The Last Train
Graham disliked having to catch the last train home. It always seemed to have accumulated all the debris of the day – slimy, polystyrene coffee cups strewn over the floor; the smell of stale alcohol on the breath of late night drinkers; the young women chewing gum and talking too loudly. Thankfully he didn’t often have to catch it. It was just that tonight both his bosses had been abroad and it was left to him to entertain the delegation from Birmingham. But he had survived the cheery jokes and conversation neither of which were his strongest points. He had even managed ordering the wine, far more expensive than the brands he usually bought. And now he had seen them off to their hotel and was settling into his window seat telephoning his wife,
‘Hi. I’m on the train. Back in just over an hour. Everything alright?’
‘Fine. I bought Sam a new pair of wellingtons. He insisted on Postman Pat ones and loves them. Had a hard job persuading him to take them off before going to bed. Izzie is very scathing. Says they’re so uncool.’
‘Oh,’ she went on, ‘and I remembered to take your jacket to the cleaners.’
‘Thanks. It’s late. You must be tired.’
‘I am, I think I’m off to bed right now.’
‘You do that. I’ll be with you soon.’
He felt warmth spread inside him like he usually did when he spoke to Catherine, and also that slight sense of surprise that somehow he had managed to ease so comfortably into middle age. Of course he was lucky. Catherine was an admirable combination of efficiency and understanding. His job was secure and his income adequate to pay the mortgage on their three bedroom semi. The children were still at primary school and had not yet reached the stage of teenage defiance. Graham stretched out his legs and closed his eyes, glad that the day was nearly over and that he would soon be home.
‘Sorry. Do you think you could...’
He opened his eyes. A young man with a guitar case was trying to manipulate himself into the seat opposite.
‘My fault,’ Graham apologised, quickly pulling back his feet.
Graham glanced across at him. He looked about twenty and was wearing the standard worn jeans, hooded jacket and thick, laced boots of those who were travelling to Brighton at the end of the line. But there was something different about him too. He had very wide apart grey eyes half hidden by a tangle of dark, curly hair – the kind of eyes that were not afraid to look straight at you. It was an open, warm face; a face that spoke of a more expansive life. He reminded Graham of someone but he couldn’t quite recall who.
Graham was usually shy about talking to strangers and regarded those people who entered into conversations with anyone who happened to be sitting near them with a mixture of envy and distaste. But there was something about the straight gaze of this young man which invited you to find out more about him.
‘You play?’, he asked, indicating the guitar case.
‘Yeah, in a band in London. We do a pub gig every Wednesday. I play lead guitar.’
Uncertain of quite what to say to a lead guitarist Graham went on slightly awkwardly, ‘What’s the name of your band? My elder child’s just getting into music. She might have heard of you.’
‘Doubt it, we’re not that well known. But,’ he shot out a smile, ‘maybe we will be one day. The band’s called Edge. My name’s Frank Danchesky. I know’, he added apologetically, ‘a weird name. It’s my mum’s. She insisted I use it rather than my dad’s. Said it was more unusual. She plays the saxophone.’
‘Myra Danchesky,’ Graham breathed.
‘Yeah. How did you know?’
Graham breathed deeply, and looked down at his hands which he had suddenly clasped very tightly together.
‘Oh, maybe I heard it somewhere.’
‘Maybe; but she hasn’t played in public for years. She should though. She’s good.’
Myra Danchesky. It must have been twenty years ago. Graham’s youth had been singularly unremarkable. During his twenties, living in London, youth had seemed like a party going on in a street which he couldn’t find. Except for that brief time with Myra Danchesky. He’d met her when some friends had persuaded him to go out for a drink. It was a suddenly warm, early summer evening; one of those evenings when London miraculously unfolds and people linger in the streets not wanting to go inside. She had been playing the saxophone in the pub, its haunting notes escaping through the open door. She had the same wild curls, grey eyes and open face of the boy sitting opposite him. Like him she had the look of someone who belonged elsewhere – somewhere exotic. He had never known why she had come up to their group afterwards and started talking to him; but she had.
