As he moved slowly down the carriages from passenger to passenger, examining and punching tickets right and left of the aisle, the ticket inspector espied a very pretty blonde woman sitting towards the front of Coach D, in seat 21. She was deeply engrossed in her book as he approached her seat, her warm brown eyes moving across the page right before flitting left to the beginning of the next line, her golden hair spread fan-like across her shoulders. She was in her own world and oblivious of his slow approach down the aisle.
“Tickets, please! Tickets, please!”
On hearing him, the young woman launched herself back into the real world with a start, looked up at the inspector and shot him a gorgeous warm smile.
“Sorry, I didn’t even see you coming,” she laughed, and, putting her book page-down across her slender lap, reached to her right and proffered her ticket from where she had left it on the empty window seat to her right.
“Here you are”, she said and smiled up at the ticket inspector again, another seductively warm smile. “A single to Whittleford.”
“No problem, pet, you were deep in your book, I could see that.” He smiled back reassuringly. “That’s fine,” he said after examining and punching her ticket. “Thanks, love.”
He moved on to the next passengers, occasionally glancing back at the pretty blond head which had returned its gaze to the book. “What a lovely girl,” he thought to himself. “Not seen her on this route before.”
He moved on down the train, examining and punching as he went, but was forced to stop when the train entered the first of the two tunnels on the route and the lights failed to come on. Ordinarily they should have come on automatically as soon as the sensors picked up the sudden imposition of darkness, but there must have been some fault, which he would have to report at the end of the journey.
When he had examined and punched the final passenger’s ticket in the last carriage, he took a seat there and waited till the train pulled into Whittleford. This was the last stop on the line, and so he took his time checking his schedule sheet for the rest of that day before alighting from the train and making his way to the stationmaster’s office to fill out the report about the lights. Meanwhile, the cleaner had busied herself around him before she had got off the train ahead of its return journey back up the line.
* * *
The following morning, on the same service, he saw the same pretty young woman again, in the same carriage and – he was almost certain – in the same seat.
Again, the woman was totally absorbed in her novel and looked up with a start, followed by the same warm smile, her eyes wide and face beaming with youthful beauty.
“Morning, love, ticket please!” he smiled at her.
Once again, she laid her book page-down across her skirt, stretched out her slender right hand, took the ticket from the empty window seat to her right, and held it up for inspection. “A single to Whittleford,” she pronounced, her friendly countenance looking up at him.
“That’s fine, love,” he replied, handing the now-punched ticket back to her, and moved on, a smile on his lips. “She must be going to be a regular on this service,” he thought. “At least it will brighten my mornings up a bit to see this pretty young thing.”
Then, to his annoyance, further down the train, he was once again forced to wait while the train made its way through the second tunnel, the lights having failed yet again to come on when the train entered the tunnel.
“Damn those engineers,” he muttered to himself, “what is the point of putting in a report if they don’t fix the problem?” He would now have to go through the whole same bureaucratic process again when they got to the end of the line at Whittleford: a form filled out in triplicate and then faxed from the stationmaster’s office to the engineering works where the train would then have to be taken at the end of the day’s runs to be repaired and checked before the first run of the next day. A total pain.
There were fewer passengers on this morning’s service, for some reason, so he had checked the last passenger’s ticket well before the train pulled into Whittleford, so, rather than sit in the final carriage to await the train’s destination, he made his way back up the train with his schedule sheet, which he kept in a lockable cubbyhole in the last carriage, to be in the front when it pulled in, which would allow him to go straight into the stationmaster’s office and get the blessed paperwork done again.
The train emerged from the tunnel, like a bullet leaving a gun barrel into the light. As he pulled open the sliding door which would let him pass from carriage E to carriage D, he suddenly became aware of a loud sobbing – no, it was almost a wail of pain at times – and was shocked to see the pretty young woman in seat 21, with her book lying face-down on the floor, clutching her body around the chest with both arms, crying intensely. The seven or so other passengers in the carriage were looking around at her, clearly as embarrassed as many people would feel at her unexpected public display of emotion.
“You all right, love?” the ticket inspector asked nervously, not at all sure what the problem might be. “You all right?”
The young woman’s body continued to be wracked with sobs and increasingly lower cries, as if she were in pain.
“Love? Are you all right?”
He received no answer and, not knowing what to do, put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Calm down, love, it’s not the end of the world, whatever it is.”
He glanced around at the other passengers, most of whom had returned to their newspapers or laptops, now that the inspector had come to take the matter in hand.
“Look, love, we are almost there now – why don’t you have a nice cuppa in the station café when you get there, that’ll make you feel better.”
