26 May 2005

The 7:56 To Paddington

Worked this up as a story, so the fact that it's true is by-the-by.

He jumped in front of the train, you know; the fast one, the intercity that sweeps through on the farthest platform, zooming from Slough to London. It kept going.

So there we were, my mother and I, we'd bought my ticket (she had a season), descended the stairs and by the time we reached the bottom, all the doors were shut. No-man's time, we landed in, missing both event and consequence, simply trailing merrily down the steps at eight o'clock on a balmy summer morning.

Mum saw first, and turned to march me back upstairs. Tormented by the awful view into another backward glance she saw what I had so completely missed, a little, old lady rooted to the spot, shivering on platform two in disbelief and shock.

So I was parked, half way up and half way down in no-mans land, as mother drew a deep, cold breath, steeled herself and strode back down, confidence and purpose beaming from her very soul, though God alone knows where they came from. Gently but firmly she took the lady by the arm, escorted her to the nearest bench which faced in the other direction, and the two of them sat, making small talk; hobbies, the weather; anything but.

I'd like to say that at twelve years old I braved my first good sight of a corpse. It isn't true. He doesn't really count, not when his legs were nowhere to be seen, and only one of his arms was there, still dressed in sleeve and cuff and lying on the platform 100 yards beyond my mum. His head, like a football, had come to rest, relatively undamaged, even further up the line.

His torso, well, it haunts me still, if haunted is the word. I don't recall the clothing (though I know that it was dressed), for shock descended, took me to that consecrated plane where feelings flee and silence reigns. Time stands still and every detail sharpens. Such focus, such a reverential peace surrounding fact. And my fact? He looked just like something at the butcher's shop. We are meat, and he was not there. His soul, his essence was as far from his carcass as any could fly and what remained was nothing more than fodder for the soil.

Mother came and fetched me before our train arrived, apologised and asked me please to sit beside her present charge, who still could not find her legs to exit from the scene. I was fine with that, happy to do as I was asked, no pain, no fear, until, once there, I saw. Not more corpse, for that held no fear for me, but up above us, on the railway bridge, an ever growing crowd of so-called people. No reverence there, but gossip, chatter, fingers pointing, even a camera. The reason why the gates get locked.

These days I forgive them; something so awful, so far against the proper way of things will have its dreadful fascination. Within us all there is unspoken truth, that this is not the way it ought to be, and how we deal with shock is just as individual as the way we rush headlong to face it is so universally irresistible. Then however, I was wrapt in peace, the platform was the holiest church of reverence and prayer and they destroyed it, chattering like monkeys as they were. My arms most certainly held the strength to batter each and every one to silence, though my legs did not. Useless they were, and quite determined not to move an inch.

When finally our train arrived, I don't remember how we got on board, or how it started to serenely move away. The tunnel displayed some mystic healing force and once beyond it, then our surroundings seemed fresh, back to normal like another world, and we were free to talk.

The strangest thing, poor mum, I felt detached and therefore rested, whereas she, it seemed, had left me at the bench because the Station Master, new to the job, was trying to carry on in tears. She knew him; normally without me she chatted to him every day, had even celebrated his promotion just a month before.

The entire journey, then, was her turn to release, to accept as I had done already, so she addressed me, after praising how I coped, with tales and intricate details of 'the poor dear man'. He'd been thoroughly sick, hadn't even had breakfast, so she bought him crisps and a hot sweet tea from the station machines, sat and fed him, forced him by her company to weigh his stomach down. Tormented now and wracked with guilt, he'd chatted with the man who died, yet noticed nothing wrong, excused himself a minute, nothing more, to tend his daily tasks and in that time his company had purposefully leapt beneath the train. His mind so racing, now the Station Master worried for his job, imagined wife and baby with no money coming in, declared himself in any case unfit to hold the post, as one unable to see thoughts of death so close behind another's eyes.

My mother is a gumboots girl, she coped by not coping, managed by managing others, and I am like that too, now. Greedy, we are, busying ourselves with others needs, and that way guaranteeing time to breathe before addressing our own souls. I am a hero, this I know, but cheat and coward is another name. Your pains are so much easier to see, to tend, than are my own. Rather yours than mine, you first.

How did I come to this? It's easy. 8 a.m. one Tuesday, years ago, I had a revelation. This body is a covering, a tool, a piece of meat, and death, death is another place entirely.


Doris said...

Gripping and poignant.

Julie said...

All I can say is Wow!

Thanks for signing my map--and I think you're right about the blog group!

Jennifer said...

Stunning, Cheryl. Honestly. You've left me stuttering.

Badaunt said...

I don't know what to say.

Shouldn't you be sending this out for publication rather than posting it here?