The doors clunk shut behind me. I look around the train for a seat but there are none free. People sit squashed up against each other, trying to read books or text. I stand in the middle of the carriage, hand firmly grasping the back of someone’s seat. The information bar flickers into life and scrolls place names in quick succession. The announcement repeats the locations but they’re distorted and difficult to hear. I check my phone.
5:45p.m. 1 New Message. Mum.
Hi Ben hope you are ok. are you on the train now?
I text back: Yeah, I’m fine. Just leaving now. Back in half an hour x
‘The end of an era,’ Dad had said, when I told him I was thinking of moving back home. ‘We’d love to have you back, son. Your mum will be thrilled!’
I knew she would be.
‘It’ll be like you’re seventeen again!’ she said when she heard, her laughter bouncing down the phone line. ‘Like going back in time.’
Like the past 4 years of writing essays, reading books and lectures lectures lectures hadn’t happened. I’m the same person; just older, poorer, and with BA (Hons) at the end of my name. Then I felt guilty for resenting the move home. I’m an English graduate; I should be happy to have a roof over my head.
The careers adviser had talked to me in first year. He told me an English degree was a good choice for Higher Education and that I would have many options available to me.
‘Advertising, teaching, library work, journalism, creative writing, publishing, T.V. and radio work. The list goes on, Ben.’
I’d left his office with a grin on my face and a swagger in my step. Now, after graduation, it felt like a grimace and a limp. I’d searched the job websites, handed CVs into shops with signs in the windows, handed CVs into shops without signs in the windows, signed on, got told I had to ‘widen my search to include non-graduate jobs’, signed off; the lot. And still nothing. ‘Nothingness is the yet-to-be-born god of the world,’ said Büchner. He was talking about the Scottish job market, I was pretty sure.
Until one day, my mum phoned me, chattering about a new development in Linlithgow.
‘It’s awful. As if we need another supermarket! And to think they’ll ruin that nice green field on the way into town. What will the tourists think, coming to visit the Royal Burgh and the first thing they see is a bloody Asda?’
I looked it up online. The rumours were true. Asda was wading into town, challenging Tesco and Sainsbury’s to the championship. It’d be a royal rumble, only I knew which side I’d be on. After much internal debate – Is this giving up? No, it’s tiding myself over – I handed in my CV with the best covering letter anyone’s ever seen. The phone rang one evening and I just knew.
‘Hello?’ I answered.
They called me in for a ‘quick chat’ and in five minutes my life changed. Gone were the days of boredom and poverty; here was a chance for boredom and breadline existence. Dad was overjoyed. No more arguments.
‘Well, Ben, you’re the one who did an English degree in a recession. I told you to try for something more secure, but you insisted.’
‘There are jobs for English graduates, Dad, but I’m not going to find one stacking fucking shelves for £5 an hour.’
‘I am not having you turn out like some waster who stumbles about pissed out of his head at 2pm on a Saturday because you have nothing better to do. You need a job. End of.’
It’s my first day tomorrow and I reckon I know exactly what to expect. The manager will be a nightmare. Either a graduate, like me, who’s been forced to give up looking for jobs in the area they’ve trained in; or a grunt who’s worked their way up. They’ll give me lists of tasks that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things and expect me to pour my heart and soul into scrubbing shelves or rotating stock. I know it’s snobby to look down on jobs like that now I have a degree, but there’s a little part of me that’s terrified this is both the start and end of the rest of my life. What if I’m one of those overqualified statistics the government use to slag universities off? This has to be temporary, I repeat to myself. Temporary.
The train judders and I grip the seat hard, saving myself from falling. A woman behind me loses her balance and crashes full force into my back. She steadies herself, mumbles an apology, and stuffs her rhubarb face back into her book. We stop. I look out the window and try to work out where we are. Some no man’s land in-between Glasgow and Falkirk. Other people on the train look around, questions in their eyes. A loud ping from the PA system and the distorted voice crackles to life again.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of ScotRail, we are sorry for the delay. There has been an incident ahead of us and I will keep you informed of any further developments. Once again, ScotRail apologises for any inconvenience this delay may cause.’
The speech ends with a pop and the carriage erupts into conversation. I look at my phone again.
1 New Message. Mum.
Let us know when your at the station and ill put dinner on.
An old man in a suit standing next to me leans over. ‘Any idea what’s going on?’
I look at him, blank faced. ‘How would I know what’s happening?’
‘Eh, I dunno. That thing of yours not get updates?’ He points at my phone.
‘This thing barely gets text messages,’ I say, waving the old brick at him.
He shrugs and turns around, asking someone else if they know anything. I wonder about the possibilities. Terrorists storming trains, taking hostages, robbing and murdering people. Or someone sitting quietly with a rucksack of wires and a ticking clock. I wait for the lights to cut out, for people to scream, for gruff voices to order us onto the ground. But nothing happens. Then ping.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, ScotRail would like to apologise for the delay. We are still awaiting news of the disruption and I will update you as soon as we know anything. Uh, once again, ScotRail apologises for any inconvenience this may cause.’
There’s a crackle but the PA is still on. ‘No idea, mate. Wish control would fucking tell us something instead of making us sit around and wait. Dickheads.’
Everyone laughs. I imagine the newspapers tomorrow, probably The Sun or Daily Mail. TRAIN TANNOY SWEARING SHAME. The article would be light, bashed out in under five minutes, but the comments would be outraged that ‘there were kids on board and thats not acceptible’ and probably go on to blame the entire public sector.
