Not the last train, the one before. Packed, but not rowdy. Not teetering, precariously, on the border between alcoholic hilarity and boozed belligerence, like the last train of the night.
The seats are arranged in fours. Rows of two-seats-facing-two-seats running either side of narrow aisles.
A group of four young men with perma-grins, knees twitching, phones clasped in hands, tolerates an enforced interval. An interval in what? Smoking, drinking, war-gaming? I’ll leave the possibilities there, though there are others, places I don’t want to go.
And they sound quite normal. Heads-back, mouth-open laughter mingling with cries of ‘boss’ and ‘sound’ – and not too many expletives deleted. Nice lads, perhaps.
An older couple sits, side by side, programmes held aloft. Whether they’re really re-reading the (classical) concert notes or warding off the world it’s hard to say. He wears a hat. She wears a proper coat. And leather gloves.
The carriage is full. But the noise is muted, for the time of night and the time of week, Thursday going on weekend.
Across the aisle, in the parallel foursome, three male individuals sit. One lolls, head against the window, adding another greasy smear to the picture formed by other heads and fingers.
One chews on a thumb. Twitches now and then in his seat. Stares around the carriage, as if looking for a lost friend – or enemy.
The other reads a book. Yes, a book.
The picture fades to black and white. The volume is turned right down on laughter, shuffling, coughing, sneezing – and conversation.
The fourth seat, next to the aisle, diagonally opposite me, is all there is.
A picture in full colour.
A three dimensional image, standing out against the flat backdrop of monotone shades.
A young woman. But young only in physical form.
A Mona Lisa without the supercilious smile. A Black Madonna who’s not black, not an icon, not a painting, but three dimensional flesh and blood.
A statue brought to life, warm, living, breathing. Though you can’t see the movement.
She sits, hands on lap, looking straight ahead. But seeing – what?
There’s something about this person, her eyes, her un-self-conscious poise, her stillness – her depth – that makes me wonder.
‘Don’t stare,’ he says, the man I married. But he stares too.
‘She doesn’t see,’ I say. And it’s true.
Her eyes are so compelling. Full of mystery. As if she has known the woes of the world. Pain – and lost joy.
It’s the second week of Advent. Christmas not too far away.
I think of that young woman, two thousand years ago, or so. Giving birth to a boy-baby. In a stable. Her joy at holding a healthy child. Secure in the love of a husband – tolerant, given the circumstances.
Safe, despite the occupation of their homelands.
Or were they safe?
The strange men who came from the East, with gifts meaning – what? Did they really follow a star?
What did they think of this babe in arms, who did they think he might be?
And that King the wise men spoke with, Herod. Their warnings about his intentions.
A fearful king. So afraid of an infant pretender he had all male babies murdered.
The young mother’s joy at that birth – how long did it last?
How soon did that first Madonna know that her son, who found an independent voice so young, who said he must be about his father’s business, who learned the carpenter’s trade but gave it up and left to wander and preach – would die a brutal death?
A carpenter’s son. Nailed to the very wood that had been his family’s living. In agony.
When I think about my Madonna of the Penultimate Train, when I remember her face, I see a tear escaping, rolling down one smooth, perfect, healthily plump cheek from one of her dark, limpid eyes.
I see her blink. And her hands fold back on her lap, like a dove settling on warm grass, after brushing one tear away.
But there were no tears. She did not cry.
And as the train pulled into her station she rose, walked to the doors and was gone.
More than five years have passed – and still I can see her. Still imagine her.
And still, I wonder.
I brought this post forward a few days as I have decided not to finish this little series of pen portraits and have another, non-seasonal one, waiting in the wings.
The flight of Mary and Joseph put me in mind of those fleeing persecution with little or nothing to their names. So here are contact details for some more charitable organisations, this time helping refugees – there will only be more as our climate changes and conflicts continue – and children in need worldwide.
This came up on my Facebook feed this week and for once their intrusion was welcome. A great idea, a shop where you can buy things for refugees, in real life or online:
I know some people don’t feel the UN gives value for money but good people in the UNHCR and UNICEF do a lot of valuable work both with refugees and for children: