As Me, John and a Bomb hasn’t yet been published, the following extract hasn’t been through any editing process, but I hope that the eventual result will not be much changed from what you are about to read:
John Griffiths pushed his bike up the steep slope leading to the platform. His heart hammered against his ribs with an intensity unconnected to physical exertion. He had checked out the station in advance, so he knew what to expect. Indeed, his research had been thorough, as befitted the specific nature of his requirements, and he had reconnoitred every station within a five mile radius before selecting East Dulwich as the one most suited to his purpose.
At the top of the slope he looked up at the dot matrix indicator. Good. The train to London Bridge was due in four minutes. He had known it would be – another result of his meticulous research. But a delay – broken down train, leaves on the line, industrial action, or any of the other supposed causes in the pantheon of great railway excuses of our time – would have the potential to throw his plan into chaos.
But no. The train was on time. The weather was good – nondescript – a bit dull, but dry and unremarkable. The number and type of people on the platform was as he had predicted. Late commuters, most of them. The arse end of the rush hour. Those who through need or necessity would work ten to six instead of nine to five. Or maybe ten to five with no lunch break. John Griffiths had little idea of the nature of the boundaries regulating working in an office. Or working anywhere else for that matter. He’d never had a regular job.
So all he knew on that late summer morning was that conditions were ideal. No unforeseen circumstances had intervened to make him change his chosen trajectory. John Griffiths had been secretly hoping for some such intervention. It was such a good secret he’d kept it from himself too. So when the hoped-for miracle had failed to materialise, he saw no alternative but to carry out his intentions.
He reached the top of the slope, turned the corner onto the platform and, swinging his leg over the bike, pushed off on the pedals. He wobbled the length of the platform, keeping his front tyre on the yellow line painted three feet from the edge, marking the danger zone. Please stand behind the yellow line. Please let other passengers off first. Please move along the carriage. Keep your luggage with you at all times. Rules. Warnings. Exhortations. Danger lurks everywhere. Every action implies risk. Every inaction is fraught with potential disaster. Life can change in an instant.
The Angel of Death is hovering over East Dulwich.
Waiting … Waiting …
John Griffiths concentrated all his attention on the painted yellow stripe like a drunk attempting to walk a straight line. He pedalled to the far end, furthest from where the train would appear. Turning back to face down the length of the platform, he placed one foot on the ground for balance. His breathing was ragged, the tautness in his chest preventing the deep breaths that may have eased the tension.
This end of the platform was empty. The seasoned travellers knew the train would not stop this far up. There was a faint hum as the vibrating tracks heralded the imminent arrival of the 09.35 from Sutton to London Bridge even before it came into view. A buzz of expectation ran along the platform as people stood from the benches and moved forwards, jostling for position to be closest to where they calculated the train doors would be, readying themselves for the race to an empty seat.
John Griffiths felt a rising wave of nausea, his stomach knotting high in his chest. His hands, slick with sweat, slipped on the bike’s handlebars. Balancing both feet on the ground, he wiped his palms down the sides of his jeans and rolled his shoulders in their sockets. The movement made little impression on the tension in his upper back and neck. His breath strangled in his throat and he suppressed a retch.
The train was coming into view now. The mechanical tones of the tannoy announced its destination and warned those waiting on the platform to stand well away from the edge. John Griffiths tore his gaze from the approaching engine and swept his eyes along the platform. A young blonde woman rose from the bench nearest him, folding her newspaper and hefting her bag onto her shoulder. She glanced towards him and, for a frozen moment, their eyes locked.
John Griffiths wrenched his gaze away and forced his focus back onto the train now approaching platform one. He could see the driver but was determined not to make eye contact with him. Self-absorbed though he was, he knew the inevitable effect he would have on this unknown man’s life. He knew that if he allowed the driver to look into his eyes – into his soul – it would make the part the man was about to play even harder. John Griffiths wasn’t a bad kid. He had no wish to cause suffering to others.
