This is a story I wrote in 2007 – the first of my current set of short stories
It wasn’t life-defining. Our lives never had any definition. So much blur, so little movement.
It may have been life-changing.
I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I think it was autumn. Dead leaves carpeted the ground, and the nights were starting to draw in. So autumn it must have been. It was a cold night, and I had my arm around Her. We had been on a rare evening out (we never did have much money) and the dress She wore was never going to be enough to keep Her warm, but as always, She refused to let me give Her my coat.
It was always a long wait for the train. Delays wouldn’t even be announced, the ticker would just state the expected arrival time of the next train, even when it had passed. The tired woman manning the computers overnight was probably asleep, in the gentle comfort of a warm office, her heavy head resting on the folder atop the desk on which she leant, a cup of milky tea steaming, or maybe long since cold, next to her.
I remember being thirsty.
There were a handful of other people on the platform. There was a well built, foreign looking man waiting silently, standing rather than sitting, and looking down at the ground. I expected, perhaps unjustly, that he must have been working a graveyard shift, and was now waiting to get home. To what? Who ever wanted to go home?
Nearby was another couple, but rather more in the spirit of the evening than we were. They laughed and their laughter echoed around the empty platform, interrupted only by passionate kissing. Sometimes, as She and I sat on the station waiting for the train, I would peck Her on the cheek or the forehead, but there was never much reaction. She was already finished with me by then, as far as she was concerned, and just waiting to move out.
Rather nearer still was a tall girl, wearing a blue coat. She looked young, no older than seventeen or eighteen, and her blue coat matched her handbag. She had long auburn hair. She looked like the quiet type.
Minutes ticked by. I, not knowing of the impending catastrophe, slid the occasional glance at the auburn-haired girl. She was attractive, in an innocent kind of way.
I confess that I often glanced at other women. Our relationship had now grown so cold and dead that we limited ourselves, most of the time, to remaining civil with each other. Why the façade lasted was anybody’s guess. Neither of us could afford to move out of the flat, so it seemed easier just to continue. But I still felt ashamed, ashamed of trying to conjure up the possibility of romance elsewhere. It was too much, who was to say I deserved new romance, when I had failed to maintain old?
The trees opposite the platform rustled gently, and a light went out in a house, one of a row of houses, a few hundred yards away. I often remember that light going out, and I always feel a shiver, as if every lighted window is a final vestige of hope, and the extinguishing of the light is the cruellest and most sinister act there can ever be.
With a dull rumbling, the train announced its impending presence. I saw the lights round the far-away corner. The couple on their bench stopped laughing, yawned. The silent man, for all the world no different to a lighthouse keeper, keeping an eternal watch, finally shifted his gaze in the direction of the approaching train. She and I fidgeted uncomfortably, feeling the need physically to prepare to board the train, yet too lethargic to move much.
It grew closer, and closer. I looked down at my shoes, realising a lace was undone. I reached down to tie the lace, as the train was coming into the platform, when I heard several shouts, screams, and the train stopped.
She was next to me, pale, shaking, eyes wide open, bearing witness to horror. Her mouth stood open, She was shaking her head and eventually She threw herself onto me, screaming, face pressed into my shoulder and arms writhing around me, as my body muted Her screams.
People often say that at moments of great trauma, everything is perceived as through slow-motion. I found this to be completely untrue. As She writhed, shook, screamed, I was paralysed, but everything moved very quickly. I saw the couple nearby both start falling apart, the girl just sat, staring, eyes forward, and frozen as if a statue. Her boyfriend was leaning forward, only half sitting down, not sure what to do, moving his head in short twitches. Then he threw up violently onto the floor. The final man on the platform seemed half-moved. He walked slowly to the front of the train, which was now juddering backwards slowly, looked down at the rails, and walked away. There was no sign of the auburn-haired girl.
After I had taken a second to try to understand what was happening, I was half knocked down by the force of Her burrowing into me for the kind of protection we’d long-since ceased to provide for each other, I slowly/quickly/slowly/quickly realised what had happened, as the train driver stumbled out of his cab, shaking, and clung onto the side of the train. There was nobody else aboard.
