C/W: Grief, mention of cancer
I don’t know how long we have and so when the train slows, I stand ready at the doors with one hand at the centre of your back, guiding you. Passengers rise in the carriages to either side of us. Some shuffle forward, just as eager, whilst others remain seated, staring out the window, their expressions unreadable. You are looking too, in complete tranquillity, as a billion comets flash through an eternity of purest black, their glorious wakes shimmering in the void. When you turn to me, your voice is dreamy and detached.
“Where am I?”
You don’t remember how you got here, but you will. Your brain is beginning to toss up childhood memories: your younger brother, Jake, sitting on your lap, crying because he’d shoved a pink crayon up his nose and couldn’t get it out; Mum waving from the school gates, her smile a little too wide; Dad throwing you high in the air under a blazing hot sun. You squealing as the rush of wind tickled your skin…
The train docks, the doors slide open and we step out onto the platform. A few people hurry past, the face of a loved one spurring them on. I exchange nods with the conductor, a petite woman in a hi-vis vest and bright pink hair. Ellie. That’s the name she chose anyway. I glance over my shoulder to see her moving effortlessly through the alighting passengers, watching for trouble. Some – mostly the younger ones who had farther to travel – have made new friends on the train and excitement thrums around them like silent lightning.
Then there’s me. And you.
“Something happened,” you say. Your eyes take in our surroundings, but your brain struggles to catch up. “I was with Melissa. She was upset…”
I smile to myself; you’ve got a good one there. She’s the one that convinced you to get on a plane for the first time and you weren’t even afraid, not with her brandishing a passport crammed with stamps, hazel eyes glittering, infecting you with adventure.
“Where is she?” You still can’t quite remember. “Is she alright?”
The station gleams. People of all ages fill the space, lounging on the sumptuous couches or leaning against the station wall, lost in thought or reading. That one wall disappears into the distance, separating the station from the Other Side. A few children sit on the pristine white carpet playing a complicated version of rock-paper-scissors and somewhere, a baby is laughing.
“Everyone looks strange,” you say, as we exit the platform. “They're too…”
The ceiling is impossibly high, fashioned into elaborate glass domes. Looking up, one sees only an infinite night glistening with forlorn stars. On either side, the unnumbered platforms stretch on and on with trains drifting in and out, continuously, forever.
You’re starting to freak out.
“What is this?” You jerk back from my hand. “Am I… Am I…”
“You’re not dead.”
“You’re. Not. Dead.” I smile. “Alright?”
“Then what’s going on? Who are you? Why am I in this… this train station?”
“This is the end of the line.”
A muscle in your cheek twitches. “That sounds an awful lot like—"
“You’re not dead! How many times? And you won’t be here long. Relax.”
This particular part of the station has a piano. An upright studio model with a rosewood body, positioned against the wall. The cover is lifted up, begging to be touched. I draw your attention to an old man in a long brown coat. He approaches the piano and prods the keys, testing them. Then, with a grunt of satisfaction, he settles down and flicks the tail of his coat so it hangs to the floor.
His fingers fly over the keys with a speed and dexterity that belie his age. He’s chosen a soothing melody, full of minor chords and elongated, pensive notes. Quickly, he is lost in his own creation. He lifts his chin and closes his eyes, a wry smile tugging at his lips.
The chatter and murmuring in the station halts as heads turn and eyes crinkle – who is this man? Children see their own grandfather in the delicate pale hair whilst others imagine a father, a favourite teacher, a friend.
You see your brother. Home for Christmas, hunched over your dad’s piano, belting out Elton John with one foot stomping on the hardwood floor, his green paper hat falling off, and the whole family singing along, oh so, so badly. Melissa giggling as your golden Labrador, Toby, jumped up to lick her face…
The memory is ferociously vivid and you grab me to steady yourself.
“That’ll keep happening,” I say. “The memories. They’ll come faster and faster until you remember everything with intense clarity. It should straighten your head out.”
“What’s wrong with my head?”
“Listen to the music,” I say. “It helps.”
