Station, by Julie Rysdale
A MORNING AT THE STATION
The train’s warm rush of gritty wind scatters disposed coffee cups, discarded wrappers and greasy paper bags which have cocooned morning croissants and pains au chocolat. The memory of the engine’s journey streams ahead, washing over you, glazing your skin with fine grime like soot from a winter’s chimney. You hastily brush down your dapper suit, your sombre business tie is straightened. Swirling skirts are held tight as a bustling, determined blur races past ignoring the grim faces and disappointed sighs.
The domed tunnel arches high over you, unmoved and disinterested in your troubles. The walls peer down at the sinewy, snaking, steel tracks. Pasted on the tiles are irritatingly cheerful posters announcing the Carnival de Paris, gaudy posters ironically shouting in praise of cars and Vespas and slick, stylish posters singing of the latest opera at the Opera Bastille. Smudged graffiti and tags on the dirty tiled dome vie for your attention, competing on their own patch of the curve. But the station’s cleaning ritual is quickly spoiling the secret artists’ bold designs and political slogans. Still, a snatch of angst and anger calls out to you here and there from the artists’ canvas: a criticism, a disdain, a call to arms. Momentarily, you share the sentiments.
Disgruntled and impatient you fidget, anxiously checking your watch and glaring at the stern face on the station clock as if it is a conspirator with the Metro and its failed punctuality. Some tap their toes, you step lightly, a jig, trying to keep warm on the bitterly cold platform. Around you, shoulders are brushed and bumped, and you feel a sense of irritation spread through the already impatient crowd. Your brow is crumpled, hands run through hair and with annoyance you fumble with coat buttons. For a moment the hum-drum of your daily ritual is interrupted with tension and frustration.
You snatch fragments of edgy phone conversation from irate commuters:
I am going to be late
Contact my clients
I will be there for lunch
I do not know where your shoes are
I cannot help you
You can go after school
You know where the key is
I will make sure you get the paperwork
I told you what he said
You need to be here!
A muffled vibration starts below your feet and hope starts to weave its way through the crowd. Bags are retrieved, newspapers folded, heads tilted from their attached phones. The draught rises to a breeze, the pungent smell of brakes clinging to its stream. Your hair is tousled and tossed and you begin to move as one with others swelling toward the platform’s edge, jostling for an access point and your chance of a seat. You silently cheer, welcoming the roaring beast as it screams to a halt.
Your day begins.
WE ARE ALL TIME TRAVELLERS
STAND BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE
Vanishing point somewhere in the darkness beyond the platforms, rats scurry along the edges of subterranean walls ignoring the vibrating rails. The light does not reach in here but the noise spills from station platforms, announcements grating across speakers, movement and voices of commuters, the vortex rush of the tube trains as they arrive and leave. Artificial light and the smell of dust and creosote frame the sense of subdued panic and boredom, eyes fastened unseeing on small screens or advertising plastered across the curved walls of the giant tube.
Anything can happen here. Taking a phone call about the promotion, the relative in palliative care, extra shift work despite a 12-hour day, the accident, the vet, the broken-down car. The missed train leaving no option but to wait for the next one, wondering how to explain this at work yet again. Feeling hungry, tired, happy, sad; standing looking inwards, numbed by numbers of others, by travelling. So many stories standing on the platform, day after day, unfolding and collapsing like the concertina of lungs breathing, the metro doors opening and closing on each chapter.
Tiny red eyes glow in the dim light beyond, nests of detritus in the crumbling brickwork, watching for opportunities. Sometimes it is more than they can scavenge when someone steps across the yellow line. The sudden announcement of an incident and delays clear the platforms, but the rats hear the thud and grinding of brakes and see the reflective strips of the police as they arrive.
All in a day’s work for some perhaps, jaded by familiarity, but the reverberations of sadness echo long after the train resumes the never-ending journey of the city circle. The metallic automated voice is on high rotation repeating Stand Behind the Yellow Line into the thick air of the sepia underworld of the station. Whatever it is.
THE FREIGHT TRAIN, THAT IS YOU
I don’t want to see.
Hide me, with shielded eyes
from what, I know, I’ll feel.
At Five fifteen, every night.