People on phones tell girlfriends, wives, husbands, babysitters, that they’re going to be late and they’re sorry. Some coo I love yous and kisses, others mutter ‘Well it’s not my bloody fault is it?’ I look at my phone again. 6:20pm. I should be in Linlithgow by now. The screen flashes.
1 New Message. Mum.
Are you okay? not heard from you.
I text her back a quick explanation. Train’s delayed. Will let you know when we’re moving again.
The train judders and jolts into motion, slowly. Everyone’s looking around, grateful that we’re not stranded in the middle of nowhere anymore. As the conversation subsides and people turn back to their laptops, phones or books, there’s another ping.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, as you will see we are on the move again. ScotRail would like to again apologise for the delay. This was caused by an accident at Linlithgow station, which remains closed. As such, this train will now terminate at Polmont station and a replacement bus service will take over the remainder of your journey.’
The train is silent for a moment and then bursts back into life. Gesturing, shouting, kicking anger fills the carriage. ‘Polmont? POLMONT? They’re dumping us in fucking Polmont?!’
I text Mum again. Train terminating at Polmont. Come get me?
Over the commotion, the PA announces Falkirk High and the doors hiss open. The carriage clears a little and I find a seat. After watching housing estates fly past for a minute, I flick through my phonebook, just for something to do.
Last I’d heard, Adam did admin for a computer games company; Alistair was still studying to become an accountant; Amy had started her own business and Ashley was doing filing in a lawyer’s office. Tomorrow I’m officially a sales assistant. What decision was it that led to this? Why was it me who ended up in an irrelevant job, not one of them? At what point did things for me change? Maybe it was studying English, like Dad said. Maybe it was my choice of uni. Maybe having a degree didn’t really matter after all. My eyes flick back into focus and I look at the information bar. The next stop is Polmont.
I look outside and see that it’s raining. Mum hasn’t texted back and my jacket doesn’t have a hood. The train slows and eventually stops. Doors judder open, letting the weather spill into the carriage. I get up and step out, holding a Metro over my head. I run to the shelter but it’s locked and the windows have been boarded up. Bloody vandals, Dad would say.
I squint left and right, looking for Mum or the car’s headlights, but the station is empty and dark. A crisp packet blows up in the wind and hurtles past me onto the tracks as I watch a crow try to fly against the wind. I keep checking my phone, starting to worry that the rain might seep through the gaps and break it. As I go to put it away, the screen lights up and I press Read.
In the car park now.
I run over, my face burning with the cold and the rain, and see the car waiting. Mum starts the engine and the headlights flash on. In the downpour they look like they are crying or melting. I open the door and slide into the passenger seat.
‘Hiya!’ Mum coos. ‘How are you? Soaking?’
‘Yeah, pure drenched,’ I say, fastening my seatbelt.
‘Pure, eh? Won’t find much of that West Coast talk back in Linlithgow, I’m afraid. You’ll have to settle into the Central accent now.’ She looks outside and pulls a face, tucking her brown waves behind her ears. ‘God, what a night.’
We sit in silence for a bit as she pulls back onto the main road. I adjust the heating.
‘Take it you heard about the station?’ she asks.
‘I heard there was an accident but that’s it.’
‘Suicide,’ she says, the word hanging in the air. ‘The whole station’s cordoned off but I stopped and asked a policeman. Some poor guy jumped in front of a train, apparently. They’ve been finding bits of him all over the car park.’
I stare out of the window and watch as the sky gets darker.
‘Not the first time that’s happened either,’ she says.
We sit quietly for a little while longer and then she changes the subject.
‘So, are you excited about moving back?’
‘About as excited as I can be, yeah.’
‘Get to see all your old friends and everything,’ she smiles, trying to make this seem better.
‘All my old friends moved away, Mum. Uni, jobs, families.’
She shrugs slightly, eyes fixed on the road. We don’t talk much for the rest of the journey.
Pulling up, I thank Mum for the lift. She collects her handbag from the back seat as I step out, my jacket over my head since the Metro got soaked through. I glance up at the house. My parents’ house. My home now. Again. On a sunny day it would look picturesque but everything looks depressing in the rain. We both run into the house, our footsteps splashing on the path.
Inside, Dad’s had the heating on, and I can hear the TV in the sitting room. An audience applauding. It feels almost like a welcome party. I hang my jacket to dry and take off my shoes as Mum motions me through. I step into the living room and Dad mutes his show. He stands up and shakes my hand, smiling. He’s getting a bit of a stomach and his hair’s beginning to thin, but his beard is as full as ever.
‘Ben! How are you? Not too wet, I hope.’
‘I’m alright, Dad, thanks. Just a spot of bother with the trains.’
‘Yes, your mother mentioned. What was it this time? Broken down again?’
‘Suicide,’ I say. The air seems to chill with that word.
‘Ah,’ Dad looks down, frowning. ‘Bit inconsiderate, don’t you think? Causing all that disruption…’
I look at him for a moment, his face solid and straight, and then he cracks into a laugh.
‘I’m joking! Of course, it’s horrible. Come on, sit down, have a drink. Welcome home.’
Mum brings through three glasses and a bottle and pours the red until the glasses are ‘filled properly’, as she would say. To the brim is what most people would call it.
‘Wine is bottled poetry,’ Dad says, taking his glass from Mum. ‘You know who said that?’
I pause for a moment, thinking hard. ‘Stevenson?’ I try.
‘Ah well done – a true English student!’ he laughs. ‘So, tell me about this Asda job.’