Down the rabbit hole

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The night train

I don’t know if it’s just the type of music I’m listening to that’s got me trudging on melancholy tonight, but here I am anyway, succumbing to the urge to write about things that would normally sparkle in daylight, but no thanks to the dust my brain likes to kick up at night, they would only cast a sickly glow across my bedroom walls. It’s precisely this flickering, waning quality of light that makes things less searing to look at as the hour draws later. It’s probably why so many of us lose sleep over thinking. In the day, the mind’s gears are shifted to pleasantries and preoccupation. Not long after sunset though, we shift down to all the emotions that, when tied to your ankles, are so heavy, they could pull you under the surface and drown you, if you let them.

I’ve always had a penchant for steam trains. I think they’re gorgeous, especially set against a vast expanse of green and blue. I’d like to pack a small duffle bag, leave a note reminding everyone to feed my rabbit, walk to the edge of a forrest and wait by the tracks just after the first turn from a station. A whistle would sound somewhere beyond the trees and I’d brace myself for the run. Heart pounding and muscles tensed, I’d chase after an empty cargo car. All the movies I’ve seen show there’s always one that’s wide open for stowaways. If everything goes according to plan, I expect to find myself gasping for air on the hay-strewn floor of the train car, hair dishevelled but with a smile placed delicately on my lips. “I made it.” I’d think to myself, as I watch the dim blur of twilight and bark outside, until the woods break into a more steady-paced scenery, and I take in the moonrise.

By all reason, I’m supposed to be tucked in bed, safe and sound at home, but I’m not. I’m not supposed to be riding the night train, but I am. I’m running away with it tonight, like I have every night before this one. Where the next stop is, I honestly won’t really know. There are no conductors in here to call out stations, or trolley ladies to ask if I want coffee, tea, or if the centralised heating is just right. It’s just me, the rhthmic clicking of the tracks and the cold night.

Every time I ride the night train, I run into the same kinds of people. A fair number of them know exactly where they’re headed, and how long they’re staying. To a certain degree, I envy them. Every time the train slows in anticipation of the next stop, they pull their sparse belongings close to them and without so much as a backward glance and a moment’s hesitation, they jump off. I wonder how they feel, knowing exactly when to jump and landing in a soft patch of familiar earth, much different from the hardened spreads back home. I wonder how many times they’ve been to that particular stop, and what keeps them coming back. Do they walk the same streets each time? Do they go to the same taverns and drink the same wine with the same people from the night before? I don’t think I’ll ever know. I never was the kind of stowaway that had a destination.

I join the ranks of the wanderers. We give each other short glances in the stillness of the train car, shoulders swaying and jolting in unison. Some keep to themselves and prefer to sit in the back, where the moonlight barely reaches. Some pick a spot near the light so they can keep sight of a book, an old letter, or a picture. Some look for company, not necessarily to talk to, but oftentimes to just sit next to in silence. My favorites were the people who smiled. Our eyes would meet and whether by politeness or bashfulness, a corner of our lips would curl upward - a flickering moment of recognition that we both don’t know where we’re headed, and that there’s no need to ask.

At every stop, we watch people come and go. Some of the towns, I think I’ve been to once or twice before, but I’ve never lingered in. There’s this stop that smells of my mother’s kitchen when she’s baking cookies. I like to close my eyes and breathe my childhood in, remembering all the times my father, sister and I would argue over who would get the last piece. There’s another stop that always had lovers bidding each other farewell on the station. Some goodbyes seemed routine, like a woman reminding her husband to eat the meal she packed for him while she straightened out his tie. Some were more unwilling and emotional, lasting well after the train has begun to pull out of the station. What made me sad to see were the stowaways who looked like they were expecting to meet someone. They’d take a seat on one of the wooden benches and wait, often, for a lover that would never come.

Then there’s one stop that, I knew was home to the best pubs. There was always a reason to celebrate somewhere with fireworks and loud music. I’d watch the colored aerial explosions shine off my fellow wanderers’ faces as they all turn to look on in nostalgia. Groups of friends stagger onto the platform, drunk with liquor and laughter. I chuckle from all their stupid jokes and remember to tell a few of them to my friends back home. Another stop looked to be almost monochromatic. A lady, dressed in black, sold white lilies on the platform for all the passengers who were visiting the cemetery. In the distance, I’d hear a church bell toll and awkwardly, I’d mutter a prayer. Everyone gives a sigh of relief once the train lurches onward for the next stop.

My journey on the night train goes this way. Some stops I barely take note off or consciously avoid taking in. Some, I wish the train lingered in longer. There are so many of them. So many, that by the end of the trip, I am exhausted and ready to go home. I drift in and out of consciousness on the way back. I, along with the few who shared the stowaway car with me ’til the very end would shift positions to make room for the returning passengers at each stop. I liked gazing at their faces. Some of them looked happier than they did before they got off at that station. Others would have the same, confused expression, and sadly, a few would come aboard crying and keep at it for the rest of the way home. The silence on the night train doesn’t change, but the lighting does.

Outside, dawn breaks. In the light, the stations look different - ordinary. Eventually, the faint beginnings of sunlight pour into the sky, and into the night train. I look around and everyone is just as tired as I am. It was another long trip we all took, taking in what dimly-lit scenery we could to help stir some emotion and memory, but we were getting closer and closer to where the night began. I get off the night train and turn to look back at it, now smaller than it always seems to be whenever I would run to meet it. It is no longer my old friend, the night train, but something I would come back to in a few hours to ride to work, and hopefully, get the trolley lady to give me an extra scone with my tea.

I don’t know why I go on this nocturnal journey, when I could be resting, as normalcy dictates. What I do know is, whenever I rush to get on it, I find that I am never alone on the night train. That, I think, is enough of a reason sometimes.


  1. I loved this material. You should be an author, Anna. You've inspired me to write again. :)

  2. It was worth my time reading your blog. ;)