Changing Trains (2007)

‘ 

I

 

Another same-old, 07.25, Hampstead-grey morning . . .

Sarah regarded the plate sliding towards her. She rolled her eyes: ‘Mum, I said NO THANKS.’

Suddenly sentient, her father looked up from his newspaper and started to help himself to the rejected scrambled eggs. His wife wrenched the plate away from him: ‘Gary! She’ll be hungry by the time she gets to work!’

‘Mum, I’ll be vomiting by the time I get to work if I eat that. I told you, I can’t face greasy food this early.’ She pushed her plate towards her father, wandered over and pulled open the refrigerator.

Her mother ambled after her, lowering her voice to stage whisper: ‘You used to like a warm breakfast. You’re not late are you?’

Sarah grabbed a low-fat bio-yoghurt. ‘I’m on the pill, for God’s sake!’

‘Yes, and so was your cousin Gracie!’ Sarah’s mother glanced at her husband and resumed the stage whisper: ‘I don’t like that Wills person. I know he’s a nice-looking boy but he always looks like he’s up to no good . . . your dad agrees.’ She glanced again at her husband but he was oblivious to his involvement in the conversation.

Sarah banged the refrigerator door shut. ‘Mum, it’s not serious. He’s just Joe’s friend. Carrie’s trying to set us up for romance, but as soon as her bloody wedding’s over I’ll probably dump him.’

Her mother looked offended: ‘What just like that?’

‘Yes, just like that! And what do you care anyway . . . you don’t like him, remember?’ Sarah sat down and ripped open the pot of yogurt. Same old same-old.

‘I just don’t like to think of young people getting hurt,’ said her mother.

‘OK, then, I’ll carry on going out with him forever.’ She noticed her father gaping at her over the headlines: ‘What, dad?’

‘Wills and his brother have got Arsenal season tickets. He said he’d take me to a match.’

‘Well in that case, I’d better marry him.’

Sarah’s mother bristled: ‘Sarah, don’t you dare let me hear you talking about getting married before you’ve finished your training.’

Sarah mustered a fatigued look and ate her yogurt, pausing between spoonfuls to reflect upon her future currently mapped out in retail, her life as a Sales Associate at Harrods. She had taken that post straight after returning from her gap year in South America. And that straight after her obligatory three years at University. First make your parents proud, then see the world. The trouble with making your parents proud is that it invites a never-ending sacrifice. Returning home had been an anticlimax of gargantuan proportions. No way. She was going to earn enough money and then she’d be off again.

She stopped eating and smelled the contents of the yogurt pot, picked up the foil lid and re-read the sell-by-date. Perhaps Wills would consider coming too. He said he’d really like to travel. Perhaps she’d mention it that evening. She pushed the yogurt to one side and sighed: ‘God, I can’t face another journey into work with Carrie talking non-stop about her God-awful wedding. The thought of it’s making me feel sick.’

Her father folder his newspaper onto the table, walked over and cut a slab of bread. ‘We got the Olympics, then,’ he said to the toaster. ‘There’ll be some changes around here when that lot start to arrive.’

II

The same North-London morning, 2.15 miles away . . .

‘Carrie, what if Jamie gets an asthma attack when he’s going down the aisle?’

‘He won’t!’

‘Well, what if I drop the flowers?’

Carrie looked at her sister’s fraught expression. ‘Susie, we’ll tie them round your wrist with some ribbon. Stop worrying about it. You’ll hold my train with one hand and the flowers will be tied to your other hand so you can’t drop them.’

‘Will you tie Carly’s flowers too?’

‘I’ll mention it to Auntie Val,’ said Carrie, attempting reassurance whilst briefly panicking about her brother’s unreliable asthma and her small sister’s reliable clumsiness. ‘Nothing’s going to go wrong!’

But as so often happens fate decided to punish such confidence and, as Carrie lifted her toast, a blob of blackcurrant jam plummeted onto the front of her blouse.

‘Oh shit!’ She snatched up a tea towel: ‘Mum, help!’

Her mother came to her rescue with a wet cloth.

Ignoring her sister’s distress, Susie manoeuvred her cornflakes into a cheek pouch and spoke like a half-hamster: ‘Why’s it called a train? Is it because you’re like an engine pulling us all along?’

Carrie looked up. ‘I’m not supposed to pull you! You have to keep up with me.’ She frowned at her mother’s attempts at jam removal. ‘Fuck, mum, it’s going to stain! Blackcurrant always stains, doesn’t it?’

Her mother stopped rubbing. ‘Probably. You know you’ll be the most foul-mouthed bride ever. Take it off and I’ll wash it straight away.’ She glanced at the clock. ‘Where’s Jamie, he’ll be late for school. He came to bed at some ridiculous time last night. You’re going to have to train him to get more sleep if you want him to give you away without bags under his eyes.’

‘He’s already got bags under his eyes,’ observed Susie. ‘Why’s it called a train, mum?’

‘I don’t know, dear. Go and see if your brother’s up.’

‘I’m here,’ said Jamie striding into the kitchen, dressed and ready. He noticed Carrie dabbing her blouse. ‘You been dribbling again?’ He grinned: ‘Drooling about your wedding night?’

His mother turned and snapped at him. ‘Don’t you be so rude, Jamie! Carrie, go get changed!’

Carrie hurried into the hallway, unbuttoning, pausing briefly to poke her brother: ‘For your information, freak, me and Joe got all our dribbling sorted years ago.’

‘Dad would have disapproved of that,’ Jamie called after her.

‘Not as far as I can remember,’ mumbled his mother, getting to the bottom of the stairs just in time to catch her daughter’s discarded blouse.

III

Elsewhere . . .

