Mum and I had taken the car into town. It was busy and we had to go up and up the stacked car park to find a space. Once I’d slammed the door, I noticed we were high enough to see a snatch of the steely train tracks that lie below. A bright red Virgin train passed, sounding its horn―you know it’s such a sad sound. It evoked a lot more: I could also smell the train’s interior—a smell of magazines, of other people’s bitter coffee and bacon sandwiches. I could hear the pulsing of the tracks, feel that strange hunger from very early mornings when excitement and nerves make it hard to eat.
Almost every year my family and I would take that train through green hills and rough towns, graffiti-covered walls and cold train stations up to Scotland―it would carry us halfway through our journey, just up to Glasgow, on our way to a remote island called Iona, in the same cluster of islands as the Mitford family island and the island where George Orwell wrote 1984 in complete solitude.
To feel that far away from everything, but still so utterly at home, is something I miss. That island was part of our routine; I knew it well, and yet every year it held new people and new experiences. My family is older now, and my brother and I have spun out in our own directions—so family holidays aren’t quite the same. Young families, out of necessity, become so tightly bound they become an entity, especially when traveling. I miss those times, and those journeys.
And it was the journey that made it. To take a plane and just arrive there—to not comprehend how far you’ve come, from Birmingham to Glasgow to Oban by train, to sea crossings and coach rides and a small boat and eventually to a spot on the white-sand beach where you could look out and there would be nothing until America—wouldn’t be the same.
I stood there in the car park and let myself remember. There was a deep pang of something or other that resolved in pain and then faded to a strange comfort. It was comforting to know that that red train still existed. Those tracks still led somewhere, and that train still rode those tracks cutting through the country, not only in my imagination but right now. And on some unspecified day I would be on it again.
I don’t worry so much about Dad, because I think of him as the bravest in our family. He has a steely veneer, but also a humility he has arrived at by working in the church. Everybody asks for a piece of his attention, an airing of their worries, perhaps unaware that they are not the only one. Dad is the least selfish person I know. He’s had a lot of trouble with his eyes lately. Been to hospital countless times. He’s been home more than ever―having to position himself sideways on the sofa to keep an air bubble in his eye in the right place. We haven’t been able to relax into the summer—only into the sofa. Even if we had booked a holiday, we wouldn’t have been able to go. And so me and Dad sit in our places, in our house.
On one particularly bad day last year that I can only differentiate as the day I tried to meditate, I wrote Gandhi’s 10 fundamentals for changing the world in felt-tip pen on the end of my bed. I used to stare at the red “WITHOUT ACTION YOU AREN’T GOING ANYWHERE” in utter frustration. It mocked me when I was stuck―unable to go out, unable to eat, unable to sleep. The colours are fading now, and there has been action―good action―but I still don’t feel I am going anywhere. ♦