A Person under a Train
Some years ago, I took a train and somebody jumped in front of it. It was a hot summer morning, a beautiful morning, in the south of England and I was taking a train from London to the coast, rushing through the best kind of countryside: rolling hills and shimmering crops, giant white horses etched in chalk onto hillsides, stone circles rotating through glades of bluebells, gangs of young men growing hot and overexcited, bake offs. It was the land of the old gods. In the primary schools, the children danced around maypoles, twisting ribbons into cats’ cradles, and later some of them would become princesses.
I was rushing across the countryside, and looking through the window; there were pheasants and lapwings floating upwards, and butterflies blowing through minimarts past glowing microwaves, and hazy blue skies with distant planes going halfway around the world, and clouds that looked like semen scraped across a car window. It was one of those summer days that felt so absolutely full of life, like every single object had a soul and was vibrating in the heat, not used to it, hoping to burst. One of those days that felt like coming of age all over again, that made you want to chase girls and fertility monuments and rituals into the sunshine, and smoke weed and roll around and charge at strangers like a goat, having escaped the city and its suburbs in a hurry on a fast train that declined to stop at any of the little stations, the ones without coffee carts.
I sat by the window and watched the world go by like an increasingly abstract painting and, if I looked forwards into the bright coming future, I could focus on a small part of the approaching countryside as it opened up towards me, and if I looked to the side, it was impossible to make out anything other than smears and bleeding vectors and colours pressed together until their vibrancy was lost in a dull green smoothie of passing by. I sat by the window on the left at the front of the very first carriage, right on the nose, as we charged our way through the countryside.
A long time afterwards, I would visit the Studio Ghibli Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo, in a huge park with a drained lake and no leaves on the trees, and every half hour they had a screening of a short film that you could only watch there in the basement and nowhere else, and it was a spin-off of My Neighbour Totoro, the Japanese pastoral fantasy featuring a giant galloping cat that was also a flying bus. In this spin-off there were thousands of animated children and they were riding cat buses all across the country at night and it made them all so happy.
Upstairs in the museum was a play area sheltering the soft form of a cat bus that could be crawled through and clambered over, but it was a part of the architecture and couldn’t actually move anywhere, and only children were allowed inside anyway. A more haphazard re-enactment once took place at Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park, when a performance artist made a huge costume of a cat bus that could accommodate ten or more adult performers as individual limbs and appendages and then had them all run around the fair together, and it was popular, or at least tolerated by all present. Because few things could be better than ambling across galleries and royal parks and farms inside a magical cat, trampling over the boredom and feeling that everything is alive, even artworks and public transportation.
So it was calming, riding this warm train through the countryside – it always is – and I slowly drifted off like dandelion snow blowing in the wind, like ice cream melting its colours into the cracks in the pavement. I was drifting off in the front carriage as we swooped through all of these little stations with unimportant names at thrilling speed, exciting, arousing speed, on an iron railway cutting through the land of the old gods, when we smashed into something so hard, harder than anything I have ever felt, and it felt like smashing into a Brutalist concrete concert hall – something heavy and perpendicular and flat like that, something which gave out a reverberating sensation that went on and on in a straight line, a long and drawn-out slowing down. It was long enough to wonder about what was happening, and what had happened, and what was about to happen, over and over again. And what was happening? We had hit something and it felt like this process of hitting something went on way too long, and we were still sliding along the tracks towards the future, but only just. I could sense the impact gently stirring inside of my guts like the feeling of having swallowed too much sugary ice or the slightest touch of a gravity wave moving slowly across space, only a little less slowly than the universe as it expanded around us.
Eventually we stopped somewhere, in the middle of a landscape of golden fields, and there was silence. Almost silence. It was a quiet place. Maybe there were skylarks spiralling up into the skies to sing their love songs, but there were no sounds coming from the train, and no other trains. In one of these golden fields, far from any roads, at this time of the year you could lie down in the crops where nobody could see you (I used to do this as a boy) and listen to all the sounds around you with your eyes closed, really try to listen farther and farther away, towards where the hills begin to slope away and float off into the past. Listen to the swaying wild grasses swishing together like tracksuit bottoms, the low drone of wasps looking for jam sandwiches, combine harvesters, the back-and-forth of doves cooing at one another from opposite sides of the tracks. Everything sounding so interconnected and atonal and ongoing, like one big orchestra reaching its arms around the world, never stopping. At first, nobody said anything. People rarely do and anyway, we were just near enough to the suburbs to have phone reception, so there wasn’t any pressing need to say anything, but after a while (a long while – he left a long, silent while) the driver spoke to us, his disembodied voice crackling through the speakers, and he said that somebody had just jumped in front of the train. He sounded surprised, and this in turn surprised me.
The train had someone under it. Because of a person under a train. I was experiencing a delay. There is a person on the track. There is a person under a train – those sorts of arrangements of words would soon be recited along the platforms of stations punctuating the way to the coast that would be expecting us, and along the platforms of stations receding sadly back into London that would be gathering crowds. A person under a train. But what the driver said was, “Somebody just jumped in front of the train” and he sounded surprised and he sounded upset and afraid. He didn’t say anything else. He was a quiet man. There was another long wait and then he fumbled open the door and walked into the front carriage, where I was, with his head bowed towards the Fanta-washed floor and moved slowly forward amongst the yellow poles and hanging loops and the vivid empty seats of disorientating geometric upholstery, and he appeared shaken and slightly ashamed of himself. By this point, a family had walked from carriage to carriage towards the front of the train, a mother with her children in tow, to complain at him and this lifted the mood and soon lots of others were complaining too. “Why aren’t we moving?” they asked. “How long will it be?” they asked.
