TRAIN by Chris Green
The 16:06 from Paddington is usually on time. I rely on its punctuality to catch my connecting train from Taunton to Bridgewater where I live. Although it does not go on the most direct route, this train runs at the right time for me. I do not like to work late on a Friday and I don’t want to spend a time travelling on crowded trains. After all, I have been up in town all week and feel I deserve a break. As a bonus, in summer this service gives me a chance to listen to the closing stages of Test Match Special on my iPhone.
The train is often nearly empty. Most people travelling from the capital catch later trains. But, after five thirty I find the trains are a nightmare, on any day of the week. Paddington station becomes like something out of a wartime evacuation blockbuster. Why would anyone put themselves through this day after day?
Had the 16:06 been on time, the seat next to me would probably be empty, perhaps for the entire trip, and I could relax and prepare for the weekend.
‘Is this seat taken?’ she asks. She is wearing an Afghan coat and her hair is braided.
I am tempted to say yes, but my better nature prevails. And she does have a nice smile, but this is as far as it goes. I am twice her age and I think we would have little in common. I mean. Afghan coat? In June? In 2019?
She spends several minutes depositing, arranging and rearranging a startling array of hand luggage. There are haversacks and rucksacks and tote bags of every colour. There are scarves and hats and even a potted plant. The tent alone needs its own seat. How did she carry it all? At least she doesn’t have a dog.
She takes off her coat and places it on top of the tent. She finally sits down. She is wearing a tangerine cheesecloth smock. My nasal passages are invaded by the powerful aroma of incense and patchouli. I try to ignore her by turning away to look out the window, but it becomes clear she wants to talk. I try turning up the volume of the cricket commentary, but she carries on chattering as if I am hanging on her every word. Eventually, I take my headphones out and look her way.
She explains that she has been camping out. She came up to London last weekend to go to a concert and stayed on.
‘Who did you go to see?’ I ask, out of politeness.
‘Blind Faith,’ she says, excitedly. ’They played a free concert in Hyde Park.’
‘Who?’ I say.
‘Blind Faith,’ she repeats. ‘You know, Eric Clapton. Steve Winwood.’
‘Oh,’ I say, while I turn this over in his mind. To say, have they reformed I feel would just prolong the conversation, but to the best of my recollection, the concert she is referring to took place, fifty years ago, in 1969. I think my parents went …. both of them ….. together.
‘I’m Luna,’ she says. ‘But you can call me Loon. Everybody does.’
Tempted to say, sounds about right, I resist. ‘Pleased to meet you, Loon,’ I offer instead.
‘You’re a Pisces, aren’t you?’ Luna says, looking me in the eye.
‘That’s right, Loon. I am as it happens. How did you know?’
‘You are imaginative, creative and kind.’
‘And compassionate and intuitive.’
‘That’s pretty good, isn’t it?’
‘But, you are lazy, weak-willed and pessimistic.’
‘Ah, I see. Not so good then.’
‘But you have Leo rising.’
‘Is that good? I knew a Leo when I was in the army but he wasn’t very good at rising.’
‘And the Moon in Scorpio.’
After a few false starts (what do those whistles and flags mean), the train finally sets off. I look at my watch. It is twenty to five. Even if the driver goes like Harry in the night, there’s no chance of catching the connection now. I have no idea what time the next one leaves Taunton. Perhaps there is one from Bristol instead. I am about to check on my iPhone, but Luna interrupts me.
‘Don’t be uptight,’ she says. ‘Be here now, man. Just go with the flow.’ These are expressions I remember my dad using, yet oddly he never seemed to practice them. Dad wanted to control everything. And you had to watch out if things didn’t go according to plan. This is why I moved out at eighteen. This was why Mum ran off with Didier, a Belgian gymnast.
As the train powers its way towards Reading, Luna talks about macrobiotics, Malcolm X and The Mothers Of Invention. She talks about International Times and Oz. Everything about her is retro, backdated. She does not seem connected to the modern world. It is as if she carries her own time bubble around with her which keeps her separate from the here and now of this railway carriage. She is either completely unaware of this or is acting a role. I begin to wonder if it is not perhaps an enormous hoax at my expense, a television spoof maybe. I try to spot the cameras. I do not see any.
