Contest #183 shortlist ⭐️

46 comments

Fiction Sad

The wave


Your lips are telling me you love me and that you’ll be home tomorrow. I watch your legs briskly walking away. With decisive steps, you mount the train steps and the doors slide shut. When you sit at the window, I think perhaps it is so you can see me one last time; but when the train pulls away, you are already checking your messages. I raise a hand and wave to your bowed head. Is this gesture to catch your attention? Look at this tableau: your wife waiting on the platform, hand half raised.


As you depart, an announcement crackles over the speaker: Do not board the train on platform 31; it is returning to the sidings.


I look to my left and see an empty train; glancing up, the small black and white sign, number 31, swings in a breeze I hadn’t even noticed. And for a moment, I know just how it feels: this train, destined for the sidings, waiting for no one. 


Taking sides


A train pulls into platform 32, filling the space left by yours. People spill out. The doors are programmed only to open on the platform’s side, the others stay shut. There is only one exit which opens; you can press the button, and press again, but the other doors just won’t slide open. 


People are forced to take sides. My mother says I made my bed and need to lie in it. She is on your side. Her prim looks, stern reprimands and even gentle cajolery remind me that my side is next to yours. At night I think, whose side am I on? I lie facing the window, sensing the solid wall of your back; your arm a buttress near my own. We are on two different sides; we could wave to each other from our battlements, if we ever turned to face each other. 


Blank faces


Faces peer anywhere but at me. Down into their phones, up at the signs: exit A, B, C… I have drawn blanks: no names on any of these slips are for me. The platform stretches ahead and my feet walk me to its far end. Just behind, people pass through the barriers and exit the station, making their onward journeys. I stop at the end of the platform, staring out to where the tracks lose their orderly way, bisecting and merging. How do trains find their way? How do they know which way to go?


There is one trainspotter here. He does not wear an anorak and has no little jotterbook. He has a kind face where the lines of age criss-cross his cheeks. Happy for company, he tells me about the tracks. I learn some are “Single turnout,” diverging one rail track into two directions; others are a “Diamond crossing,” intersecting two tracks; while a “Crossover” connects two tracks laid side-by-side. I nod and thank him for this information; a neat order for the clashing lines I see before me and we fall into silence. 


Every merge, every diverge is an opportunity, but a chance too for confusion, chaos- crashes even. Crossings are often cross places, although here before me, they seem peaceful enough; perhaps they too are letting sleeping dogs lie. 


Lies


The old man with the criss-cross face picks up a scuffed thermos and pours out a black tea and offers me the plastic cup. It too is scoured with scratches, the scars of the years. It makes my hands look almost young, almost new. He smiles as I sip the scalding liquid. As trains arrive and depart, he tells me how he often comes here to watch the trains he used to take with Joan, his wife. How they’d taken their honeymoon at the sea, and left from platform 19, just over there. And later, family holidays in the countryside as camping in the local woods was all they could afford. Platform 12, right over on my left. Other journeys: to visit the kids at Uni; then the suburbs where they moved to; the retirement home; the hospital; the church with its graves. From this station, you can take nearly any train to go there, he tells me, it’s the first stop on most services. 


I finish the tea and he pours me more; I take little burning sips as he goes on with his tale.

How, for a time, he’d just got on any train that came along. How often he didn’t even buy a ticket, just rode a train a few stops, got out and rode the next one back, hoping, even if just for a second, to glimpse from the window the person he used to be: making purposeful journeys to purposeful places, to see people who gave purpose to his life. 


A purpose to life.


One, then two, then three raindrops fall into the tea, cupped in my hands. A trio of radiating circles ripple out, little waves. I look up to see the clouds, but the sky is blue and the old man is taking the cup and giving me a handkerchief. It is old-fashioned, cotton trimmed with lace and hand-stitched in the corner is a little pink “J”. Oh no, I couldn’t, but he presses it up to my eyes and I lose all sight of the world for a while. 


When I open my eyes his lined face is still there, looking at the ever merging and diverging tracks before us. He seems to speak to the passing trains, as if they might pick up his words and carry them away. A message regarding time, and knowing when it’s the right one to end the lie and say goodbye. 


Standing at the end of the line, I follow his gaze along the endlessly crossing tracks; I peer into the distance and try to see the place where the lines no longer cross, where the way lies clear.


