Our nights are lamp-lit yellow, grey and black. Skin is yellow, grey and blood is black.
We stop inside the mouth of the Severn Tunnel, awaiting clearance. The train guards elbow their way down the crowded aisles to make their checks. They walk by day and so we hide indoors and ride the trains by night, crossing clammy platforms in dormitory towns for the overground south and east, blinds drawn, faces up-lit by laptops and phones. The carriages are old stock; Brutalist upholstery, rattling and draught. Coffee’s bang average and, by Cardiff, there’s never any Quavers.
Tonight, I am pressed between two tall men in woollen topcoats. In spite of the cool air in the carriage the men perspire through expensive haircuts. My podcast is telling me about a family displaced by a new reach of inland tunnels near Sheffield. The tone is one of cheerful defeatism: Mam and Dad are stoic, sad about leaving the dogs; the kids are excited about a move to the camps on the coast.
After the sightings were confirmed that August afternoon, the largest murmuration billowing like a rain cloud from behind St Paul’s, reaching down to scour the busy intersection at Bank, gouging the roads and office facades, the crowds and vehicles reduced to paste, or worse; after the trek home through the city back to our shares, an unlikely festival atmosphere in the air, strangers sharing videos, stories and bottled water; and only once close friends and family had been accounted for, did we drop our coats and bags and text our work mates; so, back to work on Monday, right?
Along the carriage lamplights are dimmed and we affect a bored indifference, or close our eyes and pretend to sleep. The standees rock gently. The train shifts gear and the engine’s purr becomes a rumble. Darkness shifts and we are out of the tunnel, moonlit fields and emptied towns roll by.
We are immune to solace. The daylight will see us stricken in our beds, our dreams full of ache; or wandering underground arcades and markets on needless errands, forced to be alone with our own thoughts. But services are still needed, infrastructure remains and people still want what they want. And these plague clouds, the tamed landscape in complete revolt, were appalling, divisive and seismic until they were not. This shift in the balance became just another thing to accommodate, folded in by human ingenuity and short-sightedness. In time, sooner than we expected, they came to loom in our collective psyche as large and unseen as the bright full moon.
Yet here in the commuter trains we are united, briefly, in something. Work presses us close enough to the world to become inured to the grinding of its gears, and we knowingly embrace work’s smallness, its tolerable ambiguity. Like a hand brought close to a red-hot stove, the world soon shrinks to the breadth of your stinging palm.
We approach the spoiled landscape outside Swindon, and what appears to be signs of an incident. The train slows to a walk, and it’s all devices off. January saw another derailment – a carriage lifted clear across Bristol and speared through St Mary’s Cathedral – and you still got idiots ignoring the dark spots, trying to knock off one last work email. Sext the missus. The threat of the murmurations stood over every town along the country’s arterial railway lines, rising from behind closed mines and industrial ovens and howling down on passing traffic with their talons and hooves and beaks and teeth. The companies quickly shifted us to a nocturnal work schedule, but not before several cross‑countries were blown into shrapnel and sand.
As the train lumbers by the incident, we turn as one. Engineers can be picked out by their muffled head-lamps, the men and women moving below our windows, ant-like, exchanging wordless gestures and instructions.
In spite of the drawn blinds, we all want to see something resonant. Even those reading or pretending to sleep feel the change in the air and they wait for the moment to casually glance out at the carnage they know is approaching.
The coal train, when we finally pass it a few hushed miles later, is still. We see the spilled cargo glittering in the moonlight, spread across the meadow to the distant line of oaks.
A few carriages are missing. Another steams, gently. Moments pass and we listen to the night, watching the engineers disappear into and reappear from the gloom. The incident can only have happened a few hours ago, which means that small groups of fanatics are also closing in, moving quickly along abandoned motorways and A-roads, across the fields, to scour the aftermath for signs and messages. The assumption being that all these uprisings must be, in some oblique way, just for us.
