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Mind The Gap

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Mind the gap between your beleaguered expectations and the awful reality that torments us all.

 

Christmas was always a rather strange time of year for Thomas. He’d seen more of them than he cared to remember but, despite the absence of any family or social circle to speak of for – well, the latter half of the twentieth century – he’d always felt that it ought to be marked in some way. Strangely, even though birthdays had long ceased to be observed in the Folly (what was the point in keeping count, when you weren’t entirely sure which way was ‘up’, so to speak?), Christmas had always happened.

Certainly, there had been years where neither he nor Molly had been in much of a mood for celebration – but they had always put up the tree, exchanged gifts, and observed the formalities of the traditional meal. And, of course, the extra-traditional post-prandial snooze in front of a roaring fire in the reading room.

Yes: Christmas was the embodiment of Tradition, and in an institution formerly held together by tradition, hubris and sealing wax, that was a shell of its past glory (for better and for worse, in Thomas’s opinion), it was one of the few strands of continuity in life at The Folly. Recent Christmases had actually been rather fun, what with new residents and the whiff of something rather akin to hope for the future.

Ironically, it was the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come who interrupted Thomas’s festive reverie that morning.

“Sir? We’ve had a shout. Jaget called it in – spot of bother on the Northern Line.”

“The entire Northern Line?” Thomas felt that there had been a suspicious lack of specificity on Peter’s part.

His apprentice shrugged. “Jaget was a bit vague, to be honest. But he’s waiting for us at Bank.”

“Very well.” Thomas pushed the gifts he’d been wrapping surreptitiously to one side and, catching Peter’s curious look, picked up the blanket from the chaise longue and threw it over the pile. “Come on, Peter – you can drive, if you fancy.”

Peter had – finally – passed the Advanced Driving course a fortnight ago. While Thomas had already allowed him solo use of the Jag, he wanted to take the opportunity to see what Peter had actually learned. It was curiosity, rather than mistrust – Peter was an excellent student, when he had a mind to concentrate on the task in hand. Thomas was interested to observe how his driving had changed subject to the recent training.

“Yeah, sure,” said Peter, far too casually. “If you like.” He picked up the keys, used the remote control to turn off the various electronics, and bounded out of the tech cave.

Thomas smiled and followed him down the wrought iron stairs to the garage. Before he reached the bottom, the throaty growl of the Jaguar’s XK engine rose to greet him.

 

***

We erased a tube station from the map weeks ago, and none of you even noticed. We do loads of stuff like that. Your reality is meaningless.

 

They had decided that the incident was enough of an emergency to deploy the spinner and “go blues and twos”, as the younger police would have it. The abundance of holiday traffic had been an opportunity for Peter to demonstrate many of the skills he had recently honed, and Thomas was impressed but also rather relieved when they did finally arrive at Bank station.

The streets had been heaving with ‘Oh God It’s Christmas Eve’ crowds, but the station they entered appeared to be deserted. At first, Thomas wondered if there had been a bomb scare, but no: the barriers were shut, rather than the default open position that would indicate a major incident in progress. It was simply very, very quiet. Curious.

Peter had been trying to raise Sergeant Kumar, but now came towards Thomas shaking his head.

“Phone’s off. Or no reception, more likely – I think he’s down there,” said Peter, indicating towards the escalators. “We should probably take a look,” he said, frowning slightly. “Weird. Jaget definitely said it wasn’t urgent, but I don’t know why he didn’t leave a constable up here.”

“Let’s go and see, shall we?” Thomas contemplated the ticket barriers, and decided that both propriety and his rather closely-tailored three piece suit dictated that vaulting would be a definite Plan B. Of course, he could use his particular skillset to open the barriers, but he was rather hoping to avoid the paperwork which would no doubt ensue. In the normal way, a flash of the warrant card would have been enough to gain entry. However, there was currently nobody around to whom he could show it. As he headed over to the nearest ticket machine to purchase a Travelcard, Peter intercepted.

