In a Birmingham underpass Christmas overstays its welcome, kept alive by a santa-hatted violinist ignoring the glares of irritated sale shoppers to eek out his version of Jingle Bells for its last appropriate days. Birmingham New Street station is at a stage of renovation; therefore Birmingham New Street station had always been at a stage of renovation. For now at least its ever changing façade is clad in a shining metal frontage angled to simultaneously deliver distorted reflections of the bright blue winter sky above and the railway lines, platforms and shuffling trains beneath.
Inside, the station is similarly bright, all white and clean, curved walls and halogen lighting; like a hospital built on Grand Designs. It should be finished, and will be finished just as soon as Network Rail have remortgaged their parents’ bungalow. Signs point the way to everything, except the platforms and so down the length of the concourse families hurry back and forth, emerging from one side and reappearing from another doorway further down as if this were a chase sequence in ScoobyDoo.
The train arrives, exchanges fresh shoppers for spent ones, and then rolls on. As it tunnels its way out of the city a young boy swinging his legs from the seat, turns to look out the window.
‘It’s night time already,’ he says to his slightly older sister, who fairs no better with artificial darkness.
‘Look at all the people out there,’ she says
‘No, that’s us… it’s a reflection’.
Emerging back into the daylight, the air is thick with accents as a woman phones to tell someone ‘we’re on our way now’ and two lads reminisce over a recently scrapped Peugeot. Bright sun reflects off the canals and refracts through the corrugated roofs of warehouses as we zoom through the Black Country. Silhouettes of trees line the top of the embankment as two birds hover above a chimney stack. On a Smethwick factory building the sunshine pours through empty holes where its windows once were; on its roof huge letters spell out the word GLASS in a last gasp nod to irony.
Around the table in front of you three teenage girls sit with their phone held closely to their faces as they giggle over selfies and candidly taken photos of one another. The Victoria’s Secret bag plonked proudly on the table between them makes you feel uncomfortably old. At the table opposite a group of lads brag loudly in a confused attempt to flirt with the girls, stuttering through topics that would appeal to any woman – car tyres, playing FIFA, and strippers. Play number seven in The WKD Guide to Picking Up Women.
Outside silver birch trees replace houses, but the wastes of industry continue to roll by. Corrugated roofs and chain link fences and the words ‘Doe Ray Fuck the Police’ daubed beneath a bridge. A sign above the door of Hosanna House promises ‘A life changing worship experience’; a bold claim from a church in an abandoned building on a Wolverhampton industrial estate. With the day now fading, the sky to the left of the train has turned yellow and orange, dissected by two vapour trails that disappear beyond the horizon.
Through trees still frosted from the morning you arrive at Telford Central. Sited in the middle of nowhere, adjacent to nothing more than a footbridge and a dual carriageway – if this is all there is to central Telford you dread to think how lifeless the suburbs are. Here the train empties; the teenage girls, the lads, the young children and their parents, they all depart and as the train moves beyond the town, the sun offers one last burst of purple across the Shropshire sky before it too calls it a day.
The quiet of the day’s end is punctuated by the ring of a phone which sends a woman at the end of the carriage rummaging through her bag. She is wearing a grey fluffy hat that looks like a giant marshmallow retrieved after many months beneath the sofa and launches straight into an animated conversation with a distant friend. ‘We were just dancing like idiots and laughing and then I woke up… No, I don’t know what it means… No, I haven’t thought about him… haven’t even seen him since he fitted mom’s boiler.’
The woman departs at Shrewsbury, taking the noise with her, and the driver too. As you await a replacement (driver, not woman) you glance at the opposite platform where a sole employee rubs his gloved hands together and blows a breath of condensation into the cold night air. As he watches the departures board intently, his refreshment trolley begins to roll away down the platform behind him. He is as oblivious to its slow departure as he is to its interception and ultimate return from a kindly guard.
As you leave the gothic arches and green doors of Shrewsbury the landscape comes back at you in a succession of silhouettes; leafless trees, church spires and telegraph poles – black paper cut-outs on a screen of deep purple. In Gobowen only the illuminated sign for the Best Kebab House and a light turned on in an upstairs bedroom give notice of the town beyond the platform. A group of under-dressed teens leave the train; bare midriffs and frozen breath and a woman laughs as she gets trapped in the doors.
You arrive at Chirk without even noticing; just a brief gap in the darkness and a bilingual sign. No-one waits, no-one leaves. A child starts crying and on you roll, past the huge Kamponsa plant where yellow floodlights catch the smoke as it rises from biomass generators – a golden spirit rising into the night sky.
Darkness has now fully set in and as you gaze out the window, peering beyond the reflections of the empty seats, the only clues to track-side villages beyond the gloom come from Christmas trees in windows and fairy-lights on porches. The train gets colder with each passing mile and at Ruabon the platforms lie covered in snow covered in ice. An old man in a luminous Security tabard shuffles through the carriage and people instinctively sit more upright, unsure if he’s on duty.
On through the dark, slowing only as Bensons for Beds welcomes people to Wrexham. At the station a pensioner swaddled in more layers than a Milan Kundera narrative glares at the passing carriages from behind a glass door, whilst a woman in green trousers runs down the platform. The train empties and sits at Wrexham General so long you begin to worry that you may have to start paying council tax. But eventually you do inch forwards again towards your final destination. Looking across the blackness, only the flicker of a car’s headlights and a distant row of streetlights offer reassurance you’ve not disappeared from time itself.