I was on a train last Sunday evening, quite late. Reading in Berkshire to Redhill in Surrey, a journey of about an hour and a half. The train was three carriages long and we trundled at a leisurely pace across country, with frequent stops at freezing, deserted platforms. I was sitting in the front carriage with my back to the driver’s cabin, on the left-hand side as you look forward. The driver and I must have been sitting back to back because I could hear him speaking on his phone now and again. I had the carriage to myself.
One of the stations near the end of the journey was called Dorking Deepdene. We were on time, perhaps even a bit early, because the driver eased his train very gently into the station and only the lightest of touches on the brake was needed to finally arrest the momentum. A second before the train came to a stop, however, with about ten feet to go, I felt the wheel directly under my seat ride over a bump. After about half a minute the driver’s door opened, and I saw him walk past my window, flashing his torch into the darkness beneath the train.
At exactly the place where I’d felt the bump, I saw him kneel down on the platform and shine his beam carefully at something that interested him. Then I saw the train manager approaching from the rear of the train wearing a thick scarf wound around his neck for added protection against the freezing night. He had long black hair and a beard and he looked like a student. He had a torch, too, and he came and crouched beside the driver and shone it where the driver was shining his. Then the driver got to his feet with some difficulty because he was a big man and no longer young. Then he and the scholarly-looking train manager had a serious discussion.
The driver returned to his cab and I could hear him speaking on his phone again, but his voice was muffled by the partition and I couldn’t hear what he was saying. And then the train’s announcement system crackled into life and the young train manager’s voice came on. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the delay to this service, caused by an obstruction on the line here at this station. We are now waiting for the emergency services to attend. I will try to keep you informed of any further developments, but I can confidently predict that we will be remaining here for some time.’
And then he must have decided that there was little point in concealing from his passengers that we had all been obliquely involved in a terrible tragedy, because he concluded his announcement with: ‘I can only repeat my apology for any inconvenience to your journey this evening, ladies and gentlemen, which is due to a fatality on the track.’
His announcement was followed by a long and deep silence. And then I could hear the driver speaking again on his phone on the other side of the partition. And then he, too, fell quiet. My carriage was so silent I could hear myself breathing. I looked out of the window. The platform was silent, deserted. Nobody came or went. It was Adlestrop for the 21st century.
I stood up and went to the carriage door and pressed the lit ‘open’ symbol. The door hissed, sighed, opened. At the same moment the young train manager appeared in the vestibule and we stepped out and down on to the platform together. ‘Can I see?’ I said. He saw no reason why I shouldn’t. Like an impresario, though a faintly embarrassed one, he gestured with an arm that all I had to do was look down.
Yellow platform light penetrated the gap between the platform edge and the carriage, illuminating the large jacketed torso of a man. The jacket was a good-quality winter jacket, and it was comprehensively belted and zippered against the cold. He had laid on his back and placed the back of his neck on the rail. The train had entered the station so slowly he must have been crouching in the shadows just beneath the platform and picked his moment nicely. The wheel rested on his neck obscured the fact of whether his head was severed from his body or not. Bright arterial blood was sprayed about ten feet up the line.
I stood and looked at the train manager. He was calm but appropriately sad. I think he was a Spaniard. He said, ‘I can’t believe that’s a dead body down there.’ ‘Surely you get them all the time,’ I said. ‘My first,’ he said. ‘In four and a half years.’ Then he walked away towards the front of the train and climbed in beside the driver to wait with him for the emergency services.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012