School Assignment – a short story

My granddad used to show me pictures of this place all the time. Either the pictures were lying, or I’m at the wrong station. This place barely looks anything like Granddad’s old books. For one, it’s all in colour, and for another, no bloody trains. I could’ve just stayed in my room and examined all this with Google Maps; the teachers would be none-the-wiser. But no, Granddad had to insist I come here and look at it all for real, “really take it all in”, he’d tell me, “there’s stories buried on them platforms.” Well, I really do believe this place, just like the rest of Hull, sucks.

Down where the railway line used to be, with both platforms either side, it’s now just an overgrown footpath. Weeds claw their way up from underneath and wrap themselves around the concrete where you’re supposed to walk. If this place couldn’t survive as a station, how’s it meant to last as somewhere to walk along, when you’ve got all this crap hanging around it? You can’t even walk along the platforms properly. The left one’s got trees and bushes that try to push you off as you walk, and the right one is just lost in all the green crap. You can smell it all as well, the green stuff’s got that savouriness to it, you don’t even have to touch it to get stung, you can feel the inside of your nose stinging as you sniff.

And it’s all mixed together with that vomity sweetness from the obligatory rubbish dotted along the ground, and squashed up against the walls of the platform. There’s some crisp packets, crumpled and sizzling in the Sun, and beer cans that haven’t even started rusting yet, some patches of liquid still visible inside. In one of the old guy’s photos, I spotted some bottles dumped down the platform, where the cans now rest. I suppose we all have to move forward with the times, even the rubbish, but I don’t think Mrs Hoover is going to accept a piece on “station rubbish from the ages”.

Apparently, this place used to be some kind of passenger service, one of several dotted around the city. Granddad would show me books full of photos that had steam engines rattling through this little station, which, while narrow on the platforms, used to stretch so much it would curve and you couldn’t see where it’d end. And now look at it, just a couple of concrete slabs, and no trains running through them.

The platforms don’t even curve anymore; you can see where they stop stretching and where some houses begin. They all look fairly modern, you can spot three all huddled up together, with titled roofs and four windows each on the front. You can see the sunlight bouncing off the glass. It looks like they’ve permanently cut off the old so it doesn’t have to blend in with the new, and that the new have joined forces against the old, ready to spring into action should the weed grow any closer.

The only building that looks like anything in Granddad’s pictures is the station house itself, all done up in red tiles and white window arches. Looks alright, but also looks like it’s all blocked off. Iron railings run along the edge of the platform, so you can’t even wander along the building and peep inside the windows to see what’s going on. You’d think they’d re-open it as a museum, or something boring like that.

I drag myself onto the left-hand platform and squat as comfortably as possible, the keys in my back pocket digging into my arse cheek. I plunge into my bag and dig out the notebook I’ve brought with me. As I draw the book out and onto my lap, an old couple cycle past me, nattering away. They’re wearing horridly 90’s coloured coats and their heads are trapped in cycle helmets. I open the book at a freshly blank page, and scuttle around in the bag once more for a pen.

Oh, for God’s sake. Where’s that sodding pen? I swear I put one in here! Bollocks. Well, this was a waste of a morning. I could just twat that nearby bird with my notebook. I fling the book to one side, and stare round at this barren place. A bunch of scruffy blokes come wandering up the path from the main street where the road runs alongside, unshaven faces, greasy hair, and tracksuit bottoms tucked into their socks. Maybe they’ve got a pen between them? Oh, maybe not. On closer inspection, I guess they’ve not got room for a pen for all those beer cans and fags they’ve got glued to their hands. It’s only half eleven!

They sludge past me and convene at the end of the platform, just between where it ends and the small clumps of trees begin that protect the modern family homes from coming into contact with this grotty place. I look up at the near-by traffic, zooming away. Here, it’s instantly peaceful, the walkway bridge that once stood just at the edge of the footpath now replaced by trees and bushes, which lurch in such a way that they mimic the shape of the bridge. Certainly looks prettier than the bridge in Granddad’s photos. The graininess of those old pictures makes the bridge look bloody ancient. Now, it just looks a lot nicer, all leafy and fresh, with the wind tickling it.

