Thursday, 29 October 2009

Out of Time - a story

Residents of London will easily dismiss my tale as something of, if not impossible, then implausible fantasy. But then it is unlikely that my story could possibly happen to a Londoner, since they would not have made the mistake that I made.
I have no doubt that residents of other parts of the country, and other parts of the world, would sympathise with me, and I appeal to those within the Capital to put yourselves in my situation for a moment.
Those who know London well would agree that it’s maze of backstreets are a very easy place in which to get lost. And it was within the back streets of the area of Gospel Oak that I found myself lost, two months ago now.
I had been visiting a friend who has just moved to the area and over wine and brandy we had been debating the recent election of BNP candidates into the European Parliament. I was despondent at this fact and couldn’t understand the hatred being stirred up against minorities within the country.
My friend however pointed out that the problem of overpopulation did indeed exist, but whereas the far-Right blamed the immigrants, it was really the incumbent politicians who should be to blame. Probably as a result of turning this argument over in my mind I took a wrong turning on my way to Chalk Farm and found myself standing outside Kentish Town West station instead.
To my disappointment I could not get to Euston from here, but a map showed me that Camden Town station was not far away. And at the junction of Kentish Town Road and Castle Road I thought that I had found it.
Once again I ask you to see things from my situation. I was slightly panicked at the thought of not making my train, the confusing streets in the darkness of the evening and then the reassuring sight of the red tiles so common to the outsides of London Underground stations. This much at least I knew.
But how was I to know that this station had been closed for more than eighty years? Those who see it in daylight, as I did today before setting my story down, will see the window of a Cash Converters, with its cheap electrical goods on display. But on this particular night all I saw was the invitingly open entrance to an Underground station.
I hurried inside and since the lifts were out of order, I took the spiral staircase down to the platform. I was alone there and sat on the wooden seat in order to wait. For the first time my suspicion was aroused, but only very slightly and momentarily, by the lack of a sign displaying the time to the next train. But the platform itself being a little old fashioned, I dismissed this as nothing more than for aesthetic reasons.
I was relieved that I didn’t have to wait long for a train. As I took a seat, I immediately realised that something was unusual with the attire of my fellow passengers. Every single one of them was dressed in Edwardian clothing. At first I thought that they were all going to or coming back from a fancy dress party. But their clothes seemed too well fitting and too natural to have been on hire.
‘So what do you think of this Frenchman?’
The middle-aged woman two seats to my right had spoken, but as far as I could tell, to no one in particular. She had a London voice, but I was unable to tell from which part.
‘It’s shocking it is. That’s what I think’, she continued. ‘When you think that an English newspaper puts up the prize and then we don’t even have an entrant. And then for it to go to a Frenchman of all people’.
I began wracking my brains for the Frenchman that she could possibly be talking about. My mind churned through various subjects from sport to literature and music to art, but I could come up with nothing.
‘And with this entente cordial we’re all supposed to like the French now. Well I still don’t trust ‘em. And I don’t trust ‘im’.
I remained silent with the rest of the carriage. They all seemed to be ignoring her and that gave me confidence. Perhaps they knew as much about what she was talking about as I did. But then she turned to me.
‘What’s your view of the Frenchman?’ she asked.
My first reaction was that it would be less harmful if I did not to reply. I would be embarrassing the woman by declaring that I did not know of the mysterious Frenchman that she was talking about. But her eyes were insistent. And I now realised that several other pairs of eyes were now staring at me, probably in hope that I might be able to shed light on her comments.
‘I’m afraid I haven’t seen today’s news’, I replied honestly.
It was half question and half exclamation. I began to notice a certain suspicion creep into the eyes of those around me. I wasn’t sure whether to say more or to keep quiet. After all I would be getting off at Euston which I had calculated to be only one stop from Camden Town.
‘Where ‘ave you been son?’ The woman declared. ‘Or ain’t the news reached your part of the country yet? It’s only been two weeks I s’pose!’
