As I stand at the platform edge, reflecting on the night’s events, I am struck by a wave of despair, or perhaps it is simply a wave of grit-filled wind battering against my face, which still wears a paralysed veil of shock. Perhaps both. How could I have done this? I think to myself in a damning and entirely irrelevant tone. What’s done is done and we must move on. I quickly silence this voice with a harsh twist of my neck, turning my face again into the chilling onslaught: I deserve to feel like this. This is my penitence and this is just. I wasn’t ready for what he wanted; it was only natural that I should-
My thoughts are interrupted by the passing of a high-speed train. I stagger back, without grace, buffeted by the shockwaves running smoothly off the sides of the sleek carriages. The next train is the 22:43 to London Waterloo. The woman’s voice is robotic, as if spoken through a tin can; it soothes my self-imposed temper. I don’t deserve to be soothed and it only makes me angrier with myself.
He wasn’t even worth it and you know it – you knew it all along. When did it even start? What in the world made you think it was a good idea? I chastise myself: stop wallowing, you aren’t a beast. Perhaps I am a beast; he cared for me and I shattered him. Like glass, or maybe like a snowflake, I have damaged him maybe irrevocably. No, I flatter myself – he’ll bounce back from this, I know he will.
My ears ring with the grating sound of metal scraping against metal as the 22:43 to London Waterloo pulls slowly towards me. I tighten my scarf around my neck, watching the breath billow away from me like an icy cloud rising to take its place among its peers in the dark, covered sky before dissipating pathetically in the cold night air, like a bizarre performance of dashed hope. The cloud of breath remains more permanently on the glass before me as I reach towards the door handle. I find myself wishing I had bought that celebrity autobiography I was mocking mere hours ago as I take a seat, considering with some trepidation the hours of miserable contemplation ahead of me. The train is not yet busy and I take my place in an almost empty carriage, beside a window which divides me from the globules of rain, dripping like treacle down the glass, joining the encroaching frame of ice. I twist my neck subtly around, eager to familiarise myself with the other worshippers, dotted sporadically among the garish pews. An old character, with his hat resting lazily over his eyes breathes heavily into a multi-coloured Dr Who style scarf. A young woman stands, passing Tom Baker on her solemn walk to relieve herself at the front of the carriage: the altar. My eyes meet hers momentarily, discomfort flowing freely from both directions, before desperately finding something else of interest to look at. Mine land upon a boy, no more than sixteen, with his head heavy upon the shoulder of what I can only assume is his girlfriend, she with her nose planted firmly within the pages of a trashy celebrity autobiography, the very same one which I should have bought. Her eyes, too, are closed. Perhaps the book is not so enthralling after all.
A gruff voice calls from the open doorway at the rear of the carriage in a broad Yorkshire accent. I think he wants to see my ticket. He turns first to Mr Baker, who awakes with a start, his face flashing with impotent rage at the rude interruption to his dreams. He fumbles in his pocket, looking for the seemingly elusive card which allowed him to board the train, his glasses somewhat awry. The gruff inspector continues up the carriage, rounding upon what I had previously thought to be an empty seat. A small face pops up, hair dishevelled on one side, cheek red from leaning on the window. She hands the Yorkshire-man her ticket and he moves gradually towards me. As he comes closer, I notice the slight bulge in the bridge of his nose. He looks remarkably like the man I’m running from, if a little larger, and redder in the face. I pass him my ticket with all the airs and graces of royalty and he snatches it with his dirty fingernails. He grunts his approval and trudges off towards the sleeping couple. The next stop is in 15 minutes. The tinny voice this time grates, rather than soothes, and I turn my gaze down to my hands in a fit of self-loathing. My fingernails aren’t exactly pristine.
I’m so intent on removing the grit from under my nails that I completely fail to notice the voice floating softly into my left ear. The voice sounds again, this time a little louder, and I jerk my head to the side, eager to know who has invaded my ritual cleaning. To my surprise, the carriage is full. I apologise to the figure standing expectantly above me, and ask him to repeat his request. He wants to know if the seat next to me is taken. No it isn’t, please do sit, let me just put my bag in the overhead storage. No, no, allow me. He lifts my bag slowly above his head and squeezes it with no small effort onto the compact shelf. He takes his seat beside me and I shuffle slightly away to avoid any unwanted contact between strangers.
