Tracks and Lines


I compare my thirties to a railway station. One with yawning great exists and entrances on both ends. I'm old enough to have lines coming in but lines are also going out, leading to who knows where. It's an apt comparison for me because trains have never been far from my life.

The home where I grew up was an old railway worker's cottage, and although it had modern windows and a conservatory sometimes I would feel the soul of the roughly hewn home, seeping through the trappings of modernity.

At night the express trains would come rattling past and the walls would shudder and it felt as if the terraced house wanted to follow the train down the line. I imagined I'd wake up the next morning to find the cottage had been shunted away down the valley but the view was the same, the trees forming an austere line and the high ridge of the dark moors beyond.

I often wondered if the emptiness of it all was the reason why I sought the city. Walkers came to the high moors in their yellow raincoats in the summer to get away from the Smoke as London was known back then but the hard empty moonscape left me feeling exposed and wanting to surround myself in bustle and disorder.

Perhaps I wanted to get away before the iron in those hills entered my soul. My father was a Yorkshireman and I often thought the thinner oxygen of those altitudes had reduced his blood. I'm not sure why he had a family because his kids always seemed an embarrassment or an inconvenience and you'd catch him looking at you obliquely some days as if he has spied a strange shaped table that didn't belong in the house.

"Well he's bringing his fancy big city ways to Ilkington. Eel be out by Christmas. You mark my words," he'd say of a succession of new vicars that the hapless Church of England sent north to convert the heathens.

And sure enough my father and his cronies from the Old Boot would ensure the "soft arsed southerner" had packed his bags shortly after Harvest festival, talking glibly about the delights of Dorset which was a code for a place without big raw boned northern bullies, where little old ladies shook your hand outside the church on a warm spring morning.

When my father spoke of the big city he was speaking of Manchester or Leeds. Of London he seemed to have no perception and the idea of people moving to the capital was akin to forging an existence on one of the less hospitable satellites of Saturn.

My mother existed. I never really knew if she had a personality before she met my father but she certainly didn't have one afterwards. She was there to serve his every whim but at least she could bake fine cakes.

So the railways held a special significance for me. As a child I would sit in the chilly trees and watch the trains below me heading in a blue and yellow blur to Huddersfield and Nottingham and eventually south to London.

My original perception of the capital came from a metal biscuit tin and an engraving of the Great Fire of London. There was a huge cathedral, gaunt and skeletal being consumed by the flames, and the distinctive pinnacles of the Tower, so bijou and innocuous looking for a citadel steeped so much blood. And the people teemed over London Bridge and the houses leaned into each other. It was busy, deadly, exhilarating.

While other kids sniffed solvents, hung out at only disco in town and chased after the only girl in town, Maureen Davies with her curiously wrinkled stockings, I methodically plotted my escape. I hung out in my chilly room for hours at a time reading Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, putting myself in the nicely polished shoes of the old rascal as he walked the festering streets of London.

"I went all the first part of the time freely about the streets, though not so freely as to run myself into apparent danger, except when they dug the great pit in the churchyard of our parish of Aldgate. A terrible pit it was and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it."

Later on I read about Jack the Ripper and the horror of Whitechapel. More densely packed streets and families living eight to a tiny room with a clinical killer in their midst.

While these grisly tales would have put many a stout northern soul off visiting the capital, they spurred me on with the curiosity of a war correspondent intent on visiting the in vogue battle spot of the day which was Beirut when I was a teenager.

I wanted a danger that was more palpable than Mrs. Bowern's poodle being decapitated by an Austin Maxi. I wanted life, however risky and unpredictable it might be.

The railways for me were the way out. When the weekends arrived I would spend money I earned from humping around sacks of flour on a train ticket. Within an hour I'd be in Leeds with its blackened urban spires and tower blocks. I'd hang around for most of the day doing urban things, delighting in the anonymity afforded to me by the city.

I was drawn to the stations of these great cities, arched like vast hothouses, the domain of errant pigeons, their wings sooted up from layers of old grime deposited decades ago by the last of the steam trains.

When I was 15, I made it to Liverpool Lime Street, the venerable station opened in 1836 that's overlooked by the chateau-like former North Western Hotel designed by Alfred Waterhouse. It was converted into student accommodation by the time I managed to see it, and few of the hung over specimens saw wandering around seemed to have any interest in the architecture of their temporary home.

