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Chapter One: A Madcap Idea
‘What this station needs,’ announced Gareth Hope one morning in the summer of 2008, ‘is a station cat.’
His colleague, Andy Croughan, laughed out loud. When the two mates got together – as they did most days, after the morning rush hour was over, to kick about some conversation during the quiet phases of their shift – they were always coming up with daft ideas, but this one had to take the bis- cuit. A station cat? Oh, it was a good bit of mischief, but nothing that would happen in a million years.
They knew that there was a historic tradition of railway cats – back in the days of British Rail, many signalmen used to have them, and Gareth, who was relatively new to the industry, was forever being told stories by old-timers about how there used to be cats at every depot and how they’d all get wage slips every month – but as far as Gareth and Andy knew, the tradition was now history, lost in the railway’s unstoppable modernisation. Winston Churchill had once been pictured fussing over the Liverpool Street station cat, and the idea of Huddersfield getting its own moggy seemed as much a part of the past as that venerated former prime minister.
Yet despite – or perhaps because of – its far-fetched nature, the fantasy of a station cat became a favourite topic of conversation for Gareth and Andy over the next few months, especially during those shifts when the station clock ticked by agonisingly slowly, and discussing daft ideas seemed the only way to make it speed up.
Working on the railway hadn’t been Gareth’s original career plan. He’d attended university to study computer pro- gramming, but two years into his course he’d decided he hated it and couldn’t do it for a living. Needing a job, he’d joined the barrier team at Huddersfield station towards the end of 2006 – but soon found that wasn’t for him either. There were no actual ticketing gates when he’d joined the station, so at that time the gateline team themselves formed the only physical barrier stopping fare-dodgers from travel- ling without tickets. More times than he cared to remember, Gareth, who was slim, willowy and non-confrontational, had found himself on the wrong end of an altercation with an aggressive customer who had pushed him to the ground. He’d been relieved, after just over a year in the job, to get off the frontline and become an announcer (based safely in the office, behind a glass window), but working at the station still felt like a stopgap: something to do while he worked out what he reallywanted to do with his life. But he didn’t worry too much about it; he was only twenty-one, so there was plenty of time for figuring it out.
In the meantime, he really enjoyed working at the railway station. Amongst colleagues, it had a family feel; an atmosphere that in truth went beyond the barriers of Huddersfield and spread across the entire railway network. People who worked on the railway would do anything for each other: it was that kind of industry. Once, Gareth had got stuck down south, but a flash of his rail ID card had had the team at the station there going the extra mile to help him get safely back home. At Huddersfield specifically, many of the twenty-six- strong team had worked there for more than twenty years; they knew each other better than most brothers and sisters. In fact, if you’d been clocking in for less than a decade you were known as a ‘young un’.
Gareth and Andy both fell into that category. Andy was a duty manager, also in his early twenties, who’d been at the station since 2006. He was a dynamic, mischievous man with a rangy figure and heaps of energy. Given the team spent more time with each other than they did with their families – sometimes working nights, as Huddersfield was staffed twenty-four hours a day – it was perhaps no surprise that many colleagues became close friends. Andy and Gareth had hit it off immediately, and their very favourite way of entertaining each other was to embark on flights of fancy with their conversation; they had a bit of a reputation for it. The station cat was just one of their crazy ideas; another was that TransPennine Express (TPE), the company which ran the station, should employ Mr T from TheA‑Teamto do the safety announcements (‘Keep behind the yellow line, fool’), while Gareth was also an enthusiastic advocate of changing all the stairs in the station to slides and pulleys, to minimise slips, trips and falls.
The station manager, Paul, a rather by-the-book sort of boss, was by now used to their ridiculous suggestions, which always came thick and fast. He was a young, good-looking man who didn’t give away a lot verbally, but his eyebrows could speak volumes. Up they would go whenever Gareth put another wacky idea to him, his dismissal and disbelief writ plain across his disapproving face.
