C E N T R A L_____S T A T I O N
The concourse is like a stage: in smooth granite. Polished, almost slippery underfoot; sloping very gently up towards the platforms and the destination boards, the huge clock. Overhead; the glass roof is folded like an ornate Victorian fan, into little pitches and troughs, where the vague shapes of pigeons and seagulls flicker like half-formed thoughts. Unwashed, the opaque glass releases only the thinnest glow, the suggestion of a blue sky beyond.
In this stifled world, the noise is always generalised, dislocated, non-specific. A wash of sound, signifying only: life. The echo of countless footsteps, coming and going. The shouts of newspaper vendors, the booming train announcements like the voice of God. The nervous feet: the twisting gestures of those who wait. So many: charged with the tension of anticipation, apprehension; and always self-conscious, calculating their movements, rationing their gazes; careful not to invade the space of others. Here: where all territory is neutral, undefined.
Occasional gasps of the reunited, exclamations: a shouted name, or how you’ve changed! Or quieter, the sad whispered promises of the departing, the reluctant goodbyes. And beyond all this; the gentle constant flickering of the plastic shutters, on the destination boards. –A sleepy, purring sound, like the fluttering of enormous eyelashes, like the blinking of God; watching this spectacle, an improvised play by amateurs. And beyond this further: only the habitual daily moan of traffic, and the deeper rumble; the reverberation of train wheels on tracks, mechanical coupling and uncoupling. Tick tock of the relentless clock…..
At the window of a restaurant, a floor up, sits a pensioner: a veteran of World War Two. As he sips his coffee, he gazes down absentmindedly over the sea of faces and twitching feet; the ever-changing line-up of the crowds, transitory creatures, phantoms. The veteran wears his usual attire: immaculate black blazer and grey flannels, white shirt and tie, silver cuff links. He is trying to write his memoirs, making notes in his diary. The waitress surprises him, clattering her tray on the table and he jumps; spilling cigar ash down the front of his shirt. He blushes and attempts to tidy himself, awkwardly pushing his two previous coffee cups onto her expectant tray. She smiles a kind of condescending smile which the old man recognises; the impatience the young feel for the old, mingled with a little love and pity.
The veteran looks down again, watching the people. His eyes fix on a young man in a long green coat with shining brass buttons. It’s an American G.I coat, probably bought from an army surplus store; he must be a student. He is carrying flowers, waiting nervously; it must be for a girl. The veteran feels he somehow recognises this young man; or rather, that he recognises something of himself in this forlorn innocent figure. It’s like looking back through a tunnel in time: to see the young man he once was himself, foolish and open-hearted, a blank page on which the world waits to write its painful message.
A group of football supporters: having just emerged from a train; now come staggering across the concourse, loud and idiotic, trailed nervously by a few police. The young man, watched by the veteran, is swamped momentarily. A pale face, insecure and effeminate: above a long green coat and yellow flowers; lost among a tide of football colours; twenty blue and white striped tops and scarves and the open shouting mouths, the red belligerent faces. Their warlike chants, beer cans spilling in trails; wide arcs of froth spraying the air, wetting the concourse, making the granite slippery.
The old man closes his eyes, grimacing for a second in pity for the open-hearted young man. He feels the same emotion for the boy, as the waitress had just felt for him: embarrassment, shy love and pity. He opens his eyes and watches the white froth spinning in the brown circle of coffee, his cup seen from above; like a cyclone in the weather reports, a microcosm. He looks out the window again: and sees the young is still there, unobliterated, still clutching his flowers.
The young man is waiting for a girl called Natasha; the first girlfriend he has ever had. He is nervous, all the classic symptoms: sweating palms, butterfly stomach. He is floating on air, so exhilarated and excited. Amazed to find himself infatuated with the plain, rather shabby girl who works in the sandwich bar in Buchanan Street precint. But now everything she does: her long unkempt hair, her ungainly laughter, her ill-fitting clothes, all these characteristics are imprinted on him like teeth marks. Even her constant lateness is forgivable! If only she’d arrive and save him; how they would fly, this coat like wings, flying up to flutter with the pigeons on the ornate glass roof, if only she’d arrive. It’s nearly Christmas. He’s so young, the excitement of love has fused seamlessly with the childish magic of the season. Natasha is an intoxicating promise, like the lanterns slung across the tall buildings in the big streets in this new city, the glitter of tinsel. Her pale skin is like the cool silence of snowbound fields in the affluent suburbs; where he still lives with his parents.
