Rush hour and the station was crowded. Hundreds of people watched the departure board intently for their platform number. Nothing showed. Suddenly, there was a surge forward as everyone attempted to get through the same ticket gates, jostling with suppressed annoyance.
The train was leaving in one minute from the far end of platform sixteen.
Fast moving old ladies shuffled at quite some shuddering pace along the platform. Fleet-footed young women in business dresses swished past me with disdain. Suited men barged through the slow movers. A family group was in some panic, the mother accelerated her double buggy, using it as a battering ram. The father pulled his two daughters’ hands – the girls were flailing wildly amused. He shouted at them, ‘Come On, Jemima, Alice, this is not a joke. Keep up.’
The sudden, disordered motion of the platform was watched by railway staff. A uniformed young man rested against an iron column looking up at the roof contemplating Byron, and an older guard regarded the turmoil with insouciance, a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips. After all, station staff would be working till after midnight. What was the rush for all these Cinderellas?
The train was full. Too full, if you can say that. So there was no space, no communication, as is the English way. Everyone was mindful of their space, shuffling to avoid the slightest physical contact. A small group of work colleagues spoke, nose to nose, too loudly and with too much earnestness and this was unfortunate because it is the most boring thing to have to listen to – even, (I suspect) if you work in a similar company. Standing or seated, everyone shared one wish, to get away from everyone else. Some longed for home, to give a long sigh of relief, and put their feet up and watch TV. Some wanted to kiss their partner and make love. Some would go out with friends and get totally drunk. Whatever gets you through till morning.
And then the train stopped. Why does time at work always seem so short compared to how long it takes to make the journey home? Then time is an unreliable friend. And we all need strategies.
Passengers read free newspapers or had their heads buried in phones, flicking through text messages, others were looking at familiar images of huge smiling faced babies, or lapped up smart looking friends, posing as stars. It was all a distraction. It was all part of the routine.
Then, the train’s announcement system proclaimed in a comforting female voice, ‘This train is experiencing difficulties, which are being dealt with. Please listen for more information from the guard.’ Everyone remained calm. Had no-one heard this? What difficulties? I was confused.
And after a short time, the train moved again and said ‘ this train is for Woking, the next station is Barnes Bridge….’ This was reassuring. So the train’s difficulties can’t have been important. They must have been dealt with. All was back to normal.
Then the train stopped again. There was silence. Everyone pretended normalcy or stoicism, as if nothing had happened, and probably nothing had happened. There was no movement and no news for ages. Some quiet murmurings from passengers – time went on inordinately slowly until the train announced again, ‘This train is experiencing difficulties which are being dealt with. Please listen for more information from the guard.’
I could see that a few people were getting agitated. Was this a terrorist attack? Would we make it home on time? Would partners or lovers back home leave on assignations? So there was a sudden shift to mobile phones, conversations, explanations, implorings.
But the train stood still. And it remained resolutely stationary and silent. Maybe the guard had had some sudden dispute and left? I told myself I was not concerned. I waited too for some information from the guard. What had happened? It could be serious. I should see, talk to the guard. Find out if the driver is okay.
And again the train announced, ‘This train is experiencing difficulties.’
The repeating of this statement was unsettling. Was it an existential plea on the part of the train? Always travelling on the same track, not knowing where it is going, because it is always going to the same places for no reason, and always had to be on time. Maybe the driver had cracked up, with the same red-green signals, the same track, the same life.
Surely this was all too fanciful.
‘They could at least bloody tell us,’ said one man. A woman nodded in agreement. ‘Could be another damn suicide on the track.’ said another. ‘What’s the point of having a guard at all?’ Demanded a passenger loudly.
And I imagined that there was a battle between train and driver going on at this very moment. Maybe the driver had lost control, and the train had decided to take over, and wouldn’t move, no, no, this was too crazy, like a movie, no, maybe the driver was just playing a joke? He had pressed the wrong button announcement. And the guard hadn’t heard anything – the guard might be doing a crossword or something. Why should he care, he just had to be responsible for passengers getting on or off the train, not the running of the train itself. There were no answers. The disquiet amongst passengers was increasing. There was obviously a problem, though none of the passengers seemed to care what the problem was – this was disturbing too.
With no further information, dissension increased in the carriage. I got up from my seat and pushed my way past angry passengers. ‘I’m just going to find out,’ I said. ‘What?’ They said. ‘ What’s your problem?’ ‘Fucking troublemaker,’ one man said to me.
I fought my way towards the guard’s cabin. It was locked and empty. A small schoolboy said, ‘Oh, he’s gone.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, and against the glares of commuters, I pushed on further towards the front carriage, and put my hand on the driver’s door.
‘Oh, you’re not allowed in there,’ said a smartly dressed man, and the others around concurred, staring at me, condemning me. The door was ajar, so I pushed it open and went in, closing the door behind me. It clicked shut.
It was a dark confined space, with unfamiliar knobs, lights, and levers. The driver sat motionless staring ahead down the track. Slowly, he turned to face me, ‘I don’t understand’ he said. ‘It stopped. Have you come to look at it?’ He asked, very odd, did he imagine I was an emergency engineer?
‘Fine,’ I said, ‘I don’t blame you.’
‘ Can you fix it?’ He was distressed. ‘She has problems,’ he said.
He was obviously mad. And I was trapped.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘ I guess everyone has their difficulties, but we all just want to get home.’
‘Oh you represent the customers,’ he said. ‘Okay, listen,’ and raising his hands above his head, away from the controls asked the train in sympathetic tones. ‘Are you having difficulties?’
In a sweet but unemotional female voice, the train announced, ‘This train is experiencing difficulties, which are being dealt with.’
‘ See, see!’
‘Okay, so the guard is playing tricks,’ I said.
‘No, no, Gerry has left. I told him not to abandon the train. It’s a dereliction of duty. But he was really frightened. And he always explains why we are delayed, why we are having difficulties, and says things like please take your belongings and have a pleasant onward journey.’
‘Okay, right, right…,’ I wasn’t going to argue.
‘It doesn’t want to go on’ he said. ‘ But we always go on, Barnes, Barnes Bridge, Chiswick, I don’t know any of those places.’
‘I’ve lived in all of them,’ I answered, ‘but they change, you can’t ever really know them.’
‘Maybe you understand then,’ he said. ‘I have locked everyone in for their safety.’ He reached forward and pushed a red button.
And the woman’s voice came, as soothing as ever. ‘This train is terminating here.’ Then I was sure he mouthed in time with the train’s female voice, ‘We can’t go on.’
I nodded in agreement, stroked his back as he looked back down the track again transfixed, and I stepped down out of the side of the cabin and onto the railway track, and glanced back at him as he fell distraught across the controls of the train, crying.
Slowly I walked back past the train carriages, and through the windows, I saw the passengers frantic and aggressive, scuffling, faces pushing against the windows. I was glad to leave the train behind.
As I trod on along the track, I looked down at the clinkers and sleepers, and up at the buddleia, and across at the trees, and at one small window in one house, where a child smiled back at an odd, old man walking along the railway track alone at night, and I waved, and she waved, and I realised that the geography from the train window was just passing images – images of a fixed world in a fixed time and that I didn’t really know this world, or this time, at all.