I’m on a train from Birmingham in the UK Liverpool. It’s an overcast Tuesday afternoon and so far I’ve not read anything in the magazine that I brought along for the journey. The passing English countryside has somehow hypnotized me as I look out of the window paying. It’s a typically cloudy day hiding the fact that beyond that blanket of white there’s a summer going on. Every so often a shaft of light breaks through and makes landfall on fields where grazing cows don’t notice or appear to care.
Train windows are great. Life is going on out there. Just the usual minute-to-minute stuff. It's all going on out there like it is in here. Life, it's everywhere, and sometimes I think we can forget that. I look around the train and see a heavily made-up young Mom hitting on a guy who looks like a University student. He wants to read his copy of NME (New Musical Express) and all she wants to do is flirt for attention. He doesn’t seem interested and keeps glancing at his magazine while she talks to him as her kid sleeps next to her.
Opposite me, a woman scribbles madly in a tiny notebook. What is she writing? She looks worried and a little restless. She keeps trying to call someone on her mobile phone. He's not there though. I assume it's a ‘he,’ but then it might be a ‘she’ I suppose. I don't know I can't hear. On the seat behind us, a man sits there dressed in a suit with a briefcase next to him. He is staring at the woman opposite me from across the aisle. He's not really looking at her, he's just staring in her direction in an unfocused way. He probably started by looking at her, doing that male thing "Would I? Wouldn't I?" But the rhythm and the warmth of the train has sent him off on a hypnotic tangent.
We’ve slowed, and the conductor mumbles something over the speakers about people not forgetting their luggage if this is where they disembark. The train stops and the people standing with their bags in the aisle shuffle toward the doors as others board the train with their bags and tickets in hand. A woman and her friend have gotten on and they’re looking at my seat number. They think I am sitting in their reserved seat. Maybe I am. They don't ask me to move though, they're British, that would be most un-British of them. Instead, they find alternative seating a couple of rows away.
A new man sits opposite the NME reading student who has finally been granted the peace he had hoped to find. The new man is probably about 27 or so, but his big bushy beard makes him look a little eccentric. It’s a statement for sure. He’s probably noted among his friends for that beard and those who know him in passing probably call him “that young guy with the big beard.”
The train moves off, the bustle settles and the rhythm starts again. Here comes the ticket inspector.
"Tickets from Crewe. Any tickets from Crewe?” People pass their tickets and he clips them with a glance and no smile. Did he actually want to spend his days clipping tickets on a train to Liverpool? Maybe, I mean it’s not a challenging job, but it’s not a bad job. Would I want to be a ticket inspector? I've never really thought about it, but now that I am, I don’t think it's so bad. It beats life in a cubicle surely?
Eccentric man has a copy of The Independent newspaper. He doesn’t read it, or his book on 'The Works of Rossetti.' Instead, he is sitting there gazing out of the window stroking his beard as the world outside races by at 125 miles per hour. A mobile phone rings annoyingly loud and nearly everybody looks up. Its owner fumbles to liberate it from his coat in the overhead luggage. He finds it, but not before the caller has hung up. It’s a distraction as the train starts to slow down.
We’re in Hartford. It looks like a nice place. No one on the train has moved though apart from an old lady who gets off the train here. She looks like a Grandma, without the Grandma smile though. Grandmas mostly smile around their grandchildren, but Hartford looks like a sleepy little place. Nobody is on the platform, I don’t think the old lady’s grandchildren live here.
The train moves on.
Why do we always stop at Hartford? The ticket man won't bother making his rounds here. He probably doesn't understand why we stop there either, but he's not paid to make those decisions.
The staring businessman has gone now. He must have gotten off unnoticed at Crewe. Lots of people come and go through Crewe. In his place, a slightly balding man dressed casually sits reading a copy of ‘The Sun’ - Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper. I know that because it says so on the front page. Page three is adorned by a full-size picture of yet another 18-year-old beauty baring her breasts in the hope that what God gave her will bring her all of what he didn't. Everyone who knows her will be talking about her today, and all the guys she knows will buy the paper. Her Dad will remember her first steps, then tomorrow another beautiful dreamer will show everyone who reads the sun what the sun rarely sees. It’s ironic I suppose.
The train pulls into Runcorn. This is the last stop before Liverpool.
Eccentric man is coughing. It's an eccentric cough which he tries to muffle. No one notices either his attempts to muffle the cough, or even the coughing itself. The train moves on.
Outside the countryside has faded into housing and industry. We pass factories and large nondescript warehouse buildings. There’s a scrap yard full of rusting old cars. I imagine a fading calendar on the wall of the scrap yard office picturing a page three model with her hands in her hair as men walk past her without paying any attention to her breasts, or her dreams.
People start to stand up all around me wrestling their luggage from the overhead luggage bays in preparation for the last stop, Liverpool, Lime Street station. No one is talking, just the odd apology for knocking into one another. I’m not standing up yet, I’ve never seen the point in readying myself to exit the train at this early stage. Liverpool is the final stop so there is no hurry to disembark, no need for the usual mad rush to get you and all your bags out of the train before it speeds off with you cursing in the aisle, under your breath though, this is England after all.
The train always goes slow along this stretch of line. In the distance, I can now see the recognizable skyline of Liverpool city centre. Not much of a city though, more like an overweight town bursting over the straining belt around its waist. Old and rusty trains are strewn all over the many different lines that converge here. I wonder whether they are ever used?
Passenger coaches with smashed windows and graffitied sides lay dormant on some track that has not been used in years. Small trees have grown in between the rails. The trains look sad and neglected. Too old for service and not interesting enough for a museum. We go under a bridge and descend into a kind of open tunnel.
Overhead a battered almost derelict church stands with its windows bricked and boarded up. This part of Liverpool is so undesirable it's barely worth knocking the church down and selling the plot. Instead, time will level this building to the ground. In a twist of irony, this 'house of God' probably sees more homeless people and drug addicts come through its doors than it ever did when there was a congregation, an organ, and a priest.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we will shortly be arriving at Liverpool Lime Street where this train will terminate. Please remember to take all your luggage with you when you exit the train. We hope you had a pleasant journey and will travel again soon with Virgin Railways. Next stop Liverpool Lime Street, all change please."
A line has already formed by the door as the train moves slowly to the platform. With one final shudder, the train comes to a halt. The doors open and a mass exodus of the Virgin Express begins. People wearing suits look frowningly at their watches as they scurry through the crowds. One man barely steps onto the platform before he lights up a cigarette for the sweet and acceptable taste of addiction. A lone mother tries to calm three small and excitable children who ignore her attempts and run off ahead of her. No time to waste, she picks up her many bags and hurries after them.
I'm in no rush as I gather my things and step out onto the bustling platform. I let hurrying people pass me on their ways to wherever. Over the loudspeaker, the announcer hails the news of our on-time arrival.