The young man hears an unexpected muttering from his left side. He turns to see an old tramp: hunched over under the weight of his own survival. Absorbed and tormented by his own thoughts of love: the young man is nonetheless surprised to feel a moment of empathy with this crumpled figure.
Before the world’s end, son… please, before the angel’s come for us…
The young man reaches deep into his pocket for some change. Suspecting, in some irrational way: that he might buy his own destiny with this gesture, barter with God through his lowly intermediary.
….. Cheers son, -croaks the creature, choking back an alcohol-tear, … Yir a real gent, son… whit’s yer name?
Oh… David, -he says, It’s David. He turns to look at the destination board, suddenly scared that he might somehow be missing Natasha. He turns back, about to ask the tramp’s name, but the old wreck is lurching away in a different direction, his interest suddenly diverted elsewhere. David wonders who the old guy is, where he fell from, what his story is. A family once? Or a job? Some contract with society broken, long forgotten.
Alfie, the tramp: shuffles on, over towards the dustbin. It seems, through his distorted vision; to glow like a pile of riches, the crown jewels. His hand bends down over the overflowing litter. His hand, claw-like, reaches out and filters expertly; down through various strata of rubbish. First he extracts a crumpled can of juice, shakes it once to assess its contents, discards it, disappointed. But further down, delighted: he hits upon a polystyrene fastfood cartoon. He pulls it back up and out, is excitement mounting. Freeing it into the open air; he prises the edges of the carton’s lid open, creaking like a treasure chest. Fish and chips: half-finished. Alfie’s heart rises, his jaw stabs painfully with the first pangs of his digestive juices, un-exercised now for about 48 hours. The old man turns and begins to slump down against the wall to enjoy this banquet, but as he turns: a hurrying executive; an angular black blur, collides slightly with his left arm, spilling some of the chips onto the platform. The business man’s immaculately polished shoes crush three of the chips, before he disappears; cursing over his shoulder, as he talks into his mobile phone…..
As Alfie stares in disbelief at this wanton destruction; a pigeon steals another two of the remaining chips, spurring him into action. He kneels awkwardly, gathering a handful of chips: glowing golden as the moment they were first sparkling happily in hot fat. And comforted by this thought, he crumples over into his corner with his hard-won prize; with a gesture not unlike a cat with a mouse, or a spoilt child sulking over a broken toy.
The executive pulls himself together, vaguely unsettled by his unfortunate collision. His brain, as usual: is in overdrive, working on at least 3 levels simultaneously. The deal. –he is saying to London on the phone, -it must go through, listen John, fire the frigging accountants if that’s what their game-plan is, we’ve had too much client-resistance on this one and now we’re on critical path. That’s not the point, we’ve got an offer of 700 grand on the table, and those half-wits are sitting on their hands like a bunch of rabbits in the headlights. We’ve got to press home with this now, no matter whose noses we put out of joint or the competition will gazump us and hand us out to dry before close of play, 4.30 at the latest, I’ll call you, don’t call the insurers yet…
He has been sweeping his hand nervously across his jacket, right across the concourse, throughout the conversation: as if the perceived stain from the collision with the tramp could somehow be more than material in its implications; metaphysical, spiritual.
But it’s worse than that, the deal, Christ, if this one doesn’t go through; his neck’s on the line. He slides his mobile back into his pocket, runs his finger with difficulty around his neck, between the skin and collar, wet with sweat, half-choking. He pauses: one foot on, one foot off the carriage. The guard is blowing his whistle for the train to go, as his heart heaves with fear and anxiety; John’s probably just gone in to the meeting, could Manchester still be reached in time? That smudge there… there’s a definite smear of dirt or dust on that lapel, he’s trying to clear it. Should he take this train or wait for the next one, and phone Lloyds? The train doors are closing, and he closes his eyes and leaps forward: heartsick, headlong into the future.
