After being separated from her father and brother, and being tossed head over heel during a topsy-turvy tube journey, Karen Zipslicer arrives at Lundern Central station…
Karen stood, taking pause. Her heart had been racing. She breathed deep, trying to restore her calm. Seconds passed. Karen was composed again. She reasoned that there was nothing to really worry about; her father would soon come and find her. He would be on the next tube train and then they would be reunited: Karen, Dad and James, together. The best course of action was for Karen to do nothing, to stay right where she was, waiting for her father to find her.
Wherever she was, and Karen was not confident she knew where she was, but wherever it was, she did not like it very much. She hoped her father would arrive soon. The platform was grey and dusty. The white tiles on the walls had long been discoloured by smoke, though she could not imagine where that smoke could have come from. The evening sun poured in through grills in the ceiling, several metres above Karen’s head. They left the train and platform striped by light and darkness. She was alone, and the platform was silent save for a gentle murmur of crowds walking and talking on the street above. The sound of the people slid through the ceiling grills along with the sunlight. As they bustled, they cast shadows, projecting slanted versions of themselves on to the wall by which Karen stood. At one point, the shadow of a horse clip-clopped its way along the full length of the platform, in time with the noise of its hooves on the street above. Time went by, and Karen waited patiently.
Whilst waiting, Karen started thinking about the tube train that had carried her here. It was still resting on the tracks in front of her. By now, it should have moved on. Karen reached a simple but indisputable conclusion: if it did not move, then no other train could come and take its place. And if no other train could take its place, then her father could not get to her. She became anxious. Karen looked up and down the platform again, but there was no sign indicating how long it would be before the next train arrived. She walked up and down the platform, but there was no schedule pinned to the wall. Karen bit her top lip, willing herself not to be nervous. She turned one way, then the other, then back again. It did not help. She walked one way, then the other, then back again. Karen was winding herself up. A deep voice resonated over the train’s tannoy: “Can I help you, young lady?” Of course! The driver of the train would know the schedule. Karen cocked one heely, and speedily wheelied herself down the platform, towards the driver’s cabin. She whizzed her way there as fast as she could, and at the platform’s end she pivoted sharply, abruptly stopping just like an ice skater. Karen faced the driver’s cabin. But Karen could see no driver.
“Can I help you, young lady?” repeated the deep and velvety voice, but this time without the tannoy. It definitely emanated from within the driver’s cabin. But no person was in there. Karen stepped up closer to the train. The windows were grimy, but a little square hatch was open in the platform-side window. Karen pushed her face right through it, to better see the interior of the cabin, though the hatch was too small for the rest of her head to follow. The cabin was narrow. There were no seats. At most, two people could have stood in it, side by side, facing forward. There was really not much to look at, yet Karen looked very intently. She searched with her eyes, but there was nobody to see. “Hello?” said Karen. On the dashboard of the train sat a cage made of wire, with a wooden base. From within the cage, the voice responded. “Hello. Are you having difficulties, young miss? You seem a little… agitated.” Karen stared. She looked at the cage, but was momentarily unable to think of a response. The cage was the sort that might house a small pet. It had a wheel for a small animal to run around, some straw bedding, and a long-spouted water bottle protruding through the bars. Karen stared, and hesitated, and finally she rediscovered her manners. “To whom am I speaking?” asked Karen, using her most polite voice. At this, within the cage, a hamster’s head popped up above the straw. Upon his head, the hamster wore a black leather helmet, and around his face he wore goggles with thick lenses. Through the lenses, the hamster’s tiny black eyes peered into the relatively enormous hazel eyes of Karen. Karen’s eyes peered back. He looked at her, and she looked at him, and neither broke their gaze, nor blinked. Their faces were, at most, a couple of feet apart. They looked at each other some more, in silence, and then the hamster said, most matter-of-factly, “you are speaking to me. Now, is there something the matter?”
It took a while for Karen to appreciate that the hamster was talking; the hamster’s mouth did not move in time with his speech. In fact, it looked like the hamster was chewing on a sunflower seed, or something similar. Also, the resonant and sonorous voice was not at all how Karen imagined a hamster might talk, if she were to imagine such a thing. “Are you a hamster?” asked Karen, and then immediately regretted such a stupid question.
“Umm. Yes, but I would have thought that’s fairly obvious, and unrelated to your apparent distress. You’re a human, are you not? But I suspect your being an ape is not what’s the matter, any more than my being a rodent is a matter for your concern.”
“Yes, yes I am. And no, you’re right, it doesn’t matter that you’re a hamster,” and Karen was flustered, both at having such an unexpected conversation and at inadvertently insulting a tiny furry creature that talked so intelligently. “I’m very sorry,” said Karen, and she genuinely was. “I’ve never spoken to a hamster before. Or, to be exact, a hamster’s never spoken to me before, at least as far as I know.”
The hamster stared blankly at Karen. And then he pointed out: “I’m not just a hamster, you know. I’m also the driver of this train. But I’m not just that either. I’m much more than both. Labels are so limiting. So let’s not descend into pigeon-holing one another, but instead focus on the matter at hand.”
“But perhaps you like holes,” said Karen, without thinking. She immediately regretted it.
“Young miss, are you insinuating something?”
“No,” said Karen, embarrassed, and she quickly changed the subject. “The matter at hand is that I want to know when the next tube arrives from Westminster. Can you tell me?”
“Yes, I can,” replied the hamster who was also the tube driver and was also, at his own insistence, much more. He paused and turned to look at the clock set into his dashboard, and Karen was about to impatiently say “well?” but before she did, Karen was told: “in three-hundred and sixty-four days, twenty-three hours and fifty minutes, assuming no delays.”
“You mean, in a year?”
“Ten minutes shy of a year, yes. We arrived ten minutes ago.”
“The train only runs once a year?”
“No, it runs all the time. But it only visits Westminster once a year.” There was another awkward pause, so the hamster added, “it’s not a popular destination.”
Karen did not know what to say, and the hamster discerned the bewildered emotion in her face, which was still protruding through the hatch. He said, as sympathetically as he could by lowering his lustrous bass voice, “if I were you, I’d talk to the ticket inspector. He’ll be able to help you. But I need to go now,” he gestured back to his clock set in the middle of the dashboard, “this stop is for eleven minutes, and we’ve been here for ten-and-a-half.”
“But, but…” but Karen then fell silent.
“Please step back, young miss,” and Karen relented, pulling her face out of the hatch and taking a step back on the platform. The hamster scampered across his cage, and climbed into his wheel. As the hamster’s wheel started to turn under his little feet, so the wheels of the train started to turn, propelling it forward. The hamster that was more than just a hamster soon disappeared from sight. As he gathered speed in his wheel, so his train gathered speed, and as his tail followed him wherever he went, so the tail of his tube train soon disappeared down its tunnel, sucking some air along with it, and the air was drawn from Karen’s lungs too, because she was sighing.
The sound of the tube train died away in the distance. The sound of Karen’s sigh died away also. She closed her eyes, and thought of her father and brother. At one and the same time, Karen felt sad to be apart from them, and angry at herself, for freewheeling into this mess. But there was nothing else to do. She would talk to the inspector, and ask for his help to get back to Westminster station. Karen instinctively reached into her pocket, pulling out her ticket, which was a travelcard covering zones one to four. And then Karen briefly pondered what zone Lundern Central Station might be in, and if the inspector would waive the penalty, if it applied.