Monday, 2 May 2011

Chapter 7 - Leaving

Sitting on the train, watching the English countryside race by she wondered again - for the hundredth time - just what she was doing and if it really was the right thing. Leaving everything and everyone she knew behind, striking out alone, heading off with no plan - and no safety net.

She thought back to her last few weeks back home. She'd eventually become completely exasperated hearing everyone telling her how brave she was being once she'd revealed her (lack of) plans. And always in capitals. And bold. And in italics. She could hear it in their voices. They thought she was just this side of daft, and sometimes not even that.

At the time she hadn't felt brave, she'd just felt irritated. Why was moving away something to be wondered at and praised? Wasn't it just another everyday thing that people did all the time? It wasn't like she was heading off to explore the deepest reaches of Amazonian rainforest or embarking on an Arctic expedition. All she was doing was going to Europe. It was hard to get more ordinary than that.

But now as she left the familiar and the known behind her, as the fields slipped away out of her sight, the slow dawning of realisation finally hit her. She finally understood what they had all meant, why they'd been so concerned, what it was they were worried about. Why they'd called her brave. A new place, with no friends, no job, nowhere even to stay when she arrived and a language she barely knew outside the classroom. It was madness - sheer and utter madness.

It's true, she thought, I don't feel brave. Right now I just feel scared. Alone and scared.

And with that, fittingly, her train plunged into the isolation of the Channel Tunnel. And she left.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Chapter 6 - In the news

Well, she knew his name now, that was for sure. She smiled quietly to herself as she closed the newspaper and put it down next to her now cold cup of coffee. Just as well I never tried saying hello, she thought. That would have been really embarrassing. He'd probably never even noticed her all those mornings. People like him didn't need to remember the insignificant people like her around them. They had probably been nothing more than polite reflexes, those fleeting smiles she'd thought had been for her alone. Facial twitches spent as lightly and meaning as little to him as the loose change in his pocket. She felt a pang of mortification as she thought how she'd even allowed herself to wonder if he'd miss her that morning when their paths didn't cross at their usual place. How silly she'd been giving in her to her romantic fantasies. And she blushed at the thought of it even though no-one else knew but her.

She'd picked the newspaper up on her way out of the station when she'd arrived this morning. She'd pushed it quickly into her shoulder bag without looking beyond the headline, while she decided where best to wait out the human tide that is London during rush hour. The grey suited, grey faced flood of commuters intent on reaching their destinations in the alloted time would not thank her for attempting to join them, tangling her holdall in amongst their purposeful strides. And since she had time to kill before starting the next stage of her journey, she decided that discretion being the better part of whatever, she should opt for the closest acceptable coffee shop until the tide ebbed.

As luck would have it she spied one almost straight away, more or less directly opposite the station exit. A quick scan was all she needed to confirm that it would suit very nicely. Over the past few months she'd become quite expert at picking a good coffee haunt. Whilst the quality of the coffee itself was, of course, important, equally so was the quality of the environment. And specifically, were there comfortable seats in which to drop and enjoy, not just drink, her coffee? In the right environment, she could easily pass a pleasant couple of hours without any trouble whatsoever.

In her experience, coffee was best accompanied by a combination of good music, interesting reading material and entertaining fellow customers to watch or, even better, eavesdrop on. The coffee shop promised all three and she and her luggage soon found themselves ensconced in a leather sofa at a table in the window from where, once she'd finished the morning's news and was onto her second coffee, she could enjoy the simple pleasure of people watching both inside the shop and out on the street. Perfect!

