Love affairs and malefactions possess a certain allure when committed on old trains chugging out of old stations. Times and trains of course have changed. It requires indifference to shame or impolitic exhibitionism to indulge one’s proclivities on a high speed interurban commuter train where social function takes precedence over private desire. The stream-lined décor of new trains, moreover, sedates both imagination and impulse. The kind of affair or evil deed I am thinking about demands a private compartment with closed doors on trains that depart from stations with lacy grid work and architectural features peculiar to the nineteenth century, even red phone boxes one still sees in England. Breathless phone calls are required. Somehow cell phones don’t do the trick.
Approaching Paddington, one of several cavernous London stations, I was greeted by a horde of commuters recently emergent from various trains, a great many of whom fanned out to the street with cell phones and other electronic gadgets pressed against their ears. I did not think of love and murder, then, but of business deals and other perfunctory matters. As I was not privy to the confabulations, I could be wrong, but the pedestrian hustle and speed of the exit suggest otherwise. Their trains, one of which I had to board, did not have separate doors to compartments.
Many years ago I took such a train from Edinburgh to London, unlatched a door from the platform and stepped into a wood and leather compartment. I remember thinking I had entered a black and white film where adventures were to be had and characters offered tea at moments of crisis. After the conductor checked one’s ticket, one could read or conduct an affair or commit murder without interruption, open the door at the next station, gingerly get off, head for a phone box, or disappear. I read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. In 1932 Greene also published Stamboul Train about a journey with allegorical implications through a Europe that no longer exists. The old trains and their stations are marvels of intent and mystery. No wonder so many films make use of them: Murder on the Orient Express, Strangers on a Train, Lady on a Train, and so on.
Avid movie buffs of a certain generation and particular sensibility will fondly recall the fine old film, Brief Encounter, starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. About twenty-odd years later, Johnson sharply played the eminently conventional headmistress trying to rid her school of the controversial likes of Jean Brody, a role made famous by Maggie Smith. One line from The Prime of Jean Brody has always stayed in my head: “Miss McKay seeks to intimidate me by the use of quarter hours.” In Brief Encounter Celia Johnson enacted the longing and guilt of a married woman involved in an adulterous affair with a doctor. There is some ambiguity about whether or not consummation took place, but it was certainly devoutly to be wished for. Of course, we are now amused by the obvious cinematic symbolism of a whistling train surging through a tunnel as lovers embraced. Howard and Johnson met in a tea shop at a train station. British movies of the forties wear their sexual symbolism under dowdy coats. The train does not significantly erupt out of the dark.
The clock matters in this movie just as it does in Miss McKay’s office. To escape the blackout regulations of 1945, director David Lean took his crew to Camforth railway station in Lancashire, out of the way of air raids, and since then renovated. Fans of the movie apparently visit to this day. I am sorry I did not. Timetables are everything, especially in England with its many independent rail lines and countless connections. During my recent sojourn of several weeks, I traveled exclusively by train from one part of the kingdom to another, about thirty different trips including transfers on half a dozen lines, forever checking my watch. Although I write as a tourist and not a regular commuter for whom disappointments and delays no doubt are part of their general experience, in my own not once did a train arrive and depart late. Quarter hours were faithfully kept. Miss McKay would have been pleased. Sad to say, the days of trains with individual entrances to compartments have passed.
© Kenneth Radu, 2012
Photos courtesy Kenneth Radu
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC in the not too distant future. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.