by William Wright
Amber took the train to the city centre, but when she got there, she didn’t leave the station. She sat on a bench on the platform and watched the crowds, sitting completely still amid a sprawling mass of movement. Trains pulled into the station, emptied their loads, and filled up again before ploughing back out into the open air, travelling over the same, wheel-worn, shining tracks they had travelled yesterday, and would travel again tomorrow. In the years to come the paint coating the trains’ cold metallic bones would corrode under the summer sun and the winter snow, and they would be re-painted, re-skinned, their life elongated, their torment prolonged, before they encounter the finality of time and are left to rot a hundred years from now, torn limb-from-limb, and scattered around a junk yard, their ghastly agedness hidden from the view of the general public.
Tomorrow Amber will be in this very train station at seven o’clock in the morning, and around three hours after that, her mother will greet her with a hug, her father will kiss her on the cheek, and put her bags into the back of the car, and another half an hour after that, she will be back “home”. Her mother will chatter nervously in the car, as Amber and her father sit silently. He will look out at the road ahead of him; she will stare emptily at the countryside passing by her window.
They will arrive at the house Amber grew up in, around midday tomorrow, and she will go straight into the living room, and sit down with a sigh on the sofa, while her Father takes her luggage up to her bedroom.
The living room had once been fashionable and modern, but now it sits like a dusty sepia photograph, growing yellower and yellower with age. Her mother will fuss, and bring her a cup of tea, and a sandwich, and she will talk about everything that has changed since Amber left. “Your favourite television channel has now moved to number 128”, she will say. “The Johnsons from next door have moved out, and their son got married. Your Dad and I weren’t invited to the ceremony, but the reception was lovely, although the music a little too frantic for my tastes”. “Oh, and that horrible kid from a few houses down has gone and got himself arrested, just like I always said he would.” Her father will already be in his office, spreadsheets open, discussing health and safety with the HR Manager on the phone.
Eventually, Amber will grow bored, and go upstairs to see her room and start to unpack her suitcases that are laid in the middle of her perfectly-made bed. Her room stands almost exactly as it had the day she left it. The posters of bands and films she had grown out of years ago still hang diligently on her pale-pink walls, and upon her small wooden desk, between a picture of herself and her friends on their final day of high school, and another from a family holiday she had gone on with her parents to Florida before she left for University, is a picture of her brother. He is fourteen, and he is standing alone at a family party. The people in the photos will all seem to her to be standing on some sort of precipice, preparing for an event that looms over them, their smiles tinted with a sadness that is waiting just outside the frame. Amber will turn them all facing downwards one by one; the leap and fall were over, and now they had all hit the ground.
Her fingertips will linger, and she will stare at the picture of her brother for a few minutes, and then walk across the hall into his room. Repulsively re-painted in beige, the vibrantly colored green and blue bed sheets have been swapped out for new, plain, white ones with an elderly lace pattern around the edges. The carpet in areas is still compressed by the weight of his desk where it used to stand by the wall, his computer atop it, always turned on, a screensaver simulating a flight through space looping, endless and dim. On the wall, the last trace of him remains; a 3×5 school photo. He’s sixteen, and wearing a navy blue blazer, part of the uniform. It hangs loosely from his shoulders, looking like a hand-me-down that he still hasn’t grown into. But it wasn’t; it had fit him when it had been bought a few years before the photo had been taken. He is smiling, and the strain of sustaining the look of happiness is causing his eyes to squint. His skin is pale, and his head is bald. His eyebrows, once thick, dark and expressive, are non-existent, and the echo of alien-ness in his face still brings a lump to her throat.
She will leave the room, feeling overcome by its oppressive emptiness, and the artificial newness that tried to cover up the past, but the house outside feels just the same – empty and cold. The only solace she can find is in her room that stands exactly the same as it always had.
Amber had been sitting in the station for around half an hour. And some people saw her as they walked past, and maybe wondered why she was sitting alone, and then they thought she must just be waiting for someone. She took out her phone, and dialled her friend Penny’s number. They had been roommates since their first day at university, and Amber had latched on to her and not let go. She had felt in Penny a sense of home; in her she had found another only child from a middle-class family in a small town. This was probably going to be the last day they would spend as housemates, but Amber didn’t make the call. She had wanted to ask where Penny was, what they were going to do that night, whether she had managed to pack up all her stuff yet, but instead she just stared at her phone, before putting it back into her pocket, and looking around again at all the people in the station, arriving and leaving without a second thought, each moment of their lives a progression, moving from one room to the next, with a few corridors in between.
Amber was about to get up to walk to the newsstand across the platform when an elderly woman came straight over from the main entrance to the station, and sat next to her on the bench. She aimlessly and silently stared for a while, as Amber was, at the movement around them. Then, after a while, she started glancing at Amber questioningly, and began following her eye-line, as though trying to help her in the search for whatever she was looking for. Then the old woman turned to talk to her, wrinkles covering her face like roads on a map, carved by time into her skin, to serve as reminders of everywhere she had been. Her head was encased in a bowler hat, which she, from time to time, raised her hand to re-adjust, nodding contentedly as she did so.
“You waiting for somebody dear?” the old woman said.
“No,” Amber said, “You?”
“Oh, no. I just like to ride out every now and again. I don’t like to just sit at home. I like to come and see the city.”
“Yes, it was nothing like this before. Always busy now. I come out and even at night, there are always people who need to be somewhere.”
“Yeah”, Amber said, welcoming the distraction.
“It changes too quickly this city, you know. I like to come out and see how it has changed.”
“I didn’t think it changes that much. But I haven’t been here that long.”
“Oh, yes. I saw the other day a group of people protesting something or other. Right in the middle of the street, and everyone around them just walked on by, like they were just part of the architecture. A year ago you wouldn’t have seen that.”
“I’m sure you would.”
“Yes, people are always angry, but now they just come out and say it, right in the middle of all the tourists.”
“Yeah, I suppose. I don’t think protesting is a new thing though.”
“They don’t worry about giving the city a bad name or anything like that. They don’t worry that all these tourists will get back on their airplanes and say to their families, “Oh, it was nice, but there was all these angry people”, no! It’s great, you know, that they can just be angry and it’s so normal.” The woman had a slight Caribbean accent that crept into her voice every so often, and a slight raspy cooing tone to her speech.
“I don’t think they are always angry about something real. Some are just protesting for the sake of it”, Amber said, disagreeing simply to further the conversation.
“Of course they are, people are always protesting; I sometimes think people protest just for the fun of it too, whether they have a cause or not. People like to just be angry sometimes. But that’s the wonderful thing about it; people want so much for something to care about, something to get worked up over, and we need that from time to time. Are you sure you’re not waiting for anyone dear?”
“No. I’m not. I like to ride out sometimes too, I guess; just to look around.” Amber looked at the old lady’s hands, and saw a gold wedding ring on her finger, locked in place by the flesh that had swollen around it after decades of wear.
“I sometimes think I would like to join those people protesting, but I don’t have enough left in me to work up the anger. It used to be a lot easier to get angry with the world; for a woman like myself I mean. It’s so much better now than it was. People always complain about the youth of today. Well, let me tell you one thing, they said the same about us when we were kids.” she patted a hand over her heart as she said this, and leaned in towards Amber, as though about to give up a secret. “No, not so bad anymore, not like it used to be. Of course, there’s still ignorance, I still get funny looks sometimes, people shuffling when I sit next to them in a waiting room; people thinking I am poor, or that I should always be wearing colourful clothes because I still sound a little Jamaican. I forget I am sometimes, I don’t really see the difference. But it’s not like the old days; I can live where I want now, no landlord or waiter will turn me away. Of course, I’m sure some want to, but not enough to risk a law suit. Your hands are shaking dear…”
Amber looked at her hands, and they were trembling in her lap. She curled them into fists to smother the quiver in her fingers. She was about to walk away, to deal with the problem in isolation, but something about the old woman kept her sitting there. As much as she wanted to be alone, she felt herself getting lost in this stranger, who was talking to her simply to talk. Her own memories, even if only for a few moments, ceased to matter.
“You’re sure you’re not waiting for somebody, you said?” said the old woman, with a slight, disbelieving furrow of her eyebrows.
“Yes, I’m sure. I’m not sure who I would be meeting, even.”
“Well, a boyfriend, or your brother or sister, or a friend… you could be waiting for anyone. It’s not good to always be waiting around for others though, eventually they won’t bother turning up. Are you at University?”
“Yes. Well… no… I just graduated.”
