3 Stops

It waited there in the station for eleven minutes after I arrived from London, and, carrying my bag underneath the tracks to the other platform, I passed a group of young men who smoked and stared at the women on their way home.
    Eighteen-thirty-seven, it shook out. For a time, I held my thumb in the page and looked up through the window, craning back & forth, trying to spot a sign denoting our location. No-one alighted. Unless the streetlights hit the ground, then there was nothing to see. As the train moved once more, a faded sign, dim and barely visible: Mistley. A haunted place, surely, to be so timid in revealing itself. But those seven letters in Helvetica were more distinguishable from the dirt around their faded form than the paint that made them. Nineteen years ago, on a hot morning in May, I had been in Mistley. After the secondary school prom, it was customary for an afterparty to take place, as I am sure it was elsewhere. It was important that the afterparty take place, but nobody would dare volunteer, for it came with a risk that, should things get out of hand, then it was your neck! A girl by the name of Dobner reached an agreement with her parents, informed her friends, who then informed their friends, and they their friends, and so on, until the invite was extended throughout the entire graduating year. Class of 2001. The party passed without disaster or any special happening; everyone became very drunk; relationships ended, relationships begun, many drugs were consumed, fights broke out, couples disappeared behind the trees and came back unbuckled, girls kissed before cheering spectators, questionable meals were scrambled together in the kitchen; muddy-minded and exhausted after examinations, the teenagers lolled wherever they could, awaiting morning and their own bed, a chance to get out of the rented suit or expensive dress.
    Dobner was the smartest girl in our year, and, by default, the entire school. She was placed in the ‘top group’ for every subject – science, maths, english,. There were a handful who competed between themselves for the title of most-intelligent, but, in coursework and exams, Dobner came out better than the rest. She sobbed in the echo of the mathematics examination hall, her gasps heard throughout, her large shoulders and breasts heaving underneath a curtain of curly hair, until Mr Killen went and asked after her. She received the highest grade. Her eyes disappeared into crescents of lid and bag when she smiled, and she beamed on her final walk down the school lane, her eyes swallowed up, squeals of delight as her dear friends congratulated and hugged her. They all wept. It was too much. All the effort for that moment is a terrible burden on a young mind.
    She never went to the sixth form college with everyone else. She disappeared and was seldom heard of. Not long later, after we had all separated to various university towns and were developing depression, independence or both, news returned that she had fallen pregnant and was to be wedded soon. A friend of a friend of Dobner’s – one of her closest from secondary school, but who had also hardly heard from her – was invited to the wedding, the dress tailored to the nineteen-year-old’s swollen belly, a brief catch-up after the breakfast—‘How is university?’ ‘Never mind that! how are you?’ By the time we had all finished university, Dobner had divorced from her young husband and had run away with her son and was never to be heard of by anyone again.
    The morning after the party, we walked down narrow country roads in sticky dry-mouthed heat back to the train station that Dobner had directed us to through red eyes. We stood on the nothing-to-nowhere platform and looked either way, desperate to see from which direction our train would come, so that we could determine which direction home. Everything seemed over and decided; a limbo between then and the fourth week of August. After that, a new time, with fewer friends and new ones, was to begin. But for now, in our ruffled clothes, rocking the vending machine, we had nowhere to go but to wait, and Dobner never to be seen in school again.
    It is such a shame that darkest nights prevent one from enjoying the views of a new railway line. Floodlights over a stone merchant’s yard, whitest halogen and mounds of sand and gravel formed perfectly off the back of a dumptruck, and lamps over the bins behind the rear of a pub, otherwise there was nothing to be distinguished beyond the reflection of my empty carriage; so, unsatisfied, I returned to the book. The next station was as peaceful as the last, and just as lost in the mist that swum inland from the estuary. Fortunately, the motors stopped running at the sign and declared: Wrabness.
    Is this not where Chris and Nicole got married, in the old hotel that ran to the bottom of a primly trimmed bush avenue? By then I had alienated myself from all the friends I had grown up with. In a drawer somewhere was a photograph of me before university and a photograph afterwards; the eyes were different, the smile gone, the outlook changed, worn out; a different person who only got invited to the evening party, and was fortunate to be extended that. By this point, I had, myself, become difficult to get hold of, and some minor detective work was required to track me down, my telephone number. I had only attended at the insistence of my parents and, as my Saturday nights were so free, I could find no valid excuse to refuse. Chris had been kicked out of college at the end of the first year, having developed a strange fascination with hardcore pornography and a predilection for starting fires wherever and whenever he could. With few options, he joined the army and was sent to Afghanistan. He returned from his first tour to a pub garden on a flat patch of featureless Essex. Everyone welcomed him. There was bunting that cracked in the wind and the sky was grey. He had always worn his hair short. There was a portable music player with Tina Turner’s Greatest Hitsspinning inside, looping for hours and hours, – how many times must that wretched disc have spun! – as everyone drank lager and caught up, drawn back between university terms and holiday jobs.
    Everybody believed that Chris had done very well putting the ring on the most romantic of Nicole’s fingers. She was a beautiful young woman studying fashion at university with a specialisation in lingerie, petite, with thick lips like the spine of a horse, and short hair, always a pleasure to be around. Indeed, the author had himself, once upon a time, affections for her. There is a photograph of her shutting the car door, taken from inside, her looking at the lens, a smile quietly lapping across her lips after a day spent swimming together. She looked taller in a wedding dress. Delicate shoulders and small breasts, the refined curvature of her jaw, freckles and the gestures she had always made with her hands, such a sweet human being, a calming presence, doing the rounds where everyone talks about love like love evolves into marriage because love on its own might not be enough for most folk. I was the only one out of all of us who had taken up smoking, so was afforded many an opportunity to retreat outside, catch my breath and return.
