It Takes a Train to Cry by Chris Green
It is pitch black, and I can make out no shapes at all. The bruising I can feel pretty much all over and the throbbing lump on the back of my head suggest I may have taken a savage beating. I am dressed in ripped jeans and a quilted shirt. The front of the shirt is covered in something thick and dry, perhaps caked blood. From the regular clickety-clack sound I can hear and the occasional squeal of steel wheels on steel rail, I work out that I am travelling on a train. I am being rocked gently from side to side with the motion. There is a musty smell. The air is stale. I appear to be in some kind of freight truck.
Eventually, after groping my way along one side of the truck, I discover a bolt which releases a catch and I manage to open a vent of some kind. The dazzling white light coming in blinds me at first and forces me to cover my eyes. Gradually, I become accustomed to the brightness. I establish that I am alone and that apart from me and a pile of sundry debris, some blue plastic sheeting and a low bench-type structure with a tubular frame, the long truck is empty. How long have I been in this rank truck in the dark? I have no recollection at all of how I came to be here, but I cannot imagine I am travelling this way by choice. Of greater concern still, is the sudden realisation that I have no recollection of who I am. This brings on a moment of utter panic. I can remember nothing. I search my pockets for clues. They are empty. I appear to have no belongings with me. No keys, no wallet, no phone, no watch, nothing.
I take a look out of my makeshift window. The train is navigating a lengthy bend in the track. Turning my head through an arc, if I squint, I can see both to the front and to the back of the train. It is titanic. It must be about three miles long, several hundred dark trucks of assorted shapes and sizes. On the side of some of the wagons, there is stencilled grey script which is in a language that I do not recognise. It is pulled by several immense leviathans that belch out diesel fumes some distance ahead. The train looks as if it is designed to travel vast distances. The landscape is featureless, barren, and flat, miles and miles of scrub for as far as the eye can see.
I try once again to determine how I came to be here. Why would I be on a freight train? Why would I be travelling at all? I draw a blank. All the cerebral passages seem to be blocked. My head is pounding like a pile driver. I am both hungry and thirsty. When did I last eat? It may have been days ago. Surely the train will at some point stop. I try as a mental exercise to think of the names of some stations I might be familiar with but can come up with nothing. They remain an abstract possibility. The train will surely have to stop to refuel – unless of course those tank wagons I can just make out behind the locomotives are equipped with giant hoses that automatically feed the diesel in. I estimate the train to be travelling at a steady thirty miles an hour as the great locomotives struggle with the formidable cargo. It could be travelling for days. I calculate that even should I be able to get the door to open, it would be dangerous to jump out. This is not the world described in ‘On the Road’. I am not Sal Paradise hopping trains for the adventure. On The Road by Jack Kerouac! A book! I am a book reader. With a penchant possibly for spirituality and jazz. This is of little comfort, as for the moment nothing more particular is channelling through. Back to the present situation then. Where do I go if I do jump the train? This is open country. But which country? The inhospitable windswept tundra suggests that this is an alien place, that with my resources, I would be ill-equipped to navigate.
My boxcar lurches as the train negotiates an uneven piece of track, and a large zinc can emerges from the pile of debris at the end of the truck and rolls towards me. It has no label, but it looks like a catering-size food container. I have nothing to open it with, but by hitting the lid over and over against a bolt in the side of the wagon I manage to make a sizeable hole. It is full of salted edamame beans. I work on the hole I have made until it is large enough to get my hand in, and greedily I scoop up handfuls of the beans. They taste delicious. Opening the can seems to have released the catch on the sliding door of the boxcar, which I find I can now open.
Hours pass as I rack my brain for explanations. Parts of my memory seem to be intact, for instance, I was able to identify edamame. I have been able to make judgements with regard to the train, based possibly on previous experience of trains, and am able to calculate speed and distance. I do not know the time, but with so many unknowns, would a watch be of any help? It is light. It has been light for hours. It must now be afternoon. Where is the sun? Where should it be in the sky? Which direction are we heading? Where have we come from? Who am I? Biographical details continue to elude me. How is it that I can remember these random facts, but no personal information?