He swallowed a groan and, pushing off with one foot, pedalled back down the platform towards the approaching train. Keeping his head down, focusing not on the train, nor on the tracks – and certainly not on the unsuspecting driver – but on that thin yellow line, he began to pick up speed.
Along the platform, the other commuters fixed their full attention on the moving train. No one looked up to see the bike speeding along now towards the front of the engine. At the last possible second, John Griffiths wrenched the handlebars, turning the bike towards the rails. His hands, drenched with sweat, slipped – but it didn’t matter. He didn’t look up, so didn’t see the sudden horror flood across the driver’s face. He didn’t look up to see the moment when realisation would register on the faces of the waiting passengers. The moment when they would be forced to confront the unanticipated turn their morning was about to take.
All those plans – meetings, interviews, schedules … All those assumptions that had, up until that exact moment seemed so safe to take for granted … All was about to change, sending expectations of the day ahead into chaos. The impact of one life ending on the continuing lives of those who just happened to be there at that station. On that day … At that time …
The bike launched from the edge of the platform, hovering in mid air for one suspended instant. John Griffiths released his sodden grip from the handlebars, reaching out with his arms in crucifixion pose to embrace his fate. The cycle crashed down onto the tracks and disappeared, mangled and twisted, beneath the front of the engine.
The route from Sutton to London Bridge was George Bailey’s favourite. The journey took him through leafy suburbia into urban grime and on into the very heart of the city. On the way, he would be able to see many of the major landmarks – Millwall football ground, Tower Bridge, the lopsided glass hive housing the office of London’s mayor, the Eye, the Gherkin, the winking light at the top of Canada Tower …
George had wanted to be a train driver for as long as he could remember. Other kids veered with gay abandon between dreams of being astronauts, footballers or fire fighters. But not George. He was that rare specimen. A man who enjoyed his job. Never mind the shifts, the unsocial hours, the wrangles over safety, pay, conditions … He looked on those as petty irritations to be tolerated as the price he had to pay for genuine fulfilment and job satisfaction.
George never doubted that he was a lucky man. Blessed, even. A happy marriage, two loving sons and doing the work of his choice. Who could ask for anything more?
He passed the green signal and eased the train into East Dulwich station. Dulwich. Who could have predicted that one day he would be living here? Only last week, he and Margaret had exchanged contracts on a maisonette in this, one of the most sought-after areas of London. Being ex-local authority, the property still had the remnants of an institutional feel, reflected in the price. But it would be ‘their home’. They would be property owners with something tangible to pass on to their children. And in Dulwich …
George Bailey imagined himself pottering in the tiny back garden. He would plant flowers. Mow the lawn. They could have barbecues on warm summer evenings. Maybe they should get one of those gazebo things …
Some idiot was cycling along the platform towards the train. He had placed himself at the far end – probably unaware the train wouldn’t stop that far up. Now he was racing along, his legs pumping the pedals with maniacal intensity. No need. There was plenty of time. The train hadn’t even stopped yet. By the time it did, passengers on board exchanging their places with those waiting on the platform, it would be some minutes before George would close the doors and the train would set off again. Enough time for Bike Boy to reach the opposite end and cycle back again at the speed he was going.
Something clutched in George’s gut. Some premonition. There was something about the way this kid was hurtling along, shoulders hunched, head down.
He was only feet away by the time George registered that his dream job would never be the same again. He would never be able to rid himself of the fear that he could be the unwitting agent of someone else’s destruction. Over the next months, counselling ensured he was able to continue working without the danger of succumbing to a panic attack. But he was never able to rid himself of the choking, sweaty nightmares.
At the last possible second, the kid twisted his handlebars towards the tracks, head thrown back, his arms stretched out in a triumphant crucifixion pose.
Even as the bike launched in the air, George Bailey knew lives would be changed by that instant. The ripples would spread. The actions of this one unknown kid would have a knock-on effect on the dreams and assumptions of everyone else who was there on that day. And they in turn would bring that changed influence to bear on all who knew them. For each of them, nothing would ever be the same again. Chaos theory in action.
George saw the bike leave the platform and hover in mid air before he screwed his eyed tight shut. He howled in despair.