Someone gasps and is shushed by their neighbour; the severed driver’s carriage comes into view and throbs with dichroic fire, spitting reds and blues into the air. As we pass alongside, we glimpse what we think we had wanted to see; the obsidian blood structure spraying from the cab high overhead, out of sight. When caught in an attack, bodies disintegrate, leaving impossible stone formations that thread and whirl through the air, cast from blood whipped by the murmurations as they feed. Its resemblance to the root infrastructure of a monstrous oak commonly induces a form of vertigo, which some choose to interpret as a mystical communication, a religious experience. A missive to be read. Some describe a swing in perspective; we are not stood on the earth, gaping up at these stone vestiges, but, rather, we are stuck to its surface, hung like bats in a cave, peering down at these remains as they reach into space. Truth is, you feel you are standing on a precipice; you are already falling and there is nothing to grasp.
The carriage’s shaded glass and blinds prevent anyone from taking photographs yet we still take out our phones and stroke their matte screens. We all try to commit these images to memory, although we have seen enough versions to know that there is no easy interpretation, no digestible through-line. As the months pass by, each new sighting is lost to indifference more quickly than the last. After all, what is adult life if not adjustment? The long drop from school into jobs and connections that bear you like Dead Sea water, the gnawing precarity that fades to a bearable ache. We imagine our twenties mapped out like a constellation: hopeful new cities and out-of-town self-storage units.
We watch the wreckage flare and flicker until it is almost out of sight. Everyone is familiar with the austere beauty of their structures, their impossible height and fragility, the uncanny liquid of their fires, and we are becoming too cynical to imagine they stand as codes for us to break. Confrontation; if you had to concede an interpretation, their method was the message.
Shake us from the torpor of our nights. Show us how wrong-facing our lives have become, as they certainly feel in the days, and remind us what we have, what we still have the power to change. The emergency cords have been removed from the carriages for some time.
The train moves on, the quiet fields and emptied towns return, and we are struck, once again, towards the office.
I smell the ocean and know we are almost at Portsmouth. The carriage begins to stir. People open their eyes, and the few who have let themselves slide into genuine sleep cannot hide the moment of distress on their faces, like children shaken awake into a smoke-filled bedroom by frantic parents.
The guard has one final glance down the carriage before lowering the lamps and gingerly unlocking the door. He steps down and is immediately consumed by the darkness. The carriage fills with the smell of soil after a rainstorm, and as we shuffle down the aisle towards the exit, I taste something sweet and acrid. Fronds crowd the stations now, lean in close to incoming carriages, and lick their way into open windows. They arrive earlier each year, it seems, as does the clotted heat and the diurnal sightings.
A whisper of instruction at the door, and a disembodied hand reaches in from outside, palm up.
The first commuter in line takes the guard’s hand, reaches behind for another, and one-by-one, we alight. Bramble and grasses rushed in to claim our towns, stations are routinely choked, and on foggy nights like this the darkness is depthless, total. I take the gloved hand of the young woman ahead of me, and follow her down. We make our way along the platform, a single-file of paper dolls straddling the carriage door and the underground entrance.
As we approach the underground’s faint lamplight, there is always this moment before we release each other’s hands and the phones come out. The line is already beginning to break. The guy behind me drops my hand, starts fishing around in his bag and strides towards the turnstile.
But this moment. I don’t need to raise my eyes, because I can feel the weight of them, the sky ablaze with cold fire, and I cannot resist a childish prayer to the natural world: Sing; Speak. And I wish I was out there, running along the deserted roads with the wild men –
The slap comes quick and stands in the air like breath.
I said let go, you prick.
The young woman yanks her hand from mine, which remains frozen in a dumb claw. I stand there on the platform, heat writhing beneath my clothes, staring after her as she disappears through the turnstile. The guard glares as he shoulders past me towards the train.
I enter the underground. Join the escalator. There is light enough, barely, to see in here, but I focus on the glinting darkness that pools between my shoes. I take out my phone and it is several minutes of scrolling through work emails before I notice my hands are still shaking and I’m taking in nothing. I give up and open a folder named fun.
There’s a new app doing the rounds. It calculates the remaining heartbeats we have left in our lifetimes. The number is always reassuringly large.
Photograph © Travis