Thursday, 18 February 2016

The end of platform three

“You’ve been here every day this week,” says the young man, sitting down at the other end of the bench.

“So have you,” replies the older man.

“And you haven’t caught a train.”

“Neither have you.”

There does not seem to be anything to say to that, so the young man sits in silence for a little while. He picks at his fingernails and his right leg bounces up and down frenetically. He does not appear to have shaved for several days and his clothes are crumpled. A few feet away a seagull makes a disorderly landing in pursuit of a discarded bag of chips, but finds them unappetising on closer inspection and strolls towards the bench. The old man throws the bird part of a sandwich.

“The sign says you shouldn’t feed them,” says the young man. “Apparently they’re pests.”

“You’re right. The sign does say that,” says the old man. “Do you want to give him some cheese?” 

He holds out the sandwich.

The young man grins, takes part of the sandwich, and throws it to the gull, which throws back its head and swallows it in one faintly disturbing motion before waddling off towards a bin.

“What are you doing here?” he says. The old man is not like anyone he has ever seen before. He sits very still and when he does move his movements are deliberate and precise. His clothes are neat but old and he wears sandals. A little necklace of string and beads is attached to one of his belt loops.

“I just like to watch the trains go by. Sometimes I talk to people.”

“People don’t talk much at train stations,” notes the young man.

“True. But I find people to talk to sure enough.” 

Very suddenly, as if no longer unable to resist some powerful force, the young man springs up and walks to the edge of the platform, about nine or ten feet away. A look of alarm crosses the old man’s face and he is in the process of getting up when the young man turns back. He sinks back into the bench.

“Are you all right?” says the young man, who saw the movement.

“I thought you might stumble. It’s very dangerous to be near the edge, you know.”

The young man looks wary.

“So what are you doing here?” asks the old man. “You don’t look like a trainspotter. You’ve no notebook, and anyway the trains on this line are all very boring.”

The young man sits down again. He doesn’t notice the other relaxing a little as he does so.

“Nothing, really,” he says. “Just a place to think, I suppose.”

“An expensive place to think,” says the old man. “You don’t need an Oyster card to sit in the park.”

Before the young man can answer, the speaker above their head suddenly announces that the next train to pass through is not scheduled to stop at this station and could customers please stand away from the platform edge. It is a harsh, intrusive sound, crackling with static. The young man gets up.

“What’s your name, son?” says the old man. His hand has dropped to the little necklace.

“My name? Peter.” He doesn’t sit down though. He is craning his neck, looking north up the long straight railway line as if trying to spot the train that is not scheduled to stop at this station. Two more steps towards the edge of the platform.

“Do you watch football?”

“What?” Peter is right at the yellow line. The old man thinks he can hear the rails beginning to sing.

“Football. Do you have a team, Peter? I follow Arsenal.”

Peter snorts.

“I’m a Liverpool fan. My dad used to take me.”

He isn’t turning away from the tracks, which are definitely singing now, and the old man gets to his feet. The young man seems to be stiffening for something. The old man keeps his distance.

“My name’s Benedict,” he says. “You don’t sound like you’re from Liverpool.”

Peter's body is still angled in the direction of the tracks.

“Weird name,” he says, without much interest. He seems a very long way away. “Why did your parents call you that?”

“My parents didn’t.” At the edge of his peripheral vision Benedict can see headlights, still a good way off but coming up very fast. His fingers are busy at his belt and he takes some small steps towards Peter.

“You changed it then.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly.”

Finally Peter turns to face him.

“Well, if you didn’t and your parents didn’t, who the hell did?”

Benedict doesn’t want to look at the train but it must be very close now.

“That doesn’t matter at the moment. Do you want a cup of tea?”


The singing of the rails is nearing the top of its crescendo. Suddenly the noise is overwhelmed by a loud blast on a train horn. Almost instantaneously a hand shoots out to Peter’s forearm and clutches it very hard, so hard that the young man winces and swears. The old man has a tight grip, and he does not let go as the train that is not scheduled to stop at this station comes hurtling through in a whirl of red and blue. A strong smell of diesel fuel is noticeable for just a second and then the express is gone.

“Yes,” says the old man. “A cup of tea. I’ll pay.”

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