Throughout the autumn of 2008, in their natters during painfully slow shifts, Gareth and Andy kept coming back to the suggestion of a station cat – playing with the idea as a kitten does a mouse on a string, batting it back and forth between them and getting more and more excited as they came up with ever more elaborate reasons why the station neededa cat. Gareth was particularly enamoured of the idea that a station feline might calm down irate customers.
‘A cat would make everybody happy – whenever someone was complaining, you could present the cat and they’d calm down!’ he enthused with feeling, his memories of his time on the gateline still fresh. ‘And just think how amazing it would be to have this cat wandering around and being in charge of everything, causing trouble and getting in every- one’s way, as cats do!’
They were like kids, egging each other on. ‘You should ask Paul!’ Andy would say, joking about it.
And then, one day, as the manager walked through the announcer’s office, where the mischievous pair were chat- ting, Gareth seized his moment.
‘Paul, any chance we could get a station cat?’ he casually asked. He tucked his straight, shoulder-length brown hair behind his ears a little nervously, awaiting his boss’s verdict.
He didn’t have to wait long: the station manager didn’t miss a beat.
‘No, absolutely not,’ Paul said flatly, without breaking his stride for an instant.
Gareth sank back into his chair, deflated.
But not for long. Another of his off-the-wall ideas was that the station should replace all the concrete on the platforms with the spongy tarmac used on kids’ playgrounds (to prevent injuries), and Gareth now bounced back as surely as if his chair was made of that very material. Plan A – asking Paul outright – had not worked, but Gareth was becoming far too keen on the idea of a station cat to give up that easily. His campaign to get a station pet now needed to move up a gear.
It was time for Plan B.
‘OUR STATION CAT IS MISSING’ read the hand- made poster on Paul’s official noticeboard. He unpinned it with a wry smile, and cast his eyes around the office, where further copies of the same poster adorned the walls. All Gareth’s handiwork, of course. Paul balled up the poster and threw it in the recycling bin with a weary shake of his head. The young announcer was certainly dedicated to his crazy cause. If Paul left the formal noticeboard unexamined for more than a week, distracted by more pressing issues else- where in the station, when he returned it would be plastered all over with notices about this fantasy cat, so that his origin-al, official signs would be completely covered by Gareth’s campaign posters. Some of these had really bad, hand-drawn sketches of cats on them; others were more text-based. Just recently, in this summer of 2009, Paul had asked the team to come up with suggestions for preventing trips, slips and falls on the station concourse, which was one of his biggest con- cerns as manager and something he was keen to address.
Perhaps inevitably, Gareth had submitted his own unique list of suggestions.
‘Provide all customers with a harness connected to a net- work of zip wires,’ his submission had read. And continued:
Install lots of Travellators so customers don’t have to walk anywhere.
Put a large sign outside the station saying ‘ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK’ (possibly accompanied by a skull-and-crossbones image?).
Cover the floor in a six-inch shag-pile.
Put trampolines in falling-over hotspots, so cus- tomers would instantly be returned to their feet.
Employ a station cat . . .
Always the station cat. No matter what the problem, a station cat, according to Gareth, was the answer. In Gareth’s defence, he was able to cite countless examples of cat success stories: such as Stubbs, who had been mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, for over a decade, or the famous Japanese station cat, Tama, who had transformed the fortunes of her ailing rail- way line, bringing in 1.1 billion yen ($10.44 million) a year.
No, Gareth’s campaign for the station cat showed no signs of abating. The man was obsessed! And what was more, somewhat to Paul’s chagrin, he was no longer alone.
For Gareth’s handmade posters weren’t his only method of attack as he continued Operation ‘Station Cat’. Gareth’s job – much to his delight – saw him located in the announc- er’s office. Not only was this a coup in terms of getting him off the gateline, but it just happened to be the most sociable place in the station. The team were always walking through the announcer’s office. It was a large, communal-type room, home to basic office equipment like the photocopier that everyone used, but it also provided the throughway to the booking office. Everybody on shift was in the announcer’s office at some point during their working day, so there was always some chatter going on. Perhaps partly because of that, it had a very homely atmosphere, emphasised by a reddish-pink carpet that softened people’s steps as they came and went throughout the day.
