Branch Lines

That winter was the coldest on record.

Every morning, we shuffled like cattle on the station platform, our breath vaporising. Each of us hunched in silence as our mobile screens studded the gloom until the train arrived. Sometimes an old lady was already on board, sitting with pursed lips, clasping her handbag. She glared out of the window, come rain or gloom, in cold disapproval. Looking at my own reflection, I practised my smile and lifted my eyebrows. At least she didn’t talk. I dozed until London.

One Monday in December, the wrong kind of snow meant we had to change trains. At some backcountry station, I climbed directly into a ancient carriage dragged from old rolling-stock. Two banks of high backed seats faced each other and on the other side, a corridor led to other carriages.

There was another girl inside. She was a little younger than me, wearing a tweed skirt, red coat and low heeled lace-ups. Curls and a brown trilby framed her face. She had a sort of uniqueness that I envied, sitting opposite in my anonymous corporate clothes. Fiddling with a bracelet, she turned to the door.

Outside, the whistle blew and the girl tensed. With a clatter, the outer door opened and a young soldier collapsed onto the seat.

He held her face and kissed her. Discretely, she nodded towards me.

‘Sorry miss’, he said, lighting a cigarette and removing his cap. The girl glanced at it, her face dimmed, her smile uncurved. Muttering excuses about leaving them in peace, I made my way to another carriage. A few stations later, we changed back to a modern train.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the train switched twice at the same out of the way stations. I rode alone, watching the dark approaching fingers of midwinter outside.

On Thursday, the girl got into my carriage again. Her smile was hesitant as she faced the door, touching her hair and pinching her cheeks. But the train pulled off and no-one else entered the carriage. She wilted then slumped. Her shoulders moved but her jaw tightened and her hands only unclenched her bag for the seconds it took to find a handkerchief and dab at tears. She was still trembling as we climbed down onto the platform but she held her breath, gritting her teeth to keep from making a noise. Before I could speak, she marched into the snowy gloom. I was standing unnerved, feeling I could be anywhere or nowhere, when the curtain of whirling white parted and the soldier grabbed my arm.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I thought you were… Look, if you see her, can you give her this?’ He thrust a letter into my hand and stepped away. When the station became visible again, there was just me and a few other commuters on the platform herding towards the onward train.

I pushed the envelope into my bag. I would give it to the girl tomorrow.

On Friday, everything was running normally: no more corridor trains, just modern ones with no-smoking signs, wifi and refreshments. I rushed from station to underground to office, somehow still late.

Christmas was nearly upon us, but although we exchanged cards with scenes of snow and ice, in reality, all we had was rain. A slow grey muddy drag towards the festive season began. Memories of young lovers and old fashioned carriages thawed and melted away.

One morning, the grumpy old lady joined me.

As we went through a tunnel, I saw in the window reflections that she was staring at me.
‘I recognise you,’ said the old lady, easing off her gloves and tutting as the threads of one caught on her bracelet.

‘I often catch this train,’ I said.

‘No, that’s not it.’ Her lips pursed, her brows crunched together.

She looked down at my phone’s screensaver.

‘Your young man?’

I nodded.

‘I hope he’s not the sort to leave and not say goodbye. Not the sort who’d never come back because of a row.’

She stared at the tracks outside, branched at the points, disappearing around embankments.

‘They said the war was nearly over. Why did they need him to fight?’ she murmured.

Her eyes scanned my face. ‘Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great grandmother or something.’ The old lady was silent for the remainder of the journey.

A few days before Christmas, the temperature dropped. First frost, then snow. Just enough snow to bring back old fashioned trains. I could live with it. In the New Year, I would be starting a new job nearer home.

At the backcountry station, the girl sat down opposite and glared. In two months, lines had become etched between her brows. She clasped her bag as if daring me to take it. I glanced at the door but she snapped: ‘They’ve shipped out. He left and never said goodbye.’

At that moment, I thought my phone vibrated and rummaging in my bag, felt a crushed letter. The girl, glaring at the aimless snowflakes, had loosened her grip on her own bag. As I hesitated, the train lurched and … a ration book fell out. My face went cold, then hot. As she leant forward, I caught her arm.

