GROWN-UP PEOPLE

Twentysomething accountant Nick Sorrel and his new acquaintance (‘friend’ would be pushing it), Jude Moon, are on their way home from an evening in the pub when Jude decides to take Nick on an adventure…

Twentysomething accountant Nick Sorrel and his new acquaintance (‘friend’ would be pushing it), Jude Moon, are on their way home from an evening in the pub when Jude decides to take Nick on an adventure…

The bus was just pulling up to a stop, about half a mile short of the one where Nick intended to get off. Jude practically dragged him down the stairs and out of the doors before he had time to protest.

As the bus pulled away, Jude looked at his watch. “We haven’t got much time,” he said. “Follow me.”

“Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise. Trust me.”

A couple of minutes later they were standing in front of Canonbury station, a small and rather shabby stop on the line which serves the inner suburbs of North London, arcing round the City and the West End like a ring road. The ticket office had been closed for the night and Nick and Jude went down onto the westbound platform, their footsteps echoing on the bare metal stairs. A row of widely-spaced sodium lamps served mainly to illuminate patches of the chaotic graffiti that covered the back wall. The station was deserted.

Jude led Nick to the far end of the platform, well away from the nearest pool of orange light. He looked along the tracks for a few moments, then stepped back. “Here she comes, right on time. Now, just do exactly what I do.”

Nick followed his gaze and saw an off-white light in the distance, coming slowly closer. A few moments later the tracks began to wince and groan, as if in anticipation of the load they were about to carry.

Jude motioned Nick back into the shadows. “The driver mustn’t see us,” he said in a low voice, though there was no one around to hear them. Nick was caught up in the conspiratorial mood and felt his stomach knotting with tension.

The metallic sound of the tracks gave way to a rumble that grew louder and louder, until finally the train appeared, a dark, squat engine pulling an apparently endless series of trailers. It was travelling very slowly, probably no more than five miles an hour. Some of the trailers near the front of the train carried large rectangular containers, but most were empty. Jude waited until the engine was well past them, and as they moved forward to the edge of the platform, Nick realised what they were going to do. Before he had time to be afraid, Jude cried out “Now!” and jumped onto the empty bed of the trailer that was passing in front of them at that moment. Nick followed a split second later.

The step up from the station platform to the trailer was only a foot or so, but Nick put too much energy into his jump and landed awkwardly, banging his right knee on the metal floor. When he looked up, Jude was sitting on his haunches a few feet away.

“You okay?” he asked. “I bruised myself the first couple of times. Then I worked out that the trick is to land like parachutists do, with both feet together, and then roll onto your side. Of course, you don’t want to overdo the rolling, in case you roll all the way off the other side of the train…”

Nick stood up, but his legs were shaky and he fell on his backside again. He tried again, more slowly this time, and gradually found his balance. Then he turned his attention to his knee, which was throbbing uncomfortably. Jude, meanwhile, had sauntered to the end of the trailer, where he was leaning with his back against a railing. Cautiously, Nick joined him, swaying to the rhythm of the train like a tightrope walker.

“I found out about this by chance,” said Jude, answering the question before Nick had time to ask it. “One of my first temping jobs was in the BR depot at Willesden Junction, where they coordinate the movements of all the goods trains. They use this line in the evenings, after the last passenger train’s gone through. Tuesdays and Thursdays are best for joyriding, that’s when they take the empties back to the depot.

“Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a car transporter. The cars are brand new ones, straight from the factory, and they don’t lock them. It’s a real gas, sitting behind the wheel of a car on the top deck of a transporter, gliding along the railway tracks. Once I fell asleep in the back seat of a Jaguar, and when I woke up I was halfway to Manchester. I had to hitch back.”

Nick let Jude ramble on while he looked around. The railway was flanked on both sides by long rows of tall Victorian terraced houses whose gardens sloped down to the edge of the cutting. The moon was full, and Nick read the graffiti that covered the brick walls of the cutting, angular tags and slogans sprayed in large, bold letters. ‘Pay No Poll Tax’ said one. A fragment of a song from an old children’s TV programme popped into his head. ‘O-ver brid-ges, un-der brid-ges, to our des-tin-a-tion…’

Jude was peering attentively along the tracks with the air of a sailor keeping watch. Following his gaze, Nick saw a bridge ahead, and beyond that the lights of a station. As the trailer passed under the bridge, Jude stiffened.

“Quick, get down!” he hissed dramatically, and threw himself to the trailer bed. Nick followed his lead, just as they drew level with the station platform. He held his breath and felt his heart pounding against the metal floor, but nothing happened.

When they were clear of the station, Jude sprang to his feet and dusted himself down. “Panic over,” he announced cheerfully.

“What was all that about?” muttered Nick as he stood up again.

“Sorry. I just remembered that there’s usually a porter on duty at Highbury on Thursdays. If he’d spotted us, he’d have radioed ahead and someone would’ve nabbed us further down the line. They’re not too keen on joyriders, for some reason. I almost got caught once, but I realised something was up when the train stopped at a station where it doesn’t normally stop. I jumped off and managed to escape through a hole in the fence before the guards saw me.”

He paused, relishing the memory. “Y’know, this must be what it was like back in the Great Depression, when all the hobos were riding the boxcars. That sense of freedom that Woody Guthrie wrote about, living on your wits in the open air, nothing better to do than watch the world go by.”

Nick was about to ask who Woody Guthrie was, but at that moment the train emerged from the cutting and he completely forgot what he was going to say. This was a little way after Caledonian Road station, where the line passed along the northern edge of the jumble of sidings and goods yards that served King’s Cross and St Pancras. In the foreground there was a builder’s yard and a row of tall storage towers with lights twinkling on the top. Beyond, a tangle of railway lines leading over bridges and into and out of tunnels, glinting in the moonlight as they curved away towards the twin stations, where the ludicrous Gothic silhouette of the Midland Grand Hotel was visible on the skyline. As the train ambled along, Nick identified other landmarks: the stark outlines of Centre Point and Euston Tower; the tall column of the Post Office Tower (or whatever it was called these days), bulging at the top like a plant stem and studded with red and white lights; and to the east, the haloed dome of St Paul’s. It was as if he’d crept up on the city from behind and caught it unawares.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a voice. Nick had forgotten about Jude. “There’s something about this view that makes me feel that anything is possible, anything at all.”

And suddenly he raised his face to the moon and howled like a wolf, loud and long, and Nick laughed and joined in until the view was gone and their voices were drowned out by the clatter of the train as it trundled over a bridge.