A headshot of me

Sean O'Sullivan

The Train Station

One of my earliest short stories

A photo of a man on his phone, standing on a train station platform

I stared down at the train tracks stretched out from left to right in front of me, thinking about the loving wife and warm bed I had unwillingly left behind this morning. Glancing up, my weary eyes took a moment to focus on the bright yellow lettering that burned brightly into my retinas from the platform display board. It was early, I hadn’t really slept the night before and I was due to be at a meeting in London by lunchtime; some three hundred miles away. Noticing that my train was already delayed I sighed wearily. A cloud of breath formed as the warm air from my lungs viciously collided with the freezing atmosphere that made me wish I had wrapped up a little better.

But for all the early starts, the taxi rides, the commonly late finishes and somewhat inevitable delays I enjoy travelling by train. Whilst I can’t deny I enjoy the time I get to sit alone with a good book, sipping freshly prepared tea as the world flies past my carriage window, it’s the people I meet directly and indirectly that I love, for each have their own story to tell. Young and old, middle class and working class; strangers who move quickly and quietly. The regulars who instinctively know the platform they need for their ever repeating morning commute, the infrequent travellers who stare inquisitively at the departure boards unsure of what train they need and where it will arrive.

Smiles go unreturned, good mornings are rarely exchanged and even then it’s done with a barely audible grunt or a nod of the head. The only real words seem to come from the mouths of self important office workers, who with their desire to shave milliseconds off their day, rush about and inevitably collide with one another. A quick, largely unfelt apology is exchanged before they’re back on their merry way immediately forgetting what the person looked like and why they were apologising to them in the first place. There’s a constant presence of urgency at the train station during the early mornings. I can feel it every time I’m here.

It was the sound of the approaching train that brought my attention back to what was happening on the platform. To my left I could make out three dimly lit carriages covered in bland weathered paintwork as the vehicle trundled under the station canopy and began to brake. I took a few steps back as this wasn’t my service.

“I’ll be late home again tonight.”

A tall man hurried toward me. A mobile phone was pressed up against his head as he briskly walked, nay jogged, down towards where the train had screeched to a stop. His open suit jacket flailed around his legs in the oncoming wind.

“I love you too…” he whispered into the receiver and hung up, though the expression on his face wasn’t that of love. He looked a little agitated, almost as if he’d been lying. Once he had deposited his mobile into an inside pocket he pulled sharply upon his left hand and I noticed a ring being slipped off one of his fingers. Before my mind was able to conjure up any sort of theory about what was going on I heard a cry of joy as a young woman stepped out of one of the carriages into his waiting arms. He kissed her passionately, taking her hand into his and began the walk back towards the station car park. He looked about his person a few times and inevitably we exchanged a glance. He looked guilty.

“Daddy, daddy!” My attention once again returned to the platform, the arrived train and the hordes of people getting on and off. Two young children had ran across the breadth of the concrete into a man’s arms. He was already down on one knee giving both of them a huge heartfelt cuddle. Walking slowly across to meet them was a short blonde woman with a handbag slung over her right shoulder. Her arms were folded neatly across her chest but she too looked pleased to see him.

As the train pulled away from the station, its engines roaring loudly, I felt the bitterly cold wind rush right past me once more. I turned up the neck of my collar hoping to dampen a little of the icy chill that ran down my spine but it did little good. It was a good twenty minutes until my late service to London was due and I was frozen to the bone. I considered talking a short stroll across the bridge to where the standard class waiting room was but I could see from here that many other passengers had had the very same idea. Sardines in a can was the image that came to the forefront of my mind. I needed something else to take my mind off how numb I felt so I looked about my person again. Even though the train tracks were clear, the platform I was standing on was still bustling with disembarked passengers greeting each other and making their way out towards their vehicles or the nearby bus interchange.

One of the children from earlier was prodding playfully at the keypad on one of the overpriced and vandalised vending machines that littered the place, offering barely chilled soft drinks and chocolate bars for well above the normal asking price. Using one was usually a lottery in itself as many would refuse to acknowledge a coin had dropped or offer change when required. That’s something I really despise about travelling by train; the overpriced confectionary, hot beverages and the like. I might be thirsty but there’s no way I’m going to pay nearly two pounds for a small polystyrene cup of coffee that’ll feel like molten lava in my mouth.

