Issue 4

Chris Smith

There are ten electric boards displaying the departure times and destinations of trains from Liverpool Lime Street. You can travel in any direction apart from west, because the Irish Sea lies that way, and unlike the English Channel there is no Chunnel (or maybe Irunnel?) across to Ireland. I could go to New Brighton, Wigan North Western, Chester, Scarborough, West Kirby, Manchester Oxford Road, Preston, Ellesmere Port, Blackpool North, or London Euston. If I waited then there would be more options, if I made a change, or took a bus, I could get to anywhere in Great Britain. I could take a ferry across to Dublin or a plane to the Continent, the Americas, anywhere in the world. It’s those boards that make me think like this, all their destinations give the impression that I have a choice, I could walk to any platform, and board any train.
I can’t.
    In my hand is a ticket that I bought on the Internet and collected in the station from an automated machine. It only cost me £10.25 for a single to London because I bought it seven days in advance. Seven days ago she emailed me from America and gave me the date, today. She will be somewhere over the Atlantic, closer to England than America, and I wonder if she stood in Charlotte Douglas International Airport and thought about the places she could go, the options that she didn’t have.
    The boards annoy me because they miss the point. All those orange LED’s shrieking out their destinations; they don’t understand. Paris, New York, or New Brighton, it doesn’t matter. The only important thing is that I’m leaving. The LED’s say it’s 14:30, my train leaves in ten minutes from platform six. The guard on the gate doesn’t even look at my ticket, he doesn’t care that I’m leaving. Maybe if he asked me why, I could say it’s a long story, and he could say let’s have a coffee, and I would miss my train. My ticket is non-transferable because I bought it seven days in advance on the Internet for £10.25.

The train is a Virgin train, and from Liverpool Lime Street it only stops at two towns before London. It is one of the new fast ones, with no space for bicycle storage and lots of space for people who want to buy expensive tickets. I sit in my allocated seat; it is facing the back of the train even though I requested a forward-facing one. An announcement informs us all that we must have valid tickets for travel, snacks and drinks can be purchased in coach C, and that we are entitled to a first class upgrade for £50.
    The ticket inspector comes and I ask, “If I upgrade to a first class seat would I be able sit facing forward?”
   “Certainly Sir,” he says.
    He escorts me to Coach A and shows me to my seat, I pay with a credit card. The seats in Coach A are much bigger and more comfortable, but they are still a bright, hatred, red.
    “Do many people upgrade to first class?”
    “No, not many. Have a pleasant journey.”
    He doesn’t want to talk.
    I look out of the window and Liverpool is gone. I have left and it is a strange feeling, like fighting magnets. Half of me feels as though the whole mass of Liverpool is screaming out to pull me back, and the other half feels propelled, as if that force alone is powering this train.

I wonder if the girl that I am travelling to meet has had second thoughts; maybe she is not even on the plane. I have no way to check because we only communicated via an online chat room. Her username is Sinusoid; I call myself Quasimodo. I have made a sign with her name on so that we can find each other at the airport. Apart from the sign, two disposable charcoal barbeques, my wallet, and a letter in a sealed envelope, I have nothing with me.
I have not eaten since yesterday morning, and did not bring any food. Sinusoid and I discussed this, and we decided that it would be best if our bowels were empty, just in case. In first class you are not expected to walk to Coach C for your food, an attendant will take your order and do it for you. Someone has ordered a coffee and a bacon sandwich, and with the same impulse that brought me to first class, I order the same. The sandwich is brilliant, I can taste it in my mouth for a long time after I have devoured it and drunk my coffee. It also makes me feel guilty; Sinusoid will be refusing the pre-landing snack as the plane approaches the southwest coast.
    Since meeting Sinusoid I have thought about life and death, it is our most typed-about topic. Sinusoid thinks we live in torment so as to appreciate the hedonistic afterlife; this is where she thinks we are going. I think that when we die we will be nothing more than other people’s memories, and fossils in pictures and writings. Nobody will remember me, and so that leaves only the fossils. This morning I collected all my photographs together and put them in a metal bin. I removed the battery from my smoke alarm and soaked the photographs in turpentine. I stood and watched them burn and thought: this is the beginning. I deleted my computer file titled Poetry, and cleared my Internet history. I even reset my desktop to the generic Windows blue. That is what I think we’re doing; we are returning to our factory settings because nothing else has worked.

