The trains are getting busier, another sign of ‘normal’ life resuming. Since January, I’ve been catching an off-peak train from Glasgow to Edinburgh on Fridays to see Bear. Back in winter, I sometimes had a carriage to myself. Now, every table is occupied by a single person, a couple or a ‘bubble’.
The other week, a gang of girls took the table behind me. They were all fake-tanned orange, with fake eyelashes like feather dusters, and their tiny stretch tube dresses barely covered their groins. No one was wearing a mask. A tall, very slender girl, her pelvic bones tenting her negligible dress, stoated her way, blank-eyed and swaying, to the toilet. All of them were loud and drunk, and when they didn’t get off at Croy, as I’d hoped, I moved to the next carriage.
I was surprised to see them tumble off at Haymarket, running past me up the stairs. Why would a gang of good-time Glaswegian lasses go all the way to Edinburgh for a heels-up?
The tube dresses were not designed for running, much less for lurching up steps two or three at a time. In front of me, a large girl yanked ineffectually as the skimpy Lycra rode up her hips, exposing a pair of white, fleshy, toiling buttocks. I was the only person who laughed out loud. (That’s Edinburgh for you.)
Staggering on their high heels, the girls headed across the intersection to the Haymarket pub. I finally understood: Euro 2021 live on pub TV! Men! Fully pre-drunk, the girls were ready to party, apart from the skinny lass, who’d obviously already peaked and was going to need looking after fairly soon. I hoped one of her friends would step in before a boozed-up random man decided to get lucky.
(Were any of them wearing knickers under those ridiculous non-dresses? Is this a middle-aged thought? If so, I’ve been middle-aged all my life.)
When I read about the infection rate going up among young people, I shrug. What good are rules against the basic instincts of those who feel themselves to be immortal?
To avoid the claustrophobic subway and its potentially virus-laden air, I’ve been walking in to Queen Street Station. Sauchiehall St is busy again, with tables set out on the pavement and delivery riders weaving amid the drunks and beggars. In lockdown, Sauchiehall St could’ve been the set of a zombie film; out of lockdown, it’s not much better.
When I do take the subway, for reasons of time or weather, I’m back in that in-between space created by travel, which has been mostly lost to us in the last 18 months. Some people fill this void by staring at their phones, but this makes me queasy and I surrender to non-doing. Around me are other passengers, absorbed in their tiny screens; the advertisements, which haven’t changed since March 2020; the shabby communal interior of the little metal tube. How many hours have I spent in the anonymous intimacy of subway carriages, in London and Tokyo, Moscow and Paris? Like the hours spent sleeping or on the toilet, these are hours that are never counted, negated in our grand sum of conscious activity, but we exist in them nevertheless.
Long-haul flights, which I don’t miss at all, are the ultimate in-between space. A Tokyo friend likes being on a plane: ‘Nobody can get at you and ask you to do anything.’ Or maybe she said ‘reach’. This sounds less drastic. I’m always amazed by the people who open up their laptops on the tiny fold-down table as soon as the seatbelt sign goes off and work for the duration of a flight. (Note: I’m referring to economy class. I believe the point of business class is to keep working, or at least to be capable of work at the other end.)
Pre-COVID, I used to read on trains but my glasses fog up from the mask. To fill this in-between, otherwise unproductive space, I’ve discovered podcasts. Between Glasgow and Edinburgh, I listen to the BBC six o’clock news, the NHK news, various literary podcasts, The Economist, and a property podcast by two cheerful northerners, which I discovered when I set out to buy Solo HQ as a rental.
Sometimes I just stare out the window, very old school. When I’ve travelled with Bear, he downloads films onto his phone to watch and plugs himself out of contact for the entire journey. I can spend the same stretch of time looking out the window, letting my mind wander. In the last 18 months, there have been many articles on boredom and empty time as a precursor to creativity. For me, there is a vital adjunct—being in motion—and this is what the in-between space of travel provides. As the body moves through space, the mind is free to wander. The fact of transit has always absolved me from the nagging sense that I should be doing something.
In the journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh, I’ve had the rare freedom, during lockdown, of being in-between rather than fixed in one place. As the world opens up and longer journeys are again possible, there will be more opportunities to sink into the liminal, in-between state of (mostly) guilt-free idleness and imaginative liberty.