None of these things work now. These things that said of themselves, ‘this is the future, here and now’, none of them work anymore. When I first started travelling on this train, commuting once a week, I’d watch the pensioners, all on their free travel passes, nervous about the electronic buttons which OPEN | CLOSE | LOCK the toilet doors. They’d press the buttons, hard. Some would forget to LOCK and be caught, stooped over the bowl, as the double doors opened, wide enough for a wheelchair to get through. Now the LED sign indicating the next stop falters and flashes, gets stuck at … CENTRAL … The line of bulbs that is meant to light on the map to show where we are, between Belfast and Dublin, is dark. And so I don’t trust the toilet doors any more than they once did. This electronic future, already worn out.
When I commuted for the first year it was all just right. The train was new and the journey was remaking me. Belfast for work, Dublin for weekends.
I revisited the city of my childhood, just as it began to imagine itself finally grown up, while for love, and life, and holidays, I went to the city of my lover, and she having just returned there, from England. I wasn’t quite sure exactly where I was living but everything was new and old at the same time, paralleled and connected by the journey. Then came the second year of being the urbane, detached commuter. I would be reading and reading, early morning and late evening, coming to know the pace of the journey, seeing the seaside towns between Dublin and Drogheda growing into each other. The sound of the track and the passing of the miles and the turning of the pages were all in time to the landscape’s steady change.
After two years, the weariness set in. The fabric on the seats, once reassuringly business-like, took on the feel of sandpaper. The conversations around me sounded louder and increasingly pointless. The inanity of mobile phone chatter – ‘I’m on the train’, ‘I’ll meet you at the station’, ‘I’ll be home at 9’. I began to fall asleep during the Friday evening journey back to Dublin, head against the cool glass. I would wake up, startled by my own jerking nod of half-sleep, staring into the darkening void, at dusk, near Newry, where the railway bridge, like in some thirties’ train movie, stretches improbably over a gorse-strewn valley. Then the morning train became a time of dry-lipped slumber, interrupted only by the braking stops. Opening my eyes, with blurred vision, to see the station sign for PORTADOWN, herald of a vista of wire and soiled concrete, and on the drop-down table in front of me my mobile phone, networked-switched, proudly announcing itself, with no irony, as ORANGE-UK.
Today I’m travelling this track again, but in a leisurely way. A bit of work, ‘research’ as it’s called, in Belfast, and then back to my now full-time home in Dublin. This train has always had a particular Friday-evening character. Groups of women, of various ages, dressed sparkingly, drinking gingerly, talking more loudly the further away from Belfast they move. Released from the drag of the everyday, they glide towards ‘shows’ in Dublin – musicals and boybands. On some weekends there are international rugby fans, sometimes international rugby players, surprisingly not in first class. And there are sporty boys with low-slung, ugly GAA bags, the shapes of boots and shin pads stretching the fabric.
Usually I go for the privacy of sitting where the double seats are in rows facing in the same direction. Each pair of seats has to fill up with single travellers or with determined couples before anyone will sit beside you.
I always travel with my back to Dublin, letting Belfast fade away in front of me. That makes it even less likely that I will have anyone next to me. Most people, instinctively, hopefully, travel facing forwards. But on this Friday
I have chosen to sit at a table with two double seats facing each other. I want to spread out.
As the train moves off a woman in her mid-sixties sits opposite me, sharing my table. She takes the aisle seat, so that we are at a respectful diagonal. We exchange ‘hellos’ of reassurance, and I go to my book, an intense Hungarian novel, all dialogue and a plot which is the fulfilment of a lifelong recrimination. It lasts me, at one reading breath, until well after Lisburn. Then I catch on the thorn of a sentence, a thing said by a character, which is too much for me, too close to my own intimacies, and I look up to watch the regular fields of mid-Down begin to change to the soaked land around Lurgan. She is reading a magazine. One that is scandal-ridden and astonished at the lifestyles of celebrities. Here are golfers, TV presenters, has-beens. The photo-shoots circulate around some man perched on the edge of a sofa with an arm around a wife. There are pastel v-neck jumpers and rooms which have gold and glass in the furniture.
We have made eye contact.
‘It’s a great train, all the same,’ she says.
‘Yes, it is.’ And not wanting to leave it at that, since she has offered this, I add; ‘It’s very quick.’
‘Two hours. Just two hours. Do you know I never was in Dublin in my life until last year? Well, except for my honeymoon. My daughter just moved there. I’m going to see her now.’
‘She has lovely children. Two girls. Lovely children.’
‘And will you stay for the weekend?’
‘Oh yes. I’d stay and never come back if I could.’ This is said with awful firmness. ‘I would leave Northern Ireland behind once and for all if I could.’ She closes the magazine and lays it face up on the table. She puts her hand on it, covering the eyes, but leaving exposed the laconic smile, of the Crown Prince of Denmark. ‘But you can’t leave things just like that, can you?’
‘No. You can’t.’ And I add the nothingness of ‘you can’t leave places behind when you’ve lived your life there.’
‘Do you live in Dublin?’ There is joyous envy in her voice. She is still carried on the force of that wish to find a new life beside her daughter and grandchildren.
‘Yes. I’ve been there a few years now. I used to work in Belfast and live in Dublin. I was never off this train.’
‘And now you live in Dublin … Are you married?’
‘Yes, I am. That’s why I had to get a job in Dublin. Commuting’s no life.’ She is looking at the Crown Prince’s perfect teeth.