The train journey is fields and towns, cows and people. We stop twice; people get off, people get on, and we continue south. I worry that I may have left a window open in my apartment, but I guess it doesn’t matter. I think about my cat, Ginge, this is the same name that I had for most of my high school education. I thought it would be cathartic to pass it on to my cat; sometimes I’d sit and stroke him, and chant, ‘Red-head, Red-head, If I was a red-head, I’d rather be dead.’ I’d filled his bowl with about ten days worth of food, and left the water running into the kitchen sink. Ginge likes to drink straight from the tap.
    When we pull into London Euston I stay on the train until everyone has left; I stay on the train until the ticket inspector walks past.
   “Is everything ok Sir?”
    “Yes,” I say.
    “I’m afraid we need to prepare the train for the return journey.”
    “Ok,” I say.
    As I walk along the platform towards the exit I wonder why I didn’t say no, everything is not ok. I think it is maybe because I don’t have a return journey; I have a girl to meet.
    ‘No it is not ok, but I have a girl to meet.’ I try it in my head. I want to say it out loud. I want to scream and shout it so that everyone knows.
I don’t.
    London Euston is very busy. It is full of people who do not care. I look at a set of identical orange LED’s on a set of identical black electronic boards and it is as if I never left Liverpool. There are differences though; from here I could go to Glasgow Central, Tring, Watford Junction, Manchester Piccadilly, Birmingham New Street, Crewe, or Milton Keynes Central. I want to throw stones at them, smash out the lights. San Francisco, London, or Littleborough, it still doesn’t matter. Liverpool Lime Street flashes up – platform seven, the return journey. If I could get there in an instant the LED’s would tell me exactly the same thing: it is 16:58. I have an hour to get to Heathrow Airport.

    16:58 is a bad time to use the Underground. It is hot and there are lots of people. I stand on the platform and watch a train arrive, the doors open and there is a mess of bodies forcing themselves onto the train as other bodies force themselves off the train. This lasts for about five seconds and then a voice commands that the doors will close, and they do. Not everybody makes it on, but the platform is clearer now. I decide I will get on the next train but the platform fills up again before it has arrived and so I hold back.
    I am sweating; my back is tingling as though all the drips of sweat are acidic and burning my skin. I want to know how deep I am. I want to go to the deepest spot on the whole Underground system and sit there on my own. I will take out my charcoal barbeques in their self-contained foil trays and light them; Sinusoid will never get to see the sign that I have made with her name on. She will wander around Heathrow Terminal Four forever, like a ghost.
    I let three trains go past and then, conscious of the LED’s flicking by, I stand close to the yellow line and allow myself to be pushed and bullied onto a train. I don’t have anything to hold onto but I am supported by the mass of bodies crammed into the small space. I have memorised the route and know that I will have to change from the Victoria Line to the Piccadilly Line at Green Park in three stops. From there it is a straight run through to Heathrow. The Internet said to allow forty minutes for the journey, and Sinusoid has to clear immigration and baggage, so I think it will be ok.
    At Green Park I follow a series of mosaic tunnels towards the westbound platform for the Central Line. There are less people now and I walk as fast as I can without running. I arrive on the platform at the same time as a train and walk straight on without having to push people out of the way. There is a free seat. As we travel west the train gets quieter and quieter, it is as if we are travelling towards certain doom and as people realise this they jump ship. I stay on the train to the end of the line.