Will Stacey’s gaze strayed from the backs of terraced houses to the dirty Buddliea, to the concrete and corroded metal fence then back to the large red, white and navy blue sign that announced “Ealing Common” to all those souls unfortunate enough to be alighting onto the northbound platform of this particular outpost of the Ealing Branch of the District Line. He watched his friend turn off his mobile and smirk back at him.

‘You’re disgusting, Joe. If Carrie finds out you’ll be properly fucked.’

‘Wills, matey, I was properly fucked.’ He laughed. ‘Don’t let it worry you . . .’

‘It doesn’t worry me!’

‘It’s just closure. I’m about to be a married man. I don’t want to leave any unfinished business.’

‘So, it’s all going to change when you walk down the aisle, is it?’

‘Mostly. Carrie doesn’t suspect anything, anyway.’ He took a packet of Marlboro Lights out of his pocket. ‘I said I was at the gym training.’ He looked suddenly concerned. ‘You haven’t mentioned it to Sarah stuck-up have you? I’d bloody kill you if you have.’

‘No, I haven’t mentioned it.’ Will turned to peer along the crowded platform. ‘Actually, she’s not stuck up.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I’m thinking of asking her to move into the flat when you leave.’ He exhaled audibly. ‘Where’s the fucking train got to?’

IV

Hampstead . . .

Sarah walked briskly through the High Street without once glancing up at the July-morning-grey sky. In fact all she noticed on the way to the station was the absence of anything different . . . apart from the placards announcing that the 2012 Olympics were coming to London. Also, there was a squashed orange on the pavement just outside McDonalds, a green Monsoon skirt that she might like to try on and a startling pair of blue shoes walking towards her as she turned into the half-light of Hampstead Tube Station. She arrived just in time to join the rear of an elevator crush and was, within moments, being lowered gracelessly towards the deep, fetid platforms that lay 300 spiralling, emergency steps below Hampstead High Street.

Just another same-old day.

A few usual faces were dotted amongst the crowd. Just along the platform Sarah caught sight of an old boyfriend leaning up against a War of the Worlds poster, half-obscuring Tom Cruise’s pained expression. She turned away to avoid making eye contact. She needed to get away. Right away. It had been a mistake to return home after her globe-trotting extravaganza. Hampstead could be so parochial.

A rush of air and a horror-movie wail signalled the approach of carriages full of southbound commuters. Wheels scraped, men and women shuffled towards their doors of choice. Some people pushed more than others. Same old, same-old. Things had to change. Sarah held her bag against her chest and waited for the platform to clear before climbing into an available, last-minute space. She was not interested in fighting for a filthy seat next to some aromatic stranger.

Crushed against the shatterproof glass, she watched the illuminated platform give way to the black confines of the Edgware branch of the Northern Line and let her mind stray. What if . . . All these people catch the same train every day and assume it will take them to the same place. What would happen if one day the train just went somewhere else? Somewhere unexpected. A place full of people that had never heard of Hampstead Tube Station. How different would that be?

The carriages slowed into Camden Town. People fell against people they had no wish to know. Sarah spotted Carrie, who had managed yet again to fathom the mystery of the Camden next-southbound-train conundrum. Carrie waved recognition and waited for one awkward person to leave before climbing into the sliver of space Sarah had saved for her. Sarah braced herself for wedding details. She attempted to pre-empt: ‘Hey, Carrie, how’s things? I was just thinking: what if this train, instead of going to Kings Cross . . . what if we finished up somewhere different, somewhere we didn’t recognize. Think how weird that would be?’

Carrie looked confused. Considered how she might link this random suggestion to her wedding preparations: ‘Have you been drinking?’

‘What? No! I was just thinking, we all pile in here and assume we know where this train’s taking us, don’t we? But what if . . .’

Carrie rolled her eyes and watched the grimy walls flash by.

At Kings Cross they hung together, jostled along by the crowd, allowing it to carry them towards the Piccadilly Line. Blue on the map. Conversation was impossible. What on earth will it be like when the 2012 Olympics embraced the London Underground? Chaos. The crush deposited them onto the southbound platform, already too full to reveal its dirt. They waited. Carrie held her ground beside her friend and looked triumphant: ‘So, no different lives today then!’ She directed her mouth towards Sarah’s ear to guarantee full transfer of information as she enlightened her regarding tying the bridesmaids’ bouquets to their wrists. Rule of the Universe: Nobody can speak about alternative reality as enthusiastically as a 25-year-old Harvey Nichols trainee linen buyer can talk about her forthcoming wedding. Sarah’s eyes glazed over. She smiled her most convincing smile and tried to imagine being somewhere else.

Their train arrived. They pushed their way forward and stepped inside the second carriage. Sarah always avoided the first carriage just in case the train crashed into the terminal. Her mother always warned her: stay well away from the first and last carriages in case there’s a collision. If she’d have seen some of the trains in South America, she would have died!

Sarah and Carrie fell upon adjacent seats and a thwarted woman regarded them with hatred as she reached up and curled her fingers around the nearest support. Standing on the Piccadilly Line was definitely not to be recommended and Sarah had no desire to display insincere courtesies towards someone she would never know. As they waited for the train to leave, Carrie brought Sarah up to date regarding her limited edition, pink-tinted order of service cards. Sarah ignored her and resolved quite definitely to do something different with her life.

Metal scraped across metal and at last the 8.46 from Kings Cross moved south towards Knightsbridge.

V

At 08.50 on Thursday July 7th 2005 a terrorist bomb exploded on a southbound Piccadilly Line, deep-level Underground train, about one minute after it had left King’s Cross Station. The explosion took place at the rear of the first carriage of the train, causing severe damage to that carriage, as well as to the front of the second carriage.The surrounding tunnel also sustained damage. On that grey July morning lives changed.

© Jean Levy/2006

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