London Victoria to Brighton

Emily Duke

Emily Duke's 'London Victoria to Brighton' follows a set of characters on their titular journey between cities, as they dream, reminisce, and check each other out. Romances wax and wane and are reflected upon. Moments are shared, poignant or otherwise. From station to station, Duke's lyrical, confident prose gives the train and its occupants life.


London Victoria to Brighton


“Darling, I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t, I reall-“

“Yes but-”

Bustle in. Elbows and feet and breath, all that bit too close. Permeated personal bubbles sinking to the sticky floor of the London Victoria to Brighton.

“Can you not just support me this one fucking time?”

Her eyes dart to the crammed space, checking if anyone has heard and is forcing eye contact, determined to give that disapproving look. Nanny Baker to a tee. Stray whiskers framing too-white teeth.

She wasn’t sure what he’d said next, but it was almost definitely going to be in Margot’s defence.

“I’m on the train Steve, I’m not having this conversation now. I’ll call you on the walk back.”

“Yep. Bye. Bye.”

Why do we always say bye at least twice? Why do Americans say nothing at all? She clocks the young boy perched on the cushioned wall by the door. Convinced he’s heard her curse so viciously, her eyes divert to a tall silvery man in a slick tailored suit.

He’d understand the woes of parenthood.

She finds comfort in his middle-classness.


Jesus Christ I can’t wait to wash my cock.

He had hoped changing into the Armani would help him forget about her. Sometimes even designer can’t mask a body riddled with regret.

Cram in some more. Sardines at East Croydon.

Julian tries not to move too excessively for fear of a pungent waft escaping his waist-line, he’d hate for anyone to clock on. Especially Seat Twelve.

Where was she last night when I needed her?!


I wish this train wld hurry the fk up,am so close 2 vomming everywhere!

Abby knew Meg would be laughing as she waited for a reply, she always finds Abby’s killer hangovers amusing. They still crack up at the time Meg made her sick just by saying the words ‘Southern Comfort’. Even now, the memory makes Abby’s throat swell and pinpricks of sweat pierce her underarms.

This is going to be close. And there’s definitely a hangover poo on its way. Fuck fuck fuck.

Stale re-breathed air fills the empty space. Cotton wool. The squeaky, suffocating type. Do those vents work? Or are they tactically placed to reassure passengers that they won’t die when they inevitably break down somewhere in the depths of the Underground?


Her brother sneezes at Redhill. One of those solitary ones that leave you waiting. Waiting for the next, ready to repeat the polite ‘Bless you’ offered before. Any more than two and it gets annoying and awkward. Do we carry on? Or do we cut off the ties of social etiquette because we can’t be bothered anymore?

It’s Seat 14 who says it this time. She has made the commitment. He smiles at her and gives a crackled ‘thanks’.

His sister wants to scream. Scream to the whole carriage that he is full of tumours.

Can’t you tell? Can’t you see the poison in his veins? Can’t you feel him struggling to breathe?

But all that will happen is just like every other journey. The train will begin to quiver and shake with the awakening of people. All stretched limbs, clicking bones, letting out yawns and rustling bags, ready to escape back into the world. Soon this trip will blur and dissolve into the mass of unimportant memories lying dormant in their brains. But she will remember it as his last train journey. The last time she would see him outside of their house. Last times all building up to the last of life as she knew it.

Lady in Red. Breezeblocks. Dust in the Wind. Diamonds. Canon in D. Hero. What a bloody great noise. Today’s soundtrack on the London Victoria to Brighton.

19 & 20

Seat 20 wonders if Seat 19 saw the sticky auburn wax licking the edges of his earphones, or if he saw him wipe it on the corner of his seat.

You can talk mate, you’ve got sweat patches and a bogey hanging out ya nose.

Seat 20 decided that would be his response, if by chance, Seat 19 chose to mention said wax-wiping.

He didn’t. In case you were wondering.


Michael Bell has not looked up once. The floors of the carriages are never the same, did you know? The early morning Brighton to London Victoria has dotted carpet. The late-night return has stripes. They make his eyes squint after a while. But that’s only on Fridays when he visits Lola. Or is it Leila? Whatever it says on the website.

I wonder if it will be the criss-crossy ones or suspenders?

 You see, he hates people. If you ever meet him, he will have already decided that you’re abhorrent, and this is an unchangeable truth. He has forty minutes left to endure and that is quite enough. His eyes will linger from bolt to bolt, between crisp packets and across prongs of plastic forks and see nothing but what it is. When he sees Lola or Leila this will be the first time he has spoken all day. After his allotted hour, he will be glad to leave her and ready to get through another week of being Michael. Not Mike, just Michael.