Frozen in time,
Heavy in silence,
encircled, amongst strangers.
I cling, clandestinely, to thoughts, as ivy does a wall.
Behind hands, I hide.
Light, seeping through cracked palms,
Illuminating thoughts, better left unread.
Introspection, that despite,
my best attempts,
I know, I’ll feel.
Your hands linger, pressed,
upon my body, like a trains on a track.
Deliberately leaving wounds.
Lasting contusions. Beneath my skin,
that behind rose coloured glasses,
I’ll hide, but still feel.
All aboard! And keep the windows closed unless you want to be covered in soot.
A large group of year-seven boys in colourful shirts and shorts surround me on the platform. They’re pushing and shoving, daring each other to look over the edge onto the train tracks.
The station master blows hard on his whistle. He glares in my direction and points to the carriage with a large sign on the window:
Reserved. Geelong West Technical School. Destination Queenscliffe.
I try to corral the boys into a single line, but they’re too excited about their end-of-year treat to stand still and listen.
Instead, they charge towards the train, scrambling and elbowing their way in through the narrow door, jostling for the best seats.
They shove the windows up and down, swop seats, swop sandwiches, shout and joke amongst themselves. They’re more alive than I’ve seen them all year. I soon give up trying to get them seated. I’m a novice teacher, still learning the tricks of crowd control.
The station master blasts his whistle again and the boys cheer loudly. The engine huffs and hisses as it lurches forward. Steam and smoke billow into the carriage. It smells like Guy Fawkes’ night.
We progress a few metres before the train’s shrill whistle signals its approach to the South Geelong tunnel. The train passes through the bluestone arch at walking pace, then quickly picks up speed.
However, as soon as we enter the tunnel, our carriage is plunged into darkness. The boys become uncharacteristically quiet for a few seconds, until stifled laughter and whispering breaks the silence.
I’m feeling slightly uneasy, remembering a more experienced teacher asking cryptically a few days ago:
Are you sure you’re ready for the steam train experience?
Suddenly the boys erupt and run amuck in the darkness. I’m aware of furtive, rapid movements as dark shapes brush past me.
The frenetic chaos takes me completely by surprise. I have no idea what is happening.
I call out, pleading with the boys to sit down. But I can’t see a thing. There’s nothing I can do. I sit in the dark and wait.
Something else feels strange. A powder-like substance is coating my skin and hair. I’m smothered in it. The sweet, baby smell of Johnson’s talcum powder is everywhere.
A few seconds later, when the train emerges from the tunnel, daylight reveals the full extent of the prank.
I look a sight. A Bombe Alaska, ghostly white from head to toe. I’m too surprised to move, to speak, to reprimand the boys.
Got you Miss, got you! You’ve been ambushed Miss!
I’m a mess. The carriage seat is a mess. The boys sitting nearby are a mess.
You look like a snowman, Miss!
They quickly size up my reaction. I see the funny side of this well-planned practical joke and break into a broad grin. They shriek with laughter.
Here’s a carrot for your nose, Miss!
The downside of going home is
of fluorescents and angst
People rush, people wait,
Individuals become a mass
Become a stereotype
The suit guy, the black guy, the old lady
I’m the backpacker
Get me out of this city beehive!
Doors open and I enter a carriage,
inuring myself to the boredom/silence until the ascent to above ground
Eyes meet in the reflection of a window and immediately dart away
I see sky, houses, trees,
Packed lunch and sudoku
Three and a half hours till my town’s station
I had fallen asleep on a seat in the station.
There was nothing around me with no horizon to be seen in any direction. A cool light illuminated the infinite vacuum. I looked up hoping to see something that might re-attach me to reality, and there, in the heavens above, was a black dot that looked like the entrance to a tunnel.
I felt the gentle impact of something upon my hair and thought rain had begun to fall. Sitting cross legged at the centre of this vast expanse of emptiness, I shook my head and saw grains of sand flung to the ground. I put my hand on the ground, to support my weight as I stood up and as I lifted my hand from the floor and looked, I found my palm encrusted with hundreds of fine grains of white sand. I looked up at the black dot and sand fell into my face. I rubbed and wiped and blinked to rid myself of it. Is there anything worse than sand in your eyes?