“Where are you going?”

When he explained, Peter gave him one of the Looks that Thomas had become accustomed to: amused, pitying, slightly long-suffering. He sighed, and waited for the education that was doubtless coming his way.

“Haven’t you got your Oyster card yet?” asked Peter. “We got issued them last year. No need to flash the card, draw attention or harass the TFL staff.” He extracted a blue card from his coat pocket, waved it at Thomas, then – with a strange little flourish somewhat reminiscent of the gesture Thomas had seen him use for Impello – he brandished the piece of plastic at the gate.

“Open, sesame…” The jaws drew back to admit Peter, who lurched through with the manic eagerness of a springer spaniel darting off into the undergrowth after fallen pheasants on a country shoot.

“Remarkable,” said Thomas. He retrieved the hitherto overlooked card from his wallet, where he vaguely remembered it had appeared at some point. Molly, no doubt. He placed the card tentatively on the yellow circle, and was granted access to the station. Not for the first time, he reflected that ‘magic’ was relative. And that, even at his advanced age, there was rather a lot that he still had to learn. Not for the first time, this made him feel old.

“It’s called near-field communication,” said Peter, answering the question that Thomas had been too busy feeling old to ask. “There’s a chip in the card, and it… talks to a receiver in the barrier.”

“Interesting,” said Thomas, who knew his role in this discussion would be to provide the requisite prompts for his apprentice. A recent memory stirred. “Is it the same, uh, technology that you used at the shop last week, with your banker’s card?”

“Yeah!” Peter’s approval made him feel strangely proud. “Exactly that. You know, I’ve been thinking about it – we could probably emulate it, work out a forma to…”

“Later,” said Thomas hastily. “First, I believe we ought to see if we can’t get to the bottom of what’s been happening…”

Luckily, Peter was happy to switch his attention to the task at hand, but Thomas made a mental note to keep an eye on the laboratories over the coming weeks, just in case. With the recent budget cuts, he wasn’t sure that Transport For London could afford to be on the receiving end of Peter’s curiosity.

 

***

Disruption at Bank station due to it BEING ON HOLIDAY ha ha # lol , not really it's actually disappeared into a pan-dimensional chaos vortex.

 

When they arrived on the platform, it became apparent where all the station staff were. And all the BTP Officers. There was something of a party atmosphere, possibly due to the distinct lack of passengers. DS Kumar spotted them, waved and made his way over.

“Thanks for coming, Sir. Peter.” The Sergeant nodded at the new arrivals.

“Alright, Jaget,” said Peter. “What’s going on here, then? Office party?”

“Where are all the passengers?” asked Thomas.

“No passengers,” said Jaget. “That’s just it – it’s… weird. Really weird. So…”

“You saw it and thought of us,” finished Peter.

“Yep. Pretty much,” said Jaget with a grin.

Thomas felt he should make an attempt to take charge – of what, he wasn’t entirely sure. “What is actually happening, Sergeant?” he asked. “Clearly you don’t think there’s any immediate danger. Of – sorry, to passengers - or any other hazard.”

“To be honest,” said Jaget, “It’s easier if I just show you. Here – there’s one coming now.”

Thomas didn’t regularly use the Underground, but he’d done so often enough in his time that could immediately recognise the high-pitched whistling and the blast of warm air that signalled an approaching train.

“Very well,” he said, and waited for the train to arrive.

Except the train did not, in fact, arrive, but instead flashed through the station. Thomas saw the faces of the passengers onboard – they did not seem under any distress; they were as bored and void of expression as any commuter would be. But neither did they show any signs of being aware that they were being taken through a station without stopping. No surprise, no anger; there appeared to be no acknowledgement of the inconvenience.

Some of the train staff waved and pulled silly faces – but in a manner that suggested they expected no response. This had been happening for a while, then.

