The Waiting Room
I have always thought it an odd phenomenon - the strange way that life-shattering days frequently give no indication of their impending momentousness - and can, in fact, often be more mundane than the norm. It was three weeks before Christmas and I travelled, as I always did, using the local branches of our railway system; more abundant in the early twenties than in these days of rail cutbacks. Most people enjoy the hustle and bustle of a railway journey, but to those of us who spend our working day moving from one train to another, it rapidly becomes monotonous.
The town I had to visit that day was not notable for anything in particular. Its grey streets seemed full of people huddled up against the rain, hurrying to get home to the fire, like thousands of others the country over on this dismal December afternoon.
I waited, as always, on the station platform, wondering for the hundredth time, why they are always such draughty places and stamping my feet to keep my circulation going. The damp seemed to pervade my very bones, as I shivered in the steady, soaking drizzle.
When the train pulled in I was pathetically grateful and climbed into one of the single carriages, closing the door quickly on the dark, depressing exterior. I settled into the comfortable seat, closing my eyes, hoping to pass at least some of the journey asleep. I was more successful than I hoped because we pulled into the station for my connection, before I knew it. Luckily the jolt woke me.
I disembarked, rather disorientated, but fortunately for me the station was one with which I was very familiar, a small place, several miles equidistant, from each of the villages it serves and used by very few. My train pulled out and I was left standing on an empty platform, shivering once more. I looked around. Hopefully my connection would not be long arriving; the hour was getting late and my thoughts were concentrating more and more on food and warmth. This was not a place one felt inclined to linger.
An hour later I was becoming concerned. It was almost ten o'clock and if my memory served me, my wait should have been, at the most, twenty minutes. I went in search of someone and found to my dismay that the late guard was just locking up to leave. He looked up, startled, as I approached. Wary, in fact, but I dismissed it as no concern of mine.
"I'm waiting for the nine fifteen," I told him, "has there been some delay?"
He peered at me in the gloom and relaxed noticeably as he recognised my face. "Oh good evening sir. It's Mr. Boyle isn't it?"
"Doyle." I corrected him. "What's happened to the train?"
"How long is it since you last came this way, sir? That train hasn't run for a couple of months now. The last train through here at night, in the winter, is the one you must have come in on!" he replied in answer to my query.
I stared at him, the full force of my predicament coming home to me.
"Are you sure?"
A stupid question. Of course he was sure, it was his business to know the timetable backwards!
"I'm sorry, sir, the next train down to London is the seven o'clock - tomorrow morning."
It's no exaggeration to say I was horrified. In all my years of using the railways, I had never once been stranded anywhere. There is, as they say, a first time for everything and mine had just arrived.
I must have looked the way I felt, because he looked around, obviously searching for a solution.
"The only thing I can suggest, sir, is that you spend the night in the waiting room. You won't be the most comfortable you've ever been, but I'll try to rekindle the fire a bit, better than sitting on the platform. Only..."
and he stopped, regarding me warily, "well... you don't look like you're prone to fancifulness, so I'm sure you'll be quite snug."
I frowned at him, wondering what on earth he could mean, but he moved off before I could question him. I followed him along the platform and we stopped at the door to the waiting room. He unlocked it and we went in. It was, as station waiting rooms invariably are, uninviting. He lit the single gas light, which illuminated the surrounding six feet of space and left the rest of the room with enough light not to see by and bent to see if the fire could be resurrected. It resisted but eventually he had some flame, not enough to make the room cheerful exactly but somewhat less tomb-like in atmosphere.
He came to stand beside me and suddenly I realised that I was keeping this man from his family.
"Thankyou, I appreciate your time, I will be fine here, you need not concern yourself," I assured him.
That doubtful look again. I shared it but had no intention of detaining him further.
"Good-night then, sir." He touched his cap and left, in what my imagination told me was as much haste as he could muster.
I looked around. A leather-covered seat, long enough for me to stretch out on, was against one wall. It seemed to be the sum total of anything approaching comfort in the room, apart from the fire and a few single chairs. I silently bemoaned my stupidity. Not bothering to check the times of trains before travelling was taking over-confidence to its limit. I put my briefcase on the seat and searched for my copy of The Times. Something told me I might be needing it. In desperate situations, desperate measures are called for.
Somehow, covering yourself with a newspaper always appears straightforward. Tramps never seem to be challenged by the task. Take it from me, it is not! None of the sheets are inclined to stay where you've placed them and when you turn over, they experience a fickle desire to leave you in favour of the floor! After some time, I had them as I required, providing I did not move a muscle. By this time the fire was beginning to die down, so it was a simple choice between trying to sleep, or attending to it, and recommencing battle with the newspaper. I slept.
I have no clear idea of how long I was asleep, but I woke after what I believe to be several hours.
I was not alone. She sat on one of the chairs adjacent to the door, about a dozen feet from where I lay. It was plain she was waiting for someone. A reasonable deduction given our location but her agitation reinforced this notion. She fidgeted with her gloves, leaned forward to look out of the glass-paned door and rose several times to pace up and down. All this I watched with no little fascination but somehow the significance of this unfolding drama did not penetrate my subconscious. Perhaps I was not fully awake and in the barely illuminated dark, could not quite believe she was there?
