Retford station is where dreams go to die. To wait there is to step into the Narnia of the rail network, you will wait hours, maybe days for a connecting train, yet when it arrives it transpires that you have stood there waiting for only ten or fifteen minutes. You can’t kill time at Retford station; you can only prolong its suffering. Reading this you will more than likely be wondering ‘where is Retford?’ and that’s the thing about the place; everyone has heard of Retford, yet no-one can quite place it, it is the nation’s Ilium bone, the ‘wasn’t he once in The Bill?’ of the railways.
Retford station’s Narnia like existence in a location beyond the normal laws of time and space is cemented by a platform layout conceived by MC Escher, all stairs and no substance. At almost any other station in the world arriving on platform 3 and departing on platform 2 would be a matter of feet and inches; at Retford it involves a five minute walk. As I walk that walk I overtake a couple of stragglers, a man and a woman dropping off the back of the peloton of travellers;
“Have you got access to the internet?
“Ah there’s this clip on YouTube; cliff diver splits face open… He dies three days later.”
Faced with fifteen minutes here at Retford I can’t stop myself thinking ‘lucky bastard’.
Platform 2 faces away from the station and across an industrial yard backed by empty offices which pimp themselves to passing commuters with two huge arrows detailing the time it takes to get to London or Leeds. Anywhere but here. A couple of teenage girls plonk themselves down noisily on the bench next to me;
“All this week right, I’m not gonna look in a mirror,” says one, apropos of nothing.
“Why not?” asks her friend, eventually.
“Nuns do it don’t they, for like purity and that, not look in a mirror”
“How do they get that thing to stay on their head then?”
‘Habit’ I’m willing here to say habit. It’s a beautiful gag, her friend as thrown it up for her perfectly, all she needs to do now is whack it out of the park, send it sailing into the cheap seats. Come on, you can do it. It’s your big moment. Come on… Habit. Habit, habit, habit.
“They must just know,” she shrugs. Eric Morecambe’s corpse twitches, “but I’m gonna do it.”
“Hmmm,” muses her friend, “no sex and not looking in a mirror? No thanks”.
Darkness has drawn in by the time the train arrives and I enter the carriage walking through a cross-aisle conversation between two middle-age Geordie women;
“Was he ugly?”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder Janet”
“Bollocks to that, so he was ugly then”
It’s a busy train, but there’s an empty couple of seats midway down. An attractive girl coming the opposite way down the carriage heads for them too. “Ah that’s my seat,” I say, pointing at the reserved ticket. It isn’t. “…unless you’d prefer to sit by the window.” She smiles and thanks me. As opening lines go that was pretty successful. It’s a shame that I’ll be stood in my kitchen trying to prise a stubborn piece of toast from the toaster two days from now when I finally think of a suitable follow-up.
We are travelling in the peculiar hinterland that exists between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night. Beyond the window, bright shards of green and red burst and fall from high above the villages dotted across the blackness of the countryside; meanwhile in the vestibule a witch is being chatted up by a mummy whilst a mad scientist leans on the luggage rack supping a can of Strongbow. The costumed clan alight at Doncaster, startling an old woman waiting to board.
As is often the case on busy trains, like minds seem to seek each other out when finding free seats. Somewhere over my left shoulder sit just a couple, the two poshest people in the whole carriage, thrown together by fate. Snippets of their conversation carry above the general hubbub;
“…he was the stallion man…”
“…all my girls are a bit horsey you know…”
“…my two boys are away at boarding school currently…”
“…Yah, he’s riding at the moment actually…”
“…No, they’re doing work experience in the city at the moment…”
The man laughs at regular intervals, a laugh that sounds as though he’s choking on a particularly tough piece of guinea fowl; haughty with a ratchety clack to it, like someone putting up the net on a real tennis court.
Approaching York people begin readying themselves to leave, taking out strangers as they fling scarves over shoulders and thrust arms through coat sleeves. On the seat in front a man moves into the aisle to allow a stern looking woman seated by the window to leave. She stands and faces the man for a short yet uncomfortable silence, before he cracks and offers an inquisitive shrug. “I need to go that way,” she barks, despite being nearer to the exit behind her, causing the man to apologise as if he’d used the wrong cutlery at a swanky dinner party. Saying sorry profusely whilst simultaneously wondering why it even matters.