The end of the line


Another train pulls alongside your platform, number 32, hissing slowly to a standstill. Of course I do not expect you to alight with the other passengers. I know you won’t step down and take me in your arms; won’t whisper sorry into my hair; won’t breathe in, like I am the scent of the sweetest flower. I close my petals on this pain, thanking the old man for his tea, his company. 


Slightly awkwardly, it is so damp after all, I try to return his handkerchief, but he presses it back into my hands. I am about to go, join the others walking to the barriers, exit this scene at last, when he nods at the train, waiting beside us. It will leave in 8 minutes, he tells me, and is the same train as the one you took nearly thirty minutes ago. This is the direct train to Lancaster, scheduled every Friday to depart at regular intervals, for those wanting to escape the city and relax at the Lakes, enjoying a romantic break away. 


Breaking away


I know. How could I not know? Work is work until it becomes pleasure. The pleasure of waiting dulls to a pain when it comes again and again and again. Platforms where I wait, trains you take; a moment of connection followed, inevitably, by break after break after break. 


I hug him then, the old man, looking out at the tracks of his life, and board my train. 


Yes, the time has come. I will board this train, make this journey, alight at the place I always knew was waiting for us: the end of this line. Taking out the handkerchief, I will create a new tableau when I wave it beautifully, decisively, this little white flag, not of surrender, but of defiant farewell. 
















February 02, 2023 20:06

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46 comments

Michał Przywara
18:18 Feb 04, 2023

Mm, I'm stunned :) This is a lovely piece. The train metaphor, for arrivals/departures and endings/beginnings, the end of the line, the seeming chaos of routing - which does have logic and rules if we know what to look for - paralleling life, the purpose with which some travel and the purposelessness with which others don't -- all of this is great. So we pair that with a couple people on the sidelines, watching it all. In a sense, they step back from life, step out of it, so that they can take a breather and get a bigger picture. For the o...

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Rebecca Miles
09:24 Feb 05, 2023

Hi Michal. Trains and train journeys are a well-worked trope, but they're just so emotive aren't they and I hoped in focusing on the tracks I'd bring something a bit new to the table. I was going for a series of linked carriages with this one and a more pared back style. I'm glad it delivered!

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Michał Przywara
22:38 Feb 10, 2023

Congratulations on the shortlist :D

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Rebecca Miles
07:56 Feb 11, 2023

Thanks so much Michal; I'm sure your lovely comment helped. I'm having a week's pause, so I'll be able to enjoy the reading even more. I have to ask, are we going to be treated to a poignant one soon? I still remember your cookbook story and, if you take reader requests, I'd love something similar.

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Michał Przywara
16:30 Feb 11, 2023

Thank you for saying so :) I've been on a bit of a silly streak since Hey Streamer, and for this week, my mind is leaning towards something horror - but who knows. The story changes a thousand times before the last draft. I'll keep poignant in mind though, kind of prime the pump. Although honestly, I find it a little intimidating, as the competition here is stiff :)

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Mike Rush
23:10 Feb 02, 2023

Rebecca! Oh my gosh, you're a storyteller! I'm just agog at this deeply reflective piece. The metaphor of train for your character's place in life is so gracefully teased out. Here's what I mean, "where the tracks lose their orderly way, bisecting and merging. How do trains find their way? How do they know which way to go?" I can just see her, alone on the tracks, having just put her disinterested husband on the train, hands in pockets, the wind whipping her hair... Your word choices are so stimulating: tableau, battlements, cajolery as w...

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Rebecca Miles
15:10 Feb 03, 2023

Ah Mike, thank you so much for your heartfelt reading; I think you are as passionate as I am about it! I love stories that are really expressive and trying to find words to capture the depths of emotion is something that gives me so much pleasure. I am delighted that my efforts have pleased you too! The lines on the flower I worked and worked on till they fitted so I am so thrilled they really moved you.

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Edward Latham
13:23 Feb 07, 2023

A masterfully worked piece Rebecca! You manage to keep an expert level of subtlety to your writing that I admire and struggle to achieve myself. An example being the hints that her partner is cheating on her, but without ever explicitly revealing it. An enjoyable, flowing and emotive read.

