Colin Wheatley is from Dublin, Ireland, where he works as a software developer. Colin recently completed an MA in Film at University College Dublin.
He has been published in Silver Apples Magazine.
By Colin Wheatley
I have always cut it close. Dentist’s appointments, college submissions, airport check-ins (any form of public transport, really), even bathroom visits. I can’t be early, only on time (or late). I don’t know why this is, other than to say that I hate dilly-dallying (which is funny because I invariably waste a reported 2.3 hours every day on my phone, a weekly statistic which has no effect outside causing temporary guilt or self-satisfaction, depending on how the figure compares to the previous week).
Take the train, for instance. There’s a traffic light halfway between my house and the station that is decisive in my morning commute. If the pedestrian signal is green, I will make the train and arrive at work bang on the hour (albeit with a debilitating case of shin splints from having to huff it most of the way). If it’s red, I may as well go home and wait for the next. It’s that tight. What’s more, I now take it for granted that the train will be delayed. In fact, I have come to rely on a delay of two minutes, which the rail company are only too happy to oblige me with.
Today the train is delayed fifteen minutes. The platform monitor says so. I could have saved myself the time had I downloaded the rail service’s app. It’s the only way to stay connected now. Instead, I spent 99c on WeCroak, the app that reminds you you’re going to die.
The app is supposed to bring you inner peace, the idea being that if you treat every day like it’s your last, then everyday concerns like work and mortgage payments would suddenly appear trivial in comparison. At a minimum, it’s designed to encourage users to appreciate the time they have.
I muted it after less than a week.
The daily reminders had become just another message to ignore, another notification informing me that a schoolfriend who I haven’t spoken to in twenty years has updated their Facebook status, another email telling me that my non-existent bank account is overdrawn and to “click on this link” to speak to a customer representative. The messages had lost their impetus.
You can tell a lot about a person based on routines. For example, some people always occupy the first spot they encounter on leaving the station house. Self-centred and oblivious, they think nothing of the potential for crowding at access points. Others are more calculating. They have a preferred platform position that they’ve identified over time. They know something the former group don’t—the carriage closest to the exit—and may get irritated when someone takes their spot.
The end of the platform has always been quieter, so I navigate there, trying to maintain the advised distance from other passengers without getting too close to the tracks. On the wall is a sign warning commuters to stay away from the yellow line. Next to that is a sign warning them to stay away from other people.
I pass a group of familiar strangers, commuters who generally share the same train as me but whom I’ve never spoken to. Today a few are dressed as surgeons. Interspersed alongside this group are several unfamiliar faces who I presume are waiting on the earlier train. Among the latter is a group of schoolboys, some of them brandishing hurls. The station will be teeming today.
I check the arrival time on a nearby screen, but it still says fifteen minutes. On the opposing platform, a second group of schoolboys engage in a lively debate with the first group as their friends huddle around school bags and play with their phones. The second group are egging the first on; they want them to hit a sliotar across the tracks so that they can play an impromptu game.
More passengers arrive at the station, but still the trains fail to approach. The platforms are getting busy now, noisy. The latest commuters are surprised to find the previous group still there. They search for space anxiously, some considering whether to leave the station altogether. For many, it’s the first time they’ve used public transport in over a month. The experience is strangely alien.
Again I check the screen, and again it says fifteen minutes. Other passengers are doing the same, some becoming restless. It’s as if time has stopped and our lives have been put on hold. If someone, an official, would tell us what’s going on, that would at least provide reassurance. It’s the not knowing that really hurts.
The train is delayed indefinitely—a “points failure” on the lines is to blame, an official announces over the PA system as if the terminology means anything to us. He apologises for the hold-up, displaying what appears to be genuine remorse. The announcement is met by collective groans, nonetheless.
The schoolboys take the announcement as a cue, and they begin to puck the sliotar back and forth across the tracks. Advertising billboards to their rear act as goals and their friends provide the audience, celebrating each successful pass and oohing those that only barely make it to the other side. When the ball does end up on the tracks, the two argue over who will retrieve it, until one, presumably the owner, jumps down to collect. Each time this happens, the boys’ courage grows; they dare each other to stay down longer and hit the sliotar harder at their opponent in an attempt to force a mistake.
Other, older, passengers eye the boys warily—they don’t understand personal space and must be avoided. The rest of the passengers watch the game with interest, some admiring the boys’ youthful bravado, and others still shaking their heads and asking how their parents could raise them to be so reckless, when really they would have done the same at their age.
The train is delayed further. Ten minutes, the official assures us, though his voice betrays a hint of doubt. The delay doesn’t seem to faze the boys, who are more than happy to continue their game. Maybe they don’t care. Probably they have nothing to do anyway, nowhere to go—school can wait.
The delay is worse for others. A young man in a suit glares at the heavens before checking the time on his watch. He looks as if he’s going to leave the station, in search of other forms of transport, an act of defiance. He won’t. Instead, he’ll wait patiently, and tomorrow he’ll return to the station, and the day after that, and so on and so on, because what choice does he really have?
The official provides an update over the PA: the engineers have resolved the issue and the trains are en route once more. He apologises one last time and the countdown recommences.
Ten minutes quickly becomes five, but the boys do not stop their game. If anything, they seem more intent on finishing now: there must be a winner—and a loser. A woman stands next to me, and I can see the concern and frustration on her face. She has the look of a mother and wonders why the boys are doing this to her, why they must fill her with trepidation as they flout death. She doesn’t seem to realise it’s a game.
The boys continue as the trains approach from either side. The south-bound is roughly a stop away, the north almost the same, the trains, from a distance, on an apparent collision course. The south is bearing down on the station when the sliotar finds the tracks once more. The debate over who should fetch it—Who’s closer? Whose fault was it?—is more heated this time. Neither boy will volunteer, though neither wishes to appear weak in front of their friends, who jeer and heckle and call them chickens.
The boy on the north platform ultimately concedes. He jumps down onto the tracks, where the south-bound greets him with a whistle. The other commuters look on, their eyes darting between the train and tracks as the overhead lines start to crackle, the ground trembles. The motherly woman can no longer watch and she turns away. She waits for the sound, the screeching of brakes followed by the gasps of horrified commuters, while I recall all the times I cursed the rail service for hold-ups, and the guilt I later felt when I learned the delay was due to an “incident on the tracks”.
We needn’t have worried. The boy emerges, dragging himself onto the platform with the ball in hand. He receives a hero’s welcome from his friends, the same group who only seconds earlier jeered him, as the south-bound pulls into the station.
The north-bound arrives soon after and the passengers pile on looking for space. Working my way through the crowd, I reach the handrail on the other side of the carriage—another preferred spot—as the automatic doors slide shut with a hiss that sounds like an airlock closing. Panicking, a couple of passengers attempt to hold their breath. They barely manage a minute before they’re gasping. The train departs then, slowly at first, lurching out of the station under the weight of the heaving carriages, then faster as we attempt to resume regular service.
This is great. I really laughed early on. “even bathroom visits” and “I muted after less than a week” being stand-out comic turns, for me anyway…
Then the relatable routine becomes increasingly tense.
I found myself asking a lot of questions, like at what point will a person act outside in-built routines?
Do we rely that heavily on instruction, be it from peers (the lad getting on the tracks), from institutions (the rail announcer), or societal ones (the recommended distancing).
All of these instructions are valid and make total sense to follow, but as the story builds to a possible disaster, and when the narrator is clearly so aware of everything (down to the timing of traffic lights and how it effects his shin splints!), how does a person step outside those confines?
I was genuinely relieved when the tension released at the end, so great writing to build that in such a short piece, really enjoyable and really interesting