I can still decide not to get on the train, or at any rate, not to get on that train. It is five minutes before it’s due to depart, though its imminent departure has been announced, surprisingly clearly, not in one of those crackling, irritating voices that at one and the same time are both disjointed and like some badly made robot, and as if it is under the skin and not just echoing around the platform. But I have joined the queue, now, and am doing the things that people in queues for trains generally do, taking a swig from a bottle of water though I’m not especially thirsty, taking my book out of my bag and reading the blurb for the umpteenth time, wondering whether I want the people behind and in front of me to make conversation or not.
Not that it’s a particularly long queue. Not at this sleepy hour of the morning, when the morning rush hour has passed, and the second surge of the day has yet to start, and not for a train to a sleepy little town by the North Sea that was lucky even to keep its station.
I can still decide to get off at a station before the one I’ve booked my ticket for. Oh, it will be inconvenient, and cost me money I can’t really afford, but there are worse things than either of those. It’s not a high speed train, only a chugging local one, and the clickety-clack of the wheels never metamorphoses into one sleek constant sound.
The thing is, I must not have illusions. I am not going back, even if I am going back to a town. I cannot go back. There is a before and there is an after, and this is the after. It is after it became too late to change things, and to say things and not say things, and to do things, and not do things. The last time I was in the sleepy little town by the North Sea it became too late. It was not too late on the way there, but had become perpetually too late on the way back.
I sometimes wonder how much I really loved the town, and how much I loved the idea of the town; of quiet streets and bookshops, and one famous poem written about it by a local poet, whose house you can still visit. But it’s not remained rooted entirely in the past; there are things like supermarkets and fast food joints, and computer repair shops. It is rooted in my past. The last time I was there was when I was a student.
It wouldn’t be true to say I had made no bad decisions and taken wrong paths before then. Of course I had. But I was still young enough to put them right, and for people to shake their head but not give up on me. And of course, some of them, nobody ever knew about.
We have left the suburbs of the city behind now. I say city, but it’s only a small provincial capital. All things are comparative. There are fields to either side of the train, some ploughed, some vivid yellow with the spring planting of rapeseed, some small and fenced in, others seeming to reach to the horizon. I can see wind turbines and grain silos, and squat farmhouses. It’s the kind of landscape that nobody would call remarkably beautiful, and yet nobody would call ugly, and the people are reserved, generally, but friendly if you give them a chance. Not that I have been in touch with any of them for years now.
I have taken more sips of my water, have looked at and leafed through a few pages of my book, but couldn’t tell anyone what was written on them. I’m almost relieved. Better that than accidentally chancing upon one of those relevant sentences that nag and snag and don’t make you glad and relieved that someone else thought or experienced the same thing.
Nobody on the station treated me as if I were in any way different or conspicuous or other. Why should they? Even many who know me, or think they know me do not. Why should they?
It’s so easy to say it was the happiest time of my life. Well, maybe it was, but there’s also not much competition.
I was studying at the university in the provincial capital – I had gone as an exchange student, and then decided to stay. Did I ever love it as much as I thought I did, or had it merely become familiar?
We are approaching the first stop on the line. It’s not even really a station, though there is a bench, and a large timetable, and a little bridge across the line. The last time I saw it there was a telephone kiosk there, but I wonder if there is now. No, not a station, just a halt.
I can’t say it means nothing to me. Because Michael’s great aunt lived there. I never got to know her especially well, but I know the two of them were quite close, with the closeness that comes of a good hearted boy, for he was little more than a boy, who had been spoiled by his auntie when he was little. I don’t suppose she’ll be alive now, though he told me they were a long lived family. That thought makes me suddenly start to breathe with more shallow, sharper breaths.
No, I most certainly will not get out of the train here. I want us to be past this village, past the place where Michael’s aunt lived in her cosy cluttered cottage with her adored cats and books.
Michael and I had known each other for over a year, but had only recently become (and I hate this expression, but it’s useful) an item.
I had told myself I wasn’t interested in having a boyfriend (that was a word we still used quite widely then) and in a way it was true, though I did want to be seen as having one. But Michael was another matter. I can still feel the delight and surprise that surged through me when I accidentally overheard someone saying, “Remember, if we ask Michael to the party, we must ask Lisa, because they’re an item.” But the truth is, even at the time, and even as I felt the delight and surprise, I wondered if I heard some sarcasm or resignation in the words. Some unspoken whether we want to or not. Oh, I wasn’t exactly unpopular, but I wasn’t exactly popular either.
Not that we went to parties very often. It wasn’t “us”. We liked discussing our books, and going for long walks together.
Well, that was what I always believed. Though I’d always been snobbish and disparaging about proverbs and adages, I reflected on the one about every pot having its lid, and basked in the fact that I was Michael’s lid.
I found out about Anita by yet another overheard conversation, and oh, how that made the wondering if I heard irony in words about us being if we were an item seem petty and trivial and the kind of worries you desperately want to have back.
“I’m not condoning him, and he ought to come out and tell Lisa, not keep stringing her along, but I can’t blame him. I mean, Lisa is a nice person, but she’s, well …..”
