One of the first memories I have is of my mother reading books to me. By the time I was three I was able to read on my own, and while I had many favorites then–I was a big fan of Dr. Seuss, the Bearenstein Bears, and Thomas the Tank–there was one in particular that still renders itself in my imagination. I don’t know the name of it, but as I picture it in my mind it’s set in a desolate, wooded place that perhaps Robert Frost would have walked through with a heavy coat and scarf on a chilly autumn afternoon.
In the book, night has already fallen, and an owl hoots into the placid darkness. The narrator takes us to a train crossing, gates raised and bells quiet, the car we are in moving slowly forward when all of a sudden the bells spring to life and the warning lights flash red! To a three year old boy, nothing in the world is more thrilling than the tension and promise of an approaching train. I would pause before turning the page, prolonging the gratification of seeing it come rumbling into view.
Each car of the train was different and carried different cargo, and a picture accompanying it fed my imagination and made me wish that I could hop along and ride with the cows, the coal, and the steel to some faraway place. Just as delightful as the approaching engine was the crowning caboose, the last car on the train, humble and cozy and red–a log cabin-like refuge on the rails from the gaping night. Then the train would round a bend, the bells would stop clanging, the lights would stop flashing, and the gates would lift, and the car would cross the tracks and continue on its journey, with the owl still hooting into the darkness.
It’s probably been something like 18 years since I last read that story, but I still find myself caught up in the romance of trains rumbling down the track at night. This past week was Thanksgiving, and I spent it with some expat graduate students from UCD. After dinner, they dropped me off at Blackrock Station past 10 PM. By that hour the frequency of trains running is slow, so I had a lot of time to walk around and take pictures.
A train coming from the opposite direction looks like a speck of yellow light, growing brighter as it approaches Blackrock.
When it finally roars into the station, it hardly resembles a machine made of steel; it is transformed into a stream of light boring its way out of a tunnel and into the cool night air.
Soon enough it exits the station, once again metamorphosing into a metallic blur. In its wake, the waves of Dublin bay lap against the sea wall. They combine with the low hum of the overhead wires to create a curiously understated symphony, broken by the occasional wail of a distant siren, or the steady acceleration of a car passing on the nearby road.
To the west, Dublin’s lights hold vigil over the black waters of the bay, the red digits of the station clock tick down the seconds until the next train, and I gaze quietly over this picture of stillness, wondering if there is an owl perched somewhere nearby, watching with me.
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