After the confined space of the tube, and the sweaty darkness of the underground platforms, it is pleasant to walk through the wide corridors of London Heathrow Airport. I drift along on the conveyor belts; it feels like levitating. Whole walls of advertisements are dominated by the red and white of HSBC, offering to help you save, plan, and spend your future. I have a HSBC credit card, but I have only ever experienced the red part of their logo. I suppose that I should thank them for my upgrade to first class.
    There is a gathering of people at Arrivals, formed into a semi-circle by fabric tape strung between metal poles. I look up at a computer screen and find the inbound flight from Charlotte; its status is LANDED. I pull the piece of cardboard from my bag with Sinusoid marked on in black pen and hold it in front of me.
nbsp;   I am nervous as I watch other people emerge from the customs area, looking confused until their faces become animated with recognition. Suited businessmen drag small briefcases on wheels and shake hands, or the friendlier ones clap each other on the backs. Families and friends run and hug, mothers cry. Holiday Reps smile and wave their charges to follow, offering to carry their luggage. How am I meant to react when I meet my Internet acquaintance, should I hug her and give her a kiss on the cheek? Should we shake hands as though our relationship is more business than pleasure? What if it’s a big joke, or a set up, and she shrieks, ‘It’s him, Quasimodo, he was going to make me do it’?

A new crowd of people surge through the corridor and into the arena, some of them rush forward and away, most of them pause, and then disperse. One woman stands in the middle of the semi-circle; she is holding a piece of paper with the word Quasimodo written in black ink. We have seen each other but neither of us moves, maybe realising for the first time that this is real.

    We stutter forward, holding our signs like shields. She is older than me, maybe late-thirties. While she is not obese, she is a long way from being skinny. Her dark hair is cut short, but she hides behind a protective fringe. She is wearing long sleeves and it makes me think of something she told me late one night.
   ‘I cut myself,’ she wrote, ‘I have scars.’
    The information had felt intimate, like a lover’s gift, but now I’m facing a woman who I do not know. Is she thinking the same? I am tall and skinny, all legs and arms, and I do not have any scars; this will be my first time. We are opposites: American and English. Female and Male. Fat and Thin. Small and Tall. Old and Young. Experienced and Virginal. Sinusoid and Quasimodo. I lower my sign first.
    “You made it,” I say.
    She nods with very small shakes of her head that wobble her chin.
    “You made it too,” she says with a small laugh as we make brief eye contact.
We are both nervous then. I hate myself for not thinking this through, not guessing that this encounter would be awkward. There is a silence that could never intrude our electronic communications.
    “Shall we hire the car?” she asks.
To business then, her question defines our relationship.
    “Good plan,” I say.
    And so we fall back on what we already know, we don’t learn anything new about each other. We walk side by side but never touching, like protons and electrons. The rental signs are clear, we follow them without the need to speak, our cardboard signs hanging from our fingers, like disappointment. I go to the first counter: Avis.
    “Budget is cheaper,” she says, “I checked on Expedia.”
       I remember my upgrade to first class and my bacon sandwich, and think, what does it matter, why should we care? But I’m the one who bought my train ticket seven days in advance for £10.25. I know why she wants to get the cheapest car. It’s the same reason she’s never cut herself deep enough to die, it’s the same reason she’s flown across the Atlantic to do this with me.
    We hire the smallest car from Budget; it’s a Renault Clio. The practical advantage of this is the small interior will concentrate the carbon monoxide from the burning charcoal. I sign the papers, and the attendant photocopies my driving licence. Sinusoid doesn’t want to drive; she is worried she will get us in a wreck. Insuring an American driver is also more expensive, even though she is an older woman. I do not know how much older, it is a question I could maybe type, but never speak.
    When we sit in the car I feel more relaxed, it is as though we are back in front of our computer screens. Our relationship built without eye contact, body language, or physical intimacy returns a little.
    “Did you write a letter?” I ask.
    “Yes,” she says and taps her small backpack by her feet. “Did you?”
    We drive out of the airport and come straight to a massive roundabout. I feel confronted with destinations again; every one of those places is an option. More than that: an exit. I turn to look at Sinusoid.
    “We could go anywhere.”
    “I thought you knew a place?” She frowns, she doesn’t understand. In America they do not have roundabouts.
    “I mean we could head south to the Chunnel and drive all over Europe. We could go east and aim for Norway, west to Ireland!”
    “You serious?”
I don’t know her well enough; is that hope or anger?
    “No.” I say, and snort.
    “God Damn,” she says in her southern drawl. “Don’t do that.”
    “I thought you were serious for a minute.” She snorts, shakes her head.
    We drive west from Heathrow, towards Windsor Great Park. There is a car park on top of a hill where you can see most of London; I found it out on Google Maps. It is twelve and a half miles and should take twenty-one minutes. The green lights of the LCD clock read 19:17. It will be dark by eight.

