an autotelian journey
Goods wagons full of freight speed through the main station, which is underground. This has an eerie effect, as if you saw a trainload of wood, stone & new cars rush past a London tube platform; as if for some reason freight were being moved in secret down the tunnels. These Autotelian trains are wide, boxy & plain. Most seem to be painted maroon. They look shabby, but they are much cleaner, quieter and smoother to ride in than ours. They have one huge glaring headlamp on as they come out of the tunnel; they have a yellow stripe down the side. Back on the surface they rush between suburbs, past houses of a hundred shapes, sizes & colours. Wet tin roofs gleam in the morning light. The suburban stations are built from the neatest, most uniformly coloured, most sharp-edged bricks I have ever seen–architect’s bricks, not builders’ bricks. Designer bricks. Out in the country at last the train runs through steep cuttings under piled white cumulus clouds. The horse chestnut candles are going out, dim and pink and dignified. May blossom is showing in the hedges: after a while you begin to smell it–or imagine you can smell it–inside the carriage. Lilac bushes bulge over the garden fences, drenched suddenly by unpredictable showers. Fifty or sixty miles later, stands of sparse mixed woodland colonise the sandy soil; grow dense & full of unfamiliar blue flowers like smoke; then thin to heath, where the lanes are narrow, the bridges made of dark red stone, soft in texture. Eventually the woodland becomes continuous. It’s full of curiosities–a strange black urn on a plinth, rising above the trees with no clue as to what it might be, no sign of a park or a great house to which it might belong. Then a shallow pool with enchanted, intricate shorelines in complex intimate curves, out of which protrude hundreds of blanched dead trees. The forest ends suddenly. Long granite spines break up the landscape. The line starts its long shallow run down across the farmland to the coast. The train’s heading into cloud, full-bodied and firm, but for a moment the sun still blesses us: it spills & foams off a weir, turns the ploughland luminous against a darkening sky. We smile out into it, eyes half shut, expressions at once pained & cheerful, difficult to interpret.