‘This is yours,’ I said, handing her the letter, ‘he gave it to me a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see you again. I hope…’

There was a clunk under the carriage and a pause. As she took the letter, the train changed direction. The girl opened the envelope and when we stopped, I climbed out onto a different station altogether. But the girl stayed reading the letter, her hands trembling.

That was the last of the old carriage journeys. On my last commute to London, an old couple sat opposite me. He held her face in his hands and kissed her before grinning at me and lifting his cap.

The old lady was the one I’d met before, only she wasn’t grumpy. The lines on her face were soft, her mouth ready to laugh.

After a while, her husband dozing, the old lady said, ‘I recognise you.’

‘I’m often on this train.’

‘No, that’s not it. Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great-grandmother or something.’

She took me in, my hair, my face, my corporate clothes, my bag, my mobile.

‘Your young man?’ she asked, nodding towards my screen saver.

I nodded.

‘Terrible winter,’ said her husband, waking up, ‘Like when we met, isn’t it dear? Teenagers, right at the end of the war. Fell in love on this train journey, then fell out, nearly finished, but somehow it came right in the end. Terrible winter, like being in a dream. Felt like anything could happen. Felt like life could have taken one wrong turn and ruined everything.’ He looked at me a bit closer, his faded eyes twinkling through the glasses, ‘were you once our postwoman?’

I shook my head.

‘Funny. I look at you and think of letters. Can’t imagine why.’

I caught the old lady’s eyes.

‘Not a postwoman,’ she said, ‘just an angel passing through. Keeping things on track.’

And she put her hand in his, put her head on his shoulder and winked.

branch lines

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Flight

Tori couldn’t relax. As the sun started to fill the fields, she could make out hares and deer foraging in the sepia dawn but they didn’t delight her. Even as she headed north, she remained tense and alert, staring out of the window at the scenery, the towns, the stations – looking, looking to see if someone was staring back.

Then she saw the sheep. They were slowly moving together in a wide valley which led down to the river as it ran alongside the railway. The flock was not bunched up or spread out. They were head down, nibbling at the dew soaked grass but they were moving in formation. Tori sat forward as far as she could and tried to keep watching them before the train passed. She quickly looked round to see if any of the other passengers had noticed but they were oblivious: asleep, reading, playing on tablets and phones. But the sheep nonchalantly continued, formed into an arrow pointing south, back down the line. And then they were gone.

Tori tried to look back but it was impossible. The next station came and the next and another long piece of countryside. She checked her timetable. The train was running behind.

“Look at that” said the man opposite it, roused out of his sleep as his neighbour shifted in his seat, “that means bad weather coming, that does.”
Tori looked where he was pointing. She realised the field was full of sea gulls and they were…

The man’s neighbour looked out, “it’s not so far from the estuary though is it?”

“Far enough mate, they only come inland when there’s something brewing.”

Was Tori the only one that could see the gulls, settling and flying up, forming themselves over and over into an arrow all facing south, all flying up and settling down further down the line? And then they were gone. Tori shook herself. It had been too early a start. She was too apprehensive. She needed to calm down or he…

An announcement reminding the passengers that the train would not stop at the next station. The pace continued, sped up perhaps. Tori imagined the passengers standing on the platform, stepping back to avoid the suction of the passing train and then she saw them – a whole row of passengers, shoulder to shoulder, staring at her and pointing south – all of them pointing south. And then they were gone.

She looked at the man opposite but he’d fallen asleep again. She had to change trains at the city. For the first time, she hesitated. Searching for her platform, she saw the one which would take her home and paused, not sure which was more terrifying the returning or the continuing; then she found her onward train and climbed aboard.

There were no more strange sights. She tried to relax but the closer she got to her destination, the closer she gripped her bag, the more she clenched her teeth. Finally she arrived and alighted. Among the people rushing about, there was no-one waiting for her, no-one paying her attention. Perhaps he was on the other side of the barrier, out of sight. She stood still while the train pulled away and another came in and then she started for the exit.

Tori bumped into a guard. Or he bumped into her. He suddenly put his face very close to hers and spoke very deep and very urgently. “Go back” he said, “you can get on the train behind you. It’s going back. Make something up if they ask about the ticket, but go back.” And then he was gone.

Copyright 2015 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permissionflight_edited-1