I board the train at Saint Jocelyn, slip through the crowd like air. There’s a cheese and ham sandwich in my rucksack, pounded into the shape of Snowdon by the suitcases and luggage of the last train – I try flexing it back into an actual sandwich shape as I take my seat, a Disabled Priority in Coach C, with no window views of the surrounding countryside. This seat is always empty. Through the open doors I see sheep laid carelessly about the fields, like bales of hay between the thick fits of bluebell and dandelion. Then a high-pitched toll descends, the doors slide shut, and the train shudders into life.
The other residents of the carriage seem forlorn; I feel practically outgoing in their presence, as I scribble on the sheet of paper in front of me. Diagonally from me sits a woman cloaked in bottle-green velvet, whose towering wig suggests that she was never quite informed of Marie Antoinette’s death. Beside her is a short, plump man with tortoise-shell glasses, who appears more interested in using them as a prop for disconcerting looks than actually reading through them – most of this is directed at the girl sat opposite him, who sounds no older than eighteen, a small, wailing baby on her knees. It is wrapped in soft white blankets, a precious parcel of snow, and occasionally looks out with big blue eyes before returning to its crying.
I’ve never found babies remarkably easy to draw, due to their tendencies to squiggle and pull peculiar faces. I drag my pencil along the page, leaving a flourish that somewhat resembles the woman’s wig, then begin to mark out the beginnings of individual hair strands, the coconut shape of her face, the diamond sparkle that seems to show only in one eye. Beside her, the circular lenses of the glasses are the first of the man’s features to materialize, circled by his almond-shaped head. Thank goodness I did end up sat by some interesting people, or I might have found no way to entertain myself for the trip. You can only board the same train so often before madness starts to set in.
After thirty-three minutes on the tracks, the train stops, halfway to Latham. Mutters begin in the corners of the carriage, creeping across the carpet and slowly building into full-volume conversations.
“We’re going to be late, Phil.” The woman with the wig opens her mouth, allowing a few words to drawl out of her expressionless face.
“Oh, good observation. Are you always this astute? Somebody give this woman a medal!” The spectacled man waves an arm and looks about with his last sentence, as though legitimately hoping to recruit a medal-maker – however this is followed by a cough, a splutter, and some rapid shuffling, as though he has surprised himself with his own loud existence. The baby, previously busying itself with scrunching its face into a balloon-knot shape, begins to cry.
“Keep it down, please. He was sleeping perfectly until you started to shout.” The girl cups the baby’s face in her hand, and with a miniature cough, his tears and tantrum dissolve into nothing. A doll-like hand extends from the blankets, clutching at a ginger curl that has tumbled loose from the girl’s hairband – but she knows enough of a baby’s accidental roughness, and tucks it quickly behind her ear. The man lowers his glasses and sneers at the baby, as though he were looking at a tiny, incompetent man; however his eyes are quick to rediscover the floor, after what I can only assume was a scathing glare from the girl.
“You may not even be infertile, Jessica,” the woman in green says, glancing wearily out of her window, “After all, the man is from a pretty well-off area, and we all know that those men aren’t quite up to the job.” She drags her head lazily to the side, casting a knowing glance at her scarlet-faced partner, before lolling back to the window.
“Does it really matter? He’s beautiful, and frankly I love him. We’re giving hope to a child that -”
“To a child called, oh what was it, William Cocksmith? Yes, I bet Little Dicky Cockstein is going to have a fantastic time at school!” Phil slaps his knee and laughs so raucously that his glasses begin to steam up – he recovers his breath just in time for the man pushing the food cart, who he asks for their finest glass of white wine. Jessica asks for a pack of Quavers, and I consider doing the same myself as the cart rolls past me; but I don’t feel inclined to strike up a conversation, and the man seems not to notice that I am here.
“His last name is Cobblesmith, it’s a traditional name for his area. And before you ask, no, I don’t plan on changing it.”
I frown, look up again at the tiny infant gurgling over Jessica’s shoulder. My surname is very specific to the village I come from, so I don’t often hear it spoken – all my socialization these days comes from newspapers and overheard conversations. I continue to trace the pencil lightly over the cheekbones of the green-clad woman, but decide to invest more of my energy in listening than drawing.
“Well you could at least change it to something less boring. If you were a boy, you’d have been called Musket, now that’s a show of originality.” The woman raises an eyebrow, as if challenging her daughter to be as interesting as her. Jessica sighs, shakes her head, and continues to look down at William as she speaks.
“I think I’d rather have been put up for adoption.”
“I mean it, you know. He might be from some shitty Southern village, but not everybody has to know that.”
“Well, I’d imagine his parents would have liked him to know.”