But the driver had seen something he didn’t want to see – and intimately, too. Somebody had jumped in front of the train and the two of them had been face to face through the glass. There was a moment when they could reach out to one another and almost touch, like when you catch somebody’s gaze moving in the opposite direction through a crowded department store basement and can’t look away. Could almost touch. At the time, I didn’t even think about what he would have seen immediately afterwards.
But… why not? Because how does anyone keep on going, day after day? Don’t you wonder? How does anyone cope with the disappointments, the constant thoughts of the past and the missteps taken there, with all the things we say and do? Doesn’t anybody else – when they see the pirouetting skid marks along a country road, when they see the flashing lights in the distance at night, when they hear the trains roaring out of the city – doesn’t anybody want to know what it feels like to lose control completely?
The universe was expanding. The sun was shining and it was a nice day for something. The universe was expanding and it was so beautiful. A faint and cool breeze was creeping in through the trees and a pale train, a pale-yellow-and-turquoise Southern train, appeared in the distance. And you can jump at that very moment. Right now, before it’s too late! And then you might think of those you would be letting down, only this time, the shame of it might make you want to jump still more. And whatever it was that has been holding you back might suddenly allow you to go, to take a long run up and…
There would be a moment when the world slowed all the way down and showed itself completely to you, illuminated every last detail slowly and brightly: every flower shaking in the hedgerows, tissue crumpled in the warmth, tossed cigarette pack wrapping shimmering in the foliage wilting in the heat. A ray of light reflecting off a flattened Capri-Sun carton, too dazzling to look at. The play of sunshine across surfaces, how they absorb it, soften it, pass it around. Every trembling leaf. Words scratched into railings with paint flaking off, powdered sugar falling from a donut, fumes of petrol and sausage wafting carefree across the platform, the hum of the train tracks, each trail of vapour in the sky pointing a different way. There would be a moment when everything feels heavier than it looks, like a ripe cantaloupe: the phone in your pocket pulling you down, rubber soles slightly sticking to the pavement, and a bottle of water so cold that it’s cloudy. Distant voices of strangers. A tightening just under the throat. As whatever it was that has been holding you back has suddenly allowed you to go, to take a long run up and leap from the platform into the oncoming train, as high and as far as you can and think about diving into the swimming pool, and screaming at the pick-your-own strawberry farm, and the smell of the night-blooming honeysuckle on the walk back from Sainsbury’s twice a week.
They took a long run up and leapt from the platform into the oncoming train and it was like jumping into the arms of everybody they had ever lost, and it seemed to hold them there for a long time, the pale-yellow-and-turquoise Southern train – held them, floating – and they were walking in the air and then they just exploded with all their sorrows and their joys, with all their possibilities of life finally over, at last.
We were stopped somewhere, in the middle of a landscape of golden fields, with the driver in the front carriage, waiting for the appropriate people to come. It fell quiet again. We were experiencing a delay together. There was a person under a train. After an hour or so, a team of people in bright overalls with white cotton masks arrived outside to collect all of the parts of the victim and carefully clean the mess off the train. Through the window, I could see a woman just the other side of the metal and the glass, right under my nose, wiping away some of the blood and the flesh and the soup that comes out of a person when they jump, with a sponge. It became awkward, so I looked away. But the train was cleaned thoroughly before it was reversed back into the station where somebody had thrown themself in front of it, and (although I’d never thought of this before) I suppose it would horrify anyone waiting if a train backed slowly into a station, splattered in blood and with parts of a face hanging off it, like some nightmarish Pixar character. How many people waiting there would ever want to look at a body after it had killed itself?
At the station we all had to disembark, so there were hundreds of strangers stood around on the platform, and what I noticed is that out of the hundreds of strangers stood around on a platform, only a small number (about ten) wanted to have a closer look at a body after it had killed itself, and I was one of them. The others included a pair of old women in pastel twinsets and I walked alongside them to the front of the train – there was an impassive announcement saying not to and a couple of teenage railway staff standing in our way, but nobody really did anything to stop us – and, at the platform’s edge, we stood there in the aftermath of this thing that had happened. It looked like somebody had thrown handfuls of mapo tofu at the front of the train. Like minced beef and silken tofu and sauce caught in those spaces that could not be reached, and that was the most any of us could tell about what had happened. A person under a train – on the track – smashed across a surface – trapped. It’s unusual to see something so sad and gruesome at the same time and I felt kind of guilty. Not only because I was a passenger on the train, and walked all the way to the platform’s edge to look at the body, and was reminded of a glistening, dark, spicy sauce, but also because everyone plays their part and I was a part of this world, and a part of this orchestra of sloping hills and tracksuit bottoms and jam sandwiches and cooing doves, and a part of this society that makes people so miserable and so desperate that they jump in front of trains and explode.
Illustration by Leon Michael Sadler