You do, begrudgingly at first, but it’s impossible not to get swept up in the magic. Moments flash, important and inconsequential, but they are all yours: a high-school dance, one hand finding the slope of her lower back; carefree laughter by a fountain in Rome, coins plinking into the clear water; a crisp bedsheet littered with tears, the smell of antiseptic: a farewell. The tempo changes and the key shifts to the major scale. The pianist presses one foot down on a pedal whilst the other taps out a jaunty rhythm. His face cracks into a wide grin, radiating life and love and joy. A couple in matching purple berets begin to dance. No one sees merely an old man, alone, tinkering at a piano.
What do people see when they look at you? you wonder. I feel this thought and how it makes your stomach grow cold.
“Hey,”—I snap my fingers in front of your nose— “come over here.”
A café and bookshop are off to the left and I head toward them. You obey, but reluctantly and making a show of it: arms crossed, dragging your feet, eyeing me askance like I’m luring you into a dodgy drug deal.
I pause in front of the station entrance so you can get a good look at that brilliant white light.
“I brought you here,” I say, “to show you a glimpse of what happens when you die. And no, I can’t tell you when that will be. No one knows that and besides, you don’t really want to know. It’d upset the balance of things, like when people read the last chapter of a novel before the rest.”
“No one does that.”
“Sure they do.” You roll your shoulders. Still not getting it; I’m being too vague. “Take a look,”—I sweep one arm out— “The peace, the stillness. Quite different to being alive. No?”
“Nothing exciting goes on here. It’s very… uneventful, isn’t it?” I gesture towards the endless platforms. “The trains stop in all kinds of places and it’s up to you whether or not you get off and take a look around. You know, people always reminisce about things they did when they were alive. The sad ones are those that kept to themselves, that never went anywhere or did anything—”
“What are you getting at?” We reach the café and I order myself a double espresso. You shake your head, claiming you’re not thirsty. “My life isn’t ‘uneventful’.” Frowning, you add, “I went to South America.”
“So you did. First time on a plane, wasn’t it?”
“First time out of the country? At twenty-seven?”
“Not everyone likes to travel.”
“No.” I blow on my coffee and down it. “But that’s not your reason.”
When your brother, Jake, turned eighteen, he did an online TEFL course and hopped on the first plane to Peru. It hit your mother like a sledgehammer to the heart. Every so often – a year, six months, you never knew - he would return from some exotic corner of the globe bearing gifts and stories, which you always thought were exaggerated. Your parents framed photos of him with varying backdrops - pyramids, tropical gardens, mountains - and scattered them all over the house. At least they knew you weren’t going anywhere.
Melissa was a friend of a friend. She worked in the travel agents on Turner Road and loved Karaoke. Every Friday night she’d be in the Swan Inn, swaying to the house band and playing pool. She always asked after Jake, where he was and when he'd next be back. You ached to be fascinating enough for her, more well-travelled, higher income, flash car maybe? You didn’t think she was like that, but it wouldn’t hurt. You couldn’t very well impress her with your extensive collection of vintage Pokémon cards and your half-decent golf swing. However, to be part of her life, you were willing to settle for friendship.
It was only when she actually met Jake one blustery Sunday in late autumn that things changed. The three of you were enjoying a drink in the beer garden. Mostly it was the two of them discussing places they’d been and where they’d like to go next. But when Melissa went to the toilet, Jake said, “She’s lovely. When are you introducing her to Mum?”
“Oh no.” You’d leant back, waving your hands. “We’re just friends. She’s doesn’t like—”
Jake smacked you up the side of your head.
“She likes you.”
“How can you… But she’s always asking about you.”
“Because I’m your brother, you moron. It’s called showing an interest. Does she ask about Mum and Dad too?”
“She likes you,” he said with finality. “Ask her out.”
Exhilarated, you took a tentative sip of your beer and blushed as Melissa returned to the table. Her red hair glowed in the pale sunlight and her feet beneath the table settled right next to yours. Jake shook his head. “You’re such a doughnut.”
Over the ensuing three years, Melissa ignited your wanderlust. You booked mini-breaks in Europe, holidays in Singapore, Cape Town, Iceland – her list was huge and yours was only getting longer. Your parents loved her, obviously, and an extra space was made for her at the Christmas dinner table.
