We humans have a lot of habits that you’d think we would gradually grow out of but never really seem to. These include, but are not limited to, making children study maths at school, hosting expensive award ceremonies for people who pretended to be other people, strapping one long piece of wood to both your feet to slide down a snowy mountain when it is significantly easier and more practical to use two, attempting to hang journalists for meddling and, potentially worse of all, naming inanimate objects.
Inanimate, as a word, implies that something doesn’t move, and while trains certainly move they don’t have thoughts, feelings or any reason whatsoever to give them titles of their own, but apparently no-one told this to the genius who decided that the train I was taking today simply had to be called Tiberius. Oh it certainly sounded noble and important, but considering we were talking about a large contraption that’s sole purpose was to move from one end of the country to another, noble importance seemed a little misplaced.
Still, while the name irked me, it was hard to dwell too much on a day like today. I sat by the window, looking out at the bright green country racing by beneath the clear blue sky, watching the orchards, rivers and occasional disgruntled cow all race past. I found myself smiling. It was a beautiful day and this was not a bad place to be.
‘When all the countries were given their identifying traits, England missed out.’
I gritted my teeth and tried not to take any notice of the other person in the carriage with me.
‘Every other country has something about the landscape to make it stand out; mountains, deserts, huge lakes, enormous forests. It’s like England was designed to not put anyone’s nose out of joint. We just settled for the milder versions of everything.’
I didn’t know his name and I did not care to ask. He was a little old man dressed in tweed with large glasses, no hair and a face that looked like if had been left in the sun for a hundred years before being stretched out of shape, scrunched back together then plonked on the front of his head. I had chosen this compartment as it was the least occupied, and at first he had simply sat in silence. Then, about fifteen minutes into the journey, just as I was settling in, he had started making his opinions known. Without introduction or greeting or anything. A glance at my watch told me this had been going on for the last hour. It felt like three. I returned my attention to the window and hoped for the best.
‘Australia, now there’s a country! It’s got individuality pouring out its ears. In fact, it has just about everything!’
That was quite enough. With an attempt at a smile that probably came out as a grimace, I left the compartment, leaving my bag behind me. If the old man was offended by my abrupt departure, he said nothing, which suited me just fine. Glad to be free, I hurried down the corridor towards the dining car. I wasn’t exactly falling over myself with excitement at the thought of train fare, but anything was better than more time spent in that compartment.
If I had my way, I wouldn’t be travelling by train at all. I had a perfectly good motorbike and it made for a far better way to appreciate the countryside as one moved through, but time was of the essence today. I had in my possession a top secret map that led to a top secret location that held a top secret item that people who were not top were secretly trying to get their hands on. Naturally my editor, Lord Rasputin Huxley VIII had thought to send along one of the journalists in his employ, and if they managed to stop the dastardly acts in the process, well that was okay too. So off I went, travelling the quickest way possible to try and get to the location before the villains did. It was all very scary and exciting, but until I arrived there I had other issues to deal with. Namely, the coffee served aboard the train which was all I could bring myself to buy. One sip made clear my mistake but I held on to the cup as, moving very slowly, I made my way back to the compartment.
The old man did not look to have moved a muscle in my absence. He smiled at me as I sat down and instead of smiling back I took another brave sip from my cup. Instinctively, I reached for my bag, opening it and slipping my hand in to make sure everything was still in place.
Heart beating faster, I placed the coffee on the ground, pulled the bag on to my lap and looked through it. Notebook, spare glasses, change of clothes, mountaineering equipment; all present. But the map was gone.
I looked up at the old man, who was staring out the window with a mildly unimpressed expression. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, trying not to sound frantic. ‘But did someone come in here when I was gone?’
‘Hmm?’ He looked at me as if surprised I’d spoken. ‘Uh, no-one except the conductor I think.’
The conductor. I should have known never to trust a man in a silly hat. I got to my feet and without so much as a thank you to the irritant who had got me into this mess, I ran out the door and down the corridor. I could see the shape of the conductor down the far end, just emerging from one of the other compartments. I came to a halt just as he looked in my direction. Our eyes met and his went wide.
‘Stop!’ I yelled.
He didn’t. He turned and opened the door at the rear of the carriage. The whistling sound of wind filled the carriage as I ran towards him.
The conductor, however, wasted no time. His grip on the door frame was hard and he pulled himself through, outside the train. The door swung shut behind him, the wind stopped and in the sudden silence I heard the unmistakeable click of the lock.
I reached the end of the carriage and through the window set in the door I could see him, struggling against the wind, unlocking a similar door in the next carriage and slipping through. In vain I tried the handle, but of course it was no use. He had my map and I had no way of getting to him.
I looked out the window to the side. The country that before had seemed so pleasant now just appeared to be mocking me. I closed my eyes, rested my forehead against the glass and tried to think. His reasons for taking the map didn’t matter so much as the fact that he had done it; without the map I was essentially stranded with no idea of where to go next or how to handle this situation.
I opened my eyes, looking out the window again. I thought back to my map-free bag. And then a terrible idea struck me and suddenly I was hurrying back to my compartment. I burst through the door, ignored the old man trying to tell me something, snatched up my bag and ran back down the hall. Kneeling, I opened the bag and withdrew a coil of rope I had packed in case of having to scale any sheer cliffs. For the same purpose, I had with me a small, hooked ice axe with a wooden handle. Perfect.
I tied the rope around my waist then tied the other end around the doorknob of the nearest compartment. After checking to make sure both ends were at least somewhat secure, I turned to the window.
Usually I don’t condone vandalism, but the reality of being a good journalist is that you often have to resort to it and the more you do the more you realise how fun it is. This particular case was less fun and more frightening, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t thrilling to swing the ice axe into the centre of the window.
