Take a train.
Stand on the platform 1 at Hamilton Square and take a train. At that point, it'll just be a Liverpool train. It'll have Liverpool on the sign board on the front and the automated voice will tell you "This train is for ... Liverpool Central. The next station is... James Street." You'll pass under the river and then it'll change. That Liverpool train will magically shift its state and become something else. Without you even noticing, your surroundings will transform, morph, and suddenly you're going somewhere else. All without leaving your seat. At James Street, you'll learn where you're going.
"This train is for... Chester. The next station is... Moorfields."
It looked like I was heading for Chester, then. I was playing a game. I'd decided, for no reason at all, to travel all over the Wirral Line. I was going to go to each of its termini, just riding the rails. Just taking in the route.
I got a seat at Liverpool Central. The guard and the computer voice beg you to leave the train at James Street for Liverpool ONE, and some do, but it still hasn't caught on properly. People still cling to Central as the heart of the city - good news for the Central Village development, when it eventually shows up. I wonder if it's the name. If Bold Street or Ranelagh Street would get the same volumes of traffic; if people are just conditioned to go that way by the name. Two tourists clamber off the train, carting bikes, nervously checking out the line diagram to make sure they're in the right place. A woman helps them; she got on at Moorfields with hair still damp from the stylist. As we leave the station she fingers her new style anxiously, still unsure about it.
There's a blue spark as we cross the junction, and the lights vanish, and then we're back at Hamilton Square again. A nurse boards and sits in the bank of seats across the aisle from me. She crosses her sensibly shod feet and flicks through an Argos catalogue, letting it fall open on random pages, then urgently moving it on again. She drops it on the dead Metro beside her as we break out of the tunnel into Birkenhead Central. Sunlight, but no sunshine; a grey murk and the threat of drizzle. There's a train stabled alongside the southbound platform, the Councillor Jack Spriggs.
Green Lane is almost empty, as usual. There's a single waiting passenger on the Liverpool platform. He's sat in the shelter with a little lunch beside him on the bench, a can of Dr Pepper, a packet of ready salted. The train squeaks and groans as it clambers up the incline, a ridiculously steep gradient that takes the train from underground to an embankment. We're suddenly over the top of gardens and rooftops and basketball courts. A quote on a wall - John 3:16 - God loved us so much He gave us His only son. Whoever puts their trust in him will not be lost but will have eternal life.
At Rock Ferry, we pull alongside a train heading the opposite way, and I look through into a mirror image. A boy with a rock star haircut and a leather jacket sullenly takes up a seat, earbuds jammed deep inside his skull.
This is, in its own way, my line, the one I travelled on the most. Twice a day, there and back, to my job in Chester. It's such a long time ago now. It doesn't feel familiar any more. I can't do the timings in my head any more - I can't work out where we are just from the view out the window. The summer foliage confuses me too. In my head, this trip is always cold, frosty, on a grey morning where you can see your breath. Two men in high-vis suits are opening a drain cover at Bebington. Some parkland, longer back gardens from a time when houses weren't squeezed on top of one another, and then Port Sunlight. The concrete square of the Unilever building hangs over the track, ugly and basic, exiled to the western side of the tracks away from the pretty village.
The green cage for cycle parking at Spital has a single bike in it. A man leans against the cage, red woollen hat, hoodie, drinking coffee from a silver thermos and looking like he wants to be back in bed. The guard passes through without checking our tickets and doesn't close the connecting door properly behind him. It clatters and thuds with the movement of the train until the braking at Bromborough Rake makes it click into place. The trees that over hang the platform here have made it wet and slick with fallen yellow leaves. A man with a double buggy tries to control it on the steep ramp, while excited babies wave from the front.
The guard comes back - still no ticket check - but he closes the door properly this time. The doors open at Bromborough with a clatter of key and a sigh of pneumatics, then he leans against the glass partition with his head tilted back until Eastham Rake. The grey concrete walls here still jar, twenty years after they were put up. They're aggressively urban after the pretty quasi-rural halts that preceded it. The paint at the base of the fences is flaking.
Under the motorway, across the county line, the ugly industry of Hooton. Network Rail vans parked in a compound. Hooton always meant halfway to me: it took as long to get from home to here as it took to get from Hooton to Chester, even though there were hardly any stations. The driver opens up the train to maximum, enjoying the long stretch without stopping. It pounds the rails, engine whining, whistling. Anonymous, secretive cubes at Capenhurst, protected by double rows of razor wire. Cranes extending it and its hidden uses.