This train reeks of hospitals. Microwaved processed mash potato with undertones of disinfectant that probably hasn’t worked.

Seat 5 has become accustomed to writing every remotely poetic thought into her crumbling notepad. Her squiggled notes tend to act as a catalyst for old memories resurfacing.

“Well you know how it is these days; you go in with flu and come out with an internal bleed and a pacemaker.”

The wise musings of her grandparents come to mind.

Smells filtering through lungs, sneaking into the dormitories of sleeping memories. Wakey wakey!

This metaphor will do for now. She stuffs the notepad away, waiting for a new story to materialise, looking to the other passengers for inspiration.

Seat 20

Dooo you have the time, to listen to me whineee, about nothing and everything all aaaat once?


Beef stew or spag bol? Beef stew? Spag bol? They had that last week. Will they notice?

She had come to accept that Margot was probably her favourite. Of course she’d never admit this out loud, but in quiet moments by herself, this is how she felt. Rupert is a ‘Daddy’s boy’ as we have come to label it. She personally hates the term but it’s the easiest way to explain it to the Mums at 3:30.

Saying that, Margot had Steve ‘wrapped around her little finger’. Yet another line from the 3:30 brigade, normally said through a sigh and a slight shake of the head but with a turning of the lips that says ‘How can you say no to a face like that?’ Cue proud display of this year’s glossy school photo, all perfect partings and pig-tails.

Maybe Steve will have sorted it…

You’ll be lucky Caz!

It’s not that he gives in to her; it’s the fact that she feels undermined by her own daughter. She can sense a power struggle starting to peek its unwanted head round the door. Or perhaps she’s just being dramatic? She wonders what the 3:30ers would make of it.


Why is she still staring at me? Is there a gargantuan blob floating above my head spelling it out? Maybe she fancies me?

As he stands there, still as he possibly can, he wants to laugh out loud, he wants to laugh to the point where your eyes blur with a screen of tears and you forget how to breathe.

As if darling, your shirt’s covered in wine and creases you fool!

Julian is 32 and going grey, and last night he slept with a woman for the first time. Isn’t that just absurd? Or perhaps one might find that uncomfortable to hear? He muses at the idea of telling the whole carriage about last night’s events.

Sorry to disturb your crossword dear, but I must tell you…

It doesn’t matter whether he found her attractive, or even if he particularly enjoyed himself, he just finds his love life so bizarre that he can only think to laugh at it. It’s only the thought of Ash that brings him back to reality.


She decides that Michael Bell is called Paul,

A solid plain name for a plain looking man…

Bit mean?

 Her eyes trace between each peak and dip between knuckle and finger gripping the pole in front of him. No wedding ring.

Perhaps he has a wife though?

 No, she chooses divorced and throws in a teenage son he sees once a fortnight and tries desperately to bond with. Except the reality is that they have nothing in common. Jack, his son, has followed the crowd at his all boys comprehensive and has moulded himself into an Arsenal fan despite not quite understanding the off-side rule, whilst Paul is obsessed with orchids.

“We are now approaching Gatwick Airport”

Niamh resurfaces from her trance.

Stop staring!

Michael’s eyes are dry from his intense gaze on the carpet. Funny, he’s never seen this pattern before.

Seat 14

Trying not to stare just makes it worse. It’s a DON’T PUSH THE BUTTON sign. You know the ones? It’s hard for her not to let that grating sympathetic half-smile paint itself across her face.

Maybe it’s alopecia. Or maybe he just wants to be bald?

 She reassures herself, but she cannot ignore the complex network of blue lines entwining themselves around his neck like ivy suffocating a tree stump. She cannot ignore the yellow tint to his face, or the sound of his lungs rattling like the last drops of lemonade slurped through a straw. After he smiled at her, she could see each muscle around his mouth tense and bulge, using all the energy he had.

We use 26 muscles to smile you know?

She wants to tell him this fact. She wants to teach him something before they get off. Perhaps a polite ‘bless you’ will suffice.


That is so vile.

Seat 20 thought he had got away with his sly wax-wiping.

Don’t look don’t look don’t look.

Abby continues to struggle to hide her hangover as the carriage swims through the black molasses tunnels towards home. Only bubbly foam from last night’s cigarette lines the walls of her stomach. Courtesy of… Guy? She thinks his name was. Six foot something, deep red hair and peppered with summery freckles. He ticked all the boxes until she eyed on his neck a slick crimson lipstick mark formed in a plasticky puckered kiss shape. It wasn’t a surprising discovery given they were in a cheap nightclub in East London. It was when she realised it was a tattoo.

Why Guy, why?


