At the station he was one of the few that separated themselves out from the crowd of commuters staring mournfully at a departure board listing train after train delayed by the weather. Looking up at the list of destinations it was possible to imagine a map with the station at its centre and all the different lines stretching out, each disrupted at some point along its length. A fallen tree or a downed power cable. A broken down engine. Something dropped down from a bridge, onto the tracks. All the lines are blocked, service interrupted. All but one. And on the imaginary map it is the longest one, travelling the furthest, an unbroken line that will remain clear through the darkest hours of the night.
At the platform, on the very edge of the station, P. found his carriage and stepped aboard. His compartment was the first on the right. Inside there was space only for a bunk bed and a tiny table underneath the window. He left the door open until the conductor came by and held out her hand for the ticket. She looked at it, and then back up at him.
You are travelling alone, her eyes seemed to ask him, as she held in her hand a ticket purchased for two. He started to phrase an answer, an explanation for why she wasn’t here with him, and then stopped himself. You don’t always need to explain. The compartment is paid for. You have the ticket. No further information is necessary.
The conductor stepped back out and started to make her way down the carriage. P. stood in the doorway for a time and looked across the narrow corridor and through the window, down onto the platform. Farewells and final cigarettes. Piles of luggage, still waiting to be loaded on board. Plastic bags filled with sandwiches. Cans of beer. He could sense the excitement, both outside the window and inside the train. It reminded him of school trips. Of long coach rides broken up by stops at lonely service stations or ferry rides. The excitement of a journey through the night, of travel outside of the norm.
He could sense it. He could remember it. But he didn’t feel it. Not now the top bunk would remain empty.
At the appointed time the train eased out from the station. He lay on the lower bunk, propped up on his elbow, watching the city pass by beyond the window until the lights and buildings were replaced by the darkness of the countryside. He left the curtain open even as he put his head back on the pillow. He didn’t really expect to sleep. He was looking forward to the light of the morning. When he had bought the ticket, had he known he would be travelling alone? He could have guessed it. He could see that now. When she walked into the pub, no bags in her hand or over her shoulder, he had known the answer with certainty, but he could have guessed it before.
What did you expect?
She never voiced those words. She chose better ones. Softer ones. But he could read it in her face. She never even sat down at the table.
He woke just before midnight. Station lights shone in through the window, illuminating the cabin. He untangled his legs from the thin bedsheets and sat up, head bowed beneath the top bunk. He did not recognise the name of the station, but the iron bridge that crossed above the platforms beneath the vaulting roof seemed familiar to him. His fuzzy head took a moment to recall the memory, and then it came. It reminded him of the station at home, in the town where he had grown up. On Saturdays, when they went shopping or to the cinema, their local train would call at Platform 2. They would cross the bridge to get to the exit, passing over the trains waiting at the other platforms below. He could picture it exactly. And surrounded by his group of friends, on their way to the shops or to watch a film, he always looked to see where the trains were headed. Imagined himself on board.
For the rest of the journey he alternated between half-sleep with his head down and half-awake with his head up, watching the world pass by beyond the window. He tried to spot the invisible boundaries through the darkness. The moment the church spires changed their shape. The uniforms of the lonely station officials, working the graveyard shift. The language on the billboards when a road came up to meet the tracks, running alongside them for a while.
He tried not to think of her, which meant he thought of her constantly. What had she done when she left the pub? Where had she gone? Where was she now? But time is frozen when you travel long distances. P. knew that. So long as he was sitting in this compartment with his head pressed against the window, only the train was moving. In the witching hour, on the night train, he was out of time. Nothing could be done until the train reached the last of its platform stops. Nothing would change until he stepped out of the compartment and down off the train. So long as he was moving, everything else was stilled.
The first light appeared on the horizon as the train crossed a flat landscape of frozen fields. A low mist hung above the ploughed, rutted earth. Here the villages were small collections of low houses clustered around a church. From the train it was only possible to see into the gardens and small-holdings. A back door or a kitchen window; the villages were turned away from the world, into themselves. From elsewhere in the train he could hear the sounds of his fellow passengers stirring. Hushed conversations. Soft footsteps padding along the corridor to the toilet. He could smell coffee. They were nearly there.
The train snuck up on the city as it was still waking up. There was little traffic on the streets below the railway embankment, and the only souls stalking the pavements were the few early risers and those still trying to find their way home from the night before. For the first time in the journey P. looked at his phone. He had service. No messages. It was still early, he told himself. Suburbs gave way to neighbourhoods of red-brick industrial buildings and tall towers of glass and steel. A team of bin men moved with grace along a street lined with black sacks resting on the paving slabs outside firmly closed doors. Steam rose from heating vents as the sky burned red in a warning of what was to come.
They arrived at the station within a minute of the scheduled time. P. climbed down to join his fellow passengers on the platform. He had spoken to no one, and yet he still felt he shared something with these people. There seemed to be desire among all the night train passengers to wait for a moment, to take the chance to gather themselves before entering the early morning fray. Those who had taken the train before would know it was a shock to the system. From the quiet of the carriages that had carried them through the night to the start of rush hour on the streets beyond the terminus building. P. looked down at his phone. A trickle of notifications, but not the one he had been waiting for. But now they were off the train, time had started once more. He would just have to be patient.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig