She lived out of suitcases, travelling by train, heart breaking on empty platforms. For a long time, Ellie was tangled in an idle love affair.
She sighs, alone, sitting on a concrete staircase somewhere east of Glasgow. She hears the brush of the sea, the whisper of the wind and the cough of his engine as he drives away. Like a taxi, Jason dropped her off at the station. He looked in his rear-view mirror, his wing mirror, his blind spot but never at her. It was only when they kissed like strangers, fragmented and sloppy, that he looked her in the eye for a split and fragile second. She slammed his door without the promise that he’d call or see her again soon. But without any words, they both knew she’d cave to her feelings and he’d cave to lust and in a few days, she’d be back on another train.
In front of her,
a couple kissing –
why isn’t he here?
They could write each other’s’ names in the
thin layer of flaky pale snow
hold hands through mittens
make plans to meet in the city.
Instead, a platform lamp
fli ck e r ing
the sky, a dim mustard colour
a voiceover: “we apologise for the delay”
Ellie sits alone
She couldn’t ask him to wait with her. He always had something to do. Rather, he handed her a frayed pack of cigars that he brought back from his weekend in Germany. He taught her how to smoke at 5am that morning, as they lay above his duvet with the window wide open, the cutting breeze heavy on their bare bodies.
not a memory of a smile, a laugh.
Only hating herself
for loving the way
he put his hand on her cheek
he was entranced watching a documentary about World War 2
he looked so still when sleeping
His flat was a pale blue box that they didn’t escape from for 48 hours. Sluggish and sweaty, they listened to the traffic rush by in the mornings and at night, watched the flicker of car headlights project looming shadows across the walls. His room was clean, almost empty. The bed was elbowed into the corner, a TV hung opposite next to a cleared desk and a frail wooden chair. The only signs of life were traces of microwave dinners, black ash from a burnt out match and a small pile of laundry outside the loo. No overflowing bookshelf, box of love letters, assortment of coffees.
Like his home, the world is quiet at the platform. The voiceover clicks off and the couple are engaged in a long and quiet kiss. It gets darker, the sun falling somewhere, the silvery winter sky crawling overhead. She puts her hands in her pockets and feels the packet of cigars. The box is half empty and slightly damp, five single fags strewn at the bottom.
“They’re better than cigarettes,” he’d told her, giving her a lighter. “You don’t need to inhale.”
She hadn’t ever smoked before that morning but he’d looked at her different when she did. Perhaps he finds it sexy if a girl smokes. She lifts the cigar to her lips and lights the end. It comes alive in a meagre bud of orange. She sucks it in, pulls it away, and as she exhales, a cough comes crackling out. She tries again and again, her tongue sticky with the taste of fireside. As she is getting the hang of it, the crescendo of the approaching train begins. She dabs the end of the cigar into the snowy ground and puts it back in the box, unsure of the polite way to rid of it.
The train brings a violent bitter wind but still warmer than the house she’s going home to. Her family hasn’t quite worked out the heating in their new house and last month’s electric bill was high from plug-in-radiators, heating blankets in the tumble dryer, and chain-drinking cups of tea.
The couple kiss one last time and shout ‘I love you more’. The moment the doors open, Ellie marches onto the train, swings her bags on top of a table and takes up four seats to herself. The boy sits near the window, blowing kisses to his girlfriend and Ellie feels her ribcage tighten around her lungs, each breath staccato. When the collector comes around, he stares at her – scared and pitiful. She asks for a one-way ticket home and he asks her if she’s okay.
“Yes?” she questions, rubbing her eyes. She pulls her fist away, wet and dotted with mascara dust.
From the machine dangling around his neck, her ticket prints and he hands it to her before scurrying off. She sighs, all too familiar with buying train tickets through tears. Every time she gets on this train, something in her dies. It’s another journey accepting that there will be no love note or favourite bar of chocolate planted in her bag for her to find later. She has left collections of poetry under his pillow, post it notes on the inside of his cupboards reminding him he’s handsome, fresh chili in the freezer for him to find when he runs out of frozen food.
All she has are his cigars.
She turns to the window and counts the freckles of rain that are staining the glass, the lights outside becoming colourful bokeh. The train hums down the tracks, the carriage smells of sour disinfectant and cotton wool. She is enclosed in this narrow tube, the world inspecting her like a fish in an aquarium through tinted blue windows.
Past house house garden house garden
garden house house garden
where grass is flat
and flowers are skeletal
the train stops at the edge
of a town: dozens of people invade the carriage
Ellie takes her feet off the seat in front of her and pulls her bags onto her lap. In the reflection of the window, she sees someone sitting down next to her.
It’s a boy. He has whiskey coloured hair, a bomber jacket, and skinny jeans. She can hear in the whisper of his headphones that he’s listening to a song she likes. Smoke and Mirrors. They share a quick glance and look away again. Between them, there is a shy awareness of one another; Ellie can feel his eyes on her knees and she’s watching his fingers drum the beat of his music. She feels an impulsive hunger to hold his face and kiss him against the headboard of his seat. His smile tells her he thinks she’s pretty. She swallows and wills herself to stop.
Even if did want to kiss him she couldn’t, she’s loyally tied to the tragedies of a schoolgirl crush.
The doors shut again, blowing in a gust of wintry air that becomes trapped for a while, bringing out goose bumps and shivers, until it scatters to the low corners of the train.
She looks around the carriage,
pretending to be deep in thought to impress the boy
Maybe he’ll think she’s an
academic or a
pioneer or a
with sentimental realisations that
shape a rare and prosperous
understanding of the world.
She wants him to stop her
in her thoughts and say
I see you there.
Instead, she’s only thinking about colours:
The doughy blue ceiling hangs above her like Jason’s bedsheets.
The chairs are purple with specks of green and white; artistically, they clash. Once Jason read a poem that she wrote and he told her to ‘stick to science’. She withdrew her application to a writing course.
The ivory white table tops are the colour of dress she can never see herself wearing. She can’t see a day where she isn’t bewitched with an uncommitted, dislodged, part time lover.
All around her is Jason. Jason, Jason, Jason. Even when she leaves him, he stays: in the carriage, in the colours, in her commute. As her heart is swelling and the tears are surfacing, her phone rings. She fumbles in her bag wondering if this is finally the moment where it’s all been worth it, where he calls to say, come back, I love you. The last ten months of persistence coming back around – a blissful karma.
She looks at the flashing screen: Mum.
Ellie almost drops the phone. She looks out the window, the light from the sky draining, the grey night painting over any residue of day. Neither moon nor sun are visible, just a country of clouds, low and collective.
She rejects the call.
The fleeting fields are swiftly replaced by square granite buildings neglected like fossils, on either side of the tracks. The train slows. Passengers are standing, gathering their bags, waiting impatient at the door. The boy next to her gets up, steals one last glance, and she bows her head. With everyone vertical, the carriage seems smaller and slimmer: strangers shoulder to shoulder, the backs of their hands brushing before they pull away and apologise.
The train stops and everyone sways forward in unison. They pour out the doors, first come, first serve. Parents exit backwards, tipping their prams up, looking for help. People wheeling suitcases weave between pillars and children, racing for the exit. Ellie is the last person to get off the train. She enjoys the fine seconds of solitude where the fragrances of perfume and washing powder lingers in the air. Numb, with her bags in her hand, broken promises and ticket stubs in her pockets, she steps off the train. In the cavern station full of reunions, delays, and echoing footsteps, she is reminded that this time next week she’ll be living out of suitcases, travelling by train, heartbroken on empty platforms, even more tangled in an idle love affair.