Posts Tagged ‘openings’

The night train

The limousine arrives after dusk. The driver is a grey-suited fellow of little conversation, his companion, a woman of middling years and magnetic presence, is equally taciturn. She steps out and opens the rear door. She wears a long, sombre dress, padded at the shoulders, forties style. There is an air of respectfulness about them, but this is not to say they are deferential. It is a professional arrangement. Their task is to collect me, and put me on the night train, as it is mine to make the journey.

There was a time when I would try to talk to them, question them, but they would close me down, with soft, short answers that explained nothing. There seemed nothing evasive in this. They knew their part and nothing more, while I knew nothing at all. Now I do not to bother them, and instead sit back and enjoy the leather-upholstered opulence of the drive, and the mystery of it.

I observe the familiar streets as they slide by, but there comes a point when we take an unfamiliar turn, like those the taxi drivers always know, and then you are in a different world, a world contained within the familiar, yet already unknown. Unfamiliarity is piled upon unfamiliarity, until one is lost in it. The north, south, east, and west-ness of it is all jumbled up, so it comes as no surprise to be finally arriving at a railway station that looks so far away in space and time, you cannot place it in your personal locality at all.

Its architecture is like that of a renovated relic from the Victorian, dramatically lit in movie noir style. It excites at once, though I cannot say why, and can only observe the emotion as it rises and falls within the breast. The car draws up, and the woman opens the door, hands over the travel documents. There is a ticket, a little cash, but neither Sterling nor Euro, also a card for major expenses, should they be required. Exactly what is required is never known, yet I have learned to trust all eventualities are catered for, so long as the guides are heeded. Guides, stewards, conductors, travellers. Each has their place.

When I first rode these night trains, it was only the driver of the limousine who would call. He would drop me at the station – smaller stations than this, to begin, just one platform and a single line. It did not matter which way I rode. Then came bigger stations with, a few platforms, different trains, a greater choice of destination, but it did not matter which I chose. I did this for years, never knowing where I’d been, or what for. I suppose it was an apprenticeship of sorts, learning to ride and to make the changes in time. But there comes a point when one’s travels need to be directed, if they are to become meaningful. I suppose that’s why there is a woman with the driver now, to get me on the right train. That’s another thing, the guides do not always advertise themselves as such and a degree of discernment is required – knowing who will set you on the right track, and who will derail you.

Tonight we are on platform two. She walks me into the station, no other souls around the giant halls, lending it a cavernous eeriness, with only the rumble of the trains and the sound of her heels to enliven it. In those earlier times the trains I rode were always short haul, the more friendly looking little two carriage Sprinters that link the local towns, towns that had a European familiarity about them, but whose names I did not know, and would always forget when the journey was done. It was as if the names of places was not the important thing in mapping out the territory.

It was as much as I dared, to begin, and there was always a sense of anticlimax, the towns seeming to stand without meaning, the night bars and restaurants I visited peopled only by the still sleeping, half-shelled forms of what I took to be my fellow men. And none engaged me. It was altogether a very shallow experience, only marginally more interesting than my travels by day.

Lately though, I have begun to travel further out, and I am sensing something in the air, something changing, particularly among the bigger city destinations. There, the denizens seem at least to notice me, but are shy of engaging, as I am shy, for fear of not possessing the necessary etiquette in foreign lands, and among foreign people whose customs may be unlike my own. And I would not like to give offence, no matter how inadvertent. But I’m still unsure if these journeys have an actual point or not, if they are leading up to something, or I am still completing some sort of probation, that to ride the night trains is to enter a temple of sorts, one where nothing is what it seems, and you must leave at the door all your preconceptions regarding the nature of travel.

At platform two, tonight, stands the biggest train I have ever ridden, and quite futuristic in its lines. It is taking on supplies just now: water, refreshment, fresh bedding for the sleeper cars. It is a train for crossing continents, and carries with it an air of anticipation, a determination to pierce distant horizons at great speed. The looks of it alone excites the senses.

