Laura Turnbell reflects on the forgotten beauty and the perfect unsuspecting story-telling material that long train journeys bring.
“I stood at the station
like the pages of a book
whose words suddenly start to swim.”
Kate Kilalea from Hennecker’s Ditch
My ticket was for seat C17. I left my bag on the luggage rack and found the seat. I was next to a window and in front of two men and by the time the train pulled into Reading I was sure they were father and son. I pictured the son: frowning into his chest, his shoulder pushed up against the window, withdrawn. And the father: arranging a magazine on his lap, pulling his coat off then back on and wondering aloud about tea. The slanted roofs of houses pile up into mosaics outside the window. The train rushed into the next station and the two men got off, and were replaced by a woman who barricaded herself into the window seat with her luggage.
I’ve built up a collection of the strangers I’ve travelled with. They roll out like templates onto the nowhere fields and buildings outside the train window.
“The train from Zutphen to Winterswijk is quiet, few passengers. Yet the new man comes and sits down directly opposite me. I have to pull my legs in”, begins A. L. Snijders in his short story. Transient, confined and unanchored from a sense of definite location, train journeys provide the perfect scenario for story-making and invention. Detached from our ordinary backdrop and in a haze of movement, our direction and destination are facts to play with.
At Exeter St. David’s a man stands waving on the platform at a person I can’t see, further up the train carriage. Two teenage girls lurch along the aisle with shopping bags, laughing, looking for seats where they can sit together and a woman in a dark suit, folding herself quickly and efficiently into the seat next to mine, sets her laptop on the tray table. A persistent clicking and tapping follows.
In Anne Carson’s poem Father’s Old Blue Cardigan, a train journey becomes a regression into childhood. The confused look on her father’s aged face makes her think of a child sitting on a train:
“very straight at the edge of his seat
while the shadows like long fingers
over the haystacks that sweep past
keep shocking him
because he is riding backwards.”
The identities of the frightened child and Carson’s father blur and merge. What is at one moment the darkened shape of trees and houses passing turns into the shadowy cognitive movement of a man remembering his past. “When I go on the train from here to Toronto I always dread that passing of Port Hope”, Carson says in an interview. Port Hope might be an isolated town glimpsed through the spears of fir trees, or a little collection of whitewashed seaside houses that the train tracks cut past. There is a Port Hope in every train journey we make. The name of a station the train passes through feels familiar, has real or imagined memories and associations tied to it. Train journeys contain an unignorable nostalgia.
From my window seat I see a man out in a field with a dog, both frozen by the train’s passing speed.