‘Useless’, a short story

railway tracks 5-6-13The cups on the buffet trolley rattled out their accompaniment as the train’s wheels rumbled over points. Mary stumbled as the train lurched to the right and she caught a cup before it hit the sticky grey carpet. Then the train entered a tunnel and a rush of air transported the passengers into darkness, their ears tightened with pressure. Some people rubbed their earlobes, others pinched their nose with two fingers and snorted. A businessman chewed a toffee as he tapped at the keyboard of his laptop, a teenager nodded his head in time to music piped directly into the coil of his inner ear. It all added up to the combined rhythm section familiar to all train travellers.

A buzzer heralded an internal train announcement:

“My name is Colleen Murphy and I’m your customer services manager aboard this train today to Waverington. I hope you have an enjoyable journey. Thank you for travelling with Northern Rail.”

The words faded away with a hiss.

The train felt like Mary’s second home. She travelled the same route north every Friday and south again on Sunday, watching the countryside flash by at 70 mph. That was the average speed of the train, according to the magazine of the train company, which Mary flicked through each week. A glossy affair, each monthly issue had a picture on its cover of a town along the route.

She didn’t believe the claim about average speed. The train stopped frequently in the middle of nowhere. The only views when stationary were concrete buildings populated by dust and weeds, electricity sub-stations with power-laden cables and coils that hummed, and the grassy walls of a cutting where the train stood penned in by tall walls of hawthorn bushes dulled by a sprinkle of grey train dirt.

She’d always liked trains. After school she’d watched trains pass by the bottom of her garden and wondered where they were going and where they’d come from. ‘Tin cans’ she’d called them because they rattled like two empty tins of fruit salad bashed together. Today’s trains swooshed and swished, smelt of burning rubber, and were delayed too often. Today, Mary was opening tin cans at college. Tomatoes, chick peas, sardines.

The businessman read his newspaper, his fingertips black with ink. A chief executive of a big corporation, Mary decided, on his way to a conference of business leaders.


“Welcome to passengers who boarded the train at Steventon. This is the 09.56 to Waverington calling at Steadley, Newtown, Castle Bielby, and Ralton.”


The girl across the corridor from Mary slouched in her seat, the edge of the cushion bit across her buttocks, her sandals discarded. She was a model, Mary guessed. Her groomed brows hovered above her eyes like the wings of a blackbird. Her elbow rested on the chair arm at just the right angle to show off the curve of her small breast. That elbow was jostled by every passing passenger, it didn’t move.

Mary took off her fleece, folded it on the seat beside her, then reached into her rucksack and withdrew a carton of orange and a chocolate bar. As she munched she watched rows of neat houses go by, their identikit back gardens lay like green army camouflage dotted with the white of conservatories and brown of garden sheds.


“The buffet car situated in coach G has a wide selection of hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, burgers and cakes. Thank you.”


Mary picked up her book. She had to absorb its contents in time for her food technology exam on Monday morning. Tonight, her mother would demand reassurance that the extra money she earned from waitressing every evening was justified on her daughter’s education. Mary didn’t have the courage to admit the truth. She’d wanted to leave school at 16 but her mother had insisted. “I’ll find the money, don’t you worry about that. I want you to do justice. Make something of yourself. You can live with Auntie Jean during the week to go to this college,” she’d said two years ago. “You must have the opportunity.”

Mary hadn’t wanted the opportunity but hadn’t refused it, so here she was two years later.


“Passengers are reminded that all coaches are non-smoking except for coach A which is the designated smoking coach. Thank you”


“Seven across. 13 letters. Another word for welsh rarebit?” The elderly couple opposite Mary were bent over the crossword page.

Cheese on toast, thought Mary.

“Cheese on toast,” said the man. His wife laughed and wrote the answer into the white squares. He folded his arms and closed his eyes. His breathing was quiet now, but when they’d arrived at their seats his lungs had whistled and whined with the effort of walking. Mary had heaved their bag onto the overhead luggage rack and then dipped her head into her book to avoid conversation.

Hygiene. Protein. Carbohydrates. Boiling point. Sushi and Sashimi. Victoria sponge. Filleting a John Dory. Gluten-free. Additives.

Mary thought about her mother and rehearsed her speech.

“Mum, I think I’m going to fail.”

“Mum, I don’t want to be a cook.”

Nothing sounded right.


“Passengers are reminded to carry their travel documents with them when moving around the train. Thank you.”


After the train stopped at Newtown the elderly couple fell asleep, their body language identical after years of marriage. Their heads lolled forward, chins on chests, arms folded, glasses neatly folded side by side on the table which divided them from Mary. The man’s lungs were quiet but a gentle snore escaped his wife’s parted lips. He had a way with words, Mary decided, he’d probably once been the editor of a newspaper. Reported from the world’s hotspots, war zones, elections and financial summits. Prime ministers would have courted his goodwill, royalty invited him to dine, business leaders respected his word. His wife, Mary assessed, looked like a caring doctor, weary after millions of hours of consultations, thousands of scribbled prescription pads, hundreds of births and deaths.


