Very few parts of the story below have been embellished. Proof, if any were needed, that taking a First Great Western Train into deepest Somerset is far scarier than anything the mind can conjure up. Understandably, I wasn't in a mood for sleeping after that journey. Hence the blog post.
I've lost track of time but know the train can't be far from Bristol as it's started to get dark. I sigh and toss the Sunday Mirror onto the empty seat next to me. As per usual, there's no real news in it I'm interested in and not for the first time in my life I wonder why I've brought the publication to keep me company on the lengthy journey home. I sigh again and reach for the free Celebs magazine that accompanies the Mirror, and it's at this point that the train slows down to a snail's pace. Even for a train arriving at a station, the speed appears disproportionately slow. I strain my head around. In the gloom I can see a large terminus that definitely resembles Temple Meads. I sink back in my seat in the knowledge I still have nearly one hundred minutes left on my journey.
The two carriages limp almost apologetically into the station and suddenly there's a mad rush as the vast majority of my carriage head for the doors, and then all is quiet. A little too quiet, there's no noise from the train. I look around the carriage. Two seats behind me is a slightly chunky Afro-Caribbean man with curly hair and a think pencil moustache. Two seats in front of me is a small, timid Chinese woman. There are a couple of people further down the carriage and, at the end of it the conductor is pacing in a somewhat agitated manner.
I look out of the window. This doesn't feel right. I've made enough stops and changes in Temple Meads to know the station reasonably well and this is not a part of the station I recognise at all. It seems we've been shunted to a very out-of-the-way platform among the sheds, far away from the other commuters. Without the noise of trains, the carriage is eerily silent. Perhaps there's been a change to our direct train and we were meant to change trains. I look around the carriage. The few of us still onboard seem to be thinking similar thoughts. My eye catches the Afro-Carribean's. "We're not meant to get off here, are we?" as asks.
"I don't know." The unnatural quietness and lack of activity doesn't seem right so I head to the end of the carriage to the stressed-looking conductor.
"This train hasn't terminated here, has it?"
He turns to look at me, surprised somebody's talking to him.
"No, no. Um. We've just got to attach another, um, carriage. No, we will move."
I go back to my seat. "Yeah, we'll be moving on," I say to the Afro-Caribbean. He nods.
Three more people have got on, which is strange. I didn't hear or see the doors open during my brief conversation with the conductor. I settle back down in my seat and stare out the window. All of a sudden the stressed conductor runs past my window, looking like he can't wait to be shot of this rather creepy platform. I can't see where he's heading to as it's now even gloomier, but there doesn't appear to be another platform near. All of a sudden the train lurches silently away from the platform, before stopping a few metres away. I turn and look back. I can't see the station any more from our position marooned on an old railway siding. Perhaps it’s just me but the carriage appears to have got colder. I pull my jacket around me and turn my attention back to the magazine.
Several minutes later the engines rev, then stop, like the driver's trying to start a car. This isn't fun. It's getting late, I'm tired, I've booked a taxi to meet me at my stop, and I'd like to get home at a reasonable hour. The engine fires once more, then goes silent. Suddenly we lurch silently again and we're back on our way.
At Bath Spa, the Afro-Caribbean and the Chinese woman get off, and a very fat ginger-haired woman wearing a floral dress too small for her figure gets on, along with a couple of teenagers. The train starts off again, still eerily silent for a moving vehicle.
At this stage I lose track of the journey as the train stops at several minor stations, as I'm buried in a crossword. My attention's suddenly distracted as one of the girls that boarded at Bath gets up. She turns to what I assume is her boyfriend and pouts, pulling a pose that makes me wonder if she's trained as a dancer. "Fine," she says coyishly, "I'll go over here if you don't want my company." Her boyfriend says nothing, grins and starts rolling a cigarette. As he brings the paper to his lips, without warning, the lights go out in our carriage, save for a flickering one in the middle, and the train begins to slow. It's pitch black outside. Involuntarily I raise my head to look at the lights, as if my gaze will turn them on. It doesn't. Everybody looks around unsure of what to do. The flickering light is both irritating and unsettling. Suddenly the train lurches forward as it speeds up, and the girl almost loses her footing.
The carriage behind ours is fully lit, but nobody seems to want to move into it. It's as if there's some unknown force behind the door that's keeping people from picking up their bags and moving seats. If anything the glow from the second carriage is even more unsettling than the flickering light. I'm not normally afraid of the dark, but I'm slightly unnerved. The lack of noise isn't helping either, but I try to put any thoughts out of my mind as stupid. Although none of the passengers in the carriage have spoken, the unease in the air is clear.
We pull into Westbury and stop again. We're sitting for a good few minutes when suddenly there's an almighty roar as the engine revs up, and the lights come on again. The engine dies and the lights go off again. The carriage behind ours still has its lights on though. The engine revs again, but no lights this time. Suddenly a different conductor leaps into the carriage from the platform. "Get out!" He shouts, with urgency in his voice. "Get out of this carriage! Move! Move into the carriage behind." I've no idea why he's so agitated. Perhaps he's running late and wants to get home, but it's not doing anything to ease the nervousness.
We gingerly move into the second carriage. It's empty except for one of those old, slightly frazzled alcoholic men you get at train and bus stations. His face is flushed red, he's wearing an army camouflage jacket, and has a greying pony tail. He looks up with ravaged eyes as my group enters the carriage, then moves down in his seat.
I select a new seat. From my position I can see the possible ballet dancer girl nervously jigging her foot up and down. I can't see her boyfriend - he's obscured by the seat. There's another massive lurch and the train moves again. The guard comes through and locks the door into the darkened carriage, then hurries back down the train without a word.
We stop at two more rural stations. I've no idea where we are now, as it's impossible to make out anything outside the window. Then, without warning the lights snap off in our carriage and the train grinds to a halt. I sit bolt upright, and look around. It's really difficult to see anything other than outlines. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a sudden movement, and I wheel around in my seat. There's nothing there. I turn back. This is not pleasant. I think about getting up to look for the guard, but I don't feel capable of getting out of my seat. Some strain of my brain keeps telling me it would be a very bad idea to get up, and as long as I stay in my seat I'm safe. Then, as abruptly as they went off, the lights come on again. I look around, everything seems normal, although the fat ginger woman is slumped against the window. Is she asleep? I don't know, but I don't remember her being asleep before the lights went off. He face starts to slide down the window somewhat. Am I being paranoid here? I look around the carriage. Everyone else is looking uneasy still, but no more so than before. The ballet dancer is still jiggling her leg. Then I realise I can't see the old alcoholic guy. Perhaps he got off when I wasn't looking. I turn quickly to see behind me, in case he's there. He's not. We've been stationary for several minutes.
Then, again, we lurch forward and are off again, only this time we're gathering a momentum of speed we've not had before. The noise comes back all of a sudden and it's deafening. I try to relax back into my seat, but it proves impossible. I'm somewhat on edge.
Then, without warning, we stop again. Only there are lights outside, and I realise it's my stop. I pick up my bag and get up, pausing to look at the fat woman. She's still slumped against the window and has slipped a bit further down. I have an urge to poke her with a stick to see if she moves, but decide I'd be better getting off.
I step onto the platform and the air of menace that was present on the train vanishes. Two people get on the train and, as I cross the bridge and the train lurches forward once more, I wonder to myself what their journey will be like.