My writers' group is producing an anthology, and each one of us has provided another member with three possible themes or titles to write from, designed to get us out of our comfort zones. I wrote three very short stories for mine here, but have decided to try to write all three full stories (2,000 words each) and pick the best one.
So I've made a start on a story called 'commuting.' It's still a working draft, and I'm interested to see if readers have the same theory about what's going on in it as I do. So far interpretations are divided, which is good. I don't want it to be obvious, but I don't want it to leave readers at a loss either. The style is well out of my comfort zone, as intended, and I wonder if it shows. Thoughts welcome.
'Some days she counts how many more times she will do this: the lurch from home to work, the limp back again. Then she sub-divides. How many out of those times will she rush in a clatter to jab a shoulder between the closing doors? How many times will she sit in the car park, window down to ward off sleep, listening for the lengthening delays? Take off sick days, holidays, her own and the children’s, not that Michael is really a child anymore. There are still too many more to contemplate on a cold Monday morning.
Today it is still dark while she manoeuvres, aiming for her favourite seat, glancing away as a girl wearing a hat like a stuffed animal slides into it. Aisle, travelling backwards then. You can’t always win. The girl wriggles and sighs and checks her phone.
As the train heaves away between chicken wire lit by tired streetlights, a tinny tune plays. She can’t even name the genre anymore, let alone a singer, a band. Do young people still tune in to the top ten? When do we stop keeping up? The girl lets it play, glaring at her phone, then lifts it to her ear as the clip begins to repeat.
It’s not like the music on Michael’s phone, not that she recognises that either. Now that there’s the girlfriend, he pounces on it before the singer can get a word in. Runs up the stairs before he’s even got to “how’s things?” She knows what the girlfriend looks like though. The top ten might be beyond her, but Facebook isn’t. Sweet, but a bit too much make-up. Blonde, but probably highlights. Carly. She wonders if Michael has a nickname for her. He’d never use ‘babe.’
That’s what the girl is saying now, snuffling under that bizarre hat. Maybe it’s a girly thing, calling everyone and anything babe. The announcement for the next station blares and the girl raises her voice, I can’t hear you babes, I’m on the train. If she had a penny for every time she’d heard that. She can’t bring herself to say it now, just switches off the phone for the journey. The signal’s terrible anyway.
They pull out again, platforms sliding away under their sour lights. If only there was a way to forget each stop, each name; to make the journey new again. So many more times. Take off sick days, holidays…
The girl is staring at her. Not at her, through her, absorbing some piece of information. Her mouth is pink between fake-pink frosted lips.
Michael must have had frost to contend with the last few nights. Camping out, the last round of his Duke of Edinburgh. It’s good for my CV, Mum, he says, no more convinced than she is. At least he’s out there, breathing real air, seeing real stars, hearing the real world instead of engines and security warnings and halves of conversations. She hopes it is helping, this trip. Fresh air is good for you. Rising to a challenge raises the spirits, sometimes.
A line of streaky black has appeared on the girl’s cheek. What is she doing on this train anyway? No briefcase, no tidy backpack with a wasted hiker’s logo, just that teddy bear hat. What do you mean, babes, I’m not getting it. What do you mean? She sounds panicky. It’s too early for panic, the world hasn’t woken up yet. You can smell the sleep fogging this carriage, every head wishing for its pillow.
Michael wouldn’t take one with him, not even a cushion off the settee. It’s proper wild camping, I won’t use it, he said. You never need as much as you think, Mum. Pack and then empty half back out again. Wisdom from a teenager; it made her smile but she knows he’s right. All those sarongs she squeezes in for Spain, padding out the shoes for smart and the sandals that rub and never leave her case. Take off holidays…
Except Spain had been more like sick days, this year. Sick with worry, is the expression, but it’s not as simple as nausea. Wrung out with worry. Wasted energy, but she can’t help herself, watching for a smile, listening for a hint of humour until her ears ache. It’s natural, is another thing people say. Teenage hormones, don’t you remember? Get him a bit of sunshine, out to the disco, distractions.
Neil calls it what it is, but only for his own benefit. Depression is medical, it’s an illness, a chemical imbalance. Like it’s a rash. Take off sick days…
But Neil isn’t at home anymore to see it. You can’t put a poultice on Michael’s mind. You can’t lift a cloud with aspirin. What has Neil been doing all weekend while she has been worrying?
Has she missed a station? She can’t remember. That’s what habit does to you. You zone out. But she must have, here’s the tunnel, and the girl is saying, I can’t hear you, Gemma, what did you say? Gemma? And she makes a little sobbing sound. There are two streaks of black now. Wet noises coming from her nose.
Should she ask if she’s alright? You don’t though, do you. Especially not with the young ones, they think you’re off another planet anyway. Get out of my face, she’d probably say, what’s it to you? Or worse.
She stares at the poster above the girl’s head, reads the words she has read so many times it makes her stomach turn. Has that image of the smiling couple, photoshopped over white cliffs and seagulls, written over a real memory? There’s only so much room up there. She flicks through images of Spain in her head, going a couple of years back to find the smiles and sunburn, but it’s just the photos she’s remembering. Whatever happened between those moments of posing has blurred together.
