A man in an anorak shuffles down the carriage. He sits heavily as if cut from a rope. A girl looks up, shifts and frowns into her book. He glances at her. His face looks shrunken, as though once bigger.
The train picks up speed, sways on the tracks. Stiffly, like a man with his neck in a cast, he turns to the girl and mutters,
‘Does this train go to Aberdeen?’
‘Aberdeen?’ the girl looks up from her book. Her skin flushes. ‘Yes it does.’ She moves closer to the window and continues to read.
‘Where are you getting off?
She glances up, ’Edinburgh,’ and carries on reading
‘Oh lovely. Is that where you’re from?’
She closes the book on her hand. ‘No I’m from Australia.’
‘Oh lovely. You’ll be exploring all the places then.’
‘Yeh,’ she frowns into her book. Her skin flares as though allergic to the questions.
‘Oh lovely.’ He strokes his knee under the table.
The train trundles on. He stares at the world slipping by the window, face blank as ply board. He pulls a leather bound book from the anorak, eyes unmoving. The book has “Holy Bible” printed in gold on the spine. His pale hand places it down. LOVE is tattooed, one blurred letter on each digit. Half his forefinger is gone, stumped at the end. He stares at the book cover.
The train glides into a red brick station. It steams and waits grumpily as passengers trail on. People hug on the platform, muffled in jackets and hats. Voices rise and swirl like ghosts of their creators. Electronic announcements boom steadily, seeping from the bricks.
A passenger with a boxer dog approaches the table opposite. He hustles the dog under the table.
‘Get under there boy,’ he says in a low voice as if not to embarrass the dog.
The dog circles urgently, wrapping the lead around its self before slumping on the floor.
More newcomers peer down the carriage in search of seats. Bags weigh down their arms. With them comes a chill that hasn’t yet died in the heat and stillness of indoors, the smell of dead leaves and a freshness carried in on the rosey tips of noses.
The owner of the dog is enormous. His upper arms are like two ham joints. A vest clings to his bulging chest. On one of his biceps are three scars in a row, as if a giant cat has attacked him. He sniffs and empties a shopping bag onto the table. Standing, he wolfs down a handful of crisps then zips his shoulder bag and pushes it onto the rack with one arm.
Bricks ease past the window. The engine moans, desperate to drag its trailing body into the open. The burly man does not sit. He takes an iPod from his trouser pocket. The headphones look like dental floss dangling from his hands. The dog noses a few circles under the table before sticking its head into the aisle.
‘Get your arse in there boy, get in there. Sit. Sit.’ He shunts the dog with his foot.
The dog looks up with drooping eye lids, circles a few times and lies down like a deflated balloon.
He munches and looks out of the window. Fields open up, divided by lines of poplar. Lonesome oaks are proud, earth worn underneath where animals have lain. Stubby cottages are peacefully resigned to their position.
On the table opposite, the man in the anorak turns halfway towards the Australian girl. His eyes stare out of the window as if he can’t turn his head enough to look at her. Her skin flares again.
‘Are you travelling all alone?’ He asks.
‘Oh……. I once travelled alone from Inverness to London. I had to go down for work ya see. A lot a my pals in Inverness were rough ya see. They didn’t work, they hung about doing heroin and lazing about. I didn’t want to sit around on the heroin so I took the train all the way down to London like.’
The girl doesn’t answer. He continues to gaze out of the window.
‘Of course there’s heroin in London too eh. But I’ve found God now.’ He takes a pen and places it on the bible. She looks at the finger. ‘Keeps me safe and away from the heroin.’ He sits upright as he talks, his tiny, melted head sticking out of the oversized collar.
‘It must be lonely being up here without family and friends,’ he says.
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘There must be times when you need company like, being up here alone with nobody to talk to.’
The pen rolls off the table. He bends down to pick it up. On his way up, his hand brushes past the girls knee. She freezes and stares at the table.
‘No, I’m fine thank you!’ She moves her knees up against the side of the train.
The burly man sits, facing the window with headphones in his ears. He lifts his heel to the music. Supermarket sandwiches and crisp packets are strewn on the table with a litre bottle of coke. He rolls his head to the beat, closely shaven neck stretching out.
His nose is wide and misshapen. His eyebrows are strong ridges. One is stained blue with a bruise that covers the lid and corner of his eye socket. Trees stand in the fields, skeletal with a few leaves dangling. He admires the green fields slipping past and sinks into a peaceful daze.
The hand with the stubbed finger rests on the bible. The girl is just out of his vision, huddled up against the window, her book pressed to her face. His dead stare cuts across. His eyes are glazed and don’t flicker or shift with the rushing landscape. They just stare, as if a fly could land on them and cause no disturbance.
