Wrong side of the tracks?
‘Are we on time?’ The guard blinks, oh dear, I can’t unsay it. As a result, with only four words spoken, I’m on the wrong side of the guard. Visibly shocked, his top lip curls. He thinks. He stiffens. ‘Of course sir.’ Next, he bows slightly.
After all, this is Germany and we’re an express train, the gold standard of timeliness, for goodness sake. Without doubt, an unfortunate moment.
Neither of us know what’s coming.
I know that dark place so well, even the cry to God for help, the pressing weight of life’s failures, and the need to be set free. Denise C McAllister
I was only asking …
My question is fair, the express left Hannover a few minutes late and I’m on a tight connection. Still, I’m now on his wrong side. Does he fancy punching a bit more than my ticket. For a moment, we eye each other in an awkward silence. He nods and turns, red beard bristling as he stalks away.
Uncomfortable, I expect he’s thinking bloody English. You see, for many Europeans, Scottishness doesn’t always spring to mind. All the same, I shrug, pull my jacket on and check my luggage is lined up for departure. I check my watch, sigh and am sitting back when …
Bang! death on the wrong side
Some sounds you never forget. In this case, I’m in the front carriage when wham: I hear and feel a crunching, splattering thud at the front of the train. Oh my, talk about the wrong side of the tracks. With little delay, the brakes slam on, hard: squealing, skidding, shrieking as we grind to a stop hundreds of metres down the line. We stop after a few spasmodic jerks. For a some seconds, all is still and silent until a murmur of voices grows ever louder.
Responding to the emergency, feet thud up the coach. The door crashes open beside me as my “annoyed” guard rushes past, pulling on a high visibility waistcoat. His left arm keeps missing its arm-hole. He thunders on, an enticing scent of coffee trailing behind; an incongruous match for his urgency.
Regardless, of his punching left arm, is feet pound an urgent, fading rhythm. He slams a braced shoulder into the next door which slams open. He’s gone, feet beating towards a hasty engagement with tragedy.
In the café bar, next to my compartment, I find the steward.
‘A person is killed.’
‘How long?’ I say.
‘One or two hours delay.’
I shake my head, ‘Sad.’
‘The police have to come.’ She says. Of course, it’s a crime scene. I buy another coffee and return to my seat.
Meanwhile, from left field …
An unkempt, burly middle-aged man wanders in, one shirttail hanging out. His hair is a tangle of spikes with a pasty, red-eyed, bearded face. His jumper, jeans … everything is wrinkled … and he wants to talk.
‘I only speak English.’
He nods. ‘It’s awful,’ he says and takes a quivering breath. He’s thinking – there’s more to come. I wonder if he saw something. He responds to a question in my glance. ‘My mother died last night.’ Brief hours ago. ‘It wasn’t expected.’
Today’s event is overwhelmed by his personal loss. We talk about grief and death. I offer a verbal hug, he half smiles, then remembers and his eyes moisten. We talk some more. For a long moment he’s somewhere in his mind. I wait. ‘My kids are meeting me in three hours.’
‘Good. They need you’ I acknowledge his envelope of pain with gentle eye contact. I bet his need is greater … whatever … waves of supportive love, regardless of rationale, ease pain.
His eyes mist. ‘I will go now.’ We share a nod and he’s gone. The door swishes gently back.
Form to fill
Another guard arrives. He stops. A pile of envelopes escape from his hands and scatter over the floor. I move to help. ‘Don’t pick them up sir.’ He gathers a few strays up the passage way and returns. He’s not terribly good at bending over. Still, he scrabbles around until there’s an untidy clump under his arm. He looks at me for a moment. ‘It takes a kilometre to stop from that speed.’ He hands me a form with a brown envelope.
‘I’m an English speaker, what do I do?’
‘Ask at Hamm Station, they’ll look after you.’
‘And this?’ I wave the form.
‘You will be compensated for the delay.’ I notice the form is pre-stamped for two hours. He’s done this before. There’s a deep sadness in him. He moves on.
A man looks at me through a gap in the seats. He’s a clinical psychotherapist who speaks English. I join him. We consider the human damage and the mental-health consequences for the staff.
What makes a person step in front of a speeding express train? Our conversation is both interesting and painful. Like it or not, I am affected.
We stop talking when my original red-bearded guard comes back. His thousand-yard stare says it all, he’s numb with shock. [His grey face and staring eyes are stark in my minds eye as I write.] His training must be good. He’s still following an emergency routine.
The steward returns and offers water. This, she reports, is her fourth experience of death on the line. ‘It happens a lot.’ She says.
‘Does DB look after them?’ I jerk my head at the departing man.
‘Yes, they need it.’ Her calm is stoic and distant. Her thoughts are with colleagues.
A way out from the wrong side
Next there are firemen in the woods by the train. They work in the brush, raking away. My first thought is they’re looking for body parts. But no, that’s not it. They build an escape route for passengers.
In ten minutes the corridor is full of people leaving the train. A crowded bendy bus awaits.
In 20 minutes I’m in Hamm station and having my travel arrangements adjusted by a pleasant and helpful DB customer service person.
She fills in my claim-form and tells me to add my address and bank details—no need for a stamp—they’ll refund half my fare. As she works I admire her multi-coloured fingernails and tell her so. She smiles and we shoot the breeze for five minutes or so.
Even I’m getting on with my day. In quiet moments I wonder about that person, so near to me at the moment of death. Forty minutes after that I’m on a fast train to the Dutch border.
It’s a people thing
Next day on the plane from Schipol I sit with a young German student who studies in Scotland. It turns out her train to Amsterdam was delayed by my train. We have a great chat. All the people I encountered were friendly, helpful, concerned, efficient and they cared. Even an irate guard managed restraint. They looked after me. They could have been British.
© Mac Logan
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…we are less than human if we don’t feel the tragedy of loss for others as well as our own … thanks for sharing, that man
Oh mac so tragic that someone was so desperate. Considered it in the past but that’s where it can stay R.I.P whoever you were and god bless you xxxxx
The past is where it belongs
A haunting piece of work, Mac. Very well written, as always.
Thanks Bob. Heartfelt. Still feeling it a wee bit.
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