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Published Sunday, August 24th, 2014

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From Station to Station

Have you noticed how railway stations are a special kind of nowhere? You’re never really in a place until you’ve got off the platform, through the ticket office with the café selling curled-up sandwiches, and out into the street. It’s mainly city stations, of course – the little country stations with one-and-a-half platforms and a footbridge feel like they’re even more part of the place because they get the name on the sign telling everyone so. But a good city station feels… international.

Have you noticed how railway stations are a special kind of nowhere? You’re never really in a place until you’ve got off the platform, through the ticket office with the café selling curled-up sandwiches, and out into the street. It’s mainly city stations, of course – the little country stations with one-and-a-half platforms and a footbridge feel like they’re even more part of the place because they get the name on the sign telling everyone so. But a good city station feels… international.
 
That’s probably why I end

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up hanging around them so much. I don’t like car journeys, they’re too personal. Going from A to B in a metal cage the size of a bunk bed, trapped with the same people for however long it takes you to get there. No thanks. You can’t own a train, however much they tell you it’s your service to wherever it is.
If I’m honest, I probably spend too much time in them. Since they’ve come up with the ticket barriers, I have to buy a cheap ticket going somewhere local to sneak in. I know they do those trainspotter tickets in some places but I’ve got standards, you know. It feels like all railway stations are part of the same place, too. There’s that railway-station smell you get, and feeling that everyone’s going somewhere, like it tastes of never stopping. At my age, I don’t really get much of that. I’ve no job now, so I can indulge…
 
It was my dad, really. He used to commute to work every morning from the station. Sometimes, because it was near school, we’d go out and see him off on the platform and then walk the rest of the way. Mum didn’t come, she hated stations, said they stank. It’s associations, I suppose. For me, that tar smell you get off telegraph poles when it’s hot smells like my granddad, but I know some people can’t stand it.
 
One day, we were going on holiday with my dad. Mum said she’d a lot of things to do at home, and we could go with him – she sounded funny, I remember thinking, but at that age, I just thought she must be jealous. So there we were on the platform, getting the Edinburgh train to somewhere in the north, and we were really excited. It was a proper train, too, with the big clouds of steam and compartments and everything. We didn’t get much time with him, and here we were about to get him to ourselves for a week, which looks like forever from the start of the summer holidays.
 
We’d each got a bag that Mum’d packed us, with sandwiches and beach towels and all the things you need for a good holiday. Dad had his big suitcase with everything else. We were stood on the platform, and Dad said not to get on yet, because everyone else was pushing on, and we’d got our reservations. Couldn’t do that today and get a seat, of course, but this was a while back. He always did that – he’d wait until everyone else was on and then neatly hop on with his little moustache and briefcase like he was catching a bus, waving as the train went off before he got his seat.
 
But today it was different. He was funny as well. He did his trick of waiting until it was about to go, hopping on, but our bags were heavy. My memory of it all is the train pulling away with my dad on it, and him not even looking surprised, just waving like he was off to work. When the porter saw we’d missed our train and we tried to explain what’d happened with our dad he tried to get the train to stop, but they’d already gone. In the end he rang our mum and she came and picked us up, and she was as angry as I ever saw her – she said he was meant to have told us on holiday, and she’d no idea he was going to do something like that to us kids.
 
I never saw him again. He just waved into the distance on the train to our holidays and that was it. He died a couple of years back. One of his family rang me up and asked me if I wanted to come to the funeral. I couldn’t really understand what he was saying.
 
I met my wife in a station, actually. She was in town for a day – this stunning girl came up and asked me if I knew what time her train was. I told her she’d got an hour and asked her if she wanted to have a cup of tea with me until then – we were married forty years! I used to wait for her at the station, counting minutes on the clock till she got in. When it was my turn to visit, she’d always come in on a bus. She hated stations, my wife. Too many people, she said. Couldn’t understand why I liked them.
 
My daughter went off on a train, like my dad. One of those electric ones, mind, when they’d just come in, used to make a terrible racket after the old steam engines. She was off to Cornwall to stay with a friend. She was sixteen, too young to go off on her own, really, but she begged me and her mum that much, and she was with a friend, so in the end we let her. It was her birthday soon, so we got her a dress she’d been letting on hints about and gave her some spending money, and waved her off from the station where we lived. Well, it was just me – my wife didn’t want to come near the place. I remember thinking how grown up my little girl looked as she waved back.
We went and got her in a car, her mum’s car. They rang us up, the police, and told us she’d fallen. She’d been drinking with her friend and some boys by the cliffs, and…
 
They said she wouldn’t have felt a thing. She was getting really pretty, you know, everyone at the funeral said so. Our mermaid, we called her, because when we took her to the beach at Scarborough she’d always be in the sea, paddling, even though it was freezing, and then in the public baths when she was older. She wanted to swim for a living. She could have, you know. But that wasn’t her, in the coffin. She’d gone. My little girl’s still waving from a train…
 
Excuse me.
 
People always coming and going, that’s what I like about stations. Any minute, anyone could be getting off the next train. Sometimes I see my dad getting off with his little briefcase from an old-fashioned steamer, or my wife sitting in the café, or my little girl coming home off a buzz-bomb.
 
It’s just me being sentimental, though.
 
 
Oh, sorry, have you got to go? It’s platform four, I think. Nice talking to you.

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