The 3.45 to Prestwich


by M.J. Nicholls

Onboard

Melvin knew something was awry when the train conductor buzzed through the PA: There will be a delay in today's service. Unfortunately, there is a rhinoceros on the line, and it will take ten or fifteen minutes to get the train moving again. We are sorry for the inconvenience.

He cosied into the groaning parabola of resentment from his co-passengers and broke off a second block of his Fruit 'n' Nut bar. An acid-burned woman reading Nicola Barker's Three-Button Trick caught his gaze and half-nodded towards the chocolate. He chose to interpret the nod as might I have a chunk, please but ignored this interpretation in favour of cramming the remaining three chunks into his mouth at once.

The man beside him, who reeked of pickles and toenail clippings, sighed and let slip the genesis of a vocal complaint. He tethered out the words I don't...don't...before sealing shut the bloody believe this for fear no one would pursue his grumbling strand and add their own phrases of grievance. Melvin was prepared to contribute a bloody Virgin trains and a click-tut to any actualised grumbles but wasn't given the opportunity. The man returned to his paper to read the TV listings, inwardly moaning about the bloody repeats.

The seat beside the woman was blank, and Melvin badly wanted to stretch his legs. He tried slotting his left leg between the half-opened thighs of the woman and found an extra sliver of room. Buoyed by this space-stealing success, he slithered his right leg into the space as well, forcing the woman's legs to spread-eagle. He wondered if declining to offer her a chunk of chocolate was enough irritation for one day, but he pushed his luck.

Just...squeeze in there. Lovely. Don't think she noticed.

She paused three-fifths through a paragraph to shuffle in her seat, sealing her legs closed. Melvin froze as the clamp of her thighs chilled the blood in his stringbean ankles. Her thighs were like frozen Roquefort ' stubbornly rigid and faintly redolent of dustbins. His eyes were fixed on a cow shaking its teats around outside, but if he left the awkwardness any longer, she might cry sexual assault, or at least sleazy sub-seat gropeage.

'Excuse me,' she said, her words rasping casks, 'you appear to have wedged your legs between my legs.'

The man beside me is listening. He's pretending to read. He's lis-ten-ing.

'Umm...'

He's listening to me. My sexual assault. Oh, God...'

'Sorry, I' I was looking for extra space. I didn't want to have to--'

Speak to you? Say anything?

'--disturb your reading.'

Better.

'I'm not really reading. I'm pretending to read,' she said, withholding the grin that might have been expected after such a remark.

Melvin giggled. The tension defused, he wondered how many people around him were doing the same thing ' pretending to read. He zoned in on those at the opposite table reading novels and noticed how no one turned a single page in about three minutes.

How peculiar. Wish I hadn't had those two extra choco chunks now. I feel queasy. Yeugh.

 

Outside

The rhinoceros holding up the 3.45 to Prestwich was reclining on the train tracks, thumbing through Nicola Barker's Behindlings. He found the text energetic and rich in stylistic zeal but was having trouble progressing past the first page. Likewise, the train driver and engineers were finding it impossible to progress past the first page of the Railway Procedure Code. After a few minutes, they turned over and pretended to read the rest.

The head engineer Cyril, who had the second finger of a Twix bar in his pocket, wanted the driver, Dennis, to stand a few inches away from him in case passengers thought they were holding hands. However, for Cyril to move away from the manual -- over which they were huddled in the prissy autumn winds -- might offend Dennis. Do I smell? Does he dislike my cap? Do I have an old-fashioned haircut? These questions might have arisen.

Cyril used the Twix bar as his excuse to pull away. Chomping the semi-melted caramel finger with his left hand, he held up the manual with his right and continued pretending to read. Dennis fixated on the Twix finger and caught his colleague's eye.

Does he want a piece? How do I break a bit off without my fingers smudging the chocolate?

'All right, we have to take action. I propose we -- '

'Can I have a piece of your Twix?' Dennis asked. His hands trembled as he gestured toward the chocolate. No, Dennis. I want it all.

'Ordinarily I'd have no problem with that, Dennis, it's just that...it's kinda melted in my pocket. My fingerprints would smudge the chocolate, which you might find yucky,' he said. Back off. I want it all.

'That's OK. I'll break it off. Pass it here.'

'No. 'Cause if you touched it, your fingerprints would be on the chocolate. I don't feel comfortable with that.'

'What? Come on, just give me a bit.'

Cyril scrunched up his face, eyed the remaining wodge of chocolate, and crammed it in his mouth. Dennis was more taken aback by this than Cyril could have imagined. He appeared genuinely hurt: a sorrowful countenance formed and what looked like tears glinted on his peepersides. Cyril's guilt left him unable to savour the chocolate. It tasted exactly like spurning a friend (which, in this instance, tasted like melted caramel and soggy biscuit).

The men carried on pretending to read the Railway Procedure Code, but there was a deeply uncomfortable frisson between them. Dennis snuffled back his tears and Cyril teetered on the uncertainty of regret.

Should I apologise? What did I even do wrong? It was my bloody Twix.

'Dennis, I -- '

'No...it's OK. Don't say anything.'

'Right.'

Now where do I stand? God, this is unbearable.

Cyril swallowed the tension bomb in his throat and reached over to pat his colleague on the shoulder. Unfortunately, in his spook-frozen state, he only brought his arm up to meet Dennis's bum, and gave his left cheek a squeeze. Dennis shuddered in disbelief, yet found the gesture oddly comforting. He turned to his colleague -- his friend -- and introduced his face to happiness.

