Charles Quackenbush stands at the far end of the platform, away from the crowds around the shelter at the platform steps; positioned well over the tactile paving and the yellow line.
“The train now approaching platform… one… is the… oh nine… oh four… service to… London Victoria… calling at… Herne Hill… Brixton… and… London Victoria.”
The rails begin to sing their high-pitched wail. Charles takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The rain rolls down his cheeks.
And the train pulls up, beside him, past him, coming to a stop twenty seconds later with Charles stood, eyes still closed, beside the final set of doors. The doors open, and the eyes open, and Charles doesn’t really have much choice but to step on board. He’ll just have to get off at the next stop and try again.
“Any unchecked tickets please,” comes an abrupt shout. “Good morning, sir, could I see your ticket, please?” Charles, of course, has not purchased a ticket. His intention had not been to go anywhere today. At least, not via Herne Hill. He pays the penalty fare and is given his ticket.
Charles steps off the train with the few dozen passengers changing to the Blackfriars line, and casually wonders across the platform as the Victoria train continues on its way. On the Blackfriars platform, the electronic display scrolls a long list of destinations for the train through to Bedford, the reflected lights creating a psychedelic show on a warped and battered advertising display case.
“I’m sorry to announce that the… oh nine… twelve… service to… Bedford… is delayed by approximately… nine… minutes.”
Two empty paper coffee cups are caught by the wind. They roll around in circles, catch on the corner and break dance through the eddies, colliding, bouncing violently apart, and hurl themselves from the platform edge. Charles sits on a cold metal bench and stares through the rain, across the track, over the scruffy scrub of the embankment, and out to the twin beige concrete tower blocks looming over them from across the road. “Open doors other side,” reads a helpful sign placed high on the chain-link fence between the tracks and bank.
“Open doors other side,” thinks Charles. The doors are open for the post-doc on the other side of the lab, whose experiments work, whose papers get published in Cell and Nature, whose smile charms committees and conference rooms. The doors were always open for the guy he lived with during his PhD, who, despite his obvious brilliance, never bothered looking for a post-doc position but within a year of graduating had already accumulated an MBA and a small but cool hi-tech company. Or his friends at Oxford — the lawyers and bankers; and his friends from school, who had travelled the world, published novels, and were already sending children of their own to the same school. And here was Charles, at the end of a second post-doc, penniless — personally and professionally — and not a datum that any sane person would want to publish. His career was over. They would make him take the walk of shame.
“I’m sorry to announce that the… oh nine… twelve… service to… Bedford… is delayed by approximately… seventeen… minutes.”
Charles sighs and sits back in the seat, folding his arms and tilting his head. And he sees it. The damp mouldy rope, hanging from the station canopy; one end tied securely around a beam, the other looped and slipknotted . Why? What purpose could such a thing serve? Charles stares at it for a few minutes, wondering how strong it might be. The estimated time of arrival on the electronic display revises itself. Charles hadn’t considered this method. Hadn’t done his research. It couldn’t be a bad way, though, could it?
Charles stands purposefully, steps up onto the bench and balances with one foot on the arm rest. He reaches out and grabs at the rope. A few of the fifty-or-so people on the platform notice the performance, and wander quietly and casually away, so as not to see the finale. Charles places the loop around his neck, takes a deep breath, and steps onto nothing. He swings forward, out over the coffee cups and cracked tactile paving and faded yellow line. The rope creaks, the beam cracks, and Charles falls, pursued by the station canopy onto the tracks, knocking his head on the lip of the platform and rolling onto the dead third rail. Somebody on the platform looks up from their newspaper and screams. A distant voice rings out,
“I’m sorry to announce that the… oh nine… twelve… service to… Bedford… has been cancelled.”
Charles lies on the track for a while, panting, while the stars fade. His eyes focus on a solitary white flower in the fence. Bind weed climbing the wire links. His phone rings, and he sits up with effort, loosening the rope that still hangs from his neck. There are some “yeses” and “of courses” and “thank yous” from Charles, and the occasional dizzy and vacant nod. An offer. Not science. Something about writing and publishing and online media; a startup doing something new, something interesting, perhaps. Not science, but an offer; an invitation to do the walk with purpose and a destination and his head held as high as a head could be. A fresh breeze blows down the tracks, drying his face. He nods to himself, and smiles.
Charles slowly rises to kneel, rubbing his neck and knees and brushing dirt from his damp clothes. He pulls himself up onto the crowded platform with some effort; the broken section of station canopy clattering after him. He stands there, staring blankly at the arrival of the oh-nine twenty-seven. Steps aboard, still lost in his thoughts, and squeezes himself in, with his feet awkwardly arranged around somebody’s briefcase, and his face shoved into the armpit of a Metro-reading old man. Then he snaps back into the world as lightning strikes a concrete tower and thunder cracks. The train slows. “Apologies for this delay, ladies and gentlemen. Due to a broken train at Farringdon we are being held in a queue outside Elephant and Castle.”
Charles takes a deep breath of armpit, turns around, and starts pounding on the doors.