Karen, stuck at Lundern Central, and frustrated by the unhelpfulness of the Ticket Inspector, is muddled and befuddled about what next to do…
Karen could feel her face turning hot, and red. It was beyond countenance that her father could not travel to her, and that it would be twelve months before she could return to London. Exasperated to the point of speechlessness, she found herself staring at the Ticket Inspector, then turning away, then turning back and staring again, then opening her mouth, not saying anything, closing it and opening it and not saying anything again. Some of Karen wanted to cry. Some of Karen wanted to scream. Thankfully, a lot of Karen was a big, sensible, level-headed girl now, as her father would proudly comment when he thought she could not hear. But still her mouth opened, and closed, to no effect, for want of words to utter. Karen could not think of what to say, but she did think her wide-mouthed silence might give her the appearance of a guppy, so she closed her mouth, and composed herself.
Steadying herself, and looking the Ticket Inspector hard in the eye, Karen stepped towards the Ticket Inspector’s window, and had worked out what to say when, the stork, which had passively kept one eye on proceedings, stretched one long limb ahead of Karen, stood in front of her, and addressed the Ticket Inspector instead.
“You’re a monstrous bully,” said the stork, to the Ticket Inspector, in feminine voice, both high-pitched and serene.
“I dispute that!” protested the Ticket Inspector.
“And I dispute this!” retorted the stork. It not being clear what the stork was disputing, the Ticket Inspector was rendered as speechless as Karen had been. The stork continued: “this poor girl is looking for a way to get home. Can’t you be a little bit more helpful?”
“No, not really,” replied the inspector. “It’s my job to inspect tickets, not to change schedules to suit young ladies who get on trains that go the opposite way to the way they want to go.”
“Very well,” said the stork. “Then perhaps you could be a lot more helpful?”
The Inspector sniffed loudly, and as he did his nostrils flared, completing an expression of contempt. “No, I can’t be a lot more helpful, either.”
“Well, could you be helpless then?” suggested the stork.
“I’m not helpless. I’ve got more help than you can shake a stick at.”
“Oh, so if you’ve got that much help, you must be full of help? Well, that’s good, because we were looking for someone helpful. All that help must really weigh you down. Maybe you should give some to this girl. She obviously needs some.”
“Very well,” the Ticket Inspector puffed out his cheeks, “I’ll try to help if I can, but what does she want me to do?”
The stork turned to Karen, and spoke very slowly, as if addressing an imbecile. “Dear girl, what do you want the Ticket Inspector to do?”
“I need to get back to Westminster,” said Karen to the stork.
“She needs to get back to Westminster,” said the stork to the Inspector.
“She can go back in a year’s time,” said the Inspector to the stork.
“You can go back…” started the stork, but Karen interrupted.
“Yes, I understand that already,” insisted Karen. “I was wanting to go back sooner. Is there another way to go back?”
“She could walk,” said the Inspector to the stork.
“You could walk,” said the stork to Karen.
“How far is it?” said Karen to the Inspector.
“Well I don’t know. Tell her that I only know times, not distances,” said the Inspector to the stork.
“He doesn’t know,” said the stork to Karen.
Karen noticed her foot was involuntarily tapping on the floor. Between the stork and the Inspector, she feared she would lose her temper long before the conversation made any useful progress. Karen took a sharp intake of breath, and tried to start again.
“Is there another way to get back to Westminster?” asked Karen of the Inspector, “like a bus?”
“What’s a bus?” asked both the stork and the Inspector, simultaneously.
“Like a coach,” said Karen.
“Are you in training?” asked the stork.
“Not that kind of coach,” said the Inspector. “You mean a carriage, don’t cha?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so,” responded Karen, tentatively.
“Well there ain’t any carriages that go that far,” answered the Inspector.
The stork interrupted before Karen could speak, “you said before that you didn’t know how far it is to London.”
“I don’t know how far, but I do know it’s too far,” insisted the Inspector. “Carriages don’t go outside the city limits, not since the Vizier ruled that horses can’t break curfew. If they was to go outside the city limits, they might not be back home in time, and then they’d be in a right load of trouble.”
“Are you saying that the carriages are pulled by horses?” asked Karen. She quite liked the idea of riding in a horse-drawn carraige, but wondered why they were suggesting such an impractical mode of transport. “Don’t you have ordinary buses?”
