I wrote this on the old incarnation of cotch dot net in 2008, before it became strictly for photography stuff, so I’m archiving it here. I wrote it after wasting several weeks attempting to engage with an avid reader of a specific online magazine.
This totally really happened to me. Exactly like this. In a dream that I had this morning.
I was raised in the hamlet of Frunchbridge Henklecombe, Gloucestershire, around ten miles north of the city of Bristol in the south west of England. Small, quiet, triangular in shape and agrarian in nature, the village lists as its distinguishing features an 18th century church tower and an impressive 16th century manor house. The unassuming tower could be mistaken for those in any other English village; the manor house, meanwhile, really is in another village, situated as it is, three miles away in the village of Plunk.
I can hardly call myself a Frunchbridgian after the years I have been away from the West country. But the village and I have never become entirely estranged, despite our first parting ways nearly forty five years ago. Indeed, my last visit but one was twelve years ago to the day.
At the last census, the population of the parish of Frunchbridge was put at four-hundred and eighty-six: just enough to sustain a halt for the stopping trains on the Bristol to Gloucester railway. The village itself is nestled under the scarp face of the Cotswold Hills, some half mile from the station, and, with a largely retired populace, few trains are actually called upon to stop here. Nevertheless, residents fiercely defend their right to stop a train at Frunchbridge should they one day wish to do so.
And so, at three in the afternoon of September 27, 1996, I found myself alone on the featureless down platform of Frunchbridge station, twenty-five minutes early for the stopping train to Bristol Temple Meads. The today of twelve years ago in Frunchbridge was, like the today of 2008 in London, a warm and sunny day with a hint of early autumn in the air. As I negotiate the station’s small green picket gate, the last of the seasonal arthropods form one last frantic cloud, while cows in a balding field tangle themselves in fence wire as they rip long grass from the cracked station platform, and the tall trees of the railway cutting rain a colourful rain through the dusty afternoon light.
As I settled down on the platform’s single bench (“to Derek, who loved to spot the trains”) to retrieve a Chelsea bun from my satchel, I noticed for the first time that a distant mechanical noise has begun to interrupt the still afternoon. For two minutes the sound grew slowly louder, hesitating once, but only for a few seconds; it was moving. It was no recreational aircraft, nor a farmer collecting the hay. The sound was like no rail locomotive, but clearly its source was the railway cutting.
From the shallow curve in the track came the sight of a quadbike. Astride the machine was a man, not seated, but arched over his handlebars as the bike effortlessly bounced along the sleepers, occasionally mounting a rail. The rider was perhaps in his late twenties, clean shaven , and with dreadlocks pushed back with a band. The colour and muscles in his arms betrayed a summer of hard work, the product of which was partly visible before me. For thequadbike pulls a long shallow trailer filled with rusting machinery and rotting wood, of no immediately obvious value to any man. It took a further two minutes for bike, man, and trailer to reach the platform, where he pulled up and killed the engine. Oblivious to my drooping jaw, he turned to me.
“Got the time, mate?”
It must have taken me some time to rediscover speech, for the man repeated his request, slower than before.
“Do you know what the time is?”
“Are you insane? What the hell are you doing driving that thing along the tracks man?” I exclaimed, choosing to ignore the opening question in favour of what I felt was the more pressing issue.
“‘s an ‘andy shortcut,” he shrugged. “Have you got the time?”
“A handy shortcut? You’ll get yourself killed, fool!”
His response to this was to blow some air. “What’re you talkin’ ’bout. It’s a damn lot safer than that road. Bloody farmers don’t look where they’re going, and those…”
“And trains? You know that the fast train comes through at three fifteen?” My own heart rate and blood pressure carried on rising in response to the man’s own complete calm.
“Oh, I see. Like that. Yer one of those Stephensonists. You shouldn’t believe all that rubbish, you know.”
For the second time, speech deserted me, and we stood staring at each other for another few seconds.
“Whatever,” he continued. You got that time?”
“Stephensonists? What a … what a ridic…”
“Whatever, mate. You believe in trains. That’s fine. You can spend yer days sittin’ on platforms if you like. Some of us don’t have time for that sort of stuff, but, hey, I’ll respect your right to do it.” He had reached for the ignition key before my wits returned again.
“You. Don’t. Believe. In trains? How can anybody not believe in trains? What a bizarre thing to say.”