As the train moves on through the unforgiving terrain, it grows warmer inside the truck. There is a thick cloud cover now. A strange, thick, heavy smell comes into the truck on the warm air. I cannot identify the smell, but it feels like a storm is brewing. Big angry cumulonimbus clouds rise overhead. The sky turns ink-black in a matter of seconds. The rain begins to fall in torrents. I hold my head out to drink in the massive drops. The rain persists for an hour or so and I manage to find a plastic container I find lying around and fill it with water for the journey.
Eventually, I fall asleep. I dream that I am telling a class of primary schoolchildren about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of marine litter, debris and chemical sludge the size of Texas, and explain how long it takes for waste products to break down. 700 hundred years for a plastic bottle, 500 years for an aluminium can and 1 million years for a glass bottle. I tell them about the destruction of the Aral Sea, which was 26,000 square miles, the largest body of fresh water in the world that had the most fish. Now thanks to irrigation projects it is little more than a boating lake, except that because of the pollution it would not be safe for boats. The school is planning an Eco Fun Party. We talk about floods. I say we should expect more extreme weather events as climate change takes hold.
‘Should I buy my dad sandbags for Christmas,’ says a little girl called Aqua. She has a tattoo of a meerkat on her cheek.
Her teacher who is dressed in a harlequin suit and has an unpronounceable name says that this is very thoughtful.
‘It’s not all doom and gloom,’ I say. ‘Scientists are making plans to store carbon dioxide under the sea-bed which could help to reduce global warming over the coming century.’
Perhaps I am or was an environmental campaigner, I speculate on waking. Has one of my crusades undermined vested interests in some unethical activity and is this my punishment? Have I been witness to something that I was not meant to see? I ransack my consciousness for more information about my possible past but nothing emerges. I remain a prisoner of the present.
The train travels uninterrupted through the night, the beat of the wheels over the tracks regular and unchanging. It is like a metronome. I doze off a few times and when I do, someone called Carol comes to mind. Or is it Coral? Charlotte? Cherie? I can almost form a picture of her. She has long dark hair and brown eyes, or long blonde hair and blue eyes. Is it red hair? I think I can hear her speak. She is saying kind things to me. She has a faint trace of an accent. I cannot make out what the accent is. I can taste her salty skin. I have a sense of her, but firm connections seem just out of reach. I have what might be a sense memory of a more intimate saltier taste. Could Cheryl be my partner perhaps or a girlfriend?
I appear to still have what I might think of as procedural memory. I can remember how to do things with my hands for instance, and my brain sends the right messages to my senses, or should that be my senses send the right messages to my brain. I can see, hear, smell and speak. I have what might be called semantic memory. I can remember words and what they refer to. I seem to be able to think, and should it ever be necessary, speak in English. What I don’t have is memory to recall past experiences, or episodic memory where the information is tied to any time before I was aboard the train. I feel that the information is there. Hazy half images of names and faces and places I might have been are bubbling away just beneath the surface; it’s just that I can’t reach them. Unidentified figures appear as shadows and silhouettes, and flickering scenes flash quickly on a retinal screen inside my head and are gone. It’s as if the wires have been cut.
When it becomes light, I take a look out of the window. The sky is blood-red as the glittering disc of the sun balances on the horizon. To my amazement, the landscape has changed to desert. A camel caravan is sweeping across the shifting sand from left to right. There are about a hundred fully laden beasts in silhouette. In other circumstances, this would be a magnificent spectacle to behold, but I feel I am too old for this kind of adventure. How old am I? There is nothing here I can use as a mirror, but there are a lot of lines on my hands, and liver spots on my arms which might suggest I am not in the first flush of youth. I instinctively feel I must be quite old, it feels as if there is a weight of experience somewhere just out of my present reach. The camel train is disappearing now as we move steadily onward. I try to think what parts of the world have camels and as I go through them one by one, the answer comes back, most continents have them, but perhaps camels are not common in Europe. Am I assuming here that I am European? I seem to be thinking in English. Can I regard this as one biographical fact? I say a few sentences out loud. It’s a start, I suppose. Camels. Camels make me think of cigarettes? Have I given up, or did they become unavailable when I was put onto the train? The latter, I feel. Technically then I am still a smoker. I have felt no withdrawal, but maybe this is because there have been more pressing concerns about my situation. I want a cigarette badly now.