A pause. It’s my turn. She’s wishing there was no silence. I’d like to go back to the story in Hungary – the two friends, long estranged, now old men, are about to meet for the first time in decades. Her fingers are moving slowly over the magazine cover. The palm of her hand stays still. The fingers draw upwards, the tips becoming perpendicular. I have to add something more.
‘Is your husband …’ The banality of what I was going to say was ‘staying at home’, but then the words began to change as I said them, so that I was on the verge of saying ‘dead’. But I couldn’t say that. She ends the sentence for me. ‘Divorced. We got divorced. We should never have married.’
There is wet land outside. The fields are flat. In this little plain between the drumlins the track runs alongside a straightened river. Maybe it’s a canal. I’m almost sure it’s a canal. People walk their dogs on the path alongside the water. Except, that is, after heavy rain, because then the waterway swarms out and over the fields, and hawthorn trees are marooned in still, temporary ponds, deep green with the submerged grass waving slowly under the surface.
She looks straight at me. ‘Can I tell you?’
Yes, she can tell me.
‘I married young. We all did in those days. I trained to be a typist and I was going to be a secretary. I liked typing. And shorthand, that was what I really loved. It was the happiest time of my life, in that college, with all the other girls. We were all so young and fresh and glamorous. I met him one night at a dance. The girls thought that every man who asked you to dance was going to be your husband. They said, “You’ll know he’s the one.” And then when you came back over to them from the dancing they’d say, “Is he the one?” I didn’t know if he was when I danced with him but he was very nice. He had dark hair, he was tall, nicely dressed. We all wanted a man with dark hair. He was quiet too, but that was fine. I wouldn’t have known then what to talk about with a man.
‘We went to dances for a few months. I got a job in a solicitor’s office. I’d go into work every day, and it was like I was in a film. When he asked me to marry him I just said “yes”. I didn’t even think of saying “no”, or “maybe”, or whatever else you could say. Just “yes”. Then he hardly mentioned getting married again after that. But that seemed natural too. It was left to the women, to my mother and his mother, to arrange it all.
‘So we got married. We had our honeymoon in Dublin. In the North Star Hotel. It’s just across the road from the train station. Four nights in that hotel and each night I’d go to sleep after listening to the last train leave for Belfast, and wake up hearing the milk train arrive early in the morning.
‘We had a little house in North Belfast. It was quiet. Life was quiet. I gave up work and in those days, when you married, you stopped going to dances. That was just the way it was.
‘So we started to have little parties in the house on Fridays. On this particular night I had a few drinks and went to bed. I left them all downstairs drinking and playing cards. And the next thing it was morning. The sun was lighting up the pattern on the curtains. I opened my eyes, that morning after the party and there was my husband, beside me, and beside him another man. Blondie I always call him. And the two of them, thinking I was asleep, they started touching each other. I feigned sleep. If I’d got out of the bed then Blondie would have seen me in God’s finery.
‘I didn’t really know what was going on. I knew it was wrong. Wrong for a married man to be doing such things, you understand. After they were finished he gave Blondie money. I just lay there with my eyes closed until they’d gone. That was the last night I ever slept in a bed with my husband.’
It is darkening outside. We both look out the window, eastwards – the mountains in the distance, and beyond them the sea, leaching light from the undersides of the clouds.
‘So you got divorced?’
‘No, no. The divorce was only a few years ago. We lived together. Separate rooms. I visited his a few times. We endured each other because I wanted to have children. I needed something that was mine.’
The scrubby valleys are dusk grey and dark blue. House lights and street lights are becoming distinct. The window reflects the carriage back into itself and I can see that she is looking at me, so I turn back to her.
‘Did you have good friends?’
‘I couldn’t have talked to my friends about that kind of thing. I was brought up very strict. I was Presbyterian, you know?’
I’m about to tell her that, yes, I know. But she doesn’t need me to.
‘I went to the Minister of our church. I couldn’t find a word for it. I thought he might know what it was, that he might have some way to say it, but he never gifted me it. I just told him what had happened. About Blondie and the money. He looked at me like he was going to say something, then had me kneel down with him and say a prayer. Together we asked God for forgiveness. Then he stood up and said he was going to get his wife. I sat there and waited. They had one of those square mantelpiece clocks that people got then for wedding presents. Two holes on the face for winding it and a tick that would go through you. The room smelt of shortbread and books.
‘In his wife came, and, do you know, she sat down and explained to me the facts of life. Youngster that I was, I was angry enough to give her cheek. I said to her, “That sounds great, I must try it some time.” She cried. And I cried too. Her husband came back into the room when he heard the noise. He stood there looking at the two of us crying on the sofa. “What will I do?” I said to him. “What will I do?” “You’ll live your life like a fetch,” he said. That was all. I left him and I never went back to his church. Like a fetch.
I rang my mother later to ask what it meant. I told her I’d overheard someone sitting behind me on the bus say it. She said she hadn’t heard it for years. A country expression. “It means you’ll be your own ghost.”.’
Soon we’ll cross the border. After that the land will flatten out. The hedges and undulations of farmland will only just shield us from the sea, then this coyness will give way and we’ll be alongside the coast, and the lights of the city will grow stronger, and the apartments, keeping their promises of privacy and of lives ready to be led, will turn their backs to the train.
Previously featured in Edinburgh Review 134
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