He watched as the view turned from the flat patchwork farms to a dull red rock, the walls passing by close and fast. It reminded him of when he was a boy, throwing sticks into the narrow rivers near his home, or jumping at the branches that hung over the rocks, hoping the water would drag them downstream. Still, all that was different. Granite and tree climbing, the crystal roughness of stone and woodland wetness of moss on branches were the senses of his childhood, replaced by weary collapse on worn bus seats or the splintered top of his cheap flat-pack desk. Everything now was manufactured and besides, he didn’t like to think of himself as a boy any more. Out along the coast, the land and sea split by twin iron tracks he couldn’t see and the clouds thinning out at height, he thought of the other times, the hundreds of times, he’d come this way before. It didn’t matter where he went or who with — looking out of a train window always left him with a pleasurable sense of melancholy, and events or places of past and future seemed a world away.
The sea here could look so different at speed, it was a paint splash on the blur outside. In the late sun of a summer evening, it mottled where the breezes played over it and was marked by the wakes of little sailing boats as they scratched at the wind, half a mile distant. Flashing fast right by the window, the stone seawall bore the ferocity of stronger winds and heavier seas, a frontal attack so fierce the piers, rails and paths collapsed into the water almost irreparably. That, like everything else, felt a long way off. Even the others travelling with him were just figures consumed by their lives he knew nothing about.
That was what made this so lonely — other people. He did not speak to anyone, just caught their reflection in the window or their eyes across the carriage, looking briefly for a moment before the sea or something else took one of them away.
The clouds at different heights looked like pictures. It was like a test or experiment: what you made them out to be was supposed to reveal your personality, as if form or colour’s interpretation had a bearing on your person. The highest were unattainable, purest white and beautiful; flicks, great violent stabs at the blue that defied them. As the train separated earth and sea, contrails from aircraft broke the sky at right angles. It was those that truly defied. Sinuous and staked into the ground, the rails were dictated by the roll of a hill and, like anything manmade and permanent, ended at the water’s edge. In the air, planes could avoid all that — in height, distance, speed and vision, they beat all else.
Yet it is all so different up there. There was no sense of memory or time in the skies as there was when crossing a bridge or passing towns known only by their station. As frost spiders around the edges of the window, they in plane seats sit buckled above all they know. Light, plants, the way the country changes as seen through a train window was enough to hold his attention and change, if subtly, a mood. Where all there is is empty, we are the smallest versions of ourselves. Either awed by or ignorant of how we got there, the world’s vast and constant envelope of air makes us powerless to shape or feel it as we rush through in machines of our own design, the ground only sometimes there and only changing when not looked at.
Passing back into green and rooting his thoughts more firmly on the ground, it struck him that given long enough, everywhere became a resting place for old times. The places that he disliked held the painful, embarrassing, uncomfortable and desperate memories, made in childhood through mistakes, and those that drew him back again and again were arenas of personal triumph or safehouses, where he took past happiness to guarantee pleasure now. Anywhere intriguing was still too young and raw to have a side. The excitement and onslaught on mind and sense that anticipation and new places brought was a curious and irresistible mix of trepidation, distance from home, confidence or independence, and a need for lasting memories. It was artificial, a veneer over the unknown. At its core, it held all back all that was sad.