Inevitably, as Gareth had regularly sat and chatted with Andy at his desk about their shared enthusiasm for a station cat, the passing colleagues had listened and chipped in. It had now been over a year since Gareth had first suggested it, and during the past twelve months everybody who worked at the station had heard them talking about it – and loads of the team had come on board with the idea. Huddersfield had long been an animal-friendly station – the team had a pet-pictures noticeboard, where they stuck up snapshots of their cats and dogs in the mess room – and by now the majority of the team were behind the campaign. They even added to the ban- ter: a new gag was that the cat could be employed as a pest controller, to tackle the station’s non-existent ‘mouse prob- lem’. But everybody knew the truth: mice had nothing to do with it; they wanted a cat because it would be fun, and a real pleasure to come to work and share a shift with a furry friend.
Even the team leaders supported the idea. Although they reported to Paul, it didn’t necessarily mean that he was always in charge; many of the team leaders had worked at the station for decades and had the wisdom and experience to prove it. In fact, their affectionate nickname for the manager was ‘Babyface’ because Paul was still relatively young, especially in comparison to them.
Perhaps the most influential of these team leaders was the inimitable Angie Hunte. A warm, outgoing black woman with an infectious laugh and a larger-than-life character, Angie had given more than twenty years’ service to the station, and over that time she had proved herself to be a powerful matriarchal figure within it. Even Paul had learned that it was to his benefit to get Angie on side with new ideas, for she had huge influence at the station owing to the high esteem in which she was held. When she’d first chatted with Gareth and Andy about the station cat, Gareth had felt extremely apprehensive.
If she hates it, he’d thought with trepidation, even as he extolled the virtues of his pet idea, it will never happen.
But a beaming smile had spread across Angie’s face as the idea took hold. It was more than Gareth could have hoped for. ‘Angie being enthusiastic about the cat idea was like a green light,’ he recalled. ‘I remember thinking: itmightgosomewherenow.’
But Angie wasn’t the only one with influence. Hudders- field had six team leaders, who each worked in shifts, taking full responsibility for the station and team when on duty. And another of these was a chap called Billy, who’d worked alongside Angie for decades. He’d worked his whole life on the railway, first as a conductor and latterly as a team leader.
In his late fifties, he was the elder statesman of the station – and known for being grumpy in a granddad kind of way. Angie had known him so long, and got on with him so well, that she had teasingly nicknamed him ‘Mr Grumpy’. He was short and balding, and his years of professed misery had etched that expression into his lined face.
Billy was known for telling things straight. If he didn’t agree with you, he would come right out and say you were talking a lot of rubbish. If he thought you were being a fool, he told you as much, and he wouldn’t do it in a nice PC way. When Billy first heard about the campaign to get a station cat, he thought it was silly. He was dismissive; and it seems the manager, Paul, still felt the same way. Despite Angie’s enthusiasm and Gareth’s creative poster campaign, the manager remained unmoved.
Undaunted, as the months passed and the idea took even deeper hold, Gareth tried to appeal directly to Paul’s busi- ness brain. Knowing his manager was a man for facts, figures and charts, Gareth took the time to produce a summary of the pros and cons of getting a station cat:
Our NPS (national passenger survey) scores will undoubtedly go through the roof . . .
Obviously, there were no cons . . .
But the chart went the way of all the posters before it. As 2009 turned into 2010, and then into 2011, Gareth was still no closer to realising his dream – nor to moving on from the station, as he’d said he would do . . . one day.
It was in the spring of 2011 that some intriguing news reached him on the office grapevine, borne to him via the passing footsteps of his colleagues journeying through the announcer’s office. Paul, so rumour had it, was being sec- onded to a job elsewhere in the business. So someone else would be taking charge of the station in his absence – and that someone else would have the power to veto or green- light the idea of the station cat.
When he heard who’d got the job, Gareth couldn’t repress the grin that stretched across his face. He ran to meet Andy, his long-time partner in crime – and the man who had just been appointed acting station manager. Andy’s wide smile matched Gareth’s own.
‘This is it!’ the announcer cried in excitement, his eyes shining with glee. ‘This is our opportunity. Let’s get thecat!’
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