Lou is pretending to be asleep, but out of the corner of her eye she is watching the woman opposite put on her makeup. She always finds it fascinating, watching other women do this, constructing themselves, on the train. Lou never wears make-up, really, other than for very special occasions, and although she can understand it saves time, she finds it odd – choosing to make the transformation from private to public persona whilst commuting. It takes away the mystery, covering the blemishes, thickening the lashes, widening the eyes, plumping the cheeks, surrounded by people. And on the seven forty-four to Victoria, Lou is surrounded by people: most of them silent; many of them asleep, or at least dozing; some of them reading, and a few, a minority, chatting.
The woman on the seat adjacent to her, separated by the aisle, is one such person. Lou has her iPod on, softly, so she can’t hear what she is saying, although from the tilt of the woman’s head, it’s clear she is talking to a man to her right. Lou shifts in her seat, adjusts her parka hood, damp
from a cycle ride through drizzle to the station, so as to view them better round the fur lining. They are married. Matching rings, circling fingers circling cardboard coffee cups, betray this. The woman, Lou decides, is around forty.
Lou can’t observe her full on, but she appears to have the sort of face Lou likes. Her profile is interesting, attractive, if with faint traces of a jowl; her hair a thick curtain of chestnut brown. From what Lou can see of him, her husband is not quite as good looking; he is heavyset, greying – Lou reckons he is ten years his wife’s senior, maybe more – but his face is kind. There is a gentleness in his expression and the lines around his mouth, deep crevices, suggest he likes
to laugh. The woman leans affectionately against his shoulder. Before him is a thick paperback, the latest best-seller, but he’s not reading it; instead he strokes her hand, slowly, softly. Lou has a small pang of jealousy. She envies their tenderness and the way they show it without a second
The train pulls into Burgess Hill. It is pouring now, and weary commuters shake and close their umbrellas as they board. There is the sharp blow of a whistle to hurry them, and as the doors slide shut, Lou returns her gaze to the young woman opposite. Now she has finished applying shadow to her eyes, they have more emphasis: it is as if her whole face has acquired definition, an edge. Except the lips, still pale, appear bereft. Lou thinks she looked just as good without make-up: sweeter somehow, more vulnerable. Either way, though, she is pretty. And her hair, a mass of Fusilli blonde curls, is so ebullient, so springy, so different in texture from her own spiked and mousy crop, that Lou wants to reach out and touch it.
Lou watches as the young woman turns attention to her lips. Suddenly, the young woman stops, Cupid’s bow comically half pinked in, like an unfinished china doll. Lou follows her gaze back to the couple; the man has unexpectedly, embarrassingly, vomited. All down his jacket, his shirt, his
tie, there’s a stream of frothy, phlegmy milk, and bits of halfdigested croissant, like baby’s sick.
Lou unhooks one earphone, surreptitiously.
‘Oh, Lord!’ the woman is saying, frantically wiping the mess with the too-small napkin that’s come with her coffee. To no avail: with an infant gurgle, the man pukes again. This time it goes all over his wife’s wrist, splashes her chiffon blouse; even, horror, lands in the curtain of her hair.
‘I don’t know—’ he says, gasping, and Lou sees he is sweating, profusely, repugnantly, not normally at all. Then he adds, ‘I’m sorry . . .’
Lou is just thinking she knows what it is – the man is clutching his chest now – and she sits bolt upright, any pretence of discretion gone, when, boof! A thud and he lands, face down, on the table. And then he is still. Utterly still. For a few seconds – or so it seems – no one does anything. Lou simply watches his spilt coffee, follows the beige trail, drip drip drip, along the window ledge, down the side of the cream Formica table and onto the floor. Outside, rain-drenched trees and fields still whoosh by.
‘Simon! Simon!’ His wife has jumped up, is shouting.
Simon does not respond.
As his spouse shakes him, Lou catches a glimpse of his face, mouth open, sick still damp on his cheek, before he falls back, head lolling. She is sure she recognizes him; she’s seen him on this train before.
‘Jesus!’ says a disgruntled man opposite, shaking out his copy of the Telegraph
. ‘What the devil’s wrong with him? He drunk or something?’ He harrumphs, judgement plain.
It’s as though his disapproval galvanizes Lou. ‘He’s having a heart attack, for fuck’s sake!’ She leaps to her feet, ancient Health & Safety training, Girl Guide badges, episodes of ER, all coming back in a rush. ‘Call the guard, somebody!’
Another man, young, scruffy, goatee-bearded, next to the woman who has been putting on her make-up, flings down his plastic bag, gets to his feet. ‘Which way?’ he asks Lou, as if she knows everything.
‘Middle carriage!’ cries the wife.
The young man looks unsure.
‘That way,’ says Lou, pointing to the front end of the train, and off he runs.
* * *
Three carriages along, Anna is treating herself to her favorite glossy magazine. In two stops she has devoured the lead article about a pop princess in rehab, and now she’s onto the ‘Most Wanted’ section, where she spies a jacket she hopes might suit her, from a chain store, new in for spring, very reasonably priced. She is just folding over the page as a reminder to check it out in her lunch hour when a young man with a goatee knocks her elbow as he rushes past.
