If the train hadn’t stopped again I think I would have thrown myself off it anyway. Bradley across the table now strewn with empty crisp packets, biscuit packets, pork pie wrappers, beer cans and whisky miniatures had appeared from the fog of his salivating slumber to continue his diatribe against Virgin Trains.
“Know why they call them Virgin?” he slobbered. “Cos they never go all the way.” Bradley gurgled wetly; the other few passengers sank stiffer and deeper into their last resources of patience.
His fat bloated fingers combed the table for crumbs, Giving up he tapped them loudly. The stationery train clicked. Rain splattered the windows. Bradley belched and amplified his finger drumming. “Oh bugger me!” he barked. Then “Not you, son” to the unfortunate young guy from over the aisle who made the mistake of looking in his direction. “You’re not my type. I prefer more experienced men like Jimbo here.” Between honking he announced to the air, “I fucking hate students.”
Four hours ago I had foolishly thought that I could survive two hours with Bradley travelling back from the conference. But the train had repeatedly stopped and started, crawled a few miles then stopped . Now it was stopped again, more than an hour late. A woman walked past and Bradley leaned over the table presumably in an attempt to whisper so that only the people in our carriage could hear:”Fucking hell. Did you see her. Imagine waking up to that. Ugly would be a fucking compliment.”
I pressed my forehead against the window as hard as I could trying to induce enough pain to stop me going berserk. Then through the rain streaming across the window I saw lit up the sign of the station. Lyme Cross. We must have been diverted, and now beyond a fluid blur of wet light and darkness I was looking onto the place where I’d grown up. This was the terminus for the local electric train and I almost sobbed with relief when I saw my chance. I told Bradley I could get home easier using the local train and persuaded the guard to let me off.
The rain was pelting down. I stood in the metal shelter and watched Bradley’s train move out. The local trains should have run every fifteen minutes but after half an hour no train had come. I went up the long ramp to the booking office, and the guy was just pulling down the shutters. “No more trains tonight,” he said. “Someone’s topped themselves on the line at Greaston.”
There was a payphone outside the station. Not working. Lyme Cross is not a good place to be if you want a black cab. In fact it’s not a good place to be full stop. I had no fond memories to keep me warm. I walked into the rain past the shuttered shops, around the corner, across the carpark and into the Lyme Cross Hotel.
It was the same dirty yellow light I rememembered. The same red wallpaper, stained and peeling, a bit like Stanley Newbold’s face, him sat there alone in the corner with a pint, a full ashtray and a lot of space to himself. The same Stanley Newbold that used to bully me and his mother and anything else that came his way, now a bloated bag of poison waiting to die. Poor sod.
I recognised some of the others but no one would recognise me. I was healthy and fit. I made my way down the corridor to find the phone working. I tried a few numbers for taxis but got the same answer. They were all busy picking people up from the cathedral, especially with the weather. There’d been the remains of a saint’s corpse brought there and thousands had gone for a butchers. Maybe an hour or so I’d have to wait.
I bought a large scotch and sat as far away from Newbold as I could. Then I bought another, and a pint, and a couple of packets of crisps. The bar was about half full but it felt nearly empty, like there was some great mental distance between the drinkers. Last time I was here, after my Mum died, Carol Hesketh was working behind the bar and I got to thinking about her.
She lived in the same street as me, across the main road from the pub. The last street in the city, at the other end of it was Lancashire. When we were growing up we were in the same gang that used to play on the fields and old farms before they built the motor factory and the new estate. One time, I’d just gone to secondary school and she was in last year juniors, we went down the Figure 8 pond and out on the raft. Then afterwards she let me kiss her and put my hand up her skirt.
We hung out together for about four years, usually with the gang or out with Robbie Wilcox and Carol’s best mate Lyn. Me and Carol found out about sex during that time without ‘doing it’ as she called what I wanted to do. We hung together quite close and had a laugh. Then almost overnight we separated from each other’s company. She left school soon as she could. I stayed at school and got out of Lyme Cross as soon as I could. Carol never left the estate and dissolved into it so that she joined others in seeing me as stuck up just because I’d left. Whenever I went to see Mum it was written on their faces, that contemptuous “You’re no better than us”, their way of implying “We’re better than you.” The drink was going to my heart. I was reliving it.
I got another double, still half an hour at least to wait. I stayed at the bar. Last time I was here I hadn’t recognised the woman who served me as Carol. The young electric tangle of limbs and laughs had become a dowdy fat woman, skin thickened and blotched, eyes sunk into some watery inner misery. She recognised me. We chatted, maybe ten minutes.
Ghosts of her young eyes and smiles flickered across her worn face. Beneath our stilted talk she was telling me without words of her dreadful sorrow and of the one wrong turning she took in her life. I’d been glad to get away from her, filled with an emotion heavier than my body could hold, and one which I still cannot name.
Remembering that night six years ago took me out of the pub. I huddled in a doorway as the rain sheeted across the glistening car park. Empty crisp packets and chip papers swirled at my feet like heavy falls of sorrow beginning to drift. I phoned the taxi firm and they said the cab was across the road outside the chip shop. I got to it as the driver was returning with a bag of chips.
We drove past the cathedral on the way into town. There was to be a late night mass to celebrate the blessed remains. The queue up the steps was a long snake of umbrellas. Somehow, probably the drink, I thought of Carol and the queue as being linked. And I don’t know who said it, it was someone famous, but a quotation came into my head: “Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery.”
A few months later, I heard that Carol had died. I went to the funeral. Some of the old gang were there and we crossed words, grunted monosyllables, dull and heavy. I went back to the pub. Stanley Newbold joined me like we were best mates. Said him and Carol had been an item.
An old woman came up and said she was Mrs Ginley. “Always knew you’d do well, Jimmy,” she said. “Decent of you to come. There’s many as would have turned their noses up. But you were always a nice lad. Good hearted. Like our Carol. She was a saint.”
“Aye,”she said. “A saint.”