It happened an hour out of Cambridge and he didn’t feel a thing.
The train was the slow younger sibling of the King’s Cross direct. Stopping at the garden cities, never busy, and supportive of his desire for four seats and a table to expand into. Never rear-facing on a train of course. He couldn’t have that.
It was drawing to a close, his second Michaelmas term at the university. Some wounds were old already; scabbed over, scar tissue to laugh and to lie about. Some got in the heat of battle were livid and proud. Some throbbed, making their presence felt again and again as they faded.
He paid no attention when the train stopped an hour out. Busy writing masochistic texts better left unsent, part of an episode that needed to be kicked in the teeth and left in the gutter, not helped to its feet and comforted. I’m sorry I don’t mean to make it awkward. Yes you do. No I don’t know how to change things.
The train remained stationary for long enough though, and clearly something was amiss. He put away his phone, a half-conscious swipe at finality. The awaited announcement crackled into the still carriage.
Body on the track.
It instantly occurred to him that the choice of language in this situation could be no accident. Body on the track. Of course they’re trained for this sort of thing, drivers. And what an odd moment in that day of training it must be when the instructor tells the trainee driver what to say if somebody jumps under their train. Now then sadly although it’s rare I’m afraid it does happen in fact it did last week.
And of course the wording will have been decided by a higher power, he supposed, perhaps a group of people in a boardroom with glasses of water and a projector discussing the absolute need for neutrality. We can’t assume it’s deliberate people sometimes stray onto tracks, children sadly play and it’s best to be ambiguous. Maybe a hum of electricity in the room and road works outside.
The train will return to the previous station where you will be asked to disembark and change onto another train.
He supposed, switching seats as the train began to reverse, that it was well meaning enough. No need to use words like ‘suicide’ or even ‘person’ really. That way we can all sigh and check the time, maybe even make a weary phone call. No need to start bandying images of a desperate death about – a ‘body’ could have been there for ages, nothing to do with us.
He wondered if there had ever been talk of concealing the truth in ‘body on the track’ type situations. No, surely not. But what difference would it make? Lie away, lie away and I won’t know a thing about it, I’m only here for the ride. Could it really be due to some felt obligation to the truth? Genuine human emotion piercing through the have-a-comfortable-and-safe-journey corporate shell? THEY MUST BE TOLD ABOUT THE BODY ON THE TRACK.
Barnet. He shuffled off the train with the rest. No alternative train was forthcoming. Talk of abandonment. Then confirmation from an orange vest.
Ladies and Gentlemen High Barnet underground station is 10 minutes’ walk along the road, please continue your journey on public transport.
Joining the mass exodus he noticed that there had been far more people on the train than he had previously supposed. He wondered if anyone else was thinking about the body on the track. Because, after all, a body on a track is, ultimately, he reasoned, a person. A dead person. Someone else though, so it’s OK.
He fell; he was pushed; he jumped. In his mind the body was male.
Streaming along the long road in the gathering darkness with the rest of the train’s orphans he began to feel that his journey had become slightly less, or more, than real. As if he had slipped into somebody else’s story. Cars blasted past, drivers and passengers alike gazing quizzically at the disjointed, mismatched line of people all trudging silently in the same direction.
People reacted differently. Some strode fiercely ahead as if to distance themselves from the debacle. Others dawdled. Some hailed taxis. There was a marked absence of blitz camaraderie – an absence he understood entirely. If we start acting like we’re ‘in it’ together we have to think about what ‘it’ is, which is highly inconvenient to our sensibilities.
After 15 minutes of walking he hoped for a sighting of the station so as to save himself from the existential angst inherent in being lost in Barnet with 300 people he didn’t know but to whom he was beginning to feel strangely attached.
He was trying to remember if he had ever been in danger of falling onto the track in front of an oncoming train. Never, he suspected. At primary school on one occasion a funny man had visited with lots of props and a sad video and exhorted them all never to play on railway tracks. Earnestly he had listened and laughed at the funny man’s funny jokes but was confused for some time afterwards about two things. One, he had never seen a railway track anywhere near where he was allowed to play, and two, even if he had chanced across such a thing he couldn’t imagine why he would have wanted to play on it.
He conceded however that it was no doubt possible for an unwary traveller to fall from a station platform at an unlucky moment. So, in a sense, he decided, anyone who travels by train is a body on the track waiting to happen.
He purported. Let’s say I’m reading a book standing up quite near the platform edge one day. It’s hot and I’m tired. My train is late and I resolve to shelter from the passage of time in the pages of my improving book. In no time the tardy train approaches. I glance up to see it rolling in and at a crucially distracted moment take a step backwards towards where I believe my bag lies. I am wrong. The bag lies immediately behind my feet; I am unbalanced; I fall sharply; the world spins sickeningly and my head meets metal. I am on the track.
A contained ripple spread down the straggled line of detrained, and ahead hung the proud red and blue orb of the London Underground. It surmounted a grassy bank across a four-way junction, the forthright among his fellows already scaling the incline. But soon he saw that things were not to be so simple as the stifling anonymity of a busy tube train.
Past the grassy bank; and, blocking the entrance to the station, he and the trainless came upon a row of dark, cubic, silent double-decker buses. Smoking drivers standing to one side were already surrounded by dozens of people, shifting weighty bag straps on shoulders and craning to hear.
Tube strike. We’re off duty, mate.