And so the train exited, stage left, with a full complement, leaving two confused policemen in its wake.

“Huh,” said Peter. “It’s as though we just weren’t here.”

“How long?” asked Thomas.

“We’re not sure,” said Jaget. “I was alerted at 8am when the station manager called our switchboard, panicking that there’d been a bomb scare she hadn’t been told about. She noticed that the morning rush hour just… Hadn’t happened. Then she saw there was nobody coming off the trains, but we don’t know when it started – I’ve got a constable with her looking at CCTV to try and lock down a time.”

“Have you asked the drivers why they haven’t been stopping?” said Thomas, although he wasn’t surprised at Jaget’s answer: the drivers had ‘forgotten’ about Bank, and didn’t understand the question. Where? Nah, mate, there’s no station there! You’re having a laugh…

“Haven’t there been people coming in from the street?” asked Peter.

“No, it’s strange – you can go and have a look, if you like,” said Jaget, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the station exit. “People look like they’re heading for the station – then suddenly change direction, like they’ve forgotten something. One or two have made it over the threshold, as it were – but then they leave immediately.”

“It’s pretty weird, with nobody around,” said Peter. “Perhaps they thought nothing was running.”

“Quite possibly,” agreed Jaget.

“Interesting,” said Thomas. “Yet, you and the station staff – and Peter and I – don’t appear to have been deterred.”

“No,” said Jaget. “Although everyone’s a bit spooked, to be honest. I think that’s why they all wanted to come down here.”

Thomas looked around again at the workers and realised that what he’d mistaken for a party atmosphere was actually more akin to hysteria – people were nervous. He looked at Peter.

“Well, Constable,” he said. “I suppose we ought to have a look around.”

 

***

 The shape-shifting demon stalking the Northern line is entirely harmless until he assumes his final form of a giant Nicholas Parsons.

 

It was almost a relief to leave Kumar, the other British Transport Police Officers and the staff on the northbound platform. Thomas was keen to clear his head and focus on the task in hand – the nervous energy of the crowd got in the way; it had a tendency to obscure any vestigia that might give them clues as to the phenomenon. Plus, being able to talk freely would allow him and Peter to compare notes. They made their way across to the southbound platform, which was deserted except for its resident population of rats. Thomas saw one scuttle under the rails as they peered out onto the track.

After a minute or so of standing quite still, Thomas felt it. Faint, but growing stronger as if something was… approaching. He felt an urge to shift his weight, and realised that he’d subconsciously taken on a fighting stance. He tried to relax; failed. Gave up. The vestigia was different; slightly confusing. Thomas had the sense of boredom, felt flashes of irritation – and then there was euphoria, followed by… Confidence. Overwhelming confidence, of the sort he’d not experienced since his twenties, when he’d been a different man – a much younger, more callow type. Arrogance it was, really. With a touch of vindictiveness and through it all a stench of sweat and cologne and expensive leather.

“There’s… something,” said Peter, calling over to him. He crouched down and placed his hand on the platform lightly, then straightened up, glancing up and down the track with a frown on his face. “I can feel…”

Thomas watched his apprentice with interest. He wondered, as he always did, how Peter experienced vestigia. He would never really know, of course – but it was always enlightening to hear him describe it. “Go on,” said Thomas.

As Peter made to speak, a train came through – but whereas there had been nothing obviously amiss with the previous train (other than its failure to stop), this time something made Thomas want to get as far away from the track as possible.

“Peter, get back,” he shouted as the train whooshed past – fast, too fast. Peter had started to back away, but the suction created by the speeding train seemed to wrongfoot him, and he began to fall.

Impello. Thomas pushed just enough to break Peter out of the slipstream, quickly strode towards him and grabbed his arm to steady him as he reeled backwards. The train rattled past with its oblivious cargo, and an unmistakeable sense of malevolence.

“Well,” said Peter. “I’ve always hated the Northern Line. Apparently the feeling is mutual.”

