The platform was empty for once, but that didn’t inspire relief in her; more so it made her worry that she’d got the departure time wrong or that the train had been cancelled. Wiggling her toes to try and keep warm, she read another page of the book she’d brought with her, and silently urged the train to appear. A woman on the opposite platform asked if anyone wanted to share a taxi to her destination as their service was so late, but no-one even looked up, let alone answered her. With a slightly defeated air, the woman muttered a muted ‘No?’ before shrugging her shoulders, lifting her head and striding off towards the rank.
As one or two more people arrived on her platform she felt her insides relax a little; she hadn’t made a mistake-this train was still running today. She knew there’d been an accident earlier on and she’d felt guilty that her first thought had been about affected timetables rather than the poor man who’d seen no alternative but to throw himself under the fast service to London. That was human nature though she thought; to think about how inconvenienced one was by an event once the initial ‘oh dear’ feeling had worn off. No need to castigate herself over that, it was just what happened on a daily basis. She was surely no different to anyone else in that regard.
A man in a sports coat was talking loudly on his phone and she listened to the one-sided conversation, trying to imagine what the person on the other end was saying.
Man: Yeah, some selfish twat threw himself under the fast train.
Man: Yeah, I know! (Hearty laughter)
Man: I dunno either mate. They must know how much disruption they’ll cause; they probably do it deliberately.
‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘that’s exactly what someone so incredibly depressed would be thinking. Not, will the world be better off without me, but how can I piss off a load of commuters on the inbound service?’ Before she could stop herself, she’d said ‘idiot’ out loud, causing the man to look her way. Registering her lack of importance in the situation, he swiftly turned away again and continued his conversation, while kicking at the platform tarmac with an expensive-looking brogue; an unknown man’s suicide evidently not something he would spend any time dwelling on.
She thought how typical it was that she had to be delayed on such a cold day, making a mental note to dig out her winter boots from the loft when she got home. That was the sort of thing she would’ve asked Marcus to do in previous years, but now Marcus had a different loft in a different house and that meant if she wanted the boots she’d have to get them down herself.
Checking her watch again, she noted that if the train didn’t come in the next ten minutes she’d have to ring Mrs Mountgate and tell her that she’d be late collecting Zara. That wasn’t a phone call she relished; her daughter’s child-minder was ferocious on a good day and a parent being late fetching their offspring did not constitute a good day in Mrs Mountgate’s eyes. She was superb with children though and Zara adored her, so she figured a little verbal violence from the child-minder was worth it for her daughter to be settled while she had to work.
She fleetingly allowed herself to again curse her ex-husband (she’d never get used to calling him that) for deciding that he’d rather be with a vacuous blonde in her late twenties than his wife and toddler daughter, causing her to return to full-time work two years earlier than they’d originally planned. Marcus earned good money, so they’d figured that she could stay at home until Zara went to pre-school, which would be good for both mother and child. It would also save a lot in child care costs they’d agreed, so the decision was made and she’d been happy with the plan.
However, suddenly becoming a single parent had thrown her into financial turmoil. Marcus stopped paying the mortgage almost immediately, meaning she’d had to once again find a well-paid job in the city, necessitating an hour’s commute every morning and evening which she loathed.
They’d bought the house in an area that suited Marcus more than her, but as the idea was she’d be giving up work after they’d got married it seemed to make sense. Marcus liked the idea of the ‘little woman’ waiting for him in an apron when he got home from work; in fact he liked it so much he often made her wear it in bed, which always made her cringe and was as far removed as you could get from the successful banker she’d been when they’d met.
After she’d conceived Zara she was thrilled to have an excuse to not have to indulge in Marcus’ perversions, for there were many. She presumed that was what probably drove him into the arms of the pneumatic blond from his firm’s Personnel department in the first place but in all honesty, despite not wanting her marriage to end, she was relieved that the strange things Marcus enjoyed were now the other woman’s problem rather than hers.
Friends had thought they’d been helping when they told her about single men they knew who’d be ‘just perfect’ and ‘loved kids’, but truthfully she couldn’t bear the thought of anyone touching her, or worse, expecting her to touch him and for the time being at least, she was happy it was just her and Zara. Marcus had shown little interest in seeing his daughter once he’d moved out; the once or twice they’d made an arrangement he’d turned up late and had to leave early, meaning the time they had together was barely enough for Zara to even remember who her father was. Despite trying to encourage his visits for her daughter’s sake, she had to admit defeat when on the third occasion he’d actually brought the other woman with him, expecting them all to sit and chat in such a civilised manner about why the pair of them had destroyed her and Zara’s supposedly happy lives.
It hadn’t worked out like that in the end. After she’d seen the blonde woman strapping Zara into the car seat she’d seen red and gone rushing out to tell her that she’d already ‘stolen her husband’ and she was ‘buggered if you think I’ll let you have my daughter too’, so Marcus had called her a ‘fucking nutter’ and said he wouldn’t be visiting Zara again until his ex-wife had apologised to his fiancée. Weeks had passed and Marcus had been true to his word so far, so she presumed that was the end of her ex-husband’s involvement in their daughter’s life, suspecting that he would eventually feel it more keenly than his daughter ever would.
