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Railway Tracks

The Train

When Sarah lets a stranger sit across from her, his presence makes her question the thoughts running through her head... What journey does she find herself on? And what makes him seem so familiar?

The Train 

“Is this seat taken?”                                                                                            

Her mind was busy with lists. There was Thomas’s medicine to retrieve from the pharmacy, the essentials to get from the supermarket. Supermarket? More of a large grocery store in the heart of a ‘60s housing estate. Not one of those monstrous places that sold washing machines and bikes as well as fruits and vegetables.

“Please.” Her hand indicated the seat opposite.

The constant sway of her body had lulled her into a doze that threatened to wipe the memory of her uncompleted morning tasks. That wouldn’t do. Her mind was becoming awkwardly less reliable of late. She needed to keep a track of things for Thomas’s sake. She didn’t like it when his face contorted into a worried frown whenever she’d forgotten her keys, or her purse, or what exactly it was she was halfway through doing…

“Nice day,” she said, feeling a sudden urge to talk.

“You’re always yapping away to people!” Thomas had once pointed out, in a tone of wonder that bordered on admiration - a trait of hers so at odds with his. “You know nobody does that these days.”

The man smiled back at her. He had a smile just like her husband’s. A smile that cracked softly and smoothly, hanging invitingly between them.

“Yes,” he replied.

Her hands wrapped carefully over each other where they lay cushioned on her lap. She could feel the warmth of her thighs through the stretched cotton fabric of her favourite skirt. Just like the suit she’d worn to her wedding, just after the war when cloth was at a premium. She’d always thought she’d wanted a proper white wedding with a long veil and train, a church bursting with flowers and a hall full of people. As it turned out, all she’d really wanted was to marry Thomas, with or without a train.

Pickle. He’d want cheese and pickle sandwiches for tea.

“Pickle?”

The man had looked up, his eyes capturing her, calming the movement of this place, this journey, the constant swaying that never ceased.

“I’m sorry?” She felt the colour rush to her cheeks. “Oh! Did I say that out loud? How embarrassing! I’m just trying to keep track of things. I didn’t want to forget you see.”

Another smile as if to reassure her and she felt the colour fade from her face. Her fingers busied themselves, pressing and pulling at the material covering her legs, unable to keep still. That was another thing Thomas kept saying of late:

“You’re always fidgeting.”

More preferable than sitting around with nothing to do. A lifetime of hard work, volunteering and two children. She wasn’t going to stop just because age was catching up with her, making its presence felt in the lines on her hands, her thinning white hair and her voice that seemed to dip and rise.

“Would you like to share perhaps?” The man again. On his lap he had carefully opened a paper bag and there on his knee were two halves of a chocolate éclair.

“Oh!” Her surprise was out before she could stop it.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No, not at all,” she smiled. “It’s just that, these days, people don’t-”

“Well, perhaps they should.”

Wasn’t it a mark of age to always look back on the past with fondness, as if things were better, more simply then?

“Thank you.”

The chocolate cracked easily against teeth that were still her own. Thomas had long since lost his. The bright pink and white replicas would sit in a cup by their bed, their empty grin watching them as they sipped on cups of tea, blankets pulled up to their chins to keep out the cold. Hadn’t they laughed when he’d first got them fitted?

“Getting old, love,” he had giggled through vacant gums, pretending to voice the words through the dentures he held in his palm.

“Oh, stop it!”

The éclair.

Her tastebuds brought her back to the present. The cream oozed with goodness between her teeth, just like the cakes at Monty’s.

“Is it nice?” He was holding his share, carefully, delicately, between fingers yet to lift it to his lips.

“I do like a good éclair.”

“So do I,” he said, before finally nibbling the end of his half. “As a treat.”

“Oh yes. Not every day.”

“Quite.”

He took his time biting through the chocolate, pastry and cream and Sarah suddenly regretted her decision to devour hers so quickly. She wanted to taste it again, feel the richness against her tongue. Her fast eating was a habit of hers that she had never been able to break - a consequence of having nine older siblings. At dinner time her mother would leave their food in a vast bowl in the centre of a table all crowded with children: mud-spattered, bruised elbows of varying sizes, all vying for space. There had been a need to get in quick to prevent hunger pangs at bedtime. There was a boy, an elder brother, who would stuff his pockets with any crumbs from the loaf of bread laid out before them. A small, pitiful portion for a midnight feast in the dark. Always the same boy. Now what was his name? The name of the boy who spent all day thinking of his stomach and little else? Strange that his name should escape her in the drifting passage of time…

“I happen to like cheese and pickle sandwiches too.” The man had leant across the gap towards her and whispered the words conspiratorially. That smile of his was designed to make her chuckle and she couldn’t help but acquiesce.

“It’s my husband’s favourite.” She felt compelled to explain her earlier outburst. “That and chocolate eclairs.”