 

***

Minor delays on the Northern line due to lies, deceit and thousands of years worth of smouldering, unresolved anger.

 

It seemed evident that they were dealing with a new genius loci, or something very like it. Peter, in spite of his brush with death-by-tube, was excited, and full of questions for which Thomas found – as seemed to be so often the case, nowadays – he had no concrete answers.

“Your friend, the one who said he thought any network could have its own god…”

“Walter.”

“Right. He thought it might be the case for underground railways…”

“He did, amongst other things. Any system, I believe he said.”

“Does that mean that this… what we’re dealing with is the genius loci of the entire Underground, or just the Northern Line?” said Peter.

Thomas considered this. “It appears that… disruptions are localised. Specifically to this station, as far as we know. But whether that means they will continue to be so, I have no idea.”

“And why now,” demanded Peter. “It seems like it must be deliberate.”

Thomas smiled. “That is somewhat of an assumption,” he said. “But we can work with it. Today is significant because – “

“It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Precisely. So it could be that our ‘friend’ has chosen today to play his hand for strategic purposes.”

“To cause the most chaos he – or she – can,” Peter finished. “Perhaps it’s the start of something bigger. Or –“ but Thomas never did find out the continuation of Peter’s theory, because the resolution came striding out of the tunnel towards them. It would have been a terrible shock, but – wizards.

“Hello,” said Thomas to the figure. He felt it was always best to be polite –at first. “To whom do we owe the pleasure?”

“William,” said the man. “Or Bill, if you prefer. To be honest, I don’t give a shit what you call me.”

Charming, Thomas thought. “I’m -- ” he started to say.

“I don’t fucking care,” said ‘Bill’ laughing. “And anyhow, I know what you are. So say your piece, and then I can get on with my life.” His accent was curious; mostly the drawl that one tended to hear in the City, but with occasional hints of what Thomas thought he recognised as Barnsley. He was reminded uncomfortably of Alexander Seawoll.

“Alright mate, calm down” he heard Peter say, no doubt in full conflict resolution mode. Peter was normally very good at talking people round, but Bill didn’t seem to be impressed.

“You’re the ‘good cop’, are you?” he said, and smiled. It was not pleasant, but rather the sort of smile a predator might direct at its food – that is to say, a baring of teeth. The teeth were, at least, well-cared for. The smell of sweat was simply vestigia; the… man? (even in his head, Thomas felt unable to use the word ‘creature’ without feeling guilty, particularly with Peter in view) had good grooming.

“If you like,” said Peter. “But you’re going to need to talk to both of us, tell us what’s going on.”

“Will it mean that you piss off more quickly?”

“Put it this way,” said Thomas, “We shan’t be going anywhere until we resolve the current matter, and if you know ‘what’ we are, you’ll be in no doubt as to what that might mean, so you may as well start talking.”

Bill grinned, and winked at Thomas. “Alright, squire,” he said. “You get ten questions. Go.”

“Are you the Northern Line?” asked Peter, before Thomas could say anything.

Bill roared with laughter. “Do you want me to be?” he countered.

“That’s not an answer,” said Peter indignantly.

“But that was a question. Didn’t say I’d answer them, and that didn’t dignify an answer so you’re not getting one. Next.”

Peter rolled his eyes and muttered what sounded like “Twat.”

Thomas wasn’t entirely sure how useful this impromptu interview was going to be, but he decided it wouldn’t do any harm – it would sate Peter’s curiosity and give Thomas a chance to formulate a plan, so he nodded to let Peter know to continue with it.

“Okay. I’ll cut straight to it. Why are you preventing the trains from stopping at Bank?”

“Because it pisses people off,” said Bill with a drawl. “It really screws with their day.”

“And why would you want to do that?” said Peter.