The food trolley shudders down the carriage. The dog leaps up to the seat opposite the owner and collapses, eyebrows twitching.
‘Get your arse off that seat, get, get,’ he hisses. ‘Go on get down.’
The dog jumps down.
The huge man sits back in his seat, sniffing and breathing. He tears open a sandwich, tiny in his hands. Munching, he feeds a crust to his dog. It looks up at him, tail beating the floor.
The girl’s book covers her face.
‘You’ll have a time in Edinburgh. Good people in Edinburgh….My people are from Edinburgh. My family.’ The words creep from his mouth. Pale lips stretch across his face as if a surgeon has stuck them on. ‘Are you staying in a hostel?’
‘Yes. I’m staying in a hostel.’ She crosses her leg and lifts the book to her face, forehead a mess of wrinkles.
‘Aye, I’ve stayed in lots of hostels in Edinburgh. See my family were never always good to me. Especially my Ma like. Aye she was awful crude to me. Used to fuck me about for no reason at all.’ He curls his hand to a fist. ‘So I spent lots of time in the hostels like…..Are you staying there long?’
‘Oh lovely.’ He pats the bible. ‘Aye it’s a lovely town Edinburgh.’
Coastline appears beyond the double glazing. A cliff of jagged rocks drops down to pale, ragged grass. The man in the vest takes out his headphones and leans towards the window. He watches the sea chopping silently, boats still on the horizon, the beach calmly receiving the infinite beat of the sea.
‘Aye, your family must be missing you, a pretty lass like you. Your Papa must be missing you all the way back the other side of the world. I bet you’ve got a nice family back there eh? A nice lass like yourself. I bet you’ve got a good family to go back home to eh?’
The burly man turns his head. He takes his eyes off the landscape and focuses on the window sill.
You must miss them a wee bit no?’ He chuckles, a scratching croak, more suited to a corpse than a living man. ‘Aye you must. No need to be brave darling.’
‘No. I don’t miss them,’ she looks up. ‘I’m reading if you don’t mind.’
The dog owner turns from the window, rolls up the headphones and puts them away. The dog gets up and he shunts him with his foot. ‘Sit down dog, sit!’ The dog curls up on the carpet.
‘Aye no worries darling.’ He taps the bible with his stumped finger. ‘No need to listen to me gabbing off, I just like a chat you know?
‘That’s OK, I’m guna read now.’
The train rocks. The burly man moves to the aisle seat, opens a pack of crisps and rests his forearms on the table. He sniffs and munches hungrily, his knee bouncing up and down.
Across the aisle, the man in the anorak inhales between his lips.
‘Aye,’ he says, ‘Theres nothing wrong with being friendly. You know there’s nothing to be afraid of darling.’
The dog owner finishes the crisps and folds the packet into a tight rectangle.
‘It’s some world if you cannae talk to people like.’
The dog snarls and the man in the anorak turns from the girl. ‘What’s wrong with you dog, eh?’ The dog snarls again.
He turns back to the girl and leans towards her, breathing in her ear, ‘It’s ok to be friendly.’ She stiffens and jolts upright, an electric shock running through her spine.
The huge man stands. He crosses the aisle and rests both fists on the table. He stands there, hovering over the shrunken pea head. The head turns, startled eyes glistening and retreats into its scrawny neck. A meaty hand picks up the bible and pushes it into the puny man’s chest. The tiny man clutches it against himself. His upper lip twitches and he scrambles to his feet, a knee clunking on the table. A deep snarl rumbles from the dog. He glances at it then limps down the carriage, stooping and wrapping the anorak tighter to his body. The dog owner sits back down.
The girl breathes unsteadily, her eyes wide and rabbit like.
‘Thank you,’ she says shyly. ‘He was starting to scare me.’
‘No bother, he was scaring my dog too, that’s why he had to go.’ He smiles and the girl looks at the blue bruise covering his eye. ‘Where are you getting off?’ He asks.
‘Oh lovely, is that where you’re from?’
‘No, I’m from Australia.’
‘Oh lovely, you’re out exploring then.’
‘Yeh.’ the girl glances down at the cover of her book. Her skin flares.’
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The circular story line is a great way of building up tension here: first with the barrage of conversation and flaring skin, then with the “tight rectangle” of crisp packet and snarling dog – and finally with the hope of rescue dashed by the possibility of more menace to come. It may be evil masked by a puny man with a bible and goodness by a burly man with a fierce dog….or it may not be. The reader is left guessing – and that’s the story’s strength.