Written by James McCann
Beth left the hotel early on Tuesday morning, powered by cheap coffee and the thought of having to catch the six o’clock train. The clip-clop-clip-clop of her black heels tapping out a rhythm under her feet as she made her way across the car park took her mind off the cold, but only briefly. As soon as she opened her mouth to talk to the taxi driver, the hot breath floating out in front of her brought her mind back to the cold, British, winter morning.
‘You for Rhodes?’ Beth inquired, wrapping her black wool coat around her and placing her arms on top of one another in an effort to hold on to the heat her body was producing. With a nod towards the exit of the car park the taxi driver answered ‘I am indeed.’ and Beth climbed in.
She was only carrying one bag; a little black suitcase on wheels with an extendable handle. The type first popularised by airline pilots but now everyone and their mother has. At least that’s what Jeff had told her. Jeff was full of information. Most of it was good, too. The information ranged from the type you could use at dinner parties (Galileo, not Einstein, originated the theory of relativity) to the down-right useless (if your car gets stuck in sand, let the air out of the tyres).
Jeff would be waiting for her at their home. Their home. Beth liked how that sounded, but wondered how much longer she’d be able to say it. Jeff would want an answer the moment she got through the door, she knew that. What she didn’t know, however, was what the hell she was going to say. It was a simple question to answer, very basic. Yes. Or no. Yay or nay.
He’d asked her in the right way, that was for certain. Beth couldn’t fault Jeff on that at all. She’d gotten home two nights ago to find the man in her life waiting for her at the door with a glass of white wine and a smile. A very loving smile.
The home wasn’t much, just a little apartment: one bedroom, one bathroom, one decent-sized living area and kitchen. It was all they needed. Neither was overly hot on the décor or the worktops in the kitchen, but neither wanted to sink any money into the place. If we’re going to live together, they decided, and live in a place we’re going to put money into, why not wait until we can sink money into a house?
Other than the two lamps, both of which were dimmed, the only light illuminating the living area of the apartment was coming from candlelight. A bottle of wine sat in a bed of ice in a silver bucket at the side of a table, reaching up like a zombie’s arm from a frozen grave. Two places were set, with a bouquet of rich, almost blood-red roses sat between them. Soft music lilted through the air, gently caressing Beth’s ears as she entered.
After they’d eaten, and drank the wine, Jeff had intended for them both to curl up on the deep, plump, white sofa and eat ice cream, whilst they watched some soppy, romantic movie. Then, he’d planned, they’d make love on the floor in front of the fire place. It was only a gas-powered fire, with white bars that turned bright, blinding-to-look-at orange as they got hotter, but it would still be romantic.
It didn’t go as Jeff planned.
He’d taken the empty dishes to the side board, then hurried (in a dignified way, if that’s possible) back to Beth. He stood at her left side as she was sat, and asked if she’d enjoyed the meal.
‘Of course I did.’ she answered.
‘Are you sure? I thought maybe I’d over-cooked it?’
‘No, it was fine.’
‘As long as you enjoyed it. Nice legs by the way.’
‘You’re making small talk, get to the point.’
Beth knew Jeff was kicking around the actual point, that there was something he wanted to say, and, being the always-behind-schedule businesswoman that she is, she wanted him to get to it, and get to it now, thank you.
Jeff knelt down on his right knee and took Beth’s left hand in his right, looked her dead-square in her green eyes and proceeded to explain how much she meant to him and how he wanted to do everything for her, and that he would if she let him.
It was everything she’d wanted to hear for the past three years but now it was almost overwhelming. Whereas she was expecting to feel comfort and security and love, she felt suffocated and imprisoned and claustrophobic.
What she’d wanted for so long she was now being offered and it did nothing but scare the hell out of her. How the hell could this be? The thing she’d been hoping for had happened and she didn’t like it.
‘I need to think.’
‘Oh… oh right. Okay.’
Jeff stayed for a moment where he was. The two of them confused, deeply in love and frozen in time. Jeff attempted to say something, his jaw moving slightly, his mouth never actually making a sound, just hanging in the air like a gaping cave.
Slowly, very lethargically, Jeff rose to his feet. He stood in silence a moment, then let go of Beth’s hand. He felt hurt, as though his very heart had been ripped out by some demonic, soulless beast.
‘I do love you, but it’s just hit me what it all entails,’ Beth tried to sooth Jeff, and make him see that he was asking a hell of a lot. For her to spend the rest of her life with him. For her to forsake all others in favour of him. For her to let her belly grow fat and inflated with his babies kicking inside. Jesus, she usually gets pissed off spending the entire weekend with him! The rest of their life together and she’d kill him, she just knew she would.
