The conductor, a small, blonde, square woman in her thirties, comes to our carriage last. She has checked all the tickets and has plenty of time to chat. I, invisible to the three boys sharing my carriage, am apparently invisible to her too. She does not look near me. Twice she tells them the time of the last train home. They ask if she likes the job, what she has seen on the job, is it true that people go into the toilets to ‘you know what’ on the job? Desperate to be treated as men, they are delighted when she speaks to them as equals.
“Pukers? Of course I have. They’re guaranteed to be on board Friday and Saturday nights, but you could have one any night of the week. You’d think they would be the worst, but no. I’ve had heart attacks, overdoses, people having it off in the toilets. I’ve had a man come at me with a knife. Went to court and got five months, but he’s back out now and the looks he gives me when I ask to see his ticket. I had a woman put a six-year-old on the train at… well, I shouldn’t say where. She told me the wean would be met by the father at the next stop. Aye right. There wasn’t a sinner at the next stop to meet the wee soul, so I had to call the police and have the train held till they came for her.
Runaways, you get those too. There’s no lower age limit for travelling alone you see. I found two wee girls in the toilets brushing their teeth one morning. They got on at Derry, and by the look of them they had been sleeping out all night, foundered looking they were. Enough money to get a ticket as far as Bellarena. ‘Are youse sure it’s Bellarena youse want to go to?’ I said to them. ‘For there’s nothing in Bellarena. Unless you have family in Bellarena. Have youse family in Bellarena?’ I knew rightly from the way they looked at me they hadn’t a clue where they were going. So that was me onto the police again to have them picked up when the train stopped. Safeguarding, you see. We’re all trained up on it.
You have to have your wits about you. You have to be a people person. You have to like people, but take no shit. People think all I do is sell and check tickets. That’s nonsense. I do everything bar drive the bloody train. I jump on and off at every stop, keep the doors right, tell the driver when we’re clear, check that the old man with Alzheimer’s hasn’t got off two stops early, turn a blind eye to the wee sixteen-year-old with two weans who can’t always afford a ticket from Coleraine to Portrush. She buys one every third or fourth trip, shows me the old one in between times. I glance, nod, and keep walking. I used to think she thought she was getting one over on me, but I know now – from the way she looks at me – I know she knows I know, if you know what I mean. Honest to God, her wee face, I don’t know how you’d describe it: embarrassment, relief, shame, and a wee bit of bared faced cheek.
Where else would you get a job like this? I love it. Keeping people moving, watching all these lives unfold – students, workers, day-trippers, aul’ ones and their free travel passes out for a spin, Game of Thrones tourists here to see some film set, except it’s pouring rain on the day they come and looks nothing like it did on tele.
I’m not one for the view. I’ve too much to be doing. But on the odd quiet evening, when all the passengers are content, and the train comes out from under the tunnel at Mussenden Temple, I look out of the window, and there might be an orange sky, or the sun dropping into Inishowen, or a horse galloping up Benone beach, and I see why the tourists come. Not a bad wee place to visit, so it’s not. Not a bad wee place to live either.”