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Friday short story time: "Underground Angels"

Good morning. Today’s story was inspired by a brief Twitter interaction I had with pleasant authoring chap Nick Harkaway. Do read his book The Gone-Away World, it’s pretty fun.

I would write more pre-amble, but I am quite tired and have to put some trousers on and go to work in a minute. More stories are available. Thank you.

Underground Angels

By Nick Bryan

It was late at night. So late that the train driver had stopped bothering to tell his passengers about the delays. They stopped, started, slowed, and Jemima was seriously regretting staying out so late.

She didn’t even drink, for christ’s sake, so didn’t even have the excuse of being judgment impaired. Usually, she’d have left at a sensible hour. And the one time she didn’t, she was stuck in a metal box. This unsettlingly empty late service, bombing from one end of rural Kent to the other.

It was a little after midnight; where were all the drunks? You could normally rely on late services to contain at least one City Boy trying his best to be subtle as he puked into his briefcase.

But no-one. No-one at all. Jemima thought she spotted a person in the next carriage along, and had half a mind to leap out at the next station and move along. She tried not to let tedious societal rules about travelling alone at night dictate her life, but she’d feel better if there was a relatively innocuous member of the public in her eyeline.

Alas, the train came to another juddering halt, minutes before the next station. Jemima had stopped trying to focus her eyes on the outside world long ago, as it was one long mass of black with intermittent flashing lights. But with movement ceased, she stared harder and a texture began to come into focus. It was that a rough stone wall.

And after getting this line a hundred times before, Jemima knew where she was: inside a tunnel. With a few feet of rock between her and the outside world, she waited for the driver to finally say something.

Or the train to move.

Or anything to happen.

For five minutes, this went on. For the first time in her adult life, Jemima considered a sincere tug of the red emergency handle, but that seemed futile. Surely the driver had noticed they were not moving?

Unless, of course, he had suffered a massive heart attack and was now slumped over his levers, choking out his last breath. Well, pulling the communication lever would be equally useless in that scenario.

Finally, she tugged her mobile phone from her pocket. No signal, not a single tiny pixellated bar. It said “Emergency calls only”, but that was merely a teasing afterthought. The mocking remnant of vanished connectivity, hanging in there to remind her that the phone took far too damn long to realise it was dead.

She thrust it away and slumped her head back. Still, at least she didn’t have to worry about personal safety – not when buried under all this stone in an empty carriage. Any potential rapist would need a pneumatic drill, and she didn’t think she was worth all that effort.

So she sat and wished she’d got a book, instead of a tiny handbag containing a mobile phone and some money. Of course, that was when the train caught fire.

Jemima had seen sparks leaping up from the wheels of moving trains before, sometimes as they zapped along at maximum velocity, and other times whilst grinding to a halt. But to her dying day, she didn’t know what happened this time. Maybe something jumped across from the live wire, or trains had moving parts she didn’t know about, even when the whole rig is at a standstill.

Regardless, it started burning at the base of the access door at one end of the carriage. By the time Jemima caught sight of the smoke, the flooring was warmed up, flames licking along underneath her. As the fire began to attack at the end, thick grey licks were wafting in under the main doors in the middle. Maybe it had been burning ever since the train stopped.

Finally, without help, Jemima tugged that red lever. It did absolutely nothing. Either the driver had already fled, or whatever connected the carriage to him had been burnt away. She growled.

So, while she was trying stupid things, she retrieved the mobile phone again. “Emergency calls only” it still declared, with an implied smirk, as surely it wouldn’t work underground? Still, she was now stuck between two advancing flames, and it was either this or hurl herself bodily through the windows. Obviously, that was next.

Quickly, she dialled 999 and waited until this was over with. Her absent signal bars suggested that she should not get her hopes up.

So none were more surprised than Jemima when a friendly male voice answered after a few seconds. ‘Hi there! Last Ditch Emergency Rescue, how may we assist you?’

She wasn’t sure, for a few seconds. So confused was she by the mere presence of the voice, she nearly forgot that she was trapped in a rapidly heating tin can, moments from being oven-roasted to perfection.

But when a bead of sweat formed on her brow, it did come back to her.

‘Hi, yeah, um, I’m in a train near Chislehurst, and it appears to be on fire, so can you… um, help?’

‘Certainly, ma’am.’

The man didn’t ask for any further information, so Jemima decided to inquire instead. ‘Um, who are you? And how am I, you know, talking to you?’

‘Last Ditch, ma’am. Have faith and you shall be saved. You’d be amazed how many people try a hopeful call on their mobiles when they think it’ll never work. Seemed a good market to move into.’

She fell over her words at that, but finally came up with: ‘So this is about religion?’

‘Good lord, no. We pulled a Satanist out of a lake in rural Cornwall once. Nice chap, but strange piercings.’

Jemima wasn’t sure what to say to that. Suddenly, a burly man with a large hosepipe prised the doors open and attacked the fire with extreme prejudice. Briefly, Jemima wondered if he would be needing to sling her over his shoulder.

Liked this story? Want to steal it and post it somewhere of your own? Please at least email and tell me first. Copyright Nick Bryan 2011, or whatever the cool kids say.


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