The ticket (Chapter One)
Behind the counter of the van, Martha spun the crêpe mixture like a radar. All along the Euston Road, the silver-fronted offices stood sharp and glistening against the sun. It was early October – the time of year when the London air turns crisp and the tang of cinnamon and chestnut hangs sweeter around the stalls of Covent Garden and Portobello Road.
Martha’s hands prickled. Little blotches of chap ran from her wrist down to her fingers, the result of hours spent hovering above the searing griddle. Using her free hand, she rummaged along the back of the counter, her fingertips brushing old receipts, dud pens and hand sanitiser bottles, until they curled around a cylinder of Pringles. Thank God. She’d got into the habit of missing breakfast over the last fortnight. As a result, at 11.45 am on this surprisingly crisp Autumn day, she was nauseous with hunger.
“Oh come on, luv, hurry up. Blimey-o-riley.”
Martha coolly eyed the tall in a trench coat who loomed over her, his ginger stubble and chamfered jaw half-formed into a grimace.
“You want it raw?” said Martha through slit-thin eyes. It was the last day in a line of back-to-back shifts and Martha had hit her limit. “Because that’s fine by me, sir. Here you go… one tasty, completely raw crêpe…”
“Woah, woah, luv, chill out. I was only saying.”
The man recoiled, hands out in a gesture of gangsta-esque reconciliation. He seemed shocked; a little frightened even. Martha maintained her sangfroid glare. She was good at this game; the quick-thinking, razor-sharp take down was something she prided herself on, like her ability to perfectly mimic the voice of her attacker when called for. She often thought that if she were an animal, she’d be a small but fearsome woodland creature, like a spike-backed porcupine that runs suddenly at its attacker.
“It’s been a long day, sir. A damn long month, in fact. I’m sorry,” said Martha, wiping her batter-y fingers on a pile of napkins held down by a smeared bottle of mustard.
“Nah you’re alright, luv,” said the man, his surprised expression sliding into a smile. “I know where I stand now.” He reminded Martha of a school bully – unpleasant, but easy to disarm when faced with a sudden display of strength.
“Five-fifty, sir,” said Martha. “Crêpe-Escape card?”
She had seen this guy before. At least once a fortnight he came by and always ordered the same thing – a double pulled-pork with extra sour cream. He had a domineering way about him; a habit of leaning right over the counter and staring at Martha as if she exuded a gravitational pull. She’d got used to the unpleasant feeling of his eyes probing down at her botchy hands as she self-consciously spatula-ed the crêpe into quadrants. His breath stank of coffee and gum disease. Martha suspected that his job involved overseeing a slew of vulnerable, minimum-wage employees like herself, tethered along a bank of computers in some high rise off the Euston Road. There was something about his menacing jaw and ginger bristle that reminded Martha of a Neolithic man she’d seen displayed at Madame Tussauds; he wouldn’t have looked out of place on a barren hillside, running at her with a mace.
“Nah, no Crêpe-Escape card luv,” said the man, hovering his smartphone above the chip-and-pin machine. “Sorry again, luv. Have a decent weekend, won’t ya?”
“Same to you. Sorry,” said Martha.
A fumy wind blew over the concrete piazza sending people clutching for their coats. Opposite a sandwich board toppled over with a startling clatter as buses mooched alongside the gothic towers of St Pancras. Martha people-watched from the protective confines of the van, trying to guess at the jobs and sex lives of the commuters. Up and down they marched, each and every one of them wearing that distinctive, grim-faced stare shared universally by all hurrying Londoners. 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 grin and murmur “noyss ‘arrl, Mairtha” with a nod to Martha’s Harry Potter Hedwig necklace that her aunt Eimear had bought her. It was exactly that gentle, innocent familiarity that Martha had starting to miss for all its dreary small-mindedness. Over the last weeks, to her surprise, she’d caught herself thinking fondly of Harold Lyndhurst and his earthy-smelling living room with its Lady Diana plates handing down the wall; and Brexit-loving Annie from the bridge society with her hanky tucked up her cardigan sleeve… even Betty from the Coop with her unintelligent, fish-like eyes who droned on and on about her son Pete in the “big city” (Exeter), who’s now a “famous musician in talks with those YouTube people.”
Martha pulled her phone out from her apron pocket and searched for the Pulp on Spotify. Different Class was on track to becoming her favourite album of all time, even though she’d only heard it for the first time last summer at an end-of-exams party. The lyrics seemed to speak directly to her soul. She’d often rewind, time and time over, just to hear that delicious sliding drop into the first few seconds of “Common People”. She hit play and placed the phone on the till drawer. Martha shut her eyes and took in a deep breath, losing herself in the music. It was late Friday afternoon and ginger-stubble-man had been the last customer in a flurry of workers looking for a quick bite before dissolving into the Soho bars for a debauched night of drugs and booze; the antidote to another insufferably bland week of meetings and suit-clad presentations. This was not the London that Martha had imaged when she arrived in July. The London she had pictured on leaving Devon 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 facial complexion of glossy, pale skin under a split-ended fringe. At least she wasn’t alone – this was a London that her other friends had become all too familiar with as well. Even the people in the years ahead, like her scholarship-winning Orla who had just graduated from Oxford, now worked in an expenses-only placement at a tyrannical advertising agency. The city was a leviathan; a sadistic life-sucking animal. It just took took took.
“Nearly time, 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 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 Plath and E. E. Cummings.…!”