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Rebecca Miles
15:34 Feb 07, 2023

Hi Edward. Inference and hints are not everyone's cup of tea, but I'm glad you enjoyed the subtle approach. I enjoyed stripping it back somewhat this week and letting the two characters and the central metaphor of the train carry it all. I always enjoy your stories so much; you have really great concepts; I I look forward to your next one soon. I'm having a break from writing for a week or two, so I'll have more reading time which will be lovely.

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Aeris Walker
13:36 Feb 06, 2023

I’m always impressed by the unique and unexpected ways people approach storytelling, and yours always bring something powerful and fresh—the kind of writing I want to cut apart to understand just how you did it. There was so much to appreciate here, the depth, the overlapping metaphors, the beautiful writing, but for some reason these lines stood out to me as just really visually effective, making me see the scene so clearly: “The old man with the criss-cross face picks up a scuffed thermos and pours out a black tea and offers me the plasti...

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Rebecca Miles
12:01 Feb 07, 2023

Thanks so much Aeris. Are you writing this week?

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David Drake
03:39 Feb 06, 2023

Wow. Just wow! This was a great narrative! Drew me in right away! The plot was great, but it is your storytelling style that won me!

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Rebecca Miles
06:07 Feb 06, 2023

Hi David, thanks for the positive comment. I'm really pleased this delivered on plot too.

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Lily Finch
19:03 Feb 05, 2023

Great piece of writing. Nice setup of the plot at the outset of the story. The vivid images haunt and delight. The diction is awesome. LF6

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Rebecca Miles
06:09 Feb 06, 2023

Thanks Lily for stopping by, reading and commenting; I really appreciate it.

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J.J. Erwin
16:34 Feb 05, 2023

I love the quiet reflection of this story mixed with the noisy setting. It is really very beautiful.

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Rebecca Miles
15:53 Feb 07, 2023

Thanks so much. I love trying to create beauty with words so I'm so pleased if this had that effect.

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Helen A Smith
16:06 Feb 05, 2023

Your observations are sound and bring to life the trains, tracks and the people connected to them. Demonstrating opportunities and choices. Trains being a metaphor for the different journeys that might or might not be taken. You made it meaningful. After experiencing years of jaded travel on the rail, it was a fresh perspective.

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Rebecca Miles
06:05 Feb 06, 2023

Yes, train travel can be very jaded. I think this owes more to films than reality, but given the reality of delays and strikes, that's probably not a bad thing! Thanks for reading Helen. You writing this week?

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Helen A Smith
06:15 Feb 06, 2023

That’s true. I’ve written one this week called A Case Of Opposites.

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Wendy Kaminski
04:32 Feb 03, 2023

Wow, Rebecca - just masterful, as always. You have such a way with words, which Mike expressed better than I ever could have. I loved the detailed time with the trainspotter, and all of the descriptive information there: it was a rock in a sea of her fraught moments in that station. The subheaders picking up a thread from the prior scenario and weaving it forward was also so effective in pulling me along for this momentous interlude in the character's life. I really enjoyed it so very much!

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Rebecca Miles
05:56 Feb 03, 2023

Hi Wendy. In my mind, I picture you reading and scribbling for Reedsy 24 hours a day. How wonderful that you're here for us all on the platform. I could think of nothing for this week's prompts except trains which is perhaps why this has such a throwback sort of feel to it. This was my go at stripping away a bit more!! I'm glad, despite the topic, you enjoyed it.

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Sarah Martyn
21:24 Feb 05, 2023

I agree! I can tell Wendy is involved and thoughtful on the Reedsy platform!

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Wendy Kaminski
16:32 Feb 10, 2023

Thank you, Sarah - I just saw this, and that is so kind. :)

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Wendy Kaminski
16:33 Feb 10, 2023

Congratulations on well-deserved recognition for this piece, Rebecca!

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Rebecca Miles
16:51 Feb 10, 2023

Thanks so much Wendy. I was trying something a bit new for me with this one (not so wordy!) so I'm glad it still hit the mark!

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18:20 Feb 19, 2023

I loved this piece, love trains and people-watching so this ticked all the right boxes. Beautiful writing, and evocative scenes. Well done!

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Philip Ebuluofor
12:41 Feb 18, 2023

Congrats.