The little girl catches sight of the raincoat in the door and laughs: look, look, Mummy… that man’s got his coat stuck in the train doors, Mummy! But her parents aren’t listening, and she looks back and wonders if he’ll have to stand like that all the way to London. Little Suzy is holding her mother’s hand and singing quietly to herself, skipping to keep up with her father. They’re walking slightly too fast for her and are talking in their big serious voices about one of those topics she’s not supposed to understand. Suzy just retracts into her own world when they do that, and one of her favourite games is closing her eyes a bit so that all the lights around her turn into little stars which sway and tumble, back and forward, at her will, as if she can really control them and the whole world too. She’s tried explaining this to Mum but she’s all busy and flustered today and it’s something to do with it nearly being Christmas, because it was the same last year and Mum and Dad get all tired and grumpy just because she is happy and excited. Though her parents say now that Santa doesn’t exist, she knows they must be lying because Dad told her about Santa and even showed her his footprints in the black ash on the carpet in front of the fireplace last year. And Daddy wouldn’t lie to her now would he?
Little Suzy loves the chocolate boxes in the big fancy displays in the station, and the tinsel and carol singing, all the sweet voices coming from the speakers hidden somewhere overhead: oh where are those angels? –why can’t she see them? And now she sees this funny old man all crumpled up next to a bin, and the bin’s overflowing like Santa’s sack, and she’s pulling Mummy’s hand and saying Mummy look! look! –is that man Santa?
Mum looks at Dad and they smile a little bit and laugh. But the old tramp is just staring into space, and Suzy’s saying He is! He is! Look Daddy he’s Santa Claus and he’s just resting now.
And Mum’s pulling Suzy away now, and thinking:- don’t go talking to dirty old men for goodness sake, you poor sweet little thing. And how can I show you how horrible the world is, how can I teach you to cope with it; without making you cynical and hard like we are? Beautiful thing in an ugly world: must we make you ugly inside, just to survive? The old wino sticks his finger right up his nose and Mum rushes Suzy away with her protective hand across her cheek like blinkers.
Pauline holds the hand of her daughter and her husband. And she’s wondering if that yellow polo-neck sweater is really the right present for her mother. But now she sees the young man in the long green coat with shining brass buttons; clutching flowers, he is suddenly smiling and opening his arms to embrace a young woman with straggly blonde hair. His hopeful young face vanishes into this storm of hair; absorbed into a sundrift. Pauline looks back over her shoulder at this as they kiss, and feels a strange pang of some unresolved emotion. She wishes Frank would bring her flowers, -no, that’s not it. Not the flowers, but the look. That optimism. The will to embrace her and cherish her as if just her being a woman were some kind of miracle that he wanted to celebrate. There is something clammy and cold now in the agitated sweat in his clutching hand. And she laments the way life loses its colour like a shirt in the wash.
David kisses Natasha and his head spins and he thinks he is dying. Natasha closes her eyes and then draws herself back, hoping to find a way to discourage this boy without hurting him too much. All this hugging and gazing into her eyes for hours, there is something weak and mawkish in his childish attitude. He still needs his mother, she thinks secretly, gazing prettily back into his innocent blue eyes. I need someone like Mark or Peter. Someone older and stronger, who treats me like a person, not a statue to be worshipped on a pedestal, imprisoned by somebody else’s insecurities and fears. I need to soar, she thinks now; out into the traffic glimpsed beyond his shoulder, his soft cheeks and chin scarcely able to grow a beard.
The war veteran watches the young couple disengage and walk off towards the streets beyond the station. He sees the boy reach out for the girl’s hand and her giving it; he is moved by this gesture. He thinks the two make an idyllic picture of young love.
This reminds his of an incident he has recently recorded in his war memoirs: of the first girl he ever loved. He has remembered her now for nearly fifty years; the memory still almost as powerful as the experience itself. Pinkie he called her. She wore a pink ball gown and she danced with him; teaching him the steps of an Apache Valse. She was 19 and spoke only French; he was 18 and spoke only English. He thought she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. It was Casablanca, a New Year’s Eve party; in a few hours leave from H.M.S Kilmington. But in the confusion at the bells when the lights went out, they got separated. Next day he glimpsed her in the crowded narrow streets of the Mdina; ran after her, but lost her again.
Watching the backs of the young lovers leave through the huge doors of Central Station; the war veteran wonders at the strange feeling of cowardice and mystery that can haunt a man for fifty years. Though married since, with children, grandchildren; he still longs after that chance that never was, some language that could have bridged the gap between him and that girl, a life that might have taken unexpected turns, exploded like fireworks; spreading like fire in the wild night sky.
