She had not wanted to go home. Going home was to face something, to hide it, to lie about it. She had told her family she would come home because she did not want to give them an excuse, to be called out, to be found out. Still, she left it till the last minute. Back from work after the Christmas Eve rush, she had thrown a few things into her bag. Leggings, spare top, wash bag hastily cobbled together. Then, pushed in on top, Christmas presents.
She stared at the backpack, balancing precariously. The attention she had given to her family, taking up the space, pushing down the little that was hers. She did not want to go home. And not because she did not want to see her parents, or her brother. But because she didn’t want to see anyone, ever. Christmas, with its gaudy, well-lit rooms, the people, the noise. It was a great unbearable reminder of the line that was drawn, that she had drawn, between her and everyone else.
She had texted her family’s WhatsApp with vague notions of being back by 7pm. It was 5pm now. It wouldn’t take her long to walk to the train station, and then only another 30 minutes to get home. She looked at the time on her phone, and thought about the journey home, the getting home. The questions, and the answers she would give. The smile that was expected, and which she’d give them, to deflect the furrowing of brows and the looks of concern. Her stomach tightened with imagined anxiety.
She very quietly and carefully did up the straps on her backpack and laid it down on the messy bed, working silently so as not to upset the part of her that was warring against her practical thoughts. Like a hostage negotiator, she was trying not to upset the man with the gun. She sat on the bed and looked at her phone, watching the time tick away. She could lie down she thought, have a nap, maybe get there later. It was an excuse, and it made her feel guilty. But still.
Her muscles engaged and she readied herself to lie down on the bed, then her phone pinged. There was a message from a colleague, a sort of friend, from work. There had been talk about going to the pub after work, the later shift had ended, and they were heading out. Did she want to come? She did not mind her co-workers, and she did not mind the local pub. It was always a welcome distraction. Tonight, it was the perfect distraction.
She texted her co-worker back and pulled on her coat. She would regale her family with the story of how she had gone out with her colleagues, done normal things. Been normal, for a while. Plus, she imagined, she would be drunk when she got home. It would be an excuse to go straight to bed, leaving all the unasked questions in her wake. Avoiding the inevitable just a little longer.
The pub was not far, somewhere between work and home. When she arrived it was packed with people fresh for Christmas shifts, ready for their first real drink of the holiday. She saw a co-worker by the bar and pushed in beside him. He was ordering shots for everyone. She ordered doubles for herself, two of them.
An hour later and she was merry, an hour after that she lost track of time, later still and she didn’t care much what she was doing or when she would leave. All distance between her and her co-workers was closed by the intimacy that drinking offered. And any guilt she felt was diluted, dissolved, by the drinks she drunk, and the shouts of revelry that pulled her attention in every direction.
It was getting late, close to midnight when her co-workers started to drift off and the pub started to thin out. People began referring to their phones, there were partners they had to get home to, kids they needed to tuck in. And the spell was broken. She felt herself sick and bleary eyed, reaching for the last drink and downing it. She didn’t need to check her phone, she had felt the vibrations, knew she was late, knew she was disappointing.
She was outside the pub, in the cold air, heading to the train station, before she even noticed she had gotten up. The alcohol dragged her thoughts back, and she found she only realizing what she was doing long after doing it. She was on the platform, with a ticket in her coat pocket, before she knew she was at the station. The letters glowed amber on the platform sign, telling her the train wasn’t far away. Home wasn’t far away.
Home. She would love to feel it, that pang for home. The missing of home, of family. The hope for Christmas, for the future, for the fun they could have. But there was nothing. Just an emptiness. She reached out for hope, but it was too far away. Her eyes watered but she could not bring herself to cry. There was nothing to cry for. She could not cry for what she did not understand, for what she did not feel.
She stared intently down at the yellow line that separated her from the track. Yellow line. Don’t cross the yellow line. Rules are there for a reason, she thought. But maybe the rules didn’t apply anymore. You can’t follow rules when you don’t care. Don’t care what happens when you don’t follow them. She shuffled closer, as though she were approaching an animal; careful not to scare it away. Being careful not to scare herself away, to awaken the part of her mind that might tell her no.