‘Thanks,’ she mutters sarcastically. Annoying Brighton hippies, she thinks.
A few seconds later he returns at speed, the guard following closely. She reassesses the situation – both look anxious.
Perhaps something is up.
Then the driver’s voice can be heard over the speakers: ‘Are there any doctors or nurses aboard? If so, please contact the guard in carriage E.’
How will people know where carriage E is? Anna thinks.
But apparently they do know – barely ten seconds later two women charge past her, handbags flying behind. Anna raises her eyebrows at the passengers opposite. Such consternation is a rarity on the seven forty-four, where there is an unspoken rule of quietness and consideration. It is a bit alarming.
Shortly, the train pulls into Wivelsfield. Why are we stopping here? Anna worries. We normally speed straight through. She hopes it is just a signal, but fears it is something more sinister. Five minutes later, her disquiet has grown, and she is not alone: all about her people are getting impatient and shifting restlessly in their seats. Anna needs the train to be on time if she is not to be late for the office. She works freelance, and although she is on a long-term contract, her
employers are pedantic about timekeeping. They run a tight ship, and the boss has been known to wait scowling in reception, checking for tardy arrivals.
There is a ‘fuff fuff ’ of exhaling air into a microphone and another announcement: ‘I’m sorry but a passenger has been taken seriously ill on board. We’re going to be here for a few minutes while we wait for an ambulance.’
Her heart sinks and she thinks, why can’t they take whoever it is off the train and wait for an ambulance there? Then she berates herself for being uncharitable: one glance at the rain-soaked platform answers her question. It is February, chilly.
She is too distracted to read, so looks out of the window, watching the rain hit grey paving and gathering in pools where the surface is uneven. Wivelsfield, she thinks, where the hell is that? It is not somewhere she has ever visited; she has only been through it on the train.
Ten minutes turn to fifteen, twenty, with no further announcement. By this time, people are texting on their mobiles, or calling strings of unidentifiable numbers, most with voices low. Some, less neighborly, loudly state their lack of sympathy – ‘Not sure what’s wrong, someone taken "ill", apparently, probably a bloody drug addict . . .’ – whilst others seem to enjoy the opportunity to convey a sense of their own importance – ‘Sorry, Jane, Ian here, going to be late for the Board. Get them to hold off, will you, till I get there?’ and so on.
Then, at last, Anna sees three figures in Day-Glo anoraks rushing past the window, guiding a stretcher. Thank heavens: shouldn’t be long now.
She keeps her eyes fixed on the platform, expecting to see the stretcher returning with a body strapped to it, pushed at speed. But instead the tired concrete wall just stares back at her, the rain keeps falling, filling the hollows of the yellow ‘Mind the Gap’ warnings with more water.
Finally, a tap, a splutter, then: ‘I apologize again, ladies and gentlemen, it looks as if we’re going to be here for an unforeseeable duration. We’re unable to move the passenger. If I could just ask you to be patient, we’ll let you know as soon as we have news.’
There is a collective sigh, more shuffling.
How annoying, thinks Anna before she can stop herself, then, more benignly: how very odd. She certainly doesn’t buy the drug addict theory – Brighton’s smack-heads are hardly known for catching the morning commuter train, for goodness’ sake. So obviously someone is genuinely ill. Yet she is worried about her boss, her colleagues; she has heaps on that day. Her thoughts – a tangle of self-interest and altruism – seem in sync with the passengers opposite: frowns mixing exasperation and concern.
‘Why can’t they be moved?’ says the man opposite eventually, breaking taboo by speaking to strangers on the train. He is tall, bespectacled, with closely shaven hair and an immaculately starched collar, a Norman Rockwell painting made manifest.
‘Perhaps whoever it is has got a spinal injury,’ says the passenger next to him, an apple-shaped elderly woman. The way she adjusts her posture to create space between the two of them as she speaks suggests she’s not traveling with him. ‘They wouldn’t be able to move the neck.’
He nods. ‘Possibly.’
Anna is not so sure. ‘Bit strange, though: how would you get a spinal injury on a train?’
‘Perhaps someone’s died
.’ Anna turns, sees a young girl next to her. Lank black hair, facial piercings. Gothic.
‘Ooh, goodness, no,’ gasps the elderly woman, worried. ‘Surely not?’
‘Could be,’ agrees Norman Rockwell. ‘Would explain why we have to stay here. They’ll have to get the police.’
‘Certify death,’ says the Goth.
Suddenly Anna’s magazine doesn’t seem quite the same. It usually provides her weekly fix of fun, fashion, style and gossip; she knows it’s shallow but reckons she deserves it, and anyway, it covers wider issues too. Then, as if to mirror her thoughts, she turns the page and sees just such an article: a picture of a young Afghan woman, whose body has been horrifically scarred by burns.
* * *
For Lou the sight of passengers ducking their heads as two men hoist a stretcher up and over the seats is almost farcical. The stretcher is an awkward shape, even with the crossbar and wheels removed – bigger than any suitcase – and the whole experience seems unreal, filmic, or, more precisely, like an episode of a television drama. Only TV you can turn off, whereas here she’s forced to watch – how can she not, with it all happening inches away?