Stepping to the side the impact ceased, and upon the floor I saw my footsteps in the fine sprinkling of silica. It was difficult to see but when I stood closer to the mound, I saw it come into focus – a steady stream of sand, falling into my space from the black dot high above me.
It was mounting now, and a small hill had begun to form where I woke from sleeping. In the back of my mind was a story that wasn’t going to write itself. I was transported there, to the characters and things I was trying to make them do and couldn’t make sense of. When I returned from my reverie the sand was at my knees. I lifted a foot and placed it on top, but it would not support my weight. My foot drove through it to the floor, and by this time it was at my hips, and rising fast.
Panic overcame me as it was clear that I would soon be engulfed and suffocated. I floundered to my right, but my body weight would not be supported by the sand that now extended in all directions without end. All the words I had to say would not be said, and the music I had to face would not be faced. Why had I not honoured my mysterious compunction to write down the movies that played interminably in my mind? I was going to die and I wasn’t ready to go. There would be so much unfinished business.
I was jolted awake by the blast of a horn and thrust back into the station. I wrenched myself from the seat and stood by the platform cradling my head in my hands with profound relief. I was alive, and I had time left to serve.
There was light at the end of the tunnel.
It was a train, and I was lucky to still have a ticket.
THE GREAT LIE
BAYSWATER TUBE STATION. 17:49:00.
In the vast dark tunnels, the air is thick with the stench of hot steel and warm bodies. Far above, Hyde Park withers in the heat. 35 degrees Celsius, still. Five summers ago it would be unheard of. Now, scorching heat lashes London with dogged regularity.
The woman taps her foot, checking the noticeboard. Four minutes wait. She sips from her water bottle, mindful that she’s still more than an hour from home. The back of her throat is dry. She takes another sip. The platform is thick with office workers, starched collars limp with sweat, blazers hanging over an arm or a bag handle. A few feet away, a businessman wilts in a wool suit. Perspiration beads on his forehead, slipping down along his hairline and past the cup of his ear to disappear into his yellowed collar.
A screech in the tunnel signals the train’s approach. The woman winces. The businessman presses a hand to his forehead. The train, soot stained and paint flaking, sighs to a stop. The woman pushes her way through the swell of commuters disembarking, elbows and heeled boots claiming victory inch by inch. Inside the train, the smell of sweat is worse. The woman, wedged between a pole and the businessman’s armpit, presses her wrist to her nose, the faded notes of that morning’s perfume small comfort. Breathing shallowly, she sways with the train as it snakes its way beneath the city. Notting Hill Gate. High Street Kensington. Gloucester Road. On and on and on. Sweat itches down the woman’s back.
The train breaks from the tunnels, bright sunshine filling the carriage. The woman blinks as the train pulls into Barbican Station. The doors open and as people flow out air, blessed air, floods the woman’s lungs.
A SECOND VERSION OF MYSELF
Solitaire didn’t know when the panic set in but as she rode the same escalator up and down, she knew things weren’t going well. A small voice inside her head tried to reassure her. ‘This is just like that song.’
‘Song?’ she asked.
Fellow commuters cast sideways glances at her.
‘Yes,’ sang the voice.
I was lost in France …
In the fields the birds were singing …
As I stood there in the morning rain …
I was lost in France …
‘But,’ she protested, ‘I’m not in France … or in love. There are no birds down here, and it sure isn’t raining.’
‘Hmm,’ said the voice conceded her point.
As much this gave her one-up on the Pollyanna in her head, it didn’t help. She was, she had to admit, lost and worse, lost in the London underground, a place not for the faint-hearted as it turned out.
She blamed all the improvements. That was one word the signs used. We’re improving facilities … Otherwise they appealed for the public’s forbearance about progress.
As far as Solitaire was concerned, they … whoever they were … weren’t improving anything. Quite the opposite. Her mood darkened each time she re-rode that escalator. She was going round in circles!
Her panic rose as the uncountable people pressed and carried her along like a malignant tide accompanied by the roar of announcements she couldn’t understand blaring at her from unseen speakers. ‘Turn down the noise!’ she screamed.
More sideways glances. She’d become one more eccentric in an underground full of them.
She wanted to stop.
She wanted air.