Perfection, however, didn't last long. As soon as she retrieved the newspaper from her bag and unfolded it, she saw the story. She recognised his face instantly as it stared out at her from one of the three photographs nestling under the banner headline. The headline that proclaimed the death of business tycoon and society darling, Olivia Martinez. Of whom, it transpired, he was the eldest of two sons. Reading quickly on, she discovered that Olivia Martinez had died the previous day, after heading up the family business her husband had made so successful until his untimely and tragic death 10 years earlier. She'd come from a family of minor aristocracy, of which Europe seems to have a particular abundance. Her husband's business acumen and her family connections had combined, it appeared, to ensure great success and equally great wealth for the family. Wealth which would now pass to the family's eldest son, her mystery stranger, along with control of the family firm.

Olivia was pictured in the largest of the three photographs, standing alongside her husband at some society event and exuding a cold elegance and general indifference to the people around including, she thought, her husband. The other photographs were of the two sons, the younger looking serious behind an impressive desk at company headquarters, while the elder was pictured on a beach with his arm wrapped tightly round a raven haired, lithe limbed, sun kissed beauty. And, she realised with a stab, smiling the smile of the deeply in love.

So she had folded up the newspaper and put it to one side without finishing the rest of the article. She'd learned what she needed to, no point in torturing herself further. Closing the door on what had been really was for the best. What she needed to do now, she told herself, was look ahead to her new future and her new start with its completely blank unwritten page.

For a moment her nerves got the better of her. Was she really doing the right thing? Was this how to start again? Heading off on her own to a completely new place, a new country even, was quite a gamble. She'd never even visited Spain before. How would she cope? What on earth had possessed her to choose it as her destination? At the time it had just somehow seemed right, the place she needed to be and where she could begin again. What better than to begin again in an entirely new place, with no memories or references to what had been, no baggage and no expectations - she of it or it of her? But as it got closer, she was less sure. Maybe I should just head back home, she thought.

Back home to what, though? Gathering up her bags, she headed out of the coffee shop leaving the newspaper folded on the table behind her. Time to start again, no time for looking back. I've got a journey to finish.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Chapter Five - Dreams of reality

He woke in a daze and relished the brief moment between his dream world and his reality. He sat there still and quiet, trying desperately to reconstruct the oddities of his dreams. There was a phone call from his brother and a woman at a train station. The phone call seemed so real; so believable. He tried to shake the uneasy feelings that come from such a disturbing dream. Instead, he tried to concentrate on the pleasant part of the dream. The woman from the train station.

In a way that only dreams can, he jumped from wondering if they’d ever meet to dreaming they were walking through the winding roads of Venice, hand-in-hand, giggling like school children just learning how to love. It was such a wonderful dream and if it weren’t for the morning sunlight sneaking through the tread-bare curtains in his bedroom, it would still be enticing his senses.

As he sat on the edge of his bed, he began to think about the phone call. Surely, it was a dream, he told himself. But it seemed too real; the memory too detailed to be a hazy fragment of a night’s sleep. Could it be true? Could the woman who destroyed his life really be dead?

When he gathered the morning’s newspaper from the front step, he realized it was true. It was very, very true.

Certainly, he loved his mother. But he could never forgive her for what she did. He was in love. They were in love. Or at least he thought they were. If she really loved him, she never would have allowed his mother to send her away – no matter how much money was shoved her way. If Carmen had loved him, she would have married him despite his mother’s promise to disown him if he married so far beneath his station in life.

That was the final straw. He spent his entire life living the life his mother wanted for him, but for her to destroy the one thing he dreamt of was… unimaginable. He wondered sometimes if the fear of his mother’s meddling is what kept him from talking to that beautiful woman he used to see on his way to the library each day.

That beautiful woman! Oh, how he would miss seeing her each morning. He wondered if she would notice his absence today.