She laughed at her own joke. She obviously had as much regard for those living outside the city as she did for those across the channel.
‘I’m talking about Bleriot!’
Bleriot! What on Earth was she talking about?
‘But Bleriot...’ I began.
As I had begun to speak, a strange fear and sense of things not being quite right came upon me. Of course I knew all about Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across a body of water. But this feat had taken place in 1909, a full hundred years ago. And yet this woman spoke as if it had only just happened.
Things began to fall into place at this realisation. The slightly old fashioned looking station without its electric sign and the carriage full of people in period costume all belonged to the same time period as Bleriot’s flight. But that time was not my time.
And at this moment it occurred to me, despite my slight inebriation, that I was sitting amongst a group of people consisting entirely of phantoms. These people were dead, had passed away some time ago, and yet here they were playing out an event from a hundred years ago.
A chill ran up my spine. My first instinct was absolute terror, but then a sense of calm self-preservation came over me. But what could I do? For the moment I decided that the best course of action would be to play along with the conversation.
‘Oh Bleriot! I think he’s marvellous.’
‘But he’s...he’s French!’
‘Also a wonderful aviator’, I replied.
I thought I caught a couple of smiles break out upon the faces of other passengers. With my confidence renewed, despite the fact that I was speaking with the dead, I continued:
‘He’s carried out a wonderful feat, which will benefit all of mankind. And it doesn’t matter if he’s French, or not. We’re all part of the same Europe; England, France, Germany. And at least he’s not American.’
‘We’re nothing like the Germans’, the woman replied with venom. ‘But yes. French is better than American. I still don’t trust ‘im though.’
I remembered that the Europe of 1909 was drastically different to that of 2009 and that I should have been more careful. Some sentiments didn’t seem to have changed however. I was relieved that I was yet to be discovered.
One thing that was concerning me was that we were yet to reach Euston. It felt as if I had been on the train for at least five minutes, and that seemed rather a long time for one stop.
‘When should we reach Euston?’ I ventured.
‘Euston!’ The woman cried. ‘What’re you talking about?’
‘The next stop’, I replied.
‘This train don’t stop’.
‘Doesn’t stop? What do you mean?’
My new found relief had been short-lived and my terror returned in greater strength.
‘Where could it stop? It don’t exist. We don’t exist. We’re all dead!’
As she pronounced this she emitted a cackle of laughter. I felt my heart beating faster and sweat was beading on my forehead. I looked quickly at my fellow passengers. They were all staring forward. They seemed unaware or uninterested in our conversation.
‘But I’m not...I’m not dead.’
‘Aren’t you?’
From the way she spoke and the way she looked at me, I began to wonder. Was I still alive? Or had I indeed died? Had some incident taken place between my friend’s house and the station?’
‘No. You’re not’, the woman agreed.
I wasn’t sure whether to feel relief at this or not. I might be alive, but I was still surrounded by the dead.
‘So, ‘ow did you get on ‘ere then?’
‘I honestly have no idea. All I want is to get to Euston in time for my train home.’
‘Hmm. I’m sure ya do.’
‘Can you help me?’ I pleaded.
The question sounded stupid as I asked it but what else could I do?
‘Well. Answer me something.’
‘Is all this messing about with flying really worth it? Does it achieve anything?’
I considered this carefully for a moment.
‘It does make the world a smaller place’, I replied. ‘In a hundred years from your time, people will be able to travel to the other side of the world in a day. It gives us a greater opportunity to see how we all live and to realise that, deep down, we are all the same. In that sense, it must be worth it.’
‘Hmm.’ she replied, unconvinced. ‘Well. I still don’t trust that Frenchman.’
My mind scrambled as I tried to think of something further to say, but the woman continued.
‘I’m not sure I like all that understanding one another. But I s’pose it’s what you’re used to. You’d better go back.’
As she spoke those final words I detected a slight change in the view around me, like the transition between photographs on a computer slideshow. The Edwardian train vanished slowly, and in its place appeared a crowded twenty-first century train.
I hadn’t told the woman everything. She wouldn’t understand cheap flights that took people to sunny locations every few hours for one thing. And of course the concept of a carriage full of people from all parts of the world, I noted wryly as I looked around me. But for all its current social, political and religious unrest and intolerance, this was my world, and for that at least I was grateful to have returned.

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