I watch as a cauldron of dark wide-winged raptors flies in a spiral over the desert. There is an encampment of some kind in the distance up ahead. Hundreds of ramshackle tents. Is this a refugee camp? Are we travelling through a war zone? We pass a cluster of prefabricated buildings that might be an army post. There are flags flying, none of which I recognise. The camp seems deserted. Later in the morning just over the horizon, there is a fire that lights up the sky. I wonder if it is an oil well burning. An apocalyptic cloud of thick black smoke rises above the inferno, blowing towards the train on a strengthening wind. The air has an acrid stench.
My solitude saps my spirit. It would be much easier to endure this present hardship if I were to have some company. I feel desolate and frightened. I feel I am not used to being alone. I imagine I have colleagues at work and loved ones at home. I can hear replayed snippets of conversations and repeated phrases in my head, but I can’t make any sense of them. I can’t remember the names or the faces or the context of the words. Faces flash before me, but before I can identify them, they are gone, and next time they appear they are changed. A song about being up all night leaning on the windowsill comes into my head, but I can’t remember the rest of it. Something about a train getting lost, but nothing will stay in place for long enough for me to get a handle on it.
It is a clear night. The temperature outside has dropped, and now I am beginning to feel cold. The sky is resplendent with stars. Are those luminous blue ones The Pleiades? Mr Rossi called them The Seven Sisters. Mr Rossi taught me – Environmental Science? Or was it Economics? It does seem a long time ago. He let me look through his telescope, an eight-inch refractor. ‘You ken see dzee Pleiades een weentair een dzee Noathen Emeesphere end een summair in dzee Soathen Emeesphere,’ I can hear him saying, with his sharp Italian vowels. So, is it summer or is it winter? The trees have been in leaf, haven’t they? There have not been many trees. The sun has been bright. Has it been low in the sky? Maybe it’s Spring or Autumn. It probably doesn’t matter.
The catering sized can of couscous comes as a surprise, and much needed, as I have finished the edamame. I had not thought to look under the plastic sheeting amongst the rubble. Perhaps I am not as attentive as I should be. There are also several cans of soup, a tin opener, and a three-litre bottle of water. Whoever is taking me to wherever, it seems for whatever reason wants me alive. Without any knowledge of who I am I find this a little difficult to comprehend. My comfort was clearly not a consideration, but they appear to want me alive on arrival at my ultimate destination. I shudder at the prospect of what this might hold.
The sound of the wheels over the rails changes subtly from a clickety-clack to a clickety-clickety-clack. I take a look outside. The train is crossing a monumental cantilever bridge. It is painted oxide red and so far as I can make out from my limited viewpoint the bridge is as long as the train, perhaps longer. With its gigantic girders and elephantine tubular struts, it is a breathtaking feat of engineering. This is the type of bridge that might span continents. I wonder which continents it might be spanning. Although my fact retention is a little better than my memory, I have not heard of such a bridge. A few hundred feet below is the foaming grey ocean. The tangy smell of the sea enters my passages. Where does the smell come from? From somewhere way down it comes to me that part of the smell is salt, but most of what you smell is a sulphur gas released by micro-bacteria. I remember an experiment we did in Miss Liddell’s Science class. This represents recall of a fact backed by a personal experience – progress at last.
Over the next few days, we pass through blue-tipped mountains and abundant forests, through cavernous tunnels and over towering viaducts, as the train continues its perverse odyssey. One morning I wake up to a luminous green river snaking through a vertiginous gorge, and later we come upon a bright pink salt lake stretching for miles. Thoughts race, seemingly on a road to nowhere. I am here. I am there. Where am I? I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Where have I been? Here, there and everywhere. Let me take you down. Overundersidewaysdown. Houston, we have a problem. When? When what? Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. September in the rain. Who with? Who was I with? Who was I with when? Is it Wednesday? Did I put the bins out? I am here again. You are here again. I can hear you. Who is this? Who are you, oo oo, oo oo? I really want to know. Carol, is that you? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home? Knock, knock. Who’s there? Arfur. Arfur who? Arfur Got. Who am I? To be or not to be. What is the question? What is this? Where did it come from? It sounds like thunder. Mama Mia! Here I go again. Train coming round the bend. My interior monologue hurtles its way through fragments of fractured narratives, none of which helps much with the puzzle. I feel I need to find a green edge first. That’s what they say isn’t it? Solve the green side first, start with green side up, find a green edge.