She looks at Abby’s reflection in the window - awkward eye contact somehow doesn’t feel as real when it’s in glass. Abby reminds Elise of a time she doesn’t think about anymore. Still awake skin drenched in vodka fumes and sweat from the dance floor. Dripping in melted hairspray and fading perfume. Smudged black circles frame her eyes, pink with bloodshot veins. Elise can guess exactly how her night began and exactly how it ended. She used to be Abby. But Abby will never be her.

Seat 14

Did you know that chickens outnumber humans by three to one? Or so I’ve been told.


Michael was seventeen when he got his girlfriend pregnant. Her name was Sarah and they’d been together for five months. He didn’t really know what he was doing. Not just in bed, but in all departments of life. He never found school particularly hard and he did well at college. It was expected he would go on to some prestigious university and make lots of money the way most people predict any intelligent man’s life to pan out. It didn’t happen that way. Not even close.

Seat 20

I keep the ends out for the tie that bindssss. Because you're mineee, I walk the lineee.


Michael had little ambition and when Sarah had an abortion, it didn’t help matters. He didn’t know how he felt. It was simply another page in the book of his life left scrunched up and rolled under the carpet. This was not the sort of man you would expect anything extraordinary to happen to. Except it did. Michael was brushed with a stroke of almighty luck that should have changed his life entirely.

“Tea? Coffee? Snacks?”

Squeaky wheels and trolley dolly voices sing through the musty air. Cardboard cups the size of fists presenting lukewarm drinks tasting of only the cup itself. The train slows into Three Bridges.


She thinks she might swallow the woman sitting opposite. This journey has crippled her with yawns, the all-encompassing type that leaves stringy columns of saliva clinging between top and bottom lip. Her nostrils begin to burn with the cooling vapour of peppermint tea spiralling from the drink cupped inside the woman’s hands.

God how can anyone drink that?

It transports her to the sterile steel plughole of the dentist’s sink. Swill and spit concrete pebbles and metallic blood. Numb gums and a pretty cavity in the maintenance loan.

Niamh knows she’s being watched. The woman opposite is struggling to make out the reversed reflection of her notes in the blackened window. Perhaps it’s a shopping list? Or an emotional attempt at writing poetry that rhymes.


She remembers it being 1999 when she still wore clothes from the decade before. They had a familiar sweet smell from the back of her wardrobe; notes of yuppie success and Chanel No.5. It was comforting. It reminded her of her new life, a life she didn’t see coming. But then most people are probably quite surprised to see where they’ve ended up, because more often than not, it’s a far cry from the “When I grow up I want to be…” premonitions from childhood.

I ought to give Sarah a call. Wonder how the op went?

When Caroline was 5, she was going to be a teacher. At 12, she’d promoted herself to a university professor, by the time she was 18 she’d had a change of heart and was set on becoming a marine biologist. Now at 45, Caroline is a part-time food critic and in her twentieth year of a highly successful career. The time leading up to this was mostly spent with Sarah and Mark experimenting with hallucinogenics in the woods behind her house. Does she miss it? Every day, but she loves her job, she just didn’t see her life turning out to be so… typical.

Seat 20

Upsiiide down, boy you turn meee inside out, and round and roundddd…


Hmm red or white?

You would never put him and Ash together. Julian oozes camp, he thinks of himself as fashion conscious and fabulous. Whereas Ash has his briefcase glued to his hand. His thin wire glasses arch neatly over his nose and if he were on this train, would most likely be placed in the ‘city banker’ or ‘solicitor’ category. It doesn’t come as a surprise that he is the manager of a large Waitrose in Primrose Hill. Thus, it is also unsurprising that Julian excites him. So he chooses to keep him a secret. Ash avoids talking about himself on his lunch break and tends to sit in the bandstand on the green across the road. It’s not because of his sexuality; he just hates mindless staff room chat. He’s convinced himself the grey Monday mutterings must seep out of the cobwebbed cracks to resonate across London and stir into one great puddle of drivel.

White’s a summer wine. But those god-awful red wine lips! Will he care?

Needless to say, Ash is not happy from Monday to Friday, where his day largely consists of assuring Mrs Highland-Grieves that the Manchego is of course imported in bio-degradable, organic, dolphin-friendly, tree-friendly packaging. It’s Julian’s dreadfully organised picnics under the pier on Sundays and the unplanned cocktails in student bars that paint the friendly smile on his face. That’s when the real Ash comes out.


Literally cnt evn move head. Kill me now.

