A Family In Transit
Countryside whips by outside. Of course it’s actually standing still, and I’m the one moving relentlessly on. But it feels like I’m just sitting here, frozen in place and out of control, and the world is getting away from me.
She’s watching me closely. When I look at her, I have to look at her directly. Focus on her deep brown eyes. I’m sitting facing the back of the train, and I either have to look out of the window at the rush of motion, or at the more stable world here inside. Trying to take in both at once creates an illusion of the world collapsing away behind her, and makes me nauseous.
“So you really didn’t know about him?” She asks, an eyebrow raised. “Not a clue?”
Straight brown hair frames her long, slender face. A Modigliani smiling often and easy. She’s close to my age, but at rest she looks years younger, her features smooth with calm. It isn’t until she frowns or smiles that you see traces of lines, and we’re contemporaries. And when she talks, to me or her daughter, she seems older than I. Because basically I’m pushing thirty and still a dumb kid, and she’s smarter than I am.
Her daughter has burned herself out on colouring books, which are still scattered across the table between us. She’s deep asleep, one tiny arm out across the crayons, another under her face, a pillow. She has beautiful, white-gold hair, that wisps insubstantial as her mother strokes it gently.
Her voice is as gentle with me, but I already know that there is a fierce edge to her. She has been as comfortable with searching questions as she has chat and laughter over the last two hours, and she hasn’t let me off lightly when I’ve tried to give her half-arsed answers. It has been a workout. This woman that I met on a train has shown more interest and given me more grief for the directionless mess that my life is than any of my friends or colleagues. It’s a new feeling. It reminds me strangely of possibilities that I’d forgotten.
But the journey I’m on may have something to do with that, too.
“I sincerely didn’t have a clue. She and I were dating when we were at Uni up there, but, y’know…” I glance at the girl. She is snoring the sighing little girl snores of the deep asleep. I lower my voice anyway. “We were always careful.”
“And you haven’t heard from her all this time?” She asks, gentle suspicion in her voice, because that’s how smart women ask questions of hapless men.
“She split with me a month or so before the end of the course, and started ducking my calls. I was devastated.” I look at her, ignore the vertigo, and try a smile. “Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been obsessing about it the whole time since, but at the time it definitely felt like my future cracked in half. I thought we loved each other.”
She doesn’t say anything. Her right hand worries at root of her naked ring finger on her left, though. She does it every now and then. It’s the only sign she gives that she isn’t invincible.
“So now you’ve got a son.”
“Yeah. I…” I look out the window again, raise my phone, take a picture. “…I’m not sure what I have, actually. Her mum didn’t say much on the phone. I don’t think she wanted to call me, to be honest. But… I have something that I didn’t have before.”
“That you didn’t know you had before.”
“Sure. But that something might be nothing. I’m not sure how it works. I’m not sure what the kid will want, or what I want, or whether I’d even be allowed to bring him back with me.”
“You’ll be fine.” She says, in such a way that I know I’m meant to look at her, and I do. She looks straight in my eyes for the whole time. “You’ll be great. You’re only half the mess that you think you are.”
And for a minute I believe her. I grin, as I remember the first half of the journey. How easy it was, before we hit the midway point on the trip from South to North. How quickly her daughter and I had made friends, and how on top of things I felt. But then it melts away from me.
“Look, we’re probably only going to be up there for a couple of days ourselves, but we’re staying with Abby’s grandparents.” She writes something on the corner of a discarded colouring experiment, rips it, and hands it to me. It’s her phone number. “Give us a bit of warning, and we can ride back together if you like. It’s a long trip.” She grins at my expression, even though I’ve no idea what it is. “Nothing funny. But one way and another, you’ll probably welcome the company or support, and Abby likes you. And it’s no hassle.”
“I… may do that.” I say, but now I know there’s a grin on my face. I look out of the window, and take another picture.
“Why do you keep taking photos?” She asks.
“It’ll sound mental.”
“Well, after two years of hiding from men, I just gave a bloke I don’t know from Adam my phone number. So let’s not make judgments about mental, okay?”
“I’m very confused right now. About where I am.” I say. “I’m hoping that if I get truly lost, the photos will help me work out where I’ve been. How I got here.”
“They’ll just be a blur.”
“I’m hoping. I don’t expect it to work.”
We sit in silence for a bit. Soon, a mechanical voice announces that it’s nearly time to get to where we’re going. The carriage shifts and shuffles as one.
“When you see him, you’ll know how you got there.” She says, her hand on her daughter’s forehead.
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