For the last ten minutes, two young women – nurses, apparently on their way to work at a hospital in Haywards Heath – have been trying to resuscitate the man, with increasing desperation. They have checked if he is breathing, felt for a pulse in his neck and then, with the help of the guard, pulled him onto the floor so as to get him horizontal. All this right by Lou’s feet, before she had time to move, so she has been pinned in, witnessing the horror unfurl. They’ve taken it in turns, one nurse pumping pumping pumping with her palms flat on his chest, the movements so deliberate and assertive as to seem vicious, while the other has been breathing into his mouth, perhaps every thirty pumps or so. When the nurse pumping has tired, they’ve swapped over.
Through it all, the man’s wife stands in the aisle, helpless. She is utterly silent, her attention flipping from one nurse to the other and back to her husband, her face contorted with worry.
It all happens so fast in the end. The paramedics arrive, the nurse at his mouth stops, looks up and shakes her head– a tiny gesture but significant. No joy.
The paramedics manage to tilt the stretcher sideways, slide him onto it and swiftly propel him to the much wider space by the train doors. The few passengers standing there shift hurriedly to create room. Lou sees oxygen, a defibrillator, drugs – an injection – there’s a cry of ‘Stand clear!’ and they
Everyone in the train carriage is transfixed. It is not just morbid fascination – it is an inability to comprehend what is happening, shock. What are they going to do? But the guard misinterprets the slack jaws, the wide eyes – whether out of sympathy for the man and his wife or a desire to take control, it doesn’t really matter – the upshot is the same. He barks an order, loud enough for everybody to hear: ‘Can you all please leave the carriage at once.’
So Lou gathers up her things – her mobile, her iPod, her rucksack – in many ways thankful to be given permission to move. On the adjacent table the man’s book remains; not that he will need it, now. Lou zips her coat, pulls up the hood and heads out of the doors into the rain.
Another announcement follows, this time a request over the speaker system that all
passengers disembark from the train, and soon Lou is surrounded by people, mystified, looking in confusion for the exit at a station they do not know.
* * *
Anna has to fight to create the space to raise her umbrella. The platform is heaving, but she is damned if she’s going to get her hair wet as well as everything else – she hates it when it goes even slightly wavy, which it will if she is not careful. Today it would be especially galling as she got up
early, whilst it was still pitch black outside, to wash and blow-dry it for a meeting. Thankfully, Anna is tall and her umbrella has one of those automatic buttons that makes it open with an efficient ‘poof!’ She raises it safely above the throng and bingo, she is sheltered from the worst.
Next to her is the rotund elderly woman and inching along just in front is Norman Rockwell.
‘What the devil are we supposed to do now?’ he asks.
‘They’ll lay on buses,’ says the elderly woman.
Anna doesn’t know how the woman knows – it is not as if this sort of thing happens every day – but takes her word for it. ‘Where on earth will they get enough buses for everyone?’ Her mind is only just catching up with events.
‘I guess they’ll have to bring them from Brighton,’ says Norman.
‘Fuck that,’ says a fourth voice – it is the Goth girl, wedged behind Anna. ‘They’ll be hours. I give up. I’m going home.’
I can’t, thinks Anna. If only she could. But she has clients coming in for a presentation, plus if she doesn’t make it into the office, she simply doesn’t get paid, and she is the main breadwinner.
Regardless of whether they are heading for the buses or back to Brighton, they all have to shuffle the same way. The exit and the opposite platform are beyond the covered area of the platform with its worn walls and peeling advertisements, down some steps at the far end of the station. Shoulders jostle and elbows nudge – some people insist on talking and texting on their mobiles, which only slows matters further, so it seems to take an age before they are down the stairs, past the ticket office, and outside.
Here Anna pauses for a moment to take stock. It is an incongruous sight – several hundred people in so small a space. The place is tiny – there is not even a proper station building, just a little ticket office halfway down the stairs. Although there are probably a thousand stations like it up and down the country, it is hardly designed for the mass exodus of all bar two of the passengers from a packed ten-carriage commuter train. There is not even a proper car park.
And no bus stop that Anna can see, let alone any buses.
But at that very moment, with a swoosh through the puddles, a white Ford Mondeo pulls up and stops beside her. A taxi. For a brief moment, Anna thinks, impressed: blimey, someone’s ordered that, how organized, before she realizes that maybe no one has, that this is a station, albeit
a small one, so there might well be taxis anyway. The light on its roof is on; it is for hire. The crowd lurches forward – competition is fierce. But the back passenger door is right at her side – it is now or never. She opens it, leans in, and asks the driver: ‘Are you free?’
The opposite door opens simultaneously. She sees a furtrimmed hood, an anxious face. ‘Haywards Heath?’ asks the other woman.
‘I’m happy to share,’ suggests Anna.
‘Whatever,’ the taxi driver grunts in approbation. It’s all in a morning’s work for him. A fare is a fare.
Before he has time to renege on the offer, the two women get in.