Victorian Transport Network

On Monday I was not ill, however much of the country may well have been, on account of the previous night’s loss at the Olympiastadionin Berlin. The mood in London was dour. There were three minutes on Sunday when I—along with many of my countrymen & women—rubbed my hands together gleefully, electric with excitement and charged with hope, but that faded out with a throw-in, and then when it started to rain through the beginning of a grey new week, I thought to myself—Yes, this is to be expected, all of it. The office windows were closed and it was bare within; just one person per row of three desks, mostly in silence. It was not a good place to be but often it is where I have to be, and some might imagine it when they imagine an office. The new guy opposite me did not stop coughing and sneezing, as long as he was not accused of being hungover! During the afternoon I attended a meeting in Mayfair, through clouds of European tourists, mostly teen-agers, this hot stickiness off the caked pavement, rain boiled back into the atmosphere, taking with it the grim dirt of a million London feet. Everyone was so pretty and rich; on the white tablecloths outside a restaurant, brass RESERVED signs shone in the haze; a beautiful woman walked a dog down Davies Street and its pronounced bollocks swung side to side.
    On Tuesday I was not ill, but two weeks of not sleeping properly were beginning to take their toll, and I found that I awoke with a neck & jaw & eyesockets & steamed brain all nauseous with exhaustion. Drink coffee while queueing for another coffee outside the bustling Euston station, market stalls setting up, cigarettes & panhandling, tickets, suitcases being dragged and each a different pitch, a slab of drones all groaning at once, shifting in & out of phase. The windows on the train were small, giving one the impression they were on an aircraft, not a railbound London—Birmingham service. Time went on, the journey taking us through the grey backwaters of north London, beneath the veil none dare disturb, up through the leisure centres & bowling alleys of the suburbs until we came into the sodden countryside that is the countryside of farmers & hedgerows, land ownership dating back centuries, livestock miserable and muddied. There was a flaky cinnamon pastry in my backpack from the market that I tore pieces out of until there was nothing left. Over the public-address system—There has been a fatality… we’re being held… there hasn’t been a fatality, just someone hit… they’re alive… we’ve been diverted… if I had known I would’ve opened the doors at Rugby… right, we’re going up to Stafford and then back down… don’t shoot the messenger… I can only apologise. The carriage was in discernibly good spirits throughout, as if all travellers were starting a holiday or on the business trip of their dreams. Would it be such a crime for the train to climb a hill, for me to look out over a valley and sigh towards the sea or some distant spire of a village church? The tracks though were concealed from such vistas, as the ring’s clasp is behind the ear, so it is wise to travel through England by rail only if asleep or in love, for one’s gaze to be obscured or elsewhere.
    There were geese grazing on the university ground, plump brown bodies, black necks, shit everywhere, shit the colour of grass pushed through the digestinal tract of an animal with a Canadian passport. I looked up from dodging the curled hazards and, expecting to find the campus deserted, saw that it was in fact busy and joyously so. It seemed I had been sent to a work assignment on the university’s graduation day. One of my clients was stood outside of a coffeeshop, did not see me approach and, shaking hands, we went to one of the buildings for our escort.
    Coming into the building and all about the grounds, milling about, were graduates beaming, elegantly done up, dresses beneath gowns, drycleaned suits, mortarboards carried or worn, makeup, phones aloft and camera’d, proud families huddled close by, friends introduced, groups of young people who lived & loved together graduating together, inseparable. I was all in a spin, smitten with my surroundings. Indeed, I had visited the university campus but it had been —November and May—grey & raining, glum, but now it was youthful and promising, now it was an ode to my own almost twenty years ago. The rest of my party took no such enjoyment from the occasion and even commented on my wide-eyed wonder of it all. ‘You not even tempted to grab a cap, change your name and begin all over again?’ I asked and they laughed me off. We went into the bowels of the university, into the gardener’s workshop where, beneath a pair of mossy skylights, was a meadow of potted plants in bloom, bouquets, greenery, arrangements, all of them in the final stage of preparation as three men with brummy accents ferried them onto barrows and out the door. The smell took me back to my grandfather’s wooden structure leaning at the end of the garden, delightfully perfumed in petrol & chlorophyll; him long dead & buried, the shed remained, crooked, creaking, scent drifting out between the slats and into the wind.
    Walking back to the main reception, I took in what more of the celebrations I could as different departments and courses graduated at different times, the grounds constantly being refreshed with happier people, I looked down a road and remembered, having always known, that I met my ex for the first time down there. It was years ago and then more before we kissed and more before we got a place together and more when we were not in each other’s lives and more before we were again and more before she is marrying someone else in somewhere else and she is happy. The all-stops Birmingham—London carriage was much quieter, as if on a comedown. It was mostly old people and me, the sun traipsing in through bigger windows, all sedate, lunch from Marks’, numerous wrappers broadcasting static in the hush. I wished to sleep but could not, not for trying, all-stops, dreaming of sleeping, anything, half an hour to make myself feel better, anything, but no.
    On Wednesday I was not ill, although after work we went for a drink and I, stubborn in my opinion, started an argument with a colleague. It did not matter how right I was, only that I was tired, again & again I was tired, and I was sad.
    On Thursday I was not ill, yet I could not shake my guilt for that argument the night before. It kept me awake because, of course, the guilt, and the fan fixed in its aim, cooling me, yes, and drying out my mouth, throat, nose. No-one else went in after the drinks. The office was quiet again and back to not being a good place to be. Why, I supposed, should it be good? In the afternoon I went to witness demonstrations of the mechanical and electrical services on a site in Soho. I was introduced around a small circle of men, seven in all, who were quite comfortably in that niche of familiarity and camaraderie that occurs quickly between certain types of men on a certain type of building site. Despite the hour and heat of London, they were talkative and we spoke. As volumes, flowrates, resistances, lux levels and pressure drops were demonstrated to me, I listened to some of the other men discussing literature; at first mid-twentieth century fantasy and sci-fi and then nineteenth century Russian writers. They even spoke of their favourite translations and I was, rightly or wrongly, perhaps narrow-mindedly, very surprised by it all. Proceedings finished, the works signed off and we all shook hands, the technical services manager led me away, and I returned to one of the commissioning engineers who was fisting a copy of The Brothers Karamazov from his bulging backpack to show another. I stopped and told him—‘I have that copy, too… If you like that one, check out Grossman’s Life and Fate.’ He pulled a notepad from the backpack and asked me spell it—Vasily Grossman. ‘Another Russian epic, I guess. Set during the second world war.’ And then I was buoyant taking a brief walk down Shaftesbury Avenue just to enjoy the sunshine and the people, sober & mad, of the city.
    On Friday I was ill, as after four days the bug had finally got me. I could not sleep for the illness and the guilt. I called up the colleague and apologised and he told me not to worry about it. Then it was just illness. Now it is just illness. Just illness and no sleep.
Mark