High Barnet Train

High Barnet 4 mins.

Four minutes, then.

Nicholas walks to the end of the platform, where the train will come in at, oh, about 35 miles per hour.  Four minutes to dwell on how he got here.

“Trade like a professional with Square Mile Index”

“Cheap Finance Guaranteed for Homeowners”

From where he stands, an artfully placed tannoy hides the indicator board, so he walks back along the platform.

High Barnet 5 mins.

OK, it’s going backwards.

Nicholas had spent the day in the British Museum, and then walking around Hyde Park in his suit, and was careful to take his normal train home.  The house looked beautiful in the spring sunshine when he arrived.  Hannah greeted him in the garden with a kiss, and brought him a beer from the fridge. Jack was running around kicking a football.  Kate, not usually demonstrative, broke off from planting her patch of garden, and ran to give Dad a long, slow hug.  Almost as if she knew.

He closes his eyes to blank the pain.

High Barnet 4 mins.

He couldn’t tell Hannah that they would lose the home she loved so much, the home on which she had worked so hard. Not that she would be angry with him: she would be affectionate, supportive, forgiving of his stupidity, and he couldn’t ask that of her, he didn’t deserve it.

Merton, smooth and confident, trying to do sympathetic:

“I’m afraid they have insisted on last in first out.”

“The way things are at the moment…”

High Barnet 2 mins.

That was quick.  Nicholas feels his heart thudding in his chest.  Nearly time. “A person under a train.”  In the past, he has smiled ruefully at this detail so readily supplied to explain delays.  Well, there will be delays this evening.

“Such a nice evening, I’m going for a little walk.”  And a little Dutch courage.

A mouse runs along the track.

Jack’s face is there, freckled, likeable.  On some level, Nicholas liked to think he was a bit of a hero to his boy.  Not any more.  You screwed up, mate.

“If this margin call is not met within 7 days, we will be forced to liquidate your portfolio.”

And the neat little solicitor, adding the charge to the mortgage deeds:

“Mr Harris, I really should advise you…”

A group of French students walk past, talking loudly.

High Barnet 1 min.

He moves purposefully back to the start of the platform.  Maybe 45 seconds now. Detached, he pictures what will happen: flesh, blood, bone and muscle all one to the weight of speeding metal and glass.  Momentum = Mass x Velocity.  Problems solved.  Does the apple fall to earth, or does earth fall to the apple?

Now the rails twang, and he chooses his spot, let’s see, ten feet from the mouth of the tunnel.  For Your Own Safety Please Stand Behind The Yellow Line.  He feels the rush of stale air. A rumble, barely audible, grows to fill his head in seconds.  He sees the reflected yellow light growing on the walls.

Ready to Leave.

At last a blur of silver and he starts to go.

He hears a French girl screaming “Non!”

He remembers how Hannah looked when they first met.

For an instant, he looks the driver in the eyes and sees fear. He checks and stumbles: the front carriage catches his shoulder and sends him spinning backwards into the wall.

Then numbness with pain, white sheets, bright light.  Hannah’s hoarse voice:

“Nick, you silly boy.  You silly, silly boy.”

Her hand around his fingers.  Feeling right.

(winner, Chorleywood Literary Festival 2009 Short Story Competition)

Bit Nicer

Jessica didn’t want to come in from the balcony, where she was looking down between the rails at something.

“Come on darling, we’re all ready to go” said Robert irritably.

She continued to peer through the rails.

“It’s just…that daddy looks bit nicer.”

It was a gleaming modern hotel in Tenerife, extravagantly fitted out by an award-winning Spanish architect.  Robert still found it somehow oppressive.  He walked onto the balcony to take a look.  Outside a ground floor room, a young dad was settling a small boy into his pushchair.  He could see what his daughter meant: the man was good-looking, and had a friendly and patient look as he attended to his child.

Ouch.  The ways of fatherhood had not come easily to Robert: he knew he wasn’t the most empathic or relaxed dad, and if possible he tended to leave most of the work to Helena.  But he did his best, or thought he did, and this unsolicited piece of feedback was difficult to take.  And “bit”…the affecting childish attempt to soften the blow only confirmed the sincerity of her comment

Well, on we go, thought Robert, as the family headed for the crazy golf course.  This at least was a chance for him to show off his pack leader credentials.  Or it would have been, but Helena was enjoying a lucky streak.  An elderly German couple watched indulgently as Jessica carefully took hold of the full size putter half way down the shaft and prepared to take her shot.  They widened their eyes in delight and applauded when the ball hit the angled bend and rolled to within three inches of the hole.  Then Jessica slumped to the ground.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Robert parked the car, paid the £7.80 parking charge and walked with Helena into the hospital.  They held hands as they approached Jessica’s ward, but let go their grip before their daughter could see them.  Jessica looked tiny in the bed, in her outsize hospital gown.  Her wrist was attached to a drip.  She sat up carefully and gave a small smile of welcome when her parents came in, and they gently hugged her.

“The doctor says they’re going to make me go to sleep, and when I wake up my heart will be better.”

“That’s right” said Helena.

“The girl in that bed over there says some people die when they have an operation.  Is that true?”

Helena stroked a curl of blond hair from the girl’s forehead.

“It will all be fine, darling, I promise.”

Jessica considered this for a few seconds, then bit her lower lip and nodded slowly.  Her mother squeezed her hand.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Three months later the family was in Cumbria.  Robert found himself at last getting into the holiday mood, as they strolled round dramatic scenery in the spring sunshine.  Lauren and Jessica scampered ahead exploring the rock formations, and Helena and Robert walked behind.

After a while they heard the scrunch of stones and a wail: Jessica had tripped and scraped her shin.  She hopped back to her mum.  Helena, ever ready with the first aid kit, cleaned and dressed the wound in no time.

Robert looked down at Jessica’s face, and saw how tired she was.

“Shall I carry you?”

She looked up and met his eyes, and nodded.  She reached up her arms, and as he bent to pick her up, she put them around his neck.