He nodded, leaning back against the high-backed seat that creaked and groaned. The prospect of conversation gave her an excuse to cast her eyes over him without appearing rude. Thick, white hair crowned a face that was warm and kindly. There were glasses on his straight nose, highlighting his sharp blue eyes; small, round glasses that would now be surely branded as old-fashioned. There were fewer liver spots and blemishes mapping out his face compared to her own sagging skin, and she guessed his age at four or five years behind her own. His smart trousers with their wide legs reminded her of the demob suits the men sported in those healing years after the war; a collective desire to return to some kind of normality. He held her in an intense stare that was softened by smiling lips and she was pleased with his company to while away their time on this hurtling train.

“No delays today.” She felt compelled to comment as her gaze sought the window and the rolling countryside beyond.

A frown appeared where the smile had been. “Where are you heading?”

The lists. Her mind had been wandering so much from the éclair, Thomas’s teeth and the man in front of her with his kindness and caring that she’d forgotten to keep track of her lists. That wouldn’t do. There was a need these days to stay focussed so that she wouldn’t provoke Thomas’s worried looks and compassionate touch whilst she chastised herself for a job half done.

“I had some jobs to do…” she said, half listening, half wading through the fog in her mind.

“The pharmacy, the pickle sandwiches…” he offered gently with such care.

“Ah yes.” She was grateful for his help in lifting the fog and the smooth, repetitive movement of her fingers stroking the skirt over her thighs, lulled her anxieties. From the open window, she smelt the flowers disturbed by the passage of time. The sweet smell of honeysuckle reminded her of a perfume she’d once liked - one that Thomas would buy her every year for her birthday, without fail. A perfume bottle popped in a gift bag because he didn’t have the time for all that sticking and gluing. Then, one year, they’d stopped selling it at the shop he’d known so well. It had upset him, ruined his routine of the flowered bag sealed with a red bow and his message of love.

“Pickle sandwiches,” she continued. “I was going to make a cake for tea, but we’d got no eggs.”

“Didn’t they use to make an eggless sponge during the war?”

She was slightly offended that he chose to reference that marker in time. Why was it always a natural assumption that anyone with wrinkled hands and fading hair had personal experience of it?

“I guess they did,” she answered, her tone sharp and brusque.

His turn to blush.

“I didn’t mean to be rude,” he stumbled his apology, clearly realising his mistake from the hardness of her stare. “It was a thought that popped into my mind – the lack of eggs. I didn’t mean-”

“There were lots of things they made without during the war,” she brushed off his words. She didn’t want the bother of his apology. It was meaningless in the whole scheme of things and besides, she would then feel the burden of his guilt which she had no wish to feel. “But that was a long time ago and of no relevance now.”

“Although we wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for the war.”

What a strange thing to say! Did he mean the consequences of time, the world or was he referring to the here and now? The two of them. Alone. Together.

“I’m not sure I quite understand?”

He seemed to hesitate. The noise, the constant movement that made her sway in the seat she’d warmed with her endless sitting, filling the silence. She watched him as he retreated into his own thoughts for an answer.

“Wouldn’t everyone’s lives be different?” His reply crossed the gap between them, slowly, carefully.

“I met my Thomas during the war.” She was curious now of this man with his perfectly rounded spectacles and chocolate eclairs. Her suspicions had taken her from her lists, the smell of honeysuckle and her thoughts on what to make Thomas for their tea. He had her attention. All of it.

“Oh?”

She half expected him to nod politely yet disinterestedly, but instead he leant towards her, his elbows resting on his knees as if it was imperative to the both of them that she continue.

“He was home on leave,” she resumed, the words flowing easily, freely. “His house was bombed. I’d been volunteering. Helping with the effort to help those with nothing - re-housing and such. We met over a cup of tea and a shortbread biscuit.”

“Not an éclair?” He smiled.

“No, not an éclair.” She smiled back, the memory loosening her irritation. “That came later.”

“And he asked you to marry him?”

“Later still,” she answered. “In a letter he sent from France after D-Day. I guess seeing all that war first-hand made him want something to look forward to.”

“No doubt.”

“Why do you ask?”

She watched him slump suddenly back into his seat, his shoulders sagging as his gaze tore away from hers. She listened to her own constant shuffling, the movement that encompassed her. She watched his hands stroke the worn fabric either side of his legs, fitfully, monotonously. She could see the shock on his face, rising into lines of worry that parted his lips and moistened his eyes.

“I just thought – the éclair,” he stuttered. “There’s still time.”

Perhaps that had been harsh of her. This nice man, taking an interest in her when others might not, making conversation to while away the journey. After all, there was still a long time before she needed to get off at… at…

There she stumbled.

There was a blankness in her mind that concerned her.

Where was she going again?

“I-I can’t remember…”

His hands were no longer stroking the seat but were clasped around hers where they lay on her knees.

“What can’t you remember?”

“Where I was going… I must…”

“Your lists,” he said with an urgency in his voice and in his stare. She could see his eyes flashing behind his old-fashioned glasses. “Remember your lists.”

