An early morning start; Paddington before 9am. Light floods in from the top of the arched station roof; pigeons flutter between the crumbs of concession stands as the PA system makes perpetual announcements. A police man shuffles around the entrance to the Underground talking into his radio; his luminous jacket standing out against a black and grey background of winter coats and office wear.
Coffees clutched, free newspapers strewn, commuters pour from platforms towards the Underground, a murky grey funnel, like rain water down a drain. It’s all a bit Children of Men, hundreds of people moving back and forth, but not a child in sight. TFL workers emerge from the shadows to cordon off the entrance to the Tube in an effort to dilute the flow of suburbia into the city’s offices. The people tut and sigh as they wait, just as they did yesterday, and will do again tomorrow.
A bank of seats are pointed at multiple screens. People eat bacon rolls and bagels, use suitcases as coffee tables whilst they watch the destinations flicker above them. A succession of flickers see our train change state without ever moving, from ‘On Time’ to ‘Preparing’ and then once it has psyched itself up, to ‘Platform 9’. The crowd beneath the departure screens turns and streams forwards, collectively attempting nonchalance whilst inwardly sprinting for a table seat.
Before we can depart a cleaner shuffles down the carriage placing commuter debris into a clear polythene bag. Provincial newspapers and inbound cardboard cups on their big day out in the capital. People edge down the aisles, talking in code as they search for rreservations; “34A, 34A, 34A” “17B 17B”. Five bags in a row clip my left ear as their owners bludgeon a path between the seats. The buildings slide away and we move on out of the city. A plane hangs in the air over Heathrow, its landing light on giving thoughts of old jokes.
A group of business men sit around an adjacent table listening to the Russian member of their entourage; “In Russia teachers, doctors they are not encouraged – they are respected because they are clever, but they are not well paid. Engineers they have the best of both worlds; respect and wealth… apart from those engineers who do not have wealth”. We pass through Reading, occasional slithers of modern metal in a trackside building site. Beyond the station men in orange work beside the tracks; in trenches and diggers, pointing, leaning and disappearing into the earth.
Morning mist hangs over brown fields and bare trees; darkened hedgerows fade away as churches edge tentatively out of the gloom. The Russian is still talking to his colleagues; “Yes, that is true, but in Russia the whole political system is well, how you say, fucked.”
At Didcot wagons and engines are stockpiled on adjacent tracks. Beige Cooling towers and chimneys rise up into the fog. Telegraph wires; black lines on a grey sky. Hints of pale yellow sunlight try pear through the clouds, like a Sowester pressed against a dirty bathroom window. Folds of trees run away from the tracks, the light from a tractor in a distant field. Behind a hedgerow the top half of lorry turns down a country road.
The floodlights of the County Ground loom over Swindon where a mural for a local brewery breaks the monotony of terraced houses. A woman catches the strap of her bag on the arm of a chair as she goes to leave the train and is dragged back into the carriage against her will. On the run out of Swindon old grey stone warehouses line the tracks, boarded up and misunderstood. An old man with a tremendous grey beard flicks through the Independent. Another man calls Chris to let him know when he’ll arrive at Temple Meads.
A shopping trolley waits on the platform at Chippenham. This is a town somewhat removed from the modern, where a sign warning of high-speed trains has a picture of a steam-engine on it. There’s probably additional warnings in the buffet about careless talk costing lives. Cars with dirty windscreens flank the train in a shopping outlet car-park. A man lugs boxes from Dreams into a truck. An industrial Mr Sandman. Two flustered women tumble into the carriage; “…too right, I’m not waiting another forty minutes, to get into Bath”. We had a hot water system like that once.
Outside Chippenham the train disappears into a succession of tunnels before emerging to Cotswold towns, places you only usually see depicted on tea-towels or biscuit-tins; sandstone buildings and churches huddled on hillsides with cosy farmsteads dotting the gaps. They are of the kind that are solely populated by little old ladies or people who’ve won a dream country cottage in the Daily Mail, pretending all is idyllic while lamenting the lack of a nearby Waitrose.
Bath is a city made for autumn the beautiful sandstone buildings more visible through the trees, strewn over hillsides and reflecting the colours of the few remaining leaves. On a moss-tinged church roof the words ‘Christ Bled for Our Sins’ are painted in white, subtitling the panorama and projecting an awkward sense of guilt onto those who had been enjoying the view.
Police community support officers join the train at Bath Spa and conduct some routine investigations into the buffet car’s sandwiches. Rugby posts dot the fields between Bath and Bristol, silhouetted in the morning fog like a one-letter eye-test.
Slowly the train twists and turns into the city of Bristol. Grey concrete has become canvasses to those who would be Banksy. Beyond warehouses and factories, and a collection of old disused buses, brightly coloured houses sit on hilltops, a fragmented rainbow arching over the city. A woman tips out the contents of her handbag onto the table in search of her ticket. People in suits call offices. Men put on overcoats. The train stops.