The glass shattered and the carriage was filled with the roar of wind. It was an effort not to be buffeted off my feet. Using the axe, I cleared the remaining glass from around the windowsill, then, taking a deep breath and checking the rope around my waist one last time, I dove through.
For a second, the world was crazy. For a second I was spinning in mid-air, the sky and ground and side of the train all racing around me. Then, with a sharp jerk around my waist and a snap of rope I saw the side of the train racing towards me and I braced myself for impact as I slammed hard into the metal of the next carriage. I took a moment to gain my bearings and then with all the strength I could muster, my knuckles white around the handle, I smashed the ice axe into the nearest window.
It shattered inwards. With no time now to clear the remaining glass from the frame, I pulled myself through the now open window into the carriage.
It wasn’t a dignified entrance. I hit the ground hard and for a second could only lie there, breathing heavily. There was no way I should have survived that. No way at all.
Then I remembered why I was here and I sat up to be greeted with the barrels of five rifles, all aimed directly at me, behind each of which was the snarling, silly-hat-wearing face of a conductor.
I had to remind myself not to laugh. Instead, I gave my most polite smile and asked them who had my map.
‘What map?’ the conductor in the middle looked to either side. Only bewildered expressions looked back.
‘One of you took a map from my bag,’ I said. ‘Look, please don’t pretend. I didn’t get a good look at who it was, but he ran when I yelled and now you all have guns so it’s pretty obvious you’re up to no good. I know you have the map. You know I know you have the map. I know you know I know you have the map. Just hand it over and we can all get on with our days.’
‘You vandalised our train and now you’ve broken into the private conductors’ quarters,’ the man in the centre said.
‘You stole my map,’ I replied.
‘We didn’t–’ he stopped himself and took a deep, hopefully calming breath. ‘Nobody stole your map. We’ve got no need for maps. Henry here was just minding his own business, preparing to rob the train, when you came yelling and running after him like a madman. Anybody would have bolted in that situation.’
‘I was not yelling and running like a madman,’ I said. ‘I was – wait. You’re robbing the train?’
The conductor rolled his eyes. ‘Yes, that’s why we have guns. We would have done it already if it wasn’t for your interfering.’
‘For the passengers’ money of course. You’re not very bright, are you? No wonder you pulled a stunt like that.’
With some difficulty I got to my feet, swiftly placing the ice axe through the back of my belt as I did. ‘No, suppose not. Okay, robbing the train. Fair enough. You know what will really help your case?’
The conductor’s eyes narrowed. ‘What?’
‘A hostage,’ I said, untying the rope around my waist. ‘Look, meaning no offense, but train conductors aren’t very scary. It might be the hats, but chances are that people won’t take this robbery very seriously. However, if you have a hostage, one who goes ahead at gunpoint looking scared, then they’ll know you mean business.’
‘And I take it you’re to be that hostage?’
I nodded. ‘Saves me being shot, right?’
The conductors glanced at each other.
‘He has a point,’ one of them said.
‘Less talking more robbing I reckon.’ I grinned. ‘Shall we?’
In answer I was poked in the direction of the door by one of the rifles. Hands in the air, I backed towards it.
‘You’ll have to unlock both doors before I can go through,’ I said. ‘This one and the entry to the next carriage.’
‘Obviously,’ the apparent leader said. ‘We’re not stupid. Move aside.’
I did. One of the conductors opened the door and stepped through. He returned a moment later with his hat still firmly on his head.
‘Both doors unlocked.’ With his gun, he gestured through. ‘Lead the way hostage.’
‘Aye aye captain,’ I said, then stepped through, grabbing a hold of the edges of the door as I did. The wind outside screamed. I looked across the slight gap between carriages to the next door, flapping back and forth. I looked down at the coupling between the two carriages. I only had seconds, if that.
‘What are you waiting for?’ a voice from behind me barked.
‘Good question,’ I muttered. My heart was like a drum now. My hands were shaking. I forced myself to be steady. Then I reached around behind me, grabbed the ice axe from my belt and knelt just as a gunshot went off over my head. I jammed the blade of the axe into the coupling between the two trains then, moving faster than I really should have, I jumped forwards. The heel of my boot slammed into the axe handle, driving it through the couplings, then I was up again, diving through the door of the next carriage. With a screech, the couplings broke apart. I hit the floor, eyes tightly shut as more yelling and gunshots came from behind me, at first deafeningly loud then quieter and quieter until there was only the wind.
I opened my eyes and rolled over. Through the still flapping door I could see the shape of the conductor’s carriage disappearing further and further down the line until it was only a speck framed by the green fields and blue sky.
I let out a long breath then slowly, unsteadily, got to my feet and closed the door. There was still a lot of wind coming from the broken window, but at least now it was slightly less. I turned and looked up the hall; all along compartment doors were opening as people stuck their heads out trying to figure out what was going on. With an apologetic smile I walked, weak-kneed, past them all until I reached my compartment again. I walked through and, ignoring the old man who was still exactly where he had been before, slumped down in my seat.
‘Oh, you’re back,’ he said, after a moment.
I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Here’s your map by the way.’
It took me a few seconds to realise what he was holding.
‘You had the map.’ My voice sounded dull and flat.
‘Well you left and I had no-one to talk to so I thought I’d see what was in your bag. It was a pretty boring map anyway. Hope I didn’t cause you any trouble.’
I took it from him, well aware that my mouth was hanging open. I looked from the old man to the map then back again.
‘Anyway, where was I?’ he said. ‘Oh, that’s right. What a boring trip this is! I’ll tell you now–’
Shoving the map in my bag, I leant back and looked out the window. The scenery rolled past and I wondered whether I would experience such a thing as a truly peaceful journey.