It’s raining again; concentric circles overlapping in the gutter, umbrellas half-spinning as they clip each other on pavements. Rush hour living up to its billing as commuters hasten their footsteps to get away from the downpour. Sodden on one side from the coming together of a passing van and a water-laden pothole, you join the hurried dash for what is claimed to be a train, seats crammed in with no consideration for the length of an average human limb.
The train moves off from beneath the moulding corrugated roof of Liverpool Street station, through tunnels and out into the half-light of late afternoon where an emboldened blue sky has begun to edge out between the clouds that hang heavy over city skyscrapers. Across the carriage a man in a loosely knotted scarf shoves sushi into his mouth with the emotionless regularity of a production line.
Above the streets of East London the returning sun reflects off the carriage windows and illuminates a scrolling tableau of trackside city living; potted plants and books stacked on window sills, precariously placed roof gardens with wind-shredded bamboo screens, cat flaps and caged doors. The optimistically named City View Hotel backs onto the rails, it’s moniker truthful only in the few seconds a day when a train isn’t passing.
A man and a woman take up residence at the end of your block of seats, and begin checking their emails. ‘How many head injuries today?’ asks the woman ominously, as the man scrolls with his thumb. ‘Just three,’ he says looking up with the moderately satisfied expression of someone who’s just been told by an Antiques Roadshow expert that grandad’s old vase is worth a few hundred quid. Outside, a sign on a wall promotes itchen and Ba hroo sup ies, kids in luminous bibs play football in a cage whilst a Chinook lumbers across the sky like a depressed bumble bee.
At Tottenham Hale the train fills further; people somehow filling the remaining seats and spaces like liquid poured into a mould. The couple are still talking. They’re colleagues, P.E. teachers. As the woman speaks the man empathises at pace. ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah’ An unrelenting staccato of machine-gun affinity. ‘So who actually is running on Sunday?’ he asks, opening the door on a five minute long list of names, nicknames and definitions of relationships. ‘Steve, Angela, Longy, Jacko, Jacko’s mate, Sarah’s ex…’
Beyond the building-heavy suburbs of Enfield a man with a rucksack strides down a lakeside path; two AA vans are parked in a lane, yellow pixels on a brown screen. At Broxbourne the man opposite unfolds himself from the corner of the train, puts on his glasses and clambers away and out the doors. Somewhere behind you, a young woman with an Essex accent that could cut glass is on the phone; ‘What’s his name, Mark? I never expect him to be a Mark… each time I see him’. The canals fade into the concrete upon concrete of Harlow Town, where a faulty taxi-office sign strobes across the bonnet of a solitary car in a car-park.
All through this and on via Bishop Stortford and Stansted the rapid-fire empathy has continued and now you’re trapped in a staff departmental meeting about overseas school trips. ‘Surely they have a decent hockey astro in Europe?’… ‘There is one in Holland’… ‘Better than Belgium when I had to get by in pigeon French and pigeon English’… Pigeon English? Given fifty percent of his vocabulary is the word ‘Yeah’ you can see how a grasp of the English language above ‘pigeon’ could be difficult.
‘Do I want to spend eight hours in Bruges?’… ‘How hard is it to charter a plane?’… ‘Amsterdam from Calais is not that much further on’… ‘I wouldn’t go to Brussels, no, it’s a shithole. Yeah awful’… ‘A Centre Parcs with a hockey astro would be a game changer’. We all have dreams.
You find escape via the window where a solitary duck paddles out onto a pond – a triangular wake extending out across the water behind it as if it’s tautening a catapult. Queues of headlamps on country lanes signal home time in the home counties; a group of indistinguishable animals are gathered on a hilltop, deer perhaps? You accept that’s more plausible than big dogs.
The teachers get up and leave at Wittlesford Parkway, disappearing into the dusk to leave merciful palatable silence in their wake. The only sounds as we push onto our final stop are sushi man tapping on his laptop and two Italian girls in sunglasses sharing crisps and a hangover. The light from the scrolling destination display reflects off a passenger’s bald head. People on bikes wait at crossing gates, all high vis and low patience, as the rain begins to fall again.