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.