She did her best to give Zara a happy and enjoyable home-life whenever they were together and she had negotiated an early finish on Fridays so that they could have a long weekend to spend however they liked. She had to admit that the evenings were the hardest though; once Zara was asleep she had several hours of solitary television watching, book reading and web browsing to get through and she’d acknowledged that she was relying more and more on a bottle of wine or two to help her while away the time. Her mother tried to help but she lived two hour’s drive away, having escaped the city as soon as she was able and retired to a life of countryside village bliss. She did visit a couple of times a month though and the company was welcome, as well as the importance of her daughter getting to know her grandmother.
The station announcer brought her back to the present as the speaker crackled and an automated voice informed them that their train was ‘delayed by twenty minutes.’ As it was already thirty minutes late by that point nobody took much notice and carried on what they’d been doing before. Most people had earphones poking out from upturned collars, or were staring vacantly at smartphones and tablets and she pulled her book out of her pocket and once again tried to read.
‘Rubbish this waiting around isn’t it?’
She ignored the voice at first, presuming it not to be addressing her and resumed reading the chapter.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your reading. This waiting around though; it’s a lonely business don’t you think?’
Realising that somebody had moved closer to her and was now standing at her shoulder made her push the book back into her pocket and turn around slowly.
‘I beg your pardon? Were you talking to me?’
Straight away she regretted the formality in her response as she saw the man of a similar age to her shrink back slightly, perhaps thinking he’d offended her by stepping over the boundaries of polite society and talking to a stranger. She smiled thinly and spoke again quickly.
‘I-I mean, yes it is inconvenient, but the poor man who jumped must have been pretty desperate to do something like that. I guess a short delay is nothing compared to how he felt?’
The man’s face changed as she spoke and he visibly blanched.
‘Oh my God, is that why the trains are late? Shit. Poor fellow. I feel awful even mentioning the delay now, you must think I’m heartless.’
‘Of course not,’ she stressed hastily, ‘it’s only human nature. I was thinking something similar myself before I found out the reason the train’s late. Don’t worry.’
The man smiled broadly and half put out his hand as if wondering whether he was being too forward, but then he decisively held it out while introducing himself as Alistair. Shaking it firmly, she looked at his face properly for the first time and had a sense of familiarity.
‘Do you catch this train every morning?’
‘Most days yes,’ said Alistair, ‘although I do work a day a week from home. Company cutbacks and that sort of thing,’ he continued, explaining.
‘I thought I recognised you. I catch it all week too. I work for Bloom Brothers in the city.’
‘Really? Gosh, you must be a high flyer. I don’t do anything nearly as exciting as that. I work for a small publisher of not very popular romance novels; not much cash in them these days thanks to e-readers and the like but I do it for the love of books. I must admit, that’s partly why I spoke to you; it was so refreshing to see you reading an actual book rather than a tablet or looking at a phone. There aren’t many of us left now you know.’
She absently touched the top of the book now wedged in her wool coat’s pocket and smiled widely.
‘You’re right, I don’t see many people reading actual books on the train these days either, but I’m afraid I’m about to disappoint you. I do own an e-reader; it was a gift from my-from someone a couple of years ago.’
She couldn’t understand what had stopped her mentioning Marcus; normally she wore her ex-husband like a suit of armour, almost to prove that despite losing him, she had at least once managed to marry someone. It was a desperate measure she admitted, but she even still wore her wedding ring; her self-confidence not yet repaired to the extent where she could go out in public without that symbol of conformity and reassurance present.
‘Can I ask what it is you’re reading?’ Alistair’s voice had a warm, comfortable tone to it that made her feel they’d been talking for years rather than minutes and she had to admit that she was starting to regret that the train would probably soon arrive and break up their little bubble of co-dependence.
‘Oh I doubt you’ll have heard of it; it’s very old. It was one of my mother’s books, but when she moved she had to get rid of so many. This was one I remember her reading when I was little so I knew I had to hang on to it.’
Pulling the book out of her pocket, she brandished it towards him and let him take it from her. Cradling it carefully he turned the cover over and over and let out an exclamation.
‘I don’t believe it! It’s one of ours! This is incredible.’
‘You’re joking! But my mother’s had it for years.’
‘She would have,’ said Alistair laughing, ‘this was one of the first titles our publisher ever produced, in the early 1970s. Well I’ll be damned.’
Feeling pleased that he’d not only heard of the book but worked for the company that actually published it, made her feel like they had an even tighter connection than simply catching a train at the same time from the same place every day. While Alistair continued to look at the back cover of the book and chuckled to himself, she almost unconsciously worked her wedding ring from her left hand and dropped it into her other pocket.
‘Look,’ said Alistair, shuffling uncomfortably, ‘it doesn’t look like this train’s going to come anytime soon. I don’t suppose you’d…you’d like to come for a cup of coffee would you? It’s just I’m freezing stood here and there’s a really great café just up the road.’
Forcing down her feelings of under-confidence and pushing all thoughts of Marcus from her mind, she looked up and smiled.
‘Yes please; that would be lovely.’
‘Okay then…Hang on; I know you and your mum have a great taste in books but I still don’t know your name. You never told me.’
‘It’s Claire,’ smiled Claire, as she walked alongside Alistair up the platform and left the station.
(C) Sarah Butcher 2014