“Why wouldn’t I?” said Bill. “I enjoy it. Their boring, miserable little lives are what I live for. Oh, certainly I could just let them go about their dull day, I suppose. But how much more fun to send them to Morden. Feel their anger when they realise they have to come all the way back. And then --” at this he started laughing – cackling – so violently that he brought on a coughing fit. Thomas saw Peter’s look of disgust.

Then,” continued Bill – apparently on a roll - “then they overshoot again and end up in Edgware! It’s fucking hilarious,” he brayed.

“Why Bank, though?” urged Peter.

“Highest concentration of self-important business types. Wankers in suits.” Bill’s voice had a distinctly Yorkshire twang now, Thomas was certain.

“And you’re doing this today because?”

“Why do you think?”

“To be honest,” said Peter, “I think it’s because you’re a massive dick, and it’s Christmas Eve.” Thomas felt that this was slightly inappropriate, but given the unconventional and decidedly unsavoury nature of the suspect, he let it slide.

“Give the man a prize,” said Bill. “You’ve got five questions left.”

This time, Thomas spoke. “Will you stop what you’re doing, which is to say, desist from disturbing the Peace?”

Bill turned to him and grinned. A gust of warm air billowed towards them, followed by a southbound train. “Make me,” he said, and stepped in front of the train.

 

***

The good news is that the carriages that were absorbed into a hell dimension earlier today are back.

 

After the train had thundered past, and after checking that there was, in fact, no body on the tracks in its wake, Thomas relaxed slightly. Whatever – whoever – Bill was, he wasn’t at Bank any more.

“Well,” said Peter. He seemed rather put out. “It stands to reason that the genius loci of the Northern Line is a total c--”

Constable.”

“Sorry, Sir,” said Peter.

“I’m not sure we’re totally rid of our new friend,” said Thomas. “Let’s go and see what’s going on.”

It transpired that normal service had apparently been resumed, and sure enough, as they were being brought up to speed by Kumar, a stream of people started to wend its way past them; soon enough that stream became a river – scores of bored commuters, some irritated, others clearly excited about the half day. All totally mundane.

Kumar’s radio squawked, and he answered. “What’s happened? Where? Okay. No, I’ll come on over. Yes, with backup.”

“Trouble?” asked Peter.

“You know it”, said Jaget. “Incident at Kennington.”

Kennington had the distinction of being an interchange between two branches of the southern part of the Northern Line. Chaos there would be a major pain, particularly if there were going to be scores of angry commuters heading back into town.

“We’ll get the next train,” said Jaget, and so they did.

 

Thomas wasn’t sure what to expect at Kennington, and he wasn’t completely comfortable travelling in the tube, given that it was apparently at the control of ‘Bill’, local god and what would, in Thomas’s day, have been referred to as a “total rotter”. But the vestigia he had felt at Bank was not apparent, and it was certainly the quickest way. And, as it transpired, there was no trouble and they arrived in a thoroughly standard six minutes.

At Peter’s suggestion, their train held only the driver and the three of them, plus two BTP constables, and Thomas was grateful for his apprentice’s quick thinking as they drew into the station to find Bill waiting for them.

“Stay back,” said Thomas to Jaget and the other officers. “Peter and I will deal with this… man. He may be armed and is quite possibly dangerous.” Slightly detached, he reflected that his voice sounded rather cheerful, given the circumstances. It does that, he thought. I do that.

“Ready, sir,” said Peter.

“Stay close,” said Thomas, and they exited the train.

 

“Here you are,” said Bill. He was sitting casually on one of the bench seats built into alcoves along the platform. “Is this where you ask me to ‘give it up’?”

“No,” said Thomas calmly. “We’re not asking you anything – no more questions, thank you very much. We’re telling you – and you can take this as a direct order, under the Agreement – to stop the nuisance you’re causing. Now.” He forced himself to breathe out, maintain his composure.

Bill stood up, and walked towards them. Thomas felt Peter straighten, alert, by his side.

