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Soil Train

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Vinny put in his new earbuds and took his seat. Except for the excruciating drag of the lockdowns, he'd ridden this train from Belfast to Dublin and back every day now for nineteen years. He usually took a slightly later one to avoid the commuter rush, although how much use a first train was that didn’t get in until 9.30 am was anyone’s guess. In the winter days it was mostly a quick turnaround on Dublin’s northside to catch the late-afternoon train back home. The longer summer evenings stretched the day, and there seemed to be less urgency, so he sometimes treated himself to a sunset ride back on the last one out of Connolly. Weekends posed more of a problem with funny timetables, squads of rugby fans or teenagers going to concerts. He’d always get on somehow though, and all the guards knew him well enough that he would slip down the ramp to the platform when they waved him through early, before the mad rush that happened on account of no one ever having a seat number. This wee bit of favouritism was exactly what Vinny needed as he got older. He was moving a bit slower as 85 approached, although the daily walk to the station and back, and a skite around Dublin from time to time, kept him sprightly enough for his age. Considering. As the bass line of the first track of Johnny Johnson’s Soul Survivor album kicked in, the train slid out smoothly from the station confines.

It had been a comment at the pub one night not long before Vinny retired that was the beginning of it all. Dirty Harry – nicknamed for his lack of personal grooming – had been holding court, telling half-made-up stories to anyone that would listen. I tell you, he said after an extended rant, anyone who thinks a united Ireland is on the cards needs to take that bloody Belfast–Dublin train. That would soon cure them of any notions. People laughed out of habit as much as anything else, but as Vinny had walked home that night Harry’s joke had given him an idea. Very wary of the decline he’d seen in his mates after they stopped working, he was determined not to suffer the same fate. With 65 years of age came his free travel pass, and it wasn’t just the north that you could visit for free. You could go anywhere on the island and it wouldn’t cost you a penny. Or a cent. It was funny how this dividend of living on a fractured isle existed so easily, when so many other common sense agreements seemed to create nothing but wrangling over who owned what, and what that meant for their future.

So on his first Monday as a retiree, Vinny headed down to Belfast Central to take full advantage of his newfound freedom. Harry had been complaining about the time, but time was what Vinny now had, and the fear of having too much of it was real enough. He’d been to Dublin a couple of times by car and took the airport bus once to go to Majorca, but never by train. It was a pleasant enough ride as the train pulled laboriously in and out of four stations on the way, criss-crossing bits of water and cutting through deep-green farmland. When he finally arrived Vinny got out at Connolly station and took an exploratory wander around the mostly working-class streets that bordered it, overshadowed more and more by monstrous glass and steel concoctions that were slowly replacing the old dockyards and warehouses. Even the grimmer bits were nice on a sunny day and it felt different to Belfast somehow. After a pint of the black behind the old Custom House building, he wandered back over for the return leg up and across the border. Nowadays it was stripped of the checkpoints and security stops, and there was almost nothing from the train to indicate it had been crossed before Newry came suddenly into sight.

Vinny repeated this journey for the next couple of weeks and he began to gain momentum as his day trips passed double figures. He started to bring stuff to read, or he’d listen to the radio on a pair of earphones. Even just sit quietly watching people, wondering where they were going and what their stories were. That was back before people shared their phone conversations with someone on speaker for the whole train to hear. Some days the train was deadly quiet, especially around certain holidays. On these days, with space to think, it dawned gradually on Vinny that it was as much about the journey as the start or end point, and sometimes he’d barely leave the station in Dublin. Other days he would walk down to the Liffey, crossing by one bridge and returning by another. People at home loved to talk about Ireland, or Northern Ireland. The North. The Province. Language was still loaded there like the guns that wreaked such havoc for nearly 30 years, but when Vinny took this train back and forth each day, such distinctions seemed so meaningless. He began to imagine his daily trips like notches in wood. And with each train trip, over time the notches formed a deep groove, indelibly connecting the two places. It was his unique contribution. To connect these two disparate, indivisible entities in this invisible way.

After a couple of years of this routine, watching a classic Christmas rerun after he’d come home on the last Dublin train had given Vinny a new idea. It was a film he’d seen many times, but with a newfound mission in life, it sparked Vinny’s imagination in a different way. Sitting with a nip of whiskey in the glow of his three-bar fire, he watched the familiar scene where some of the prisoners shake out their trousers to disperse the soil they had dug for an escape tunnel. And so, starting the following day, Vinny never failed to set off on the train without a small handful of soil in his right jacket pocket. Sometimes he’d reach in to feel the earthy texture. Each time he arrived in Dublin he’d find a flower bed or small planted patch by the road to disperse the soil in, before grabbing a handful of the same from Dublin, and repeating the ritual on the way home to his house in Belfast. There was no need for the surreptitious shaking legs of the prisoners, but he liked to think that someday this modest exchange of handfuls would reach such a critical mass that the very idea of possession – that certain land belonged to one or another group became so meaningless as to be utterly absurd. It was, he supposed, a small protest, and day in day out Vinny swapped a little more of North for South, and vice versa. 

One spring, a film student down at the art school had somehow gotten wind of Vinny’s daily train ritual after he had been chatting with a pal at the pub about it one night. There weren’t many degrees of separation here: everyone seemed to know someone that knew someone else. She had gotten his number from a  cousin of a friend of a friend, called him directly and politely explained she wanted to document his day for a short film for college, so he agreed to meet her. Vinny couldn’t fault her determination. She kept him company for a week with her notebook and camera, down to Dublin and back. She was a nice young woman, with a determined edge about her, and eventually got the piece she made broadcast on a local TV channel. People around the neighbourhood had thought it was hilarious and ribbed him silly. When he came into the pub the first night after it was shown, they all burst into a rendition of Sam and Dave’s ‘Soul Man’, but they’d replaced the ‘Soul’ with ‘Soil’. They lined up on either side of the pub, flanking him like in the classic Soul Train line dance as he walked in. It was funny. Some of the old Mods he drank with had a field day flipping the anthems of their youth: ‘Soil Power’, ‘Soil Makossa’, ‘California Soil’. ‘Agent Double O Soil’ was his favourite. Vinny joined in for the most part. There were worse things to be made fun of. The puns dried up fairly quickly anyway, and the song titles got more tenuous until the joke eventually petered out. There weren’t many he hadn’t heard at this point.

As ‘In the Bad Bad Old Days’ faded out, Vinny reflected on how his trips would have to start to slow down. The last couple of weeks had been rough though, in and out of the doctor’s. He had only missed a handful of days in 19 years, when he’d walked up to the station despite the weather to find the trains cancelled on account of snow. The only other exception was the long blank space of lockdown. Although it felt that way for him, he was worried that he’d be able to convince a peeler it was essential travel. As soon as the restrictions had been lifted he’d gotten back on the train right away. His enthusiasm had dampened little, but Vinny’s body was no longer in agreement. The cancer would take hold quickly – he’d seen it happen in others – but if he made it to 85 he’d have lived nearly twice as long as his father. ‘United We Stand’, the next track on Soul Survivor came on and the train gathered speed towards Portadown. Vinny knew he had given over his latter days to what many probably considered a useless enterprise. It didn’t bother him. He too was a soul survivor. Or as the lads in the pub might’ve had it, a soil survivor. He relaxed at the familiar sight of the refreshments cart disturbing the peace of today’s carriage and staring at the countryside beyond the window, Vinny reached into his pocket to touch the cool, comforting earth.

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