It Can All Change In An instant

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A few years ago – maybe ten – I was waiting for a train at Clapham Junction, listening to music on my iPod, in a world of my own. Clapham Junction is supposedly the busiest train station in Europe, and just like every train station in the UK there is a yellow line painted on the platform. For safety reasons you’re encouraged to stay behind it until the train has come to a standstill. But many people don’t.

Standing there that day, heading home from work, the train in front of me began to pull away from the platform. My attention was suddenly drawn to the man standing in front of me, perhaps an arms length or less from where I was standing. He was the wrong side of the yellow line.

My attention was drawn to him because, as the departing train began to pick up speed he turned, and as he did so he began to falter and stumble unexpectedly. I was too engrossed in my music to realise that the passing carriage had snagged his backpack, and before I had a chance to reach out and grab him, he was knocked off balance and disappeared into the gap between the train and the platform, to be caught under the steel wheels below.

I don’t know whether he died or not, or the extent of his injuries. I didn’t wish to look over the edge of the platform. All I remember were the screams of the station staff, the calls to isolate the current on third rail so that the emergency services – who were there in what seemed like just a few moments – could get to him. I remember the sick feeling rising in my stomach, and how all the sounds around me were muffled by the music that still played in my headphones.

Everyday we go about our business, and everyday we come home. Days become unremarkable, and they blur into one. Weeks go by, months and years. And before we know it we’ve been stood still for longer than we expected. The grey hairs have double in number, the wrinkles around the eyes have become more obvious, the cobwebs in our brains more dense, the stoop a little lower, but nothing else has changed.

But, it can, and often not when we expect it to. And it can happen in the blink of an eye. All those things that we take for granted as we plod along on autopilot, all those sights we pass without looking, conversations we miss because we’re somewhere else, years we waste because we’re busy treading water, can suddenly change when something unexpected and life-changing occurs. A moment without thinking when crossing the road, a slip on a mossy rock at the beach, an instant of standing too close to the edge while waiting for our train.

If we knew that tomorrow something would drastically change our fragile little lives, we would make more of today. We wouldn’t worry what might go wrong. We wouldn’t care what people would say. But because all our days having plodded to this one we expect tomorrow to be the same. But if we knew that tomorrow it could all change, we’d really start to live. And it really could. Yet we don’t.

What would it take to make you stop to look at the world you around you, to stare at the sky, to breathe the air and really feel the ground under your feet? What would it take for you to do something different that you didn’t do yesterday just to see what would happen? What would it take to start something, build something, take a step toward that dream you’ve been putting off?

If we knew that today might be our last chance to really make something of this delicate life we’d been given, we might spend less time criticising and judging those who are trying, and have a go ourselves. If we knew we might not get another shot, we might go outside and spend a moment enjoying the stars and the sound of the wind in the trees.

Had I been more present I might have been able to reach out and grab that man, and stop him from falling through the gap. Or I might not. I’ll never know. But I do know that in a blink of an eye his life changed irrevocably. And the weird thing is, as vague as my recollection is, I seem to remember that he was smiling as he fell.

Chris Brock