Behind the counter of the takeaway van, Martha spun the crêpe mixture around the hotplate like a radar. All along the Euston Road, the silver-fronted office blocks stood sharp and glistening against the winter sun. It was 3.25 pm and three days before Christmas – the time of year when London smelled perpetually of cinnamon and scented soap, and the crowds thronged Carnaby Street and Covent Garden for last-minute gifts.
Furtively, under the counter, Martha rubbed her hands together which were both stinging hot from the furnace of the griddle and ice-cold from the biting wind which hollered over the glittering spire of St Pancras. Over the last few weeks, she’d got into the habit of missing breakfast, which meant she now felt sick with hunger.
“Oh come on, luv, hurry up. Blimey-o-riley.”
Martha looked up at the tall, ginger-stubbled man in a black trench coat, who gawped down at her through a chamfered jaw.
“You want it raw?” said Martha, glaring up at the man through slit-thin eyes. It was the last day in a string of back-to-back shifts, and Martha had hit her limit. “Because that’s fine by me. Here, one raw crêpe…”
“Woah, woah, woah, luv, chill out. I was only saying!”
The man seemed shocked; a little frightened, even. He waved his gloved hands across his chest in an attempt to pacify Martha’s sangfroid glare.
“It’s been a long day. Hah, month in fact. I’m sorry,” said Martha, wiping her batter-y fingers on a pile of napkins held down by a smeared yellow bottle of mustard.
“Nah you’re alright, luv” said the man again, in muted half-tones. He reminded Martha of a school bully – unpleasant but surprisingly easy to disarm when faced with a sudden show of strength.
“Five-fifty, sir,” said Martha coolly. “Do you have a Crêpe-Escape card?”
She had served this man before. At least once a fortnight he came past, and always ordered the same thing – a double pulled-pork with extra sour cream and mustard. He had a habit of leaning right over the counter and staring at Martha as if she herself exuded a gravitational pull. She’d feel his eyes peer down at her thin ruddy hands as she self-consciously spatula-ed the crêpe into quadrants before placing it on its napkin triangle. His breath stank of coffee and gum disease and Martha imagined that his job involved overseeing a slew of vulnerable, minimum-wage-employees like herself, tethered down along a bank of computers. There was something about his menacing jaw and wiry ginger bristle that reminded Martha of a wax Neolithic man she’d seen displayed at Madame Tussauds; his huge, wide shoulders and angular jaw wouldn’t have looked out of place on a barren hillside, running at her with a mace.
“Nah, no Crêpe-Escape card,” said the man, hovering his smartphone above the chip-and-pin machine. “Sorry again, luv. Have a decent Christmas won’t ya?”
“Same to you,” said Martha.
A fumy wind blew the length of the street. Buses oblonged in and out of traffic, while people marched to and fro with that indelible London grimace. Back home in Devon, Martha had never known someone not smile as she passed them down the lane. Even the famously grumpy postman, Jim, would muster up a smile and murmur “noyss ‘arrl, Mairtha” with a nod to Martha’s Harry Potter Hedwig necklace that her aunt Eimear had bought her. It was a kind of soft familiarity that Martha was starting to miss for all its mundane, dreary small-mindedness. Over the last month, she’d even started to miss Betty Pritchard and her watery, unintelligent, fish-like eyes, who’d drone on and on about her son, who’s a “famous musician”.
Martha pulled her phone out from under the counter and searched for ‘Once in Royal David City’ on Spotify. She liked the older carols… the ones that actually had a bit of atmosphere, not the ones that were blaring from every brightly-lit department store across town. Opposite, the concertina shutters vertical wiped down over an e-cigarette shop. Ginger-stubble-man had been the last in the queue of workers looking for a quick bite before dissolving into the Soho bars for a debauched night of drugs and booze, the antidote to the insufferably formal office Christmas parties that had taken place last week. This was not the London that Martha had imaged when she arrived in September. The London she had pictured on leaving university featured Sunday walks up Primrose Hill with glamorous, like-minded, bookish work colleagues, clutching mochas, or long carefree Sunday pub lunches in front of the Thames. And yet here she was: in jeans that were nine days old, and a complexion of glossy, pallid skin under her black, split-ended bob and fringe. At least she wasn’t alone – this was a London that her other college friends had become all too familiar with as well. Even ever-jammy Nancy, who had graduated with a double First Class and had a received a sought-after uni prize, now worked in an expenses-only work placement at a tyrannical advertising agency. The city was a leviathan; a sadistic life-sucking animal. It just took took took.
“Not long now, Mam-a-lam,” said Martha’s colleague Andrew, who was bending his lanky body down to extract a new tub of mustard from under the counter. “We will get out of this, Mam-a-lam… even if it means we run away and join a poetry writing commune in Sussex. Agreed?”
Martha smiled at Andrew who’s cheeky slightly gawky face was so full of confidence and optimism and couldn’t help but lift the spirits.
“We will, Ander-ooni,” said Martha dryly. “And I’ll show you that Hughes was actually a bastard and that the real good poetry was written by the Greeks…!” Andrew smiled a dimply gawky grin. “OK if I nip round the back for a munch? I’m actually going to faint with hunger.”
“Munch your heart out!”
Martha opened the van door and headed behind to where the diesel generator snivelled away next to a plastic table and chair. She jabbed at her phone on the table, before clumping a pencil in her mouth to tie her hair into a bun. Facebook was insufferable this time of year – an endless slew of overly-coiffured pictures and Instagram-filtered Christmas trees flanked by mawkish comments about yuletide happiness. A thin pungent smell of sick rose up from the fag-strewn scrubland which fell behind the van as she pulled out a sandwich from her bag. She sighed rolling her head back to the sky. She closed her eyes and didn’t reopen them until she had tilted her head right back, so her gaze could take in nothing but the peerless blue sky above. It looked clean and revitalising and was only disturbed by one tiny jet, which perforated the deep blue air with a vapour trail that went fluffy several miles behind, like a line of fountain pen ink on wet paper.
