London-bound train tragedy throws matters into perspective

When people are throwing themselves under trains because life has become too desperate, you have to be grateful for what you have.

The man threw himself in front of the train at Balcombe at a little after 10 last Wednesday. I didn’t feel the initial impact, but I can remember the carriage shuddering as the 9:49am from Brighton to London Victoria sped over his limp body.

Naturally we stopped (it wasn’t a “slam on” as someone later assured me often happens in such cases) but it was only when I heard the breathless fear in the driver’s voice telling us that there had been “an incident” that I knew something terrible had happened.

Ten minutes later, the “incident” had become an “obstruction” but we all knew what had really happened. No one moaned about being late. We all sat in understanding silence as the emergency services arrived and went about their grisly task, retrieving what was left of the poor soul from under the train and calling for a replacement driver. It was, on reflection, a very British moment.

“Second one this year at Balcombe,” said the man, about my age, sitting opposite me. “Not a good time Christmas, especially if you lose your job. Imagine. You’ve got a whopping mortgage and two kids in private school. And then there is your standing among your peers: the car you drive and holidays you take. You’ll be surprised how easily all that can tip you over.”

And so as the train finally trundled into London, we mused about how complicated modern life had become, how, despite still being a great country, today’s Britain now pushed people to live on a knife-edge. Of course he was right. We do have to own a house we can’t really afford; put our kids in the best private schools because we want them to have the best opportunities. Indeed, education is the new obsession for the chattering classes.

There is no safety net. To live the dream means often spending more than you earn. And if the job goes, everything goes with it. Families that are held together by the fickle glue of success can come undone with one redundancy cheque. Even the best schools, the so-called bastions of pastoral care, are, I’m told, ruthless when it comes to unpaid fees.

I confessed to him that it had irked me that I had been booked on Premium Economy, rather than Business Class, on my trip to New York the next day. I told him that at 50, I was old enough and ugly enough to warrant one of those nice pods with all the gadgets and trimmings on the better side of the curtain. I told him that when my friends and I discuss air travel, we take no prisoners.

“If it’s transatlantic and it’s for work, it’s got to be Business Class or nothing”, we say. However, this trip was for work, but still I accepted the Premium Economy ticket and it made me feel a little less in charge of my life.

That said, as I write this, midway across the Atlantic, I still don’t know who it was we hit. How old he was; whether he was married or single, young or old; professional or unemployed; mentally or terminally ill or simply a man who for whatever reason preferred a clean, albeit ghastly, death than having to face life as he saw it.

But he was someone’s son, brother or father. “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” asked Wilfred Owen in Futility, his poem about a young man killed in the First World War? Apparently so, the “limbs, so dear achieved”, easily crushed under the train.

But now, if ever I feel a grumble coming on, I will close my eyes and remember those frightful bumps on the track at Balcombe and just be grateful to have the family, friends, health and a job.

The rest, even how I fly, really isn’t that important.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton

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Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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