RETURN TICKETS ARE NOT VALID ON THIS ROUTE
Copyright 2008, Sarah Hartwell

Paddington Station, London a wide concourse, vaulted roof and plasma screens that overheated in summer. The trains were destined for Taunton, Truro, Yatton, Bristol Templemeads, Bedwyn, Hereford and other destinations along the way to the south west. I'd travelled some of the routes regularly - Reading, Didcot Parkway, Swindon, Chippenham, Bath Spa, Bristol and then there were the stations closer to Paddington - Iver, Langley, Slough and Burnham familiar from my childhood. I showed my ticket to a member of staff (the plasma screens being out of order again) and was directed to a platform.

I settled down in the carriage, plugged in my MP3 player and opened a paperback, intending to read, but the constant chug-chug-chug quickly made me doze. Was it just a few minutes? An hour? Longer? My bladder wasn't complaining so it could only have been a short while, but the carriage was empty. Even in sleep I would have felt the train stopping and starting at stations. My fellow passengers must have moved to other carriages or gone in search of the buffet car or toilets. Odd that all of them should have left the carriage though.

Outside was grey and rainy. A blustery wind dashed raindrops against the train windows where they drizzled down, distorting the view of trees and roads outside. Had I missed the views of the Thames basin with its canal-boats? Had we already passed Reading or the stacks of Didcot's power station and the signs for its rail museum? We were already out into rolling countryside. I gazed out aimlessly. To my right, the train was passing a lake, but I didn't remember a lake from my last trip to Bristol. Floods then, caused by the constant rain, either that or I'd boarded the wrong train. The waters were a steel-grey colour, pitted by the battering rain.

I checked the LED display above the aisle. What was the next stop? Irritatingly the display wasn't working; no reassuring march of orange dots forming station names to tell me which stations were still ahead. I decided I needed a coffee and maybe a baguette. The buffet car was at the rear of the train, or so the boarding announcements had said.

The train rattled through a tunnel underneath a road and back out into grey light and rain. Perhaps the rain had caused localised flooding. Knowing my luck, the train would grind to halt due to flooded tracks.

Putting my MP3 player away and leaving my book and plastic shopping bag on my seat (there were no other passengers in the carriage so I figured it would be safe there) I stood up, stretched and headed to the rear of the carriage and the empty luggage racks. The automatic doors whooshed open for me. In the utility space at the end of the carriage, the toilet was vacant. I stepped over the ridged rubber between carriages. The automatic doors whooshed open for me and I stepped into the next carriage. It was also empty.

The sky outside was turning an ominous shade of grey as though dusk or a thunderstorm were looming. The waters on one side of the train were being whipped up by squalls and droplets battered the side of the train along with the rain. We thundered through another tunnel, quite a long one, going through a hillside. Surely not Brunel's Box Hill Tunnel already? But no, the scenery on either side was unchanged hillsides and a lake, or wide river, or flooded fields or whatever it was.

I couldn't recall how many carriages I'd walked past before boarding the train, but on the way to the buffet car I passed through three or four identically empty carriages (including the quiet carriage where mobile phones and personal music players had to be switched off) and identically vacant toilets. Finally I reached the area reserved for bicycles, large luggage items and wheelchair users and the buffet area (catering by Sodexho). The servery shutters were pulled down and there was no smell of coffee, bacon or hot bread. I hadn't heard a "last orders" announcement and it looked as though the buffet had never been open.

I peered through the window opposite the closed servery. The sky was dark now. There were no twinkling lights of houses nestled among the hills, no headlights or taillights along country roads. I took the chance of pulling down the window in the door (which in these trains is possible and necessary since the door opening mechanism is a handle on the outside) and peered out. Rain battered into my face and I could see front of the train, carriage windows blazing with light, curving gently before the lights were lost in the rain and the spray from the wheels. I closed the window just before the train blasted its horn and thundered into another tunnel, though the tunnel now seemed no darker than the sky.

Where was the guard? Sometimes the guard had a cubicle at the back of a train. I'd seen no ticket inspector either. How many carriages were there beyond the buffet car "situated towards the read of the train". It was "towards the rear" not "at the rear". I dried my face on tissue from the train toilet cubicle and walked into the next empty carriage, and then into First Class.

That was odd. First Class was normally at the front of the train so the passengers could get off (or de-train as the railways liked to call it) and be on their way out of the station before the Standard Class passengers. This only worked if the station exit aligned with the First Class carriage, which wasn't often. I decided it was at the back because this was the front of the train when it pulled into Paddington.