“Not that I know of,” said the Inspector. “We’ve got trains, both underground and above ground, and carriages, or coaches as you call them, and we’ve got canal boats and we’ve got airships, but we don’t have buses, whatever they are.”
If horses sounded exciting, airships sounded extraordinary. “Could I take an airship to London?” Karen secretly hoped she could.
“It’s possible, I suppose,” replied the Inspector, “but not from here. Perhaps if you check at Waterpool Station, or Liverloo Street, they might have one going the right way.”
“Well that’s something good. And how do I get to Waterpool, or Liverloo Street?”
“You can’t,” said the Inspector.
“He’s right, you know,” said the stork.
“No I don’t know,” grumbled Karen, “and why can’t I go to another station?”
“Well, first off, we don’t get along with those stations, so you’ll have to walk to them. Then, secondly, it’s too late to walk, you’ll never make it to either before curfew. And thirdly, you’re not ensured.”
“He means insured,” said the stork, not entirely clarifying the problem to Karen’s satisfaction.
“What do you mean, I’m not insured?” asked Karen, thinking it wisest to deal with the last obstacle first.
“Everybody needs to be ensured,” said the Inspector, “you have to have ensurance to insure you’re safe.”
“I know I do,” added the stork. “They make me take flight insurance, in case I fly into things. And bite insurance, in case something bites me. And fright insurance, in case I get scared and faint. And height insurance, in case…” but Karen butted in.
“Well, how do you know I don’t have insurance?” protested Karen.
“You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?” chuckled the Inspector. “If you had insurance, you would have telephoned the insurance helpline, and asked them for help with getting back home.”
“He’s right you know. If you had insurance, you would have called them already. They solve most people’s problems for them. They simply hate having to pay out on a policy and will do anything to avoid it.”
Karen slipped her hand inside her pocket and felt her purse. She squeezed it, as if to judge how much was inside. And then she asked: “how do I get insurance?”
“You can’t, at least not at this time of night. You’ll need to get some tomorrow morning,” said the Inspector.
“So I can’t leave this station until tomorrow morning?” exclaimed Karen.
“You can’t leave even then,” replied the Inspector, “not without ensurance. You can’t walk anywhere without first getting ensurance. But you could catch a train.”
“But I want to go back to London.”
“The next train to London leaves in a year.”
“She knew that already,” interjected the stork. Karen felt the stork was trying to help, though she was failing miserably. And then the stork surpassed Karen’s low expectations. “You could give her a waiver.”
“A waiver?” said Karen.
“A waiver?” said the Inspector, “I suppose I could. It’s irregular, though.”
“What kind of waiver?” asked Karen.
“An insurance waiver, my dear,” replied the stork, once again talking to Karen like she was the most ignorant girl in the world.
“But somebody will need to escort her as she walks around town.”
“I’ll escort her.”
Karen was unsure what to make of the stork’s offer, but her motives seemed kind and genuine. Though Karen would hardly have chosen to spend her evening following a stork around, it seemed the best of the limited options available, given the only alternative seemed to be living in the station for next year of her life. The Ticket Inspector, possibly glad to be rid of Karen and the stork, said nothing as he stood up and fetched a large pad of paper from a draw in a tall wooden storage cabinet at the back of his room. He carried it back, and sat down, and lifted up his pen.
“What’s your name?”
“Cecilia Down,” answered the stork.
Karen hesitated, then realized it was her turn, “Karen Zipslicer. Would you like me to spell it?”
“No, I don’t trust your spelling,” was the Inspector’s gruff reply. He scribbled rapidly, and in a few seconds, tore the perforated paper from the pad, and slid it across his counter towards the stork, who we now know is called Cecilia. Cecilia picked up the waiver in her bill, and tucked it under a wing, saying thanks to the Inspector as she did.
“Thank you,” added Karen, after a moment.
“You’re welcome,” said the Ticket Inspector, in a not especially welcoming voice, especially as he immediately added, “now it’s time for my break,” and he pulled down a blind in front of his window. Words were printed on the blind in block letters: ‘Not here now. Back later.’
