Death Under the Train

The train went over a bump. Scott shuddered. He said it felt like something had gone through the whole train. I felt nothing, too absorbed by Holly Black’s Tithe.

About a minute later the train stopped. The announcement that followed made no sense: something about a "trespass incident" and there being "no immediate danger" to the passengers. Not the most calming statement in the world.

"I think we hit someone," Scott said.

The man behind agreed, said he’d felt the train lurch. Someone else said there’d been four suicides on this stretch of track in the past month. One woman had been on the train for the last one. It had taken eight hours before they were transferred to another. Great.

This happened yesterday, on our way from Washington DC to New York City. We came to a halt in New Jersey just half an hour from home. The conductor confirmed that the train had hit someone. They didn’t know if the person was a suicide or not, but it was likely. The HazMat (Hazardous Materials) team had been called. Our train wasn’t going anywhere.

An hour later an empty New Jersey Transit train pulled up alongside our Amtrak Metroliner. It was announced that we would transfer to this train and that we must not under any circumstance touch both trains at once: "We don’t want anyone else to get hurt". The dire warning sounded kind of unnecessary, I couldn’t imagine the trains would be so close it’d be a problem.

I was wrong. I stepped down to the gravel, illuminated by the light of a green glow stick—giving the fleeting impression that we were on our way to a particularly isolated rave—and there was barely half a metre between the two trains. One inopportune sneeze and you’d’ve got yourself a nasty electric shock. I stepped up onto the less comfortable New Jersey Transit train quick and cautious as I could.

We sat with a woman who’d also been heading home from the World Fantasy Convention. Although we’d never met, we recognised each other from our orange-handled and remarkably well-made WFC canvas bags. The three of us spent the remainder of the journey gossiping about genre publishing, barely touching on what had thrown us together. The whole thing an inconvenience, a loss of an hour and a half.

Did the person who ended their life under the train think of that? They’d be a mangled corpse and the people on the train above would be bitching about their journey being delayed, not even knowing their name? The suicide’s massive egocentricity in disrupting the lives of not just their family and friends, but of a trainload of total strangers, echoed by the lesser egocentricity of those strangers who just wanted to be home.

But we did talk about what had happened. There just wasn’t much to say: Did you feel it or not? Was it a suicide or not? Would we find out what happened? I bet each and every one of us wondered who it had been.

I searched online today and found nothing.

While we were slowly making our way to Penn Station, most of the Metroliner’s crew were still there waiting for the HazMat team to be done. The two conductors at our end of the train were visibly shaken. Not wanting to be there, not wanting to be answering the same questions over and over again.

And what of the HazMat team? Does anyone ever become completely inured to clearing away human body parts? And how awful if you do become inured?

When I was a child living in the Northern Territory with my family, a man died on the railway tracks. He’d been a clown at the Mataranka Rodeo who’d gotten blind drunk after the show and fallen asleep on the tracks. The train was only used for freight and ran just once a week. The odds were in his favour, but his luck stank. He died instantly.

I used to have nightmares where me and my father found his body. The dreams were so vivid that for a long time I was confused and thought I had found his body, in three neat pieces, still wearing his clown makeup.

Last night he was in my dreams again. His first appearance in many years.

New York City, 3 November 2003

4 Nov 2003: Scott found this article which gives some details of what happened. We still don’t know whether it was an accident or suicide or who the man was.