Ergh, Christ that stinks! I look round and those blokes have lighted up some new cigarettes, tobacco smoke trailing everywhere. I can hear them slurping on their cans all the way up here. Don’t those twats have anything better to do? I wave away as much of the stench as possible, and shuffle up along the station. At least steam train smoke’s got some usefulness to it. It shows the train’s doing its thing. Tobacco just screws your lungs up.

Another cyclist trundles past. He looks like he might’ve been born on a bike. He’s clad in tight, spandex clothes, silver sunglasses, and thin gloves as he grips the handlebars. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t even slow down as he spills out into the street, glancing left and right, then charging across the road onto the further footpath, passing that old pub, ‘The Station’.

I can’t help but feel as if I’d be doing everyone a favour if I just grab those blokes, still smoking and slurping away, and just chuck them across the road into that pub. They don’t even have to land in the pub itself, I’d be more than happy to just chuck them across the road, as long as they bugger off. But there’s no-one else around here that may applaud my actions, it’s just me and those blokes.

Oh, they’re wandering off now, back into the sewers they slithered out from, perhaps? Nope, they’re off in the other direction, towards those nice-looking houses. They don’t live there of all places, do they? If the trains were still going they’d sort those guys out no problem, especially as they’re all more or less slugging along the middle of the footpath.

So, what can I write about for school? Well, nothing. I’ve got no bloody pen. What do you write about when you don’t have a bloody pen? Still, it’s not all bad. All the greenery looks bright and fluffy, there’re no prickly things as far as I can see. The platform on the other side is just totally overgrown, I remember Granddad showing me pictures of both platforms, and that one had a little hut on it. No hut there now though, just lots of fluffy green. It almost looks like you could go snuggle into the stuff and have a snooze.

This is getting me nowhere. To be honest, I can just memorize all I’ve seen so far and get it down on paper once I’m back home. Hope I remember it all. I jump off the platform and let out a smothered burst of relief as the keys in my back pocket release themselves from my arse. Why didn’t I just take them out and stuff them in my bag? Well, I might’ve missed those blokes walking off, or might’ve failed to spot that old couple trundling along, or I might not have noticed those bridge-shaped branches.

I wander back along the footpath towards the street. The sounds of the city already tear through the trees. I might come to Stepney station more often.

Gone Fishing – a short story

Morning sunshine. Today’s the day! Just keep your cover till you get here, you’ll be fine. See you soon!

I groan at my phone, what a way to start the day. I’m barely outside the house and I’ve already tripped over the doorstep. All that’s there to light my way to the station are the lampposts, with their fuzzy glow. They look as if they’re sound asleep. I should just chuck a stone at them, that’d wake them up.

Earphones plugged into my head, I slug along the street. Maybe if I turn the volume to max it’ll keep me from going back to sleep and wandering into the road. Even in the sleep-deprived state I’m in, this turned out to be a great decision, choosing to live in this part of town. As a first year, the place to be is Cranbrook Avenue, with the uni, quite literally in my case, being in your back garden.

Here, it’s further away from uni, but overall, nicer. No vodka-drenched freshers slouching against your front-door at 2 AM because they couldn’t quite make it four doors down to their own home. No potential collisions between students on bicycles and rough, city-born bus drivers on that narrow road.

My room is upstairs, at the back of the house. It overlooks the armada-like rows of adjoining gardens that belong to our neighbours. Kids play on their swing set, abusing it as kids do, twirling the swings into a tangle and attempting to walk up the slide, while their parents hang the washing on the line. No crappy plastic washstands, with clothes dribbling on the floor, surrounded by a pool of oozing takeaway boxes for these families.

At night time, even when you can’t quite see everything, it still looks nicer than Cranbrook, that’s how good it is. And here I go, off to fucking Scarborough.

Even the grottier parts of town gain a sort of vintage charm as I get closer to the station. The crumpled mix of a Polish supermarket, second-hand electrical appliance shop and a barber’s look rather snug in the pre-dawn light.

The station looms ahead, and with it the tender mumblings of a city half-awake. Cars and buses appear from nowhere in particular, trundling past me. Once I reach the station, I yank my earphones out and I’m greeted with some echoy babble from the tannoy. How do people even understand that thing? Is it there to incoherently bark out train times, or is just there to create a bit of ambience?