We park facing London; the planes that pass overhead are very big in the sky. They have their lights on, and the sky is turning through a mirage of reds. On the drive here I kept glancing at Sinusoid, trying to work out what she was thinking. We haven’t spoken since the roundabout; she has just sat with her hands held in her lap, looking out of the side window. Sometimes though I would look at her and she would be looking at me, and we would both look away.
    “So,” I say.
    “Winsdor Great Park.”
    “Good spot,” she says.
    “Yes, it’s beautiful.”
    “Quiet,” she adds.
    As if to appreciate this we are also quiet, but at some point it becomes another awkward silence. I wish I had planned it word by word. I could have come up with what I would say, and then written down all the possible answers she could give, then my responses to her answers, and all the possible responses to those. On a large piece of paper it would look like a family tree as I mapped each potential future as each new thing was said. I wonder if it would all lead to the same point. I could do it in reverse; how far back would I have to trace to find a decision that wouldn’t lead me to Windsor Great Park, sitting in a hire car with Sinusoid, and two charcoal barbeques in my bag?
    “You have the easy-grill?” She makes it sound like a question, but it feels like a cattle prod.
    “We call them disposable barbeques.” Do I sound annoyed? “But yes, I have them.”
    “Them? You have more than one?”
    Her criticism makes me angry. I am British; I do not let it show. I bury it.
    “The website only talked about one person in the car, I didn’t know how more people would affect it so I bought two to be safe.”
    I look at her and she smiles at me as though it was a sweet thing to think about. My anger is gone, replaced by an urge to put my hand on her thigh, to twist forward and kiss her. We hold that stare and then she looks away.
    “Two’s better then one,” she says.
    I turn around on my seat and lean over into the back. I pull the disposable barbeques out of my bag, unwrap the plastic, remove the cardboard, and fold out the thin metal legs. I sit them side-by-side on the back seat.
    “You said you wanted to use your lighter?”
       She nods her head and rummages in her pocket.
    “This was my sign,” she says. “If they took it off me at security I wasn’t going to get on the plane.”
    She hands me a Zippo. I take it and turn back to the barbeques. The charcoal has been soaked in lighter fuel and catches easily. I notice the words Nathan and Kimberley inscribed on the side of the lighter. I pause over the burning coals, my pulse thumps in the side of my head; Nathan is my name.
    “The letters,” she says.
    I pull mine out of my bag and turn back round.
    How does she know my name?
    We both place our letters on the dashboard in front of us and stare at them. I can feel the fumes filling the car, the flames stealing the oxygen. The Internet said it would be painless, like going to sleep, but I don’t like the way it tastes. Oily.
    I look at my hands and expect them to be black and stained. They’re not. I close my eyes to think; I want to ask her about the lighter. I want to call her Kimberly or maybe Kim. I like the feel of her name in my mouth; it takes away the poisonous taste. I turn to look at her again, I should grab her hand and intertwine our fingers, I should kiss her, but her eyes are closed and she’s smiling.
   The London sky has turned from red to black and I can see the lights of the planes going to all the destinations that flash on all the electronic boards. I watch the clock in the car morph from 19:59 to 20:00; everything changed and yet nothing feels different. No last words, but it’s not important because I died a long time ago. I lay my head on Sinusoid’s soft shoulder, on Kimberley’s shoulder. There is a gentle groan from her throat, and then everything is blank, like the spaces between words.