All the trains through Oakfell station were slow, stopping trains on what would once have been called a branch line. There were three stops through to Leeds though, and from there the trains went just about everywhere around the country. Jimmy had told her that he’d meet her at the station as he intended to get to Leeds the night before and visit some friends of his. Marie didn’t know a lot about them except that they were in the gambling business and sometimes gave Jimmy advice on what to back. He seemed to lose almost as much as he won, but he never doubted them. Her train came in, pulling up at the platform with agonising slowness; the doors seemed to open equally slowly despite the man at the front of the queue to get off pressing the door open button repeatedly and insistently as soon as the train stopped moving.
The main concourse was crowded with people, all looking at the huge boards that showed which platforms the departing trains were leaving from and what their destinations were. She looked at the boards as well, wondering if Jimmy would meet her in here or on the platform, and frowned. Nowhere on the board could she see London mentioned, all the destinations seemed to be for other places like Kings Cross and Edinburgh. A little confused now, she turned around, looking at the collection of small shops that lined the edges of the hall; mostly sandwich shops and coffee bars, the kinds of things that travellers wanted. There was a newsagents that looked stuffed with magazines; a single wall housed books that had numbers by them, indicating that they were best sellers in various categories. Opposite the shops was the ticket hall, dominated by the sleek, curving lines of the self-service machines; in the modern age the humans who could help you work out where you going and how to get there were pushed to one side and virtually hidden. She turned around, and then turned around again, wondering how anyone found anything in here.
“There you are,” said a familiar voice behind her, and she jumped. “On time and everything!”
“Jimmy,” she said, forcing a smile to her face. She did feel rather relieved that he’d found her though.
“I have the tickets here,” he said, waving a couple of slips of orange and cream card. And by the looks of things our train’s going to be on time, and should be being called in about a minute. Only I know that it’s going to be platform 1, so let’s stroll over there now.
He grabbed her hand as she started moving, and pulled back slightly. “Not too fast, we don’t want to let anyone know that we know.”
“How do we know?” asked Marie. She looked again at the boards, which were easily twenty feet high and covered with detail about the intermediate stops that the trains made and when they’d arrive there. “I couldn’t even find London on the board.”
Jimmy looked at her, his eyes raking over her face to see if she was joking. Then he laughed, leading her off to the right as he did so. “Kings Cross,” he said. “The London stations all have names, and you just need to know which one you’re going into.”
“Oh,” she said, feeling herself flush red. “Oh, I didn’t realise.”
“That’s ok,” said Jimmy. They walked through a busy, broad archway, and the platform barriers were just ahead of them. There were people near the barriers, but no-one seemed to be moving through them at that moment. Four platforms were visible from where she was, and they all had a train sat at them, waiting to move off. “You’ve not been down to London before then?”
She shook her head, and took the ticket that Jimmy offered her. The barriers accepted them, spat them back out, and swung back their little doors of plastic-coated steel.
“We’re going into Kings Cross,” he said. “It’s pretty central, but we’ll be taking the tube out north again straight away. It’s a bit annoying, because we kind of have to go back on ourselves, but it’s the way the train network works, and we definitely don’t want to get off early and then get a stopping train down. That would take all day!” As they walked onto platform 1 a television screen suspended from a pole changed its screen to announce that the train was going to Kings Cross and stopping at five other stations en route. Almost immediately the noise in the station increased as over a hundred people saw the announcement and started hurrying towards the barriers.
“We’ve got reserved seats, actually,” said Jimmy, walking briskly alongside the train. Marie had to keep running every now and then to keep up with him. “But it’s better to be on first, before anyone can take the luggage rack or be a nuisance.”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy.
They were, unsurprisingly, the first ones into their carriage, and Marie was startled to find that they were sitting in the First Class carriage. Jimmy walked quickly along the carriage, checking the little digital seat indicators until he came to a table, and then he sat down and shuffled over to the window seat. Marie stopped, not knowing which seat she should take.
“It’s on your ticket,” said Jimmy. “But it’s the window opposite me. I hate sitting on the aisle and having to get up for people getting on and off, and then having people push past you with too many bags. Let some other sucker sit there and suffer.”
“Right,” said Marie, not sure what to make of the hostility in his voice. Jimmy sounded like he hated train travel.
“It’s not expensive,” he said, as he sat down and then edged her way across into her seat. “If you book in advance you can get some pretty good deals. And we get food, though it’s probably just a sandwich and some coffee. I remember when you’d get a proper meal if you were travelling in first class; back then of course you had to know someone if you wanted a cheap ticket. But back then you didn’t have all the plebs going by train either, so I guess it cuts both ways.”
“Right, said Marie, wishing that she could think of something else to say. She wasn’t very sure that she wasn’t a pleb too, by the way Jimmy was talking, and she didn’t want to draw attention to that fact.
The train filled rapidly as though the entire station had been waiting for it, but their carriage filled more slowly, and Marie noted that the other people in the carriage were either elderly, with suitcases, or dressed in business suits and had laptops that they immediately set down and opened up. She wondered at the number of people who appeared to be doing business while on the train and started to think that she should have tried to bring something with her to do as well. She had a crossword puzzle book in her handbag, but she didn’t want to get that out in front of Jimmy.
After a couple of announcements about people getting off the train unless they were planning on travelling the doors hissed closed, hydraulics closing the heavy, solid portals with a definite thunk.
“Right,” said Jimmy slouching down in his chair and closing his eyes. “Wake me when we pass Milton Keynes. I was up late last night.” By the time the train had reached its first stop he was snoring, and Marie had got her puzzle book out and was chewing the end of her pencil while she tried to solve the first puzzle.