Megan’s reply reassured Abby she was not alone in her suffering today. Still, she envied her for being tucked up in bed, ready to kick off her hangover day. As a pair, they had experience enough to be labelled ‘Hangover Queens’ amongst their friends. The Ab and Meg’s hangover day largely consists of an extensive array of Disney films and the most regimented of supermarket sweeps for the ideal hangover menu: crisps, dip, haribo and paracetamol.

Finding Nemo will sort this right out!

Many vodka-fuelled heart to hearts in the ladies’ over the years have led to the formation of a great friendship. It therefore goes without saying that a large part of Abby’s uneasy feeling today stems from the undeniable fact that, aside from Guy with the tattoo, she also kissed Megan’s ex-boyfriend. And she thinks that it’s going to go down about as well as that Tequila Slammer did last night.


Four years and three months…

Matthew is on her mind much more these days. She thinks of him differently now. Aside from her newfound admiration for him, Elise is very much aware that at some point, she is going to try and replace her brother with him. Although she is close to both her parents, her brother shares little of their traits. Matthew is more similar to Cameron than anyone else is. She often finds them clinging to each other at family meals, desperate to avoid tedious small talk with Aunts and Uncles,- about their new Ford Focus and how many miles it’s done or their cruise around the Norwegian fjords last summer.

Elise glimpses his eyes, flickering from left to right, following every house and grimy flat as they shoot past. She pictures the way he rolls those eyes dramatically whenever he overhears one of those typical conversations, usually started by Uncle Pete. He tends to murmur something like, “If I ever start reeling off the details of my new wheel trims, promise you’ll shoot me in the face.” Elise nibbles her lip, trying to suppress her giggle as they approach Haywards Heath.

Seat 14

Jacob told me once that in China they use 45 billion chopsticks a year.

It annoys her that she still remembers this and yet she cannot for the life of her, remember long division. Jacob also said that a chicken can survive without a head, but she’s not sure she believes that one.

Sometimes she wonders if she’d have failed her Midwifery entrance exams if it weren’t for all the useless facts stored in her brain. She’d love to blame Jacob for all of her slip-ups, however she can’t ignore the truth… her obsession with celebrity gossip has most likely taken over a large proportion of her brain’s storage space.


Michael thinks back to when he was 30. This is when he won the lottery. He and Sarah had separated two years previously and so he was free and now an overnight millionaire. Like any man might who worked in a call centre in Peckham, he quit his job and flew to Vegas. This will bring me happiness he convinced himself. He didn’t know what he wanted, he’s never really understood what all the fuss is about, but he did know one thing. He would not die a millionaire. He blew almost all of it. The rest has gone towards food, bills and Lola or Leila. Can you believe that?

It was after Sarah had the abortion that he decided he will not leave a legacy, he will not be missed, and he will not miss this. Perhaps he saw fatherhood as his only chance, or perhaps he just isn’t that interested in it all. Funny world isn’t it?

Seat 20

She fucking haaatessss meeeeee…. La la la I tried too hard and da da da don’t know this bit la la


When did I start hating loud music?

Sometimes Caroline wonders about the menial things like what to cook for dinner or what film to watch, especially on train journeys when her mind tends to observe what she often ignores in the blur of taming two children. It’s when she wakes in the night that she wonders where she’ll end up. Will Steve still be here in five years? When Rupert and Margot are talking with their friends at a dinner party or a wedding, will they say good things about her? She sees all the mothers in town worrying over their toddlers running off, she watches her sisters debating the pros and cons of breastfeeding, she hears the 3:30ers at the school gates discussing meal-time woes and she thinks, honestly, that she took a wrong turn somewhere along the line.

She visualises her thoughts burning like lava and melting through her ears, puffing into dust and swirling out through the vents. This is where they belong.

“We are now approaching Burgess Hill”

Oh stop being so bloody dramatic Caz!


Julian realises that actually, he feels no regret for what happened. As he watches the silhouetted trees wave goodnight, he comes to an understanding that it had to be done.

He’s gonna love saying “I told you so”. Just grin and bear it Jules.

Funnily enough, Ash had said that this night was bound to happen and he would understand if and when it does. Yet, Julian can’t help dreading telling him. He pictures him kissing his cheek the way he always does when he comes home, he can hear him asking how the night was, the way he always does and he can see his face freeze in a way it never has before. It’s this thought that’s making him wish the train would slow down.

Don’t want to do it, don’t want to do it, don’t want to do it.

He told his sister he was gay when he was thirteen. As she is five years older than Julian, he expected her to tell him to shut up and stop attention-seeking. This would not have been a reaction he hadn’t heard before; even he can’t deny he loved to be the star of the show. She eventually gave up trying to convince her parents that Golden Boy’s elaborate tales were entirely fabricated.

But when he told her, she said, “I know, Jules. I know.”

