…trains of thought

The Grand Canyon Train

Today you catch the train from Bath to Oxford, transferring your teaching self from one beautiful city to another. You haven’t done this journey for several years and you feel the anticipation of the bicycled streets and the lofty quads of University College. On your way to surprisingly ordinary classrooms, you hope to walk past the marble statue of Percy Shelley, drowned and washed ashore, his features an expression of surrender. You once stood in the quad at night and saw your first shooting star, framed within the famous square of learning. All these things do not stop you feeling like a fraud.

Train Romantics: (spoiler alert) The Railway Children’s tear-inducing ending — Jenny Agutter’s character, Bobbie, standing on the steam-steeped platform waiting for her father to return home. A cloaked figure finally emerges and she shouts, ‘Daddy, it’s my Daddy!’

You once took the tourist train from Williams to the Grand Canyon. Almost immediately you knew this was a mistake, discovering the slow journey there and back took longer than the time you’d have to gaze at the impossible canyon. The landscape you trundled through was flat prairie only brightened by glimpses of elk, their fur as sleek as velvet. The train itself was silver and dripping with historical authenticity. At the canyon your son threw his sandwich into the canyon which triggered a horrible argument, and on the way home cowboys hijacked the train, coming on board to take your money. They didn’t succeed, and you felt a wriggling shame that you didn’t have the good humour to participate in the play-acting.

Trains of Action: Multiple films where action heroes run across the roofs of carriages, dropping down to avoid bridges or hanging signals, or reaching up to hold onto a rope ladder hanging from a helicopter. See the film franchises of James Bond and Mission: Impossible for further research.

You feel like a fraud because you left school at sixteen, so you don’t have A-levels and you don’t have an undergraduate degree. You didn’t go to university until you were thirty-six and even then it was only for one year. You try to avoid this train of thought by remembering that your year as a post-graduate student changed your life completely. You achieved a first class MA, you committed yourself unapologetically to writing, and you somehow got a teaching gig at the same university where you studied. It seems that frauds can also learn to be good at what they do.

Dystopian Trains: In the graphic novel, Snowpiercer, the world has been plunged into an ice age and the only way to stay alive is on a forever-running train, which is long enough and high enough to accommodate multiple layers of society, intrigue and injustice. Arms are lost and some resort to cannabalism. You try not to think about this while hurtling towards Oxford.

You once worked with a man who was obsessed with Winnie-the Pooh, and trains. He was round, like Winnie, and had a wistful longing for the comfort of hearth fires and a warm drink. His other comfort was watching train videos, real-time recordings of train journeys filmed from the driver’s cab. You imagine he felt safe in the predictable surety of following the tracks, the banks of rustling green and the occasional dash of water or road.

On the return journey from Oxford you remember the first train you caught alone, to see your first serious boyfriend in Liverpool. You were only sixteen, naive and desperate for experiences beyond the small village where you grew up. You wonder what that girl would have thought of you, a women bearing unmistakable signs of lived experience, a woman who writes and teaches, divorced with grown-up children and a man she loves. She would not believe you are the same person, and of course you’re not. You both exist independently and simultaneously, feeling the tracks bear you forward, waiting to see what will happen next.

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