It is seven-thirty in the morning and if I were to turn this railway platform on its end, I could stand here and watch the composite parts separate.
At the top of the test tube, bubbling and fizzing away, are the go-getters. Tieless, Americano-swilling achievers who have judged their platform position to perfection. The less of Edinburgh Waverley they have to walk the better. A yard, an inch lost to a competitor is unthinkable. Suspended mid-way down are the dinosaurs; those who know that you don’t get any thanks for going the extra mile. They are happy to turn up, grind down and get home on time. They are dour-faced and greyed; burned out by the caffeine and the targets and the performance reviews. Sunken in the depths of the beaker there are those least keen to get to their destination. Schoolkids leaning against pillars. Smoking, spitting, swearing.
Today though, there is someone underneath the murky mass of teen acne. Pressed against the cold, unyielding glass at the bottom of the test tube is me, Duncan. I’m standing where I am because this is where the train will hit hardest.
You’d think that Brexit would have been good news for loss adjustors, but it seems that we too must share the pain. So it’s really thanks to Vote Leave that I was taken into Paul’s office last week. Summoned with the kind of solemnity reserved for prisoners on death row.
Nothing personal, he said. Out of his hands, he said. Reality is reality, he said. A decision would likely be made in the next week, but it would probably be me or Alistair let go. Let go. As if I were a bird released from a drab cage. Bastard.
Alistair is at the top of the test tube; at the front of the platform. A full-bearded, open collared, I-pad toting genius. He’s the next generation; the real thing. He can do things on a laptop that leave me goggle-eyed. To add insult to injury, it is clear that the job of loss adjustor is just another strand in the rich tapestry that is Alistair’s life, threaded neatly between attending outdoor Shakespeare plays and boozy golfing weekends.
It’s not like that for me. Middle aged, I find that the job consumes me. I can barely muster the energy to shovel down a microwave meal every night before collapsing into bed. I’m played out and worn in. It’s not clear to me how I would introduce myself were it not for this job. That’s why I’m standing here at the end of the platform in my newest suit, shiny shoes that hurt my feet and carrying a briefcase.
Am I the only person since 1968 to carry a briefcase? Probably. In any case it’s necessary. I thought that I’d steal a march on Alistair and take some files home with me. Of course it’s strictly forbidden. The sort of documents we’re dealing with aren’t the kind that should be taken out of the office. Sensitive stuff, you see?
Not that it’s made any difference. Alistair still breezes in every morning, jacket slung over his shoulder. His hands glide over the keyboard whereas I am hunched over, single-finger typing like a man dabbing crumbs from a plate. He and Paul are frequently to be found laughing and back-slapping in the canteen where they trade insults and talk quarterly figures. Whenever I enter the room Paul’s face drops with the speed of someone who has suffered a massive stroke.
An express booms past. Christ that’s fast!
The teenagers to my left don’t even glance up. They are crowded around each other, faces buried in mobile phones instead of football cards as in my youth. Good luck to them, because this is it. By the time they go to college and get a job there will be the next bright young thing snapping at their heels, waiting to stand over their shoulder and speak in small, easily understandable words. The inevitability of it all! They might as well cut out the tuition fees and join me on the track now, leaving behind a pile of twisted dental braces and Walkman innards.
Perhaps that is rather melodramatic. Let them have their dreams of promotion, open-plan offices and unisex toilets. Let them cling to it. They may well have twenty years of happy struggling before reality hits home.
Another train screams past. The next one is mine.
I must sound mawkish, but I’m not here for anything theatrical. No heroic leap in front of a train for me. God no! One of the benefits of being in the middle is that you’re not trying to prove anything to anyone. The pity vote is certainly not beneath me.
I’ve figured it all out. Mostly, anyway. An injury at the railway platform. No one sacks a man who’s just been hit by a train do they? How can you fire a bloke so keen to get to his work that he tries to get on a train while it’s still moving? No one fires him, at least not until the wound has healed and that could take months. The financial situation might be quite different by then.
The only unresolved detail is the extent of the injury. It must be large enough to provoke pity but small enough to allow me to continue to work. A near miss clearly isn’t enough; YouTube footage of an idiot scrambling off the tracks moments before a train arrives simply reinforces the perception of me as a doddering antique.
Don’t want to overdo it either. No limbs. I come over queasy when I imagine a train slapping into me mid-calf, leaving a shiny black shoe dangling from a tendon like a stalk of celery not quite snapped. No wheelchairs. No wincing from co-workers.
I played around for a while with the idea of a glancing blow to the face, but is there such a thing? A glancing blow from a train? I really don’t have any reference point for what that might entail. I might look in the mirror afterwards and see a graze across the bridge of my nose. There might equally be eye sockets and a full set of teeth staring back. No. Too risky.
I’ve come to the conclusion that a toe is best. No one misses a toe do they? Climbers lose them all the time and that’s seen as heroic, as a badge of honour. It’s also a statement. A message that I can’t wait, simply can’t wait to get on that train to work. I’ve told myself that I might even be able to go into the office after it. What’s that Paul? My toe? Oh yeah, the tip got whipped off by the 0750 to Waverley today. No, I’ll go to A and E after work. I’m sorry Paul can we speak about this later, I’m facetiming a client. Thanks.
There is movement. Like snakes tasting prey on the air, the suits have sensed the arrival of our train. I step towards the tracks. The teenagers, too cool for school, haven’t shifted from their tight formation.