“If they hadn’t been out gallivanting, then they’d be the ones here telling him!” Phil wagged a finger forcefully, wine sloshing about in his glass like a tempest. “Nine times out of ten, these people don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. They have kids, and then shove ’em in a cupboard or something so they can go out and have a good time. The men, especially,” he continued, his liquid bravado protecting him even from the woman’s looks of repulsion, “all they want is to create kids, you think they’re really interested in wiping their dirty arses? Mark my words, any man who says he actually wants to look after a kid is a liar.”
At the sight of the man returning with his cart, Phil tipped the rest of the wine down his throat, and held out his glass as though he were to be served unquestioningly.
“Excuse me,” Jessica asked, “but how much longer will we be delayed for? There hasn’t been another… jumper, has there?” The man, whose embroidered waistcoat read ‘Here to Help!’, glanced over his shoulder and rolled his eyes.
“Dunno, don’t think so. Think we’ve just had a message through about the lines – they’re fixed, so we won’t divert to Latham anymore, we’ll just heads straight for Port Mews.”
A beautiful sea-side village, where sprawling white sands peek out from beneath green mountains, all bordered by a rippling turquoise ocean. The line has been broken for about five months, from the first day that I boarded this route; the breath-taking sensation of my stomach dropping suggests that this will be the day when I find what I have been looking for. Whatever that is.
“That’s where his mum and dad are. I’m going.”
As Phil begins to contest rather loudly, the man with the cart makes the strategic decision to continue down the aisle without serving him any more wine. The woman, clearly growing tired of her partner’s new-found confidence, suddenly comes to life – she clenches her handbag and brings it firmly against the side of his head, causing him to wail. William begins sniffling but is soon settled; the same cannot be said for Phil, who in a stunning act of role reversal, clutches the side of his head and begins to sob.
“Jessica, if you’re old enough to be a mother, then you’re old enough to travel by yourself. I’ve dragged myself through the mud with you this far, but I shall be leaving and getting the next train home to Latham. You can go grave-searching by yourself. You,” the woman directs her final sentence to the quivering man beside her, “are coming with me.”
The train chugs back into life, to the scattered whooping and clapping of some people whom I assume don’t travel all too often. I scramble to finish my drawings, but as the train pulls into Bexley I realise that I have lost my chance. The woman flounces past me first, choking me in her scent of blackberries and rosewater; the man follows, stumbling, walking, and leaning dangerously close to crawling out of the train.
In all my months of what I like to call professional train-riding, I have never felt the urge to make contact. Yet, I pack away my pencil and paper and merge with the flow of new travelers, carelessly seating myself in the place of Phil. I brace myself to nod and smile, but Jessica seems too absorbed in tickling William’s belly to pay me any mind.
Her face is littered with freckles, like the centre of a sunflower, framed by soft wisps of orange. Her stubby nose and wide lips are mirrored in William, making him a convincing pass for her son; though her eyes are the dark, glossy brown of freshly-turned soil, and his hair is a short shock of inky black. Slyly, I slide a fresh sheet of paper from my satchel and retrieve the pencil, creating a rough outline of his head and lips.
I have just begun to touch on the shading when the train arrives at Port Mews. I look out of the window, and see a little row of pastel-coloured houses – from the distance, the sound of rolling waves beckons me out of the train. Jessica pulls a letter out of her pocket, squints at it, then turns quickly down the aisle. For reasons that I cannot even begin to understand, I decide that I need to follow her.
She doesn’t stray far from the station, though she walks with purpose, making my casual strolling rather useless for the task ahead – after some brisk walking from both of us, me hanging slightly behind, we arrive at Port Mews Cemetery.
We weave our way between great oaks dancing in the breeze, between stone statues of angels and waist-high crosses inscribed with names and memories. Eventually she stops before two graves, the recently upturned soil covered in roses, all Caribbean Dawns and Golden Celebrations. Behind them is a small pond, its surface quivering as a mallard cleans underneath its wings, shaking its emerald head.
Jessica sits down, crosses her legs, and lays William on her lap; she seems to be saying something to him, but I am too far away for her words to reach me.
A flash of light strikes, illuminating the sky with deep, rich gold for a mere second, as though the sun had swollen as far as I can see – as it fades away I look to Jessica, what we have just witnessed is too unspeakably beautiful not to be discussed, but she is focused on William and seems unaware of what has just happened.
Behind the graves, there is a woman. Jessica hasn’t responded to her presence, but this woman is looking straight at me, her eyes meeting mine. I cannot remember the last time that I actually made eye-contact with someone, and find myself wandering towards her. Soon I am stood beside her.
When she holds out her hand, it seems only natural to take it.
She leads me behind Jessica, so that I am close enough to read the names on the graves.
My name on the left, and the woman’s on the right.
“You don’t remember,” she says, in a sweet, gentle voice that feels like a roaring fire, “but I can explain. Come with me.”
I look down at my son, and he smiles, staring back up at me. Eyes sparkling like sapphires.