1 Soul Departs from the Wrong Side of the Tracks
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
Wrong side of the track?
Four words and I’m on the wrong side of the tracks. I insult an official, not intended, not major … a niggle, that’s all.
‘Are we on time?’ The guard blinks, oh dear, I can’t unsay it. This is Germany and an express train, for goodness sake. But I’m on his wrong side.
His top lip curls and he stiffens. ‘Of course, sir.’ Metallic clarity from stiff lips, like in a war movie.
He turns, red beard bristling and stalks out of the compartment. I expect he’s thinking bloody English. Like many Europeans, Scottishness doesn’t always spring to mind. Neither of us knows what’s coming.
Wrong side of the guard, right side of the train
My question is fair, the express left Hannover a few minutes late, and I’m on a tight connection. Still, I’m definitely on the wrong side of the guard, who marches past once more. It looks like he may fancy punching a bit more than my ticket. I mentally shrug and pull my jacket on. My luggage is lined up for departure. I check my watch, sigh and am sitting back when …
Bang! A soul is now departing …
Some sounds you never forget. I’m in the front carriage, and this is one of them: a crunching, splattering thud at the front of the train. My, talk about the wrong side of the tracks. I instinctively know what the impact is. A split second later, the brakes slam on, hard, with a squealing, skidding shriek of biting metal. Hundreds of metres down the line, we stop with a final spasmodic jerk.
Feet thud up the coach. My “annoyed” guard crashes through the door beside me, pulling on a high-visibility waistcoat. An enticing waft of coffee trails after him, an incongruous match for his urgency. He hurtles away, feet pounding an urgent rhythm. He slams a braced shoulder into the next door. It crashes 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 a coffee and return to my seat.
Meanwhile, from left field …
An unkempt, burly middle-aged man wanders in. One shirttail hangs 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.
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, but 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 the 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 very large guard arrives. He stops. A pile of envelopes escape from his hands and scatters over the floor.
‘Don’t pick them up, sir.’ He gathers a few strays up the passageway 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, and they’ll look after you.’
‘And this?’ I lift 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 compulsive 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
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’re building an escape route for passengers.
In ten minutes, the corridor is full of people leaving the train. A crowded bendy bus awaits.
25 minutes after that, 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 ten minutes or so – I think she gave me a coffee too. Forty minutes later, I’m on a fast train to the Dutch border.
Even now, in quiet moments, I wonder about that person, so near to me at the moment of death. What led to the awful leap into the path of a speeding express?
It’s a people thing
The 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 working 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