Friday, 11 April 2014

Strangers in the dark

In a little under six hours time this evening's Caledonian Sleeper service to Edinburgh and Glasgow will slip from its platform at Euston Station and begin its long, slow climb out of London, through its northern suburbs. The stations drifting by outside its compartment windows will be familiar to many aboard, the likes of Willesdon, Wembley and Watford pinning together the disparate strands of the capital's daytime commuting infrastructure like the joints and screws of a great mechano set. But the dim lights of waiting rooms and ticket offices abandoned to wandering drunks and night time workers may as well be switched off, shrouding their identities in a nocturnal cloak, as nightcaps are sunk, shutters pulled down and ladders erected to permit access to bunks perched precariously high above the trembling floor.

In the single cabins reserved for first class passengers coats will be hung up and clothes neatly folded on a handy shelf. Though narrower than a kitchen pantry, the space will be treated as if it was ten times larger and located in a comfortable hotel room. Few concessions will be made to the unfamiliar environment, the clickety-click of carriage wheels on unwelded tracks and the occasional whoosh of air forced between train and tunnel wall, as nightwear is pulled on and duvets pulled up.

A carriage or so down things are slightly different. The pantry proportions feel that little bit tighter with upper beds detached from the hooks that hold them flush with the wall and a stranger inserting themselves and their luggage into a space that felt close for just one. Pleasantries will be exchanged as each compartment inhabitant stakes out their place before having it immediately invaded as a leg is swung aloft or a bag shifted to a more convenient position. An eerie, uncomfortable silence will pervade, with each person wanting to break the seal and begin a conversation whilst feeling constraint by natural British reserve and a niggling sense that the other is already asleep and liable to take poorly to being disturbed.

And so the journey will progress, with first class ticket holders immersing themselves in an imaginary world of everyday comforts, the compartment sharers perpetually self conscious, and the poor souls in reckoning seats wishing to goodness that they were anywhere else but there.

The sleeper train of old has to be one of the most romanticised images of travel, alongside the transatlantic liners and Zeppelin airships of the early twentieth century. Somehow the idea of traversing considerable distances in the relative comfort of a travelling bedroom, albeit a little cosier than one might be used to, has an allure quite unlike other modern forms of transport. It is certainly a feeling that I am very familiar with, having gone out of my way at times to take an overnight train where a high speed service or short haul flight would have sufficed. Indeed, this evening I will be that awkward second class passenger constantly conscious of every noise and movement I make, lest it startles my companion above.

I probably could have flown. Rising at some unearthly hour I would have dashed from the flat, fearful of arriving too late at the airport, and in so doing causing myself to spend needless hours there instead. The usual inconveniences of air travel would have all been present: the fast bag drop which has forgotten how to be quick, the security guards who'd rather I spend half a week unloading coppers from my trouser pockets than run an electronic wand across my clothes, the assistants allocated to aiding disabled staff who seem more used to handling baggage, and the long painful wait at the end to find out if your holdall is in Glasgow or Geneva. I could have flown, but I'd rather take my luck with a silent stranger in a dark compartment.

So, just as soon as I have packed off this blog entry to the cloud, zipped up my bag and donned my new deck shoes, I will be heading across London with my trusty long white cane to begin a week's adventure. I have no idea who will be sleeping in the upper bunk tonight and whether I'll feel brave enough to strike up a conversation, but at least I know that he will also be facing such uncertainties in the name of travelling the more civilized way.

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