As he began packing for the journey home, his mind wandered to the woman from the train once again. Was all of that a dream or was she real? He tried to shake thoughts of her from his head. After all, he had a lot of other things to think about now…

Monday, 30 August 2010

Chapter Four - The Prodigal Son

Typical, he thought as he ended the call. Bloody typical. It's the first time in 5 years that we've spoken. Our mother has just died and he couldn't have sounded less interested if he'd tried. He didn't even ask about the arrangements either. If I needed any help. Just, where? when? And, I'll be there. Typical

It had been hard for him these last few months, coping with his mother as she'd got older and frailer, and more bitter. Hell, it had been hard these last 5 years since his brother had decided it was 'all too much for him' and had run away to 'find himself'. Meanwhile he, like the dutiful son he was, had stayed at home to look after his mother. He'd put up with the rages and the demands, and the downright nastiness as she'd slipped further into her old age.

It hadn't been a graceful slide. Used to having her own way, to his father, her husband, waiting on her hand and foot, his mother had railed against the betrayal of her body, and her mind, as they slowly decayed and left her more and more reliant on others, and less and less able to bend them to her will. He'd been left to cope with it, on his own, while his brother, his older brother who should have taken the responsibility of and for the family once his father died, escaped and moved away. Too far away to take his share of the monthly, then weekly and at the end, daily visits his mother had demanded.

And now she was gone. And with her death, everything from his father's estate would also be settled. Everything, the house, the investments, the company, everything. And it would all pass to his brother. Everything he'd worked tirelessly for the last 5 years to keep going and keep together, it would all go to his brother and not a single sniff of it to him. Sure, he kept his place in the company, that was guaranteed by his father's will. But control of it - that went to his brother as the eldest.

Even after he abandoned them with his foolish notions of an 'ordinary life', his mother had refused to disinherit his brother. It's how it's meant to be, she'd said. And that was the end to any further discussions. Once her mind was made up, it was made up. And in the end, even if she'd wanted to, her mind broke before she could change it.

So now he'd be back. The prodigal son, only too late to see his mother alive, and probably only too happy about that. Since their father had died, and before that when he thought about it, they'd not got on - his mother and his brother. She'd been disappointed in his lack of interest in the company, and his refusal to play along with her society games. He suspected that was the real reason his brother had left, not in search of an ordinary life, but to escape the cut of his mother's sharp tongue and her expectations. And now that she was gone, his brother would be only too happy to come back and pick up his old life of wealth and celebrity and power. An ordinary life, don't make me laugh. That's not what you really want.

The phone rang again and angrily he snatched it up. He was in no mood to talk to anyone now. He listened to the voice at the other end for a few seconds before snarling, No comment and slamming the receiver down.

Damn them. It had only been a matter of time but he was surprised at how quickly the news of his mother's death had leaked out. It would be on the front pages tomorrow, all the gory details and the speculation of what would happen next. He sighed, it was going to be a long night and that would only be the first of many calls from journalists looking for the inside story, the scoop, the gossip. He wondered if there was a way to turn this to his advantage?

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Chapter Three - Reflections

Leaving her bag in the luggage rack at the end of the carriage, she chose a seat and settled down for the long night ahead. She'd briefly considered booking a sleeping compartment but had decided against it. In her, admittedly limited, experience Sleeper was definitely a misnomer for the night train. The last time she'd tried it not much sleeping had been possible on the narrow bunk with its scratchy blanket, slithery undersheet and the vaguely nauseating sway of the train. No, this time she'd decided to save her money and take her chance with a seat. It's not like she had to worry about work tomorrow – or for the foreseeable future come to think of it. And in any case, although not strapped for cash, she did want her money to take her as far as possible before she needed to think about being sensible again.

It was the biggest risk she'd taken in her life so far. Giving up her well paid, but ultimately unsatisfying job, selling her cosy flat and heading off into the unknown. She knew where she was going but that was about it. She was headed somewhere she didn't know, where she knew no-one, and more importantly, no-one knew her. She would be forced to rely entirely on herself, to stand on her own two feet with no-one to help. But equally, with no-one to second guess or judge her, or even, she smiled wryly to herself, to even notice she was there.