“Boring. And though I love books as much as anyone else, they seem to be the one thing she wants to talk about, and Michael isn’t like that. Anita is just as smart as Lisa, if not more so, but she doesn’t seem to think that heaven would be a library.”
Oh, I knew Anita. Not that well personally, but she was one of those people you couldn’t help knowing all about. I still see her type more or less every day. The bright, breezy, assertive ones with their infectious laughs and determined say of walking, the kind who always seem prepared to help but it’s generally only on their terms, and who worship at the shrine of positive thinking. Anita didn’t go in for neutral colours much, but she would have looked brighter and more striking in beige and grey than I would in scarlet and turquoise.
There’s someone a bit like that on the other side of the carriage. Even though she’s travelling alone and I’ve not heard her talk, I know it. She’s older than Anita and Michael and I were then, and much younger than I am now.
Oh, she is safe. I will do her no harm. Nothing could be further from my thoughts. If she decides to have a bright and breezy word with me, I will be polite.
One more station, or halt, now, before we reach the grey town by the North Sea.
He asked me if I would like to go there with him for a day, and only a week or so before, I would have been delighted and looked forward to a day out with Michael, in a place we both loved, doing things we both loved, looking round the museum and the bookshops, and having coffee and cakes in a quiet café.
But I did accept. And for several hours it was as if I were living in a dream of a dream, where I had overheard nothing, and where Anita did not even exist. But then I could stand it no longer. I was the first to mention her name, as we walked in the little woodland on the edge of the grey town, where we could hear both the roar of the sea, though the day was calm, and the sounds of the town, though they were hardly raucous. I waited for him to tell me that I shouldn’t listen to gossip and not a word of it was true, and frankly, she got on his nerves. He did not keep to the script. He told me that I was a nice person, and he loved our conversations, but yes, he and Anita went back a long way, and he probably wasn’t my type, not really, and it would be better for both of us if we decided just to be friends.
What happened next (and oh, it would be best not to think of it on a train but how can I help thinking about it) has been pushed to the most extreme and most shrouded corners of my mind for decades. I had not planned any such thing. That much, were I called on to defend myself in a courtroom, would be true. I had not taken a gun (not that I would have known where to obtain one) nor a knife, nor the likes with me, secreted in my bag.
But a woodland has its own weapons, ready for the taking, and the things shed by nature can be taken up by human hands. Over and over, over and over, I pounded and flailed with the stick, and he put up his hands to defend himself, and there was that look in his eyes – not even fear, not really, not at first, but surprise. I do remember that, and yes, at the time, not only with retrospect, those words from Hedda Gabler came into my mind, “One simply doesn’t do things like that!”
And then I fled, and kept on fleeing, and have been fleeing to this day. I thought I was sure to be arrested, within hours, then within days, then within weeks, but I was not. I did not read newspapers or listen to news broadcasts for days and weeks. I went back to my home town, and nobody looked at me as if I were a monster or a shadow, but I knew in my own mind that I was both, and would never cease being. Yet I did not give myself up. I told myself, and at times it was true, I would not have minded if they had come for me, that it would almost (oh, cliché!) have been a relief, but giving myself up was still a step too far.
I know what they would say. That I had got on with my life, and acted as if nothing had happened. I made surface friends, found a job I was fairly good at, took holidays, even laughed, though it was only ever surface laughter. But surface laughter, no matter what anyone says, often sounds very much like the real thing. At times I drunk more than I should to try to deaden things, but nobody ever saw me either drunk or with a hangover – and it barely deadened the surface.
That’s the only thing that has even held the tiniest wisps of being tolerable for me – the surface.
We’re past that final halt now. People who have much luggage with them, and most don’t, are gathering it together. Water bottles are being put in litter bins, bookmarks are being put in books. Sleeping children are being gently roused, people who have cramp are trying to shake their feet without being noticed.
I could still not leave the confines of the station, or could take a train to somewhere else.
I have left the station. I am walking down the streets of the grey town, where not much has changed, or at least does not seem to have changed, and occasionally it occurs to me that many of the adults I see will not even have been born last time I was here. If they look at me at all, they will see a middle aged woman, dressed in dark trousers and a warm sweater, a black bag in her hand, her hair not yet greying, not quite, but with a dullness in it that there never is in a young woman’s hair.
It is not quite muscle memory that has brought me to the museum, but it does not seem to have been entirely of my own volition, either.
At the desk there is a man about my own age, or a little older. And I know him, and I am not imagining it. After decades I know those amiable, slightly asymmetric features, and that way of talking with his hands, and after decades I know I have not slipped into a dream and into a parallel universe.
One of those hands has a scar on it. Faded now, but still visible. A scar made by a rough stick pummelling at it. It would once have been an angry scar, but now I doubt those who know him well think twice about it. I doubt he does himself. If past events haunt him still, it does not show in his eyes, and this time, I doubt it is just the surface.
I did not kill him at all in the woods. I injured him, probably quite badly, but I did not kill him. I have spent decades with everything beneath the most superficial surface veneer of my life weighed down with guilt and yet here he is, alive, well, and apparently happy.
A burden has been lifted from me.
And a different, heavier one has taken its place.