She sneaked a look up at the platform. She was being naughty; she was turning away. Someone could see, but there was no one there. It was late. It was the last train. No one here but her. No one to see her break the rules, to see what she was thinking. No one could see ever what she was thinking. She could just step out, disappear, they wouldn’t notice. No one would know.
She had shuffled over the yellow line and was getting closer to the edge of the platform. No one would know. She wouldn’t know. She could just step, and it would all be over. Done. She would be released, relieved. It would be over. The thought flooded her with hope, with relief, with a certainty that this was it.
Suddenly the noise of the train approached and made her jump back in shock. She watched as the train carriages chugged past her. And she hung her head. Unsure if she was disappointed in her lack of courage, or in her missed opportunity. The carriages slowed down and she pulled at the handle of the old pull handle carriage; hadn’t seen one of these for a while.
She stumbled into the carriage and found her way to a seat. The carriage seemed dark, but it was hard to tell in the glow of the train station lights. She looked to the shadows and saw no one. Just her then, on the last train home. The train pulled away slowly from from the light of the station. The carriage fell into darkness, and she fell asleep.
When she woke her mind was foggy. She was tired, and even a bit sick. The carriage was still dark, and she could not decide how long she had been asleep. She pressed her face to the window but did not recognize the dark countryside outside. She fumbled for the phone in her coat pocket, battery was dead.
She looked around the carriage, but she saw no one. Only dark shadows where the moonlight had not reached. No one to ask where she was. Should she stay? Surely it was better to walk up to a lit carriage, was it? She didn’t know. She stood up carefully. She wobbled and held on to the seat in front. Her vision was as foggy as her mind, and the darkness didn’t help. Couldn’t see anyone, no light up ahead. She didn’t care, she went to sit back down, but then she saw them.
Figures in the darkness, people on the seats. Maybe only four or five. Her eyes adjusted and she saw them rocking with the train carriage, quiet, sleeping maybe. She hadn’t seen them before, what else was she not seeing? She walked out in the narrow passageway, curious now. She looked from one end of the carriage to the other, swaying with the movement of the carriage, with the alcohol still coursing through her system.
She looked back to her seat and thought about sitting down. She didn’t know how, but she knew the chair wasn’t right. Even in the darkness it was unfamiliar. The shape of the carriage too. It wasn’t a train she knew. It all felt worn in, used, as though it should smell of wood polish and cigarette smoke. Though she couldn’t think why.
She had placed her hand on top of the chair next to her, for support. And now she felt it, rubbed her fingertips into the texture of its surface. It felt wrong, but so familiar. It was smooth yet wearing to rough. It wasn’t plastic as she expected, it wasn’t metal, it was wood. Why was there wood? How old was this carriage, how old was this train?
She looked around her, confused. But as her mind quickened with curiosity so the alcohol seemed to depress every thought. She ran through the possibilities in her mind. She wanted to question where she was, wanted to challenge it. But really, she wanted to sit down. She wanted to go back to sleep. She didn’t care, she only wanted to go back to sleep. So that’s what she did. She sat back down. She lent her head against the window, and she closed her eyes.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the voice whispered. She turned, confused, and looked out into the aisle. She saw a figure sitting in a seat across from her, a couple of rows back. She hadn’t seen him before, what had he said?
“Excuse me?” she asked, her voice a slur.
The figure leaned forward in their seat.
“I said, you shouldn’t be here.”
The voice was not threatening. The person, a young man, sounded tired, miserable even. He lent back in his seat. From the small amount of light that fell into the carriage she saw only his feet; loose jeans, white trainers.
“I’m just going home,” she said, as though it were obvious. She rolled back into her seat and put her head back against the window. “I won’t be here long,” she muttered to herself. She tried to forget about him, tried to sleep. But then she heard him get up and walk over to where she sat. He stood in the aisle, watching her.
“You need to leave, now!” He spoke quietly, but his last word was filled with urgency.
She looked back up at him. “I’m just going home,” she said, whining, annoyed. She didn’t have the energy, and her words came tumbled out without thought. “It’s not like this is a first-class coach or something. I’ll be leaving soon, just leave me alone.” And with that she turned back to the window, hoping he would get discouraged and walk away. But he didn’t.
She opened her eyes but could not see a reflection in the window. She felt his presence though, heavy in the darkness, leaning down to her face.
