Friday 2 February 2024

Strangers On A Train

Wednesday, 31st January 2024

22:37 Wirral Line train from James Street to West Kirby

Late train.  Happy train.  The arena's emptied, the football's ended, Liverpool won handsomely.  People, voices, joy.  Excited chatter all around me.  I slide into the single seat, my favourite seat, crammed between a set of four and the doors.  

Across from me is a girl, 20s, leaning against the window and eating a sandwich slowly.  Each bite is tired and deliberate.  Her hair is pinned behind her, her flat shoes tucked beneath the seat, a black apron dangling down over her black skirt.  Her puffa jacket covers the expected plain white blouse.  She's been working all night, a restaurant, a bar, and now she's finally got time for food and herself.  In front of her, on the set of four, two nice ladies in big fake fur coats and leopardskin scarves analyse the show they've just seen - "I thought that was Craig but it was Anton.  He must've got changed."  Wedged alongside them is a girl of about ten in her best dress and her best hair looking giddy.  She's a dancer, you know she is, a little starlet bouncing around in a leotard on a Saturday morning, and the evening of Strictly has thrilled her into silence.  Her mum has unzipped her ankle boots now that the evening has come to an end.

There's the shift of sound as we leave the tunnel after Conway Park.  The new trains don't rattle, don't crash in the tunnel, so the burst into the open air isn't as dramatic; the wheels aren't fighting with the tunnel walls any more.  Instead there's a gasp, a let out of breath, as it hits Birkenhead Park.  The station is blue in the night light with specks of white from high LEDs.  

A bald football fan, earbuds in, staring at his phone, doesn't raise his eyes.  He's alone and taking in the win.  Four one!  We're all on our way home.  Nobody is passing elsewhere, not at this time; we all boarded in Liverpool and now we're being distributed, scattered.  At North, Mum and Daughter disembark with a kiss for Auntie, and I see that the girl is wearing an impeccable red dance frock, a red handbag slung across her front.  She's made up to look grown up but it somehow makes her look even tinier.  There's a burst of laughter from behind me, another group of nice ladies, their giggles tired.  They've enjoyed themselves and loved it but now they want that cup of tea.

I'm in the front of the train, behind the driver's cab, and so Bidston looks even more silent and deserted than normal.  Nobody wants to come this far.  There's a strange buzz in the background that seems to come from all around us.  I smell burning. A cigarette?  Maybe.  It's thicker, dirtier, without the tang of nicotine.  I think of the buzz and wonder if it's an alarm.

"Oh my God that is so funny!" says someone without laughing.  The voices are dying down now.  We're far enough from town for the chat to have run out.  The post mortems are over.  Now it's companionable silence, a look out the window into the black.

"The next station stop will be mmmmppphhhh."  Something's happened to the computer voice; she can't say Moreton.  A little couple get up to disembark, the first person to leave this part of the train since Birkenhead North.  They wear the same blue anoraks with their hoods pulled up and smile broadly as they pass.  He pauses to hold her hand as she steps off the train.  As we start again the bald man stands up and walks to the doors for the next station, never raising his eyes from his phone.  It doesn't seem to be playing a video; he's using it as a defence, an avoidance tactic.

Something's gone wrong with the computer voice.  She can't say Meols now, the same muffled gurgle, like someone has gagged her with chloroform.  The scrolling info is still telling us Moreton is next even as we pull into the station.  The waitress and Auntie get off at Meols too, the waitress having tucked her empty sandwich wrapper into her handbag to take to a bin.

A single, bright ding of somebody's text alert. The computer voice thinks Manor Road is Meols but no, hang on, here she is again; she's caught up.  She's sorted.  We're at Manor Road and she's saying Manor Road.  Now we're emptier I can hear a woman in the very front set of seats.  A fortnight in Majorca soon and then September in Pattaya and David's going to Cambodia.  "Nice," says her friend.  "Amazing."  The sheds behind Hoylake slide into view and the train becomes more hollow still.  Barely a dozen of us left.

We are now approaching West Kirby, where this train terminates, and another train speeds past us on the other track, helpfully vacating the platform for us.  The buzzing noise comes back as I watch the orange circle of a signal recede into the distance.  Slowing, slowing, slowing, then the primary colours of the Aldi logo behind the station, and the white lights under the canopy flooding into the carriage.  Uncurl yourself.  End of the line.

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