With a sudden jolt She was up, and sprinting towards the platform. I tried to grab at the edge of Her dress, to pull Her back, but She was there before I even knew She was moving. I felt a sickly, nauseous lethargy.
Suddenly, She just turned round and screamed. And that scream was the most awful sound I think I’ve ever heard. She just screamed, and I can’t help feeling now that a lot of Her must have died with that scream, in a way.
I think I threw up. I remember that there was vomit on the hem of my trousers. My head was spinning. It was one of those moments where one wants, so desperately, to convince oneself it is a dream. But it isn’t.
Someone must have called an ambulance, or the police, or something. Flashing lights, dull siren sounds cut through the night and suddenly there was a very normal-looking woman in a fluorescent jacket, asking me if I was alright. I said I thought that I was alright. And she said that was okay, that everything was going to be okay. She had short hair the colour of sand.
I saw a tarpaulin being lowered onto the tracks. I may have been sick again. I’d lost sight of Her, not that I could be of any comfort to Her anyway. I didn’t know where anyone had gone, suddenly everybody was from the emergency services, calm, efficient, comforting. Who can fail to be comforted by a stocky man in a fluorescent yellow jacket, organising such a hellish task with such ease and practice? I wonder now whether they use special, more experienced teams for jobs like that.
I don’t know what happened. I have a vivid memory of seeing a shred of blue hanging over the edge of the tarpaulin, a few strands of auburn hair fluttering from inside, but this may have been a vision that I created in the dreams that haunted me for weeks afterwards.
At some point, She came back. She told me we needed to leave, that She had to go, he had to get out, and so we did. I don’t remember how we got home, it may have been by taxi, or even bus.
When we eventually got back, She just sat in her chair, with all Her clothes on, looking at the floor. I asked Her if She was alright and She told me that She felt okay, considering. She told me to go to bed, She wanted to sit for a while.
I didn’t want to go to bed, but I complied. I lay there reading a book for a long time, and eventually I collapsed into sleep. I don’t think I had any bad dreams that night, oddly. Maybe it was that things hadn’t quite gotten hold of me, maybe the events of the evening hadn’t yet cast such a long shadow as they would.
When I awoke the next morning, She wasn’t lying next to me. My movements didn’t provoke a tired sigh, my habitual peck on the cheek wasn’t brushed off as She told me to go back to sleep. When I walked into the living room I found Her there, still sitting in the chair. She looked older, Her eyes were wide. Her lips looked pale.
I didn’t know quite what to do. I asked Her if She was alright, and received no answer, and I put the kettle on for a cup of coffee, and She asked me what I was doing. She said it wasn’t time for coffee, and I told Her the time, and the fact that I’d just woken up. She said I was lying, that it was the middle of the night and I was drunk. I didn’t know how to answer Her, I may even have been a little worried, as I gently grabbed Her shoulder and showed Her the sun, newly risen in a grey dawn. She swore, She muttered, She looked around quickly, eyes darting, and She got up and ran into the bedroom.
It must have been Saturday or Sunday, because I was not going to work that day. I poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat down in the living room. I remember trying not to think about what had happened the night before: that was a bad thing, and at the time, for my own sanity, I tried my very best not to think about bad things. But it preyed on my mind, and pretty soon I poured the coffee away, and instead served myself a large glass of rum: the last of the bottle.
I must have been sitting, holding the glass for at least ten minutes, wanting to calm my mind, to take shelter from the images therein, but equally wanting to save the warm sting of the drink as long as I could. There was no noise, the television was off and there was no music on. Suddenly, quietly, She left the bedroom, still pale but completely under control.
I asked Her again if She was alright, if She was feeling better. She said She felt quite well, and that She was going to have a cup of coffee.
I felt it best to say nothing at this point, and so I began greedily to glug down my rum. The days we spent together in the flat were grim enough, not because of either of us individually, but because of our shared coldness. I felt that this one would be unbearable.