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Amanda Lieser
16:31 Feb 17, 2023

Hey Rebecca! Congratulations on the well deserved shortlist. The formatting was breathtaking and I loved how you dropped these clues to a bigger story along the way. I found myself re reading this one, wondering which details I missed the first time around. I loved the way this story seemed to be like my own memory. My favorite line was: I finish the tea and he pours me more; I take little burning sips as he goes on with his tale. I loved that it was its own paragraph. I loved that I have been there, done that. I loved re tracing that memory...

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Rebecca Miles
06:27 Feb 18, 2023

Hi Amanda, thanks so much. Especially for the re-read! Shame I hadn't thought of this story for this week's focus on form!

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Lorenzo Fusini
16:38 Feb 15, 2023

Moving! I like the pathos, and that it's a message to the husband: speaking directly to him renders the message more poignant, so, I believe, more effective. Congrats! While reading the story I couldn't help but notice a vague parallel with Joyce's "Eveline". I guess it's because I really love "Eveline", and because it has to do with a journey and escapism. Was it part of your inspiration?

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Rebecca Miles
09:43 Feb 16, 2023

Funny how the brain works eh as I read that story a few years back in an old copy of the Dubliners I found knocking around and really loved it. You're right, my MC does share that longing reflective tone and journeys are so important to that story too. Oh I love that story, I will have to go and hunt it out again now. I suppose it may well have been an underlining influence on the mood: I love poignant pieces and that one is really suffused with it. My MC has a far more hopeful end than poor Eveline though. So sad she never went to the State...

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Julia Dragu
03:58 Feb 15, 2023

What a well-written series of snippets! I felt as though I was a friend of the character, living through each moment with them. The imagery is spectacular, and I especially liked imagining the old man handing over what is very clearly a well-loved and personal handkerchief which was perhaps a gift. I enjoyed reading this lovely work.

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Story Time
23:18 Feb 13, 2023

Rebecca, I never know what to expect when I begin to read one of your stories except that you're going to continually step out of the box, which I so appreciate. This read was the perfect way to start the week. You keep getting better and better. Well done.

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Rebecca Miles
05:28 Feb 14, 2023

Ah Kevin this is really kind of you. Yes, I tried something a bit different stylistically and was pleased with the result. Thanks for coming back onto my radar; I've had a week off writing so I'm hoping to read more this week, yours definitely included.

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Philip Ebuluofor
13:33 Feb 12, 2023

Congrats Rebecca. After reading your work, I just know I have a long way to go. Hooking read.

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Laurel Hanson
13:27 Feb 11, 2023

Oh my word! This is gorgeous. It's like poetic geometry - planes, lines, crosses, circles - all evoking the internal landscape of the dilemma she is facing. Then all the plays on words - lies - and the stitching together of the vignettes with their headings. It is complex and it is sad as a difficult decision is made. Beautifully crafted.

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Rebecca Miles
18:16 Feb 11, 2023

Thanks Laurel. This one pretty much wrote itself and I didn't even come to the final idea with the handkerchief till I got to the end so I'm pleased it all ran so smoothly ( to eke out even further the train metaphor!) Still got your prize-winning one to read. Well done on two wins in such close succession: very few manage that 🎉

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Evie Thorn
23:24 Feb 10, 2023

Sad yet beautiful

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Rebecca Miles
07:49 Feb 11, 2023

Thanks Evie. Sadly there is no poignant tag!

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Jane Andrews
22:49 Feb 10, 2023

Congratulations on being shortlisted with this one. I loved the series of vignettes, weaving the stream of conscoiusness through the semantic field of trains. (My estranged husband is a trainspotter, so I had to smile at your description of the old man sans anorak and jotterbook - apparently, most trainspotters these days use apps and they love to refer to themselves as ferro-equinologists.) There are some beautiful images in this - the husband and wife lying back to back, on separate sides both literally and metaphorically; the "little burn...

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Rebecca Miles
07:52 Feb 11, 2023

Hi Jane, thanks for the really engaged read. I'm glad her inner strength came out. I'm intrigued by the modern trainspotter; my story would have had a completely different atmosphere if the old man had been on an app! I enjoyed your last one so much and notice you've been prolific this week so I'll have lots to enjoy over the coming days.

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Tommy Goround
19:42 Feb 10, 2023

Congratulations

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