Train by Sharlene Teo

photo: ceren kilic  words: sharlene teo   

photo: ceren kilic

words: sharlene teo


"I relished the forward momentum, when I felt so stuck in my own bad habits, my anxieties and frustrations"

In 2012, I moved to Norwich for my Master’s degree in Creative Writing. My memories of that time are tempered with a mixture of joy and desperation. On one hand, I was ecstatic because I’d always dreamt of being a writer, and now I found my place and community. Yet I felt simultaneously grateful for and overwhelmed by this lifeline. 

I commuted back to London every weekend in an attempt to resuscitate my ailing relationship. The journey takes one hour and 50 minutes: long enough to sink into a book, short enough to be endurable. I always booked the early evening train out, as a thin blue patina settled over the steeple of Norwich Cathedral and the East Anglian countryside softened and blurred.  

I favoured the quiet carriage, typically Coach B. Front-facing window seat: I relished the sensation of forward momentum, when I felt so stuck in my own bad habits, my anxieties and frustrations. I fretted constantly about my irascible, enthralling boyfriend and my non-existent writing career, as well as what I’d do after my student visa ended. 

I read many interviews where successful writers mentioned getting their best writing done on trains. But I am too self-conscious and skittish to invent things in public. I typed and deleted, watched the blinking cursor questioning my veracity. 

When my thoughts got too loud I listened to music on my headphones. I only allowed a certain kind of music to soundtrack those grey hours in the Quiet Zone: ambient electronica, or some passionately discordant woman or sad-voiced American man, cooing refrains in my ear about time gone, gone, gone. 

I bought the same meal for these train rides: one messy baguette, a bag of crisps, a large black coffee, and sometimes something very sweet and small, like a Freddo.

That year I read Teju Cole, Yiyun Li, Anna Kavan, W.G. Sebald, Helen Oyeyemi and Deborah Levy, bending their paperback spines like a greedy monster trying to devour genius. I scattered crumbs and underlined achingly beautiful phrases. I chewed with bovine abandon, as I daydreamed impossible solutions for my doomed relationship. In every scenario either or both of us had the same faces, but were different people. Kinder, intrinsically happier, unrestricted by immigration law, more confident. 

The train rattled through Norfolk; and if I focused on the world outside, I’d see a rush of trees, cow fields, parks, laundry-lines. The overhead lights of the Quiet Zone flickered in synchrony to my anxious, crazy heartbeats. I felt a sullen resentment every time someone sat opposite me on a near-empty carriage, denying me of the opportunity to scoff the butt of my baguette in peace. 

All that year I felt wound up like a spring, fraught and withholding. I learnt the word “liminal” in a seminar and it fit my feelings with a certainty few other things seemed to hold. I was an in-between sick of other in-betweens. I was a migrant, about to get ejected from the UK; I was a writer, published career uncertain; I was a graduate student, further employment unknown; my boyfriend and I kept arguing and eventually broke up. I loved him so apocalyptically. We had no fight left in us. 

Then 2012 became 2013. New habit became routine. Travelling between two places I didn’t quite belong to, my heart sped up every time the train approached Stratford: the monolith ArcelorMittal tower maroon and desolate, a reminder of the gloriously sunny Olympic summer come and done. Pulling into the stark lights of Liverpool Street, I’d feel both a comfortable pain, and a temporary comfort. 


Sharlene Teo's debut novel Ponti is out now. 'Train' was published in our midwinter issue. You can read another story by Sharlene – 'Spring clean' – in our spring issue. Order your copy here