My youngest child does not like trains. The other two love them, so much so that on one occasion I was driving with an adult – no kids in the car – and helpfully pointed out a train going by. ‘Thanks, Ali,’ said my childfree friend, ‘I like trains too. But I’m getting quite good at spotting them by myself.’
My third daughter isn’t so keen. Trains are too big and too fast, the other passengers are too unpredictable, and she’s anxious that she’ll be left on a station platform. Given a choice, she’ll avoid the train, skipping outings and staying home if necessary. But sometimes, it's unavoidable; and last week, she needed to catch a train. She complained for a good twenty minutes, then suddenly yelled, ‘We’re going right now’ and marched out the door. I realised she had been steeling her nerve; once steeled, we left.
As we walked to the station, we chatted. ‘Remember,’ I said, ‘trains aren’t like cars. When you drive, you’re in your own little bubble. When you’re on a train, anything can happen.’
I tried not to think of the time on a train last year, when a man beat up his partner in front of their kids and mine; or the screaming woman we had encountered once; or all the other sad and scary things we have witnessed on public transport. Instead, I reminded her that twice recently, we’ve been on a train when friends have come aboard at subsequent stations; and how much fun it had been coming home from the city one night after a school concert, when the carriage had been full of school families. ‘You never know,’ I said, ‘something surprising might happen on this trip, too.’
We travelled into the city. Her hand stayed clasped in mine as we wove our way through the crowds and did our errands. Then we sniffed tea at the tea shop and tried a free sample, examined all the pens at the stationary store so trendy with the primary school set, discussed how she’d like to spend her pocket money, and shared sushi for afternoon tea. Finally, it was time to go. She sighed as we headed back to the station, back to the dreaded trains. I ushered her through the turnstile, and we rode the escalator down.
At the platform, her eyes widened. Three young women were standing there, chatting. They had suitcases at their feet, and one of them was holding a huge helium balloon emblazoned with the characters from the latest Disney movie. My daughter tugged my arm, and pointed at the balloon. The young woman noticed, and smiled at her.
The train arrived. We piled on board, and as it pulled out of the station, the young woman came over. ‘I’m going to the airport,’ she said, ‘and I don’t think they’ll let me take this on the plane. Would you like it?’
My daughter was almost speechless. She whispered her thanks, then took the balloon and held on tight. ‘It’s so beautiful,’ she said to me quietly. She carefully turned the balloon this way and that, showing me the characters and telling me all about them.
When we got home, she let it float above her bed. The next morning I found her lying there, a shaft of sunlight slanting across the blankets, her eyes gazing lovingly at the balloon. ‘So beautiful,’ she murmured again as we had a cuddle.
I’d like to think my prayer for a good journey was answered, even before I recognised that I had been praying. But there is too much violence in this world, and too many unanswered prayers, for me to rest comfortably in that. Instead I’ll say only that I am grateful for a small act of kindness that obliterated one little girl’s fear –
And you never know what might happen on a train.