    Derek was there, too, although I did not acknowledge him and he was most preoccupied with his partner. Those around me, through winks and knowing nods, informed me that the Derek we knew had died, and that the man in front of us, although he looked like Derek, had none of his intelligence, wit or judgement. Derek had met a girl at a university in Birmingham who stole his heart, as he told his mother, and within a couple of a months he had proposed and they had been married. His new wife began to torment Derek and exercise a great deal of control over him – supposedly – until he, having had enough, divorced her. Now, less than six months later, he was very much in love with someone else and the pair of them danced together a way in front of us old friends, terribly, out of time with each other and out of time with everyone else & the music; it was a language they only spoke to each other on a growing-sticky dancefloor.
    The last I heard, Nicole was pregnant with their second child. I never encountered Derek again, but I suspect he no longer plays piano as well as he did. The troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan.
    The most illuminated portion of railway was at Harwich International, where there is loading and unloading that must be carried out, there are bays of containers, dormant lorries, there are cars in vacant parks, there are diagonal lines and order, there is metal and enough light for me to press my nose against the glass to admire the view before me! There are logos and names, languages, characters from around the world, labels I cannot understand – but wonder! – and there is mass, not like Sunday but towers and cranes, bulk too huge to see above, bulk enough to blot out the sun.
    This, I think to myself – a thumb lodged again between four-hundred-and-ten pages – is where I returned. I had been in the hills of Brittany, France for a month, a village by the name of Saint-Martin-des-Prés, where I was the strange Englishman who occupied the farmhouse next to the chapel. Outside of the farmhouse, I lined up my bottles of beer, wine and whiskey like a Christmas tree. At four in the morning, as I drained the last of the whiskey bottle, glared at the milky way like scattered flour and wept, I would hear the clop of an old man’s clogs, as he strolled down the road. He appeared before me, holding a scythe, smiling toothlessly, speaking in French, listened to in English, and neither understood either way. He disappeared into the dark fields, the sound of his clogs and the sweeping scythe swept through silence. At around two in the afternoon, my friend and I walked a mile into the village, where we bought beer, wine and whiskey, whatever bread was left, tinned tomatoes and pasta. The village pub disliked us very much and would only – ‘Non! non!’ – sell us one packet of cigarettes every two days, so we split them open, and rolled much smaller cigarettes from their innards. We walked back and began drinking and playing cards. At midnight, stumbling and ruined, I began to write.
    On the third week, it stopped raining; as though the front door had been unlocked, we ventured out over the endless hills. How overjoyed we were to stretch our legs, the grape and the grain’s fogginess walked out of us through muddy paths and empty roads that thinned to a pinprick on the horizon. The hangover perspired out of us until we came upon a café and went inside. It was run by English émigrés. We took a table and ordered the plat du jour. A procession of farmers entered, cigarette butts squeezed between smiling lips. They drank wine at the bar, smoked and chatted quietly. The son of the owners came over, pleased to have some Englishmen in his place of work, I supposed, and we spoke for a long time. My friend and I were also quite enthused to speak to someone else in English. His face was scarred all over, almost deformed with it, and one might have suspected he had been lucky to get away with something like that. I asked him about it as we shared a round of beers and a smoke. He told us his house had burned down. He went in to rescue his brother. His brother was injured much worse, and he lived above the café, rarely coming down. When his father put down our meals, his arm was also skinned and burned up to the elbow. The son said it was nice to meet us and left politely to resume his place behind the bar, speaking fluently in French to the farmers and their laughter with him.
    We made our way to Paris, then took the night-train up through Belgium and into the Netherlands. We had a room booked in the hotel next to the Amsterdam Centraal. It was an amount of civilisation and bustle that we were newly unaccustomed to. The next few days we wandered around the city, ate good food, meandered round markets, visited Rembrandt’s house and contemplated returning home, all of it in a haze. By the final night, we anticipated greatly our boat home, covered our pizzas in buds and slept deeply for thirteen hours, until a sun and shuttle to the port. On the ferry we split up and wasted time in the bar or in the cinema, maybe we sat at a table and looked out at the sea. The vessel manoeuvered into Harwich harbour. That smell of the homeland, the stench of failure, the cranes scolding from above.
    Very few people got off at the end of the line. I was unfamiliar with the lay of the land and took the wrong exit that saw me in a pitch-black neighbourhood where the streetlights lit up once you walked underneath them. The street furniture looked out for you! Soon enough I found myself on the road down towards the pier. It was dead. A fish and chip shop glowed the colour of batter, and a queue outside. The sound of my own heels ricocheted off the empty street, and the house windows were all illuminated. There was no-one to be seen inside. I gazed in. Each was a scene that warmed me. The wind came in off the water, cut through my coat and chilled me to the liver. My family was up on the first-floor restaurant and they welcomed me as I removed my mask and coat. (At that moment, in Vienna, people were being murdered while doing the same thing.) A waiter appeared at my shoulder—‘Pint of Shedhead, please… Thank you,’ I said.
    ‘It’s a shame,’ said my father, already into his red wine—‘that it’s so dark.’
    ‘Why?’ asked my mother.
    ‘Because it’s a good to stare out the window of trains, and that’s a good line to look out the window on.’
    I pulled my chair in and sighed—‘Yes,’ I said—‘I thought that.’