Luna holds forth about cosmic evolutionary development, transcendental understanding and what she does to balance her chakras. I am not convinced I have chakras. Perhaps my parents had chakras. They were a bit far out. They seemed to go for all this Eastern mysticism. Guru this and Swami that. I narrowly avoided being taken to an ashram in Rishikesh one time by feigning yellow jaundice and was sent to stay with Aunt Trudi in Fife, while they buggered off to the subcontinent. They came back just the same, arguing at the slightest opportunity.
I try to divert the conversation on to more earthly matters. I am anxious to get back to the Test Match commentary. The match had reached a critical stage when I left it. Following another famous collapse, England were eight wickets down with twenty overs left, trying once more to save the game.
‘What good is all this …… esoteric wisdom?’ I say.
‘Wisdom is your third eye,’ she says. ‘And knowledge is your third arm.’
I do not think I want a third eye or third arm. They sound just plain ridiculous.
Luna is still away with the fairies. She begins to talk about the journey, but it is not the train journey she is referring to, it is life’s journey.
‘Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls,’ she says.
What a load of twaddle, I am thinking. She needs to work in the city for a couple of months. She would soon realise the universe doesn’t give a damn about you.
As we pull out of Reading, Luna says the train will soon sweep past the Westbury White Horse, a giant chalk horse carved into the landscape. It is meant to represent the Celtic horse goddess, Rhiannon. She explains about The Golden Bough, earth magic and ley lines.
‘Do you know they levitated the stones for Stonehenge from Wales along ley lines,’ she says.
‘I don’t believe in magic,’ I tell her. ‘It’s all done with mirrors.’
‘Watch this!’ she says, and with it, she vanishes. Her luggage disappears too. All of it. It is as if she never ………..
In fact, everything has changed. I find myself aboard a completely different train. The carriage is old. From the 1970s. It has ripped cloth seats, No Smoking signs and windows you can open. It is the type I remember from the trips to Torquay I was forced to go on as a teenager to please one or other of my parents. Twelve year-olds don’t build sandcastles, I would tell Mum. Or, no thank you dad, I’m too young to smoke dope. And why would I want to if it makes you listen to Emerson, Lake and Palmer?
To my astonishment, I discover I have a Mohican haircut, a studded leather jacket, ragged drainpipe jeans and an old khaki rucksack. How old would I be? About fifteen or sixteen? Despite the amazing transformation, I find my train of thought is still linear. I am still in the mindset of going home to Bridgewater for the weekend on a train that is a few minutes late which means I will probably miss my connecting train. I take a look at my watch. It is an old watch. A digital model with a silver strap. It says 17:25. I look out the window to assess the train’s progress. I know this journey like the back of my hand. We are halfway between Reading and Swindon. I do a quick calculation. This is consistent at this stage with the 16:06 being a few minutes late.
In the seat next to me is a girl in her late twenties wearing a charcoal office skirt suit and dark patterned tights. She has long black hair and cakey make-up. She reminds me a little of the actress, Megan Fox. She has kicked off her high heels. Perhaps she has been on her feet all day. At the perfume counter of a department store maybe. Or running up and down the corridors of an advertising agency. She is scrolling through some pictures of celebrities on her laptop. One of the celebrities is in fact none other than Megan Fox. The lookalike Megan Fox seems to be in her own world, protecting her space with an air of disinterest. She does not want a train conversation. When I look her way, she pulls her skirt down an inch or two and turns herself slightly to face the aisle. She is wised up to the ways of teenagers with strange haircuts, frenzied eyes and nasal jewellery.