“Listen, you little piece of shit,” said Bill, stopping a foot away from Thomas. Close enough to loom menacingly, which was, of course, the intention. “I told you before – make me. Yeah! You heard me. I hear you’re supposed to be some shit hot wizard, but I’ve never seen anything of it. Why should I believe you?”

Thomas sighed. He’d met people like Bill before; threat and bluster. Always up for a fight. And he’d fought them too, when he’d had to. And sometimes you did have to, because there’s always that one cocky so-and-so who wants to try their hand. The relevant question was not anything that he’d asked, or that Peter had asked – the only question that mattered was Bill’s. It was a question that reverberated around clubs, bars, and streets the world over. And in modern British vernacular, it went:

“Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.”

“Okay,” said Thomas, adjusting his cuffs.

And he did.

***

 

The Well Of Eternal Tears has overflowed at Kennington, leading to local flooding and some catastrophic bus wetness.

 

There had been surprisingly little damage from the… high spirits, for which Thomas was exceedingly grateful. Whilst not his fault, precisely, it was part of what one might call his ‘beat’, and Thomas felt that – all things being equal – he was far happier when not having to justify untold destruction of property and civic infrastructure to the Commissioner. It put such a crimp on one’s day.

In the end, all it took was a call to Thames Water to fix the burst main that might have been collateral damage from Peter’s over-enthusiastic Impello (although Thomas was far too polite to voice what was, after all, just a suspicion, in front of his apprentice). The media was delighted: a similar flooding incident had occurred earlier in the year; disruption to public transport at Christmas handed them all the outraged headlines (Kristmas Khaos at Kennington!) and indignant vox pops (Nothing gets fixed properly any more, it’s a disgrace!) than they could have hoped for during what was, otherwise, a fairly slow news day.

With ‘Bill’ sent packing (“They’re all the same, these cocky City types,” grumbled Peter; “All mouth and no trousers”), DS Kumar was relieved to be able to inform TFL that normal service was restored, just in time for the last commute home before the holiday. Uniformed officers (he was never comfortable referring to them as ‘uniform’, as Peter did) gave them a lift back to the Jag at Bank station, and Peter was exhausted enough by their exploits that he didn’t object when Thomas took the keys back from him and drove them home to the Folly.

Thomas would sleep well that night, he thought, but first there were presents to finish wrapping.

 

***

So, it wasn't a dream. There really *is* a giant mince pie chasing people along the Victoria and Jubilee line interchange at Green Park.

 

Perhaps it was the excitement of the day, but Thomas slept fitfully, plagued by strange dreams, and was more than happy when dawn broke to be able to join Molly in the kitchen as she busied herself with food preparation, sitting by the stove with a mug of tea and Toby at his feet.

After a late breakfast, they gathered around the tree in the atrium to exchange gifts. Thomas was pleasantly surprised to receive a boxset from Peter of “1000 Greatest Rugby Union Tries”; he knew Peter wasn’t much of a fan of the sport, so he was rather touched. Now, if only he could figure out how to work the compact disc video player – or was it….

“DVD, Sir,” explained Peter, when they'd all decamped to the Tech cave. “Here, it’s all set up – all you have to do is press play, and you’ll be cooking on gas."

“Thank you, Peter,” said Thomas. “And give my regards to your parents, and to Ms Brook,” he smiled as the young man nodded, blushing slightly.

“Thanks. Enjoy,” Peter gestured at the massive screen. He sprang up and made for the stairs. “And you know how to reach me…” he said, just as he was closing the door behind him.

 

***

Perhaps, reflected Thomas several hours later, Peter was regretting saying that.

“Yes, I’m afraid it’s an emergency – we need your help, and it’s a matter of some urgency. Thank you. Yes, see you shortly.”

He hung up and turned to Molly. She raised an eyebrow, questioning.

“It’s okay,” said Thomas. “It's going to be fine. He’s on his way. We can’t miss the Downton Christmas Special, after all – it’s tradition.”

 

END