I walked the streets around the station but became more lost every time I turned down another blind alley and the streets became more threatening. Under the rotting concrete edifice of the Catholic cathedral dubbed "Paddy's Wigwam" children with pock marked faces followed me down the street, intent on helping me part with my train fare home.

Their mothers looked on sullenly from door slabs under washing lines of yellow clothes where weeds grew in the poorly strained air. There would be no mercy or respite from my tormentors until I got up the hill where the Anglican cathedral soared to the foggy skies red and austere, its head high above the urban wasteland that was the closest Britain could get to Beirut, although Liverpool’s social mix and tensions made it more akin to Belfast, just a short ferry ride away across the muddy waters of the Irish Sea.

Liverpool shocked me but it failed to divert me from my urban dreams. So it was no surprise when I found myself on another train a year later, clutching a note for an interview and a one way ticket, as the King's Cross station loomed out of the mess of wires and graffiti.

King's Cross with its low rent homes, its con men, spivs and prostitutes, was every bit more dangerous than Liverpool. King’s Cross as a welcome to London resembled an upright finger.

It was just an interview but I wasn't going home. Fortunately the job was so dire, I was offered it. I could imagine my father from afar, wearing his puzzled and put out face on for a few moments before he picked up his cap from the nail in the kitchen and made his way down the Old Boot to discuss his son's disappearance with his friends before diving into the real meat of the cricket scores.

The thoughts of the past flitted in and out like the sun that flooded in and was shut out by the tunnels down the line. Railway dreams like the lines moved in diverse directions, uncertain and suburban, jolting and stopping but always taking me somewhere. I wondered as the identikit homes of Southgate came into view, how London could ever have seemed so exciting from afar. I wondered about familiarity and the way it reduces wonder to an everyday commodity.

I remembered tonight's game of squash was with Paul Moriaty and my interest was piqued briefly because he seemed so different from the usual crowd at the squash club, the Clives and the Derricks with their body shops and insurance brokers and their faux matiness, their gray slip on shoes and their fondness for Tottenham Hotpsur.

Not for the first time I wondered what drew Moriaty to the obscure squash club in the park.

Four miles away where the Hackney skyline did its best to obscure the late afternoon sunshine Laura left the fourth floor apartment and walked into the Red Dog cafe.

The crowd looked up and greeted her with the understated approval reserved for hip chicks. She knew there were guys there who wanted to remark on her boots but didn't have the courage, given her reputation for a swift put down.

She knew the rip in her red tights was small enough to be cutting edge but not too obtrusive. Her eyes were darkened with mascara and her lipstick as vibrant as her tights. Just one thing was gnawing away at her air of composure and quiet attitude and it was a large one and the same one as always.

When Robbie had first cameto visit he had been a burning man, burning up and consumed with her mother but it hadn't lasted and she had seen it again and again. It seem far too familiar - the raised hopes, the dashed dreams; the rise and fall, the departure of passion from the platform of necessity and the scars on her mother's arms.

God knows she had tried to inject realism. The burning men always became singed carcasses. There was soon no fuel left to burn. Couldn't she find a simmering man who boiled away below the surface and never quite went out? Couldn't she find a man called Colin whose mother knit all of his Cardigans for him?

She had winced when Robbie went through the spiel amid that curious foot tapping motion of his. Perhaps Robbie could have done it without mentioning his wife. Told her he was gay; anything but what he ended up saying. Laura had just sat there in the recliner puckering up her "nice one" face, wearing her attitude, even while she felt a sickening sliding sensation.

But now Laura started to wonder if she should be at the Red Dog at all. The last of the afternoon sun projected the railings through the grubby windows of the Red Dog; lines on the tables, power lines across the litter strewn street, a line across her arm - sharp like the incision of a knife. Laura wondered if she should call her mother but she ordered a herbal tea instead.


  1. It's official. This needs to be a movie. I would so watch it.

  2. Wonderfully done, David. Once again, you've left me wanting more. You really have a talent for the weaving of words into a tale.

  3. What an incredible read, I was completely caught up in this post. Wonderful story and writing that has left me wanting more.

  4. thanks Jen - but publication would be an uphill task enough without the movie. Cheers Daisy - appreciate it.Know it was a bit long but I had to boost my output for writer's club - aw thanks Abi.


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