Maybe we have a future together. Maybe this is all I'll ever need. Just Dennis, his bum, and the rhinoceros.

 

Off-track

Leona, the excessively rhythmical cow, was shaking her teats at the helpless passengers on the 3.45 to Prestwich. Having opted out of the traditional raising-calves-then-being-made-into-a-burger route, she had to use her udder for something else. The train stopping before her was a sign -- a portent -- that dance was her destiny, so she perched on a knoll and began.

Balancing on her back legs proved tricky at first, but -- propelled by some greater force -- she found her poise and wowed the passengers with the golden loveliness of her two left teats. One woman, pretending to read a timetable of trains to Rotherham, dropped her spectacles in surprise. There were some handclaps and a carnation was thrown her way. However, two fatal distractions cut her performance short.

A man on the train was eating a delicious chocolate-and-raisin snack and had two chunks left. Being a cow, Leona wasn't allowed to harass humans for chocolate, but she really fancied a bit. Also, in the distance a train official attempting to clear a rhinoceros off the line was eating a succulent stick of choco scrumptiousness. Leona's craving for such confections was insatiable.

The hunger was cramping her performance. Although her ability to shuggle her teats was unrivalled among other cows in the field, a certain elegance was missing from her hoovework. After a minute of a quite enchanting pas de deux between her front and back legs, she flumped onto the grass, loll-tongued in desperation for a hit of choco.

I would dance the rhumba on my mother's grave just for one nibble on a Kit-Kat. Oh, moo...

Leona wrestled back her breath and cowsidled up to the train repairmen. She wasn't planning anything drastic -- perhaps a little cowsniffing or cownosing -- but secretly prepared herself to kill for choco.

Ram the guy with the fat bum then trample the weedy one and steal his Twix.

As Leona approached, the rhinoceros put down his book and perked up. The rhino was a supporter of the Bovine Terpsichorean Society and would back the cow once she showed him her moves. However, Leona was in no mood for dancing. She wanted chocolate.

'Look -- there's a cow,' Dennis said. Cyril turned to look at the cow and nodded. There was no other gesture he could possibly have made upon seeing the cow. The rhino left his book on the tracks and went over to grunt-butt the cow, asking her questions in gestures.

--  Are you a dancing cow? What do you want?

--  Choco.

--  Do you want to rob the train with me?

--  Yes.

Dennis and Cyril returned to the train and got moving again. They were already twenty minutes late for the citizens of Prestwich, and there would no doubt be delays getting into the station. As they pootled away, the rhinoceros (whose parents hadn't given him a name) leapt aboard the last carriage with Leona.

Operation choco-horde 2009. Let's vamoose with violence, Leona.

 

The Robbery

Once the train got moving again, Melvin rummaged in his pocket for his mobile phone, finding a neglected Crunchie bar from weeks back. He placed the remaining chunk onto the table as he read his messages. The woman opposite immediately eyed the Crunchie, brushing her legs up against Melvin's knees in a deliberate play for confectionery gratification.

'Excuse me,' she said, her words dusky husks, 'but I was wondering if I might trouble you for a chunk of chocolate?'

'Oh, um...it's old. It's been in my pocket for weeks. You don't -- '

'I don't what?'

'You don't, um...here. Have it. But it really is old and -- '

'Thank you,' she said, snapping up the chocolate and breaking off a chunk. Mmm. Sublime.

Leona spotted the choco through the sliding door but was stuck helping the rhinoceros into another compartment. She tapped her left hoof on the rhino's rump to indicate she had spotted some pickings and was going to investigate. The rhino grunted at Leona the message save a piece for me but Leona was feeling mutinous. No chance. All for me.

The cow stormed into the compartment with a cacophonous moo-mwoo-mwooo! Passengers were startled from their books and papers, looking over in dread at the rowdy bovine. Leona clobbered a child with her udder to show she meant business. Everyone raised their hands as Leona approached the exposed chocolate. She banged her head against the table with a mwooooooooo until the woman lifted the Crunchie. Leona nodded.

'No,' she said. 'It's mine. I earned this chocolate.'

Mwoooo! Cowstomp. Moo moo-woooo!

'I want this last bit. I was denied a Fruit 'n' Nut chunk earlier and I was leg-groped under the table. I had to leg-flirt with this creep over here for a chunk,' she said. The sweat of embarrassment broke out under Melvin's clothes, leaving him ashamed and smelly.

Leona tried walloping the child again, but the father poked her in the eye with a pencil. Mwoah! Mwooaaah! The rhino had freed his rump from the other compartment but wedged himself between the sliding doors in an attempt to provide backup. Apart from manic grunting and the thumping insistence of his feet, he was useless.

As Leona writhed around on her back legs, the woman released the valves on her udder, gradually draining the milk from her mammaries. It took her a few moments to notice. Upon realising her milk supply was leaking everywhere, she became somewhat depressed and collapsed in a lacteal heap, cowweeping into her unpasteurised discharge.

No one in the compartment was trained in cownselling so the last five minutes of the trip became somewhat soggy -- streams of milk lapping at their ankles under the Prestwich tunnel, reaching chest-level upon arriving at the station. The rhino was blocking the exit at one end, so the passengers waded, single-file, through the milk-filled compartment, out the train and into Prestwich station, half an hour late and with an unwanted dairy musk.

There would be complaints.




BIO: M.J. Nicholls is a callow manboy clacking out experimental, sometimes amusing, but otherwise awkward fiction in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is currently undergoing creative irrigation. His works have been published in Gold Dust Magazine, the Delinquent (UK) and Piker Press and New Paradigm (US).