The movement of the train, not a rocking as in the old days but a movement nonetheless, was soporific. The air felt pre-breathed and stuffy as if the oxygen content was diminished. Shirley took off her coat and bundled it onto the seat beside her. When the buffet cart came she bought water and a chicken sandwich for later and a cup of coffee for now. The young man who brought the trolley had eyes that sparkled at her as he handed over the packets and cups and then a paper napkin wrapped around a little handful of sugar containers and a thin wooden stick to use for a spoon. “Anything else I can get you now?”
“No, no thank you.”
“My pleasure, you have a nice journey.” He nodded at her and turned away.
As he moved off, pushing the cumbersome wheeled device full of chocolate and beverages she turned to watch him go. In recent years, since she’d been in her fifties, she had lost the ability to judge the ages of people she bumped up against, especially the younger ones. He must be in his twenties, was there a wife, maybe a curly-haired baby with the same sparkling eyes and innocent grin. The thought of the little family cheered her.
Her coffee was good, though a proper cup would have made it perfect. But there, this was a journey and on a journey things were different.
Other people in the carriage, only five of them, were busy with laptop computers and ticking at their phones. One woman leafed through a magazine and nibbled constantly at nuts from a small cellophane bag, a guilty rattle told of each forage.
Shirley let herself settle. She didn’t close her eyes but they rested unfocused in the middle distance and the small sounds became a burble. She could sit like this forever. She could make herself believe that she had been in this seat for all time, nothing behind her. No pain or heartbreak, none of the fear and none of the endless struggle to make sense of it all. Just Shirley, a cup of coffee and the warm humming womb of the train. She reached into her pocket to find the crystal and drew out instead the fluffy rabbit. It looked a bit forlorn now, the fur bedraggled and disturbed, the well chewed ear had hardened as it dried. She combed it with her fingers and then once he was smart again placed him carefully into her shopping bag and folded her thin scarf around it, just his button eyes and cotton nose poking out and the ears flopping over the top. She took the bag and settled it on her lap and sighed as she drifted with the journey.
Passengers came and went. At one point the carriage was almost full and a thin teenaged girl slid onto the next seat. She didn’t take up much room and almost immediately plugged in earbuds and closed her eyes. The hiss and whisper of noise was irritating but though Shirley shuffled and huffed there was no reaction from her travelling companion. Her nerves tingled and she clutched the shopping bag tightly to her and began reciting the alphabet backwards, slowly, slowly, Z. Y, X, W. As it happened the girl left the train at Wigan and no other interloper occupied the space. The difficult moment had passed like so many others.
It ended too soon, just four hours and she was ejected into the bustle and rush of the major station.
The light outside was white and yes, as she had feared the wind was cold but once she had climbed the slope to the street she was overwhelmed by the beautiful strength of the city. The buildings gave the impression that they had grown tall and strong from the rocky ground and would stand forever. Spires and chimneys and windows winking in the low wintery sun. She stood for a moment turning her head back and forth. Without warning one of those nasty frissons of fear brought her skin to Goosebumps, but she clutched the bag tightly to her and thrust her other hand into her pocket to stroke at the Agate.
They hadn’t had a holiday for a long, long time, well of course they hadn’t but she could still remember the ones from when they were first married, ones from when had been a child. What had they done? They had been to see things, to visit castles, and stately homes. Gardens and aquaria. Across the road was a bus stop, a red, double-decker bus with an open top advertised tours of the city. She climbed aboard and up the narrow winding steps to take a seat at the back. A group of oriental people occupied the first six rows. They chattered like a cage of finches and clicked manically with their cameras, preserving the sites that they were too busy to see.
Just before the bus pulled away an elderly couple rose slowly to the upper deck. He carried a stick and clutched tightly at the rail, heaving himself up each painful step. His wife, for surely it was his wife, this lady with grey hair and a padded jacket, smiled at Shirley and nodded. She followed her man to the seat immediately behind the twittering photographers. He stood aside to usher his wife into the “better” seat on the inside and then touched her back gently as he flopped in beside her. Shirley experienced a moment of warm sadness.
Everyone should have that, everyone who had battled through the years of marriage, the wars and peace-making and the storms and tsunamis should, as they neared the end, wash up onto the sands of peace and understanding. She knew that she would not. It was too late. Bill had been swept away from her by the mad currents of life and now, no matter how they stretched and reached they would never really connect again.
She realised that in all the excitement of the morning and the train and greeting this wonderful city this was her first thought of Bill. She felt no anguish and felt no desire to be near him. He had left the house that morning without a word, with no backward glance and when he came home there would be bland and desultory conversation until he went into the little room upstairs that was now his study. There on the top of a tourist bus in what was in fact another country she realised that there was no love left for her husband. She also acknowledged what had been a fact for countable years, that he had lost any residual feeling for the person she had used to be. Before.