I pick up the rucksack. It has some half recognised names of bands scribbled on it in felt-tip pen. The 4 Skins, The Slits, The Dead Kennedys. I find a silver Sony transistor radio in the front pocket. It seems oddly familiar. I switch it on. I fiddle around with the tuning dial and find a crackling cricket commentary. It doesn’t take long for me to realise I am now listening to a different match. One from a bygone era. This one has Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd batting. Ian Botham is bowling. This would make it England versus West Indies….. 1979? Megan looks around, disapprovingly.
I switch the radio off. I feel the sudden need to start a conversation with Megan. I have to find out what she feels might be going on. What is her take on this major lapse in logic and reason? Surely she is out of time in this 1970s railway carriage, the same as I am out of time. We both belong to 2019. The real world. Surely. Why are we so misplaced? Has Luna really had something to do with this ….. this shifting time? Sorcery? Magic? We are passing the Westbury White Horse. Should I tell Megan about the horse goddess, Rhiannon as an opener to show her I am not just a dissident punk? Not a spotty adolescent on an inappropriate train leering at her lovely long legs.
My youthful demeanour precludes much in the way of approaches to an attractive older woman. I cannot, for instance. say, ‘are you going all the way?’ This would be like saying, ‘are you up for it?’
‘I’m getting off at Swindon,’ she says, looking up from her laptop.
‘Oh,’ is all I can manage. Is she telepathic?
‘So. You will have the seat to yourself, all the way to Taunton.’
‘Do you really like those bands, by the way?’
‘The ones on your, what would you call it ….. rucksack?’
‘Well. I did. Once.’
‘But you’ve moved on.’
Given my appearance, I figure she is not going to believe me if I say I go to lunchtime concerts at St Martin in the Fields, listen mostly to chamber music and sing in the choir at St John the Baptist church. I settle for the less committal, ‘I guess so.’
‘I do like Nirvana,’ she says.
I cannot tell if she is winding me up. Is she aware of what is going on? Might she be in on it? Could this be a phenomenon that is more widespread? Something that’s happening all over? Like Mr Jones in the song Dad used to play, I certainly don’t know what it is.
‘Could you log on to some news sites,’ I say. ‘Huffington Post, …… BBC News, …… Google News. See if there’s anything there about temporal irregularities.’
Megan looks at a bit of a loss. These aren’t sites she visits often. She shrugs.
‘See if there’s anything trending on Twitter or Facebook perhaps.’
The train slows down. A hazy announcement comes over the loudspeaker, ‘the next station will be Swindon. Change here for ………..’
Megan starts to gather up her things and gets up to leave. ‘Look out for me in your dreams,’ she says, cryptically.
The train waits, the diesel engine idling. Being alone brings no clarity. It only serves to add to my confusion. My reason is so ravaged that my brain wants to shut down. A sinister tune plays in my head. Descending chords over and over as the sound of the diesel engine resonates. Change here for …… Change here …. Change. ….. Change. ….. Change. ….. Change. The lights go out. It is dark. The blinds are all drawn. Why are all the blinds drawn? Have I descended into …. Descended into? Descending chords. Over and over. Dark. Dark. Dark. Change here for. …..
When the lights come on I find that time has shifted once more. I am no longer a fifteen year old punk. I am a British soldier in uniform. Royal Welch Fusiliers. With service ribbons. Bosnia. Srebrenica. Battle honours. All the stuff you take home on leave neatly packed. The carriage too has been through a transformation. It is cleaner, shinier, newer, the seats no longer torn. I look around. I have no fellow passengers. The couple with the corgi have gone. The old lady who was reading the murder mystery has gone. The man with the silver euphonium has gone. The barber’s shop quartet with the red striped jackets have gone. The carriage is empty. I make my way to the end of the carriage and lean my head out of the window to see what is going on. The platform too is completely deserted.
I decide I must get out to investigate, but just at this moment, I feel the familiar shudder of rolling stock as the train starts to move. I look at my new watch. Five past six. This one is not digital. It is analogue with a vengeance. With its many dials, it tells you the time all around the world. I take a seat and look out the window. I could pull the communication cord, but I don’t want to do this, at least not yet. Maybe there’s no need to panic. I recognise the buildings as we pull out of Swindon. They are the ones I have become familiar with. Perhaps the train is still headed for Taunton, even if everything else about the journey is wrong. I must go with the flow and see what happens.
