Train Stations & Hostels
Transitory Bodies // Dereliction
Train stations are ceaseless hubs of hopes and dreams in motion: even business journeys are in pursuit of a personal destination, a means to an end. They are liminal spaces by design and we understand them as such - the first time I encountered a pub inside a concourse I couldn’t process it at all. We are not meant to stop within them, our bodies pre-destined instead to flit, our rushing a front for the puffed out fragile chests that house beating, hopeful hearts. Sometimes our bodies are navigating towards something, sometimes they are escaping it.
In Spitalfields there sits an abandoned end-of-line underground station building called Shoreditch, just yards from Brick Lane. It closed in 2007 and pulsates with echoes of all the bodies that have passed through it before: when the newer, fancier trains grind the bridge of the replacement line above it, the ground vibrates. It is covered in beautiful, visually overwhelming graffiti, part of a larger legal graffiti art area in Allen Gardens, E1.
It sits next door to another edgeland: a ‘wet-house’ - a hostel where substances are necessary because to go without causes seizures and death. This hostel is also full of transitory bodies, but these ones are not yet ghosts like their counterparts in the building next door. The door never stops revolving, thanks in part to the aggressively delusional fantasy that successive governments have had of eliminating or hiding drug use altogether - an attitude which creates policies that explode user and death numbers instead of diminishing them, sends the drug trade further underground, criminalises traumatised and brutalised bodies, exploits children, and ensures street drugs can be cut with rat poison.
People who live here dwell in the margins only, rarely in the main body of text. I lived in their sister dry-house a ten minute walk away, so I know. Hostels are where councils put bodies that they don't know what to do with, bodies that aren't quite ghosts yet but also aren't alive enough to be economically valuable to them. My old hostel is now derelict, the funding pulled, but this one remains: a multicoloured, hollering, massive fuck you to an otherwise rapidly gentrifying edgeland: the border of the glossy, decadent City area where drug users, alcoholics and homeless people are an inconvenience to be snubbed. This hostel is a fuck you to marginality and a simultaneous inhabitation of it too.
When I was a teenager, forever bunking the British Rail network to cross the edgelands of Zone 6 and reach the city, evading the bespectacled conductor by hiding between seat backs or in toilets, one staff member at my local train station would allow homeless people to sleep in the waiting room overnight. Sometimes I'd get off the last train to see a chipped mug full of steaming tea, held by a hand red or cracked with cold, that was attached to a body shrouded by a sleeping bag.
It is not government policy that learns nameless people’s names, it is kindness.
Despite suggesting that stopping for long in stations is bad form, I often do it myself - especially in bigger interchanges and city termini. I like to people-watch, and make up stories about where they are going or who they might see. In August I left Kings Cross for the North; arriving early I saw the shoulders of a woman visibly shaking at one end of a four-seater bench, so I sat down as unobtrusively as I could at the other end.
Her choked gasping filled my whole throat, and time felt like it stopped, but I waited. Sometimes I ask a person who is clearly not OK if they're OK because their grief makes me feel helpless and I want to fix it. The space between their grief and my witnessing of that grief always feels like it should be filled - we are highly driven to comfort because within each of us is a capacity to love a stranger deeply. I try to hold the space instead of taking it up though, because I am keen that my need does not trump theirs.
When I felt her look in my direction, I turned my head and briefly held her gaze, to acknowledge her. After another ten or so more minutes her sobbing had softened and she got up to leave - navigating either towards her grief or away from it, but either way, in flux once more. She had stopped stopping and returned to being transitional: that bench seat a brief gasp in the history of her everything and her body an edgeland within an edgeland, moving through time and space, leaving fragile sadness behind her in the form of wet napkins on seat number two.
When You Meet Someone Deep In Grief
Slip off your shoes
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel,
hollowed by loss,
hallowed by sorrow,
its grey stone walls
are here to listen,
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew,
make no sound.
Let the candles
Patricia McKernon Runkle
In train stations I am either moving towards or away from a place of belonging. There is a destination that spells rest or activity at the end of the journey and so it is always purposeful, whether that purpose is led by sadness, joy, or hope. Living in a hostel, I could not access this sensation of finality and resolution because they are inescapably impermanent and liminal buildings that consume and regurgitate bodies on repeat: people who are waiting for their move-on solution, somewhere to belong to for longer than a stop-gap. A train to a hostel spells rest only for the body; a train home spells rest for the soul the body houses - the complete circuit.
I cried on the steps of my old hostel only once, and that was when I moved on - afraid of belonging only to myself, of disappearing into the walls of an unstaffed building, unwitnessed. Unmoored by deinstitutionalisation; becoming derelict.
I regard my impermanent, transitory body closely: flesh, blood, bone and mucus, all grinding against each other in a loud and assertive symphony, a body that has forever whispered warnings against the dereliction of self. Derelict train stations speak of lost histories, arrested futures, halted journeys: they stand still in time. Occupied buildings speak of perpetual movement, the current breath you are taking right now, a still-present hope. When we abandon the self it is because the past haunts us and the future seems impossible. Our bodies grind us to a halt, and cobwebs form.
Standing inside abandoned buildings, your breath will feel different - each one feels as though it lasts longer, eliciting a hyperawareness of how brief time really is - especially if you watch it escape slowly in plumes of warm, moist air against the brittle night.
We are not closed circuits, plastic-wrapped - without words, things still speak to us, jolt us, pain us, free us, and change us … The outside world, human and non-human, is not a painted backdrop to our lives and experiences, but makes them, is part of them.
Rebecca Tamás, Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman