by Nicola Sayers
Clickety clack, clickety clack. All aboard the twilight train, a Scottish man with a deep voice announces over the sound of a train heading off into the night. This story is the only one on the Moshi app that I can happily listen to over and over as I wait for my kids to fall asleep. I lie on the floor of their bedroom and think of Before Sunrise, a movie that takes place mostly in Vienna but whose defining image is of the opening, the eroticism of the young couple’s meeting on the train; I think of the sweeping, freighted snowy train journey of Dr Zhivago; I think of Anna Karenina, standing defiantly on the train platform, and of her eventual death. I think, too, of the apartment in Chicago that I so miss, of the view, and the sound, of the L-train clattering loudly past the window at five minute intervals. And I think of a train journey I once took across Europe.
That they would use the sound of a train for a children’s bedtime story is unsurprising. It is repetitive, soporific. But to me, lying there, it is enlivening, as though I might myself just hop on board the twilight train and be transported right on out of here: away from this room, this moment, this world.
It was the end of the Christmas holidays a few years ago, and I was due to fly back from Stockholm to London, a flight I have taken dozens of times. The familiarity of this particular journey usually alleviates the mild fear of flying I sometimes suffer. Waiting at the gate I felt completely relaxed, and I boarded happily. But after boarding and sitting down in my seat for a few minutes I was hit, for whatever reason, by a paralysing fear. This was not something that I could breathe through; I had to get off the plane. So I sheepishly exited back down the jetway, watched by many curious eyes as I took refuge behind my escort, the flight attendant, like a celebrity might behind their bodyguard, or a criminal behind their captor. Cast back into the waiting area and left to my own devices, I uploaded a series of badly designed apps and began to plot an alternative route home from Arlanda airport to Oxford, England.
The story of my two day journey home across Europe is, I confess, an uneventful one. If it has anything to offer it is simply in the account of the minutes and hours that make up such a journey, and of the very particular ways in which travelling long distances by train today alters your sense of space and time.
It is already dark when the train and I leave Stockholm behind at around three pm. The big stars and triangular candlesticks with which Swedes almost uniformly adorn their windows at Christmastime break the monotony of the night, turning a dark which might otherwise be unsettling into something cozy, inviting. The snow sits heavily on the roofs, something out of a fairytale.
My phone is low on batteries and I don’t know when I will next be able to charge it, so I put it away. Instead, I look out. I see the family eating dinner at their kitchen table, the old man shovelling snow in his garden. Like the angel in Wings of Desire, I am a voyeur, now: peeping into other people’s lives, moving through other people’s places. The angel in that movie stands on top of buildings, or below in underground tunnels, moving up and down the city that he no longer belongs to: a birds eye view of the lives of which he cannot be part. I once wrote about that angel, about how his movement up and down the city signals historical depth, the many layers of the eras passed and lives lived in that very spot. By contrast, I move horizontally through the many lives that I will never know: the train and I leave only wind in our wake, like a ghost who has shot through the room.
There is something unsatisfactory about this. The tantalising glimpse into other lives that are lost from view too quickly, as though someone flicks impatiently through the TV channels. I am left with only the surface where I long to go deeper, to eat dinner with every family, to listen in to every conversation. But what it does give, as the hours roll on, is a sense of sheer scale: not of yards or metres, but of human life. Another window to another home in which another family has built another life. Each with their stories to tell. I am reminded of the speech given at a big dinner by the hopeless yet amiable — and in the end surprisingly thoughtful — uncle Gustav in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Let us take pleasure in our little world, he exhorts his family. It is sometimes all that there is. And yet how many little worlds there are, I think.
By the time the train rolls into Malmö after seven hours (a mere beginning to my journey), I welcome the more familiar bustle of city life. There is yet more to see here. How would it feel to be the teenage boy at the station, huddling close to his punkey girlfriend, both underdressed for the cold? Who is it that sleeps in the unlit rooms of the tall apartment building, what weights do they carry from the day? I sometimes think that this is what unites those of us with a desire to write fiction, a desire to live all of the lives. We are not content with the maxim to live your own life fully: we want to live all of the lives, think all of the thoughts, feel all of the feelings. It’s a kind of greediness, really.
