A young woman walked along the platform, her long red hair bouncing on her shoulders. She wore a purple jacket and carried no bag. She was thinking about what her grandmother had said.
‘When the time comes, you will know.’
It was difficult not to think her grandmother naïve.
The day was bright and busy. It was a good day for making up your mind. Probably it would be one of the most important decisions she would ever make. It would be a relief to get it over with.
The train was almost full and the people lifting their bags onto the racks, pulling off coats, settling into seats, brought a lightness to her mind. There were families with young children off for a day out, she imagined. There were young women chatting together, smiling and making plans. There were businessmen, pushing past, trying to find a quieter carriage. She welcomed all of this. It made her feel as though her life were just as simple.
On the train opposite, the same things were happening, but silently. It was like watching a film. It was as though she were making the film. The strangeness of this idea held her for a long moment.
A heavily-built man, smelling too strongly of aftershave, sat down next to her.
‘Do you mind if I squeeze in here?’ he asked.
‘No, go ahead. It’s very crowded for a Wednesday, isn’t it?’ she said.
The man smiled thinly and busied himself with his laptop.
She thought about the layers of scent she was picking up, trying to identify them, like a game. There was a warm musk, animal and thick. On top of this, a heavy oiliness and finally the aftershave, sweet, pungent and crass. The man was sweating, too.
She looked out of the window. On the opposite platform there was a boy running along, looking into the carriages. He would jump up onto the train, only to reappear seconds later. He must be looking for someone. Without knowing why, the young woman began to look with him. Perhaps she could conjure the right person.
In her own carriage, the noise bubbled up and simmered down, losing volume as the passengers arranged themselves for their journey. She closed her eyes and pictured the man she was going to meet.
He would be standing at the gate, wearing jeans and a tee shirt, his hair messy, his eyes focused on her as she walked towards him. He would be smiling and holding flowers. It made her laugh out loud - thinking of the flowers. He wouldn’t know how to hold them, they would only be in the way.
The man next to her glanced quickly over and then went back to his work. He was looking at graphs but the detail was too small for her to see. She wasn’t interested anyway. The doors slid to and the driver announced the stations the train would be stopping at. It was all going like clockwork and she suddenly felt a deep panic; that she needed more time.
The boy on the opposite platform must have found who he was looking for. She was glad.
‘Would you like one?’ The man next to her was offering her a polo mint.
‘Oh, no thank you.’ She answered too quickly. She had a feeling that something important was about to happen and that she might miss it.
The train pulled away slowly and she watched the people being left behind. In the sunlight, just where the station platform ended, stood the boy. He had blond curly hair and a very straight nose; he could be no more than six or seven. Startled, she rose up in her seat and tried to keep him in sight but the glare of the sunshine made her look away.
‘Did you see that boy?’ She asked. It was addressed to no-one in particular.
The man next to her did not reply. A few people who had heard her, smiled politely and looked away again.
The young woman felt that something had been interrupted and that it was of tremendous importance. She tried to recall what she had seen, but now the boy seemed less real than the things around her: the rain-stained window with its soft black rubber frame, the smooth velour seat, the shiny, rounded roof of the train.
Outside, the buildings receded and great swathes of fields, edged by hedgerows, enveloped her. She contemplated the passengers travelling with her on the train. They didn’t notice her.
With her eyes closed, she calmed herself. After all, she had an important decision to make and was aware of the train moving inexorably on. All at once, she felt like a prisoner. Again, it occurred to her that it was too soon, that there was no time. But that was ludicrous. She had had weeks.
The faces of her family flashed before her, like a photograph, a moment frozen in time, a fait accompli. Nevertheless, at the back of her mind was the horror that, despite all the friendly advice and helpful platitudes, she had not actually worked any of it out. Of course, it was all perfectly logical and both families would be delighted. Why could she not feel delighted too? It was impossible to know what she felt.
Her eyes closed once more as she sought refuge. The boy’s face came sharply into view and this time he was closer. There was an urgency in his eyes that made her want to speak to him. His eyes were beautiful to her.
Now, the driver was announcing the penultimate station and the predictability of his words, the flatness of his voice, soothed her. It was not complicated, after all. Just nerves. She had the jitters. It was normal.
The people in the carriage were getting on with crosswords, reading their magazines and newspapers, speaking quietly into their phones. And soon the dirty greyness of the clustered city, with its huge stone structures, flimsy office blocks and complex skyline shunted into view. There was movement once more inside the train and she pulled on her jacket, trying not to elbow the man beside her.
As the train slowed, the platforms filled with new travellers and she looked across the station, watching a different train pull out. Inside the last carriage sat the boy. Next to him, a young woman, with long red hair, heavy on her shoulders. And the boy looked directly at her, through the glass, across the gloomy space between them.
‘Are you all right, my dear?’ The woman’s face was fleshy and kind-looking.
The young woman did not answer, but gaped a little.
‘I hope you’re not worrying about that little boy. I’m sure he’ll be absolutely fine. His mother wasn’t far away, I should say,’ she added.
‘Did you see him?’ She felt a surge of relief. She had not imagined him, then.
‘Yes, dear. Such a beautiful child. A little angel with all those blond curls.’ She grinned and patted the young woman on her shoulder. ‘I should hurry along now, you don’t want to miss him.’
Even when the last of the passengers had left, the young woman remained, wondering. Waiting to feel ready. What had the woman said to her?
Eventually she stepped down from the train and made her way along the platform with an expression on her face that made others turn to stare.
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