at last, carrying its unhappy cargo in an extremely leisurely manner through the flat landscape.  There are quite a surprising number of wayside stations and halts before you arrive at Oxford, and it misses none of these, often lingering at them beyond all reason, since no one gets either in or out; but perhaps the guard has seen someone hurrying belatedly down the station road, or has observed a local inhabitant asleep in his corner and is reluctant to wake him; perhaps there is a cow on the line, or the signal is against us - investigation, however, proves that there is no cow, nor even any signal, pro or contra.

Towards Oxford matters become a little more cheerful, within sight of the canal, say, or Tom Tower.  An atmosphere of purposefulness begins to be felt; it requires the utmost strength of will to remain seated, and hatless, and coatless, with one's luggage still in the rack and one's ticket still in an inside pocket; and the more hopeful occupants are already clambering into the corridors.  But sure enough, the train stops just outside the station, the monolithic apparitions of a gas-works on one side, a cemetery on the other, by which the engine lingers with ghoulish insistence, emitting sporadic shrieks and groans of necrophilous delight.  A sense of wild, itching frustration sets in; there is Oxford, there, a few yards away, is the station, and here is the train, and passengers are not allowed to walk along the line, even if any of them had the initiative to do so; it is the whole torture of Tantalus in hell.  This interlude of memento mori, during which the railway company reminds the golden lads and girls in its charge of their inevitable coming to dust, goes on usually for about ten minutes, after which the train proceeds grudgingly into that station so aptly called by Max Beerbohm 'the last relic of the Middle Ages'.

But if any traveller imagines that this is the end, he is mistaken.  Upon arrival there, when even the most sceptical have begun to shift about, it is at once discovered that the train is not at a platform at all, but on one of the centre lines.  On either side, waiting friends and relations, balked at the eleventh hour of their re-union, rush hither and thither waving and uttering little cries, or stand with glum, anxious faces trying to catch a glimpse of those they are supposed to be meeting.  It is as if Charon's boat were to become inextricably marooned in the middle of the Styx, unable either to proceed towards the dead or to return to the living.  Meanwhile, internal shudderings of seismic magnitude occur which throw the passengers and their luggage into impotent shouting heaps on the floors of the corridors.  In a few moments, those on the station are surprised to see the train disappearing in the direction of Manchester, with a cloud of smoke and an evil smell.  In due time it returns backwards, and miraculously, the journey is over.

The passengers surge self-consciously through the ticket-barrier and disperse in search of taxis, which in wartime collect fares without regard of rank, age or precedence, but according to some strictly-adhered-to logic of their own.  They thin out and disappear into the warren of relics, memorials, churches, colleges, libraries, hotels, pubs, tailors and bookshops which is Oxford, the wiser looking for an immediate drink, the more obstinate battling through to their ultimate destination.  Of this agon there eventually remain only a solitary few who have got out to change, and who dawdle unhappily on the platform among the milk-cans.

1 comment:

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