I glanced across at the small First Class lounge that was opposite me on the adjacent platform. Around a dozen or so smartly dressed men and women were inside, dotted about in chairs reading their complementary newspapers whilst those like me stood on the other, colder, side of the divide. A young couple looked at each other before walking off in the direction of the small overpriced coffee shop, no doubt using it as an excuse to get out of the wind. Next to where they had been standing was a guy crouched up against the divide with his laptop out. I smirked as I noticed the free Wi-Fi signs plastered around the lounge entrance and guessed he was likely piggy backing the connection. Good luck to him.

A small group of teenagers were standing close to the First Class lounge arguing with one another. I couldn’t really make out what was being said but they were being unruly. Could they have been partying all night? If so then it’s likely they’re still going to be drunk. I thanked my lucky stars that they weren’t going to be on my train.

“Excuse me mate?”

I turned on my heels to notice a large man wearing a thick green jumper had appeared beside me. On first glance he looked friendly enough but it took me a moment to reciprocate the greeting.

“Hi…yes?” I managed to stutter, caught unawares.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a light would you?”

I noticed the cigarette in his right hand, gripped firmly between the yellow tips of his fingers and reached inside my pocket for the lighter I carried around. I didn’t smoke, but working in a job that surrounds me with many that do I found it to be an ideal icebreaker. I passed it over and turned my head as the sound of a flame being ignited hit my ear drum. He inhaled deeply and breathed out a thick cloud of smoke, pushing the lighter back into my hand that now hung beside me.

“Thanks son,” he said graciously taking another puff. I looked at the stout man once again. He had a warm face, large cheekbones and some visible stubble under his chin.

“You know smoking isn’t allowed?”

I couldn’t possibly know how he’d react. Would he know I was being a little sarcastic or assume I was about to blow the whistle on him? It turned out the man couldn’t seem to care less. He looked up at me, a wide grin stretching from ear to ear and took the cigarette from his pursed lips.

“Is it not?” He feigned surprise and turned about, taking a few strides toward the rear of our platform where the ageing white fence partitioned the car park from the station premises. He inhaled for a final time and threw it away.

“It’s going to be a good couple of hours before I can have another,” he said patting my shoulder, “thanks for the light.”

The arguing had become progressively worse between the teenagers. It wasn’t long before a small fight broke out amongst them, the tallest of the group acting as a referee standing in the middle trying to prise two of them apart. I felt a little bad but I was more interested in the people around them and seeing how they reacted to the commotion. Those standing nearest slowly backed off giving them some space, not saying a word, whilst others looked away pretending they hadn’t noticed. It all seemed very ,’not my problem’.

“Pack it in will you”, a voice eventually chirped up from their side. I scanned the line of passengers and found who I believed was the person who had shouted that out loud; his head was buried into a half folded up newspaper. He didn’t look up once, not even when the station guard appeared and put a stop to it all. Fingers were pointed, things were said but the show was over. The man still didn’t look up.

“The train now approaching platform 2 is the delayed ten twenty service to London Kings Cross…”

Finally. I picked my bag up and moved an inch closer to the edge of the platform. A man donned in full cycling gear did the same as I but instead of a bag he stood with a fully extended travelling bike. I had an urge to tell him that it’ll need folding up before he can board but he glanced across at me with an unfriendly look before I could open my mouth. I hedged my bets and decided to keep my opinion to myself, for the time being at least.

The huge London consist hauled itself slowly into the station. A few of the people near me began saying their goodbyes, collecting belongings and hunting out their seat reservation tickets. I knew where I was heading. Carriage D, seat 42B by the window. Perfect to watch the scenery fly past should my desire to read not board the train with me. Whilst I waited for the passengers in front to haul their vast amounts of luggage into the carriage I noticed the cyclist was having trouble putting his bike down. It must have dawned on him in the last few moments. Noticing the station staff were already walking the platform, whistles poised between their dried out lips, I knew I hadn’t got long. But then neither did he. I turned around and helped him with his cycle. With the two of us working together his little bike was flat in no time. He hoisted it under his arm and looked at me with sincerity.

“Thank you,” he said warmly and held his hand out, signalling me to board before him. The sound of whistles being blown filled the air. I didn’t argue.

As I slid into my seat I let out a sigh. Finally I was off my feet somewhere warm. For the next three hours there would be nothing except rolling countryside, the smell of bacon sandwiches from the trolley, light chatter amongst passengers and my book which rested on my lap. Staring out across at the platform I thought back to everything that had happened. The cheating husband, the reunited family, the arguing teenagers. I remembered my lighter that the man had borrowed to help fuel his nicotine addiction and the cyclist who might have missed his train if it wasn’t for my intervention. All of that in the space of half an hour. Sure it’s often cold and the refreshments are overpriced but each visit to the train station is different and I like that.

I wonder what it’ll be like next time?

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