Unconscious probability manipulation

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 call...

English: London Midland Desiro EMU 350125 calls at Watford Junction with a service to London Euston. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has received any kind of instruction in writing will tell you that the most heinous crime you can commit is to open your piece with something as clichéd as “It was a dark and stormy night“.

So I won’t.

But it was.

I was on the way home from work. One day a week, I trek down to our London office. Partly because some of my team work there, but also because it’s good to catch up with the other people who work there. The office in which I’m based is solely a development shop. The London office houses sales, marketing, HR among other things. It’s a trek because it involves planes, trains and automobiles.

A slight exaggeration – it doesn’t involve planes, but it does involve a walk, a taxi, a train, a walk, a tube and a final walk. It’s exhausting, and it adds roughly half a day to my normal work regime.

I was on the tube home. I normally get off close to the London terminus where I can catch a train to my home town. It occurred to me that the final destination of this tube was half way home and I wondered whether going all the way might be an option for when the trains home are stuffed. Every once in a while, signals fail, drivers strike or someone chooses the day I go into London to end it all by inconveniently jumping in front of a train.

The notion was fresh in my mind even as I alighted the train. At street level, the aforementioned dark and stormy night rendered everything wet. Me, my clothes, the pavement, everything. I hurried towards the terminus to catch my train. As I approached the station, I noticed the newly painted thick white lines in a perimeter around the station. Painted in the centre of each line was a no smoking sign. A notion crossed my mind that with all the rain, they might be slippery.

In the split second that the thought crossed my mind, I felt my feet slip out from under me. I saw the sky and the tall buildings around me spin as I went through a dramatic unintended backflip. Through some miracle, I landed unharmed. My pirouette through the sky softened through the willing compliance of my thick coat and my backpack. Several people rushed to my aid, proving the milk of human kindness has not yet gone off.

I’m not a superstitious man, but I thought about the trains being stuffed and verily, they were so. I thought that the new white lines, slick with rain, might be slippery and verily I was upon my posterior. I’m getting paranoid. I think I may have unconscious probability manipulation.

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The commute

Sample British crossword grid

Sample British crossword grid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alfred was a precise man and a regular commuter. As he walked up the platform that morning, his head moved with sudden, angular movements not unlike a pigeon. As if to mock him, one of those very creatures had taken the opportunity to defecate on the collar of his otherwise pristine waxed jacket. He arrived at the exact same spot on which he always stood and glanced at his watch. He noted with inward satisfaction as the second hand ticked over at the usual time.

He was of an age whereby his chin had begun its slow retreat inwards and his jowls had loosened their grip on the sides of his face. His wire rimed silver spectacles looped around oversized ears and on his crown was a thick mop of pure white hair. He glanced at the boards showing the status of the next train and gave an almost imperceptible smile as he saw that it was on time. His broadsheet newspaper was folded into quarters and tucked beneath his arm.

After precisely three minutes, the train loomed into view and slowly came to a halt. Unusually, the doors did not line up exactly with Alfred’s position and to his annoyance, he had to shuffle half a step to bring himself level with the door. The doors swished open and because few commuters made the journey this early, he easily found a seat inside the carriage. He reached inside his pocket and pulled out an expensive looking pen and turned the newspaper over to show the cryptic crossword.

He prided himself on completion of the crossword every morning before the end of his half hour train ride. Before long, he had filled out a quarter of the answers. As he looked up in deep thought about his next clue, he noted the young lady who boarded behind him was sat nearby. Coincidentally, she was attempting the very same puzzle. At first, he was pleased to see that the hobby was being taken up by the younger generation and was not about to die out. Then he noticed with unintentional annoyance that the young lady had completed half of the crossword already.

He managed to crack the next few clues and before too long, he had caught up with the young lady. He couldn’t help but glance across again. She had completed nearly three quarters of the puzzle now. She caught his gaze and smiled. He awkwardly flashed an embarrassed  smile back to her before returning his attention to the crossword.

With five minutes to go before they arrived at his stop, Alfred had completed every answer except one. As he sucked on his pen in deep thought – he saw that the young lady had completely filled her crossword in and was gazing out of the window. Even as the train arrived at the terminus, Alfred had still not cracked the final clue. He could not remember the last time he had failed to finish the crossword before the end of his journey.

Once again, his gaze caught the completed crossword on the chair opposite, abandoned now as the girl was gathering her things in preparation to leave the train. She turned towards him and as their eyes locked, she gave him another smile and a cheeky wink. Alfred’s face flushed and he immediately looked away.

He waited for her to step down on to the platform before gathering his things. He almost walked past the completed crossword before curiosity got the better of him. He simply had to know what that last answer was. With a furtive look around him to make sure no-one was looking, he picked up the newspaper. Within moments, he rolled his eyes as he realised that the girl had simply filled in random words rather than working out the answers. He smiled as he stepped from the train shaking his head.