Anyway, relying on herself was something she had got good at. It was, after all, pretty much what she'd been doing for some time now anyway. Sure, when she'd arrived 5 years ago, Tim had been with her and in theory they'd been a couple, looking out for and supporting each other. But the ability to be relied on had not been one of Tim's strengths. More often than not, it had felt like she had a demanding dog instead of a partner – something that needed to be fed, entertained, cared for, exercised (oh, he'd liked his exercise all right!), stroked and petted. There'd been love and affection in return, but always on his terms and only if his needs had been met. And the concept of mutual help and support had been a mystery to him.

It was the day two years ago that she'd referred to him as her 'other half' and had been pulled up by a friend that she realised things needed to change. “He's not your other half. That suggests a relationships of equals and Tim is most definitely not, nor does he really want to be, your equal. And in any case, you are a whole and capable person in your own right. You don't need someone else to complete you. Don't ever forget that!”

And she hadn't. In fact she'd gone one better, and that weekend she'd moved out. It had been the biggest step in her life up to that point. And now here she was striking out again. It almost seemed inevitable now looking back, as she'd shed one tie after another until she found herself now with the freedom to go wherever the mood took her and be whoever she wanted to be – if she only had the courage to do it. The midnight train was the first step.

Of course, she hadn't been entirely on her own these past two years. She'd had her friends, good friends who'd been there whenever she asked. And probably would have done more if she'd let them or if they'd known she needed it. But there was the thing, what she really wanted was someone who knew without being told, someone who cared enough for her, and about her, to sense when she needed something more - without needing to be told or asked. Maybe she was naïve, or unrealistic. Maybe that kind of relationship didn't exist. Maybe what she'd had with Tim was the best it got, and she'd given it up. Maybe she was a fool to have thrown it away.

Slowly, like they always did, the doubts crept back in. And like she had learned to do, she shook them away. She had no time for them now. She repeated her mantra that had kept her going since Tim. Even if I am lonely now on my own, it's nowhere near as lonely as I was when I was in a relationship with someone who didn't love me enough to care if I was happy. That thought had kept her going through the difficult months on her own and it worked again now. The real beauty of it was that it was true.

Her mind suitably cleared, she settled back in her seat and prepared to lose herself in her music.

Only for her thoughts to be invaded again, this time by Him. Now this, she mused, I do regret. Why didn't I ever make more of an effort. I saw him every day after all, and I still don't know his name, or anything about him. Other than I like the way he walks with that quiet confidence about him and an air of being interested - and interesting. She reflected, over the last 24 months, they'd progressed from passing in the street oblivious of each other – well he'd been oblivious of her, she'd been only too conscious of him – to now being on nodding terms, and on a good day with a smile thrown in too.

She liked it when he smiled. His eyes had a mischievous sparkle to them then and his face warmed. Was it her imagination that he'd been smiling more often recently? Was it maybe her that made him smile? What would he think tomorrow when she wasn't there as usual on her way to her work and, she presumed, him to his?

She caught herself in her daydream and laughed. All this, and you never had the courage to ask his name or even say hello. It was true, she was an incurable romantic. Good job she was leaving really before she made a fool of herself. He's probably just being friendly, if he's even noticed you at all. And I doubt he lies awake at night thinking about you.

She settled back for a second time and doing so, caught a glimpse of her reflection in the darkened train window. She put a hand to her hair. It still caught her by surprise, this new colour, so different from what had been before. She barely recognised herself. Just right for a new start, she thought, as she closed her eyes and lost herself in her music.

Chapter Two - Flickering Lights

He sat there looking solemnly at his phone with a sense of shock and disbelief. No good news comes from a late-night phone call. It never could.

A shiver cascaded down his spine. He couldn’t tell if it was from the chill in the late-September air or the chill of his estranged brother’s voice. It was the first time they spoken in five years; the first time they’d spoken since he moved to this God-forsaken city in the hopes of escaping from a life that had been determined for him against his will.