Faint impressions. The way the hem of Her dress, still on from the night before, curled up slightly: creased from a night of motionlessness. The sun briefly lightening Her hair, as She leaned forward slowly to pour Her morning drink. My feeling useless, pathetic. Sad.
She stood at the counter to stir Her coffee, and I decided it would be in my best interests to go out. I knew that I should stay with Her, and I know now that it would have meant nothing if I had, but still I feel uncontrollably guilty that I did not. I could not face that day, and I resolved to take shelter from it.
I don’t remember what I wore, but I know I dressed quickly, in the bedroom, and when I came out She was sitting in the same chair She had occupied for the entire night. I told Her I would be going out for most of the day, and asked Her if she wanted anything. She didn’t answer, but she looked at me, and I felt cold. She shot me a look of such contempt, as if even then She knew what it was from which I was running away. She didn’t answer, no, but that look was an answer of its own.
I went out and closed the door. I spent that day walking, mainly. I walked through parks, up and down roads, spent time sitting at bus stops when I was tired, pretending that I was waiting. I wished I had been waiting for a bus, that would take me somewhere else, but I was not. I must have looked somewhat downcast because at one point, a little girl ran up to me and asked why I looked so sad. She had long dark hair and a face full of innocence. I told her I wasn’t sad, some people just have mouths that turn downwards. She laughed, and I tried to smile. Her mother walked over and grabbed her by the arm, apologised to me, walked away.
I smiled, wanly. To be a child again. Dark clouds circled me, I felt the need to stop, to cry. The previous night had been the culmination of so much, so much dullness, tension, nausea, fatigue.
I was walking past a bookshop when I did start crying – I don’t know what caused it, but suddenly it was there and it was all that I could do. It came not in a graceful trickle, but immediately in huge, forceful sobs, as if I’d been holding my breath for ten years and was finally exhaling again. I leaned against the window of the shop and wept, cushioning my wet face with my arm. Nobody stopped and asked me whether I was alright, for which I was glad.
After a few minutes, a shop assistant rapped on the inside of the window and motioned for me to vacate my position, the sentry post of my despair. I tried to pull myself together and did so.
By this time, it was getting dark, and I knew I had to go home. With each step, I slowed, hoping against hope that something would distract me. That I might find a good reason, an excuse to betray the woman I had once loved. But, grappling with everything I was, I had to face facts and I walked into the flat just after seven o clock.
Immediately I walked in, I saw Her, standing by the cooker, frying an egg. Without turning around, she simply said, in a dead voice, “she smiled at me.”
I didn’t understand. I threw my coat over the sofa, and asked Her what she meant.
“She smiled at me. The girl smiled at me.”
With an inward wrench, I knew what She was talking about. I asked her what She thought it meant, whether that was why She had been so shaken up. She replied archly that She had not been shaken, that it was just a long night. She said She had needed time to think about things.
I asked Her what things She had needed to think about. She told me that She had needed to think about what She wanted to do. Only now did She turn around, and I was stunned. She had put on make up, which I had not known Her do for weeks, and She no longer seemed tired. She walked slowly to the chair and sat down.
She leaned forward, and I smelled Her scent. The body fragrance, the shampoo, and the sheer scent of HER. Against my better judgement, I felt a desire I had not felt in some time.
She talked of how we should leave the city, of how She wanted to be with me somewhere new, to start a life together and have enough money to live on. Eagerly, She breathed life into us both, into the stale air of the flat, as She talked about a course She planned to take that would qualify Her for such-and-such a job in the theatre. She told me that, if I wanted, when She got Her job it would be so well-paid that I could take some time off to concentrate on writing. She positively glowed.
I began to smile, a genuine smile, as She got up to move Her egg onto a plate and devour it between two battered slices of bread. The way Her hips wiggled as she stood up and sat down, the way She took such dainty bites from Her snack, all made me feel as if something had been saved, that had so nearly been lost forever. After She had eaten, we made love.