‘Here you are.’ the taxi driver’s voice broke Beth’s thoughts and brought her back to the harsh reality of the real world. She was at the station with what she figured to be a good fifteen minutes to spare before her train arrived to rock her home.
The clip-clop-clip-clop-clip-clop of Beth’s heels made a nice, relaxing symphony along with the long, extended roll from the wheels of the suitcase on the flat concrete platform.
The stations nowadays were no smoking (like the bars, clubs and council houses), so Beth had taken to chewing the ends of pens. It wasn’t so much the nicotine from the cigarettes as it was that she needed something in her mouth. An oral fixation they called, leading to no end of blowjob jokes from her friends and co-workers.
She sat down on a bench, placed the bag between her feet, and began to chew on the end of a pen she pulled out of her suit jacket pocket. She tapped the tip (not the nib) against her teeth in a steady beat to match the tapping of her right foot.
What would she tell Jeff when she got back? What could she tell Jeff once she got back?
A musky, strong smelling aftershave filled the air, Beth was sure she could smell oranges and old tobacco. The train would be here in less than ten minutes, then just half an hour to her station, then another ten minute walk home. Then she could smell Jeff’s aftershave and attempt to answer his question.
‘Scuse me, d’you mind if I sit here?’
Beth looked up her right and saw a tall, thin man, wearing a fine-cut dark brown pin stripe suit, a pair of Brogues and a brown trilby hat that sat upon a silver main of hair. In his right hand he held a beaten brown leather bag, that had an old brown rain coat draped over it. It was he that was wearing the strong aftershave.
‘Erm, go right ahead.’
As the man sat down Beth couldn’t help but feel he fit in well with the station’s aesthetic. It was plucked right out of the 1950’s, maybe even the 40’s. There was no TV monitor informing passengers of departures and arrivals, just a large, round white clock, decorated with large, thick black numbers. The red second hand, so thin in comparison to thick black minute and hour hands, jumped and jerked and jutted as it counted off the seconds.
‘Do you mind I smoke?’ the man in brown asked Beth.
‘I don’t think you’re supposed to-’
‘The health worries?’ the man interrupted. ‘Nonsense the lot of them.’
‘No,’ Beth continued. ‘I thought you weren’t allowed to smoke on train stations.’
The man guffawed with a deep belly laugh that deteriorated into a hacking, phlegm-filled cough. The type that reverberates in your rib cage. The type that Beth always thought sounded like gargling with gravel, the type that always ended with a sniffle and a sigh of relief.
‘I take it you don’t want one then?’ the man asked, tilting the beaten, crushed packet towards Beth.
‘No,’ Beth declined. ‘I don’t smoke.’
The man introduced himself as Barlow with a firm handshake and a warm, friendly smile. Beth saw a kindness in his eyes which somehow earned her immediate trust.
‘So,’ Barlow said, patting himself down in search of his box of matches ‘what’s troubling you?’
‘Troubling me?’ Beth asked in response, poorly trying to feign surprise. ‘Why should anything be troubling me?’
‘Ah now, you’ve got that look about you.’
'That look?’ Beth quizzed
‘The look of a woman who takes the most trivial of matters and lets them grow so big they weigh her down.’
Not only had Beth been letting the problem grow, she’d been feeding it. She’d been nurturing it, treating it with tit-bits of fear, of anxiety.
‘I’m supposed to…my boyfriend proposed.’
‘Oh.’ Barlow responded knowingly. ‘And you haven’t answered yet?’
‘No.’ Beth answered honestly. Adding ‘And I don’t know what to tell him, either.’
Barlow produced a hissing as a sharp intake of breath passed between his clenched teeth. His face displaying his acute concentration.
‘Not quite so trivial a problem, then.'
‘Any idea what you will tell him?’
‘I don’t know.’
Beth rocked her head back and closed her eyes, shutting them tightly, causing crow’s feet to reach out along her temples. She tried to gather her thoughts, pluck the right answer out of the darkness of her mind. Maybe she could see the answer piece together out of the shapes of red and yellow and orange splodges she saw dancing around in front of her as the sun light warmed through her eyelids.
‘Tell me,’ Barlow’s voice brought her out of the black dream world. ‘What is it exactly you’re having trouble with? What part of being married scares you?’
‘It’s just that - how did you know I was leaning towards saying no?’
‘Nobody ever has to wrestle with the question when they’re going to say yes.’
