It’s amazing how small misfortunes excavate larger truths. How everybody’s real self breaks through the carapace of persona and role under the pressure of adventure and collapsed routine – like the skin falling away from a banana.
Unusual things started happening as soon as I alighted the train bound for Birmingham International at Shrewsbury and magically jumped aboard the next train bound for Cardiff. The timings were incredibly tight and I just managed to slip aboard the train after the platform assistant had pulled down the signalling stick issuing a departure command. It was a change no computer predicted I could make. Then half-an-hour of charming Shropshire and Herefordshire scenery ensued, accompanied by the strange background music of some corporates discussing the history of BAE systems at a table beside me. The women both had their hair dyed a false hay-blonde and spoke with an assertiveness that I didn’t believe they felt. One of the men, bald, be-spectacled but in his early thirties, wore a rubber band displaying his support of a teenage cancer charity.
When we arrived at Hereford station a beleaguered train conductor announced that freight cargo had been dislodged further up the track and there would be a delay – of unknown duration. He encouraged us to remain on the train until further information trickled in on his radio. Half-an-hour was the first estimation. It is now at least an hour since the original announcement, but I feel that we have all lost track of time.
Charmed words, the train has just drawn off. I expect it will be a very busy onward journey.
What else did I observe? The myriad number of ways people responded to disruption of their routines. Some – including the corporate group – immediately called local taxi companies, the women followed the men’s lead reluctantly. One smartly dressed girl with glossy black hair stood on the platform for the entire duration of the hold-up, clicking her heels and looking distressed. I don’t think she said a word to a soul. Most of the passengers including myself, remained on board obediently – all assuming the role we had been assigned – of school children on a journey with the teachers in control – or not, perhaps.
I quickly skipped off the purgatorial train to get some dinner at Morrisons – so much for the glamorous all-expenses-paid affair that I was anticipating! A smoked salmon sandwich and fruit salad wrapped in its usual stocking of plastic packaging, was the most I could hope for. When I went outside I saw a huge crowd had amassed outside the entrance to the station. An Arriva Trains assistant was handing out bottles of water, by this point, is almost seemed like some kind of national emergency. When I stopped and asked her the reasons for the crowd amassing there, she assured me that they were waiting to be picked up by coaches which had been called to the station. It was rush-hour, and I was stuck among the vast ocean of commuters who wanted to make it back to Cardiff before nightfall.
I scurried over to Morrisons to buy my sandwich and when I returned was faced with a decision. Train or coach? Both seemed equally unreliable and at the mercy of managerial incompetence. In the end I sided with the train; I rather liked my window seat.
Just as I re-entered, a spunky red-headed train assistant pushing the refreshments trolley managed to negotiate free drinks for passengers on board. I felt grateful to her for making the first, benign and common-sense decision in this most minor of disasters. Later she admitted, not just to me but numerous passengers on board, that the free drinks quota was likely to push up her bonus enormously. So much for altruism I thought.
But the train is rolling south now – at a ‘cautionary’ speed – in case the shower of debris spilt by the pendulous freight train left some bombs behind. It’s not so bad – the perpetual motion and interstitial space of travel. It forges unexpected connections, flickering moments of empathy. I think about that secret shared smile I had with the woman behind me when a man in front of us started being bombastic and unnecessarily loud. It reminds me of the unexpected camaraderie and friendships that Jenny Diski instigates and explores as part of her unconventional travelogue Strangers on a Train while she travels across America by rail.
It’s twilight and the ghostly outline of a full moon stands out against the still-blue sky like a porthole window. A journey that should have taken me four hours has taken me seven and counting. We pass fields of rapeseed, and other fields are intensively fertilized – the smell of chemicals pierces even the vacuum-sealed edges of train windows. Hedgerows, short and stubby – aggressively cut back. But for all this, the managed landscape is somehow pastoral and pleasing. I am discovering it backwards, not in rewind, but with all the beauty still behind me. The rapeseeds’ fluorescence is unnerving, like a kind of powder paint sprinkled across the green fields. The trees that have survived felling, stand triumphant, though alone in their paddocks. I discover the world backwards, one field at a time.
- 05. 2016