But then one year, Jake didn’t come home. He’d been living in Spain, which was bizarrely close for him. Sure, you hadn’t seen or heard from him in about eight months, but he never missed Christmas. On December 27th, whilst you were all watching Home Alone before the roaring, spitting fire, the phone rang. Your mum disappeared into the kitchen, but you could still hear her voice as it trembled and cracked. Your Dad turned off the TV and the three of you gathered round her, steeling yourselves for the worst.
“Jake got cancer,” she said. The moment froze and for a split-second you thought, It’s OK. Jake can beat anything. He’s young. Strong. There’s great treatment nowadays, lots of options—, but your mum wasn’t finished. After a slow steadying breath, she said, “He died this morning.”
I grimace as you double over and gag. He’d known for four months and told no one. The doctor had explained, which did little to ease your guilt: Didn’t want to be a burden… remember him the way he was… his wishes. In your dreams, you're by his side in the hospital, holding his hand through it all, just like you did when he got that stupid crayon stuck up his nose.
He'll forever be your baby brother, pink and tiny, gripping your little finger and refusing to let go.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “losing someone close is never easy.”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
At the funeral, the priest read some passage about tragedy and forgiveness which made your blood curdle. And of course it rained. Umbrellas bobbing toward the graveside, shiny shoes covered in mud, Melissa’s hand sliding into yours, squeezing.
People asked you with ever-decreasing tact: Did he smoke? Drugs? Ah come on, it’s alright, you can tell me. They needed a reason why this vibrant young man had been snatched away, as if they didn’t know that there were no rules. No pity or justice. You thought you’d done well not to punch any of them until Melissa’s gentle smile reminded you that - even at your brother’s funeral – you’d never do such a thing.
I soften my voice.
“You love Melissa, don’t you?”
“What?” You still don’t remember. “Why are you asking me that? She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ll grow old with her.”
“Got the ring, yeah.” You pat your jacket pocket, but it’s empty and so are all the others. Baffled, you look at me. “Where…”
Three weeks ago, in your and Melissa’s apartment, you both stood facing each other in the living room. A glass lay shattered on the floor. The TV had been muted, but the images jumped and flickered. You felt sick. To do the deed, you’d fixed your gaze on the wall behind her. Not bearing to look at her freckled face, red and blotchy from crying too hard. Mechanically, you repeated the same empty stock phrases: I’m sorry. It’s for the best. You deserve better. She told you to leave and you did. The next day, you returned the engagement ring to the jewellers and changed your relationship status on Facebook – not to single, you just deleted it.
Over the next few weeks, you replayed the whole scene in a savage never-ending loop, hating yourself more and more with every repetition. On your walk home from work, your vision blurred and you didn’t bother to wipe away the tears as it played again: Melissa grabbing her gorgeous auburn hair, choking back the sobs, stammering… But, but why?
And that was when you stepped out into the main road without looking…
“Oh God,” you say, placing an open palm against your chest, “what have I done?”
“It’s not too late,” I say, “Just remember—”
But our time’s run out. I barely manage to smile encouragement as your form dissolves and you return back to your body, far away from here. A few people gasp having not realised what you were.
Before I leave, Ellie, the conductor, catches my eye. She wants to know if I've been successful, but all I can do is shrug.
It’s up to you now.
You don’t open your eyes at first. Instead, you listen: there are voices, the faint bleep of a machine, pained groans, the swish of a curtain. Your memories are dislocated fragments, but after a moment they slot back into place. You flutter your eyes open, slowly for the light is stark and unforgiving.
To your right, Melissa is slumped in a plastic chair, red hair sticking out at odd angles and a light-blue cardigan falling off one shoulder. Numerous Styrofoam coffee cups are on the table next to her. You raise your left hand to discover a needle, tube and bandage strapped to the back of it. You want to reach out and tell her everything is going to be alright, that you’re sorry, that you take it all back. Every word.
The thought of one day losing Melissa still terrifies you, but you’re not going to let that get in the way anymore.
You’ll marry her, if she’ll still have you. Create mini-Melissas and mini-yous. Buy a small house in the country next to a park with swings and slides and an enormous oak. You’ll kiss those tear tracks on her face and breathe in the scent of her herbal shampoo.
You’re going to ride the train to the end of the line, getting off at every stop that life has to offer, and you want to do it all with her.
I never told you my name because, technically, I don’t have one.
But you can call me Hope.