Beneath the cavernous Victorian roof of Temple Meads station the train waits, chugging on standby. The only sound above the engine is that of a woman coughing. Eventually someone asks if she’s OK. ‘It’s the fumes from the train, the diesel… I can’t stand it’ – she explains, from her position on a seat by the open door. The only seat the fumes can reach.
The doors close, but the coughing doesn’t cease. Deciding it would be disingenuous to suggest closing the window I turn to look outside. Just beyond Temple Meads a steam train waits in a siding; juxtaposed against the graffiti covered concrete, resembling a photoshopped collage depicting ‘Bristol then and now’. The train loops around the city offering a vista of rooftops and chimney pots towards the boxes of city centre flats. A hillside peppered with enough allotments to feed the city rolls by, and above the trees the floodlights of the Memorial Ground catch a brief shard of summer sun.
Apropos of nothing a middle-aged woman starts talking to the bemused teenager opposite her; ‘I’m going to Shrewsbury,’ she says, ‘I’m worried though as this is the first time I’ve left the dog alone with anyone else. I know he’ll be missing me. I’ve had a text off my daughter to say that she doesn’t think the dog is missing me. Says he’s still asleep, has been since I left, but I know it’s because he’s missing me. I couldn’t take him to Shrewsbury though. He’s only a year old.’ Eyes wide in confusion as to why it is she who’s being told this the teenager looks round the carriage for support, and with none coming silently nods and smiles before staring intently at her phone.
At the first station doors open to fond farewells and requests for a ring when you get there. A man sits down in the seat opposite, stretches one leg down the aisle and promptly falls straight asleep. A problem with the train’s PA system has left each announcement sounding like Daffy Duck talking down a didgeridoo. An odd collection of possible destinations are depicted on a children’s mural at Patchway station; St Ives, Portsmouth, London, and Brighton.
From here the landscape opens out to reveal the site of a former factory. Buildings demolished, all that remains is a huge expanse of concrete; a paved field across which two men with briefcases walk briskly side by side, as if ten years late for a meeting. On a road traversing nearby farmland, a bright yellow bus stands out like a lemon in an apple-cart. The flat fields are split by hedges and dusted with sheep. Cows lay on yellowing grass; the sky a light yet heavy grey. The woman keeps on coughing.
The train sinks lower into the landscape, the banks raise and windows rattle, then darkness. The view outside becomes merely a backwards take on the inside as we rumble under the Severn. The train guard, played by Warren Clarke, wanders into our portion of the carriage and checks only my ticket. The sleeping man, and woman doing the Take-a-Break crossword apparently not resembling potential fare-jumpers in the way I do.
The tunnel ends as black becomes vivid green. A solitary electricity pylon the only sign of civilisation before a Welcome to Wales sign blurs past the window. Cloud hangs over the country here, whilst wind farms blow brighter skies across the estuary to England. As the train slows the man opposite wakes himself as promptly as he fell asleep and exits onto the optimistically vast platforms of Severn Tunnel Junction.
In his place appears a man in a suit jacket and jeans. He takes a seat, opens his phone case and then spends the journey chewing is nails in contemplation as to what to do next. A woman wanders through the carriage and pears in the door of the drivers cab, as if weighing up the merits of a hijack, before shrugging and heading back. The huge floodlights of works yards poke above the trees as we approach Newport. Washing hangs in backyards, a seagull sits on an old air conditioning unit; the suspension bridge is silhouetted on a yellowing sky. ‘Fnf Fnf Fnf Fnf-fn-fnf’ announces the delapidated PA system as we cross the mud of the Usk into Newport station.
The platform is packed, largely with football fans decked in red; the scarlet line broken only by an old woman in a sou’wester. Here the coughing woman bundles her belongings from the train, and the guard on the station light-heartedly tells off those holding him up to the laughter of those already aboard. ‘Come on! Come on ladies, hurry up, we’ve been waiting for you two for an hour. Get on by here next to that handsome boy. That’s it… Oh not you and a bloody bike. Can’t you cycle to Cardiff? Oh go on then, in that door there.’
In the now crowded carriage the initial camaraderie is eventually crushed by a loan voice; that of a man talking his friend through a recent golfing round. Hole by hole, in as monotonous a fashion as is possible. ‘First hole for par, second hole one over. Third hole, for par, fourth hole par, fifth hole, in those hedges up the left hand side, sixth hole one over…’ He is midway through a previous round of the same course, as we mercifully reach Cardiff. Edging into the city, passing nondescript new builds and grey industrial estates as a welsh flag flutters from a Splott backyard and a hoarding for Brains looks down over bustling streets.