Benjamin Gets The Train (A Story from Inside Benjamin’s Head)
I would definitely be the first to start singing. Not the way they do it in films, all coy and bashful, a slight pursing of the lips as if an apology is forming but can’t quite make its way to the surface. No apologies.
People would start to stare, maybe put their newspapers down on the seat next to them, and watch me start to sing the first few bars and slowly raise from my seat, the identikit parade of houses blurring into an impressionist painting through the train window.
I haven’t told you what song it is yet. I wanted to wait a short while and ratchet up the suspense. I know what I’m doing; I’ve been planning this scenario for years. Maybe a little while longer.
I want the first passenger to join me dancing to be a woman, middle-aged, wearing clothes that make her fade into the background. Into the fraying upholstery tacked to the train seat with old chewing gum and indifference. She places her bag for life gently onto the seat and dances to the song I’m singing with wild abandon, inspiring an older couple nearby to throw off their coats and launch into a sprightly Charleston, casting off the years as they eye the younger passengers mischievously, daring them to join in.
By now, I’ve been joined by a gospel choir, standing by the door and belting out a version of the song that seems to radiate warmth from one end of the train to the other. Coats fall to the ground like spent leaves from the trees. I launch into a high energy dance routine choreographed to perfection and flanked by smiling backing dancers. Nobody questions why a disco ball has been lowered from the rusting train roof and is now shooting its light like lasers around the carriage. People talked about the sight of a beaming train shooting like a ray of light across the viaduct for years to come.
As the second chorus reaches its crescendo, the whole train is now dancing to the same routine as me. Young and old are joining in and young mums are dancing with their babies in their arms, waving their chubby arms at the pensioners as they swish past. No-one shows any signs of fatigue. The disco ball acts as a sign, a burning bush, willing the dancers to continue. We edge closer to the final stop on the line.
I can see the bulbous curve of the train shed now through the misty windows. Other sleeker trains overtake us and steal prime positions in the station, and the train slows and waits at a signal. Meanwhile, the dancers, passengers and I are dancing as the song fades out, fade to repeat I think it’s called. Of course we’ve timed it brilliantly. The only thing the passengers on the platform see is an elderly couple gathering their bags together and a gospel choir chatting to each other and smiling conspiratorially. A child is reprimanded by his mother after saying he saw a disco ball disappearing into the roof of the rusting train. The child stays quiet but knows what he saw and somewhere deep down knows he will see it again.
I step from the train, bag in hand, knowing that I will tell no-one about what just happened. Who would believe me anyway? People give too much away, their whole lives played out on the internet like a prosaic soap opera. This is just between me and the rest of the train. The train that I will get again tomorrow. The same sequence of events will happen, the same dance. Fade to repeat, I think it’s called. I still haven’t told you what song is playing.
Nobody knows when the passages first appeared, a nest of narrow winding lanes zigzagging across our town like shadows of the streets that we knew so well. Some said it was the recent influx of people from the city that had birthed them, as if the town had somehow reacted to these new residents by growing extra limbs. Those that had lived here for years claimed the passages had always been there, and for a time we believed them. It was easy to defer to our elders and their cosy homespun wisdom. But as events unfolded this too became an impossibility, and in retrospect seems absurd, for our town is one of casual yet keen observance. We had long spent our days wandering aimlessly through its tree-lined streets, watching cherry blossoms explode into pink, the tall magnolias dripping white like snowflakes in spring.
At first, the passages were welcomed as an extension of our curiosity. We would explore them both alone and in groups. They carved up our roads anew, snaking through our familiar town like the cobblestoned spines of long dormant beasts. Hidden gardens along the back of Warwick Avenue opened up to us in all their manicured splendour. We observed the grand mock-Tudor mansions on Claridge Road from altered perspectives. We rediscovered the town at fresh angles, like an old portrait seen in new light.
The passages defied all logic. They would appear and vanish at will, opening and closing like the valves on some unseen cosmic organ. Passages that ran east to west would suddenly deposit us at the southernmost edges of our town. Some would unfold in a straight path, only to circle back on themselves. We never knew where the passages would take us, and of course this was part of their allure.
The passages grew more ornate in their magic. Some claimed to have travelled down blind alleys that led to gilded, gas-lit streets of Belle Époque flamboyance. Some said that the passages would morph into sand-strewn desert, while for others they unfurled into arctic tundras. There were the townsfolk who saw Tokyo at night in those lanes, twisting through a sea of loud neon and noise before ending up back on Oswald Road. Several of us saw Roman ruins, cracked and weathered marble set upon horizons bathed in unending dusk.
Eventually we became resigned to the passages. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least a certain dulling to the facts, no matter how fantastic. And soon they began to vanish. Their disappearance was not swift but gradual, the way that colour fades from an aging photo. It has been years since then, and some of us now deny that they ever existed. Others believe the passages were the symptom of a mass hysteria that had once plagued the town. We are only a handful who yearn for them still, their landscapes and their mysteries, our walks along these familiar streets punctuated by glances to where they once lay.