The rain is lashing down. Drops dot and dash against the windows, while some run sideways as the train speeds on. On and on, hurtling forward.
Through the speckled window I can see dark, heavy clouds. Greyness fills the sky, while the green fields below, light and dark, hills, rivers and trees patiently bow their soaked heads.
The skies darken still, as day is overtaken by evening.
The journey wears on – snatches of conversations, some lively and some hushed, carry above the tops of seats. Passengers entrust complete strangers with their humanity, willingly or unwittingly.
Stories of a daughter, son, sister, brother, mother, father, grandpa or ma; favourite food, what to eat, nothing to eat, cherished holiday memories, excited holiday plans; an ill relative, a new-born relative, exam panic, a wedding, something about a dog.
As night envelopes, the train becomes a refuge from the darkness outside – hands outstretched, clutching and tapping at the windows. But it can’t get in. Voices are lowered, while the train’s somnolent hum seems louder…and slumber overtakes. Fitful, and never too deep to drown out the rhythm, but enough to make you wonder where you are when you wake up.
Everyone remembers at least one train-journey from a past story they have read. Perhaps, like me, it comes back to you whenever you’re on a long trip. It may be from Sherlock Holmes; Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, or perhaps one from the Hogwart’s Express.
For me it is the description of a train-journey from a little-known book I read as a child. The book was called The Midnight Ghost; it had evocative illustrations and a riddle to solve on every page. As the story began, two children embarked on what seemed like an event-free, frivolous journey to visit an old relative in a remote village called Middlenight-On-Sea. They started off listening to their “walkmans”, buying snacks from the food-bar, and playing cards. The little detailed images showed the carriage full of other passengers, minding their own business, reading and chatting in good humour. The children bided their time by reading comics…
As the journey wore on, on their snacks ran out and the food bar closed. Some of the seats around them were now empty, a few elderly folk had drifted to sleep. Then the children themselves fell asleep, and dreamt of strange things featuring bits and pieces from their journey and imaginings of the place they were travelling to.
They finally reached their destination – the illustration showed an empty carriage; no longer safety in numbers, the sister and her younger brother were the only remaining passengers. Instead of the bright blue sky and sunshine streaming through the train windows in the earlier images, you now saw the children peering out into an inky blackness – nothing to welcome them but a plain white sign on the platform, with ‘Middlenight-on-Sea’ written in old-fashioned font. They stumbled out of the train to the sound of the wind and the sea.
I remember returning often to those pages in the book – the way the light-heartedness of the first part of the journey altered into something unsettling perfectly set up the rest of the story. It gave me the idea that a long train journey is not only one through space and time, but is in fact some kind of portal into other dimensions. The journey itself is altering: it transforms – either you, the passenger, or what exists outside. So that when you step out, you have passed through veils separating alternative worlds.
Many a rail-route has given me this feeling, particularly those in Wales and Scotland, where the train winds around steep hills and passes by mist-covered peaks. Norway too reminds me of atmospheric train journeys where snug, wood-pannelled compartments inside shut out the snow and impenetrable darkness outside.
I went on an unforgettable train journey in Syria many years ago, long long before the conflict began. Back then, a few intrepid tourists might have ventured to Syria, but there were not many of us… I had heard the views on the south-north railway were unparalleled – it was no exaggeration. The journey took me from Damascus to a town near to Latakia north of the country. It was winter (Syria is freezing in that time), the trains were really old with no heating, and it was so cold your breath came out as icy smoke. I remember being chilled to the bone as I hugged myself and covered up with scarf, gloves and hood. But the views of those cascading evergreen valleys right beneath my window, and getting the chance to see the unsullied nature of a country that is sadly now ravaged by war, remains one of my most cherished experiences.
I have also heard of perilous but unforgettable journeys in Bangladesh, from Dhaka to the Chittagong hill-tracks, in trains that still use those old, traditional compartments. I remember the time when they were common in the UK – lots of nostalgia, until I remember those not-so-safe slam-doors which I dreaded back then.
The vehicle of transportation is the lynch-pin in many a great story. The aforementioned Harry Potter stories relies on the Hogwarts Express to transport its pupils and the readers from the muggle world to the wizarding world. The ship through stormy waters offers arguably the most hazardous of deliveries to other worlds. And where the protagonists must do without such transportation, as is largely the case in the Lord of the Rings, there are “black holes” or enchanted lands that they venture through. Each time – whether it’s Tom Bombadil’s house, the Misty Mountains, Lothlorien or Cirith Ungol – the characters pass through and reemerge into another, more dangerous, world. Though we know it still to be Middle-earth, it becomes progressively darker…older in fact. Even though the story takes us forward in time, the further the characters travel through Middle-earth away from the Shire, the further back in time they seem to go. Memories are longer, tales more ancient, and creatures so old their beginnings are forgotten.
But for all these other transformative devices, there is something about the train – the constant jolt, rattle and drum-beat from the tracks; passing through endless, changing countryside; the silent company of your own thoughts; and the rustic station names – that evokes a unique spirit of adventure, solitude and discovery.
Are there any memorable train journeys you have been on? And do you have any favourite stories with train journeys in them? Would love to hear about it.