It is a cold day in October and by half-past eight the early fog has still not lifted. At ten years old I am taking the half-hour train ride to school with my friend Dominic. These are the electric trains of the Southern Region, which scuttle up and down all day between the suburbs and London. Some of the carriages are open-plan with connecting corridors but most of them are split into separate compartments, so that each train has dozens of doors, allowing hundreds of commuters to get in or out within seconds. They are known as slam-door trains, because of the banging of all those individual doors that is heard at every station.
Sometimes we have to change from a fast to a stopping train. This means waiting on Motspur Park station, not far from the athletics track where Roger Bannister once trained for his record-breaking four-minute mile. Our own sports to pass the time before the next train arrives are somewhat less athletic though perhaps more inventive. They are certainly more hazardous, as they include a number of variations on the game of ‘chicken’.
Today this involves taking turns to stand near the platform edge, facing the incoming train and jumping repeatedly, putting our legs together and then apart, then together again, and apart again, fast and faster. It has the excitement of the dance and the adrenalin of a dangerous sport, although perhaps we don’t realise the true risks involved.
It’s my turn now, and I begin with a jerky sort of jumping then quickly increase my pace, shouting and laughing. The train looms up out of the fog, and as it rushes into the station I continue with the game, jumping the splits and daring the driver, to and fro in a laughing frenzy, until at the key moment as the driver catches my eye, my right leg suddenly slips down – down and further down between platform edge and inrushing carriages, an impossibly slender gap which in my mind now turns into the deepest of chasms, the train rattling madly by, close to my shivering face. An irretrievable moment of fall, and I seem to be still falling, and although there is no further to go, yet the terrifying dropping sensation just keeps going.
I hold myself as steady as I can, rigid with terror, the left leg kneeling on cold stone, the mind racing and focused entirely on not moving the right leg, knowing that to do so means death. Although I am still in some sense falling, my perceptions seem to freeze into the eternity of this moment, as I watch the dark wooden running-boards below the door-sills hurtling past me. I strain my neck muscles to lean my head as far away from the train as possible, but even so I feel the rush of air and smell the rancid mix of oil and dust from the electric motors under the carriages. I hear the grinding wheels on the steel rails, and the squeal of the brakes and a distant shout of alarm from somewhere far away on the platform. Perhaps that is my own voice screaming or is it Dominic calling to me? Perhaps I am dying. Maybe I’m not such a superhero after all.
In these days on every platform there are dramatic posters warning of the dangers of opening the door before the train has stopped. The posters usually show a child about to be hit by a door being carelessly opened by a smiling pipe-smoking man in a jaunty-looking trilby. No posters, though, warn passengers or drivers about children dancing with death in the misty mornings.
As the train stops I carefully extract my leg and sit back looking at it in shock, by now feeling disconnected from it, as if one strand in time has already sent me off into my own destruction. I begin the attempt to mentally join the leg back to my mind, but I can’t quite do it: it seems to have already gone. I place myself a long way back from the platform edge, trying to smile, and the other commuters stare at me, appalled at the idiocy of the game, but they have to get on with their day, so they shake their heads and board the train which by now is ready to pull out of the station.
I sit this one out and let it go on its way, and I am left in the cold with the suddenly-silent Dominic and we wait for the following train, knowing that it will be several minutes before it arrives, and hoping that by that time we may have recovered our senses. This is my most public fall so far, maybe performed for my friend, for the sake of attention or causing sensation, or even just to provide memorable incident in the tedium of schoolboy life. In this respect and this respect alone, I am successful: it is definitely a memorable incident.
* * *
This fall at the station is a moment to which I have often returned, and once it is recalled, even many years later, it is hard to uncouple the memory and let it go again. The fear in that petrified 10-year old child is still there, leg lost over the cliff-face, waiting for the impact. Where that hip joins leg and trunk, some catastrophe that never happened is still located, this memory neither quite bodily nor really mental but of some other dark substance that seems hard to know about. That moment remains forever, an inescapable tunnel of fear in the hillside of memory.