The smell of pollen and wild flowers bursts through the open windows. Count the road bridges, the places where the noise of the train amplifies suddenly, then the BANG as another train hammers past, air colliding with air. For a brief moment, I can see across the plains to Wales, purple mountains rising up. The little stubs of platform that are all that remains of Upton-by-Chester station and we're approaching Bache - "Leave the train here for the Countess of Chester hospital" says the computerised voice, but she sounds like she's been cut off, like she wanted to say more but someone took her mic away. The train sighs as it rolls towards Chester, as though it knows this is the end. Allotments, apartments, then a junction and a depot and an expanse of railway lands.
More tourists on the platform at Chester, Italian and Spanish, pulling suitcases and calling noisily to each other. I take a seat and let the train leave. When I worked here there wasn't anywhere to sit, just window sills you'd lean on, hollows carved in the stone by a hundred years of buttocks.
My train back is named: Operations Inspector Stuart Mason, a refreshingly banal title. There's another dead Metro on the seat across from me and an open bag of Tesco pistachio nuts. It's been opened along the side, and is full of discarded pistachio shells; I imagine someone moving the bag to sit down and inadvertently showering everyone, so I move it to the metal edge of the seat. Two Scouse lads are "sick" of Chester, and are retreating back to Liverpool.
"A few bevs?"
"A few bevs."
They rest their feet on the seat cushions as the doors beep and we move away. It seemed like there was hardly any time between trains. I notice a new sign for the drivers at Bache - REMINDER: Do you stop at Capenhurst? - and I realise I haven't seen Bache's ALF, my very first ALF, the one with the quizzical giraffe. Is it still there?
We do stop at Capenhurst, and then I jump off at Hooton. I'd thought about going all the way up, round the loop and back again, but the thought of seeing all the same stations over and over depresses me. Instead I nip to the M to Go for a bottle of water. The men in there are bantering with the station manager as she buys a coffee from the machine. "Have you had any complaints because it doesn't do tea?"
"A couple. But it's Costa, in'tit?"
"Yeah, but if you go into a Costa shop you can get a tea, can't you?"
"Do you want a cup of tea?" the larger of the men explodes, mock exasperated, his moustache quivering. "I'll make you a cup of tea!"
I take up a seat by some discarded crisps. A tall man and his girlfriend scurry along the platform - "fourteen minutes!" - and he spits heartily onto the track, presumably to clear his throat ready for the cigarette. They sit further down and he puts dance music on the speaker of his phone for everyone to enjoy. Fortunately it's mostly drowned out by the traffic on the motorway and the road bridge. Another man, anxious, tiny, with a red backpack dangling off his shoulders: with his khaki trousers and neat blue shirt he looks like a very polite explorer.
A Liverpool train passes through, then a Chester train, then quiet again. A robin lands close to my feet and eyes me up. It wants to pick at those crisps, and I haven't moved, so I don't seem to be a threat. It watches me for a little bit, then hops around some more, dancing round the potential meal, trying to estimate my danger levels. The Ellesmere Port train clatters into the platform, and he whirls up into the air; lunch will have to wait.
Two businessmen are ahead of me on the train. The bald one, head shaved and shining, barks into a mobile until the signal fades. He turns to his colleague to complain, first about the phone, then about his missing pens. "No-one ever puts a pen back in that office."
"What was that one you had?"
"It was a lovely silver Parker pen. Just vanished. Bastards." They commiserate each other on their missing stationery, pads, pens, claimed by unscrupulous types without morals.
Little Sutton's much improved since I was last here. The local schoolchildren have been let loose, and now the panels over the bricked up windows are bright and colourful. A copy of Lord Kitchener wants YOU to join him at the station. The two businessmen have moved onto their boss, his incompetence and his unfriendliness, but their Scouse vocabulary still comes through in their speech, resulting in strangely personable threats - "The more he does it, the more I think, fuck you, mate." They alight at Overpool, along with a surprising amount of the train.
The last stretch to Ellesmere Port passes terraces, a siding with Network Rail men clambering over the tracks, blocks of flats. The station building is wrapped in scaffolding and hoardings, in the process of being upgraded to contain a cafe and community space. Until then We apologise for any inconvenience during improvement works.
I'd thought about hanging around and getting the next train out, as at Chester, but Ellesmere Port's an unfriendly place. The platform had people waiting on it who didn't seem to want to board the train, who regarded it as an intrusion. They smoked cigarettes and eyed it suspiciously, craned over the handlebars of bikes. I got back on the same train I came in on, along with a gang of students from the local college. They open cans of energy drinks in unison, a little chorus of hisses, enough to keep them alive for the trip home. A harassed man boards at Overpool, with flyaway hair and a nervous chew on his bottom lip. Union Jack flying in a garden at Little Sutton; a collapsed outhouse and weeds next door.