“Oh. It’s quite simple, really. The evidence for their existence just ain’t there. Call me a train skeptic if you like.”
“Evidence not there!” I was spluttering like an idiot by this point.
“Have you ever seen a train?” He asked, still calm and straight faced.
“Of course I’ve seen a bloody train, you fool. Everybody has seen trains. Except, apparently, you. Everybody has taken a train, sat in a train, and been deposited, by trains, at point B, having departed point A.”
More air was blown. “An’ thirty-four percent of Americans have been abducted by Aliens. How sure are you that you have seen a train … ”
“I traveled on the train up here this morning. I am one-hundred percent entirely sure that I have seen a train.”
“… how sure can you be of your own senses? Have you ever questioned your own memory? It is notoriously easy to trick, memory is — with suggestion — you know. Especially with all the lies and deception that people use to spread the train myth.”
“Oh. Kay.” By now I was hooked. Clearly insane, the man must have invested quite some time in rationalising and refining this peculiar story. “So what you are proposing is a quite preposterously large conspiracy and mass delusion?”
“Oh, yeah. It sure is a huge industry, all right. Do you know just how much money these new private companies rip off from the taxpayer? How much their directors get in annual pay bonuses? Can you guess at how much goes back to the politicians in brown envelopes? There’s a huge interest in propagating the great train hoax, you know.
“It’s all part of the modern liberal preaching and moralising,” he continued. “Enemies of freedom can’t bear the fact that modern technology has given us personal liberty with the invention of the internal combustion engine and a highly developed road network. They would just love for our lives to run on track, and, if it weren’t for the diligence of we, the defenders of enlightenment values, they would already have their way. Their Luddite ideas would destroy our economy, our quality of life, and our freedom.
“And these poor passengers stand for it, and buy into the train myth to such an extent that they will convince themselves that they really have seen trains, been on trains, even. I tried taking a train once — before I found out, of course. I believed in trains too, believed that they were a good thing, and I was a good person for taking the train — after all, every newspaper, television advert, and man in the pub told me that was so. I stood on the platform at Cheltenham for thirty minutes with three dozen other people. Third day that I’d tried it, an’ all. Of course, the train never came. I watched my fellow travelers, and the pain that they were put through.
“And that’s when one of them asked what nobody had thought to ask. ‘Has anyone ever seen the eight forty-two?’ he asked. One person chucked nervously, others sighed and shook their heads in despair. And I was converted there and then by a train skeptic. ‘I heard that the company makes up the number of trains they own,’ he said. ‘Just invents rolling stock. The eight forty-two almost certainly doesn’t exist.’ And lo, when the train did not materialise, we were shuffled on to a conveniently waiting replacement bus service.”
His silence indicated that it was my turn to speak.
“What kind of man has never seen a train? The tracks weave all through this county, and every county. How is it possible in this age to not have seen a train? Where have you been? Just who are you?”
He seemed to have been waiting for this comment, or something like it, for his response was instant, and, while not rehearsed as such, I was given the impression that it had been said before.
“Oh, time to bring on the thinly veiled attacks, is it? I know the routine that you self-propellationists use. Can’t produce any real evidence for your claims, so attack the person who calls you out. Stifle debate by pretending that the issue is settled and that there is no controversy. If you gang up and shout loud enough, you think you can defend your ill-won territory as representatives of truth and morality. It’s alright, there’s nothing you can call me that I haven’t been called before. Insane, liar, denialist — those seem to be the popular ones.
“Yes, yes, you would be so stuck in your locomotive ways that your imagination would be unable to cope with somebody who sees the world from a different perspective, somebody who truly questions what they have been told, and is prepared to consider the heretical. I know that having your sincerely held beliefs challenged for the first time can be frightening. You’re bound to strike back, and attack the person who questions your beliefs.
“Who am I? I am a free-thinker, an old-fashioned liberal, and a true skeptic. Me mates call me ‘Spiked’.” He extended a hand to me. “Have you got the time? I think I’m late.”
A pulley creaked, points clicked, gates scraped a path through the mud as they closed of their own accord to halt the traffic on the deserted lane. A solitary rusty speaker on a solitary rusty lamp post let out a sharp screech and possessed itself a fruity male voice.
“Please stand clear of the platform edge. The train now approaching… platform one… does not stop here.”