Barlow had a lot of knowledge, and intelligence behind those old, well-travelled eyes. He sat and tentatively watched Beth, waiting for her to spill the beans and tell all about her situation with Jeff.
She spoke at length about being with Jeff for the rest of her life. Of being with Jeff and having children. Of growing old with Jeff. Of celebrating, if that word could be used, birthdays and Christmas and anniversary after anniversary and Christmas and birthdays again and again with Jeff. Of attending parties and work functions with Jeff. Of being trapped with Jeff for the rest of her life.
A cool breeze blew through the small station, it was more of a platform really. It brought with it the smell of flowers that reminded Beth of childhood summers at her grandmother’s house. The memories clashed terribly with the stark, grey, cold, winter morning.
Barlow leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and cupping his chin with his right hand. His brow furrowed, causing lines to run along between his hairline and eyebrows. Beth thought that the lines on Barlow’s forehead looked like a series of fleshy Grand Canyons.
‘Seems to me,’ Barlow said, relieving Beth’s anticipation, ‘that you’re not asking the right questions.’
‘What do you mean?
There was a sense of urgency now in Beth’s voice, whatever Barlow had to say, she wanted to hear it desperately. She had only known Barlow for a few minutes, but already she knew whatever he had to say was worth listening to.
'What train did you say you were catching?’
‘What?’ Beth asked with some confusion. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
‘You know, not many trains run through this station these days.’
‘Your train, which is it?’
‘Err,’ Beth tried valiantly to search through the muddled files in her mind to locate the right information. Finally, after a small, silent, searching eternity, she answered. ‘Chasington, I’m going to Chasington.’
Barlow nodded. ‘Nice place that. Mostly fields though. Can’t see them building too much there.'
Chasington hadn’t been "all fields" since 1963 when the last remaining field had been ploughed up, turned over and built on. Beth was beginning to think the man in the brown suit might just be a little senile. Or crazy.
Regardless of whatever Barlow’s mental state, Beth wanted to know what he meant by not asking the right questions. Why was he being so cryptic? Was he actually being cryptic at all or was he just nuts?
‘You told me that you keep asking if you can live with him for the rest of your life.’
‘So, the question is, can you live the rest of your life without him?’
Beth was stunned into silence. It was the most obvious question, and one that cleared everything up. She might not be able to live with Jeff year after year, but she knew for certain that she couldn’t live one week without him. The past few days had been the longest she could remember that she’d been away from him, and even then she’d thought about him constantly.
Could she spend the next fifty years with him?
Could she spend the next fifty days without him?
‘You’re right.’ Beth repeated over and over. ‘You’re right.’
‘Chasington train doesn’t run through here.’ Barlow said, disturbing Beth’s thoughts.
‘Chasington train, the one you want. It doesn’t run through here.’
‘No,’ Barlow answered, shaking head slightly with a grin. ‘Not enough of a market, I suppose.’
‘Then where does it run?’ Beth demanded in a panic.
‘You need the next station over’ Barlow instructed her, finally producing a box of matches from a pocket. ‘Just pop down the road. Then turn right and just walk a little bit. Can’t miss it.’
Frantically, Beth stood up, grabbed the extendable handle on her bag, and made her way to the end of the platform, clip-clop-clip-clopping with a mad whhurrlll from the bag’s wheels.
‘And good luck, miss.’ Barlow said to her, lighting the match with his thumb.
‘Thanks,’ Beth said over her shoulder. ‘I’ll make the train’
Bringing the match to the tip of the cigarette, Barlow said softly to himself, ‘That’s not what I meant.’
Beth was a good two hundred feet from the platform, walking along the pavement towards the road, when the wheels on her case got stuck in something. She bent down to untangle a vine that had wrapped itself around the wheel, and saw that the pavement was over-growing with plant life; a lot of reaching, sinewy weeds and vines stretching out across the cracked, damaged paving stones.
‘I’m sure this wasn’t like this when I came in.’ Beth said to herself. She looked up slowly, towards the platform she’d just come from, dreading what she knew she would see.
Dilapidated. The platform was a relic. The track, what little could still be seen of it, poked up between over-grown grass and broken shopping trolleys like a dead, rusted brown-red snake.
The area where just moments ago she’d been sat talking to a man called Barlow was now nothing more than a flat, graffiti-covered slab of concrete, with weeds and wildlife homing up in its cracks. There was no way this place had been the working station that Beth had been sat in many, many decades.
Beth was sure she could see a small trail of smoke creeping up into the air.
Beth could swear she could smell a burnt match on the wind.