by Rebecca Field
I wasn’t supposed to be there, not really. They’d shown us videos at school – how trains can be derailed by objects on the line, how you can’t tell which rails are electrified, how you shouldn’t walk on the edges of pavements or platforms. There was a whole list of things you shouldn’t do, mostly stuff you wouldn’t have thought about doing anyway, if they hadn’t put the ideas into your head.
“You should be outside on a day like this,” Mum had said, ushering me out of the door with a rolled-up magazine, like a nuisance fly. I wanted to stay home and play under the table with my action figures, but there was no point arguing. She was wearing lipstick and a blouse I’d never seen before; her plans for the day did not include me.
For a while I sat on the embankment behind the house and watched the trains go by, trying to make eye contact with the people in the windows as they whooshed past, but it was impossible. They were going by so fast my eyeballs couldn’t keep up. I thought about all the places they could be going; jobs in other towns, holidays, maybe even to other countries now that the tunnel under the sea was open. Trains can take you anywhere in the world, if you stay on them long enough.
I decided to walk along the line. I walked for half an hour, or an hour, maybe two. I didn’t have my watch on so I didn’t know. A few trains went by but I stood well back from the track, felt the warm air rush by as my heart pounded. I thought about Mum and her new boyfriend Gavin, about Dad and Debbie and my baby brother Mikey. I thought about how Mum had said I was an accident, but not the kind that kills people.
Eventually I got to a station; a little one with only a sign and a platform and a stone shelter to sit in. The shelter was filled with graffiti and old beer cans. It smelled like an ashtray. I sat on the cold wooden bench and picked at the layers of peeling paint with a stick, wondering what to do next. Walking back the way I’d come felt pointless, but if I went home now Mum might say I was back too soon.
After I’d been sitting for a while, a train pulled up. Nobody got out. I listened to the noises of the engine; the ticks and clicks and rumbling sounds were soothing, like me and the train were catching our breath together. I expected the train to start back up after a minute or two, but it didn’t. The engine stopped but the clicks continued. Maybe there was a problem up ahead on the line, some issue with the signals. I looked up at the windows. There were people inside, reading newspapers and books. A woman was doing her makeup in a compact mirror. A man stood by one of the doors. Our eyes met as he stared out through the dirty glass window. I felt my face burn, wondered if he’d been watching me for a while, if he’d seen me picking my nose a few moments ago.
I peeled a few more pieces of paint from the bench with my fingernails. When I looked back up the man was still staring. He wore a pale gray shirt with an anorak and his dark hair hung in a long fringe over his forehead, like he needed a haircut. I gave him a smile but he didn’t smile back. Perhaps he was annoyed about the train being delayed. Perhaps he had somewhere to be. I shifted my body along the bench, away from his direct sightline. His eyes followed me.
The man bent his shoulders slightly and hoisted up the sliding window with both hands. Now I could see his face more clearly. There was stubble on his chin, and his jaw moved slowly, like he was chewing gum. Perhaps he was planning to smoke a cigarette, or needed some fresh air. He stuck an anoraked arm out of the window and I saw his thick fingernails and the dark hair on the back of his hand as he reached for the handle on the outside of the door, his dark eyes staring into mine all the while. Maybe he wants to stretch his legs, I thought. Maybe he’s been on the train for ages and he wants to walk up and down the platform while he waits. That must be it.
Just as the man’s hand connected with the door handle, the engine roared back into life and the train began to move. The hand and the head went back inside as the train pulled away. The window slid shut. The man was gone.
The train headed into the distance, then disappeared into a tunnel. My heart thumped in my chest, like I’d been running very fast. I kept still, waited for it to slow down. I thought about how you shouldn’t stick your head or your arms out of a moving vehicle and what could happen if you did. The man must have known about that rule too.
A fly landed on the back of my left hand, then started rubbing its front feet together like it was hungry for its next meal. I realized I was hungry too. I swatted the fly away, stood up and turned for home.