A collaboration with Anthea Holland
Going away; going away; going away;
Coming back home; coming back home; coming back home.
Stanley couldn't decide which of the two phrases the rhythm of the train wheels were saying. Still, it didn't really make any difference to him - he wasn't going anywhere. Not home - where was home, anyway? Not away - not in the sense of the word that most people used it.
He sat back, listening to the rhythm as it lulled him - not to sleep - no! Never that! But to some kind of inner peace where the demons that had been driving him for so long could be pushed to the back of his mind.
In his eschatological journey there were few things more designed to upset Stanley than the thought of the demons, even more so than death itself.
Trains used to be the safest form of transport, someone in the future claimed. Only young people had any future, maundered Stanley. He was old – old enough to sense the creeping onset of extinction. What use the future for the likes of him?
He raised his sights, just at the moment a veil was lifted from the face of the passenger opposite. Stanley and this now beautiful gifted individual had both snatched the window seats at the terminus, leaving the other more run-of-the-mill commuters like us to make do, elsewhere in the carriage, with the mended moveables that one could claw out of the seatbacks on which to place the arms. Even the crested headrests had been darned.
Stanley smiled at his vision of manifest female splendour.
Even from within the idle talk of co-travellers, words were sometimes too complicated actually to speak. Talk too small even to mention. Glances were the simplest handles to hold.
She nodded at him. Returning to her gold-tooled book, her young face resumed its caul of anonymity and plainness.
Stanley, in some panic, turned to the rest of us hoping against hope that one of us would have words simple enough to speak. Yet large enough to create diversions from death. He needed lifting from his own doom.
“Home is where you never arrive,” one of us wheedled, with a snort and a sniffle.
"No, no, no!" a lady with a walking stick exclaimed, "Home is where the heart is."
"Not at all," a portly, balding gentleman claimed, "Home is on the range."
"That would be the aga, I suppose?" I asked, trying to insert a hint of humour where none reigned.
I was met with a group of withering looks and felt my roots tremble.
"Home is sweet," the child seated next to me whispered without looking up from the gory paper-back novel he was reading. In fact the words were uttered so quietly that I wondered if they had actually been granted to the air. I looked more closely at the child and saw that it was not, in fact, a child as I had thought but an under-sized man of indeterminable age. Unwashed, hair awry, rings the size of knuckle-dusters and - now I concentrated - emanating a rather strong smell of the sewers. How could the word "sweet" have come from his cracked lips?
Home is sweet … like treacle? Like fly-rotten pudding?
Home, sweet home. I tried to imagine Stanley’s home. A twouptwodown with chintzy fittings. Ill-trimmed flock wallpaper. Ruffled curtains in a flowery mode. Yes, sweet, curdled and claustrophobic. No wonder he wandered the world on a Rail Rover ticket, going nowhere, hoping never to return.
I then looked askance at the ‘child’ with the over-sweet aroma: evidently one of the demons who followed every track of Stanley’s footsteps, even shunting into the darkest sidings or making the briefest stops at tenantless halts. If the truth were known, I am, also, one of Stanley’s demons.
Less of me. I have my pointy ears pricked for any conversation that grows beyond the stunted pleasantries of mere co-travellers, even homing in upon the slightest sweet nothings.
“Coming home?” asked the beautiful lady opposite Stanley, her husky tones making me think of the way cats would talk if they had human articulation. She did not turn her eyes towards Stanley, but stared at the fleeting plains of rape seed oil and an even yellower town that nestled in a distant valley. She wrinkled her mouth without pursing.
“No, going away,” replied Stanley, as he fingered his train ticket, examining it for blemishes.
Was he just being perverse, I wondered? Having previously thought that he was neither going away nor coming home, I now realised that he was, in fact doing both - going away from one well-known place to another, less familiar, home.
So why had he disagreed with the vision of beauty that he so obviously wanted to impress? He could have answered quite correctly, "Yes."
Aye, and there's the rub. A simple agreement would have stopped the conversation dead, whereas a disagreement left the conversation open.
I watched the face of the girl reflected back from the window. Her green eyes never flickered yet the longer I watched the more convinced I was that one of them closed ever so slowly in a kind of conspiritorial wink.
Another of Stanley's demons, I wondered?
If so, she was from a different dimension to me; there were no such beautiful felines where I came from.
She lifted her hand and stroked her face from lip to ear, much as a cat would clean its whiskers.
"Coming home?" she asked, as if the previous question had not been asked.
Stanley frowned. "No, going away," he said - this time with a little more conviction.
He and the girl abruptly left the carriage at the same halt, one where its rattling speed merely slowed down to a walking pace, no doubt to ensure catching something in the guard’s outstretched parcel-net.
The two of them leaped upon the sliding platform, their legs pumping against the residual motion to regain their balance. I looked askance at my co-demons. The couple had pulled the wool over our eyes good and proper. Stanley and the girl, we were now convinced, had known each other all along. They were an item merely masquerading as corner-seat grabbing rivals. She probably darned his socks at home. Or licked the puddle of milk from his belly-button.
As to us … well we eternally travel the now commercially dislocated network of British Rail - furthering curtailments, enticing delays and derailments, evoking squabbles with ticket collectors, collecting the turgid souls of you mindless folk who merely stare into the distance or bury yourself in pot-boilers … as A turns to B, towards the XYZ of death’s ultimate halt. Journeys are merely excuses for not living. Home is where the action is.
We have your best interests at heart…
I was suddenly interrupted by the guard’s face at the carriage door. He waved an object which he was intent on delivering. It looked like a dead cat, flat as cardboard meat.
I waved him away; we could not be bothered with such imponderables. The lady with the stick smiled in evident agreement. The sweet child looked desperately around for its mummy and daddy. The portly balding gentleman took out a notebook and started scribbling words that had just sprung to mind. Every passenger has his or her own fascinating story to tell, they say. Something inscrutable behind the eyes. It’s just impossible to tell. Home is not where you lay your cat, I guess, but it is that fire at the seat of the brain. I shrugged and got back to my knitting.