Then she said, “Don’t tell Mum, she’ll send you off to some Jesus camp to be cured.”

She was right all along of course. Nineteen years on and their mum is still trying to set him up with Briony from across the road.

Seat 14

Did you know…


She catches sight of the young woman in seat 14 and imagines her working in an aquarium. With blue ripples bouncing off her skin she reels off facts about penguins and otters, a job you do for the love of it, not the money. Yes, that’s her - Alice the Aquarium girl. She begins to figure out what’s going on in her love-life. She sets off working out a complex web of lovers for her. She’ll try and have it all planned out before they pull into Hassocks.

Seat 14

That otters can stay under water for 4 minutes?

Another one from Jacob, of course…


I sort of kissed him by accident… I thought he was someone else… He’s like a brother to me… I fell and landed on his lips… Oh god. How the hell am I going to do this??

Abby knows that their friendship won’t suffer for it, but she’s just not good at explaining things without sounding dreadfully awkward and therefore making it sound much worse than it really is. You know the sort? But then again, Megan is used to her tendency to be like this, so she’ll most likely sigh and say she saw it coming. Because she did, even before Abby.


When the train slows down, the rhythm of it begins to sound clearer. Elise has often read about poets and lyricists using the beat to help guide the pieces they’re writing. They say it sounds like a heartbeat. It reminds her of that scene in Dirty Dancing when Patrick Swayze tries to teach Baby how to follow the ga gum… ga gum. Then she thinks about her brother. She wonders if his heart is beating to the same rhythm as this train, or if it’s working a little bit slower now.

“This is Hassocks. Welcome aboard the Southern service to Brighton.”


Should maybe avoid ending up in Revenge this time. Was rather fun however! God he looked gorgeous under those lights…


Shit! Where’s my ticket? How do I do this every bloody time?! Oh no I didn’t get round to Alice Aquarium’s love life…

Niamh’s brain is changing gear as she prepares herself to re-enter reality. As the train sets off, the atmosphere in the carriage transforms. A sense of unrest begins to lace the aisles, making everyone’s skin prickle and wake. They all know they will soon have to move from their warm seats, gather their belongings and plunge themselves into the bright coldness of the station. No more cloudy brains and daydreaming.


Ah, Rupert’s school photos will have arrived today, must order some prints for Mum and Dad!

It’s when she thinks of the two incredible children she has with her husband that Caroline knows, without any doubt, that every turn she has taken has turned out to be the right one, because although this is not where she thought she would be, she is happy. Caroline and Steve have been a great team and Rupert and Margot are the evidence. Still, she always looks forward to reminiscing with Sarah about the days in the woods! Maybe keep that one quiet from the 3:30ers…

Steve and Caroline. Caz and Ste. Yes, we’re doing alright.

“This is Preston Park. Welcome aboard the Southern service to Brighton.”

Seat 20

Slip inside the eye of your miiiiind, don’t ya know you might fiiiiind, a better place to playyy…


One stop to go! One stop to go!

A mixture of dread and excitement overcomes Julian as he nears the end of his journey. His entire outlook on his relationship has altered since he boarded the train to London yesterday. And now, as he approaches Brighton station, where Ash will be waiting for him, he knows that he will have to tell him about last night, but he has a strange confidence in himself. Julian can tell that for all his dreadful picnics and poorly planned nights, Ash will be always there with him.

And as long as that keeps him from being married off to Briony across the road, then life isn’t all that bad!


Thank God for that… made it! May the hangover day commence!


Wonder if it will be green or blue striped carpet on the morning train tomorrow?

Lola or Leila will be expecting some kind of small-talk from Michael. But even he knows that unless he tells her he won the lottery, she’s probably not interested.

Maybe she’d like to know about the carpet patterns instead?


She helps her brother out of his seat to head towards the exit doors, ready to avoid the hustle and bustle of impatient people. Not knowing what to say to him, Elise decides that it’s best to focus on getting to the taxi rank. It’s after they’ve both got a firm grip on the handles next to the doors that he tells her he’s glad this journey was with her.

Enough now, Els. Enough.

“Thanks bro.”

Seat 14

Did you know… I think I’ve run out of facts!

The towering arches and curves of Brighton Station begin to peek through the windows of the carriage, its glow melting over the tracks as the train steers closer to its destination. All the remaining passengers gradually leave their seats and prepare to walk through the doors, ready to carry on their lives after sharing with each other this briefest of pauses in their journey, never to cross paths again. Isn’t that just fascinating?

“This is Brighton. This train terminates here. Thank you for travelling with Southern Rail. Please take all belongings with you.”



Emily Duke


brightONLINE student literary journal

26 Nov 2015