Nearly home…

The stench was almost unbearable. To add insult to injury, the carriage was packed to the rafters, which was probably the main reason that Radcliffe found his nose uncomfortably close to an armpit. An unseasonably warm spell above ground had turned tube trains into mobile, underground ovens. It had been a long week, but at least it was Friday night, and this was the last time he would have to make this journey, at least until after the weekend.

He started to let his thoughts drift to how he would spend the upcoming days with his family. Maybe if the weather held, they could go to the zoo. Or maybe a picnic in Hyde Park. A walk by the Thames perhaps. The pleasant daydreams helped him to keep his mind off his current discomfort.

The train gradually slowed and lurched to a halt and the seething mass of people inside the train swayed like a field of metronomes – first in one direction and then another as they adjusted to the lack of motion. Radcliffe craned his head around to look out of the window. There wasn’t much to see other than the inky blackness of the tunnel beyond. He tutted and rolled his eyes at no-one in particular.

Seconds stretched to minutes, and a wave of impatience began to sweep the carriage. Some started to complain in hushed tones to their nearest neighbour. Some would repeatedly check their watches. Some would start to fidget, adjusting to being uncomfortable in a subtly different position. Others stared into space in borderline catatonia.

“Just two more stops” thought Radcliffe, trying to cheer himself up. Not too long now. Still, the train refused to move. Any moment now, the tannoy would crackle into life only for an overloud, disembodied voice to give them a useless excuse for why the train was stuck there.

The lights flickered once before they died out completely to a sea of collective groans from around the carriage. One by one, mobile phones came to life as people sought their own source of illumination. The  small screens served to light up people’s faces in an almost lunar, shadowy hue. Still no announcement from the driver.

Impatience matured into new emotions inside the carriage. Some grew angry, remonstrating with whoever might listen. Others became frustrated, swearing blind that this was the last time they would use the tube. For some, it was fear that spread its icy tendrils through their worried minds as the heat and the claustrophobia started to take over.

Radcliffe looked out through the window once more. Now it was dark in the carriage, a more detailed picture emerged of what lay outside the train. It was a double tunnel with two tracks and it occurred to him that no trains had passed since the train came to a halt.

Suddenly the train lurched and a weary cheer went up from inside the carriage, but it was premature, for the movement seemed not from the traction of the motors, because it was not sustained. The train rolled maybe a yard or so and then came to a halt once more.

The carriage became silent as everyone contemplated what this sudden motion might mean. People searched for answers in their fellow passengers’ faces, but no-one seemed to have any idea what was happening. Moments later, the train lurched again, more violently this time, causing some to lose their footing. Radcliffe could hear the sound of distant screams from the rear of the train.

Once again, the train lurched, even stronger and Radcliffe lost his balance this time, reaching out for something to slow his fall. Thankfully, he landed on something soft. Disoriented, he pulled himself to his feet. He could hear several people crying and some groaning in pain. “What on Earth is going on?”  he thought.

Again – he could dimly make out the sound of screaming from the rear of the train. Could it be a collision with another train? As this thought passed through his head, the train lurched twice in quick succession. The lights flickered for a millisecond and the train was plunged into darkness. In that brief flash of light, Radcliffe saw the faces of his fellow passengers frozen in expressions of terror.

He started to think seriously about leaving the train. As he tried to work out where the doors were, he was desperately trying to recall the details from the safety poster beside the door. It was a poster he had read a thousand times as a bored traveller, but somehow, the details eluded him now. If he did could get out, which way would he walk anyway?

Just as he reached the door, he started to feel vibrations through the floor of the carriage. He thought it might be an earthquake, although Radcliffe had never experienced  any kind of seismic activity in his life. The screams from the rear of the train were getting closer. Somewhere in the carriage, a window shattered.

People were starting to move forward through the train, away from the source of the screams. The vibrations through the floor grew stronger, making it more and more difficult to stay standing. The screams had now reached Radcliffe’s carriage and he could tell from their tone that there was something unwelcome moving amongst them.

Radcliffe froze as something grabbed hold of his arm in a vice like grip. He struggled to free himself and let out a scream when his other arm was grappled. He felt himself pinned back against a seat and he began thrashing his limbs, trying everything he could think of to get free.

He could hear a voice. It was muffled, coming from his assailant. The words were difficult to make out. Slowly, the creature began to take form as he focussed his gaze. The words gradually became clearer…

“Wake up sir, wake up. This is the end of the line. All change here, all change. You can’t sleep here.”

Dammit. He’d fallen asleep again. He should have known not to go for a drink with Parker after work.