We sit for a number of stops in absolute silence, until eventually the Yorkshire-man returns, followed shortly by a small round figure with a mousy face pulling a trolley behind her. The supply trolley is laden with overpriced snacks and drinks to relieve the weary travellers, which shake precariously as the cart passes between the rows of seats. The mouse calls out above the low din of the passengers, asking which of us requires refreshment. I dutifully shake my head as she looks towards me, but my companion, breaking his reverent silence, asks the mouse for two bottles of water, offering one to me. I politely refuse but it seems the man is quite insistent as he hands the bottle to me regardless. The mouse moves away, and the ice is broken. My companion’s name appears to be Jack, and I notice the harsh edges of his strong, almost clean-shaven jaw moving with an unexpected fluidity as he asks me what it is that I do. My small talk is good, but my mouth is on autopilot – I am merely repeating a conversation I have had hundreds of times before, and my mind wanders disobediently back to places I had hoped to escape, at least just for tonight. The face I see before me does not have a strong, angular jaw, and it does not wear a visage of polite curiosity; there is a slight bulge in the bridge of its nose, and its outfit is darker, a gloomy grey; betrayed. It feels no remorse watching my back getting smaller and smaller before I disappear entirely into the black night, it only wonders what it has done wrong. Yet as I look again it is not gloomy, merely confused. There is no bulge in its nose and its strong jaw is set in a look of concern as it asks me again if something is wrong. He doesn’t mean to pry, but he’s been told he’s a good listener. I merely tell him that I’ve made a mistake and he is momentarily silenced. I don’t want to talk about it; he understands. I can tell from the faint shadow of a consoling smile which plays briefly across his lips that he understands.
He asks me instead whether or not I like theatre. I like theatre very much, but I haven’t been in a number of months because, and here I stop. He never liked the theatre; he would turn his bulging nose up at anything of that sort. He hated in, particular, actors; too fake. Jack knew he recognised me from somewhere – he looks at me again, his gaze intense, his head sitting at an angle – his face brightens considerably as he discovers the memory he is searching for. He recognises me from my brief role in a small, poorly attended art house production not quite on the West End which ran for no more than two weeks. He praises me for talents I certainly never possessed and I accept his praise graciously, not wishing to offend his taste with my self-esteem issues. He wonders why he hasn’t seen me in any plays recently, he attends the theatre often, you see. I dangle for him some thread suggesting that I don’t have enough time anymore and acting is only a hobby, keeping my true cards tight to my chest. His sharp jaw turns away from me, affording a view of his carefully constructed hair – an organised mess – as he suggests that perhaps I should return to acting. Perhaps I should, after all, I seem to be playing this role expertly. Or perhaps I am not, and the expert acting is being delivered by Jack. Perhaps he is method.
I have come to realise that is now my turn to churn some effort into this conversation. I quickly find, however, that it requires no effort at all; Jack is worryingly easy to talk to. We race through a multitude of topics, some personal, some not so, with no concern for using up too many and leaving ourselves with an uncomfortable silence. I feel at this moment like Jack and I could never be at a loss for topics of conversation. We discover that we have many things in common, despite a number of necessary discrepancies in taste. I like salmon, he likes Harrison Ford. He dislikes Chopin, I dislike cats. Great friends must disagree in some respects, else what is there to discuss? I decide that Jack and I could become great friends, perhaps more, but he makes no move to acquire my number as he informs me he must get off at this stop. He hopes he will see me on the stage again soon and he is gone.
I sit for a few minutes in shocked silence. I had failed completely to notice how attached to Jack I had become over the space of a short train journey, and suddenly he is no longer there, providing a distraction. But my stop is next and a friend is waiting already at the station. I lift my eyes from my lap, subtly studying once again the congregation. The carriage is still busier than it had originally been, but my attention is drawn to a select few characters. The small woman with dishevelled hair and a red cheek must have left our number a few stops back, converting perhaps to another train. Perhaps she was excommunicated. Tom Baker is sleeping once again, the lower half of his face hidden by the rainbow-coloured scarf, the top half by the low brim of his hat. My eyes flit across the heads of unknown players in this scene before meeting those of the young woman, seated a way behind Dr Who; I experience a familiar discomfort as I rush my gaze onto the couple of youths, her still sleeping, he lazily watching high-rises pass gradually by the window as our church nears its final destination. We five remain, the original worshippers; our prayer briefly disrupted by Jack, the beautiful heathen. He was but a moment and our vigil continues, our lives blundering on in blind solitude, a community of silent individuals. However, one of us will leave this place changed, just a little – I no longer believe in loneliness.
The cold night air startles me as it rushes in through the opening door. My foot reaches carefully out into the dark, finding its way safely onto the platform below. I turn my face upwards and take a long, slow breath, the fresh air quenching like a thick cold liquid on a hot summer’s day. In the sparse crowd outside the barriers there is a tall figure waving in my direction; my best and most loyal friend Jill, come to take me home. For this is home. Here among people who truly love me, people whom I could never betray, people who, no matter what, will never judge me. I pass through the barriers and break into an excitable trot, almost knocking Tom Baker flying. He lets out a disgruntled whinny as I beat him to the final gate, flinging my arms out, willing Jill to catch me. Her face breaks into a childlike grin as she follows suit, her arms wide, her legs flying. We meet in the middle, beside a garish poster advertising a dull celebrity autobiography, and we are happy. I open my mouth, preparing to thank her, to apologise to her, to explain to her, but she throws me a homely look which silences me. She knows, she understands, she forgives. The corners of my mouth turn skywards, my lips forming a grateful smile as hers part to speak: