Scene on a Train : Response

I have just read the Scene on a train article in the April Webmag. Once again I have been overtaken by all kinds of emotions and memories. Do they never go away? Here I am well into middle age, in a respected professional position, very well off financially and with a head-turning car. It’s the kind of car we used to eye up as we sat on the wall outside the children’s home, or when we hung about on the city streets.

Some of the lads would talk the talk about how they would TWOC this car or that and head off for the M1 and London. Finding their way to the M1 would be a miracle, but I never said that because I didn’t want to get roughed up yet again. I did once point out that between all of us we didn’t have enough money for the petrol it would take to drive a car like that five miles. Just because some of them realised I was right didn’t make them like me any better. Once again I was the posh know-it-all kid and got a few smacks and kicks for opening my mouth. Over the years I have learned to keep quiet with dull-minded, ignorant people. They don’t want to have their lack of intellect demonstrated, even if they might benefit in the end.

Anyway, while my enforced compadres were giving out about what they would do, I kept quiet and made plans. I had to find a way to get back out of the ‘care system’ and get equipped for the life I wanted – deserved indeed. I determined I would have the motor and the suits and the kind of house which my fellow kids in care could only eye up from the outside, moon for the CCTV cameras and discuss the merits of the burglar alarm, the dogs who came drooling their slaver to the gates and snarl at us, and the distance from the local nick. What they were really interested in was the likely police response time to the burglar alarm, but they couched it in terms of “Who knows where the local nick is?” Of course they only knew what time it took to walk from there, or ride on the bus, but it kept them off my case for a bit.

I find it odd that I so quickly lapse back into that teenage macho lingo when I look back. Most of my colleagues now would be most amazed at the some of the conversations I re-run in my head, or some of the attitudes which are just below the surface. But I know how to keep them out. Smile, nod, agree, flatter, give nothing personal away, just watch, listen and find out stuff about them that you can use. Sometimes I feel I would have been a good spy. As it is, I am a man I have carefully constructed by means of a lot of hard work and not a little suffering.

The strain of the train

So how did Scene on a train set me off again? Well in a funny kind of way it reminded me of a train journey I had made some years ago. I had been at an event all day. To my great regret it turned out to be one of those touchy feely things where we all got into groups several times and had to ‘share’ with the other participants. It took a lot of energy to keep up a front for so long at that stage. Now I am much better prepared and sufficiently senior to be able to stage an urgent call which will take me away – far away from hearing the hopes and fears of dull strangers. But on that day I had had to sit it out, bluff it out, tough it out.

I sank into the corner seat on a hot and crowded train. I also travelled Standard, or as I now call it Cattle Class, in those days. I was tired and stressed by keeping up the barriers, fending off the nosiness of strangers and side-stepping the covert advances of some of the women. Why is it that women make such a thing about being treated as sex objects and crying ‘foul’ when a man tries to be friendly? Just try imagining being what is now called a ‘fit’ young man, shut in a room for the day with a bunch of predominantly females, who either want to mother you, or get up close and personal. ‘Sharing’ groups provide plenty of scope for either, believe me.

I got out my book, but my eyes would not focus and my mind was in turmoil and I felt close to the edge. The train was already too full for comfort when after one stop, where people only wanted to get on and nobody got off – what did they all know about Smell Port, or wherever, I wondered.

A large lady loomed on the edge of my vision. She had a lot of matted hair and was clad in an odd assortment of floaty clothes, much beloved by the Flower Power generation, although no longer thought to be cutting edge in the fashion world. She also had a huge rucksack and an assortment of children. Enough for her own children’s home, or five a side football team, I thought. She heaved the rucksack onto the rack, which necessitated the revelation of a lot of wobbling flesh. I closed my eyes. She heaved into the seat opposite to me, stomping on my feet and kicking my shins in the process. Eyes still closed I winced. She made some comment about the size of my feet. MY FEET! Keep calm, I chanted in my head. Keep eyes closed. Don’t get sucked in.

There was a minor war while the brats arranged, re-arranged themselves and were finally settled by the responsible adult. (HA HA) Blithely ignoring the fact that there were three seats available at the table where I was FIRST occupant, she set about cramming in herself and at least four children. I never did an accurate count because they didn’t stay still long enough. Unlike the somewhat repressive couple in last month’s article these children were clearly encouraged to express themselves fully and never mind anybody caught in the cross-fire.

I tried staring hard at my book. I steadfastly refused to respond to her attempts to enrol me as a carer. I did not mention the number of times one or other kicked me, pinched me, or invaded my personal space in other ways. I was an old hand at resisting such treatment. After a few rounds of I-Spy she decided that they needed some physical activity – on a crowded train, in the height of summer, with the English notion of air conditioning having apparently died, and sitting next to a person who is making it so clear they want peace and quiet. “Is she divvy or what?” I heard my old voice asking in my head.

The children then proceeded with what was clearly a routine they probably learned at their posh nursery. Well, in those days kids with names like Miles and Arabella did not tend to cram into the local play groups, so they must have been private nursery fodder. They proceeded to do forward rolls on the table top, not to mention arm-swinging, bending and stretching and bicycling with legs in the air….

Fortunately for all, the train stopped at Smell Free and hoards of captives shot to freedom. A few rows away across the gangway a seat became empty. With great difficulty I prised myself out of what I had thought would be my corner for the two hour ride. I tried, truly I tried, not to tread on bits of children as I got up and out. I sank down to enjoy some space again. But I was pursued by a loud adenoidal lisp demanding to know why that man had gone to sit somewhere else. Mother explained that not all grown ups like children.