“You need to leave,” he whispered, his breath full against her ear.
She turned quickly, but he pulled back, stepping into the shadows. Too late for what? She wondered. She looked up at him. But didn’t care to ask, didn’t care to argue. She turned back and closed her eyes instead, hoping that if she ignored him, he would go away. But he didn’t, he stood and waited for her.
“I warned you,” he said, without malice. She heard him shuffling back to his seat. Good.
She did not know if she had slept, but she was awake now. And aware of a presence. She opened her eyes and looked up. Ahead of her, in the aisle, a figure was standing, watching her. The figure was unmistakably a woman. Her dress was noticeable in the shadows that the moonlight cast around her. The woman stared at her.
She stared back. Then the woman took a step forward. She looked up the train carriage then back at her. She could not see her face, but the voice was worried.
“You shouldn’t be here, no you shouldn’t,” she watched as the woman shook her head, looking back up the carriage as though someone might come.
She leaned forward in her seat, attempting to see the woman’s face.
“Why not?” she asked, her voice now sullen and tired.
The woman fixed her with a look through the darkness. She leaned in and whispered.
“You’re not supposed to be here, you need to get off,” she tried to say this with an air of authority. But her voice was too small, her worry so clear.
The woman stood back and looked up the carriage once move. She watched the woman’s head as it moved through the shadows. She was wearing a hat. Why was she wearing a hat? Who wears a hat? The incongruity of the moment made her curious. And even though she was so tired, even though she wanted to be left alone, she stood up. She followed the woman’s line of sight, and then the woman turned back to her.
“Please, leave,” she said this with such a sense of desperation that even in her blurred straight she was tempted to take seriously.
“But I can’t,” she responded, “I’m on a train.” She added, as though that simple answer might explain her situation.
She left a presence behind her and the two of them turned. The man had stood up and was standing behind them.
“Why didn’t you tell her to leave?” The woman said, now more urgent.
“She didn’t listen,” the man said, hissing at her.
The woman turned back to look up the carriage, and the man looked over her head.
“They’ll be coming soon,” he said. There was a deadness in his voice, devoid of hope.
He turned to look at her, square on.
“You might have left it too late.”
A heaviness fell on the air. She still felt tired, still didn’t care. But there was something there. A pulling at the back of her mind, like a memory, like movement. A train, interminable, continuous. And she felt pushed, dragged, challenged, dared to ask.
“What? What have I left too late?” she asked, her voice clearing.
They both looked at her, their faces still shadowed, still unknown.
There was a noise up at the front of the carriage and they watched as the door opened slowly and a man emerged. He stood in the aisle and fixed her with an unknown look. Neither the man nor the woman moved. He cast looks down at the sleeping shadows as he passed, but he was fixed on her. As he came closer she picked out a uniform in the darkness, an old satchel at his hip. He stopped in front of her.
“Ticket?” The man asked, his voice set on an edge that suspected she didn’t have one.
She patted her pocket, felt for the train ticket, but she couldn’t remember where it was. She reached for her backpack, picking it up and fumbling at the pockets.
“Sorry,” she said, “sorry, it must be here somewhere.”
She saw the three figures look at each other. Why now did their presence feel so heavy, almost oppressive. She was so tired now, it was not in her to panic, not in her to argue. She was so tired.
She looked up at the man. And felt his stare on her. As she wondered what might happen next, she felt the train screech to a halt. She held on to the back of the chair, but still stumbled on the spot. Was the train stopping for her?
The man looked to the other two. A thought passed between them, and something else, something which looked like relief. The man gave them a small nod and the two other passengers walked back to their seats. She turned to watch the boy go, and as she did she felt a hand grip her elbow. The man had taken it firmly. She wished she could see his eyes, know what was going to happen next.
“Those without a ticket to ride,” his voice was loud. Louder than it should be, as though it was for the benefit of the carriage, not for her, “will be asked to leave at the next available stop!” And with that he pulled at her arm and pushed her down the aisle. One hand on her elbow, the other on her shoulder.
She was too shocked to say anything, too weak to fight back, and so she allowed him to push her back through the carriage and out the door. They walked into an open area between the carriages. But as the man slammed the door behind them the wheels of the wheels of the train began to move. She felt the panic in his body as he pushed her into the opening between the carriages. She saw the countryside in front of her, blurring in the dark.
