Everything looks fragile in winter. Fulsome trees shrivel into dry, skeletal things. The grass and flowers and weeds are crystallised by frozen dew drops. They look so brittle, as if they could shatter at the merest touch. But I love this time of year. The air feels so crisp and clean and new, the cold so frigid it burns your cheeks. The spell is broken, though, by the time I’m waiting for my train back home from college. I’ve lost all feeling in my toes, which are numbed senseless by the cold in my new shoes, already splattered with mud, as I crunched through the frozen crust of a puddle into the sodden earth, like stepping on a crème brulee.
I look down the platform at my fellow travellers. Tour de Farce is here, as always, still encased in lycra, wrestling with his Brompton. Everyone’s nursing steaming hot travel mugs, and I'm grateful for my mocha, pleasantly singeing the tips of my fingers. As I take a sip, which scolds my lips and wreaths my face in a cloud of hot, damp steam, the tannoy crackles into life, pouring forth some unintelligible announcement, but I know what it means. I lean out to peer down the track, which stretches determinedly into the distance and I almost envy it its purpose, only deviating from its course to skirt some obstacle, before continuing its pre-determined path. As I look, I sometimes wonder if my life is the same, that there is a track laid down for me and all I need to do is follow it. I don’t know whether if that thought is comforting or not. If there is a track I should follow, then it is hidden from me. Eventually, in the distance, I can see a single headlight glowing like an eye, as my train hurtles towards me, and arrives, brakes screeching, settling before my platform, with a drawn out sigh, as if out of breath.
The doors beep and hiss open and we all crowd inside. The windows are already fogged over and I wipe away the condensation to unveil the view outside. Homes scud past, a thousand lives, gone in an instant. Dilapidated tower blocks, tenants stacked on top of each other, give way to clean cut new builds, still packed tightly together, already bustling like termite hills.
As we carry on our exodus, out of the city centre, more and more people stream off, until it’s just me and a few stragglers, basking in our new-found leg room. I rattle past fields, the earth frozen as hard as the dry-stone walls which break them into a patchwork, jagged and dark. Standing amidst one of the fields, I can see a besuited scarecrow, a solitary sentinel yet, as I look, I realise there are no crops for it to guard. It abruptly doffs its hat in salutation and disappears behind a copse. My first thought is that it must have been a lone rambler, out for an evening stroll, yet what kind of a rambler goes out in cold like this, wearing only a suit? Distantly, overhead, I can see a red kite circling, its wings outstretched like fingers. The sun is just beginning to set above the crest of the hill, casting its cold, hard light, making the frosted grass beneath glimmer and sparkle.
Thinking that my stop is coming soon, I look up at the LED screen above me and it displays a station I don’t recognise. For the first time, panic rises like bile at the back of my throat. The carriage is bathed in a hard white light from the electric lamps, like a hospital, which flickers as the train judders along towards its destination.
The carriage is silent. No, there is a noise, a faint dripping. Slow, fat drops, coming from further down the carriage. I peer around the seat in front of me, down the aisle and I can see black trouser clad legs and mud-spattered brogues, peeking from beneath the chair diagonally in front and across from me.
I reach for my phone, but it’s not in my pocket. I frantically frisk myself until, with a sigh of relief, I pull it out of my coat pocket, its cracked screen grinning back at me. Dead. I stuff it back in my coat pocket in frustration. I look down, my backpack is still underneath my chair, one strap wrapped around my ankle. I rummage through the detritus and pull out my A Level English coursework, relief flooding through me. It’s then that I notice I’m alone. The seat across from me is now unoccupied. Except for the suitcase, which is now resting on its side in the aisle. I look up and down the carriage. Empty. Did we stop and I just didn’t notice it? Tentatively, I walk across to the suitcase, unsure what to do. Should I tell someone? But who?
“Can I help you?”
I wheel around to see two disconcertingly blank, dark eyes staring into mine through tortoise shell glasses.
“Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t... I just saw your suitcase and you weren’t there, so I thought you’d...”
“I’d gone to use the facilities.” He brushes an invisible fleck of dust off his lapel. “I didn’t take my briefcase with me, as I thought you looked trustworthy.”
“Oh, thank you?”
“Would you like to see inside my briefcase? If you’re curious...”
He heaves it up on to his seat and deposits it with a wet thunk. And was it my imagination or did it slosh disconcertingly as he lifted it?
“Oh! No, thank you! That’s very kind of you though.”
“Oh please, don’t mention it. Where are you heading to anyway?”
“And where would that be?”
“I’m not sure... I mean, I don’t know where I’m going, so...”
“That does seem to be the case doesn’t it? Well, where would you like to go? I know what you’re going to say: ‘Home.’ But then what? You'll go to bed, go to sleep, wake up, go to school, university, work or whatever it might be, ad nauseam until you don’t wake up anymore. Is that where you want to go?”
I hesitate, uncertain. All day, all I could think about was when I could finally get home. But now…
“Unless, of course, you want to continue on your journey?” The stranger asks, abruptly.
“My journey? Where to?”
“Oh, well that would spoil the surprise, wouldn’t it? But you will need to purchase a ticket.”
“Yes, traditionally, when one wishes to be conveyed from one place to another, via the train, one must first purchase a ticket.”
I desperately pat down my pockets, looking for my wallet.
“I don’t think I need to I – I scanned my Oyster…”
“Not to worry, not to worry,” he reassures me, “you can always buy one” and he pats his suitcase, beneath which a dark liquid has begun to pool.
“Home,” I respond, suddenly certain, “I want to go home.” At this, as if on command, the train starts to slow down.
“Well, as long as you’re sure…” The stranger responds, with a supercilious grin. He dons an oddly familiar looking hat, which he had left on his seat. I know I have seen it somewhere very recently, but my memory will not cooperate. The man gestures, like a stage magician unveiling a new trick, towards the carriage doors, which hiss open. Beyond them is my home, bathed in moonlight, turning the scene monochrome. It lies nestled within the heart of a small valley and the landscape spreads beyond us, into the distance, ancient and vast. Stars lie scattered across the inky blackness of the night sky. As I look at the scene, it seems familiar and, yet, uncanny. Within the lake beside our house, which had been a well of shadows, lights now danced in the deep, refracted and swirled by the water. I stare, entranced, but my reverie is broken by a sudden splash of water and a gleaming white horse, limned by a bright light, strides out of the lake on to the shore, where it shakes itself, sending countless gleaming droplets of water into the air, each one gleaming like the fragment of a shattered diamond. Without warning it stops, rigid and tense, its wide eyes staring towards the edge of the forest, a borderland of deep shadow. I follow its gaze and I can see, faintly, a dark mass, slipping between the trees, heading deeper into the forest.
“Well,” the scarecrow asks, “which is it going to be?”