Bubbles of suppressed panic from the highly-strung. He was glad he’d remained aloof from the throng, that very English air of desperation oh I see well who should I complain to thank you very much indeed. All the more glad because he was near the road when the low-slung single-decker slid to a halt behind him, the hiss of its doors pushing stuffy warmth against him as they opened.
Kings Cross? Yes, and he gazed after those he’d abandoned as the single-decker pulled away. Standing room only, toes underfoot, sorry, sorry, windows scorched with condensation.
He thought that suburban evenings were a special kind of horror. Looking at the fronts of the houses was too much; his gaze strayed upwards as he was carried along through the treetops and the loft conversions. Lights in the windows, people in the roof space. Who are you? It’s horrible I’ll never meet you.
What if he were scaling a footbridge across a dark train track between two silent platforms, and he stopped in the middle above the tracks and leaned over to look? The steps to the bridge steeper than I’d expected and me unfit and resting for breath. Also a compulsion in me to savour this unnatural suspension above the cold inhospitable steel below. Now the train approaches and I feel a quiet joy within as I anticipate the rumble and noise blasting underneath.
But. I am a bystander, the victim of blind blank murderous detachment. I feel and see nothing until the irresistible force of the push that sends me over. And, as I make that hard fast fall, grasping, I wonder. Who are you?
Kings Cross. The wide concourse outside the station laced with ferociously purposeful Londoners. As he weaved through the faces in the crowd, the wet black bus stops all along Euston Road emerged from the darkness. He followed the pavement’s edge, scanning each timetable as he passed.
Vehicles of all kinds screamed as they careered towards the traffic lights. Black cabs swiped past reckless pedestrians, missing by inches as their drivers stonily leant on accelerator pedals. The brutality of the buses as they swung through lanes of traffic was absurdly counterbalanced by the absent serenity of their passengers’ faces, lolling next to individual patches of condensation.
Amid the thunderous unflinching metal flitted the spectral shapes of cyclists. As he stood on the pavement looking out at the road through a haze of spray they seemed exquisitely vulnerable. Here came a guy utterly self-possessed and determined, standing up on his pedals, legs pumping the bike’s light frame back and forth between his thighs. Scowl of concentration, supremely aware of his surroundings, helmet tightly chin-strapped. A black cab cut this cyclist up but he was left in the clear momentarily after that. So it was all the more jarring when he fell.
The cyclist was sweeping past him as he stood on the edge of the pavement. It seemed to him as if the guy was cycling above the road, lifting his bike into the air in his vigour. As if he was so filled with righteous ire at the metallic audacity of the traffic around him he had begun to rise physically above it.
Then, without any warning at all, the jealous road regained its grip on him.
Hands caught in the frame of the bike, it was his face that hit the slick black tarmac with obscene violence. A brutal bus braked feet away and bellowed as it swerved reluctantly to avoid the fallen man.
Being close he too had moaned – a low, fearful, involuntary sound – along with the other onlookers at the bus stop when the cyclist fell. He too had leapt into the road to try to lay hands on the strange, terrifying, fragile creature lying on the wet ground.
But he was too late, and could only stare as the two quickest rescuers hauled the cyclist to the pavement. He stared at the skin like powdered ash, and at the wide unseeing eyes that rolled in their sockets back towards the road as if betraying an obliterative desire. He stared at the arms locked in position. At the hands, rigid and bloodied claws. He stared at the face.
He stared at the face, and the unreality he had felt when walking with the crowd to High Barnet underground station came rushing back in upon him. Here were prosthetics, surely: an artful piece of painted latex, carefully applied to the cyclist’s cheek then torn and peeled away to form a deep and ragged gash in the man’s face. There wasn’t anything like enough blood for such a wound, though, only a viscous trickle that ran down his quivering jawline.
He moved away from the scene. Two images flashed into his mind at once.
The first was of a woman in her early 30s in a tastefully decorated lounge in Finchley, hunched on the edge of her sofa with a phone pressed against her ear and the other hand covering her mouth, skin grey and eyes shining. Dark outside and a half-laid table in the background. A radio playing softly in the kitchen.
The second was of a small child, sitting on the knee of a middle-aged man, staring up in wonder and reaching out to touch one side of the huge face with tiny, warm fingers.
He hypothesised. Now, what if I were to go and stay with my parents, who (let’s say) live on the Cambridgeshire Fens? It’s Christmas, perhaps, and I’m back from university. One night I find the claustrophobic atmosphere in my family home stifling, the need to present a favourable version of myself distasteful, and I go for an evening walk by the railway lines that run along the bottom of a nearby field. Once there I climb the fence and soon find myself walking on the line itself. I ask myself what I’m doing, but am unable to answer. The wind pirouettes around me. I feel the vibrations begin in the wood and iron beneath my feet. Here’s the light now, and the noise. I carry on walking. The train hurtles towards me. It’s just people, I think, it’s full of people. I’ll never meet them. And then it happens.
And then what happens? Last train back to Cambridge, standing on the seats in the empty carriage smoking out of the window with the friend he’d met up with earlier at the gig in Brixton. Then what happens, he asked his friend. Oh never mind, I’m pissed now and I don’t care.
He fell back from the open window into the seat and dug clumsily in his pocket, pulling out his phone to check the time. The train had left London half an hour ago so they were about an hour from Cambridge. He jumped up, back to the window and the night, back to the wet air outside. The window only opened a few inches. He forced his mouth into the roaring gap it made and inhaled deeply.