“I’ll give you E. E. cummings,” said Andrew, smiled gawkily.
“Lols” said Martha. “OK if I nip round the back for a munch as it’s gone quiet? I’m actually going to faint with hunger.”
“Munch your heart out!”
Martha took a can of Coke out the fridge before leaning over to knick two snack bars from the outside of the counter. Chris, her manager, was away this week and stock could go “missing” without questions asked. Opening the van door, she headed behind to where a diesel generator snivelled away next to a table and chair. She sat, clamping a pencil between her teeth to re-tie her hair back into a bun. In quiet moments like this, her mind only churned around one topic: money. Her salary didn’t come in for three more days and she was already overdue with her rent. She pictured her landlord, Mitch, sitting at the bottom stair of her Dagenham flat, his finger and thumb rubbing together expectantly. Perhaps she could ask Andrew again for a loan? Maybe. Or there were those QuidQuid apps she heard about on the van radio. An option, maybe. But hopefully she could be late. Just by a couple of days. She pulled her phone from her apron and jabbed along the Instagram news feed. Facebook was always insufferable, but this year it was all the worse because most of her classmates were now at uni. Picture after picture diorama’d before her eyes; Richard in Bristol, studying law… a picture of him and two blonde girls smiling in front of an impressive-looking bridge; Fran at Lancaster, her famous uber-bouffant hear of curly hair second along in the university’s coral society line-up; and Orla – the bright one – at Oxford, staring importantly at a library shelf, his face in profile.
A thin, pungent smell of sick rose up from the fag-strewn scrubland which stretched out behind the van. Martha winced as she pulled the granola bars from her apron pocket and tore the cellophane wrapper. Taking a bite, she rolled her head back to gaze at the sky. To her tired, eyes it look like an endless blanket that she could drift away on forever. It was perfect, except for one tiny jet which perforated the deep blue with a vapour trail, that went fluffy, like a line of fountain pen ink on wet paper.
It was then she heard the first shout.
“Jesus.” Martha leapt to her feet.
Then a cacophony of running feet. And a man’s voice, shrill and cracking with volume:
“Stop him. Stop that man!”
Martha inched along the back of the van to the gap where it opened out to the piazza. To her left, a car had screeched to a halt, its horning peeling in a constant hoot.
“Him, him… get him!”
Under her flat shoes, Martha felt the pound of footsteps reverberate through the concrete slabs. Suddenly, rounding the corner of the van, a thin, dishevelled man came running.
“Oi, oi, oiiiiiiiiii! Stop that guy,” the voice continued, out of sight.
She caught the man’s profile as he dashed by. He’d had a small puffy face, that was for sure. And what looked like a longish beard. Moments later, in his wake, there came the unmistakable odour of booze and mildew. Quickly after, two men in suits followed, one rounding to a stop, panting, his hands on his knees.
“Did you see where that bloke went?”
“No, sorry,” breathed Martha.
“Fucking bastard,” mouthed the man. “Where’d the fuck he go?”
“Come on, let’s keep at it,” said the second man, his sweat patches already showing through his suit and his face shiny with redness. The pair of them resumed running in the direction of the station.
Silence. Martha stood, a little bewildered and confused. Necks craned in the direction of the station. Here and there, people began slinking out of doorways and alcoves where they’d taken cover like shoals of fish when a shark stalks a reef. Londoners are hard-wired to take cover during any kind of disturbance these days; only last week, Martha saw a couple of people take to their heels after a car backfired on a sideroad. What was this? An attic? A mugging? She thought back to the first man she’d seen running, presumably the thief. He didn’t have the appearance of an organised criminal; the smell that accompanied him made her think he was almost definitely one of the local homeless men who slept under the arches of St Pancras station. There were six or so of them, all dishevelled and wrinkle-faced, though they could be any age. Martha often stopped by to give them the tip change at the end of the shift or would pass by on her lunch break to ask if she could get them something to eat. Poor guy, she thought.
Martha leapt like a startled cat. In the space behind the van, something had fallen. A wallet. Martha could tell immediately from its canvass sides which were flat out like wings. Martha turned her head around the piazza. No-one was looking. Flinchingly, Martha crept towards the wallet as if it were a dangerous tropical insect that could bear spikes upon sensing her arrival. She looked over the scrubland at the back of the van. The wallet must’ve lobbed. Chucked in a big arc from over by the station by the running man. She scooped it gently and peered inside.
And then it dropped. The ticket.
She could tell what it was immediately by the way it fell, not in a flutter but in spinning circles, like a whirligig. Between customers, Martha had become accustomed to watching any number of used tickets pirouette their way along the Euston Road, before coming to a halt in a puddle of spilt coffee. Her and Andrew had even bet their lunch break times once on which ticket would end up getting puddle-drowned first. She had won and could take her lunch at 12.30 rather than 3pm. Martha stepped on the ticket to stop it being taken by the breeze. With a glance over her shoulder, she bent down, cupping her palms around the ticket as if it were a butterfly she was helping escape from a greenhouse. Turning it over, she smeared a strip of dirt off the front to reveal the destination. King’s Cross to Edinburgh. First Class. LNER. Saturday 14th October. 11.30am.
Over at King’s Cross, the soft murmur of the auto-announcer wafted through the air. The noise of traffic began to rebuild, notching up as if controlled an out-of-sight DJ. Martha walked back round to the front of the van, tucking the wallet and ticket into her apron pocket.
Nobody had seen.