Wednesday, 4 December; 12:24pm. Beneath the ubiquitous gaze of the mighty gilded clock that hangs at the peak of the shed, time watches on as the masses below traipse in and through and out and around London. Dull, ashen light filters through the great glass expanse that arches high above the station, like the soaring clerestory of a medieval cathedral. The presence of daylight puts the passage of time on display.
Passages; gateways; thresholds. Fifteen platforms; four groups on two levels. Three national rail lines. The convergence of six London Underground lines. Seventeen pairs of trains that will whisk you away to la ville lumière depositing you, in a brisk two hours and a few odd minutes, in the north of Paris, and ten pairs of trains to transport you easterly to Brussels, every day of the week. Services to Paris are increased at the weekend, Fridays and Sundays, to allow for that many more travelers to fall into the city’s romantic snare. Forty-two signposts on the ground floor direct travelers, those distressed and those unruffled, through the labyrinth of the station to their ports of departure. A multitude of timetables suspended in air, lime green letters glow against a dark background with instructions for riders:
SPECIAL NOTICES: Getting your train away on time.
Please arrive in plenty of time; doors close two minutes before departure.
I am sitting on a cold metal bench beneath a sizable statue of a couples’ embrace: “Meet me at St. Pancras” reads the plaque. I suspect this large display is meant to further objectify the romance of travel. Beside me on the cold bench, two elderly ladies are unwrapping homemade sandwiches out from pieces of crinkled kitchen foil – the metallic din makes me cringe. They remark, with intrigue, as the Eurostar at platform six pulls away from the station – 12:27pm. It does so inconspicuously. The sleek machine slips quietly out the back like a well-kept secret, tooting no horn, roaring no engine, chuffing out no black cloud of smoke. But they’re on their way no less. Minutes later, the train at platform seven pulls in – 12:31pm. I half expect the ground to tremble, to announce to us its arrival, but again – unceremonious. I watch as the passengers disembark onto the platform, clustered and befuddled-looking, trying to orient themselves. Through a pane of smooth glass, I watch as solo travelers, couples, backpackers, children, businessmen, mothers with prams, tour groups and leaders make their journey to the descending escalator and watch them, inquisitively, until they vanish from sight into the depths below. Camera flashes, wheelie luggage, matching travel scarves so as not to get lost, iPhones, smiles, awe, briefcases, instantly recognizable white earbuds hanging from the ears of more than half of the travelers; one by one they disappear until the last few stragglers have made their exit. This momentary influx – I check, 12:37pm, now all is still again on the platform after the passing of six short minutes. One of the ladies beside me comments “the windows are quite small” and I realize, as I was watching, I’ve heard fractions of their conversation all the while. Surely, she couldn’t be referring to the windows of the train, as they’re rather large, so I resign they must be discussing some other place. Her minute remark steered my observation elsewhere – to the Gothic-inspired motifs along the boundaries of the station. The trefoil windows are quite small above the doorways; perhaps it was to those she was referring? I begin to wonder about the architectural styling of my surroundings, the painstaking renovation of the station and the neighboring hotel from its previous dereliction to its present opulence – for it appears that now this place is a destination in and of itself. Pointed arches, crimson clay and cream stripes, intarsia, and fluted columns; relics of a Victorian past.
Having looked on from this elevated position for long enough I depart for the concourse on the ground floor, lured down by the tinkling of a piano below. As I make my way, I pass by the likeness of a rotund man, cast in bronze, a base of slate around his feet. Sir John Betjeman stands at platform level marveling upward. On the ground beneath him an inscription of his poetry lies, and five other plaques strewn about the platform floor reveal themselves only to the curious:
“Revival ran along the hedge
And made my spirit whole
When steam was on the windowpanes
And glory in my soul.”
The lower concourse is significantly busier than the upper. I walk through the lengths of the station, north, then east at the top toward King’s Cross, counting signs, pausing at the timetables, and watching commuters bustling through. Then south again, down the length of the terminal, I turn left into the section that leads to the Eurostar check-in. Here, signs are bilingual – Bienvenue à Londres – hotel kiosks and bureaus de change offering euros for pounds, change for your trip to the continent. Opposite, glass facades of arcade shops display their holiday finest, and radiating heat slips out the doors as they open and close, open and close, open and close with each patron passing through. I take a seat in the warmth of one of the countless cafés to choose from and order a pot of earl grey tea with milk and honey. The couple who sit down beside me are young and attractive – just the sort of people you would expect to come across at the train station on a Wednesday afternoon. They order; she a bowl of soup, he a salmon niçoise salad with balsamic vinaigrette on the side. He gets a beer, and promptly spills it across their table just after it arrives. They hardly speak to one another, which I find strange, but tap tap tap away on their respective mobile phones while they dine together. She, crosswise from me, seems particularly intrigued by what I am doing – which is writing these words in a notebook. With a pen. On paper. I imagine she must think I am sad or lonely, or both, writing forlorn thoughts in a diary, as I seem to be the only solitary person seated at a long line of tables comprised of pairs. Or perhaps she thinks I’m employed by the police force, listening for any suspicious conversations; I laugh a little to myself. As I continue to watch the throngs of patrons pass in front of me, I wonder who they are – I make a game of who is late, who is early, who is lost, by observing their demeanor. It becomes a challenge to remain attentive, as my eyes scan the region to perceive the entire scene. We can only see the part of the world that we are attending to at any given instant. More than an hour has passed.
Beneath the celestial vaulted ceiling and the omnipresent clock, time ticks on as the masses below traipse in and through and out and around London. “Welcome to St. Pancras International.” 14:34pm.