Bright grey. That is my main impression of the day, once it finally pushes back the black veil of the winter night. The sun is up there somewhere, but diffused through that bleak haze you get when there’s no rain coming but it’s not about to brighten up either.
It will be Christmas soon, but the only clue to that is the bite of the cold air and the increased volume of travellers. Most, like me, carrying at least one extra bag. Filled with presents that will eventually bring joy but for now just add to the weight on your shoulders and the number of knocks you take as you navigate narrow doors and large crowds.
The second train pulls up at the platform. The first had been half empty, and idle for half an hour before it set off, which just made life easier. No crush waiting at the doors, with the agonising wait whilst others got off first. No pressure at your back as offloading your bag had others waiting a few extra precious seconds. No jostling for position as passengers scrambled for unreserved seats or to find their reservation and politely cough until an interloper got out of the way. On leg two, I have all of that, and at the end I’m not even in a seat.
I find myself pressed up against another man in the bicycle storage area. Oddly balanced because of how the bike was positioned, balls of my feet hurting more than they should just from the act of standing up. He wobbles a bit when the train sets off, smiles apologetically at me and gets a sympathetic but awkward smile in return. We both know the drill.
Half an hour into the journey, we finally exchange words. “Sorry.” I just have to shift my feet to avoid losing feeling in my lower legs, and I’m not sure if doing so will displace him.
He nods and smiles. The silence drags out a few more moments, suddenly demanding to be filled now words have been exchanged.
“You’d think they’d put on more carriages, especially at this time of year.”
A grunt of affirmation. Discontent shared. That serves well enough, and the silence places no more demands. Even if it may be somewhat underwhelmed by our offering.
Another hour of the journey passes. Finally, the passengers thin out and seats present themselves. Like lions spotting the baby gazelles who had wandered from the herd, we pounce. But now we are face to face, across a table. Bonded by our shared ordeal, our shared triumph. Once more, conversation is demanded.
“At least this is the last time I need to do this journey till the new year.” I venture. “You?”
He shrugs. “I’ve got one more. Work, you know. But at least this gets lugging the presents down out the way.”
It’s not a joke, but it prompts laughter. I don’t know why, exactly, but it breaks the ice so it’ll do.
His name is Greg, and his daughter is just turning one in a couple of days so he’s got one bag full of Christmas presents and another full of birthday presents. I sympathise with the additional burden, both physical and financial. Both my boys’ birthdays are in May and the wife’s in August, which makes things easier.
The conversation drifts off. So do I. It was a very early start, and my eyes feel heavy. Next thing I know, there’s drool in my beard and we’re somewhere that the sun has pierced the veil of grey. I can see blue sky, but the train has stopped. We’re not at a station.
“Pleasant dreams?” Greg is laughing, though not unkindly.
I offer a laugh and a shrug in response. My wife’s face was in the dream, and for some reason that angers me. I don’t know why, because I love her to pieces. My heart warms every time I see her, it aches when I’m away. Anger isn’t an emotion I associate with her. But then, I guess dreams are weird.
Fifteen minutes pass and there’s still no sign of movement. There’s grumbling throughout the carriage. Greg and I exchange a look, all too familiar with the situation and resigned to our fate.
Twenty more minutes before we get an announcement. Somebody has been hit by a train so it’s causing a hold up. The response is a collective tutting. A very British, very passive aggressive sort of sympathy. Death is sad, but it’s awfully inconvenient for those travelling.
“I assume it was a jumper.” Greg says, with a shake of his head. “I can’t imagine, to feel that’s your only option…” He trails off. I offer no answer, because there isn’t one.
Another hour goes by before we’re moving again. I’m just drifting off, and before the jolt of the Train moving snaps me back I see fire. It is awfully warm with the heating on in the train.
“I was right, it was a jumper. Said on the news he killed his children in their beds before going to the tracks. Awful stuff.”
I don’t know what to say to that. It’s horrifying, but more horrifying is the reflexive justification rising in my mind; everyone has a breaking point, it’s never right but we don’t know what led to it. Anything could have… I smother the thought. I shouldn’t be having the thought and I hate myself for the fact that my brain produced it.
We’re moving again, but slowly. The silence drags out as I try to think of something to say that’s not so abhorrent as what has just crossed my mind. I settle for muttering “terrible,” and after receiving an affirmative nod I stare out of the window.
Five hours into what should have been a four hour journey, we reach the stop before ours and of course the train is now terminating here. Everyone piles off the train, struggling with multiple bags and not enough space to fit them through, into the cold. The next train in our direction is going to be twenty minutes. The sky is bright grey once more.
“It’ll be worth it once I see Millie’s face.” Greg says, cheery in a sea of scowls and grumblings. “Her eyes go so wide when she smiles, her little cheeks puff up. She’s the best.”
“Yeah. Harry and Simon…” Their faces spring to mind with little prompting. Asleep, serene, like those cherub statues people sometimes have. But with the image comes the smell of petrol, thick and pungent. It’s everywhere, and I don’t know why.
Greg misreads the tears that pour down my face and claps me on the shoulder. “It’s the greatest thing in the world, isn’t it? Having kids?”
I nod, dumb. Scared to speak.
A train arriving earlier than expected saves us. People clamber aboard eagerly, though those already aboard are bemused by the delay this causes them. Then another twenty minutes, and we’re home.
My eyes are still moist, my legs a little wobbly, as the flow of people carries me off the train. My extra bag bumps into people’s sides or backs and I mutter apologies again and again. The ticket barriers cause a bottleneck, not least as the mobile tickets and QR code tickets don’t scan half the time. Some people too from queue to queue, impatient but getting out no quicker.
Finally, we’re on the other side, and Greg gives me a last friendly smile with a wish of Merry Christmas before charging over to his wife and child. Millie’s face is exactly as he described it and I cry as he loses himself in the squeals of joy and the fight hugs.
Nobody is waiting for me. I know why, now. The weight of realisation is far more of a burden than any bag, but still I have to go that last leg. On foot, now. Only ten minutes away, but I’ve never felt any stretch of time last longer.
The smell of petrol is long gone. The crackle of flames but a memory. Yet still they pluck at my senses, as excited children might grab at the clothes of a parent. The tears are in full flow now, but as blurry as it is I can still see the charred black husk that was once a house.
My legs quake and my knees almost go. My mouth opens, a cry caught in my throat. But I bunch my fists and force myself to stay upright, silent. It was all of my own doing, and the worst things can never be undone. There’s only one thing left to do.
I step through the front door…and out onto the train platform with the sky bright grey above me.