s l e e p e r

990428.2343 paddington station , london

deep metallic chant of a distant pneumatic drill working somewhere in brunel’s glorious vaults . i sit in a carriage furbished , i should say , sometime in mid seventies . honey-hued veneer on the walls , muddy olive and pinky-brown velour on fibreglass-cased seats . circular frosted glass lights pierce the leatherette luggage rack overhead .

this is the sleeper train to penzance . i’ve never travelled it before . i arrived at twenty past eleven hoping there’d be a berth free . the ticket office directed me to the platform and to the train steward . i found her and yes , there was an empty berth . i reserved it ( number three ) . and followed her direction to find the conductor who would be able to upgrade my ticket and tell me where to stick my bicycle .

[ we’re off ]

she pointed down the platform and told me he tended to hang out round the lounge . he was wearing a green blazer and a daffodil . i would recognise him . sure enough i did . a quiet-spoken man in his late fifties , grey hair and a plump grey moustache . from his manner and speech i wonder if he might be scandinavian .

[ we’re passing a eurostar train , its carriage lights extinguished , on its way to the north pole depot in west london . the youth across the aisle from me turns on a tiny television and twists between stations and gasps of hiss . ]

while we were in paddington one of the new heathrow express trains pulled into the platform beside us , shed its population of mainly-young people with their bright synthetic fabrics and neat tight back-packs . through the window the cabin of the new rolling stock looked icily perfect , a transport fit to the conquering , designed , technologised future which seems so to allure us . perfectly curved seats with moulded plastic bodies and deep blue fabric . pierced polished steel linking wall and floor . a gleaming black sheet of glass suspended at one end , but more , a video screen playing perfectly-produced advertisements for a multinational computer company in 16:9 . ten minutes later it slid eerily out again , accelerating almost silently along the platform .

every detail of the seats’ design had been considered , and every aspect of their connection with the envelope . similar attention had been taken with the process of manufacture . every seat was identical , every hole in the skirting maintained perfect alignment and breadth .

i was left searching for the signs of humanity , of those who had honed and constructed this great tool for moving humans and their chattels around . but i could see evidence only of the machines which had played such a great part in her design and fabrication . and i felt a little sad .

: cH

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