We pass through a deserted station with an unpronounceable name. There are no plasticine porters with looking glass ties, and we do not stop. I went to Carnaby Street and Kensington Market, I remember. On the tube. Lots of tubes. There are lots of tubes around me. Tubes and ca ….. I had long hair. It is not long now and there is not much of it. I must be old. Clickety clack, clickety clack. Clickety clack, wheels on the track. This part of the world does not seem to be overpopulated. We must have travelled two or three thousand miles, and we have yet to pass through a town of any size. This route is clearly not much used. I speculate about what the train might be carrying to justify travelling such great distances. It’s impressive itinerary of rolling stock includes shipping containers, refrigerated cars, hopper wagons, grain trucks, low loaders, flatcars, boxcars, and tankers. It could conceivably be transporting a whole city. Maybe Chloe would know. I mean Charlotte. She knows about Geography. Weren’t we together earlier? I don’t remember her leaving. We weren’t going to catch the train. My thoughts blur again. Who is Charlotte?
Eventually, I drift off. I dream I am in an estate agents’ office. There are details of houses for sale around the walls and details of houses for sale pinned everywhere. They all look the same, brick semi-detached replicas of one another. There is a large map on a board at the far end, but I cannot make out which town it is. There are no desks. Instead, there is a piano. Thom Yorke of Radiohead is sitting at it, playing the same passage over and over. He says he is writing a song. The song he says is about his home town, Oxford, in the Second World War. A curious subject for a song I think. He says he is looking for a phrase to rhyme with aerial bombardment. I suggest railway compartment. He tries it to see if it scans. The song sounds to me like ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ from one of Radiohead’s earlier albums.
‘I don’t expect you’ve come in to write a song,’ he says, finally. ‘I expect you want to look for houses.’
I explain that we are looking to buy a bigger house as Carol is pregnant expecting a girl, and we have a boy already and will need an extra bedroom.
When I wake, we are approaching a busy marshalling yard. Our locomotives’ horns sound out a strident declaration of the train’s arrival. In the yard, other powerful diesels are limbering up on an elaborate network of tracks. Through the volatile haze, I can make out rolling stock of all shapes and sizes, with abbreviated writing on some of the wagons in several languages. There are also lines of passenger carriages with brightly coloured livery. This suggests to me that we may, at last, be nearing civilisation. The yard leads on to large Gothic engine shed. I have a faint recollection of a visit to a marshalling yard and engine shed from way back when I was a boy with my ‘Ian Allan British Railways Combined Volume’. I think it was Swindon, at the time that steam was making way for diesel. You could wander freely over the tracks amongst the engines then, in the days before health and safety.
The train slows down, and I think it is going to stop. Wagons might be added or detached here. I tense myself in readiness for some development. Several minutes pass with the train idling, then with a boisterous roar of acceleration from the locomotives and piercing squeals from the wheels, we take off again. I am so far from the back of the train that I am not sure if the train has been added to or has shed some of its load. At least, no-one sought me out. I entertain the idea for a moment that my being here is an unhappy accident.
The landscape is changing once again. There are signs of settlement now, logistics warehouses and tall apartment blocks. There are roads, something that hasn’t been much in evidence along the way. Cars and trucks make their way slowly along the congested carriageways. Where have they all come from? We pass a huge landfill site where orange industrial garbage trucks are shedding their loads. Gigantic yellow bulldozers are compacting the mountains of waste. Flocks of shrieking gulls circle overhead, wheeling down to land on a new heap of trash. Why is there so much landfill? Why do they not recycle more? They are, right now, this minute, impoverishing the future for the sake of present convenience and profit. There should be targets set out. Sprawling suburbs of uniform dwellings appear as we make our way into the hubbub of the city. Gradually great temples of capitalism dwarf the residential dwellings. Names like Samsung and Siemens vie for attention. Cities it seems look the same the world over. How do I know this? Have I travelled a lot or have I learned it from television? Anyhow, there is nothing particular about this city that might suggest where we are. As we get further in, a thick fog descends, urban pollution I imagine. The train plays a cacophonous tune on its horns to signal its arrival. I can see nothing now through the fog.