‘Like to go for a drink?’ she had said in a low voice, a voice which, like her playing of the saxophone, had the effect of drawing you into its own world, ‘not here though. Somewhere quiet.’
And without any of his usual caution he had gone. For two weeks they had met most nights. For two weeks he had been transported from his mundane life and spent evenings in her East End flat with its kitchen filled with foods he had never bought – mung beans, Cambodian coffee, green tea. For two weeks he had slept in her bed with its scarlet and black Peruvian cover and its silk hangings from Thailand on the walls. He knew he was only an interim lover. She had as good as told him that she had fallen out with her regular boyfriend. He knew she would go back to him; and after two weeks she did. She had kissed him gently, thanked him, and, not feeling the need to apologise, told him she would not be seeing him again. In some ways he hadn’t minded. In some ways it was a relief to slip back unobtrusively into his own existence.
Twenty years ago. He looked across again at the young man,
‘How old are you?’
‘Twenty last week.’
Unbidden calculations sped through Graham’s mind. Now was February. It was May when he had met Myra. He could smell the freshness as they walked in Victoria Park. He remembered her saying how she loved this time of year when every leaf was a different green before late summer when they all merged into one colour. She had made him notice things like that. Unable to quell his probing he said, trying to sound casual,
‘Any brothers or sisters?’
‘What is this, an interrogation?’ said Frank, but he said it easily, un-offended,
‘No,’ he went on, ‘My mum and dad never had any more. I used to sometimes miss that when I was young, but now’, he shrugged, ‘it’s cool.’
‘What are your plans?’ Graham realised how unbearably middle aged and middle class he sounded but Frank didn’t seem concerned,
‘To travel. To play – there’s so much to do; a whole world out there waiting.’
Graham felt flooded by the appetite for life he had felt in Myra.
A young woman walked down the aisle, fake leopard skin jacket over her black leggings, bright pink Mohican hair accentuating her striking face and dark eyes.
She sat down next to him,
‘You been playing?’
‘Yeah, Moonlight in Camden.’
They spoke in a shorthand which Graham scarcely understood. He saw them catch each other’s smile and felt a sudden surge of anger at this pink haired girl who had taken Frank Danchesky away from him. He had no part in their conversation. Why should he? To Frank he was simply the man who had moved his feet so that he could sit down. They had no idea that he was the man who had been so moved by Frank Danchesky’s mother that he had made the one irrational decision of his life. He realised he was staring at them and, embarrassed, he turned away and watched them instead in the reflection of the blackened train window mesmerised by the boy who looked so like his mother, transported back to two weeks twenty years ago.
‘The next station is Redhill.’
Startled Graham looked up; he fumbled for his brief case.
‘My station. Goodbye. Good luck.’
Frank looked straight at him and flashed one more smile,
As he moved towards the door he heard Gems say,
‘Do you know him?’
‘No, just the guy who was sitting opposite me. He’d heard of my mother though.’
Graham walked out of the station and along the freezing small streets. Contradictions jarred against each other in his head. A strange glow had entered him – almost like being in love. Could that beautiful boy actually be his son? Angry at his lack of control over his thoughts he tried to get the image of Frank out of his head but couldn’t. Turning left and passing the parade of shops near his home he noticed a display of Postman Pat wellingtons in the small shoe shop. Jolted back to the phone call with Catherine and the image of Sam not wanting to remove his new boots he realised that, although the encounter on the train seemed to have changed everything, it could not, it must not, change anything. He turned into his street with its neat front gardens and carefully polished row of cars. Did she live in a street like this? He doubted it. Would her son go on his travels? Probably, but Graham would never know. This chance meeting on the train must stay hidden in the place where he had so long ago hidden his two weeks with Myra Danchesky. He reached his front door, found his key, and, very quietly so as not to wake his wife and children, let himself in.