She wanted to orient herself and calm her shallow breathing. She was panting, not from exertion but from a feeling that those trains, seen and unseen, roaring through their tunnels, were sucking oxygen out of the place.
The day had started well. She was due to fly out of Heathrow and allowed herself plenty of time. It was when she couldn’t access the Heathrow train at Paddington and was directed to other stations that the trouble began. Out of Order and Closed signs sprang up like mushrooms wherever she went.
She ran her finger down the list of alternative Heathrow trains … but, as she checked her watch, certainty ceased to be her friend.
‘Where did all my spare time go?’ she cried aloud. More commuters looked at her before moving on.
It seemed days rather than hours since she and Edwina had bid farewell. At their parting she’d had plenty of time to get to Heathrow.
‘I’ll miss you,’ Edwina told her.
Even as Solitaire wanted to stay, home called.
That recent parting was now lost in the roar of unknown trains in unknown tunnels travelling to unknown destinations, none of which seemed to be where her plane waited.
As she travelled down that escalator for the fifth, sixth, seventh time looking for a friendly sign, she found herself humming. ‘I was lost in France …’
OUT OF THE BLUE
Standing on the crowded platform on the way home from the office, my phone pinged as a message came through. Things had been great this past year as our relationship continued to blossom. Jane was everything I had ever hoped for, the seemingly perfect match. We met through mutual friends and the connection was instant and electric. Enamoured by her vivacious personality and infectious smile, I loved this woman more than I had ever loved anyone.
It couldn’t be any more perfect.
I unlocked my phone and read the text in sheer disbelief. Surely it was a mistake, a mistyped message or a gag that she’d reply to later on. It couldn’t possibly be true, not from Jane. As I kept re-reading the message, those scathing words didn’t change, cutting me to my core. I didn’t understand how she could do this to me, thoughts racing around my mind and desperately trying to comprehend what I was reading. The veracity of our relationship had never been tested like this.
Emotions welled up inside me, but I had to keep it together. I looked frantically for an escape from the burgeoning crowds, trains passing by in a blur as I felt the underground platform close in around me. Holding back the pending flood, I raced to the bathrooms, desperate to compose myself.
Away from the prying eyes, I was overwhelmed with emotion, sobbing uncontrollably in the cubicle. I felt my heart shatter into a million tiny shards. Nothing made sense anymore.
I tried frantically to call her but she wouldn’t respond, her phone ringing out. I checked her socials, desperate for any signs that she was unhappy. Scrolling through her feed was a terrible reminder of the life I thought we had. Happy memories and celebrations that we’d shared this past year all just an illusion.
I’d clicked onto the replies and noticed something unusual. Likes from the same person, on every post. I knew this name but thought he was out of her life, a remnant of a past that she had left behind. At least, that is what she’d told me.
The pieces of the puzzle all started to fall into place, I felt so stupid and naive. I remembered that late night phone call I’d overheard from the bathroom, her words now etched in my mind. The steady stream of messages on her phone at unusual hours of the day and night and frequent business trips that took her away for weeks at a time now made sense. The signs had been there, but I was blinded by love, ignoring all of the red flags.
Wiping away the tears, I collected my briefcase and put my phone in my pocket, despondently returning to the platform. Taking my seat on the train as it pulled into the station, I felt betrayed. The world I knew had come crumbling down and I deserved an explanation.
At the very least she owed me that.
GOODBYE AUNT GRACE
My little sister Edith was at boarding school when Aunt Grace found the lump in her breast. I arrived home late after a long day at work.
‘Helen, I have something to tell you.’ Her voice sounded strange.
‘What is it? Is it Edith?’
‘I have breast cancer. It’s inoperable.’
I wept and she comforted me. She didn’t want me to tell Dad. ‘He has always dreamt of working in Egypt. I don’t want to spoil it for him. And you mustn’t tell Edith, or your grandmother either. They shouldn’t have to watch me die.’
My boyfriend David provided a shoulder to lean on while I nursed Aunt Grace at home—she had always hated hospitals. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore.
‘You can’t go on like this,’ he said. ‘It’s time.’
In the hospital her eyes begged for an end to her suffering. One of her pillows had fallen onto the floor.
