created by Simon D. Orriss
A single experience with a stranger changes the way our hero feels about life, love, loss and London.
The rain twists my features in the window of the 12:44 from London Euston to Manchester. In the Christmas Eve rush the platform at Euston has never been lonelier. People hurry and bustle along the platform, a suitcase or a child dragging behind them. Tall men in suits talk importantly into their phones, a mother scalds her child, countless others just walk the auto-piloted route they know so well. Some stop briefly to stare through me at the lists on the screen behind my head. None stop for me.
We said goodbye five minutes ago. At the end a final hug and a mumbled valediction were the sum result of three years of shared experiences. Three years of smiles and tears, of moments in the light and instants in the dark. The sweaty nights, lazy days and drawn out hangovers were, in the end, all merged and reduced to a solitary whispered goodbye. There had been no final repentance. She simply looked down, turned, accepted the offer of help from a stranger, and gone. She left me when the doors closed on that Saturday night in June.
On that train last year, we sat across our own table with a bottle of port primed to see us through the two hour ride north. She’d smiled. We were leaving the capital locked in a grim winter fog and heading to a warm Christmas welcome. Laughter and excitement had been the overriding features of that trip. Laughter at the snores of the man across the aisle and excitement at a first Christmas together in the North. But that was a year ago. The fires of that day have faded now, the crackers are cracked and the decorations that adorned that Lancashire farmhouse are all put away. She was leaving to see them again. I was going back to my Acton bedsit to a bottle of whisky that was larger and cheaper than the tree it was under.
The hood of my parka offers a comforting squeeze as it pushes on my ragged beard. Joining the crowd heading back towards the underground I flick my eyes round one last time in the hope of catching a glimpse of blonde hair. I catch a shift in the light and a glint of sun and find a shock of yellow glowing bright in the sea of brown and black. My heart lifts for a second and I lock that moment in my mind as the train pulls her away. I turn my shoulder and take the first step back towards nothing.
At this time of year Euston’s lobby is dominated by the Christmas tree that stands in the corner, the bright lights and tinsel taunting the travellers struggling in its shadow. The tree taunts me now with a promise of Christmas cheer and happy conversations round an overflowing dinner table. I know it’s a false promise; this year Christmas will be dark, lonely and unforgettable. I hate the tunnels that lead down to the tube, they’re dark and tight and always full of humans. Fighting against the crowd I shove my hands into the depths of my pockets and drive forward into the afternoon swell. I duck and weave through the damp subterranean passage and try to focus my mind on the days ahead.
The tube to Acton passes in a fuzz of misery and half heard announcements. Emerging to a blast of chill air, and a swirl of rain-turned-to-snow, I realise that my nails have dug deep into my palms. “Watch out” and “Look where you’re going” are the kinder exclamations thrown at me on my way up to the bus stop. The shouts wash over me in the darkness as I crash through the throng of humanity and mumble automatic apologies. The pain lingers as the bus breaks through the grey and grinds to a halt. The Samaritans choir outside the station sing a sickly carol about hope and joy as I board the bus in silence and tuck myself against an isolated window. I huddle my parka tight and allow myself to drift back into the oblivion of grief.
I ignore the voice and focus instead on the fly that is beating itself dumb on the glass in a futile effort to escape the deluge outside.
Seriously. Not now.
“Sorry, is this seat taken?”
I’m not in the mood for resistance so I squeeze out a gruff “No” and hunch closer to the rain-lashed reflection staring back at me.
Heartbeats later it happens again;
“I know the weather’s crap but you can’t be grumpy,”
Every fibre resists but there’s something in those words; I can’t resist turning to the source. A small creature is sat next to me, a girl with brown hair, a suggestion of freckles and bright green eyes framed by thick black glasses. Wrapped up in a purple duffle she’s busy stuffing a bright red and white spotted rucksack under the seat as she looks up at me. She has a smile that grasps my gaze and refuses to let go.
To my credit I try one more time to turn away but her dancing voice returns to drag me back to the living.
“You do know it’s Christmas Eve? No one should be miserable on Christmas Eve.”
This saccharine comment should send me running with my hands over my ears. Something stops me this time though, something about her halts the sarcasm on the tip of my tongue.
The damn word spills out before I can catch myself and suddenly I’m smiling and reaching as she offers me a sweet. It turns out to be a humbug, black and white and with that delicious minty caramel taste. I briefly turn back to the window and blink as the clouds part. As I catch her smile reflecting in the window a ray of yellow sunlight breaks through the winter sky to warm my face. I’ve never felt such a glow.
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Follow Simon at @sdorriss