On the backs of the seats were anti-macassars even though no-one used macassar oil these days and few people used Brylcreem. If anything, anti-macassars were more needed in Standard Class where passengers had their hair spiked, set or rendered wet-look by hair gel and left greasy smears on the backs of seats. Except on this train of course as there were no other passengers with hair gel or without. I sat down in one of the wide First Class seats. Knowing my luck, if there was a guard or ticket inspector he'd turn up now and move me out of the empty First Class carriage and back into Standard Class. After 20 minutes, during which only the difference in sound told me whether we were in a tunnel or the open air, I got bored of waiting for the inspector to turn up with his threats of penalty fares. If my previous reasoning that First Class was at the front of the train when it was London-bound was correct, the next car should be an Intercity 125 locomotive unit. There would be no door at the end of this carriage, just a grey metal wall.

But there was. The door whooshed open and shut for me into another end-of-car utility area with toilets and doors and ridged rubber leading into another Standard Class carriage. I peered out of the window, but in the darkness I saw nothing but my own perplexed reflection and the reflected interior of the empty train carriage.

Frustrated now, I marched to the end of the carriage, determined to reach the end of this ghost train. Two, three carriages more and finally I saw signs of a passenger. There on the seat was a book and a carrier bag. A vague memory nagged at me, but the thought of another passenger on the train overrode it. Perhaps they too had gone off in search of the guard or a light snack. Perhaps they were in one of the toilets whose doors I hadn't checked to see if they were vacant. If I kept on walking I'd catch up with them.

And so I did. Kept walking back through the empty, soulless carriages, checking toilets until I reached a closed servery that seemed familiar. Two buffet cars on a train? I broke into a jog, traversing the First Class carriage and more empty Standard Class carriages. There, on a seat, as I now expected it to be, was a familiar looking book and a carrier bag. The train thundered through another tunnel, only distinguishable by the change in sound. Ahead, the sky was growing lighter and I began to discern open fields and hills and a wide body of water.

I walked to the end of the carriage and pulled down the window in the door. Straining my eyes, I thought I could see a line of lights in the far distance across the water. A town? A road already busy? To the left of me, the train gently curved around the water. To the right of me the train also curved. However many carriages I walked through without changing direction, I passed the same empty servery and my own seat.

This wasn't the Paddington train or the Bristol train or a train to any of the mysterious departure-board destinations I'd never visited. It wasn't a night train or day return . It was an endless, circular, locomotive limbo. As that realisation dawned on me, there was the sound of someone behind me clearing their throat and then a voice asked "Tickets please."

The ticket inspector stood in the utility area. Where had he been hiding these last few hours? He was thin and hollow-cheeked with dull eyes as though he'd been on here a lot longer than I had. His name badge said C Boatman below the First Great Western logo. I rummaged in my handbag and handed him my ticket.

He squinted at it and cleared his throat again. "This ticket isn't valid for this route - you'll have to pay a penalty fare," he said, his fingers stroking his portable ticket machine.

Something nagged at the back of my mind telling me not to pay this fare to Mr Boatman.

"This train isn't going anywhere," I protested, "I'm not paying a penalty fare for a train that doesn't have a destination."

"Your ticket isn't valid you have to pay the penalty fare," he insisted.

"I'll pay it when we arrive at the destination," I insisted. I had the feeling that if I paid the price now, I'd go round in circles forever.

He smiled sadly and turned away as if expecting this refusal, "You'd better take your seat then, we're almost full this evening."

Outside, the landscape had changed. The train chugged through a blasted landscape of bare hills and black skeletal trees. The light was grey and flat, casting no shadows. The rain had stopped and a layer of ash coated everything, flakes of it still falling. At first I thought it was snow, but an acrid smoky smell permeated the area. The ever-present lake was no longer steely-grey, but was black with rainbow smears of floating oil on the restless surface.

Looking past C Boatman into the carriage I saw that every seat was occupied: men, women, children; some obviously travelling on their own and others in groups or families. There were University students with rucksacks; businessmen in suits and parents hugging small children close to them. All had bewildered expressions. The orange LEDs of the destination screen flickered as the journey details scrolled across it:

This is the train for Hades, calling at All-Souls, Limbo, Purgatory, Underworld Central, Hades Parkway and Hades. The next station will be Hades. Return tickets are not valid on this route.

"Police and railway officials are investigating a major incident on a train just outside Reading. According to early reports fire ripped through several carriages following the derailment of the rear section of the train. There are no reports regarding the number of casualties, but emergency services say they do not expect to find survivors in the derailed carriages. Eye witnesses reported seeing an explosion on the track underneath the train before it was derailed. An emergency number has been set up for relatives. First Great Western say tickets between Paddington and Reading will be valid on alternative services and operators and there will be rail replacement bus services for passengers travelling beyond Reading. Passengers using affected routes can expect delays of at least an hour on their journey times.

We join Stuart Wilson at the scene ."

DRAGONQUEEN'S LAIR

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