We spent hours that night talking. I now remember, as I write, that it must have been a Sunday. I would normally have gone to bed early, as I had an early start for work, but not this time. We stayed up, effortlessly, until very late, talking of our successful future, maybe even planning to get a car, maybe then have some children. We could even get married.
She talked so animatedly that I almost cried again. We held eachother, laughing at our stupidity, wondering why we had become so cold. We each poked fun at the other’s habits: She at my endlessly long baths, I at Her inability to spend more than ten minutes preparing a meal before losing interest. We were at one, and such pure joy invaded my heart that all that had gone before simply vanished, surely never to return. The conjurer had performed the magic, and everything that had gone before, was illusion.
When the time came for me to leave for work, I earnestly contemplated taking a day off, but we both knew that we couldn’t afford that, especially if we would be saving hard to move. I dressed at the last possible moment, kissed Her goodbye with a passion I had scarcely ever known, even when we were first lovers, and I departed.
It was a quick day, it passed so easily. I was brimful of enthusiasm for the length of it, and everybody at the studio noticed. At that point I was temping, doing administrative work at a graphic art studio, and everyone commented on my demeanour. Friendly nothings. People asked me if I’d won the lottery, or with a snide nudge whether I’d ‘got lucky’. I just grinned and said that it was better than all of that, better than anything that could be imagined. I didn’t even mention that I had, in fact ‘gotten lucky’ for the first time in an age. I was too happy, too gloriously happy to lower the tone. It was as if something beautiful had awakened, and was determined never to sleep again.
I made my way back home, and felt deliciously naughty for buying a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate our reunion: it was cheap supermarket wine, but nonetheless a luxury for us.
I virtually careened up to the flat, and walked in with a grin that verged on the rictus, in anticipation of another perfect evening in the company of love, love that had been rescued from the gallows only at the last gasp.
But nobody was there. She had not been working for the last couple of weeks, and I felt sure She would have let me know if She had gone out, especially now. I noticed a piece of A5 lined paper on the sofa, covered in Her neat, slanting writing. Still completely, blissfully happy, I picked it up, hungry for Her, for Her voice in my thoughts.
Immediately I was shocked. Powerfully, violently and horrendously. What had been taken from Her with the death at the railway station, was now taken from me, a gobbet of flesh torn from my torso and held up in front of my wide, staring eyes.
The note stated, quite simply, that She felt our situation had become untenable and that She was leaving. She said that She had no desire to keep any of Her belongings from the flat, except a suitcase of clothes and essentials that She had taken. She said She could not be around me any more, that I was hindering Her. Even then, I found the use of that word odd.
She signed it simply with Her initial, and that was that.
Had it not been for the events of the night before, I would barely have been surprised. I would certainly not have been unhappy. But now, at such a time as this, a shock so cruel half-killed me. It made me think about how strangely She had acted the morning before, made me weep and beat my fists against my chest in frustration that I had fooled myself into believing that things could really be okay again. I should have been more questioning, but no.
I wept. For hours, I sat and wept, and the ferocity of my emotions shocked me, made them come on even more strongly, and the endless cycle never stopped. That morning I had held Her, we had pledged to stay together forever, and now everything had stopped, and I was completely alone.
At some point in the evening, I drank the wine and smoked the last of my cigarettes, but I was too empty, too hollow even to go out and buy more. I may have spent the whole night crying.
I did not even call the agency the next day to tell them I would be absent. I lay, drifting in and out of sleep, on the sofa, staring into space. I have never felt so empty, so ruined, so alone and so hopeless in my life. In the early afternoon, the telephone rang and I leapt up to answer it, in case it was Her. It was not. Somebody had the wrong number. Even then, I could cast a self-deprecatory smile – it could only happen to me.
I was so surprised, so shocked, that after even one night of tenderness, the final nail in the coffin had come as such a severe blow.
I went back to my almost feverish state. Twice, I thought I heard the door open, and when I found I was mistaken, I screamed. Everything was worthless.