It seemed to me, at the time, that this continued for hours, but realistically it could only have been a matter of minutes. Suddenly I was aware of footsteps outside. Not confident strides but broken, as though someone were limping or having to use a stick for support . They moved closer, echoing strangely around the platform, outside. My heart began to beat then, as it dawned on me that this might be something unnatural. I shivered. It was colder surely, though of course the fire had probably died long ago.
As I watched I saw that the woman had also heard the approaching steps. Her face lit up; it was obvious she knew who it was and that the person was eagerly awaited. She moved forward as the door opened, a welcoming smile ready on her face. It froze there.
A man stood framed in the doorway. A soldier in full uniform. He was supported by a heavy walking stick, necessary because it was clear he had been injured, presumably in the trenches. His right leg was oddly twisted, as though it had been broken and the bones had not set properly. His right hand had been taken from him completely and a vicious scar descended from his right ear, down his neck and disappeared below his collar. The extent of the scarring , hidden beneath his uniform, could only be a matter of conjecture.
All of this took me but a moment to digest, but what shook me to the core was not his appearance. It is only a few years since the war ended and the many injured soldiers on our streets remind even those of us who fought elsewhere of their sacrifice in the trenches.
It was his eyes.
I do not think I have ever seen a more beautiful man. Dark haired and dark eyed, he stood tall and proud, but all I could see was the doubt, the fear and the hope, mirrored in those eyes. In those few moments my heart bled for him. Badly wounded but not defeated, all he had left to cling to was his pride. He smiled, unsure of his welcome it seemed. I tore my eyes away from him to observe the reaction in what was surely his girl. My stomach lurched. She was backing away, one hand over her mouth, disgust plainly written on her face. I wanted to scream at her. Don't! He needs you. Help him. But she was circling around him to reach the door. She pushed past in a panic, but he didn't see. He was staring straight ahead, the reality and pain of rejection clearly written in his eyes - and pride.
I shut my eyes tight, screwing them up, trying unsuccessfully to stop the tears from flowing. I know I sobbed out loud. Eventually I forced myself to open them. He had gone. No trace remained, the room was as though nothing had happened. Perhaps it had not. A dream? I had no idea.
I know that I did not sleep again for the rest of the night. When the Station Master arrived the next morning he found me on the platform taking some badly need air. He stood looking at me, frowning.
"Good morning , sir. I trust you've not been here all night?"
"I have, yes," I replied, ruefully. "I neglected to check the timetable before arriving last night and there was no connection."
He looked towards the waiting room and then back at me. "Did you sleep in there?"
I nodded in affirmation.
"Was everything all right sir?"
"That depends on your point of view," I replied, ambiguously. "What happened here?"
He stared back at me, obviously considering how much to reveal. "A woman was killed. Three years ago. Ran out of the waiting room in a panic, didn't look where she was running and fell into the path of an oncoming train. Terrible thing."
"They say her young man came back from the trenches wounded. She was one of these genteelly brought up females, couldn't cope with disfigurement. Sad thing. Fought for his country and came back to that. Not that I would've wished that on her, of course!"
"What happened to him?"
"No-one knows, disappeared completely, could be anywhere. God knows, there's enough poor devils came back in the same state, many a lot worse!"
I nodded in agreement. The train arrived as he bid me good-bye and I boarded it gratefully, relieved to be leaving this eerie place.
And there the story should have ended, but it did not. I was haunted as surely as the waiting room in that Godforsaken station. It was his eyes. I could not shake off the image of the pride and despair written there and saw them in my mind constantly. I began to worry for my sanity. Christmas was looming and I envisaged a distracted celebration, with my aging parents wondering what ailed me.
As I headed for yet another station, one late afternoon, in yet another humdrum town, I tried to shake off my feelings of despondency; I was ever the type to take the cares of the world upon my shoulders! A Salvation Army band played Christmas Carols and I tried to let their good-cheer lift my depression. As I passed the last row of shops I stopped to look in a window briefly, and stepped back instantly in surprise. Those eyes.
I thought I had finally gone mad. But no. I turned, frantically, to look about me in the street and saw him. He was seating himself unsteadily, on a wall beside the shop - dark haired, dark eyed, several days stubble on his chin and bearing a definite air of homelessness. I think I must have stared, dumbfounded, for quite some while, because he finally noticed and smiled at me tentatively. Gathering my wits at last, I moved to sit beside him and spoke.
"Where did you get your injuries, friend?"
He was silent, tight-lipped but answered eventually. "Ypres. Sergeant in the Royal Artillery. Bodie."
I nodded. "No family?"
"No. Who needs 'em?" His voice sounded bitter.
More pain than anyone should ever have to bear emerged with those words. Could I change that? Perhaps.
"Well, my train doesn't leave for a while, can I buy you a cup of tea?"
Deep blue eyes appraised me for a moment, I prayed I would not be found wanting.
"A kind offer. Thankyou."
I helped him up and his eyes met mine in gratitude. Do messages pass telepathically between two people? There is no proof of course, but I believe we both knew that day, that our futures would be forever linked.
It's a strange world. One in which much happens that we do not understand. Over the years we have discussed my experiences that night, on numerous occasions - our conclusions many and varied. But these days neither he nor I seek to explain the inexplicable. We are content to let it be.
Except - I have never travelled by train, since that day - without a thorough examination of the timetable. And I never, ever, wait in the waiting room.
-- THE END --