She could feel his breath all hot and gentle. She should have been scared. She should have thrown off his hands and the lingering smell of the chocolate éclair and grabbed the chain above the window that would pull the train to a halt.

But the truth was, she wasn’t scared.

This stranger was as familiar to her as the thoughts of the war, Monty’s, and the replicas of Thomas’s teeth. She somehow knew he meant her no ill, knew his warm hands were there to comfort, not restrain her.

Besides, there was no chain…

“How,” she began to ask, worried now, “how do we stop all this?”

The fine lines around his eyes were crumpling in sadness.

“I… I don’t believe we can,” he said.

She could see the tears forming as he spoke those words. She could tell by the pressure of his warm hands, stroking and caressing hers, how he longed to lie to her.

“Who are you?”

She needed to ask it. She needed to know. But he avoided her gaze, his mouth opening to speak before closing in silence.

The train kept rumbling on gently, softly.

His thumbs stroked her skin as his hands continued to clutch at hers. The firmness of his touch pulled the wrinkles tight over her veins: jagged, bumpy lines that ran like rivers towards her fingers that were slightly bent and twisted from painful joints. There, her wedding ring sat, gold and without blemish as it had been on the day it had been placed on her finger. There was no hope of removing it now – her twisted joints would not allow it, nor would her subconscious grip on her past.

He dropped her hands, threw his arms back against the cushioned seat in a sudden expression of weariness, of abject exhaustion.

“Tell me more about Thomas,” he said, his eyes shut.

It was a demand that confused her.

“I’m sorry?”

“Your husband,” he continued, opening his tired eyes towards her. “If we are to take this journey together, I want to know more about him.” He thought for a moment. “To pass the time.”

Cheese and pickle sandwiches, eggs for an eggless cake, the war…

Why were her thoughts always so jumbled? It was a constant battle to keep the threads of her life straight as if she was ironing out sheets that creased and crumpled again just as soon as she shook them free.

“He is the best I could have hoped for,” she said out loud as if the words had minds of their own and refused to stay hidden in her thoughts that remained so chaotic.

The statement seemed to please him. The smile twitched at the corners of his perfectly shaved chin, smooth like her husband’s. She had never known Thomas sport a beard. He’d once said that a beard was the mark of a man whose life was getting the better of him. A man whose prospects were taking a tumble.

“I’m glad you said that,” the man told her.

“I wonder what he would say if he knew I was here, talking about him to a stranger!”

Her words appeared to hurt him again. The way his emotions seem to crest like a wave and then tumble down were starting to concern her. She was too old, too tired to care for someone else.

“Is that what I am?” he asked.

She could not bring herself to say yes, fearful that her words would wound him again.

“I don’t suppose you have any more chocolate eclairs?” A question designed to lighten the mood.

He laughed at that.

“Maybe next week?”

“Next week?”

“Yes, I think I have to go now.”

“Oh?” She couldn’t hide her disappointment. “Is it your stop?”

“Something like that,” he smiled kindly. “You will remember me, won’t you?”

What a strange question! The nature of their conversation would be something she’d find hard to forget. She would store up every word, every precise detail of their meeting so that she and Thomas had something to talk about over tea. A discussion best suited to cheese and pickle sandwiches and eggless cake. Which reminded her, she ought not to forget his medicine from the pharmacy. It wouldn’t do to have to get back on this train again just to retrieve one solitary item that her muddled brain had chosen to forget. Thomas might be cross at that.

The list. The pharmacy by the grocers in the middle of their ‘60s housing estate. Just a short walk from their road with its neat hedges, clipped lawns and heaving flowerbeds.

Walk?

If it was just a short walk away, then, what on earth was she doing on a train?

Her hands were back, smoothing the non-existent creases on her skirt that hugged her knees so tightly - slow, deliberate actions designed to soothe and settle so that the anxiety wouldn’t take hold.

“Sarah?” The stranger again, standing now, looking worriedly over her, reluctant to leave. “You will remember me, won’t you?” A repeat of his question that seemed of such importance to him, to both of them.

She nodded vacantly. Her gaze was already turning to the window where the fields full of flowers and the smell of honeysuckle gave her the serenity she craved. When she turned, her mind full of this journey and its mysterious destination, he was no longer there. The seat was empty, the rhythm of age that caused her body to move becoming monotonously comforting. She breathed deeply, heavily, refusing to give into the panic that threatened to consume her

But I don’t know how to get off…

Her silent confession caused a sharp intake of breath as the tears threatened to bubble over. And it was that breath that released the last tangs of a chocolate éclair to a mouth pursed in panic.

So nice of the man with old-fashioned glasses, dressed smartly with his clean-shaven face, to share such a treat with her. Her favourite and her husband’s too. And then her head snapped up, away from the view that never changed and she said one word out loud, to the honeysuckles and the man who so urgently wanted her to remember him but was now too far away to hear.

“Thomas?”

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