Travelling Hopefully on a Train

Unlikely as it may seem to many I have grown to like public transport. As a child in the fifties of course it was a great thrill to board a train or a bus. Trains, in particular were glamorous contraptions with long corridors and compartments with sliding doors. I loved tumbling into an empty compartment, fighting for a window seat and sitting on the prickly upholstery. The windows could be opened and bore only a warning not to stick anatomical parts out [especially in the approach to tunnels!].

When I began working life in London I endured a gruelling commute consisting of a 20 minute walk plus a train journey plus a tube journey plus another 15 minute walk. The tube, in particular was an unpleasant experience not unlike standing in a crammed cattle truck. There was never a seat but no chance of falling over due to the bodies on all sides. The station I alighted at, Vauxhall was a dismal, dirty drift of tarmac and I was delighted when I was able to change both my job and my place of residence.

Trains now have come to resemble buses-the utilitarian seats and the maximising of space to squeeze in as many travellers as possible in this age of too-many-people. Travelling jet-lagged and with that stretched feeling that not enough sleep bestows, we took a very early train back from the airport. Too tired to read I amused myself by observing our fellow passengers, most of whom were far more habitual train travellers than we are. They have long since become bored with the views from the windows. What do they do to pass this time they must endure each day?

A very large number indulge in eating and/or drinking. A woman with a number of bulging shopping bags withdrew one bag of sweets or crisps after another and set about each item with a determination that indicated none should remain, proffering the goodies to her companion opposite more out of duty than generosity.

Two teenage girls gossiped whilst one sipped from a giant, cardboard container of coffee and the other, her feet tucked neatly on to the seat beneath her arranged a fruit drink, a plastic container of prepared fresh fruit and a yoghurt on their table, working her way through all of this bounty with tiny bites of her perfectly white teeth and nodding at intervals while her friend talked. Does she do this every day? How can she afford it?

There is always, now, someone bellowing into their phone, unconcerned about the proximity of others whatever the subject matter might be. Others will be plugged into tiny devices to either listen to music or [and this astonishes me] watch films. As one who is barely able to see enough to text I wonder what kind of cinematic experience the little screen can provide?

We alighted at a provincial station where we were obliged to wait for the next train, stepping out into the freezing cold and back into 1950s Britain, where the comfort of a panelled, apple green waiting room provided warmth and an old fashioned café filled with an eclectic collection of objects served us a hot coffee reminiscent of the coffee of my childhood [ie nothing like coffee]. Long may these ancient, curious places remain!

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Mystery on the Dwarfdale Flyer

  “How do Verna! By ‘eck, its cold in that waiting room this morning!” An icy blast accompanies Jacob Hutton into the compartment as he settles himself opposite Verna, unbuttoning his jacket to reveal his customary navy blue dungarees. Verna chuckles, brushing imagined flecks of dust from her sackcloth apron with large, work-red hands.

“Morning Jacob! Warmer in here, I don’t doubt.”

She turns to glance at the basket beside her, lifts the blue and white cloth to check its contents and, satisfied, nods back at Jacob.

“I haven’t seen Arthur lately. Do you think he’s alright?” Jacob shakes his head, the habitual pipe in his jaw wobbling like a signalman’s flag.

“Nay, I said to my Mavis, it’s a while since Arthur came up to town, though now I come to think of it, he’s been looking peaky, so he might of come down with summat.”

“He works too hard, that’s what. He’s wearing himself out, all that digging, it must be a worry competing with all them new fangled machines they have nowadays. I saw one arriving only yesterday where that new bridge is getting built, all painted up, some digger or suchlike. Nothing stays the same, does it? Happen one day eggs will be factory made and then me and my hens will be out of a job an’ all!”

Verna, soothed by the rhythmic rumbling of the carriage, leans back to watch the passing scenery, as familiar as parlour wallpaper, the paint-bright emerald of the trees interspersed with a red and white signal box or a water tower. She catches a glimpse of station huts and a whiff of acrid smoke as the train begins to round the bend on the approach to Dentlake Junction.

“Poor old Arthur. I know how he feels. We’re none of us getting any younger, and I feel a bit worn out me self, what with getting up at crack of dawn every day. Them cows don’t milk themselves do they?”

Now she scrutinises Jacob, Verna realises that he does indeed look worn out. There are greyish patches emerging on the tip of his nose and his cheeks, his hair is more white than youthful chestnut, even his clothes have taken on a frayed and faded appearance. Worse still, on taking a closer look down at her own, solid form there are worn, shiny areas on her stockinged legs, an alarming, deep gouge in the brown, woolly sleeve of her coat.

The train grinds to a gentle halt as they pull in to Dwarfdale, where half a dozen passengers are preparing to board. Jacob gets to his feet, pulling his shabby jacket together, and opens the door to see a figure they both know, and yet almost unrecognisable in his renaissance.

“Arthur!” They shout, gladdened by the sight of him, vibrant, bright-eyed and fresh, as moments later they are lifted up and placed gently on a table amongst the paints and brushes behind the toy shop window.