One of the students is holding forth about Tube trains, and his experiences on them. They're tiny, but the new ones are better - "they're bright and modern, like this train." I imagine that would please Merseyrail. We pass through the deep sandstone cutting at Hooton and he moves onto the lack of etiquette on the Underground: "everyone's pushing. There's no consideration at all." He's so busy with his rant about That London, they almost miss their station, and have to run to get off at Hooton.
The guard does a ticket check, nodding his and thanking you for each orange square, and we head back over the familiar line again. "We are now approaching Spital" will never stop sounding revolting. Every station has the green GoGoGo! cycling banner and a cage for bikes; hardly any are in use. The man at Green Lane left his empty crisp packet and Dr Pepper can behind when he caught the train; they're like a shed snakeskin on the seat.
I close the loop at Hamilton Square, passing through the same platform I boarded from ages ago. Now that they're endangered I feel affectionate towards the brown plastic seats - part of me hopes there's not enough money to redevelop these last couple of stations. Lime Street is skipped again, its platform covered in a tent of scaffolding poles and fences, the new white panels checkerboarded with blank holes.
I get off at Liverpool Central to use the loo. It's the second best place to have a pee in the city centre now, clean and efficient and with Dyson Airblades. (The best place to pee is John Lewis because you don't need a train ticket to use them).
Back down to the platform. It's rowdy down there; the races are on at Chester, and suits and posh frocks are tottering around after being in the pub. They're noisy and excitable and I am ridiculously pleased when they all get on a train and leave. An old woman tells her grandson to sit in the empty seat between me and a heavy man with a briefcase. She's wearing leopardskin and pulling a pink wheely-suitcase. I stood up to offer her my seat but she waved me back down. "He's just come from the hospital, otherwise we'd both stand up," she explains, but I see her take my seat when I get on the train. The man with the briefcase made no move to offer his seat at all.
The guard informs us in thick, guttural Scouse that this is the New Brighton train. There's a school party spread along the platform at James Street, legs out in front of them, waving at us as we pass. Across from me, in the bike seats, a woman in a blue cagoule eats a packet of cheese and onion Snack a Jacks with a slow deliberation. Each rice cracker is held between two fingers and slowly raised to her mouth; she considers it, then crunches her way through it, before reaching for the next one. She's wearing pinstripe trousers and girlish pumps over white socks.
She gets off at Conway Park, which is black. While I've been underground a storm has crashed into Birkenhead, and the canyon of a station seems to be battered by it. The brightly lit strips with the nameplate on it shine even more distinctively, like beacons. An imperious looking man alights at Birkenhead Park - he could be Colin Firth's stunt double for The King's Speech, if there were any actual stunts - and then onto Birkenhead North. People in hoods, like ETs, hunched over themselves, dart across the rain-strafed platform and onto the train.
The driver toots his horn as we pass the depot. Long chains of carriages stretch alongside us, with a Beatles Story train looking unfeasibly bright next to its yellow and grey siblings. Its psychedelic colour scheme is completely out of place in the middle of this barren stretch of railway and weeds. Round the back of the retail park and under the motorway, then up onto the viaduct and Wallasey Village station. A bamboo screen has been erected along the platform to shield the houses below from nosy commuters. It gives the station an incongruously tropical air, exotic like a jungle hut.
A sign says that Wallasey Grove Road "is tended and cared for by the Edible Wirral Partnership" but the beds look tired, and there are weeds everywhere. Perhaps they're "encouraging wild flowers" and a "bee friendly" environment, like I am on that corner of the garden I can't be bothered with. The backs of apartment slabs, then the first glimpse of the sea at New Brighton. It's thick and grey, unappealing under the drive of the rain, and Seaforth is hidden under mist. There are more sandstone stripes in the cutting, fossil beds laid on top of one another, then the train clunks and shudders and we're in the station.
A couple of workmen are fixing the CCTV in the station building as I cross to the bookshop over the road. I thought I would kill time in here until the next train, but it's too small and crowded, and the staff are too cheery. I didn't feel relaxed enough to browse; I felt like I was being watched, and they were ready to jump in with help and conversation. Only as I leave do I realise that the woman behind the counter is dressed as a pirate.
