The flowers felt heavy in his hands as the doors slid shut behind him. They started to over-balance, clasped by the stems as they were, leaning in increments towards the window. The train pulled away from the station, and he pulled the flowers upright.
He thumbed at the small card tied round the neck of the flowers, the callous edge of the card rubbing against his fingertips. He could feel where the biro had pressed into it, the outline of the words Yours always, Tom rubbing against the flat of his fingers. He’d written it before boarding the train, sat in the small coffee shop at the station. The pen had been borrowed from the girl behind the counter, and she’d smiled shyly at him, two long front teeth poking out and denting her lower lip. He’d felt awful for forgetting a pen, but the note was still heartfelt, and his coffee had sat forgotten until he’d stood to return the pen.
The girl had asked if the flowers were for someone special. He’d rubbed his neck awkwardly, but nodded. “My girlfriend, Laura,” he’d mumbled, before thrusting the pen towards her.
The platform shrank into the distance, settling into a spec in the city centre. He turned his attention away from the window and focused on the carriage, peering down the aisle for a free seat. There were none, he realised, so he settled near the doorway and leant against the wall.
The hem of his sleeve was getting damp, water inching down his bare wrist to where his jumper hung, the elastic loose. It darkened the fabric, turning the pastel to a deep, bloody maroon. The flowers, freshly pulled from the wet embrace of a market stall – her favourite, he’d remembered, with the clamouring shouts, men and women offering fruits and vegetables and spices and, of course, the flowers - were dripping steadily from their cut stems.
The skyscrapers, seen through the clouded window, rose and fell like a series of piano keys, being pressed and released out of time. He hadn’t been out of the city for a long time, not since he’d last gone to visit her, and a tangled rope of snakes seemed to writhe inside his stomach every time he thought about returning. They used to catch this train together, from time to time, holding hands and peering out at the scenery as it changed from grey to green, buildings falling away and trees taking their place.
There was a willow tree coming up, he knew, and he shifted his weight as he awaited its approach. It was the first sign of change, a lonely sight in a brick world. The next station wasn’t far past it, and he hoped he’d be able to slip into a seat then.
The last time they’d taken this trip together he’d had a seat. Two, in fact, with her sat next to him, head nestled into his chest. She’d been the one to point out the willow tree, its leaves golden against the bright blue of the autumn sky. Behind its trailing branches and feathered leaves lay a small pond, still and silent. He’d reached for her hand and given it a small squeeze upon contact, and she’d squeezed back.
Today the water was rippled, the branches beside it bare and stark; gnarled and stretching, long, needlepoint fingers reaching towards the train tracks. He held the flowers a little tighter as the tree rolled past, letting the damp stalks press into his fingers.
The train began to slow, easing itself to a halt as it settled alongside the platform. A man, hat slung low over his eyes, peeled himself from his seat and moved towards the exit. Clutching the flowers to his chest, Tom stole a quick glance to either side, then swiftly moved to settle himself in the vacated chair. His shoulders slumped, and he let out a breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding.
A woman peered into the carriage, pressing her red-painted lips into a thin line. “Nothing,” she sighed, turning to look behind her.
“Nor here,” replied a man’s voice, deep and gravelly. “Shall we stand?”
The woman shrugged. “Guess so.”
The man moved into the carriage behind her, sliding an arm around her waist. She smiled, slick red lips pouting as they turned upwards. He pressed a kiss against her forehead, and she settled her back flat against his body.
Tom’s chest felt empty. He missed Laura. It had been a long time since he’d last seen her, and the journey was amplifying his nerves. He broke his gaze, looking down at the flowers. He’d picked her favourites: as a bouquet it didn’t make sense, but each flower, in their varying shades of purple and white and yellow, had been hand-picked to please her. She loved lavender, and had the delicate outline of two, with stems crossed, tattooed along the back of her upper arm; she’d had it done two years ago, when they’d holidayed in a seaside town. She’d squeezed his hand as the needle had pressed into her skin. He’d squeezed back, smiling down at her.
The train was picking up speed again. He shifted in his seat slightly, turning his head to peek at the passenger next to him. A man was slouched against the window, his heavy, snoring breaths fogging the glass. Tom watched as he exhaled, clouding the window in a fat spurt, before it slowly receded again – only to be replaced by a fresh wave seconds later. Frowning, he turned away.
The train rattled as it rounded a corner. Tom couldn’t see out of the opposite window, but he recognised the swell of the hill as the train turned. The track climbed around the edge of the hill, twisting away from the last dregs of the city and pushing forwards into the countryside.
The couple that had taken his place by the door shifted, balancing as the train rocked. The man steadied the woman, two large hands wrapping around her waist. Tom’s hands ached to reach around her waist again. They were coming up to a bridge, he remembered, and he distracted himself with trying to see past the slumbering man beside him. The flowers he’d bought for her felt heavy in his hands all of a sudden, and he balanced them between his knees to relieve the weight somewhat.
He could feel the weight of her hand on his lap, held open and awaiting the warmth of his. She’d do it often, opening and closing her fist and waggling her eyebrows at him, waiting for him to slide his hand in and squeeze. He’d sigh, sometimes roll his eyes, but his hand would always find hers. She’d smile at him, then, and it would make his heart constrict every time.
They’d walk together often, and she always wanted to be touching him: an arm slung around his waist, a hand clasping at the crook of his elbow. The last time they’d caught the train together they’d had to run in the rain, feet splashing through puddles and coats held above their heads. Even then she’d been reaching for him, using her right hand to hold her coat up as a makeshift hood, her left clasping for his damp hand. They’d made it onto the platform just as the train pulled away. He’d been annoyed, initially, but then she’d started to laugh; loud, sputtering laughs which drew him in and pulled him along, until he was giggling like a child. She’d pulled him out from the cover of the platform, right up to the edge so their toes were settled against the brink of the pavement, and she’d kissed him in the rain.
Tom blinked. He’d been staring at the couple by the door again. The flowers had dampened both hands, and the knees of his jeans now, too. Absentmindedly, he wiped his palms against his thighs, letting the water seep into the fabric.
The train rumbled over a bridge, slowing as it began its descent to the next station. They were approaching a dense, forested area, with tall evergreen pines shouldering shorter, leafless trees. A layer of mist swam around the base of the woods, obscuring the woodlands even as the train slowed. They were well out of the city now, and he knew it wasn’t long until he would be with her again.
The man beside him shifted, rolling his head away from the window. The skin around his eyes was creased, deep dents ironed in, as though a tiny animal had furrowed into each cleft. Laura had always bemoaned her wrinkles, small as they were at her young age. She’d pull at her eyes and her forehead in the mirror, dragging the skin grotesquely against her skull.
“You know doing that will make them worse,” Tom had teased. She’d turned to face him, letting her hands drop. She’d pouted, then, moving towards him and settling on his lap. Her hands had wound around his neck, and she’d spoken breathily into his ear.
“You’ll still love me when I’m old?”
“I’ll love you forever,” he’d assured her, pressing a small kiss against her temple.
The train hummed to a stop. The couple by the door moved to the exit, followed by a few others who’d been sat further back. The man beside Tom blinked heavily, his breathing coming lighter as he pulled himself up. He nodded to Tom as he settled back into his seat. Tom gave a half-hearted nod back, squinting to check the sign on the platform. His eyes widened, and he scrambled to check his pockets and gather the flowers as he realised he’d arrived.
They’d usually ride until the next stop, which was set further into the forest. Once they’d taken a picnic, holstered on their backs and stuffed beneath a blanket. The cold had eaten away at their extremities, fingers and toes and noses turning numb, so they’d packed up their half-eaten lunch and walked for a mile or so until they’d found a pub. It was crowded and noisy, but it was warm; bustling with small-town charm, it had felt like a world away from the city they’d left behind.
She’d wrapped her gloved fingers around her tea, the steam dancing under her chin. They’d ordered a pot to share, and he’d poured it for her with shaking hands. Laughing, she’d pulled his fingers to his lips and warmed them with a kiss, before blowing on them; she’d puffed so much that she’d lost her breath, and his laughter replaced hers as he returned the favour. Their mugs full, they retreated to their respective sides of the table, mulling in the sounds of chatter and clattering cutlery around them as their hands defrosted against their cups.
The cold air bit at Tom’s face as he stepped off of the train. He’d only got off at this station once before, the last time he’d seen her. He left the platform and fumbled his way through the station; his ticket got jammed in the machine as he tried to pass, and the security guard had to let him through. He shook his head nervously, muttering a tiny “Thank you” which sounded empty, even to his own ears. His chest ached, as though his lungs were full of lead.
Outside, a middle-aged man rummaged for his matches, a cigarette dangling between his lips. He pulled them from his pocket triumphantly, the match striking on his first attempt. The small flame burst into life, being drawn to the end of the cigarette. It burned red against the white of the fog, before being extinguished moments later.
She wasn’t there to meet him. It felt odd, as though their routine had been displaced. He held onto the flowers a little tighter as he began to walk.
The rhythmic sound of his steps dulled his senses, drawing him further into himself. He’d been pacing last time they’d argued, listening to her shouts but not really understanding them. She’d sighed, her eyes ringed with red and her cheeks tear-stained. It’d broken his heart to see her like that, but he couldn’t see what he’d done wrong. He’d tried to tell her that he didn’t understand, and she’d slumped onto the bed.
“When you listen, you listen to respond. That’s why you don’t understand.”
Her eyes had been cold, even through the haze of tears. Her fists had crumpled the duvet where she’d been clenching it. As she’d released it, the covers unfurling slowly, he was terrified she was going to leave him.
Each step felt laden with uncertainty. He pulled his phone out to check he was going the right way, the glow of the screen lighting the underside of his chin and nose. Staring at it, he turned, and stepped into the road.
There were no cars, but the traffic lights glowed red through the mist. He followed a winding pavement alongside the trees, crossing in and out of the edge of a small cluster of saplings. He checked his phone, and turned from the pavement onto a small track that had been eroded by repeated footfall into the grass.
There was a small wooden gate ahead, and he tried to pull at the latch. It was worn from use, and he had to tuck the flowers into the crook of his elbow to use both hands. He tugged at it, and it sprang open; the gate creaked heavily and moved forward. Tom shivered, but stepped through it without shutting it behind him.
He walked quickly, now, knowing she was close. He approached her, his stomach in knots.
He pulled the card from the flowers, stopping in front of her. He began to read, his voice unsteady.
I love you. I miss you. I never thought I could miss someone so much, but I’ve never had to miss you before. I’m sorry that I ever rolled my eyes at you when you wanted to hold hands. I’d take that back if I could. I really, really would.
There’s a couple arguing next to me as I write this. I wish I could tell them to stop wasting their time. I didn’t realise how precious it was, before.
I hope you’re okay. Is that a stupid thing to say? Probably. I don’t know what to say. I never thought I could hurt this much, and I guess it’s making me stupid.
The only thing that could make me feel better is you. See? Stupid. I can’t do that anymore. Someone told me writing is cathartic. I disagree.
Remember when I said I’d love you forever? I think that was true. I meant it then, and it definitely feels like it now. Jake asked me if I’d started to move on yet the other day. Honestly? The thought of it made me cry.
I love you so much, Laur. I mean it.
He stepped back, and took a deep breath. Then he took the card and the flowers, and lay them upright against the cold stone of her grave.