The room shakes as the trains chug past. It’s loud but i barely notice it anymore. The floors rattle and the pictures tap on the walls but i don’t look up from my work. If I did, i know what i would see, the barn-loft style flat with its wooden A-frame rafters stretching away long and narrow, somewhat like a train carriage itself. The whole place would be shaking. Maybe I would see the dust dancing in spotlight beams of afternoon sunlight. And if it were dawn, the light would be muted and cold, the sun having to reach right across London to touch the frozen panes of my windows. I know all of this without any need to look up as the trains pass below.
Focused and resolute.
Words of the past.
Now my eyes are fixed but they see so little. The words, once contours of a distant and mysterious mountain range have become flat and lifeless on the page. Just as I feel flat and lifeless. Another train rattles by. I pick up the glass of water on the desk and wash down the pills which are both salvation and damnation. Pain is replaced by fog and I continue to exist.
I used to count the trains. I would mark roman numerals in chalk on a scratchy black chalkboard pinned to the wall in my kitchen. It felt wonderfully British to me that each day had a different count. Scheduled public transport, subject to un-scheduled spontaneity.
The chalkboard had hung at eye level because of course I had been walking proud and tall back then. I turn my head painfully towards the kitchen. It looks cold and uninhabited, there is the chalkboard, hanging slightly crooked now with my last count smudged like mould across its face. Actual mould is creeping across the frigid windowpanes, its pond green the only colour against the mono-tonal sky outside.
I decide to leave the words for a while, let them sit and gather dust with all the other accoutrements of my life that stopped. The wheels of my chair roll across the floorboards, making a ‘thunk’ sound each time they cross a join. I head away from the kitchen as the window is too high for me to see out of properly. I move towards the far end of the flat, the western end.
Here there is a big triangular pane of glass. I don’t call it a window because it doesn’t open, it’s just a place from which to look out and see the world, carrying on without me.
It’s still rather early in the morning, so this side of the house feels colder and more forgotten. At the end of the day, when the sun is sinking on to the silhouetted spires of the horizon, this side of the flat can feel like the centre of the world. Often i sit there in my chair and wait until the liquid light touches my face and pools in my lap. I think there might be the whole world looking on as i sit there beneath the flaking wooden window frame, my old head surrounded by slowly orbiting dust motes, looking like i was preserved in amber or tree sap.
But now it was the morning, the sun hidden behind the city of london behind me; so there wasn’t any of this. Just cold, thin blueish light and the chug chug of another train shaking my bones. I am right in front of the glass and rubbing my hands together, breathing on them to warm them up. Each breath fogging up my view a little more. To the right are the tracks. Everything is metal and gravel and wooden spacers. It is eight tracks wide leading up to the station and at that moment there isn’t a train on any of them. The tracks curve away empty and silent and disappear around a right hand bend.
The left side of the view is a backstreet. It isn’t very deep this tributary. I can see a section of the main road and high street squeezed between the houses if i press my cheek to the window.
I do so now, even though it’s like pressing my face up to a sheet of ice and I see a few cars go by but no people on the street. Then I notice movement in the building directly across from mine.
A man has opened a door and stepped out on to the fire escape. A shabby coat covers most of his face. He lights a cigarette and from the flame i can see his profile for a moment. Drug abuse has melted his features together and robbed him of human colour. Ghost-white this man is.
He doesn’t notice me pressed up against the window, though i must look ridiculous. Now he has lit the smoke he stumbles down the metal stairs and out of my sight. I wonder how similar we would look if we stood side by side.
I peel my cheek away and rub it to get the blood flowing again. I can hear a train approaching. The deafening morning silence broken again, thank god.
Thank god for those trains. I watch the new one chugging around the bend and smile for the first time today, or maybe all week. How long the sleepless nights would feel in unending silence.
No comforting rattle and shake every few minutes. Just dark and pain and quiet.
This train is made up of only four carriages. I loose sight of it as it pulls in to the station. From the kitchen window perhaps I could see it stop and watch the passengers come and go, but by the time I got there it would be pulling out again most likely. So I just listen. The rotations slow and stop and for a moment it is quiet again; expectant-silence.
Then comes the whistle and the chugging revs up and in my mind i can see the great metal monolith pulling itself away along its preordained course.
I never caught the train. I had a little red car; very fashionable. Who would bother with the trains and their timetables when I can take myself anywhere i need to go in style and comfort?
I try thinking back to where I took myself in the car and can’t remember much at all. Maybe it’s the brain fog, or maybe I never went anywhere memorable. I sold that car when I became unfit to drive. Now I just watch trains.
I think there is some mystery to them. It’s counterintuitive is it not? Each train has its journey set and coded from the day of its conception. It is a slave to the tracks which give it life. Destined to run endlessly from one end of the country to the other and back again. But when I watch them come and go, it fills me with a feeling of excitement and possibility. I wonder where each one is headed and I marvel at the ignoble majesty of their noisy clunking and chugging. The trains have become the mountain ranges lost in those flat words scattered across my desk. Out there is where life is happening, I say to myself.
Another train is coming now. I know it almost before I hear the damn thing.
Suddenly this cold tunnel of a flat is like a coffin and i can’t stand it anymore. I wheel over to the mattress where I sleep and slump out of my chair on to it. There is a small rucksack already packed with clothes and other necessities for when I need to spend nights at the hospital. I add a notepad and pen before closing it up and sliding it across the floorboards to the stairs. Then I push my chair after it. It crashes down the spiralled staircase with satisfying drama.
Time to stand up. Funny how the things we take for granted our entire lives are the things we miss most dearly when they are gone. Youthful people waste their health chasing riches only to throw away those riches as they age, desperately chasing health. My knees shake as they take my weight. It’s no wonder, my legs are so thin I think I must look like a stork.
Rushing over to the table I scoop armloads of pills in to my bag. Enough to keep me going for a long while. Or enough to cut the trip dramatically short. Depending on your perspective.
I’m stood outside in the cold. I run my fingers over the mottled brass number on the door. I loved this place once, before it began to choke me.
Back in my chair I head towards the street, bag on my lap and tears in my eyes.
The station is lonely when I get there. There are no trains and no passengers to be seen. I buy a ticket from the machine, one of those all day passes which allow you to travel anywhere for twenty four hours. It was probably overpriced, I didn’t look.
I am still crying. Silent tears slide over my cheeks. I don’t even know why really.
It’s so much more complex than happiness or sadness. Nobody ever really manages to teach you about the complexity of things. Layers pile up over the years and before you know it you’re drowning in the impossible nuances of your life, which is running away faster and faster each day.
The tears feel like an ablution, the tension and the fear inside me breaking out through absolute resignation.
I cry from desperation. Desperately lonely. Desperately tired. Desperately joyful. I cry and I cry and somehow, it does make it better.