It was then she heard the first bang.
And then the others. Bang… b-b-b-BANG
Then came the first scream. A man’s. It was shrill and strangely emasculated, oscillating and high pitched. A car screeched to a stop. Footsteps could be heard pattering left and right.
And then silence.
Leaning forward, Martha peered out from her little nook in the gap between the back of the van and the scrubland. Here and there, she spied people vanishing into alcoves and doorways like small fish into coral when a shark noses through a reef.
And then a figured spliced past her eyeline view. He ran in a perfect blur from left to right, his footsteps loud and resonant on the paving slabs. He was quickly followed by two men, dressed in black… guns, strangely metallic and bright in each of their hands.
And then the ticket.
Martha could tell it was a train ticket immediately form the way it fell from the man’s hand: not in a flutter but a sort of rapid spin, in quick circles, like a whirligig. It had landed in the brown moisture of a spilt-coffee puddle, next to a pile of discarded scaffolding joints which lay huddled in a corner like prosthetic limbs. His wallet was alongside. He had jettisoned that as well, along with a flurry of receipts and small change.
Several moments passed as silence held the scene in stasis, broken only by a distant siren and the muffled auto-announcement of the station Tannoy wafting over from King’s Cross. Feeling hot, her legs slightly shaking with the heavy, numb shock that follows a traumatic scene, Martha slowly rose to her feet, her sandwich dropping by her side. Cautiously, like a wounded fox, she inched out from behind the van towards the street. To her left and right, people were starting to move and re-appear from darkened corners. A taxi driver had got out of his cab and was craning a beefy head over a railing. Two dogs ran free from their leads. Gradually, gradually, the noise of traffic started to build once more, notching up louder as if by an invisible DJ controlling the city’s soundtrack. Martha approaching the ticket in the brown puddle, the bottom of her apron dragging inadvertently through the muck. Raising it to her eye, she thumbed over the front to smudge away the dirt and reveal the destination.
King's Cross to North Berwick. First Class. LNER 15.45
Martha checked her watch. The time was 15.39.
Martha was not especially reckless by nature. At school, her reports had always been characterised by rather pedestrian adjectives and phrases: “average”, “fair progress made”, “nothing if not consistent.” Her family had thought the big change would come at university… when she got into boys and was finally unshackled from the quiet parochialism of a small Devon village and its humdrum cast of bland characters. But it never came; she earned her degree in Classics and French with relative ease, she joined the swing dancing club for precisely one term before getting bored, and met two boys – the first with whom she commenced a three-month relationship; and a second, who introduced her to head massages, the books of Murakami and who, eventually, broke her heart. Something about her lankiness and complexion; the dour matter-of-factness inherited, no doubt, from her Austrian mother made her feel she was inherently standoffish to those around her; a fact she’d embraced with a peculiar sort of resigned fondness as the university years flittered away…
But something about this railway ticket, soggy in her hand, released a peculiar, out-of-character adrenal rush of excitement in her. It was a feeling she hardly knew she possessed. Its power seemed covert; voyeuristic and arresting. She knew, for a fact, no-one else had seen it drop from the man’s wallet – it had fallen in the moment he ran past the little hidden gap behind the van and the scrubland. Now they were all too preoccupied with peeking furtively after the chase; or, like ginger stubble man who was still lurking, picking up the scattered coins that had rolled from the chased man’s wallet into the gutter.
Martha looked again at the ticket. The time on it seemed to glow like a blazon.
15.45. 15.45. 15.45.
The ticket would be redundant in six minutes. In six minutes the train doors would slide shut. In five minutes whistles would be sounding. In four minutes the last passengers would be running to the platform with their coffee and suitcases, bulging with Christmas gifts.
She looked over at King’s Cross Station which yowled in its double arches across the road, its turret spiking the chill sky which was turning purply-red with the coming of evening. Where even was ‘North Berwick’? Martha had heard of Berwick-upon-Tweed from an episode of QI, but never ‘North Berwick.’ How far away was it? And who had the man been planning to see, I wonder? His Mum… maybe his wife? He had scooted past so fast, she’d hardly had time to clock his appearance but he hadn’t seemed to her that old or well-dressed. And where was he now? Had the other men caught up with him?
Martha couldn’t purge the image of the train, which had branded in her mind in a mixture of anxiety, tension and excitement. The empty first-class train seat laying waiting… the bone china cup and saucer lying aside a shining knife, fork and spoon. A new antimacassar laid on the headrest of the plush leather seat. A warm air vent, by the footwell. For Martha, the train journey seemed like an alternate reality in a separate universe, both possible but impossible; a tree that had fallen in a wood that no-one was around to hear. A black hole to another university, ready and waiting to be tumbled down.
Martha looked at her watch again. 15.42. She glanced up once more at King's Cross where commuters had begun to reanimate, moving in little individual trajectories, like mice, indifferent to the bang that had ricocheted through their world but moments before.
Sometimes we never know why we do things. We wake up, lift ourselves out of bed, and into the day without knowing what force extracted us from the heavy need to keep laying; or we find 20 years have evaporated in a job, a career, or a miserable relationship without even knowing the moment the malcontent was quietly, despairingly accepted. And so it was that Martha Litchfield found herself being pulled to the looming arches of the station, and towards the patient, warmly-lit confines of the waiting train.