Edgar ground his shoulders into the train seat and scowled.
There was insufficient leg-room and the arm-rest was at the wrong level, but he could have put up with that. It was the stifling heat of the carriage which really got to him. It was a complete waste of money. No wonder tickets were so expensive. They had been waiting on the cold platform in the rain for ages, so every single passenger was steaming and somehow smelt of old dog. Edgar wondered if compensation was due for the delay. It lifted his spirits to think so.
Across the aisle, a damp youth was dozing, his knees splayed, an irritating beat coming from his earphones and a slight dribble trickling through his stubble. He looked wet in more senses than one.
Edgar thought of his employee Bob. They had left the office together when the cleaner, another person without commitment, had threatened to resign if she had to work another evening beyond her contracted offices and on Christmas Eve too.
Last seen, Bob had been on the bus-stop, sodden. His cheap umbrella was being turned inside out by the wind and ripped from its spokes. Struggling with it, he had stared up into the rain, his mouth downturned and his eyes half-closed. He and Edgar had worked through lunch and now the shops were shut. Edgar had caught him making a call in office hours earlier: ‘yes, I promise, I won’t be late.’ Judging by the bus which was driving through puddles towards him, crammed to the point of bulging, the promise would be broken.
Well, it was nothing to do with Edgar. Just as he thought he might have space to stretch out his legs, a small boy and his mother appeared. There were only two seats left, one on either side of the aisle. If Edgar moved, they could sit together. On the other hand, he would then be next to the damp youth with thumping ear-phones. Edgar averted his eyes and stayed put. As the train pulled off, he felt someone prodding him and turned to find the small boy next to him, grinning and pushing some scribble under his nose.
‘Look at my train!’ said the boy.
Adjusting his glasses, Edgar glared first at the child and then at the paper. There was something like a wobbly rectangle with smiling faces on the side, several misshapen circles and clouds of what was presumably smoke billowing from a red shape which defied geometric description.
‘Do you like it?’ said the boy.
’Those wheels would cause a serious derailment and steam trains stopped running before I was your age except for special trips,’ said Edgar, turning to glare out at the sodden landscape beyond the smeared window. Something vibrated in the case he held clasped to his chest and he rummaged inside until he found a mobile phone. He stared at it in confusion.
The name Madeleine was displayed above a picture of a pretty young woman.
‘Swipe the green thing,’ said the boy, reaching over and doing it before Edgar could stop him.
Edgar remembered. When his plan to work late had been thwarted by the cleaner, Bob had rushed off without a backward glance and Edgar had swept everything left on the table into his case in disgust. It must have included Bob’s mobile.
The little boy’s mother leaned across to her son and said ‘are you all right darling? Do you want a cuddle?’
‘Who’s that Bob?’ said the phone. Then the battery died.
‘Train!’ said the boy, shoving a scribbled his drawing of shapes and billowing smoke back under Edgar’s nose.
‘I told you: trains don’t run on steam anymore,’ said Edgar and turning from the child, settled down to doze.
He awoke, startled to find the carriage very different. Two banks of seats faced each other with a corridor to the side. A different small boy was jiggling as his mother pulled down the window, letting in cold air and smuts.
‘Happy, weren’t you? Knew how to appreciate the small things in life.’
Edgar turned to find an old man next to him. Edgar looked closer at the child who wore a badly created sweater with a train on the front. He remembered his mother with her knitting needles, tongue stuck out, dropping stitches and tangling colours with more love than skill. He stared at the woman who had been more beautiful even than he remembered. His vision blurred.
When it cleared, the train was different. He and the old man sat at a table. Across it, a girl had her curly head on a boy’s shoulder, pointing at an article.
‘Just a year, Ed, travelling the world. Let’s do it!’
‘Not now,’ the boy replied, ‘I want to get money in the bank first. Buy a house. I’m not wasting time now.’
He hunched the girl’s head away.
‘All change,’ said the old man.
Edgar opened his eyes, feeling disturbed. He’d dreamed of his mother, who’d died when he was in his teens and of his one time girlfriend Jennie, last seen dwarfed by a backpack at Dover, heading out to have adventures alone.
The little boy and old steam train had gone. Now a young woman sat next to him. Across the aisle, a large man pointed at the young woman. Tears were running down her face and she bit her lip, looked at the suitcase in the rack above, then dialled on her mobile. The name Bob appeared and then cut out. Edgar looked closer at the woman and remembered the image of Madeleine on Bob’s phone. He started to speak.
‘Don’t bother,’ said the large man, ‘you’re not really on the same train.’
Edgar gawped. What could he mean? He turned to look out of the window but it was too dark to tell where he was. When he turned back, the young woman had been replaced by one in her fifties, who was looking at a website on a tablet. On her lap was a tatty, discoloured photograph of a young man hugging a curly haired girl. On the tablet’s screen was Edgar on his company website, scowling. The woman sighed. She turned the screen of her tablet off, tucked a stray curl behind her ears and the photograph into her bag, and muttered to herself, ‘don’t be silly.’
‘All change,’ said the large man.
Edgar woke. Now he’d had dreams within dreams. It was so disconcerting.
He hoped he hadn’t slept through his stop. Blinking, he looked out of the window and recognised nothing, because it was a blur.
The train was unlike anything he’d seen outside a science-fiction film. The passengers around him were arranged in rows watching holographic Christmas movies or making holographic video calls. A few, festooned with tinsel, were snoring. Next to Edgar was a person bundled in a cloak, face and hands invisible.
Nearby, an old lady sat, rearranging white curls. She was talking to a middle-aged man but the man wasn’t paying attention, he was too busy talking via a headset to a hologram of another man who was waving his arms.
The old lady was saying ‘I wanted to make up with him, but I can’t track him down. Do you know anyone who could help? I used to try every year, but never had the courage to do anything. I’d like to see him before it’s too late. If it’s not already too late…’
The middle-aged man ignored her, snapping at the hologram. ‘He left the company to me, not himself. I’m not responsible for his ashes…. we were not related. I really don’t care what you do with the them, Mr Murgatroyd. Goodbye.’
Edgar stared. ‘That’s Bob!’ He said. Gone was Bob’s cheerful face. It had been replaced with one like that in Edgar’s mirror: cold, empty. The bundled figure nodded.
‘But whose ashes is he talking about?’
The bundled figure moved and a skeletal hand pointed at the fading hologram. Mr Murgatroyd was holding an urn with the name…
‘Me?’ said Edgar.
Edgar woke with a jolt. The original small boy was beside him, lip wobbling, looking at his crumpled drawing.
Edgar took a breath, ‘I’m sorry, son, that all came out wrong, it’s a lovely picture. I went on a special train like that when I was your age. I remember it looking just the same.’
The child’s mother smiled. She nodded at the phone. ‘Is the battery flat? I’ve got an emergency charger here.’
After a few seconds, Edgar dialled Madeleine.
‘Bob left his phone behind. I’m his boss… yes, er, yes, I’m the one who makes him work late all the time… anyway, don’t dial off, he’s on his way. And tell him… he can have an extra few days off. And ..er.. his bonus is overdue. For the last … er… five years. Happy…er…Christmas.’
He handed back the charger. At the next stop, the mother and little boy left. The passengers started to thin out and Edgar started to stretch, looking forward to some leg room and then someone else sat next to him.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that it was a woman his own age, taking a faded photograph out of a bag and opening a search-engine on her tablet. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear…
Edgar reached over and shielded the screen.
‘Stop searching Jennie,’ he said, ‘here I am. I’m sorry for everything. Happy Christmas.’
Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
(Photograph taken in the Apple Market at Covent Garden, London.)