I leave and get back on the train. It clicks furiously, as though a cricket was trapped under the wheels. Dots of rain fall through the window and smudge the ink in my notebook. At Grove Road, schoolkids with blazers over their head to hide from the rain get on board, and then another load at Village. A banner advertising the Railpass has a picture of a man whispering into a woman's ear; someone has poked out her eyes, leaving her with two black spaces either side of her nose. It somehow makes her look sarcastic, as though she's listening to the man and thinking "Christ, not this again."
Most of the kids get off at Birkenhead North, thankfully, changing to the West Kirby line no doubt. A neatly dressed man gets on at Birkenhead Park in an outfit that positively gleams. Everything looks new and crisp; shiny shoes, pressed trousers, a white jacket that's unscuffed. I decided that he was off for a night out on the pull, making himself look the very best he could, but then he got off at Conway Park and torpedoed my theory. No-one dresses up for a night out on the pull in Birkenhead - it's not worth the effort.
Four Network Rail men get on the train at Hamilton Square; clocking on or knocking off, I wonder? I get off with them at Moorfields, and they look around for the lift - "I'm not fucking walking."
I'd decided to change at Moorfields because I thought it would complete the set of underground stations. Only as I stood on the platform did I remember that I hadn't been to James Street.
Final leg now. The train hits Central, and fills immediately; it's four o'clock on a Friday and the office workers with flexi time are out of there. There's a crisp packet on the seat in front of me, cheese and onion, the artificial flavourings still lingering in the air. It's passed to the neighbouring seat by a little round woman with a severe red bob. She produces a historical epic from her bag, cracks the spine and begins reading. Then the crisp bag is passed on again, to the seat next to me, by a trim pensioner carrying a hot pink handbag. She's wearing open toed sandals and probably regrets it.
Further on in the carriage two teenage girls are showing their mum their purchases, delving into carrier bags and producing the treasures inside. A shoebox is taken out and a single trainer is put up for the others to coo over. A bikini is taken out of a Primark carrier: "Is that for your holiday?"
Through the tunnel again, a pause at Hamilton Square. The young stylish couple across the way are big on public displays of affection. Their bodies are rammed together, tight designer jeans swathed around touching knees. She clutches her iPhone in a fist, its screen strobing across her clothes. A cyclist boards and the standing commuters shuffle uncomfortably to let him on, but no-one moves the crisp bag on the seat next to me.
The stylish girl's coat slips from her shoulder as we move off again, revealing a pale shoulder under a white vest top. She gazes out into the carriage through panda eyes, until her boyfriend reclaims her, pulling her back in for another kiss. At Birkenhead Park there's a chirrup of phones as the signals are recovered, and a corresponding movement of arms into pockets to retrieve messages. A schoolboy pushes the crisp packet onto the floor and takes the seat next to me, but sitting sideways, tapping at his lime green Blackberry with a well-practised thumb. It plinks and beeps, new messages covering up his Everton football club wallpaper.
There's a thud as we clonk over the junctions and pass round the back of the giant Tesco Extra. Bidston station is swathed in netting and building work. The couple squeeze their way off the train, holding hands. I can smell thick, cheap aftershave; I suspect it comes from the teenager next to me, spritzing himself anxiously all day to fight off adolescent sweats. He receives a picture message but can't work out what it is: after turning his mobile a few times he replies with "?".
Someone is talking behind me in an Asian language, Mandarin or Cantonese or something, having half a conversation we can't understand. That's the third foreign language I've heard on the train today, and it doesn't include the incomprehensible Glaswegian at Chester or the treacle thick Scouse accent. There are flats at Leasowe I don't remember having seen before, but it's been a long time since I came this way, a very long time. The boy and the pensioner both get off at Moreton, and the woman with the bob swings round, riding the rest of the journey side saddle so she can stretch her legs.
There's a stretch of unlikely countryside between Moreton and Meols, with paddocks and Shetland ponies and meadows. The rain returns, but listlessly this time, falling against the window in splatters. We pass over the barrow crossing before Manor Road, the one that seems to claim a victim every year, and then we're at the station proper. It's nearly six years since I collected the station, but I suddenly remember being here, coming down the steps to the platform, listening to the Coral on my iPod.
Hoylake is pretty, of course, and probably about to get a makeover ready for the return of the Open next year. Then the train clears its throat and rumbles, readying itself for a rest at the terminus. The neatly mown expanse of the golf course provokes a burst of energy in the carriage. Books are tidied away, bodies stretch, phones are produced and "I'm just coming into the station now" seems to be on everyone's lips. At West Kirby I tip onto the last station of the day, the last branch, the end of the line.
I text Jamie. Fancy a pint?