Sensing that he had done little to help her, he had no choice but reluctantly to leave the young woman, who was still sobbing and hugging her upper body tightly. He moved further up towards the front of the train, raising a despairing eyebrow and shrugging at any passengers who glanced up at him in commiseration.
When the train finally reached Whittleford, he was almost the first off and was about to open the stationmaster’s door, when he stopped himself. He turned to his left, marched quickly down the platform, nodded to his ticket-collecting colleague at the exit and glanced in through the station café door, but it was empty, apart from two little old ladies sitting with tea and biscuits in the one corner. He turned and looked out through the concourse, across which passengers from his train were making their ways to their ultimate destination, but there was no sign of the young woman.
He shook his head and, deciding to put the woman out of his mind, walked back to the stationmaster’s office, where the stationmaster was thanking someone who then turned and left. “Someone handing a book in – they found it on the train.” He held up the book, its jacket cover badly torn. “Not often you get honest people doing that, most people would keep it for themselves. What a world we live in, eh? Mind you, to be fair to people, it’s the second one I’ve had in two days: the cleaner handed me in a book she found on your train yesterday and then this chap has handed in another one today. Weirdest thing, though, they were both exactly the same title, I just noticed, some romance or other called, what was it now? Er… yes, As Far As It Goes. That was it! Who reads that sort of rubbish, eh?”
The ticket inspector smiled at the stationmaster’s supercilious comments about people’s literary tastes, strode to the filing cabinet and, for the second time in twenty-four hours, took out the “Train Defect Report” form, placed carbon paper between the three sheets and started to write.
* * *
The following morning, as he moved down his train, he was more than a little disconcerted to see the same pretty young woman, dressed today in a summery yellow frock, sitting in the same carriage and – he was absolutely certain this time – in the very same seat, her nose in her book. He glanced at her pretty form repeatedly as he moved down the train, examining and punching as he went, before finally arriving at her seat.
“Tickets, please, love,” he said.
Surprised, she looked up at him and a smile spread once again across her lovely face.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you coming,” she said, before placing her book down across her lap and picking her ticket up from the seat to her right where she had placed it. “A single to Whittleford.”
“You feeling better today, love?” he asked as he examined her ticket.
“Sorry?” She looked at him quizzically.
“You better today?”
“Er… yes, I am fine,” she said hesitantly, a frown across her brow.
“Glad to hear that, then,” he smiled as he handed the ticket back to her before moving on down the carriage. He glanced back at her a couple of times and could see that she had returned to reading her book.
Further down the train he had just examined and punched the last ticket in the penultimate carriage when the train plunged into the first tunnel again and – he simply could not believe this – yet again the lights failed to come on. Blow those damned engineers, he thought, they must be having a laugh. This time he’d fax the report and call the engineering people and find out what they were playing at.
When the train had left the tunnel and he had punched the last ticket of the last passenger in the last carriage, he made his way back up the train. He slid open the door from carriage E to carriage D and stopped in his tracks. To his dismay, once again the pretty young woman was sobbing and wailing, clutching at herself, her book front-cover down on the floor. “Jesus Christ,” he thought to himself, “not again!”
“Love? Love? What’s the matter?”
He got no response from the woman, who was shaking with her sobs and what seemed to be whimpers of pain.
“Look, love, we can’t be having this, now can we? Lovely girl like you an’ all!”
Other passengers looked on, others turned their faces away in embarrassment, as had happened the previous morning.
“Come on, pet, pull yourself together now. It can’t as bad as all that, now can it?”
The inspector bent down, picked her book up and placed it on the window seat next to her.
“Try having that cuppa I said about when you get to Whittleford, love, OK?”
Once again he retreated up the train, glancing uncertainly back at the woman, who was still sobbing uncontrollably, her arms wrapped tightly around herself.
“Must be a bit loopy,” he thought to himself grimly. “Pity that, she’s a pretty girl, what a waste.”
It was only then that he realised that he’d left his schedule sheet for the day at the back of the train, and so he was making his way back along the carriage when it dived into the second tunnel and everything was turned to darkness again. As he progressed down carriage D, he realised that the woman’s sobbing had suddenly ceased, as if a switch in the middle of a radio play had been turned off by an annoyed listener. He continued to make his way gingerly along the carriage through the clickety-clack darkness until he came with a bump to the door leading into carriage E, managed to find the handle and pull the door open and enter carriage E. The door slid closed behind him just as the train exited the tunnel and light returned to his world.
He walked quickly up to the end of the train, steadying himself with his hands against the seats on either side of the aisle, opened the small cubbyhole where his schedule sheet had to be kept, and retrieved it.