If you have ever taken a train over a long distance, not for the experience itself but because you actually have to get somewhere, something becomes soon apparent: trains are slow. They stop at random points for random stretches of time, and one is seldom told why. In other moments they seem to halve their speed, to slow down to a near crawl; again, one is told nothing. Even when they run smoothly (which is seldom) to get from A to B along the fixed track ahead of you takes time, and it is time that can’t be cheated. If in a plane one bypasses altogether the relationship between time and distance, as though the other side of the world really is just a blip away, then in a car one at least has the impression, erroneous though it may be, that there are things that you can do: take a different route; get up early to beat the traffic; defy the speed limit. In a train there is not even the illusion of control.
But it is exactly this altered sense of time that, as my journey wears on, starts to feel like an unexpected gift. Trains are the kind of slow that rubs awkwardly against the sense of urgency that typically defines our minutes and hours. Counter to the bright screens and constant stimulation that have seized contemporary time, trains seem to belong to a shadow world that lurks in the cracks of modernity; a world where time is slow and dreams are plenty.
This is laden with a kind of pathos given that train travel was once a symbol of modernity — the steam engine! Connectedness! Industry! Trains, today, are vehicles both of nostalgia and of promise; both the memory of the promise they once held, and the promise of a world that is, ironically, less ‘on track’ than our one.
In Copenhagen I have to leave the comfort that the enclosed trains offer. It is around two in the morning now, and the only way to cover the next stretch is by a night bus. I exit the station and walk along a street, into the dark and away from the people. This doesn’t feel right, but it is what the app tells me to do, so I obey, trusting in its logic with the kind of blind faith that is reserved for those who can’t stomach the alternative.
As I stand at the corner that the app and I have agreed on, not a person in sight, I am struck by the irony that this is leagues more dangerous than the flight that I couldn’t bring myself to board. I am struck, too, by how far I have stepped away from my life. I am supposed to be back in Oxford already, tucked up in bed with my boyfriend, sleeping before my PhD supervision tomorrow morning. But instead I am here, on an empty street in Copenhagen at two in the morning, alone. In only the twelve hours or so since I deboarded my flight, I feel like a different person: someone closer to the teenager who once went interrailing around Europe than to the adult with responsibilities that act as guideposts for how each day should be spent.
After what feels like a long time but is probably only twenty minutes or so, the bus does show up: a moment of grace. It really is its own world, this network of busses and trains and lorries that keep going, adhering to their schedules, while the rest of us sleep.
It is only on the train from Hamburg to Amsterdam that I have my first conversation with a fellow passenger. Until now, my consciousness has drifted outside; the inside of the changing compartments that have housed me have remained at a strange distance.
The relationship to one’s fellow passengers in a train carriage is at once intimate and apart. Brought together in this shared public space you come, in a sense, to ‘know’ your fellow journeymen: the particular sound of their cough, the way they turn a book page. Unlike in a plane, where the collective gaze is directed forwards, in a train you look at one another, facing in towards what is for a brief period your shared living space. You stand and move around it with a kind of ease, like a person of leisure might around their living room. If a police officer were to ask you, after the event, to identify the man who sat three rows ahead of you, chances are pretty good that you’d be able to. And yet, you are granted more solitude, strangely, than in an aeroplane. You are not thrust quite as closely together with the other occupiers of the space, your shoulders somewhat less likely to brush against theirs. There is less of the fear-driven camaraderie than can sometimes arise on a plane journey; no one claps when you reach your destination. And you are less likely, in my experience, to strike up a conversation with your neighbours; less likely to have conversation struck up with you.
So I am somewhat surprised, drawing in to Amsterdam, when the woman opposite me begins a conversation. She is only, I think, five or so years older than me, which makes it even more surprising: I am used to being approached either by older people or by men, but seldom by women my own age. But I like her. She notices the book I am reading, she is a teacher, a German who lives in Amsterdam. We share the same birthday (I do not know how we arrive at that, only that we quickly do). We could be friends, I think, although we will never see one another again.
Stepping off the Oxford Tube, my final leg, I crumple, tearful, relieved, into my boyfriend’s arms. I am physically exhausted. Emotionally, too; the exertion of being alert for so many consecutive hours. But as he drives me home I look out of the car, at the passing lit-up windows that have sustained me over the last days, and I feel sad to be leaving them behind. I know that by tomorrow morning my life will have resumed its usual rhythm, that these days and nights will seem already like a distant memory.