I grew up a long way from here, not just in terms of years but in distance. Over two hundred miles, a long way in England, anyway. It seems so. I lived in a small town of about 20,000 people but I never felt I knew everybody; I never have. Life started to change when I was about 18. There had been changes before that, but these were changes I was excited about, leaving home. Discovering things. Differences. The idea that not everywhere was like the little town I lived in. That other people had other ideas and some of them had ideas like me. Maybe it was the times, maybe it was just how old I was, but I felt change coming, an idea that things were going to change in a progressively better way. I don’t know people who think that way now.
At the same time as this idea of some non-specific progress I was becoming more aware of the past, from the grass mound at Avebury I’d drive past on the A4 going up to London to the fantastic vision of Brunel’s Paddington station, giving the ultimate lie to the gimcrackery of steampunk. Some of the trains I got back home were ancient, especially on the Sunday service to Westbury, but all of them had a certain feel about them, that they were taking me somewhere special. Not to Trowbridge where I lived, not to Westbury where the fast train junction was. But to the future, by way of the past. I wrote this a couple of years ago, mostly. But it speaks with the same voice I think I had back then.
Late Train Out of Paddington
When I’d been to an interview for university
One year or another a long time ago,
I’d stay with my step-sister in Notting Hill.
She was ten years older than me
Doing Law after her PhD and going back
I’d get a late train out of Paddington.
I’d come up on the Thursday and wait for them to get home.
They had a light for burglars that came on by itself
So I could never tell if they were at home or not.
Often I hoped they were out so I could drink
In the Sun In Splendour, me with a book,
An actor from a TV cop show with his book too.
One night a woman came in asking about her friend
Who’d killed himself; No-one said they knew
Who she was talking about until she’d gone.
I’d smoked strong cigarettes and gone to a Russian bistro
Or we’d go to Geales’s for fish just around the corner,
Like everything else worth doing in London then.
I put my brass Zippo lighter on top of my cigarettes on the table.
I’d eaten broccoli quiche and good bread and butter
Cut with a razorlike old knife on thin antique plates.
I’d done my interview on Friday at UCL or Brighton or City
Or somewhere. I didn’t really care;
But I wanted to be in Notting Hill back then.
I didn’t buy any henna for my hair in Portobello.
I didn’t buy a yak hair coat or a broken Anglepoise lamp
I could fix or 1940s French cordorouy trousers with braces off the stalls
But I saw a woman naked when I walked past her bedroom door.
Ten years older than me, an actress in a film
I hadn’t seen. My bare feet silent on the wooden floor.
I couldn’t mention it then. I still can’t now.
I’d drunk red wine and wondered how I was going to live here,
Before the Tube to Paddington, haunted with the ghosts of steam trains
Under Brunel’s airy iron roof, my train on the platform past the sign
Advertising Harlech Television, “Your Station Back Home.”
Sometimes the carriages were so old they had
Wooden windows pulled up by a leather strap.
After I’d found my seat and stowed my bag
And found out where the loo was
I opened my New Musical Express,
Or Sounds, spreading it out on the table
So people could see but really
I watched the white of the tall old houses
Backing on to the tracks.
I remember the hum of the big train flexing,
Then coasting over the points, gathering itself
While it tugged at the skirts of Georgian London,
Then the big quiet push of the diesel when it
Got the scent of open country,
Settling me into my seat
With a bottle of Special Brew from the buffet car.
Actually, better make that two.
Rain slashed the trees as the sun set around Reading;
I got glimpses of strangers’s lives and tried to remember
The two abandoned farmhouses near the tracks.
You and I could have lived in either of them
If I’d ever known where they were.
First I needed to do university, then when I had a job
Whatever it was, when I got paid and when
I’d learned how to fix-up houses,
When there was a different you
And the you I knew then had become someone else
And you were just an infrequent memory;
When I knew you would be. And anyway
Nothing really happened to go that way.
I can still see out of the window and hear the boom
Of the engine as it winds out towards Swindon.
I can see the naked white backs of Georgian houses
From the tracks that carry the late train out of Paddington
But I can’t seem to find my seat anymore.
(C) Carl Bennett 2014