My guide seeks out the carriage that is reserved for me, and opens the door. She stands back to let me into the quiet air-conditioned hum of it, herself remaining on the platform. It is a private carriage of a kind I have become more accustomed to, recently. Rather than the familiar rows of seats, there is a couch, deep buttoned and inviting, a couple of club chairs, and a stout desk. There is dark panelling throughout, oiled and richly scented. The ceiling is lined with polished copper tiling, and reflective. There are reading lamps, books,… Whilst I may still be on probation, it seems, amid all this opulence, I am allowed some symbols of advancing status, even though all of it is as yet mysterious.

She closes the door, grants me a parting smile. There is warmth, and something comforting in it. Then she walks away, leaves me to settle in. I note the shutters are drawn, which means we are going a long way, tonight. The shutters grant only a sense of motion as the town and country lights slide by. I have been advised by the stewards not to lift the shutters on such journeys, for it would only confuse me, they say. It is better to settle for the motion, and the point to pointness, I’m told, and to ignore what lies between.

I don’t know about this. I prefer to see where I’m going, but I suspect the geometry here is not of the Euclidian sort, at least not when compared with the familiar plane of living. There is another dimension to contend with, one which bends things round upon themselves, makes close neighbours of cities at opposite ends of the globe, and an impenetrable gulf between towns that are only be miles apart.

I take the couch. There is a book on the table, a slim clothbound volume. The text is Cyrillic in style and illegible to me, though the structure of the lines and heading suggests poetry. I don’t know what these clues are supposed to mean, how they are supposed to be read.

As for other travellers, I assume there are many, and that they occupy the other carriages. We do not mix, and the interconnecting doors do not open to anyone but the stewards. I suppose these others to be the more adventurous, or the more experienced, riding the train out to its furthest destinations, since the first stop of the night is always mine, and I am always alone, when I step out onto that platform.

I hear the steward approaching, the rattle and chink of his trolley being a sensory connection that helps keep me present. He is a cheery man, late middle-aged, balding, bright-eyed. The stewards are more chatty than the limousine driver, and the guide, but not overly so. Again, they have their place in the scheme of things, and know nothing beyond it. I suspect they are not fully sentient, but it would be rude of me to say so to their face. Better, more polite and productive, to play along with their script.

“Coffee, sir?”

Yes, indeed, coffee. The journey always begins with coffee. The experience of it is intense, and puts me in a receptive mood. Sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, emotions too; all are more intensely experienced here than by day. By day the seeming pace of life distracts, and waking is like stepping on an avalanche of words and sensation, the entire day being an act of permanent imbalance. The night trains, for all of their mystery, allow a period in which to gather oneself, and if such is the only purpose, it will suffice. Though I suspect there is more, much more to come.

The train departs. There is no Tannoy announcement, no shrill whistle, no scrolling of a destination board. The steward balances himself against the sudden motion, and pours. He uses a silver pot. There is a China cup and saucer. All of these things are symbolic, I know but, like the writing in the book, I do not yet know how to interpret them.

We clear the station, and I feel the train accelerating, coming up to speed.

Here we go, then,…

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A small market town up North, far less prosperous now than it once was. It was the place to go when things were needed that the corner shop in my outlying rural village could not provide. But nowadays the town does not provide that either. I mostly order my needs off the Internet, and the postman delivers.

In memory, probably rose tinted, it was a prouder place back then. Do I imagine that on Saturday afternoons people would dress up to go shopping? Men would wear clean shirts, jackets and aftershave, ladies their fashionable dresses, high heels, and lipstick. Film actresses have walked Market Street in their finery on the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, crossed the road by Woolworths on their way to Boots. Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I have seen them all on the catwalk that was the pelican crossing by the old Town Hall.

There were innumerable family businesses here, names over doors that had stood for generations – bookshops, shoe-shops, florists, shops for artists, photography shops, all gone now and the town has dissolved into a place of thrift, of bookmaking, of pawn-brokering, e-cigs and of bargain booze. And in their passing something has happened to us.