Maintaining distance

If you only knew, I thought. How much I would have loved to be part of that over active, unaware little group. How much I hated being on the outside. How much I wanted to be truly part of a family. So much so that even the tale of two repressed little boys and their inept parents could set off such painful thoughts in my head and bring back memories. But I can never take the risk of letting anybody get too close and that’s what I think families are all about. Sharing, knowing, being open, nothing hidden.

I have very dim memories of warm happy times as a little kid. I remember kind cuddly adults, but their faces have always been blurred and they get even harder to recall as the years go by. I remember at least one other boy, my brother, I have been told. We shared a room, toys, lots of exciting things with Mum and Dad and other people – relations I suppose. I remember being part of something. Belonging. Not always being on the outside looking in like now. Belonging. Doing stuff together, like the kids on my train journey.

Not being told to mind your manners. Not being told to keep quiet. Not being told to stop doing something enjoyable. Not having to keep up a front to be acceptable to other kids. Not having to keep buttoned up so that other adults will want to look after you. Not always being polite but distant, taking but not giving back.

The number of invitations to other people’s family events, Christmas, birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings I have refused. Too close, too demanding, too painful. I want to be part of things, but being part means opening up, letting other people in, making relationships, taking risks, getting hurt again.


I can no longer even remember clearly the day of the disaster. I suppose it started like any other. The weather had been bad and I had heard a lot of talk about floods, but little kids have more important things to think about. How to get the best card swaps at school, how to confess the torn football shirt, where the homework book has gone. So when the roaring started and people were shouting outside and my parents started to pick up things and bundle us into coats it was just an annoying interruption for me. My father tried to look out of the kitchen door, but water gushed in. It took both the parents to close it again, but there was a pool of smelly mud on the kitchen floor now and I could see water swirling outside right level with the windowsills.

“They’ll come for us. We’ll be all right. Just you wait and see.” My father started this reassuring mantra, but he looked pale and my mother looked scared.

Water started to trickle through gaps in the window frames, until the weight of the water broke some of the panes and it started to pour in. It was decided we should go upstairs. We all picked up what we thought we wanted and went upstairs. Before long the water was at the bedroom windows as well and my father pulled down the loft ladder and pushed us up there. It was cold and damp and dark and I suppose I started to whimper, because I remember being told off and to see how brave my little brother was. But the disapproval didn’t last long and I do so clearly remember the four of us together, arms wrapped around each other, hugging, holding close. Together. Belonging.

My father thought he heard a helicopter outside and started to knock slates off the roof to try to attract attention. He got his head out and shouted back to us that the helicopter had seen us and had signalled to him. He made the hole bigger and scrambled out. We could hear him shouting and we heard other voices. He came back inside and said the whole place was being washed away and that we were in great danger and had to be very brave.

He said we had to get out on to the roof and the helicopter would lift us off. Now my mother was crying. She said she hated heights and told my father that ‘in her condition’ she couldn’t be climbing about on roofs and going in helicopters. Only years after I worked out what she had meant.

Somehow we all did get out and on to the roof. It was cold and dark by now. The wind was blowing and tugging at our coats and scarves. The slates were wet and slippery. My mother said to me “Whatever happens you have to look after Jimmy. Keep tight hold and don’t let go. You’re his big brother.”

There’s a lot of gaps, a lot of confusion. Then I was on my own with Jimmy. I struggled to keep hold on him. I was so tired and he kept dropping off to sleep and letting go of my hand. I tried shaking him to keep him awake. I struggled and struggled. Finally the noise of the helicopter woke me. It was very close. I saw a smiling face and somebody on a wire coming down towards me.

“They’re here, Jimmy. They’re here. We’re going for a ride in a helicopter.” But there was no sign of Jimmy. I must have let him go. What a burden for a little boy. What a burden for the rest of my life.

Of course it was all over the local papers for a few days. I found them in my Gran’s house one day. I was the ‘poor orphan’, ‘the tragic survivor’, ‘the miracle one of a family of four left alive by the floods’.

I wanted to scream out loud. “ I let Jimmy go. I killed him.”


Gran did her best to look after me. But she had lost her daughter, her daughter’s unborn baby and my brother Jimmy. She was not young and not in good health. My pain and the behaviours it caused were too much for her. All I needed to do was say out loud what I thought had happened. But I was too ashamed to say I had let Jimmy go. It was the last thing my mother told me to do. “Look after Jimmy.”

Sadly Gran had to let me go. But it was the same story everywhere I went. I wanted to belong. I wanted to be part of it all. But if I got too close I might let it slip. Foster home, foster home, foster home, children’s home, children’s home.

But I had made my plans. As soon as I could I joined the Army. It suited me well enough. It was a ready-made family, but you never got too close to anybody. You belonged, but nobody wanted you to give anything except absolute mindless obedience.

I was bright enough to be promoted and get a good education on the way. I had read up enough to make sure I got in to a ‘good’ regiment. I came out well educated, well qualified, well spoken and very well set up.

I got the career, the pay, the house, the car, the respect I had planned for on those days hanging about with the losers from the care home. But what I can never get is the belonging, the open giving and taking, the comfort of the truth. And nor can I get complete peace of mind because I can never know when something will set off a host of memories, like Scene on a train.

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