He made his way back down towards the front of the train and was puzzled to see that the young woman in carriage D was not in her seat now, and her book now lay open on the floor, rather than on the window seat next to hers, where he had placed it, beside her ticket. “Must have pulled herself together and gone to the lavatory to fix her mascara or something,” he thought, and continued on his way.
At the stationmaster’s office he once again greeted Stan the stationmaster, grumbled to him about the light sensor fault and the “sodding lazy engineers”.
“You think you’ve got problems,” returned the stationmaster. He held up yet another book. “Must be a best-seller,” he groaned.
The ticket inspector raised a sympathetic eyebrow.
“You ought to read it – maybe you could start a station after-hours reading circle?”
“Ha-bloody-ha!” retorted the stationmaster.
Chuckling, the ticket inspector turned away from him, obtained the necessary triplicate “Train Defect Report” form from the filing cabinet and set to with filling it in. He then picked up the phone and called the engineers to complain about the fact that the defect had still not been fixed and that this was the third time he was asking for it to be sorted out and would they pull their bloody fingers out? They, for their part, stolidly maintained that they had fixed it both times and that the train had been in perfect running order when it had left their workshop. There was nothing the ticket inspector could do but shrug his shoulders, sigh and replace the receiver.
* * *
The next morning, once again she was on the train, same carriage and, once again, in the same seat, wearing the same summery yellow frock. “A creature of habit,” the ticket inspector muttered to himself as he made his way through carriage D, examining and punching. “Let’s hope she doesn’t make a habit of crying!”
He approached the young woman, who had her nose in her book.
“Tickets please!” – this time he dispensed with the “love”.
The young woman, startled out of her book, looked up at him, smiled, and handed him her ticket, which she had retrieved from the usual position, on the empty window seat to her right.
“Thanks,” he grumbled.
“A single to Whittleford,” she said.
“Yes. OK, that’s fine,” and handed the ticket back to her with an aloof air before moving on down the train. Before leaving her carriage, he glanced warily back at her and saw that she had returned to reading her book.
It was not long before the train entered the first tunnel and he was almost overjoyed to see that the lights came on automatically as it did so. “At last,” he sighed, as he headed for the door linking carriage D to carriage E.
The shock of the jarring jolt knocked the ticket inspector to the floor like a prize boxer, and his ears were immediately filled with the shriek of rending, tearing, twisting metal and shattering glass, closely followed by the terrified screams of passengers as they were flung forward by the sudden reduction in speed of the train as the front carriages derailed over the overnight collapse of the tunnel roof and the train started to grind to a very rapid halt, ballast from the tracks shooting up at the tunnel walls and ricocheting against any intact windows, tack-tack-tack, like machine-gun fire. Incredibly, the lights had stayed on and he could see passengers falling forward against the seats in front and sideways into the aisle, their newspapers, bags and other possessions doing the same.
Finally the grinding, whining, rending sound, along with the sound of stones striking the coachwork and windows, ceased and the train shuddered to what seemed like an interminable juddering full halt. The screams continued, however.
The ticket inspector felt about himself and pulled himself to his feet.
“Is anyone hurt?” he tried to cry out, but found his voice choked in this throat from shocked emotion.
Slowly the screams subsided, and people started to rise slowly, uncertainly, gingerly from the carriage floor, none - miraculously - seeming to be injured, apart from scratches and bruises. The ticket inspector stumbled his way down the aisle, blinking in the dust billowing in from outside, helping to their feet any who were still prone after the derailment, once they had assured him they were not hurt.
The only person, it was clear, who had not fallen to the floor was the pretty young woman in seat 21, who still sat bolt upright in her seat. This was completely understandable, for she had had no choice in the matter. An enormous girder of dark-grey metal, which the ticket inspector assumed must have shortly before formed part of the chassis of the carriage, had sheared up through the floor in front of her on impact. The end had completely caved in her lower chest and entered the back of seat 21, leaving her skewered to her seat, pinned to her seat like a cruel child’s rag doll. She stared incredulously up at him, her warm brown eyes turning a darker and darker colour as her irises widened in sheer terror, the life gradually draining from them and from her. Incredibly, the same sobs and wails he had heard twice before still emanated from her mouth, along now with an ever-increasing sluice of blood down her chin, blood which dripped and then gushed onto what remained of her already blood-soaked summery yellow frock. The only thing that had fallen from seat 21 to the floor was her book.
As the woman’s tiny sobs ebbed away and died with her, on the cover he noticed the title:
As Far As It Goes.