Reflections on a Train

My life these days is busy but undeniably domestic. If I drew it on a Spirograph, it would be a pattern of tight, interlocking small circles: a rapid series of short orbits around the fixed point of home. I travel but little; rarely stray from the same handful of destinations. My journeys, these days, are metaphors: the fellow passengers there by my choice, the for-all-seasons ticket non-refundable.

For many years, though, my life was strung along the stations of the East Coast mainline. I must have spent months in trains and on platforms, travelling between family and university; friendship and love; home and work. Over time, I grew to know the contours of the countryside along the route as well as my own face, just as I grew to know the planes and shadows of my own face reflected against the changing landscapes beyond the glass.

I’ve watched myself at eighteen, with the excitement and terror of knowing I had an address of my own to travel to; and years later, on my first day in a suit, feeling just as young inside. I’ve watched my hair morph from wild curls to short bob and back again; my footwear from DMs to sensible pumps to perilously high heels. I’ve watched the strangeness of my own eyes looking back at me blinking away early morning sleep on the way to the office or the worst effects of the night (or term) before. The flush on my cheeks from the exchange of a glance or the prospect of a reunion; the furtive tears on separation back when there was no chance of text or call to soften the parting. I’ve turned my finger surreptitiously to see a brand new diamond flash in the fluorescent light or the sun as it sets. I’ve stared into a field suffused with spring dawn light and seen nothing but the two lines on a strip left on my bathroom shelf; watched the curve of my belly grow day by day till the suits were left behind again.

So many hours of daydreaming. So many days of watching rain run down the panes or squinting into the dazzle of the sun.  Absorbing the turns and leans of the rails, the burble of the announcements and the litany of the stations until knowing where to look, when to stand became the stuff of instinct rather than thought.

It’s years now since I’ve travelled regularly by train. First I swapped the commute for a drive: the sudden, luxurious convenience of stepping into a car outside my front door and parking just feet away from the office replacing the daily lottery of timetables and weather and peculiar fellow travellers. Then I swapped the commute altogether for a walk to school: pushing a pram, pulling a scooter, toting small wailing children rather than a designer handbag and a pair of shoes to change into. Whenever we go somewhere with the children, we tend to drive. There’s a small local tootle train which goes to the seaside, but this weekend, to celebrate a big birthday, we took them on a big train for the first time – all the way to Edinburgh.

I was there, still, at the station: the memory of countless icy Northern mornings hitting me through my behind when we sat to wait on the cold metal benches; rising up from the platform through the soles of my boots. The tiny jolt of adrenaline when the train was announced; the purposeful stride in the direction of the best seats before remembering we had reservations this time. The soft sigh of the upholstery and the tug as the train pulled away. There was even a handful of the old familiar faces, looking faintly appalled, as I would have done had a family of five looked set to disturb my thirty minutes of quiet.

I was there still when, the children finally nestled into seats with books and snacks, I caught sight of myself in the window: broader and busier, with silver and shade in my face that were never there before  –  but still me.  I think I’ve been there all the time.








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