“You will miss it. I did. I was quite a feminist. I wasn’t going to let no man run my life. Then what do you know, I ended up a house wife. But the difference was, I chose to be one. My husband wanted me to work – Imagine! – but I said no. He was furious really. He liked not bearing the load of providing for us – not having to break his back just to afford the weekly shop like his Father. Well, his father hated me. His son and a Negro?! Well, we caused quite the commotion in the community. The nice ones said we should think twice, we were just so different, and they couldn’t see how it would work out. The nasty ones told us we were just wrong. Well, my husband and his parents, they stopped talking. His father was especially unkind, disowned him and that sort of thing – “I don’t have a son anymore”. We didn’t see them for the longest time, about four years it was. Well, until one day, we turned up on his doorstep, and my husband had a little baby in his arms, little black curls on his head, and the darkest brown eyes. Well, you should have seen that man’s face, I have never seen anyone’s expression go as soft as his did so quickly. He didn’t say a word, just took his grandson in his arms and cradled him, looking down into his little face. We went around every week after that, and we would have Sunday dinner, we even all went to church together a few times, and my father in law strolled straight in there, holding the baby up high for everyone to see. He turned up at our house sometimes too, midweek, when my husband wasn’t home. He would have some silly excuse, like he had come to check the water pressure, like some kind of plumber; he had never touched a water pipe in his life, he had been a construction worker. And he would play for hours with that little boy. It was a relief for me, toddlers run you into the ground. You understand, don’t you dear?”
“I think so.”
“They all come around in the end, all it takes is a little baby’s eyes.” The old lady was smiling, as though waiting for Amber to say something, but she didn’t want to reply, she liked to hear the old lady talk. She liked to know that her life was just as obscure to this woman as the woman’s was to her. By chance they had crossed in this busy train station that was revolving around them, a cacophony of echoing footsteps and screeching train brakes, and soon they would part again, and their lives would be just as inconsequential to one another as they had been before they met.
“Is there a man in your life, dear?” the old woman finally said.
“No, there isn’t,” Amber said. She felt for some reason as though she was telling a lie. There was a hint of disingenuousness in her voice, and she knew that the old woman would pick up on it.
“A pretty girl like you? You should have two or three!”
“I don’t want one, I don’t think.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No! No… No.”
“Well, you know, it wouldn’t matter if you did. Not these days. Why is it you don’t want a boyfriend?”
“I don’t know. The idea isn’t appealing.”
“Well, you know, what could be more appealing than having someone you can share yourself with?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have the saddest eyes my dear, do you know that? They are so big – remind me of my son’s. You know, when my husband died, I felt like I had lost a whole part of me, like the world was going to end any second, and I was helpless. I was there, in the hospital, and I watched him go, and you could never explain it; this person who you love with your whole heart is leaving, and you know you will never hear them laugh again. For so long I just cried and cried. And I was so angry for the longest time, so angry at everything and I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I just had this festering pain in my stomach that was eating me from the inside. Do you understand, dear?”
“Yes. I know.”
“Then one day I just looked at his picture, and it left, the festering feeling. And I was fine then. I still miss him every day.” Amber’s hands were still trembling, and she looked down at them again, willing them into stillness; and then the old lady placed her hand on top of her clenched fists. “It just went, dear.”
Amber sighed, and the lady took her hand away, leaving Amber’s clenched fists completely still.
“Are you sure you’re not waiting for anybody dear?” she said.
“Yes. I’m not waiting for anybody.”
“Are you seeing someone off, then?”
“No, I’m not saying goodbye to anyone until tomorrow.”
“What happens tomorrow?”
“I’m going back home.”
“Oh yes. By the way, congratulations dear. What is your degree in?”
“Mathematics. It was my brother’s favourite subject.”
“What is your favourite subject?”
“You said it was your brother’s favourite subject. Well, what is yours?”
“Oh, I don’t really have one. History, I suppose. That used to be my favorite.”
“Well, congratulations dear. Maybe now you can read some History books or something, now that you have finished with your degree.”
“Maybe.” They both sat together in contented silence for what could have been five minutes, or maybe an hour. They didn’t look at each other, and neither of them was really looking around anymore. Their eyes were glazed and they both looked straight in front of them, like an audience waiting for a show to begin. Above them, mounted upon the sandstone wall of the old Station was a departure board. The names of destinations, followed by the times of the leaving trains scrolled across the huge black surface in digital green digits.
“Anyway, I think I had better be going, Dear. It was really lovely to meet you,” The old woman said, and she stood up, and turned towards the main entrance to the train station, “I think there should be my bus coming along any minute now.”
“Why don’t you just take a train? You’re already here…”
“I like train stations, but I hate trains. I much prefer buses; I like roads much better than tracks.”
Amber watched the old woman walk out into the street, and she continued to sit. She wasn’t at a destination, but she wasn’t at home either. Instead she was trapped in between, in a cathedral built to honour those who needed to be somewhere – steel and stone and glass towering to the sky, reaching upwards, but faltering half way, because this is where people come to begin their search for beauty and joy and happiness.
She boarded the next train out of the city, and as it pulled out of the station, there was that almost unnoticed hope inside her that the engine fails, and the vehicle whose life has been unnaturally prolonged will sputter to a halt, and she will be forced to park her life eternally in the glorious station, in which she can foster hope, without leaving her love behind.