It’s dawn. It’s cold. It’s overcast. It’s January in East Anglia.
“My ticket’s not working.” Alan passes his phone over to the station guard.
“Scan it again.”
The phone passes over the barcode reader, the reader flashes, and the gate remains still.
“Still not working.”
“Scan it again.”
Scan, flash, no movement. The gate sits there, stiller than a corpse in a running race.
“It’s not working.”
The guard takes the phone, checks the ticket, and shrugs. “It should be.”
“It’s not, though.”
Shrug. “Eh, you can go through.” The guard sticks a key into the gate and turns it, the gate slamming open in response. “Dunno what happened.”
Alan shrugs. “Dunno. Cheers.”
“Cheers.” It’s always like this. The train’s delayed, the gate breaks, whatever. The last time the railway was reliable was in the two hours between the first passenger service starting and William Huskisson getting run over by the second one.
Alan goes through the gate and walks onto the platform, nipping up the stairs and across to the Cambridge service. It’s one of the Great Northern services – turquoise seats and a suspicious smell in the toilets. He sits down and puts his headphones in, watching the landscape out of the window.
Peterborough ends after five minutes, and gives way to the Fens. Huge grey skies cover a landscape so flat it could have been made as God’s snooker table. The train rattles on through the flatness, passing small farmhouses hauled out of the land and placed nowhere in particular. They flit by and disappear into the Fens, and the landscape returns to fields, grass, and water.
The water is creeping in. Between Peterborough and Ely, the train passes over a bridge. In the summer, the bridge crosses fields filled with crops. Now, as winter settles in the land, it’s filled with water. Towards the sea, sluices have been opened to prevent the tides overwhelming the land, and water has flowed inland to drown places that can afford to be drowned. The sluices will soon be closed, and the land will drain. But for now, water stretches from horizon to horizon- the sea reminding the world that the Fens are not the land of men, but a part of the ocean briefly snatched from it.
Then Ely comes and goes, the great tower of the Cathedral thrusting skywards on the summit of the Isle like a fortress. It passes quickly, and then Cambridge appears.
First the suburbs, growing thicker and thicker as the train moves South. Then Cambridge North. Then the bridge over the Cam. Then more suburbs. Then, at last, the station.
Alan leaves the station and catches the bus, hauling his suitcase on with him. Looking around, he can see people in similar positions, with similar expressions. Suitcases resting beside them, headphones in, eyes taking in the town which is both familiar and unknowable. They come here for three, four, five, six years. Some stay, most leave after that. For a while, this is a sort of home – or at least something more than a passing place. But they all leave, eventually.
The bus rumbles towards the centre of town, as it always does, and its occupants think, as they always do. It passes close to the old Cavendish on Free School Lane – where Rutherford split the atom. He said that the nucleus of the atom was, in terms of scale compared to the electrons, a fly in a cathedral. A tiny thing amidst a far larger whole. As Alan listens to his music, he thinks about his life as a fly. Cambridge was founded before the Black Death, when Scholasticism was in the ascendancy. It educated Reformers, and it emptied for the Plague. It changed, it reformed, and it saw thousands of people pass through its damp Fenland streets.
Thousands of flies in the Cathedral.