After disembarking at Lundern Central, Karen discovered the next tube from Westminster would be along not in a minute, or an hour, or even a day, but in a year. Following the advice of the hamster who was a tube driver and much more, she sought the help of the ticket inspector.
An old tin sign pointed Karen to the exit from the platform. Or it would have, if it pointed the right way. The sign hung from one nail, the others having rusted to a dim memory of functioning wall fastenings, hence causing the arrow to point straight down at the ground. There being no hole to descend down, this was obviously not the way the arrow should be pointing. Karen soon surmised the arrow was meant to point to an archway near the end of the platform where she stood. Another sign, which was slightly less rusted, read: “do not walk up the down ramp”, which meant nothing to Karen. Through the arch, Karen bounded up the broad stone stairs, taking them two by two. Karen was inclined to hurry, whilst the steps were only gradual in inclination. The staircase twisted around into a spacious spiral, so that it occurred to Karen that she was running a long way around just to climb a little way up. She skipped up them, undaunted, and determined to get to the top as soon as she could. A smoothly polished wooden slope wrapped around the outer rim of the stairs. Karen supposed this was the down ramp mentioned in the sign. A low, solid guard rail separated the ramp from the stairs. At first Karen could not decide what the wooden ramp was for, but she soon found out. A woman, followed by a man, rounded into view, sliding down it. They both glided silently and impassively, sitting on hessian mats with their legs stretched out before them. Both the man and woman were both oblivious to Karen, and to the entertaining nature of their mode of descent. The woman’s hands were crossed in front of her, holding her handbag on her lap, whilst the man was reading a newspaper, as if this was the most perfectly ordinary thing to do whilst riding the equivalent of a fairground helter skelter. Both were wearing old-fashioned clothes, but Karen had little time to observe them more closely, as they soon disappeared out of sight. She momentarily considered jumping on to the slide too, for the fun of it, but soon reminded herself of the task at hand. Up more stairs she skipped, intent on reaching the top, so that when she finally did, Karen was quite breathless.
The stairs had brought Karen to a large concourse, which was itself separated from an even larger concourse by a partition made of a metal frame and glass panes. Looking around, and catching her breath, Karen tried to spy somebody with an inspector-like uniform. People and animals were walking back and forth, but their haste suggested they were commuters, and not staff. Only one creature stood still, a tall and elegant stork standing near the wall to her right. The stork eyed Karen from a few feet away. It wore a peaked cap, and Karen took this as a possible indication that the stork worked at the station. Karen sidled up to the stork and asked, feebly at first, “excuse me, Mr. Stork, I am looking for the ticket inspector.” The stork said nothing, but a gruff voice answered from behind a dirty window, set back in a recess to the wall that Karen had not noticed before.
“Does she look like a ticket inspector to you?”
“I don’t know,” replied Karen. She turned to face the gruff voice, which belonged to a gruff-looking man in a gruff-looking uniform.
“Well, she’s not a ticket inspector. She’s an obstetrician, ain’t she? Can’t you see by looking at her? I’m a ticket inspector. I’m the Ticket Inspector for these here platforms. That’s why I have to sit here, stuck behind this glass, in this tiny little room, looking out upon this vast space and waiting for people to give me tickets to inspect.”
“So what happens if people don’t give you their tickets to inspect?”
“Well then, that’s not my problem, is it?”
Karen’s brow creased as she tried to understand the logic of the inspector’s job, especially as his window was so hidden from view, but she soon concluded that trying to understand the inspector’s job was hopeless, and a distraction. She decided she should stop working things out for herself, and just start asking questions. But before she had the chance to ask a question, she was asked one instead.
“So what is it you want?” demanded the inspector. “Your ticket for example, is it needing a thorough inspection?”
“No, my ticket is fine,” lied Karen, who assumed her ticket was far from sufficient for the extraordinary journey that had brought her to Lundern. “The nice hamster who drove my underground train said you might be able to help me. I want to know how to get back to Westminster.”
“Whatsminster? That’s a funny name for a place. Where’s Whatsminster?”
“Not Whatsminster, Westminster.”
“Wheresminster? What’s Wheresminster?”
“Not Wheresminster, and not Whatsminster, but West-minister, in London, is where I want to go.”
“There’s no Westminster in Lundern.”
“Not Lundern, London. Lon-d-o-n. London.”
“Lon-DON? Never heard of it. Perhaps you’re just a bad speller,” and the Inspector sniffed and then suggested: “Perhaps you mean Worstminster? Or maybe Bestminster? I know which I’d prefer…” and then he enigmatically added, “neither.”
“Westminster, you must have heard of it,” insisted Karen. “I got on a tube train from there just a quarter of an hour ago. It brought me here, by mistake. Now I want to go back.”
“Oh, I don’t think it was a mistake. Those underground trains run on rails inside tunnels, and no mistake. If there was a mistake, it was youse that must have made it by getting on the train. But the train went where it was supposed to. I’m sure of that.”
“Maybe you could look up Westminster in your train schedule?” pleaded Karen.
“Westminster,” mused the inspector, “come to think of it, that does ring a bell. Is it West of Eastminster?”
“… and is it North of Southminster, and South of…”
“Northminster?” offered Karen, just a little sarcastically.
“I was going to say Bogham,” said the inspector, now flicking through his schedule, and sniffing as he did. Walking his fingers across one page, the Inspector pointed emphatically, looked up, and raised his timetable to the window, so Karen could see the relevant entry. “Yes, we have a train that runs to Westminster, once a year. You missed it. It left half an hour ago.”
“I know, I rode it on the way back.”
“Well, you obviously shouldn’t have ridden it on the way back. You should have ridden it on the way there. Then you’d be there by now, instead of being here. Not many people go to Westminster, though. It’s not what they call a popular destination.” The Inspector leaned nearer to his window, and in a stage whisper he said, “I hear it’s full of weirdoes, if you know what I mean.” Then he leaned back again and said, rather dismissively, “and looking at you, I think you know what I mean.”
Karen knew very well what the Inspector meant; she need only look to present company for an example. Karen compounded that thought by wondering if everything else in Lundern was upside-down, back-to-front, or, at the very least, slightly askew. The sooner she was on her way home, the better.