‘Welcome back to the land of the living,’ says a deep voice. ‘The nurse told me you had come round.’
I open my eyes. A tall man with a white coat and a white beard is standing there. What is he doing in my boxcar? Is he my interrogator? Wait a minute! They have moved me. I’m in a trolley bed in a dull grey room. I’m wired up with tubes and catheters. Tubes and ca ….. My hair was long. It is not long now. My head is heavily bandaged and there is blood on my pillow.
‘I’m Doctor Ramirez,’ says the man in the white coat. ‘You’ve been unconscious for seven days. At one point you stopped breathing. We were worried.’
I look around. The room is small and has no windows. There is a fluorescent strip light on the ceiling. The room is littered with vital signs equipment and smells of disinfectant. There is a chair by the side of the bed and a small table with a box of tissues and a Get Well Soon card on. Observation charts are clipped to the bottom of the bed.
‘You’re in Saint Gilbert’s Hospital,’ says the Doctor. ‘You lost a lot of blood, and we have been monitoring you round the clock and feeding you intravenously.’
I feel I ought to be asking some questions, but I feel very tired. Dr Ramirez acknowledges this and says he will call in later. I ought perhaps to take a look at the card to see who it is from and find out what my name is, but my attention span is short, and I drift off again.
The train is being unloaded now. A miscellany of pulleys and cranes, platforms and forklift trucks is being manoeuvred up the length of the train. Dozens of burly men in army fatigues scurry around. I watch from inside my boxcar. Anxious not to be discovered I close the vent a little. Several of the cars have been separated from the rest. Danger – Hazardous Waste, it says on the huge casks they carry. I recognise the symbol for Radioactive Substance. The operation looks very clandestine. I feel that I am not supposed to be witnessing it. It is Classified. Top Secret. My depot only handles domestic waste. I need to phone someone. I have no phone of course, but my head runs through the call anyway. ‘Hello. This is Shaun Flynn – of ReCyco Waste Management Services.’ I’ve remembered my name. Shaun Flynn!
I am back in the hospital room once more. I have a visitor. It takes my eyes a while to focus properly, but eventually, I recognise her. It is Charlotte. Charlotte? Cheryl. It is Cheryl. She has had her hair cut. Has she had her hair cut? It is short and light brown. She is smiling. Why is she smiling? One of her hands is bandaged, and the other arm is in a sling. I am at a loss of what to say. I am not sure that I can even speak. My bewilderment quickly registers with her.
‘You don’t remember anything do you?’ she says. ‘About what happened.’ Her words are gentle but echoey. There is a delay in them reaching me, as if they are coming from a great distance.
I try to form a reply.
‘We were on our way to the O2,’ she continues. ‘Do you remember?’
I shake my head.
‘To a benefit concert for that environmental cause that you are involved with. You had this idea that we should take the train. I thought it would be easier to drive to the gig, but you insisted. You have this thing about trains, don’t you?’
Every day after school when I was about six if I timed it right I could make it to the station a few hundred yards away to see a different Castle class engine pulling the 3:35 express. I am lost for a moment in this reverie. It is all coming back now. The summer sands at Salcombe, Linda’s lovely long legs in her sixth form skirt on the railway bank after school, The Stones in the Park, the trial for Charlton Athletic, the travels on the subcontinent in the late seventies, a trip or two down the aisle, then the wheels on the bus going round and round. And here I am, but how?
‘W-what happened?’ I ask Cheryl, aware now of my swathe of bandages, some of which still have dried blood on them. ‘Did the train crash?’
‘No, no, no! We did not get as far as the train, Shaun. There was a terrorist attack outside the station. A Yemeni suicide bomber. Islamic Jihadist. There were dozens of casualties. Fortunately, we were far enough away from the blast to escape the worst of it. You were a few feet ahead of me and you shielded me a little. I’ve just got a broken arm and a few bruises.’
‘Oh, I see.’ I do not feel like I have escaped the worst of it. I wonder when the Doctor will be round with the morphine again.
‘I didn’t even want to see Radiohead,’ she laughs. ‘All their songs are so miserable.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved