“What Precisely Do You Mean by … ‘I’m on a Train’” by Sally O’Reilly.

Sometimes I find myself speaking the words of people I’ve never met. More often, it is these strangers’ ideas that emerge from the muddled labyrinth of my mind, half-starved of facts or crudely remade from fudge. But sometimes a whole sentence will roll into my ears, round my tongue and exit my lips without so much as scuffing my brain on its way through.

For instance, I have said ‘I’m on a train’ numerous times without due consideration. It is a banality so deafeningly familiar it lets itself into speech with its own latchkey. But once inside, this is a busy little euphemism, scattering all manner of particular connotations about the place. My ambition is not to banish the phrase, but in future to invite it in with a greater understanding of what precisely it might get up to.

What follows are ten utterances of ‘I’m on a train’ examined and annotated. I could have selected a more poisonous second-hand claim, but we will work our way up to those. Indeed, I should stress: I don’t intend to throw a shocking box of spiders at you, but to gently reveal the biodiversity of a single phrase. There is much to be done before we can hold the precise and soulful exchanges we deserve, and so we must begin by dissecting, a mouthful at a time, what currently passes for harmless chat.

The man with the thermos of chilled rosé sends the wingéd phrase, via relays of radio waves between towers in adjacent geographic cells, to his wife. While ‘I’m on a train’ is not news to a fellow passenger, it is big news indeed to her. He is on his way home at short notice. He means to insinuate a reason for some negligence or other: I’m on public transport so I have not been able to bring a gateau (you know what a klutz I am) / consult the Baedeker (in the car’s glove compartment) / torch the parliament (which is nowhere near the train station). She perceives a call to action: her bed must be vacated sharpish and all evidence of visitors destroyed.

Eye discipline polices the train carriage. A constant and delicate adjustment of glances, averted gazes, eye rolls and hard stares variously request, accuse, ratify, reprimand, sanction or sympathise. But with the layout of seats blocking her view, Munira must instead convey her disapproval of an overly loud telephone conversation by way of invisible alpha waves transmitted from deep within her limbic system. These can penetrate a train carriage by up to two metres—in this instance, just far enough to reach the Spaniard, who drops his voice to a whisper and explains: ‘I’m on a train’.

‘I’m on a train. Nearly there,’ bawls the systems analyst as the train pulls out of the origin station. A tourism professional smirks at the fib. ‘Do you mind,’ says the systems analyst, ‘this is a private call.’ Making greater aural territorial demands than usually considered appropriate, the systems analyst transposes the aggrieved into the intruder, and herself into the victim. The tourism professional has not accidentally heard, but is an eavesdropper violating her territory. Of old, an eavesdropper would be fined for standing where the water dripped from the eaves to better hear what was going on inside a private house. Today, confusion has arisen where the private chamber of the ear rests in an impersonal armchair beside a public thoroughfare.

‘I’m on a train’—but also with you in the pub explaining my lateness, implies the sous chef with an insanitary moustache. Our phrase manufactures a permeable membrane between the here of the speaker and the here of the intended listener (as distinct from the eavesdropper). While the intended listener might be anywhere, the sous chef believes himself to be both on the train and at this anywhere, even though the very content of the phrase appears to state otherwise. He is wherever he is heard or read. Speech throws his effects. He is dispersed. What is more, he is wherever he reads or hears about. And he is wherever everyone is who speaks and writes to, for, about and at him—whether that is the specific him or a general type that includes him. And so he is on a train and with his friend in the pub and at the home of his line manager and in the shallow end of the pool where his neighbour rests between lengths. He is in Mauritius and a new riverside development and a Sports Direct retail outlet; and in the consciousness of the train guard, and the abstract reasoning of the operating company’s systems analyst. His head is out the window, his fingers trapped in the doors, his nappies down the lavatory. He is in Tel Abyad, Barcelona, Hong Kong and wherever else the news hails from today. He has left vestigial traces in all the fictional worlds of all the novels he has ever toted in all the totes he has owned. He is very nearly everywhere but the train, because when it comes to relocation the train is not a patch on tongues and pens and keyboards.

The woman in the bottle-green acrylic dress and matching nails believes she is trialling a voice-activated teleportation system that requires her to say ‘I’m on a train’ to achieve said state of affairs. But she has misunderstood the focus group briefing. The device responds to the brain activity associated with the decision to travel. The spoken phrase is not necessary for activation, since speech follows thought on a sizeable lag. She is starting to notice that the device knows when she is about to speak, and this is curdling her cells with paranoia. She will feed back that she finds the technology creepy, like the billboards that stalk her from city to city, and the hotel room televisions that know her name.

Pru finds it more unsettling to see but not hear someone than to hear but not see them. She can hear the person on the phone but see only slivers of their shoulder and hair between the high-backed seats. She can see all of the person sat next to her, but they refuse to produce anything to hear. Their face is inscrutable, like a clean plate that reveals nothing about last night’s dinner. Their sighs and inner gurglings are masked by the machinic sounds of the train. They have wilfully become a prop or a piece of scenery in the drama of Pru’s journey. She might knock them with her elbow as she leaves her seat and they will not cry out. They are dead to her. The phone caller, on the other hand, is alive with insinuation. ‘I’m on a train, so…’ There they sit, in their nylon tufted armchair with antimacassar and a hot drink, trailing that ‘so…’ like a worm on a hook. So … what? ‘So I can’t be expected to finish a sentence because I’m a vulnerable human inside an unloving machine.’ Meanwhile and tragically, the silent person besides Pru has become the train.

The young widower travels and telephones at the same time because he recognises the compulsion to travel bodily as well as the adequacy of electronic connection. He believes that sometimes proximity cannot be bettered, but also that sometimes it’s not crucial. He feels stressed by the pressure to judge which situation is which. Should he be there or should he send along a textual proxy? We are all on this train because we have decided, rightly or wrongly, that we would be better off going. We have this much in common. Our autobiographies pinch together at the coincidence of our conviction. He is my witness. My confessor. I am hurtling because he has decided that wherever we are going is precisely where we are needed.

Clumsy Dustin tells his gutter-minded brother he is ‘on’ a train even though there are walls/sides, a floor/base and a ceiling/lid. Even though the doors and windows seal shut, making it impossible to fall out. He notes that he would fall ‘out’ of a train, even if he is not ‘in’ one. He feels he is ‘on’ one as opposed to ‘under’ it. ‘I’m on a train’ conveys the simple jouissance that he has successfully negotiated the gap between the platform and the train. The ‘on’ also relates to the implied movement of such phrases as ‘on the move’ and ‘on my way’. He imagines the journey, the ‘way’, as a line through continuous space linking A and B, on a point of which the train is currently located. What Dustin doesn’t think about is that while there are (hopefully) continuous tracks that join town A— and town B—, this is no simple, idealised trajectory made of the single substance ‘line’. The railway line is, rather, a more or less precise choreography of friction, combustion, conduction, conversion, insulation, induction, oscillation, switching, gating and surging, which bears Dustin along like foam ‘on’ a wave.

Luisa has in the past declared herself to be ‘in’ a car, but she too is always ‘on’ a train. She can reach the bounding sides of a car. It is cosy. Once she is in (on?) a train seat, she cannot even see the front or back of the train. She couldn’t ever feel cossetted ‘in’ an assemblage of metals and plastics and muscles and neurons and paper and electricity and glass and silicon and wood and oil and water and cloth and porcelain and… ‘On a train’ provides the illusory safety of vagueness, so she might forget she is being borne along at great speed by a (hopefully) finely controlled series of potentially violently incompatible materials and processes.

The tall, hairless person in coach C is destined for M— and feeling every second of the two-hour journey because they have forgotten to bring a book to read. They are travelling at the same moment that the first man to have walked in space dies, that the Chinese foreign minister announces a delay in the raise of trade tariffs, that a b-list actor signs a contract to star in a romantic comedy about genetic engineering. Meanwhile, the planets bowl along their orbits and the quarks continue to express their flavours at the unseen heart of things. ‘Listen,’ says the tall, hairless person, ‘I’m on a train but I’m hoping it’s just one passing phase among many. You wouldn’t mind spending a bit of your me-time on my me, would you?’