“Coach D is the designated quiet coach. Passengers in coach D are reminded that the use of mobile phones or personal electronic equipment is not permitted in this coach. Thank you.”


The buzzing and hissing and continuous stream of announcements didn’t bother Mary. She wondered if she could get a catering job on a train, travelling miles each day, but she’d be in the galley all day and wouldn’t be able to see out of the window. Really, she fancied Colleen’s job, customer service manager, making the announcements. She’d seen Colleen pass by, dressed in a smart blue suit and white blouse. Colleen was the only person who didn’t knock the model’s elbow.

Mary tried to think of a job she was qualified to do. She didn’t feel useful. Her mother told her she must be useful. “That’s what you’re doing at college, Mary, making yourself useful,” she said every weekend. “Useless people don’t get jobs.”

“Hello, Susan Walker.” The woman in the seat behind Rose answered her mobile. Her movement released a flood of scent which wafted forwards to Rose who thought it smelled French and expensive. Nothing like her own synthetic, special offer, £3.99 perfume at Superdrug.

“Yes,” said the woman, “my train arrives in half an hour. Can someone collect me? And tell George that the only time I can see him tomorrow is 8am before he leaves for Dortmund.”

Mary listened with envy. That woman was so useful she had to have meetings at 8am on a Saturday. She must be an MP or work in the City. Mary wasn’t sure what people who worked in the City did, only that you needed to be good at maths. Mary couldn’t remember her 12 times table even though her mother had made her recite it like a parrot.

The background noise of the carriage filled her ears as she read her book. Newspaper pages turned, plastic bags rattled, overlaid by a strangled whine which got louder. The newspaper editor opposite Mary jerked in his seat, his chest heaved, his mouth gaped for air. A half-eaten bar of fruit and nut lay on the table in front of him, the purple foil shredded and rolled into pellets the size of mouse droppings. The doctor slept on. The model, who had spread an array of bottles on her tray table – nail polish remover, varnish, base coat and quick dry bottles – caught Rose’s eye and turned away. The MP slid out of her seat and passed by. Mary felt invisible. Then the editor looked at Rose wide-eyed and she looked back. He wheezed and whined and whinnied.

“Wake up, doctor. Your husband is having some sort of attack.” Mary shook the doctor’s arm.

“Doctor. I’m not a doctor,” said the editor’s wife. She shook her husband’s arm. “Sam. What’s wrong?”

Mary stood and looked about the carriage. Everyone looked away. “Help him, please,” she asked the chief executive.

He shook his head. “I’m getting off in a minute.”

The editor’s face had turned from red to purple like a ripe aubergine. His right hand gripped the tray table.

“You. Help me lay him on his side in the corridor.” Mary pointed at the chief executive who did as she ordered. She tipped the editor’s head back and checked his mouth for obstruction, dipped her ear first to his mouth and then to his chest, and listened.

“No good,” she said. “Lift him onto his feet.” Again, the chief executive did as she said. Mary stood behind the slumped editor and linked her arms around him, one hand clenched over the other with her thumb pressed between his broad waist and the bottom of his ribs.

In four swift jerks she hugged him. Nothing. She thumped him on the back. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Then four more hugs.

She kept this up, thumping and hugging his 16 stone weight, until he coughed. A round, chocolate-covered hazelnut flew across the carriage, bounced off the window and landed in the model’s lap. She screamed, the editor coughed and smiled, his wife cried, and the chief executive applauded.

“Thank you for your help, dear,” said the doctor, “I don’t know what we’d have done without you. I’m not a doctor, you know, I’m retired now but I used to be a dressmaker. This is Sam, he worked on the railways.”

Colleen, the customer services manager, appeared from nowhere. The other passengers, the ones who’d turned the other cheek minutes earlier, were eager to tell her about Mary’s rescue. The model was a shop assistant at PoundValue. The chief executive was a talcum powder sales rep [“Oh, a traveller,” Mary’s mother said that evening]. And the MP was a secretary for a haulage firm.

Colleen thanked Mary on behalf of Northern Railways and, as the train pulled into Mary’s station 25 minutes later, she pressed a green form into Mary’s hand. ‘Green for Go: Job Opportunities at Northern Railways’, it said.

“We’re always looking for useful people”, she said. “Send this form in and I’ll recommend you for a job.”

I am useful, thought Mary. I am.

© Sandra Danby

2003: second in ‘The Lady’ magazine’s annual short story competition
2003: published in ‘The Lady’ magazine [November 7 issue]

If you like this, try these short stories:-
Clap Your Hands If You Believe
Magic and Mischief
A Little Drop

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
USELESS a #shortstory by @SandraDanby about a train journey http://wp.me/s5gEM4-useless