I bent down and picked it up …
David stood in the doorway unnoticed by Helen. She put a pillow on top of another that was on a chair by the window and then straightened the bedding.
‘Goodbye Aunt Grace.’ Helen bent down to kiss her aunt’s forehead.
He took her home from the hospital. ‘Do you want me to ring your grandmother? And Edith must be told.’
‘I will tell Edith tomorrow, but I can’t deal with Nanna—not yet.’
‘I’ll go to Geelong with you, if you like. We’ll catch the train.’
At the station, David put the tickets in his wallet. ‘Non-smoking—less likely to be crowded,’ he said.
The rocking motion of the train lulled him and he closed his eyes. I love Helen. I want to ask her to marry me but something is holding me back …
Helen nudged him. ‘You fell asleep. You were snoring,’ she laughed. Then he saw a look of guilt cross her face. Guilt because, for a split second, she had forgotten her sorrow.
They caught a taxi from Geelong station to Edith’s school. Her face lit up when she saw them.
‘Helen, David, what a lovely surprise.’ But it was not a lovely surprise. With tears in her eyes, Edith hugged Helen. ‘Does Dad know?’
‘Not yet. I’m going to tell him in person. I have some money saved.’
‘I’ll help you,’ David said, ‘We can fly to Egypt together.’
‘I have to deal with Nanna first. I still haven’t told her,’ Helen reminded him.
‘I can’t imagine her letting you go “traipsing around the world with a man you’re not married to”,’ Edith mimicked their grandmother perfectly.
‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,’ Helen said squaring her shoulders, her expression resembling her Aunt Grace’s when she was gearing herself for battle.
And then David saw it in the depths of her eyes. Ruthlessness. He remembered her hands on that pillow and the empty look on her face as she said goodbye.
He wondered …
THE GATES OF HELL
He is standing outside Wicklow Gaol in Ireland after a delightful train ride from Dublin to Wicklow. He is on a genealogical quest researching family history.
He takes a step closer, hesitant in his approach to the gates, those gates that resemble a mouth opening in readiness to consume all those who enter. He stops, looks and wonders what it would have been like for his forebears who may have been incarcerated behind those gates. He understands why some Irish refer to them as ‘The Gates of Hell’.
He senses her closeness. It is Elizabeth, his forebear. A young attractive Irish woman full of despair about her future unknown. She doesn’t know him but he knows her. He imagines her eyes asking him, begging him, to help her understand – he can’t. Tears roll down his cheeks.
Once past the prison gates he wanders observing the exhibits and the stories of the poor wretches imprisoned under British rule and laws over two centuries. Repressive laws against Roman Catholics. The Irish Catholics suffered not only starvation but cruelty and injustice at the hands of the ruling British, especially during ‘The Great Hunger’ of 1845 and 1852. He is filled with emotion at the thought of it all. Elizabeth was Irish and Roman Catholic.
He imagines Elizabeth’s terror when accused of stealing a scarf from her employer and then, without a trial, committed to seven years’ transportation to the colonies. In those times one of the worst punishments of all: a one way ticket the end of the world never to see family again. He imagines her parents’ grief and anguish; emotions stir within him again.
A year after her conviction Elizabeth travelled to the colonies on the ‘Waverley’. He prayed she fared well on her voyage. He had been told by the Wicklow Gaol curator that Irish women who ‘served’ the British guards well fared better and were given extra rations for their ‘favours’. He hoped that Elizabeth had managed to avoid this outrage.
The curator explained that many Irish women were wrongly accused and convicted without trial. In many cases these women had refused to engage in ‘favours’ with their British employers and were convicted on false charges. He wondered if Elizabeth may have suffered this fate.
He wasn’t able to ascertain where Elizabeth may have served time between her conviction date and the sailing of the ‘Waverley’. He hoped she avoided the ‘Gates of Hell’. He drew comfort from the curator mentioning that before their scheduled voyage, some women worked as a house maid to local families.
He was pleased to learn that Elizabeth made it unscathed to the colonies, married and raised 12 children. He discovered that two of Elizabeth’s brothers had also been convicted and transported for seven years for stealing a sheep during the height of the Irish famine. While not ever seeing her parents again, Elizabeth ended up having her own family in the colonies until her death at age 69.