10:00AM Thursday morning, Gravesend Station Facilities Office sometime in early 2015. I sit at a table waiting for the 12 maintenance operatives I have recently been put in charge of to shuffle in.
This is not their environment. This is not what they do.
I welcome them, I even put the kettle on, desperate not to come across like a dick. I shake hands three times the size of mine. Rough. Strong hands. Men’s hands. Not like mine. I have office hands. Actor hands.
They all sit and settle, this is the first time they’ve all met in a while, so there is a bit of banter, a bit of ribbing, I’m included, but not really, not actually. I’m allowed to listen, but if I say the wrong thing the pack will get me. In front of each of them is a small pile of paper, on top the one I am most proud of, it details month by month the jobs they have completed for the past two years, it has pie charts, line graphs and everything.
One of the men, the biggest, the boldest, the one who doesn’t give a shit what I think, brushes the paper away and shares a look, a laugh with his team mate. They’ve discussed this, they knew what’s coming. Kieran’s a clever dick. I know they think this, I heard from Shannon, a small but feisty, quiet yet outspoken, brilliant yet underappreciated Helpdesk assistant that they call me ‘The Graduate’.
They don’t know that in my world that makes me Dustin Hoffman, and that is bloody cool!
They think I don’t know. They think that I sit there unaware of just how much of a pain in their arse I am, when in fact the exact opposite is true. I am so aware that I am a caricature. I am the new manager. The green kid who has no experience on the railway. Because on the railway, experience is everything and new ideas, well they’re ridiculous, because it’s not the way things work, it’s not the way it’s been done before.
I sit there that day, watching, knowing that in an hour, I will go back to my desk, shaken, intimidated by these men, though I won’t have shown it (I don’t think) and I’ll write up the list of actions I have to do;
- buy thermal underwear;
- check the cost of boots;
- discuss how a fault is reported with the helpdesk because ‘light out at the station’ is not “fucking good enough”.
I’ll do that. And they will go back to their van, and they will talk about me, they will talk about the weather, sport, fishing, they’ll talk about how shit the job is, and how they can kill a couple of hours without it showing up on the van tracker (which no one ever checked), they’ll talk and talk.
What they won’t do in the 37 and a half hours that they spend in each other’s company, is ask how they feel, really ask, really ask it in a way that makes it easy for the person to answer. If I’m honest, no one will ask me either. And, even worse, I won’t ask anyone, no one. We will all go around, bantering. Everyone, from senior managers to ticket inspectors, maintenance managers to HR. The whole company will crack on, because that’s how the railway works.
Maybe work isn’t the place to ask those questions for everyone, maybe the friends you make at work aren’t really 'friends' more just helpful inconveniences. But my suspicion with the 12 men was that even if they were asked the question at home, or in a pub, they wouldn’t let their guard down.
“I’m fine”, “Course I am” "or I’m good.”
And it's not just these men. It's most men. It’s me too.
The anger I felt at the suicide rate I received in a Samatirans brochure at a subsequent meeting, combined with working at a rail company, collided and I began to see incidents of suicide on the railway in a new way. The dehumanisation of a life is what drew me in, the public sacrifice and the logistics.
When a human is hit by a train they instantly become dehumanised. Whether it is a tut from an angry passenger, a phone call to the engineers, an email to support teams and clean up teams that attend to make sure theservice can continue. One second you are human the next you are an inconvenience. All of your achievements and memories are replaced by a tinny announcement on a crowded platform speaker system. It was this element that caught my attention. So I started with that, and I came up with the idea that we would follow a network rail clean up team who attend incidents of this nature.
On the first day of rehearsals for 31 Hours our brilliant director told a story about a man in her life that couldn’t remember when he last cried. She remarked how sad that was, how upsetting it was to her that this man felt he couldn’t express himself in that way whenever he wanted to.
Everyone nodded and made mmm noises, but in my head I was asking myself ‘When did you last cry Kieran?’ and I couldn’t remember. I remembered lumps in my throat, but actually crying…
31 Hours is an examination of this. Of me. Of the men in the play. Of the men in the audience. In the Facilities Department I worked in. In general. It looks at suicide on the railway and the logistics that go into restoring the service after an incident of this nature. It follows four men who work for the specialist cleaning team employed by Network Rail to clean up a life from the tracks.
It also touches on the passenger who tuts or swears about the situation, the driver, the ticket inspector, the rail care team, the social media team, it touches on all the elements that go into rectifying the service, without forgetting the pressures and decisions that led to the delay in the first place.It talks about not talking, not asking, not noticing. It talks about where we are now.
Every 31 hours someone kills themselves on the UK Rail network.
Incredible right? A huge thank you to Kieran for writing this piece for us. Clearly it's a play that we ALL need to see. Have you worked in an industry that deals with the aftermath of suicide? Has it (or does it) alter your perceptions of those who take their own life. Let us know in the comments below.
If you want to tickets for the show, they're available at The Bunker theatre in London until 28th October 2017 or by clicking here. If you can't make the show, you can also get a copy of the script on Amazon (like we did!)
You can keep up-to-date with Kieran on Twitter, where he's @kieknowles or via the Twitter account for the show itself, which is @31hoursplay. Kieran also has his own website over at www.kieranknowles.com