The place is full of engines that throb in the air, everywhere you go they change from key to key. Christ, its cold in here. There’s only me and two or three other people here. There’s some young, skinny guy; hairy face, messy hair, chequered shirt, and a caterpillar-coloured rucksack hugging his back. He nearly gallops past me, through the iron gates and bounds onto the platform like the Andrex puppy. My phone jangles in my pocket.

Hey again. If anyone asks, just say you’re filming, like last time. Don’t screw this up, or we’re all buggered.

The phone’s bright screen makes me blink, and it dawns on me that this is really happening. I can’t back out now. I almost run to the platform, where the dark, steely blue of the train comes into full view. Its engines let out a tense hum which pounds in my head. I breathe in the sharp, cold air, mixed with the faint cloggy patches of diesel from the engine. It’s a right stinker. The mix of piercing cold air makes breathing feel sore, yet the thick diesel makes it feel as though the stench becomes lodged up my nostrils.

I splutter all over the platform, tiny drops of phlegm throw themselves down onto the grey ground. My coughs ring out all around the station, soon blending in with the engine’s growls. Swallowing whatever dignity I may have left after my sudden outburst, I swing round to check the timetable. Four minutes to go, best get on board.

Stepping into the metal beast, the engines instantly die down, changing from the ringing rumbles outside to a soft murmur. The brightly lit interior only adds to the darkness outside the windows, I wonder if this is what being inside a coffin is like?

The skinny guy from before has already claimed a seat for himself, one of those four seat sections placed in the middle of the carriage, with a table in between as well. He’s not even using that space for anything. Greedy sod. I make my way to the end of the carriage and pass a fat, balding man in a one-coloured business suit. You can see the stretch marks on his stomach as it envelops the pulled down plastic tray in front of him, like his belly is eating it.

On the tray is a laptop, opened and more awake than I am, and at his side are a collision of different-sized notebooks and folders, all swelling with thickly written papers. I collapse into my seat, instantly feeling drowsier than before. I scrunch myself up as comfortably as possible, and with a whistle, the engine wrenches itself away from the station and into the dawn.

Outside, the sky’s slowly turning blue, while all the buildings zoom past with their black outlines being illuminated. At the far end of the carriage the door yawns open and Mike strides through, his rectangular name-badge gleaming along with his face.

‘Tickets, please!’ his crisp voice cuts through my drowsiness and I jerk to attention. Even though there’s a whole stretch of carriage between us, I can smell his aftershave, potent as ever, like my mum’s whiskey fish stew. He deals with the bald guy first. He jumps when Mike bends down towards him, resulting in a crashing sound and the fluttery flop of a bunch of papers falling to the floor.

‘Tickets please, sir!’

‘Oh for God’s sake, look what’s happened!’

The guy’s bald head bops up and down for a few moments, interjected with grumbles, while Mike waits patiently.

‘Can I see your ticket please sir?’

‘It’s in that bag, oh bugger, my laptop, and I hadn’t saved anything yet!’ he waves a hand toward a brown laptop bag, which Mike dives into. Turning away from the commotion, I relax a little and return to gazing out of the window.

Fewer buildings whizz by than before, as we roll into the countryside. The sun slugs its way upwards, revealing the green fields with speckled cows dotted among them. Out of the window’s corner the outskirts of the city slip further and further away.

‘Morning, Frasier!’

I spin my head round as the aftershave starts to strangle my nose. Mike’s cheery grin bears down on me, now that certainly wakes you up. He’s one of those people who smiles by showing off their teeth. Mike’s mouth is crammed with them, his mouth looks like a bag of mint imperials.

‘Morning.’

My hand scrambles in my pocket for the ticket I bought the day before. He snatches the ticket away from me and, without even looking, feeds it through the little black box that dangles from his neck.
‘Off to do some more filming then?’

‘Yep.’

As he fiddles with my ticket, I can hear the stretch of the rubber straps that hold the box around his gut. They smell vaguely warm too, like he’s had it strapped there for ages. I never see him without it on, for all I know he sleeps with it.

‘Well they’re lucky to have someone who gets up at this time, Will we be seeing you again tonight?’

‘Yeah.’

He thrusts the stamped ticket into my face.

