The Last Train

book cover for short story

I first started commuting on the 8:31 some thirty years ago. They were an older style of commuter carriage then. Not the type you walk through from one end to the other, not even the type with a corridor connecting individual compartments. You entered each compartment by stepping up from the platform and there would be a bench facing the direction of travel, seating six people, and a corresponding one facing backwards. The four window seats were prized. Securing one of those meant you could stare out of the window and pretend that nobody else was there. You were also close to the door. I nearly always managed to get a window seat because the train was usually sparsely populated when it arrived at my station. Nowadays it’s different, always crowded, always a challenge.

Now there are open carriages, individual seats, tables shared by passengers and so much irritating noise. I no longer have a preference for where I sit, but I do try to avoid being near anyone with headphones. And when the train rattles into a tunnel, the lights come on – not always the case in the past. You could be thrown into darkness for what seemed like an eternity.

The vast majority of my fellow passengers don’t even notice me, I am invisible, just another lost soul on their daily commute.

There are two regular travellers with whom I am particularly familiar. We have been taking the same train for years. We nod, acknowledging each other, rarely smile, rarely engage in conversation. What would we talk about now? The man is quite a lot older than me. When we did talk, in the early days, I was too nervous to ask his age, it would have seemed rude, intrusive. The other, a young lady, not much more than a girl really. Her name is Harriet and she always looks sad and lost. I would like to comfort her but I can’t breach the space between us and I fear a bond might be reestablished which I would only have to break again.

There was a woman knitting this morning, no more than thirty years old I would guess. Once this was a common sight, more so with older women. It has recently made something of a resurgence and her needles fascinate me in their complex repetitive dance.

The train will travel through eight stations before I disembark, at the third station, Falconwood, we never stop. I suppose there was once a wood there, where birds of prey were abundant. Now the ghosts of those birds only have a canopy of red, clay-tiled roofs to swoop and dive amid.

Just before the ninth station there is a long curving tunnel, after which the train bursts out of its artificial light and into the commotion of a platform crowded with grey people. I never travel as far as the ninth station, but I remember it well and have no reason to suspect that it has changed in any significant details.

It was fear of that sudden influx of people, of bodies pressed so close that you could smell the warmth radiating from their overcoats and every-day suits, of the knowledge that I would be trapped whether I remained seated or rose to offer my place to someone older, someone more deserving. It was fear of the small things in life that edged me towards my decision. 

Harriet is staring at me. I try to ignore her and study the woman knitting. I concentrate on the tapping of her plastic needles, the background rhythm to her journey. I can sense Harriet’s eyes on me even though my back is turned to her.

“Why?”

Her question is so simple, stark. It hurts me more than anything I have ever experienced. Maybe the fact that she has waited nearly a year to ask me has made it even more impossible to answer. Any answer would demand more words than I have, more words than she probably wants to hear. She needs a simple answer that I can’t supply, that doesn’t exist. I turn to her and see the sadness in her eyes.

“I had no choice.”

“I don’t understand. How you could leave us like that.”

“You are here too.”

“Only because of you.”

The train lurches. My stomach heaves in empathy. I move towards the side of the carriage. There is nothing I can say today, there is no time. The tunnel looms. Neither of us can see it but we both know it’s coming.

Harriet has moved too. We stand on opposite sides of the carriage facing each other. I have watched her leave me over two hundred times. I lost track of the precise count at some time and am grateful I did. It looks like she is leaning against the window, but her body turns and she falls through the glass and steel walls of the carriage. Nobody except myself and the old man see her depart.

He shakes his head slowly and looks at me, knowing the sequence of events. I used to wonder what had happened to that elderly man with his slightly soiled, wing-collared shirt and worn black suit. I have never asked him, maybe I will tomorrow. But then some things are best left unknown. I turn to face the window, waiting, but not for long. The carriage lets me through the present and in to my past.

Harriet is late for the the 8:31. She is always late, but always arrives before the train leaves. If she had only been later that day, late enough to miss the train, might things have been different? She looks straight at me and today I don’t turn away.

“Why?” she asks again.

Today I will search for the words, try to explain to my daughter why I left, why I had to do it. Time is on my side.

Published by Bruce Aiken

A maths and physics student who ran away to art college and has worked as a freelance creative ever since.

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