Oh, how I burned. And how I yearned to burn away. The agony, and yet despondency of those few days that I spent, eating nothing, drinking only when my mouth ran so dry it hurt me, stay with me now, like a scar across my body. I had found love, and it had been clawed away by the echo of my own coldness.
The next week, I tried to go outside. I bought a packet of cigarettes and a loaf of bread. The agency had obviously been calling me because I dimly remember having heard the telephone ring again, but being so deeply wrapped in my melancholy that I had not picked it up. I knew, by now, that I would not be welcome back with them, and I resigned myself to trying to stay alive until my grief had been beaten back to a sacred, darkened corner of my mind. I would build an altar to lost love, but I would not sacrifice myself.
It took most of my strength to live through that week. The ghosts and demons that haunted me then, that raged and battled all around me, return as I write, spectres of spectres, to nag and tear at my uneasy mind.
It is strange, now, to think that I never called Her until several weeks afterwards. Whether this was futile pride, lethargy or simply my inability to speak to Her I do not know. I tried to call just to ask what She wanted me to do with the remainder of Her belongings. The mobile telephone rang, abandoned, to answerphone. I did not leave a message.
Slowly, as the embers of that final night’s passion burned out, and as a muddy grey dawn arose over a night of bright lights and promise, I tried to become myself. I used my meagre savings to buy an old typewriter, and I managed, very luckily, to get myself a cosy little job working as a clerk at the headquarters of an electrical goods retailer. I struggled on for weeks and months, still devoid of most human emotion. Christmas and New Year passed without ceremony, but equally without mourning. I felt almost as if I could one day live again as I had before she and I had even crossed paths.
I became detached from the man I had been, and eventually I became more attuned to day to day life. I went out with new found friends for trivial evenings. I enjoyed the company of the people around me. I took life slightly less seriously. But somehow, through it all, I maintained a deadly cynicism that would surface from time to time. My inner shell, it was the necessary evil, that protected me from any similar falls to the one I had taken in the autumn.
And so I lived for two and a half years. There were times when I almost felt normal, healed, although I knew I was still nowhere near being rehabilitated as a person, as a being amongst other beings. The scar that was left burned against me all day and all night, and sometimes I was forced to get out of bed and pace around my flat puffing on endless cigarettes until dawn, just to distract myself from that spectre.
The last night we had spent together haunted my thoughts, violated my dreams. Like a creature from a horror film lunging from the fog, it struck me down whenever I closed my eyes and let my mind drift even slightly.
One day I was coming home from work, leaving the train station and turning down the road homeward, when I saw Her. The shock jolted me, jarred me, and I genuinely looked away and looked back, believing it to be some brutal trick of the mind.
She was dressed in a summer dress, short and bright blue. She saw me from some way off, and seemed to hesitate, but walked towards me anyway with a tight-lipped smile and outstretched arms. She expressed her pleasure at seeing me, told me I looked well, asked what I had been doing. I asked Her why She had left.
She skirted the issue, deploying clichés that surprised me, coming from that mouth, telling me we hadn’t worked, it had been too tense, too much, such and such. She told me She was a lot calmer now, a lot more easy going.
In spite of myself, I felt a surge of hope.
I asked Her if we should maybe meet some time to catch up. She said that wouldn’t be possible.
Deflated, I asked Her why it would not. I had cast my eyes down, and now they arose, and as they met Hers I was paralysed.
“I have a train to catch”.
She smiled brightly, pecked me on the cheek and bounded up the stairs to the platform.
I sunk down against the wall, the sun-warmed brickwork offering me no peace as I closed my eyes, and began to weep, as I had only wept when I had lost Her. I cried and cried, and nothing could expunge the stonework, the words and the fate that I knew had to be.
I stood aside to let the emergency services pass. And then I walked away before they brought Her out.
And the final recollection that I allow myself, the one final glimmer of comfort, and yet and at the same time the most damning and unrelenting reminder of tragedy. As She left, I saw Her look back.
She smiled at me.