It was, with the benefit of hindsight, a beautiful day, one of those sunny mornings that early March occasionally borrows from late July to trick us into thinking we’ve seen the last of winter’s frost. If I had been looking I would have seen startling white legs beneath wrinkled shorts paying homage to the unexpected sun, seen lightweight, floral-print dresses swirling over fake-tanned thighs and crop tops riding up above bejewelled bellybuttons. But I wasn’t looking; my eyes were locked firmly on the ground a few feet in front of me, focussed enough to guide me safely through the streets but taking in none of the peripheral details.
There’s an old saying that troubles come in threes, but anyone who’s experienced depression will tell you that’s not true. Despair comes in waves, as relentless as tides working on a shingle beach and as uncompromising as the gravities directing them. Worst of all, that wash takes some small trophy with every retreat. There’s a gradual erosion of everything good, a slow disintegration that leaves everything it touches dirty and unwholesome until you are left with no other perspective or frame of reference. Bad things do not come in threes; you just look back from a point further down the beach and re-designate the three biggest events landmarks.
People talk about feeling ‘numb’, but that’s not right either. Numb suggests a degree of dissociation, an anaesthetic distance between self and pain. That’s part of it, of course, but it overlooks the hardest and most important part; the aching emptiness and all-encompassing sense of pointlessness that taints your every thought and action. The thing is, that numbness, it overshadows everything. On the way down you can worry about those you’ll leave behind and the effect your actions may have on them. You can still recognise concepts like empathy and guilt. When you bottom out you stop thinking about others at all and cease to consider trivialities like consequences. All you can think about is now, and that emptiness stretching on forever. Platitudes describing lights and ends of tunnels count for nothing. There is no light. There is no tunnel. There’s just now.
I did not consciously walk to the station, but when I found myself there it seemed to make good sense. On a subconscious level I suspect my fear of heights kept me away from the multi-storey car park and my aversion to blood from the bathroom cabinet and the razors I keep there, but had I been consciously aware of the journey I was undertaking I would probably have elected for the fine selection of uppers, downers and sleepers my GP had been prescribing me for the past four months or so.
Of course, the train meant blood – loads of the stuff – but there’s a sense of impersonality that applies to cold steel tracks and screaming engines that puts a strange distance between the act and the consequences of the act. It’s like the difference between having a dentist pull a tooth and attempting the same thing yourself with a pair of pliers, or pulling the trigger of a gun to end another’s life rather than ending it with bare hands and naked aggression.
I won’t bore you with the details. You’ll have heard them before in one form or another, or at least many variations on their themes. Deaths, broken hearts, losses too huge to bear; they are part of all our lives and mostly they have the decency to come with some sort of warning, spaced with a small measure of time between for the healing process to at least have dulled some of the sharper edges. At other times, though, if you’re one of the unlucky ones, they come all at once; perhaps in the shape of a single event, a head-on collision that takes everything and alters the world and your perceptions of it in an instant. That’s when the tide turns. That’s when you find yourself walking towards railway stations without really knowing where you’re going.
At the ticket barrier I bought a cheap-day return to the coast. I don’t really know why – I hadn’t travelled in that direction by train since childhood – but it was the first destination that came into my head.
‘Platform two,’ said the railman, pushing my ticket under the Perspex window, ‘about fifteen minutes.’
I recognised him – from primary school, I think – but had no memory of his name and no inclination to ask it. If he recognised me he made no comment. I picked up my ticket and walked through the underpass to the down line. The underpass smelt of stale piss just like it had when I was a child, but the graffiti was mostly new. The concrete steps up to the platform felt familiar underfoot, though it had been 20 years at least since I’d last climbed them. The ghost of my father passed me coming in the opposite direction, still commuting after all these years.
The platform was much as I remembered it, only prettier and cleaner. While the underpass was always going to be a playground for the local kids the platforms themselves were clearly sources of pride for at least one member of the staff working shifts there. The picket fence was clean, the hanging baskets well watered, the small waiting room tidy.
I was alone on the platform, and I sat on the wooden bench and stretched my legs out in front of me. I kept my focus mostly on the track, losing myself in the pebbles between the sleepers and the rust stains on the rails themselves. On the opposite platform a pair of teenagers in track suit bottoms and hoodies were talking and laughing, and standing some distance from them an older man looking slightly nervous in a cheap suit. After a few minutes a train pulled in, and when it left that platform was empty.
I heard a noise from up the track and turned my head to see the approaching coast train. I wondered briefly if I was standing too far down the line, stood and moved toward the top so the train would be travelling faster when it hit me. I stood on the white-painted edge of the platform, feet together, not sure yet whether I was going to dive like a swimmer from the side of a pool or just let myself tip forward until gravity took the decision out of my hands. I licked my lips and took a deep breath. The air was warm and tasted of metal. I closed my eyes for a second and opened them again, and as I did I saw the door from the ticket office on the opposite platform pulled open. I looked again up the track, saw the blue and yellow cab of the train passing the junction box that signalled the run up to the platform. I heard brakes starting to engage and the strident squeal of metal on metal. I locked my eyes forward and tensed myself for the jump, then felt the air in my lungs catch as I saw the two figures stepping onto platform one.
For a moment I was absolutely convinced it was Katie. She had exactly the same dark bob of hair, the same oval face and almond complexion. Her legs were long and skinny, the ankles looking almost too fragile to support her thin body. She was like a young deer; all spindle and sharp angles yet somehow filled with grace. I looked at the man who was holding her hand, wondered what he was doing and where he was going with my dead daughter. Then I saw her squeeze his hand and smile up at him, and the illusion was gone. She had a beautiful smile, but it was not Katie’s smile.
It was then I noticed her dress, and the thick nylon petticoats underneath the shining blue and yellow material. She was dressed as Snow White, in one of those cheap fancy-dress costumes they sell in high street chain stores. Her shoes were black patent leather, open fronted with silver buckles on the sides, the tops of white ankle socks flashing above them. I thought she must be on her way to or from a party, but then reconsidered: if going, she would have carried a gift; coming home a brightly coloured bag containing cake and small toys. She was young enough to be completely unselfconscious about her appearance. She probably wore that dress at every opportunity, just for the sheer joy of it.
Her hand was completely concealed within her father’s, but his hand swung back and forth at her volition. I could almost feel that familiar tug at my own wrist; felt a connection with emotions I had held in check for almost a year.
I felt the breeze from the approaching train then as it touched my face, and the muscles in my legs tensed and flexed. I moved back from the white-painted edge of the platform, stood quietly as windows and door panels flashed past my eyes while I waited for the train to stop.
The carriage was almost empty, just a few bored looking bodies flicking through books or nodding, eyes closed, in time with the music pulsing from headphones connecting them to their MP3 players. Nobody looked up, and that suited me fine as I crossed the carriage to sit and look through the window. My vision was blurred and I rubbed at my eyes to clear them. I saw a look of concern cross the child’s face and I smiled to reassure her. She smiled back, then, suddenly shy, looked down at her shining shoes and became captivated by the sunlight reflected in them. I saw, in my head, what she was seeing; a distant point of light flickering in the darkness.
Sometimes clichés are all we have.
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