He pushed her to the edge, and she felt the wind whip past her. Only then did she push back.
“No, no, no, please, let me stay, let me stay, I don’t want to,” she said, her voice whimpering, breaking as the fear grew.
The man pushed her right to the edge and leaned down to whisper in her ear.
“You have to go, now. Before it’s too late.”
He pushed her from the train and she braced herself for the long fall into darkness. As she hit the ground the man’s last words echoed behind her. Delivered sternly, and firmly, into the night.
“This is NOT your train!”
She felt her body hit concrete. But then there was nothing.
Whether she’d just being shocked, or knocked out cold, she couldn’t say. But when she woke her body was cold, and weak. The alcohol was wearing off, her senses returning. She rolled on to her side and looked up the long length of concrete which extended away from her, amber lights in the distance.
She recognized this place. Or at least she thought she did. Her vision was blurry from alcohol, or maybe from the knock to her head. She got up carefully, her body swaying. She picked up her backpack and put it on. She straightened herself up and looked up and down the long path. The path sloped upwards, the end; dark, sinister. Down from where she stood she saw streetlights, civilization.
She took a few deep breaths. She felt sick, and her body felt heavy. Had she been walking? How had she gotten there? What time was it? She checked her phone, it was on, but the screen was broken. She thought the battery had died but wasn’t sure why. She didn’t know much in that moment, but the lights drew her in and so she walked down towards them.
By the time she had reached the gate at the bottom, her memories had begun to resurface. She knew this place, it was close to her parents’ house, her home. She could probably find her way back from here. She stopped by the gate and looked to the houses down in the distance. Did she want to go back? She looked back up the length of the path, to the darkness in the distance. Then she turned back to the streetlights down below.
She could not remember what she wanted; perhaps she wanted nothing. But right now, there was something, pushing her to home. So, she walked through the gate, and then down through the field. Her head began to clear, and the night’s memories trickled through her, like rain. She’d been at the pub; she’d been at the train station. She’d been on a train.
She stopped. She had been on a train, hadn’t she? But it was odd. It didn’t make sense still, in the blurriness of her memory, in the strangeness of the night. As she approached the kissing gate that led to the housing estate beyond the lights sparked her thoughts into life.
Yes, she had been at the train station.
Her eyes began to water. Yes, she’d been at the train station. And she had walked up to the yellow line.
Why had she stopped? The train? There had been a train, and she had been on it. Hadn’t she?
The memories came flooding in as she walked through the gate and into the street of houses, all still lit up. Parents delivering Santa’s presents, parties going on late. There was so much of it, so much noise. So much life. It pulled at her, filling her, creating sadness with every step.
Yes, she had been at the train station. Yes. She had walked over the yellow line.
She stopped at the end of the street. She turned and looked behind her, to the kissing gate at the end of the street. She could go back. Would she go back?
“Hey! What you doing here?”
She turned back and saw her big brother standing across the road. She looked down the road and saw their local pub in the distance, he had been walking home? She looked for the words to make a response, but she found nothing.
“Come on then,” he motioned his head, meaning for her to cross. She looked both ways on the empty street. And she walked over to him, looking back and forth as she did.
“What you doing here?” he asked again.
“I, um,” she looked down, unable to look him in the eye. Everything she was holding together; it was falling apart. “I don’t know, I, um, came down from the woods. I think.”
“On the old railway path? Why do you want to go up there for?” He chuckled. “You see any ghosts?”
She looked up at him, and his smile immediately fell.
“What’s the matter, eh? You okay?”
He moved to put his arms around her. It was then, that she broke. Broke completely, every thought and every lie falling to pieces. The tears rushed out of her.
“Okay, it’s okay,” he rubbed her back, “I’ll take you home.”
She cried quietly to herself, unable to respond to any thing he asked. When she finally saw their house in the distance, she could not walk fast enough. She wanted to go home now, so badly. And even though the road was empty, she looked both ways.
She wouldn’t think much of that at the time. But many years later, when the day had dwindled in her memory, and she could wonder at the train she had ridden to nowhere, she would remember. That despite everything she felt, everything she thought she wanted, she still looked both ways before she crossed the road.