I don’t know when it happened, or how, or why, or even what I mean exactly. It’s more than money, more than the economy. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I could use a word like respectability, but risk accusations of elitism and a hankering after the nineteen fifties, when working men still doffed their caps to toffs.

As I walked Market Street this afternoon, I heard a group of women plainly from a hundred yards away, fag-raw voices much amplified by alcohol. I thought they were fighting, but they were simply talking, oblivious to the obstacle and the spectacle they created on the pavement. Of course such unselfconsciousness can be argued as a virtue, not caring to live one’s life through the eyes of other people, and hurrah for that, I suppose, but at the risk of sounding like an insufferable snob, there was something unpleasant about their laddishness, something embarrassing, even threatening. Oh, I’m sure had they read my mind, intuited my feelings they would have given me the finger, and well deserved.

Grace. I think it’s the loss of grace I mean – the grace of the actress, of the ballroom, of the dancer – it’s gone from all our lives now, though I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet I still search the crowd for it – in vain mostly – seeing only rags instead of finery, and stout, hideously tattooed stumps in place of dancers’ legs. I have largely withdrawn such sensibilities into imagination, hesitate to express them.

And charity shops.

We have a lot of charity shops now, a dozen at last counting. They are the only places capable of thriving, the only reliable landmarks on the high street – all else is pitifully feeble, ephemeral. They smell, don’t they? I used to find it off-putting – something unclean, I thought, and for a long time resisted the plunge – just one more step in my own fall from gracefulness.

It helped I could find decent books in there, good novels, literature, a handful for a fiver and just as well in straightened times – for such an appetite would cost fifty quid from a bookshop and quite out of the question. But there are no bookshops any more.

I like the Heart Foundation. Their books are well ordered, easy to scan, always a generous selection. And that’s where I saw her.

She was tall, slim, a voluminous cascade of seemingly luminescent blonde hair falling down her back. She had an upright posture, head balanced with a dancer’s poise, chin up, directing her gaze as she swept the titles with a leisurely, bookish grace. She wore a pair of snug blue jeans and a green shirt over a cream camisole – not a young woman by any means, forties perhaps,… and so far so much of a cliche.

The movie cute-meet would no doubt have been our fingers reaching out for the same title, something by Sebastian Barry perhaps – always a hard find in a charity shop. Our fingers would brush, then we’d each draw back with an embarrassed laugh.

“After you,” I’d say.

She’d smile, blush, reveal endearing dimples and a row of Hollywood perfect teeth. “No, you first. I’ve read it anyway. You like Barry?”

And thus we would connect, two lost, bookish souls finding succour among the cast offs in this wasted northern town, which seemed at once less wasted for her presence in it.

Poise. Yes, it was her poise that caught my eye, her arm gently reaching up to the book-shelf, something of a reserved curve to it, ending in a languorously relaxed hand, only the index and middle fingers forming a stiffly extended double pointer as if to aid in this most delicate act of intimate divination, or to bless.

Stillness, grace, presence. She had presence. But what was she doing there, a woman like that? She was quite, out of place, out of time.

I was beside her at the bookshelf, but only for a moment. No cute-meet here. I felt my presence as a vulgar intrusion upon such grace and visceral femininity. I feared her effect on me could not go unnoticed, that I would disturb her, make her uneasy, that her grace would stiffen, become angular with suspicion, that by observing it, I would destroy it.

I felt stung then by something very old, a feverishness overcoming me, ancient but familiar. I have taught myself over the years of useless infatuation, successfully I believe, to see women as human beings. It’s what they want, they tell me, this elimination of objectification. But without the object, the symbolism also dies, and love is next to divinity. Yet here was one out of the blue coming at me as a goddess again.

I melted away unseen.

What was all that about?

Chapter one, I think, that’s what all that was about!

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