I am alone in the carriage when the train pulls out of Derry. I take a seat on the left by a window, the side that will skirt the water, give me the best views along this stunning section of line. As the train gains speed along the Foyle estuary three boys tumble into the carriage and chose the seat in front of me, one with a table. Each of them is carrying a small sports-branded rucksack on strutting tight bodies held straight, shoulders back, less in confidence than defiance.
The smallest is fresh and pretty, sallow skin, even set brown eyes; he is the obvious leader despite his height and his baby face. Number two has acquired a squashed nose in his short life; his eyes dart, his feet never make full contact with the floor – he has the look of the local ABC about him, gives the impression he could fight a round, or ten. The third boy is the tallest, he even has a light dusting of hair under his lip, like the earliest germination of lettuce grown from seed. Each has freshly buzzed hair exposing every mound and mogul of their skull, a haircut that always makes me imagine the person as a cadaver, the cadaver as a skeleton, and the skeleton being discovered in some far-into-the-future archaeological dig where the experts pinpoint their age according to bone development. I return the skin, muscle, and sinew to their bodies and try to age them. The leader has slithered into luggage rack overhead, he looks as comfortable as a slow worm in a compost heap. He is a miniature man with tight satsuma calf muscles and tiny ankles. Fourteen or fifteen years old, I would guess, although Derry people are famously short, so they could (God love them) be sixteen or seventeen.
‘Wired’ that’s what my mother would call them were she here, three fireworks ready to go off when a taper is put to them, or near them. They want adventure, they want interaction and challenge, they want their pack to meet another pack.
I, being a middle-aged pack of one, am nothing to them. I am their invisible profiler, researcher, half-hour dramatist, fly-on-the-wall documentary maker. They have chosen this carriage because, in their world, the carriage is empty. I am not here, they see through me, and this, the prelude to their day out in Portrush, is their green room preparing for shenanigans by the seaside.
Baby face remains in the luggage rack. He has an impressive array of Northern Ireland accents, hopscotching from county to county, each pitch perfect. He is a Tyrone farmer commenting on a field of rape. He is a Derry granny shouting at himself to come ‘down out of there or I’ll set the greyhound on you’. He is a posh Belfast teenager called Olivia who says he is the most ‘gour-geous’ thing she has ever seen, and does he want to come up to Holywood to meet her this weekend and they’ll go for pizza in Little Wing. The other two must have seen the performance before because they ignore him, lift their rucksacks onto the table, and begin to lay out a travelling salesman amount of crisps, chocolate, sweets, and fizzy drinks that immediately brings me back to 1984 and the musty smell of the tuck shop in the space under the stairs linking the school to the convent where the cleaning equipment used to be stored.
‘Don’t be eating my giant chocolate buttons!’ In one balletic roll, babyface has ejected himself from the rack and grabbed a bag a hula hoops from a multi-pack.
The boxer swigs from a plastic bottle of blackcurrant cordial, one that comes in the same container as a litre of milk. It is not fizzy; he must be the heathy one. Man-boy, the one with the facial hair, is inhaling Haribo Tangfastics.
‘What time will we get our chips,’ he says.
‘As soon as we get there,’ says Babyface, tipping his head back, mouth open like a baby blackbird waiting to be fed, and emptying the last of the hula hoops down his gullet.