I used to love the train. It had a rugged movement, one that managed to instill a state of unease or comfort within its passengers, and I was so proud that it would always comfort me. Others would hold on tight to their briefcases, or consistently readjust themselves in their chair, or reach high above me and struggle to find one of those coathanger type things — I never did bother to find out what they were called — before giving up and leaning onto the one sliver of wall that remained. I’d look up to study the faces of my fellow passengers and wonder what it was that they found so uncomfortable, whilst smiling and letting myself rock back and forth to the movement of the carriage. On particularly long journeys, I’d manage to close my eyes and drift away for just a few moments, before my mother tapped me on the shoulder and said, “we’re here!”
‘Here’ could have been anywhere, but if we were taking the train, it was always somewhere I actually wanted to go. The car was tiny, the seatbelt dug into my shoulder and forced me back into the fabric, and at the end of the journey always lay some manner of disappointment, like school or Aunt Helena’s house. Yet the train held space to run and jump, to cause a minor havoc that nobody seemed to mind, before arriving at the museum, or the river, or the cinema. Why we ever bothered driving anywhere was lost on me.
When the carriage was empty, I liked to stretch my arms from one railing to the other, and swing myself back and forth. I wasn’t strong enough to lift myself off the ground, although I knew it was possible. I’d seen a slightly older girl, maybe nine or ten, show off to her friends and swing around to suspend herself upside down. They didn’t clap until she landed, the stunt itself far too nervewracking to appreciate in the moment. I smiled as her boots clipped the ground, thinking of how one day I’d have the strength to take off, and the friends to greet me when I reached the ground.
Then I turned around, and saw the doors slide shut. I barely noticed Mum screaming after me as I sped away, because I was focused on Dad, who stood behind her, throwing up his hands and rolling his eyes. I swallowed, and for the briefest of moments, I felt tears welling up inside me. I wanted to apologise, to tell them to go on without me, because I didn’t want to ruin their day. I was fine, and why wouldn’t I be? I’d ridden this train for years, I knew where I was, and I knew what to do.
And what I had to do, was wait. I walked off the train as it pulled into Waterloo, and found a seat in the main area opposite WH Smiths. As I sat down, I seriously thought about asking Mum for some money so I could walk in and get myself a magazine and a milkshake.
In that chair, I realised I’d never really looked at the station before. I’d passed through this space that existed in between journey and destination, and I hadn’t allowed it to seep into my brain. In my head it was a collection of maybe five or six elements that I interacted with - two platforms, the exit, the shop in front of me, and the coffee stand. Now its enormity began to dawn on me. To my right lay something I’d never noticed before: the main exit, an automatic door leading to once glorious stone steps, the walls lined with the names of the dead (I didn’t know from which war). Whenever we came, we took the rear bridge leading directly to the South Bank. It never occurred to me that there might have been another more official route.
I watched the crowd swell and shrink, and as it began to thin I realised that Rush Hour must be ending. A Train Station is nothing but a room full of clocks, and I’d managed to lose track of time. I stood up, and began to panic - I’d been sitting here for hours, and nobody had come to find me. Maybe they did go on without me, I thought, maybe they wanted me to make my own way home.
My breath started to catch, there just wasn’t enough space in my lungs for the air I needed, and I couldn’t work out why. I held my leg to stop it shaking, my throat tightening, choking me from the inside out -
I looked up to see a Station Guard standing across from me, their shoulders sullen and their eyes heavy, as ready for this day to end as me. She pointed in my direction, and I was about to ask her what she meant, before I saw my Mum, alone, running in my direction. It was only after she reached me when she started crying.
On our way home, I sat with my head resting on her shoulders, both of us too exhausted to say a word. She ran her hands through my hair, and until we pulled into our station, I pretended to be asleep.
How I used to love the train.