Return Journey: phones, plimsolls and Stoke-on-Trent

Travelling home, facing forward.

It will soon be midnight. There are no clouds now, at least none that I can see as I look out of the window, or rather into it, for I am presented with a blurred version of the carriage in which I sit. Coach A, the quiet carriage. (But all the carriages looked quiet and empty as I walked along the platform, relieved that I had made it on time.) Beyond or inside my reflection, somewhere in the blackness, there is a cluster of lights, yellow and white, marking the edge of some faraway reality, a town or village. The cluster becomes a string as the train surges on. This is the last train of the day. By the time I reach Manchester it will be tomorrow. The announcer affects a silly, jocular accent. He swings his voice up and down, sliding through vowels and twirling his sentences at the end. Stoke-on Trent becomes something like Stork Untrained. Is he attempting a crude northern accent? No one laughs. At first he sounds simple or cheerful (the two often coincide). Then he sounds menacing. I imagine him sat in his underpants, clutching a meat cleaver, as he trills his way from Watford Gap to Macclesfield, singing the names of stations we might never reach.

There are not many passengers on this train. We stretch our legs. We define our kingdoms with jackets and books and canned drinks. Four seats for every person: unthinkable luxury, the commuter’s dream. There are no rowdies, no swaggering suits or boisterous tourists. A petite woman is curled across two seats, wrapped in a grimy red coat, sleeping. “Legs in, please,” says a man in a blue uniform as he passes through the carriage. The sleeper does not respond: her plimsolled feet are poking into the aisle. The man moves them out of his way, as if turning a handle, and receives a mumble for his trouble. He says something I cannot catch. A large round woman with a surprisingly young face is playing with her phone, pink fingernails pecking at the screen. She is talking to a companion I cannot see. Her observations are met with dunno and maybe and finally silence.

My face in the window looks tired. I am tired. I’m pleased to be facing forward, travelling home in this tube of pale light and cream moulded plastic. Out of the darkness, a station appears, excavated from the night. It looks rickety, insubstantial, held together by a rig of thin lights and slanting shadows. I cannot see the station’s name. It slips away and my window becomes a mirror again. I am two hours away from my bed, rushing towards sleep and temporary oblivion. The announcer tells us, in the jaunty voice of a children’s entertainer, that the buffet bar is open, selling a range of hot and cold snacks, hot beverages, teas, coffees, etcetera, alcoholic beverages, crisps, snacks, etcetera.  But cash only, please, there is a problem with the card reader. The sleeping woman is awake now, sat up like a judge and looking straight ahead, as though terrible things were told to her in her sleep. A man is speaking on his phone, a low grumble: “It’s in the kitchen. I told you. Yes. I did. In the kitchen. Yeah. No. Not in there. Kitchen. By the. I don’t need this. Where I said it was. By the thing. You do know.” I hear another voice behind me. “Tickets, please, tickets, tickets.” That’ll be the man in the uniform. My reflection has an anxious face, floating out there in the variable darkness. My reflection yawns. Tickets, please, sir. I look up and the uniformed man, his mouth overfilled with teeth or sweets, is asking for my ticket. I show him. He nods and moves on, into someone else’s dream.

Travelling Backwards

Thoughts from a train

I’m travelling backwards through the English countryside. Trees and bridges flicker by, while the fields in the distance seem to move at a slower pace, sliding out of view, turning unhurriedly beneath the enormous sky. It is as though the land is not solid at all, but molten and shifting, full of currents and channels that only become evident from the window of a speeding train. The world approaches, then flies away.

‘Look at the trees,’ says a young girl.

‘Yes,’ says the woman I assume is her mother.

‘You didn’t see, you weren’t looking.’

‘I was, I was, sweetheart.’

‘You weren’t.’

I am in coach A, the quiet coach, where electronic gadgetry and impulsive gobs must be kept under control. The rage of rappers must not leak from headphones. Please kill your alien warriors quietly. Curiously, I am facing the rest of the passengers. I am on a table at the end of the carriage, facing backwards, while almost everyone else is facing forwards. I feel like a cox. Perhaps I should bark instructions. ‘Read your book. Concentrate.’ ‘Don’t rustle that bag.’ Or perhaps I am an invigilator at an exam. Shush. No talking. The young girl is still mesmerised by the twirling trees, and shouts about them with such joy that no one dares remind her mummy that we are in the quiet zone.

From Manchester to London, the train rattles on. Yes, it rattles. Occasionally. Sometimes it even lurches. But it is a mostly pleasant way to travel, provided you have a seat. Sleepers and texters. Nose-pickers and fidgeters. The mother is chatting to her friend (or perhaps it is her sister). This is the quiet coach but there are no business men staring with psychopathic intensity at laptops. I am sat next to a reader. The bookmark on the table bears the logo of Daunt Books. The reader has a high forehead and heavy-lidded eyes. He reminds me of a friend. I am intrigued to know what he is reading. His paperback looks smart and literary, a cool grey-green cover, but I cannot see the title or the author’s name. I say I am intrigued but I’m not intrigued at all. Neither, it seems, is he. He spends more time checking his phone than he does reading his elegant book. Ah, it’s called The Iceberg. I’ve not heard of it. Have you? Is it good? Shame on me. I can smell the toilet – a warm confection of chemicals and faecal matter – soft dumps and blue poisons.

The laptops are out now, but everyone is behaving themselves. It is a bright day. The clouds look freshly laundered. They look cleaner and brighter than the ones I left behind in the city. These clouds remind me of the clouds in those brilliant old paintings of saints and scholars you see in the National Gallery.

Ted Baker. Fred Perry. There’s Ralph Lauren. We pass an expanse of meadows and marshes. The tall grasses undulate and ripple, waving me away. Shrubs and brackish water. Lanky wildflowers firing off rockets of pink and yellow. I’m travelling backwards from Manchester, my home, to London, where I was born and raised. Except I never really thought of myself as a Londoner, especially not with Irish parents. None of us at school really thought of Ilford as part of throbbing London. The city was Soho and Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. All we had was C&A and the Kenneth More Theatre. London was where the news happened, a thrilling otherness – a place of sex, music, drugs, murder and history. We were caught in the blandlands between Essex and east London. (And London for me started at Manor Park and didn’t really get going until about Forest Gate). But maybe it was just me. Even at home I felt that I was on the edge of things, although I doubt I could have told you what those things were.

Everyone is quiet, even the observant child. She has long tired of trees. She is sleeping on her mother’s lap. There are no accents to assess and gauge. Eyes sometimes connect – but it feels like an intrusion, an accidental touch of hands. My orange juice is nearly finished. I shall not brave the toilet.

I have nothing to read, which is unusual for me. I was going to bring The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson but I changed my mind at the last minute. It disrupted the feng shui of my pockets.

Warehouses with smashed windows and grubby brickwork. Cooling towers – monuments from another world. We are nearly there. It won’t be long. Jackets and holdalls are rescued from the rack. I check my pockets. I pack away my notepad and pen. London. This is my home city but I do not live here. My home is in Manchester but that is not my city. It feels good not to belong, not to be implicated. And yet the purpose of my trip is all about belonging, or wanting to belong, for I am attending a football match. The mother of the observant child is struggling with various bags and cases. I lift one on to the platform. “You’re welcome”, I say, and head for the exit, full of anticipation, with a creased shirt and a spring in my step.