‘Same time I take it? First train in and last train out, you’re the dedicated sort!’

‘I try to be.’

‘Well have fun, kid. See you tonight!’

And with that, Mike bounces on his way, his voice booming to no-one in particular, and soon disappears through the other end of the carriage. I’m surprised I managed to keep my cool, unlike last time. I pretty much erupted when the ticket guy asked for my tickets. He didn’t suspect anything, just looked away like I was a nutter. As the doors close behind him, the train slithers to a halt at Beverley station.

The sun’s finally starting to pour through the thinly-framed windows, several of them dotted along the inner walls of the station. As the carriage doors hiss open, an old woman gets on board, her face wrapped in a scarf like spaghetti around a fork. She heaves her plump frame along the carriage, squatting at a nearby seat.

The bald guy’s still glaring at the hairy guy, whose music seems to be spilling from his headphones and radiating all around the carriage. It’s hardly deafening, what with it being mixed into a cocktail of shuffling passengers and humming engines, but the bald guy appears agitated, as if a bee were swarming around his shiny head.

Firmly facing the window, we start up again, the moving engine now revealing that the name of the station, in plastic blue and white, was the only object adorning the sandy-brown walls. Mike tumbles through the carriage door, the black box poised for action as he bounds along the train collecting tickets. Outside the arched section, the platform slips downward and disappears. The scene changes from thick walls to loose, spiralling shrubbery, which clumsily hides buildings from view.

For about half an hour, this is my view, nothing but unkempt, spiky green that’s littered at the roots with rusty, miscellaneous railway junk. Engine wheels, strips of track, huge chunks of buffer stops that are missing their actual buffers. They’re all horribly wrapped in weeds, whatever life they had now strangled.

Through the greenery, flashes of colour and shape show signs of city life. Cars and vans appear to speed along the roads, their full shapes blocked by sheets of leafs and crooked branches, before changing to buses and lorries. Buildings perform similar acts of magic; shrivelled, boxy corner shops appear to change into drawn-out Sainsbury’s, the orange name spreads along the top like a party banner.

Right, slight change of plan. Mickey’s found that the van got fucking clamped, with all the gear in it! It’s getting sorted now, but once you’re off the train, just keep yourself occupied for a couple of hours.

God’s sake, why did I agree to this? Everyone’s short on money nowadays but I must’ve been fucked in the head to say yes to all this. My phone rattles again.

Go fishing or something. They go fishing in Scarborough don’t they? It’s got the fucking sea next to it, ain’t it?

The greenery begins to fade, as do the buildings, and are replaced by curved hilltops, dotted with short, stubby trees. The smooth gliding of the train isn’t quite enough to overpower that skinny kid’s headphones, which buzz away faintly. Another sound starts to simmer as well. The blonde girl, perhaps? No, she’s got her legs curled up on her seat, reading a magazine. I’ve never seen legs that white before, did she whack on some flour or talcum powder when she got out of the shower this morning?

What about the spaghetti lady? Nope, she’s fast asleep in that scarf. I sit to attention and peer over the rows of seats. Ah, of course, the bald guy. Sounds like he’s growling, he’s got his teeth gnashing away. And the kid’s not even noticed, he’s too busy making his thumbs dance on his phone, twazzock.

Feels like I’m falling slightly into the window, we must be going round a bend. And we are, for the hilltops slide away to reveal the Scarborough coastline, all decked in speckles of light. The scenery changes for the last time to cramped houses, shops and the odd church as we enter the final station.

The tannoy spits out our arrival, making the old lady jump awake. Crawling to a halt, we arise one by one with out belongings. I shuffle off the train, hunched and frowning. This could all go so wrong.

But as I turn the corner with the sliding glass doors in sight, a low voice starts to growl behind me, and echoes all round the station. A door bursts open before me and two security guards come charging towards me. Oh shit, have I been found it? Is it all over before it’s started? I freeze, body clenched.

The security guards dash past me and I spin round – the bald guy has caught up with the skinny kid, grabbing him by the arm and rattling him. The kid looks perplexed, probably because he’s still got his headphones on. The security guards thrust themselves into the mess, trying to break it up. I can feel my body slither into relaxation. Well, I guess I’d best get fishing.