‘Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.’
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
They had inserted a still point just before Westerton, north-west suburb of Glasgow: under the hill, beside the housing estate. Our train came to a halt there.
Behind and ahead of us the world was still turning, the east and west revolving about an axis that speared through the globe from cold north to warm south—But here, a still point.
The train ticked calmly. Nothing remarkable was happening. Was it? It seemed fantastically unlikely to me, suddenly, that here, just before Westerton, under the hill beside the housing estate, there would be a ‘still point of the turning world’. And then, before I really knew what I was doing, seized by a feeling that everyone needed to know, I stood up and announced loudly, down the carriage: “This is a still point of the turning world!”
Part of me, observing from the side, was wondering what on earth I thought I was doing. But the constraints that normally stop you doing this kind of thing? Just for a moment they weren’t there.
One or two people glanced up. To be honest most people didn’t even notice. Most of them had earphones or headphones on, listening to this or that on their devices, staring at their scrolling screens, and they probably didn’t even know something was happening. A woman glanced blankly at me, her consciousness clearly somewhere else; a middle-aged man (I recognised him, a fellow commuter, one of the suited men who work at the Glasgow City Council headquarters on George Square) just slightly shook his head, half an inch either way, without looking up. Probably thought I was one of those crackpots or drunks.
I sat down. The feeling that had gripped me, the requirement that everyone know what was happening, had gone. I half expected Scotrail to apologise. They apologise for everything else. And then the still point moved on somewhere else, and our train moved on, and the world moved on. We reached Westerton, people got off, people got on, the usual comings and goings. Into motion again.
As we passed the canal I saw a fox, curled in the undergrowth. It glanced up at me, narrow snout following the slow train, with me a shape in the window, but I shook my head.
By the time we reached Bearsden the commuters were crowding into the gaps. My set of seats was now full. (None of these people had been on the train before Westerton, they did not know I was the type of crackpot who would stand up and announce things, otherwise they probably would’ve avoided sitting near me!)
For some reason, even now I remember each one of them from that particular journey: I mean, how unlikely, given the number of times I have travelled that route, surrounded by how many other commuters. But here they were: Another middle-aged man, grey hair, a lapel-badge shaped like a little stick-man with arms and legs akimbo. As you would wear a rainbow badge to show your support for LGBTQ+, or a guitar-shaped badge to show your interest in music: he had a person-shaped badge, as if he were the Person Man, specialising in People.
And a younger woman, obviously en route to somewhere more interesting, with a wide-brimmed hat in her hand and an enormous wheeled red suitcase that kept threatening to roll out of control with the inertia of the stop-start: she expends huge effort to keep it still, while also keeping hold of the hat (it is not the weather to put it on her head).
And a young executive, gangly and red-haired, who I couldn’t help calling Ginger with a terrible lack of originality, Ginger with an iPad and generally very well equipped, a takeaway coffee in one hand, someone on the phone in his other hand talking about a lost document, lost in the Cloud, and him multitasking on the iPad on his knees to boot—Busy busy busy.
And then, getting on and slumping down to replace Person Man, who had departed, the Two Ladies of Partick, immediately spilling out stories in front of each other (and the rest of us) like overstuffed luggage spilling across the carriage, deep into narratives before we’ve even passed the expressway.
And inexplicably then, suddenly, I had an image of the whole city covered in snow, deep in snow, on our right the expressway and the river and over the river the BBC and the Science Centre and all Govan lost deep in snow; and to our left Finnieston and up the hill to the University, all lost deep, too. Commuters in the snow, I thought: or rather, and this will sound like it only confirms me as that crackpot, but I didn’t think it, I heard it: “Commuters in the snow—”
Of course, that painting by Breughel.
But also that very old poem and the image that always recurs to me: Beowulf, and the great hall, the firelight, the sparrows flitting into one gable window, at one end, through and out again through the window at the other end. Just a brief moment of light between two infinite darknesses. Person-Man, Red-Suitcase, Ginger and the Two Ladies: station to station, then gone.
We went into the tunnel, reached Charing Cross, and I alighted.
Now this was not quite that exact same journey so when I say above, ‘an eventful journey’, I am stretching things a bit, but it was the same day: just the return. It was mid-afternoon. I had left the office early, having found myself mysteriously unable to concentrate on anything—twice in one meeting, I’d had to quickly cover my tracks when someone had asked something and I’d not been listening. I was glad to be going home.
We came out of the tunnel heading toward Partick, river now on the left, Finnieston on the right, with the new student accommodation rentals clustered around the place where the Kelvin heads down to the Clyde. Opposite me a young mother with an infant, a little girl perhaps two or three, wearing flowery Wellingtons and staring around with great fascination. Everything that was happening was worth commenting on, pointing at. And it suddenly occurred to me: the little girl was right.
Everything was worth noticing, because this afternoon would not come again. This afternoon: look up at it, at the shelves of cloud in the August sky, the ruffled water in the Clyde, the traffic queue under Partick bridge. And closer, the ragbag of commuters, heading to ragbag homes, all books, phones and tired eyes—this afternoon will not come again!
I wanted to explain — more to myself to be honest, because I could see that the little girl already understood: we are in this billiard game, see, you and mother, and the ticket collector, and me and the bricks, buildings, iron rails, the foxes and the deer that stray sometimes along the tracks—the atoms, molecules, all the light rays—a billiard game of collisions and configurations, all statistics, all luck, all random games with entropy’s hand… And an image filled my mind: something behind the cobra’s wrist; and white noise, white noise filled my ears, and colours filled my eyes.
So this afternoon, this fantastically, impossibly unlikely configuration, will not come again. You’re only two or three, you’re so young you don’t even need to worry about where you’re going, where you have to get off, where to change trains—all the paraphernaliac mechanics of this clockwork life—your mother will do all that, with her tired, distracted look, yet total attention on you—you’re barely three but I see you understand.
And I see also who you are. As on the speeding train you flick a laughing look toward your mother
Laughing, that pointing finger
You are the elephant-headed God. I hear you whisper, giggling: “I place obstacles, and I remove them—and I laugh! Because you are all caught in the dance, and I am not caught in the dance!”
You and your mother alight at Anniesland. I continue on home. After a good dinner, I get a good night’s sleep, and the next morning, I am feeling much better, and I am absolutely on the ball, you might say dancing, through all my meetings.