Life tracks

It is not early. It is not her first.

She walks barefoot across the train tracks; the oval pads of her toes hug each jagged edge and smooth line of the pebbles that lie underneath the metal. Every so often she feels the rumble of earth as a high speed train takes the connection half a mile away. The vibrations begin softly in her feet, jiggle the fat of her calves. It careers eastwards. She is standing north.

She trembles, takes a deep breath, and begins the wait again.

She sees herself above, watching the train snake the bend, gliding quickly on rolling wheels, cutting through vast stretches of beige farmland and brown thicket, splicing the country with chrome steel and iron. Away from something, away from her.

Reluctantly, she takes the bank and heads south, crouching low in the bushes at a level crossing. The barriers are up, splayed and pointing at the sky. A single SUV with tinted windows and tired paintwork thunders through the gates and over the line, bumping up and down on hydraulic springs. She cowers in the hedgerow, hands gripped tightly around a thorned branch; smooth, glossy spikes sliding easily into her skin. Letting go, her palms speckle the white cotton of her dress.

The tracks hum lowly. In the soft light of the day, blurred in spring sunshine, small stones beneath the wires jump and kick. Her nightdress blows quickly around her legs, whipping her knobbly and boney ankles. The grasses in the field flatten, the wind picks them back up again. Somewhere, on a breeze, the song of a platform announcement sails gently in.

The 11.46 to Bedford is late. It is 12.05.

Even as a child she was surprised at the speed at which cross country trains move. There had been afternoons in the standard coach carriage; shooting through empty stations and grassland her eyes had struggled to keep up. Her tiny, sweaty palms pressed against the glass. Her mother asleep, a can of Smirnoff and lemonade crushed empty on the fold down table.

The 11.46 is slow. It creeps, crawls through the bend and northbound. Then, with a mighty whistle that she feels shake her bones the trains sprints towards her lights blazing, even in the day; one long, dark window seating two people in navy blue shirt.

She takes the moment. She turns to the wind, and she runs.

As the train careers near, she begins to run in front of it, begging it to give chase. She is dreaming, sprinting faster than she ever has, her heels bashing the backs of her thighs, kicking as much ground as possible between her and the locomotive. She hears the driver apply the breaks, pistons hissing. It is just a matter of time before the train grinds to a halt.

For now, she runs just ahead. Her breath is heavy, blood pounding within the quickening sweeps of her arms.

She has never run faster than the train. Usually it is a case of giving up, of jumping down from the tracks when she knew there was no chance of carrying on.

The train screams in protest. She can no longer feels her legs.

An ambitious leap. Her body falls on the gravel. It scrapes the skin from her calves and forearms.

Carriage A. People staring, fingers against glass, men in white shirts.

Carriage B. The buffet. A pair of train staff bookending a food cart.

Carriage C. Nothing. A whirring generator painted light blue and green.

Carriage D. Missing.

Carriage E. First class, sooty windows and a toilet spilling out on to the ground.

Carriage F. The train stops. A child stares from the lap of his mother, eyes pale and wide.

The door slams and the operator starts towards her. She scrambles to her feet and darts through the thicket. There is blood on her chest and arms. At least she knows she is alive.

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