I’ve been travelling on trains these last few weeks. First, an early morning train from Antrim to Portrush, the sun not long up, mist lying in patches on the fields. It looks like the land is draped in a soft, white muslin cloth, which makes everything appear dreamy: half-real, half-apparition. A slick of dew coats the thick grass; it grows, even in November, because it continues to be mild. A single magpie podiums itself high on a television ariel, its outline in dark, shining contrast to the new-born blue of the sky, a pale blue that will deepen as the day’s breaths lengthen. A holly bush trembles in the wind. The train slows, and I see that is not wind but a bustle of sparrows rustling all through the hedgerow. Did we always have such colour so late in the season? Beech, rowan, birch leaves, all in various shades of orange, yellow, red, russet. The glossy green of the laurel. The pale tobacco of the bracken. Crimson hawthorn berries match the face of the goldfinch that has just landed, now flitted off. And as the mist lifts, the undergrowth continues to glisten with that soft dew that has become a morning dampness that, like a clear coat of nail polish, intensifies every colour with its lick. Approaching Cullybackey, the train slackens its pace, slow enough for me to catch the eye of a man wearing a dressing gown standing in the gap of his back garden hedge watching the passing train. A new day.
Later in the week I’m travelling on the same line, opposite direction, at a later hour. It is a curtained day. Today has that feeling of the light fading even at one in the afternoon. This is when I see the silver deer on the crest of a hill. I only see it because I follow the gaze of an uncharacteristically alert flock of sheep. They stare at it, it stares at them, and the people on the train stare at their phones. The earth is soft and churned up. The last few days have seen heavy rain. Pools lie where fields dip – sometimes in the middle like an old bed, sometimes in the corner where the land gives way to a flooded stream. Travelling by train lets me see the loveliness of abandonment. The countryside hides dilapidated, rotten, forgotten things; things thrown out of sight, dumped around the back of the homestead, visible only from the railway line. Three rusted vans sink into the earth. Briars grow in and through them. Nature has reclaimed them from the mechanical world. This is the time of year when the rookeries can be seen in the afternoon as the low sun breaks through the grey and exposes a cluster of nests in the high reaches of a bare sycamore. How will those tightly packed fists of twigs withstand the winter gales to come and be used again next spring? Yet they will. Something catches my eye: a glimmering, speckled brown ball is a sole pheasant, motionless in a field. On we go. On we go. On we go.
I Love Trains, by Eimear Murphy
Watching Educating Rita, I remember how much I love trains. That scene where Frank waves Rita off, her head of curls emerging from the window, all bounce, excited, quoting Oscar Wilde – wishes she’d brought her diary, for one should always have “something sensational to read on a train”. I love the rhythm, rock and roll of them, but most of all I love the view. Take Edinburgh to York, that viaduct at Durham where the dark cathedral rises, lasso- looped in river. Or the sudden sweep of sea where the Belfast train forks at the coast, land bleak with doubtful gorse and scrub until the wide Atlantic rises into view. Portrush, the railway track its backbone, the sand its golden skin. A different peel of line bends westwards under Mussenden, ears pop in tunnels bored through cliffs, while dunes and waterfalls give way to smooth, calm estuary, to lapwing, curlew, plover, and to Donegal’s soft knitted hills. High tide, the train chugs over water, just like the magic journey south where carriages set sail to cross the inland bay at Malahide – a tightrope-walker balanced on a dyke, or Jesus held aloft on water. Along the line, forgotten stops of faded heyday, flaked paint, snapdragons taken root in cracks, farewell kisses. I watch each traveller come and go with books and bags, dreams and defeats, loves and losses. When darkness falls, the land outside’s extinguished and I am forced to look upon the introspective face reflected in the windowpane, familiar eyes that ask the ever-present question: where does this journey end?