With one last sip of his coffee, he stands up. Despairing perhaps, or merely letting go, of a world which steadfastly refuses to read or publish his memoirs. That baton has been passed it seems, life is handed over to the young now, who however foolish and confused; will never listen to some ancient mariner. But the rest of his life has been a let-down, no doubt about it. His few surviving shipmates concur with this whispered heresy: that the terrible war years were really the happiest of their lives, when petty jealousies and rivalries were set aside in the name of saving civilisation. The darkness of Hitler’s fascism had seemed like the backdrop against which all that was good in people could briefly shine.
The waitress mops up the table after the veteran has gone. All his traces: are two torn packets of sugar, a crumpled cigar packet, three napkins, and a single folded sheet torn from his diary. The notes on this are in a handwriting too dense and ornate for her to read. Lifting the tray, she remembers her own father; who died last year. The plastic flowers in the restaurant’s simulated shrubbery beside the window: remind her uncomfortably of her last visit to his grave. She makes her mind up to go back soon, perhaps this afternoon, before picking up her little boy from school.
In the toilet, the veteran straightens his tie in the mirror. Careful always to maintain standards, conscious that this has been his habitual uniform since de-mob.
The cubicle door behind him swings open suddenly, and a dishevelled figure; an emaciated young man, unshaven; grimaces at him like some hellish vision, an angel of death.
He looks away quickly, to wash his hands, but the creature is speaking behind him now. Since no one else is here, he must be addressing him:- …..
….. You… come in here.
The old man turns around.
Ah said come over here.
His stomach lurches. Oh no… no chance, pal… He suddenly remembers various shady nautical incidents, his lifelong homophobia hardening into cold fear.
The skeletal figure lurches closer. Produces a dirty hypodermic syringe from inside his crumpled grey jacket. The creature speaks almost like a simpleton, but there is something else to this, like a refugee, a zombie, the undead…
Adrenalin is pumping, his heart beats fast, he feels a pulse beating in his left temple. The old man glances at the door. The threat is plausible. He’s heard enough about drug addicts, HIV, Hepatitis B. A sudden flash of his wife’s appalled face passes through his consciousness, the futile anger of his children. Why be a martyr?
Ah’ll give ye AIDS.
Is it money you want? –He asks finally, surprised to hear his voice gone mechanical too, but trembling like his hands which are fumbling and reaching forward with his open wallet where tens and twenties seem to glow, brand new in the dim artificial light. Notes like white flags, like paying the boatman, like begging the devil not to take him. Like the torpedo hitting Kilmington’s starboard bow just off Bermuda. Like hiding from the sniper’s shots in the rocks on the beach in Cyprus. Like the two heart-attacks, the by-pass operation. The car colliding with a taxi in Ingram Street.
In a second it is over. Silence. The disbelief of aftermath. The pale, sweating skeleton: has seized the black leather wallet in its claw and slipped out the toilet door, silent as a phantom. The old man turns and looks at himself in the mirror. Feeling strangely ashamed, but unscathed. Having bought off death just one more time. Not so brave as his recollections of war, the conceit of hindsight. He washes his face: not knowing why really, maybe just stalling a bit to let Death get safely away, content with his mercy. When he looks up: the expression in his eyes in the mirror seems both urgent and weary. The war is not over.
Outside, outside, the addict stumbles slightly on his way down the stairs. The knees weak, weak man. Must get out, quick check the old guy isn’t following. No. The burn in the veins, but oh it’s coming soon, soon. Be patient, man. The burn, but the needle’s kiss, sweet Jesus to be free and all this noise and nightmare lifting off me. The white powder like snow, an avalanche of peace, a rush, consuming me and burying me. Oh Christ. The sky, the sky, don’t let it fall, don’t let the Old Bill nab me, filth, pigs. The blue sky up there, past the dirty glass, and veins burning like broken shards, can’t feel my feet, the legs, numb like stumps and ah’m fadin’ fast. Gotta find Nick and score some. To shoot the gear up, up into this sky, sweet blue and this cold floor like a tombstone turning underneath me, sloping down and tilting over, to bury me, blind me.
(First published in Northwords Magazine Issue 10).
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