Numb, he stood and walked into the living room. As he flicked the lights on, his eyes were taken towards the station where the midnight train was slowly rumbling to a halt. Who, he wondered, would want to travel so late in the night? His gaze moved towards the figure of a woman whose soft features were made angelic by the glow of the station’s bright lights. He was mesmerized by her frame and felt a sense of familiarity in the way she carried herself. He felt they’d crossed paths before, but he couldn’t make out her face through the dimness of the night. But there was something about her that kept his attention.

He watched her board the train with a mix of curiosity and sorrow. He couldn’t tell, however, if the sorrow was from watching this angelic creature leave his sights – never knowing if he’d ever meet her – or if the sorrow was for himself and his newly-acquired orphan status.

Turning off the lights, he stumbled sleepily to bed. He tried in vain to shake the thoughts of sorrow from his head. In the morning, he would need to book his own train journey. He would need to return to the family’s estate where his mother would be laid to rest next to his father.

He knew he should be thinking of his family duties; of arrangements with the funeral director; of meetings with solicitors; of his beloved mother, for God’s sake, but his mind kept returning to thoughts of the woman from the train station. He felt a sense of guilt in his infatuation with her every being, when he should be despondent with grief.

As he drifted off to sleep, he dreamt of the stranger boarding the midnight train.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Chapter One - Midnight Train

She was leaving on the midnight train. On her own.

It was a chilly evening, but dry. The threatened rain hadn't arrived yet and for that she was grateful. Dragging her bag along to the station in the rain would have been just too much. But the occasional spit of rain was carried on the swirling breeze and she shivered as she stood on the platform waiting for the train. The warm summer evenings had given way already to the cooler autumnal nights without her noticing until now. She realised her wardrobe hadn't quite kept pace and the thin cotton wrap she wore on top of her dress wasn't up to the job for a late September night.

Autumnal. She like the taste of that word and rolled it round in her mouth a few times to try it for size. It was like smooth warm honey she decided.

Startled out of her daydream (can you have those at night, she wondered), she realised she'd said the word out loud by mistake. She looked round to see if anyone had heard. Mercifully they were all to far away. That was the peril of using her headphones to immerse herself in her music and escape reality. Every once in a while, she forgot that the sounds were only in her head and that what she thought would be covered by the background noise was, in fact, crystal clear to the rest of the world. At least she'd cured herself from singing along – well, most of the time anyway. The world, she decided, would just need to put up with the occasional exclamation or laugh from her otherwise silent self. They could just add it to the other ways in which they felt she was not quite of them.

For her it was a small price to pay for the refuge her musical world had given her. The ability to close herself off into an entirely private space, sometimes shutting out even her own thoughts if need be, was an escape she was not willing to use. It had kept her sane, despite appearances to the contrary she thought wryly.

It was strange to see the platform, normally so busy and full of activity, still and largely empty. It was as if the station were some beleaguered host battling sleep in order to keep one eye half open to see off those last few lingering guests before finally wending his weary way to bed. The town had been like that too. Empty streets and dark shop windows. The occasional person straggling home from the pub, and the breeze whipping up the dust and other remains of the day to dance round her ankles as she rattled her bag along the pavement. Even the ticket barriers at the station that during the day whirred and clicked sternly at passing travellers, stood open and uncaring, yawning her through with an unsettling indifference.

So now she stood on the near empty platform in the chill wind of the midnight hour and waited for the train that was to take her away. Away from this town and that it had meant to her. As she stood and waited, she realised even the town had turned its back on her. The indifference of the turnstiles echoed in the shuttered doorways and blank faces of dark buildings.

Her train pulled in. She stepped on board, took a last look back at her home for the last 5 years and then returned the favour, showing her back to it as firmly as it now turned from her. She didn't notice the single light flicker on high above in the building opposite the station. A solitary gleam saluting her leaving.

The train doors closed and she was gone. The wind sighed a last goodbye as the train slid out of the station into tomorrow. The light flickered off and the town slept again.