Cecilia turned to face Karen, but then looked past her, at a large rattling arrivals board suspended from a wall some way behind her. Karen looked around at the board too, and as she did, it rattled again, and a new train had risen to the top slot. “It’s time for me to collect my package,” said Cecilia. “You wait here, whilst I go and fetch it,” and with that, Cecilia stretched her long legs and rapidly walked away, towards and then down a stairway beneath the arrival board. With Inspector and Cecilia gone, Karen was quite alone. This side concourse was empty and quiet, but a hubbub emanated from the main concourse. At first Karen stood still, looking across at the scene as the strange passengers of Lundern made their way to and fro. After a few minutes, Karen ambled towards the glass partition that separated this part of the station from the main concourse, becoming more inquisitive, the closer she was to it. The station was populated by many peculiar characters, both human and animal. Many women wore bonnets, and men wore hats, whilst most animals went unclothed, though some wore caps fastened around their heads by string. The women looked like quite pretty, thought Karen, though some of their bonnet brims were so long as to completely hide the wearer’s face. There were many types of animal, from little mice to one tall llama, though all seemed courteous enough to mind where they trod, and none demanded right of way. Some of the people and some of the animals wore what looked like dark glasses, which was odd, as the evening light had faded, and the hall was lit only by dim lanterns. Animals acted like people, and people acted somewhat like animals, and none paid much attention to the other, except to remain a polite distance from one another, as if everything in the scene was ordinary, though disorderly, as they all weaved past each other. Karen was engrossed for a little while, and then it occurred to her that she was above ground, and she reached for her mobile phone. There was no signal, and Karen looked at it, disappointed. She mused about how to get a message to her father, reassuring him that all was fine, for the moment, though Karen more wanted to hear his reassuring voice. But there seemed no way to contact him. She supposed that Cecilia, the stork, would have to help Karen find somewhere to spend the night, so she could catch an airship home tomorrow. And whilst she imagined what it would be like to fly in an airship, and where she might find herself sleeping, Karen heard Cecilia’s high-pitched voice above the din of the crowds, calling to her from the other side of the glass. “Come along now,” said Cecilia, who spoke whilst taking care not to drop a package suspended from her beak by a muslin hammock.
Karen found a door and walked briskly across the main concourse towards Cecilia. Cecilia stood perfectly still and upright, looking quite majestic, unmoved by the streams of commuters that parted to pass around her. In contrast, Karen found it troublesome to navigate her way across the hall. She changed direction or broke stride after every few steps, such was the pellmell of people and creatures. A rabbit tutted at Karen, when she nearly stepped upon it, and a fox gave her a stern look when she obstructed its path. Karen felt quite awkward compared to Lundern’s inhabitants. Whilst the people and animals traversed the concourse with a grace that might match a dancer’s, Karen was as out of place as a fish on dry land. Eventually, after much stopping and starting, Karen arrived at Cecilia, who, without saying a word, lead the way to the exit on the far side of the station. Somehow it was much easier for Karen to make progress, now that she walked in Cecilia’s wake. Though glad to be going somewhere, Karen was eager to know more. She raised her voice, and asked: “where are we headed?”
“I have to make a delivery. They’re nice people; they’ll put you up for the night.”
“A delivery? Of what?”
“My dear, I’m an obstetrician, don’t you know?”
“An obstetrician… does that mean you’re delivering babies?”
“That’s right. I deliver babies.”
“They don’t deliver babies like this, where I come from.”
“Really?” and Cecilia seemed to smile to herself, like she thought that Karen was talking the most perfect nonsense. “Well, how do they deliver them, where you come from?” asked Cecilia.
“Oh, it’s complicated,” answered Karen, truthfully.
They had reached the grand arches of the exit now, and as they stepped outside on to the cobbled street, the crowds subsided and Cecilia could comfortably turn back to Karen.
“But you’re carrying a box,” said Karen, most bemused. “Do you deliver babies in a box?”
“I do sometimes,” said Cecilia. “Take a look inside,” suggested Cecilia, “but be very quiet – we don’t want to disturb the little mites.”
Karen bent over, and gently placed her hands underneath the hammock held in Cecilia’s bill. Lifting it closer to her face, she could properly see the box within the hammock. It was square, and made of cardboard. Round holes had been made in the top and one of the sides; they were large enough for an eye to look through. Lifting the box higher, towards the light from a street lantern, Karen placed her eye up to a hole in the side of the box. Inside, she could dimly see three white kittens, with eyes closed, seemingly sleeping on a thin bed of straw. Unable to resist, she commented: “they’re so cute.”
“They are,” agreed Cecilia, “but come, we have to get them home now.”