I stare down at my feet but not due to nerves. This is a calculation, and if there’s one thing I’m good at it’s calculation. Alistair might be smarter. He might be more instinctive. He’s sure as hell a lot slicker. But he’s not more thorough. When I say a file is finished it’s because I’ve gone over every calculation with a pencil and a calculator. Sometimes it pays to take your time.
Which is why there is a white, chalky line on the heel of my shoes measured exactly eight and a half inches from the toe. The distance between a Class 158 Scotrail train and the platform at which it arrives is eight inches. That’s the top of a big toe shaved off. Nothing more.
I glance along the track. Old and grizzled I might be but there is still something romantic about the sight of a train approaching a platform. It still says Orient Express to me. It says threading your way through Swiss mountains. Of course the reality is being pressed bodily into a beefy stranger as his stale coffee breath breaks across my face. Nevertheless a train drawing up is always welcome. It means advancement, moving on.
Except that this is not a Class 158 train.
What is it? A Scotrail, that’s for sure, but not the type that I’m used to. Why change? Why this morning? God, what if the dimensions are different? It looks like an older model as well. There’s probably rust on it. Have I had my tetanus booster? Lockjaw is not heroic, that’s for sure. It’s tough to sound like a smooth operator with your jawbones welded shut. IcunschtillcomeinPaulitschfinehoneshtly.
Should I abandon the attempt? Wait for a later train? No. Being late on decision day is not wise. I’ll have to risk it. After all, what’s an inch here or there?
A burst of giddy adrenaline rushes through me, bringing out beads of sweat on my fingertips. The train begins to slow as it approaches. My fist is aching as it grips the briefcase handle. I step towards the tracks. It feels like I need to force my foot over, shuffling it back and forth as though into a tight shoe. Finally my chalk line is at the platform edge. There is not a flicker of alarm from my fellow passengers-everyone is concerned only with themselves. I feel suddenly elated, as if released from the burden of choice. I close my eyes and wait.
The signs of success are immediate. A horn sounds, long and loud, in the morning air. A metallic shriek tells me that the brakes are on, but I know it’s too late.
For a moment it feels perfect; a clean amputation. There’s no pain.
As soon as the thought registers, my briefcase is torn from me with brutal, irresistible force. I turn to see it arcing high into the sky behind me, two halves flapping drunkenly in the air.
What trails behind it in the morning air are the ashes of my career. Gliding, sashaying down to the tracks below are clients’ names, confidential memos and company policy. My eyes follow them, wide with implication. For a moment I play with the fanciful idea of gathering the papers up. It’s a non-starter though. Sheets are cartwheeling merrily down the lines.
Not that anyone else on the platform seems interested. In fact, no one is looking at the tracks at all.
Suit, his mouth agape next to his phone. Schoolgirl, her blazer flapping in the breeze. Train driver, purpled face thrust out of his window. They are all looking at a spot on the platform where a student lays. He is prostrate, schoolbag jutting out awkwardly from beneath him. My briefcase is folded over his head; a black shroud with, helpfully for those unsure of whom to blame, my name marked into the base. There wasn’t a sound from him. It’s as though he has fallen asleep in the park underneath a newspaper. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t move and the scene is obscured as people rush towards him.
I glance down. I can see myself reflected in my polished shoe, heel to toe. The train door lies a whole twelve inches away from the platform, the doors having stopped safely, perversely opposite me. A different model. Attention to detail. Planning. These are my qualities. They are what I bring to the table.
Banner Image: Jaggery [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
12 thoughts on “A Life on Track by Matthew Richardson”
This is excellent. It had me hooked at ‘this is where the train hits hardest.’ I enjoyed feeling a combination of sympathy and disdain for the character. The descriptions were well measured.
This terrific story packed as much punch as the caffeine in my morning coffee! Keep them coming! Best wishes, June
Thanks June glad you liked it!
Perfectly fits the adage; Every meticulous plan falls apart at the first contact. (or something like that).
I enjoyed being privileged to the characters thoughts and thinking: how has it come to this? Clearly he is delusional in taking a negative spin on his situation. However, I thought it was the right ending for the story, although a disaster for our character’s employment prospects, which is perhaps much more painful than losing his toe, or foot or even his leg. Quite frankly he has done it again – another cock up.
I found the steady narrative pace helped to increase the tension as new pieces of information arose, and this style held my attention throughout- a good read.
This was well written, consistent throughout and some of your phrasing was brilliant.
A really good story that makes the reader consider!
I look forward to reading more.
All the very best my friend.
Really liked this Matthew. Gripping stuff. Think I recognise quite a few characters in this piece too, though not telling you which is most like me…Cheers
That’s what a person gets for too much self absorption. His life was his career. No mention of family or friends. Like James says, interesting to look in on his life from his perspective. For a loss adjustor, a pretty flawed plan, esp. when he’s carrying his briefcase with all the confidential papers. Ironic ending, an innocent young person – the kind he’s complaining about – becomes his victim.
This is brilliant, Matthew! Completely absorbing. As a former train commuter, I recognised every group, including my colleague and me distancing ourselves from our section head further up the platform. I was so invested in this poor man facing that dreaded interview (been there too). Some gorgeous description and elegant phrases throughout, and then the shocking turnaround at the end. Superb!
Just a quick note to say that I’m delighted to see this getting another showing.
I can’t believe it has been close to four years since we first saw this!
All the very best my friend.