There weren’t any photos from Spain this year. Not enough smiles to last a whole film. No smiles, and no Neil to lug the camera.
A phone bleeps morse code behind her. Michael could have sent a text. She wishes he had, but then there’s probably no signal out there either. And you have to let them go. Birds from nests, boys from apron strings.
You’ never do anything silly, would you? She’d asked him once, when that other buy was found. You’d always talk to me, wouldn’t you? Yes Mum.
Having a girlfriend must be helping a bit, though. Maybe she should ask Michael to bring her next time, or over for Christmas even. She could take them out for something to eat, somewhere they’d like where young people go, never mind about her. Carly might warm to her, confide, open a little window into Michael’s life and she could smile and say, I see! Thank goodness he’s got you. Thank goodness he’s alright, really. She’d forgive the blonde highlights, the overdone make-up.
Babes, spit it out, the girl is repeating. I told you I’m on the train, it’ll go again, just tell me, tell me. Her voice is whining. The pinstriped suit across the aisle does one of those public sighs that says, you’re ruining everyone’s journey. The girl is oblivious. Her eyes see nothing that is around her, ringed in smudges.
The sky has turned from not quite black to grey. It looks as tired as these passengers, heaving itself up like a crumpled duvet, letting in cold air. The doors hiss open and more cram in, all coats and bags, jamming into the spaces between the seats. She always feels guilty, but she knows most of them see her as the old woman now. Offer this seat to those less able to stand. How do you tell just by looking? Offer this seat to those less able to stand it, this repetition, this sharing of space without sharing anything at all.
A couple of the new arrivals are glancing at the girl now, because she’s whimpering, like a puppy under her puppy hat. There’s a hand over the frosted-pink mouth with a mitten on it, a mitten like a child’s, with stars and spots. The phone is still pressed against her ear.
The train is gathering speed, empty trees flashing past, rows of lights dimmer against the lightening grey. The girl wipes the mitten across her nose and looks up. Her eyes are terrified, searching for something. She can’t help it, she stares back for a moment and then looks away again. She’s the adult, she can see what’s happening, should she take charge? But what would help be, even if it was wanted? She can’t offer a tissue. Whatever the girl is hearing, it needs more than a tissue.
On Friday, the girl says. But he was alright, he said it was the right thing, to split up. The phone is interrupting her, she shakes her head. No, I swear, he didn’t do nothing weird.
Anything, she thinks. Michael would get that right, he’s always been well-spoken, and the girl is up, their knees bang together and the small figure is pushing through the tuts and glares, through the impossible bulk between her and the door. She can hear the raspy gulps coming from that pink mouth and she strains to watch the girl’s progress as she ducks under an upstretched arm. The elbow catches her furry hat and she moves forward without it, streaked blonde hair trailing behind her.
Something makes her follow. She is embarrassed by not knowing what but she murmurs, sorry, excuse me, can I just squeeze? The pinstriped suit catches her eye. He knows this isn’t her stop, what’s she playing at? Breaking the equilibrium. Don’t sit at the end if you’re not going all the way. Don’t take a seat if you’re not staying. Stand. Stand it.
She can’t see the hat but the girl is standing, one mittened hand pressed against the glass of the door. Are they sure it’s him? She is pleading. He breath is raggedy, sodden.
She wants to tell her, it’s alright, only a minute till the next stop, you can get some air then, okay? Some fresh air? It’ll do you good. The blonde head is shaking again.
As the concrete strips crowd in alongside the carriage, sucking the train into the platform, she hears the small, whining voice. He said he wouldn’t do nothing silly. That’s what he said.
The doors beep and slide and the girl tumbles out. She should go too, just watch, just make sure she’s alright. It’s what she’d do for Michael. It’s what she does for Michael, hovering outside his bedroom door until she hears him safe in sleep.
But it’s not her stop, and what could she do, anyway? She’s a stranger, a weird old woman who eavesdropped on a conversation and broke the silent commuter rules. Don’t listen, don’t comment, don’t interfere.
She leans awkwardly on the blue plastic handle all the way to the final stop. This train terminates here. She always hates hearing that word. Terminates. So final, the cold death of a journey.
Trotting along with the herd, she fumbles in her bag and switches on her phone. Not thinking, just habit. She did the right thing, she’ll be on time at the office, tube allowing. The girl had someone to talk to, after all.
The screen flashes back at her, impertinent, not following the pattern. Fourteen missed calls. Three new messages. Check your voicemail now? Twelve calls are from Neil’s number, two unknowns. Neil is never up at this time, now he does the late shift, now he has only his own bed to fall into with no sleeping wife to disturb. Neil never calls at all. And he’s picking Michael up later, in the station car park. Monday morning.
She weaves to the edge and stands apart from the traffic of feet and tripping trolley cases, feeling her stomach twist, the buried fear rising to her skin. Yes, she presses with her thumb. Check my voicemail now. As the phone dials she watches a station worker emerge from the train, holding his gripper stick aloft, laughing. The girl’s teddy bear hat is dangling from the end.'