‘Tickets Please!’ calls out a voice.
A wizened old man in a black uniform with some shiny bits and badges shuffles along the aisle. He is short and thin with little round glasses. He looks like Gandhi.
I ask him if I am on the right train. If I can establish this, the fine details of my misadventures can be worked out later. Along with some rational explanations. At home. On the internet. On the phone. You can get to the bottom of most things retrospectively. The important thing right now is to get home.
‘Yes, sir. The train is going to Taunton,’ says Gandhi. ‘Unfortunately, we are fifty eight minutes late due to an alien spacecraft on the line at Wootton Bassett. It has gone now though, so we should be able to make up some of the time.’
‘Yes, sir. Just down the line at Wootton Bassett. Is that where you are from, sir?’
‘No. There’s an RAF base there, isn’t there?’
‘We get a lot of people for Wootton Bassett. It’s where they hold the funerals for the dead soldiers. But then you would know that wouldn’t you sir? Being in the army and all that.’
‘Yes. Yes, I suppose I would. Now. About this alien spacecraft.’
‘Yes, sir. We get a lot of those around here, too. Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge, Avebury, Warminster. They seem to like this part of the country.’
‘They probably navigate along the ley lines.’
‘Ley lines, sir?’
‘Ley lines apparently are mystical alignments which harness the earth’s magnetic fields. They work like a primitive GPS. Now tell me. Where did all the other passengers go?’
‘They all left the train at Swindon, sir.’
‘What’s going on at Swindon?’
‘Oh! Some TV cook is giving a talk there, I think, sir. I’d love to be able to stay and chat with you, sir, but I’ve got to get along the train. Could I see your ticket please?’
I search for his ticket, but I don’t seem to have one.
‘I realise you are in the army, sir, but travelling without a ticket is against the law and we cannot make exceptions. I’m going to have to charge you the full single fare plus a penalty which is the equivalent of the full single fare. That will be let me see. London to Taunton is it? Two hundred and eighty four pounds.’
I offer him a Visa card.
‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ he says. ‘In any case, it has expired.’
‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘But could you tell me what year it is?’
‘You can pretend to be stupid if you wish, sir,’ says Gandhi, ‘But it won’t wash with me. I can issue you with an Unpaid Fare Notice if you like. But you will still have to pay it. Army or no army.’
Isambard Kingdom Brunel always had a sense of drama. His Great Western Railway from Paddington to Penzance is full of surprises. I know as soon as we enter the two mile long Box tunnel that something is bound to happen. It does. The lights go out once more. We are in darkness. As we emerge from the tunnel, I catch a whiff of patchouli. Luna is back. Not only that, somehow we are back on the original train. I am back in my city suit. I have my iPhone in my hand. I am logged in to the cricket live text. The match is in the final over. England are nine wickets down and the tail-enders only have to survive three more balls to save the match.
I might be back in present time, but Luna is cutting into normality like static on the airwaves. She is the radio interference from a rogue FM station on a stormy night.
I look around the carriage. All the other passengers are reading their papers, playing with their tablets or talking on their phones. One or two are looking out the window as the 16:06 from Paddington crosses the River Avon on its way to Bath. Each one of them seems confident in the authenticity of their worlds. There appears to be consensus among them that this is 2019. Luna is the stranger at the party. She is stuck in a 1969 mindset. Forget the magic tricks for now, 1969 is clearly her reality.
She starts to tell me more about going with the flow.
‘Going with the flow isn’t about being passive or being lazy,’ she says. ‘It’s not aimless wandering. The flow you are going with is the ocean of cosmic intelligence. Going with the flow is about wakeful trust and ……..’
The train is coming into Bath now. I decide to get off here to take a cab the rest of the way. I have made a note not to catch the 16:06 from Paddington in future. It’s a bad choice. It takes far too long. Too much time travelling.
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved