First to notice that their bags were identical was the velvet-clad bundle of menopausal flush, all feathered turban, red lipstick and suede winkle-pickers.
In no other way were the two adjacent passengers similar. Is it even possible that this iPhone-clutching, business-suit-wearing wunderkind by her side would choose the exact same artfully- battered brown Gladstone bag as herself? You know, the type who probably prefaces every adjective with ‘super’ and interjects every third word with ‘like’. Most likely called Biba. Or Florence. Something like that. Probably Editor-in-Chief, or CEO of some kind of new-fangled outfit by the wise old age of twenty-five. That sort. It wasn’t just the girl’s youth that rankled. No, it was the unearned confidence, the poise, the millennial righteousness that she oozed. Chalk and cheese would describe these two. Nevertheless, their leather twins sat amicably alongside one another for the duration of the journey, jauntily jostling at intervals.
Angling her head towards the window, the approaching twilight threw her image right back at her. A face that spoke of august self-assurance. No sign of fragmentation, no public display of existential crisis – no sign of thunderstorms that raged inside. Like a bar of soap in bath water, her cached core escaped detection.
And here she was, hastening towards the market town of Berwick-upon-Tweed in the Scottish borders. Straddling two nations. The train ran parallel with the leaden and heartless North Sea, meeting a landscape that seemed to gesticulate regret. Browbeaten by its mood, her nerves about tomorrow’s interview augmented. She was competent. She knew it. She’d been sub-editing all her adult life. Until a stubborn exclamation mark sent a warning sign that had been encroaching for some time. Then redundancy. Well, of course she was the one to go. The oldest. A fuddy-duddy. Out of step. Too opinionated. What the heck could she offer, when set against the media-intoxicated know-it-all younger generation? Like the young madam at her side.
Darkness had not fully fallen when the train pulled in at the waiting station. Glacial smiles were exchanged as the two women choreographed the retrieval of their bags from the luggage rack. Passengers disembarked. Blink, and they vanished into the gloaming. Miss Perfect – when had she attributed that name? – disappeared into the scurry of the small huddle.
Station View Hotel sat atop the embankment, overlooking the railway tracks. Here, she would pass the evening cohering the fragments of her identity into something that could pass as a candidate. A real candidate. Mute the chorus – that she must do. Somehow, she must morph into a someone – someone able to fool the big gun at the Berwick Courier into believing her credible. But what chance did she have, when competing against a groupthink of young, savvy dilettantes? An ugly characteristic, she knew: bitterness. But still. It had managed to squat beneath her skin and refused to move on.
A long night stretched ahead. The notes nestled in her bag were extensive, encompassing every potential question that could be launched at her. Along with obsessively researched and rehearsed responses. That exclamation mark had, of necessity – the need to survive – morphed into a colon. It had to be so. It had to signal a development of what had gone before. A glimpse of hope. Appear cool, serene. Easy to say, of course. Serenity and self-assurance, the hallmark advantages of getting older. Two of the few. To betray their absence – well …
The clock showed 7pm. Best to get started on the evening’s cramming, as if for an exam on which everything hinged. She flipped open her Gladstone bag. First out, her current reading fodder: I’ll Never Be Young Again – Daphne du Maurier’s second novel. Its title triggered a wry smile.
Nothing else in the bag looked familiar. A stapled bundle of receipts for Costa, Café Nero, and a couple of independents. A Mac lipstick. As if! A half-eaten Marks and Spencer sandwich, coddled in its packaging. And a leather-bound journal. Paralysis overwhelmed her senses. How stupid she was! The self-indictment from childhood, now given fresh substance. Kickstarted by adrenaline, she frantically flicked through the bag’s contents, finally settling on the journal. In here, the solution was sure to lie: a name, an address, some indication as to how to locate its owner – for this was the only chance of retrieving her own bag, incarcerating as it did all her flaws and pretensions. Borrowing the hyperbole of the young, she agonised that her whole life was in that bag. She flooded with embarrassment at the realisation. The thought of her nemesis – the word an ambush - reading through her intimate outpourings filled her with a strange, uncomfortable sensation. Shame? Anger? Perhaps a mix of those sins she should be long past experiencing.
The owner of this congregation of booty was not a Biba at all, or a Florence. Jane. Simple, plain Jane. Jane Danvers. It could hardly be more ordinary. Written there, on the first page of the journal, in sensible, grown-up handwriting. Resident of 22, Station View Road. The very thoroughfare on which this hotel stood. Something like relief deluged her veins. Intoxicated by the prospect of fixing the folly, curiosity trumped integrity. Human nature, after all …
And in absorbing page after page, this aforementioned bundle of menopausal flush let herself be lessoned. It began with the lack of ‘supers’ and ‘likes’. It was swelled by the simple, lucid, jargon-free confessions and commentaries that gave life to each page. Biba – no, Jane! Jane! – unwittingly bared her soul to this stranger. To this terrible, terrible woman. Rancorous, embittered, shrewish – yes, she was all of these, and more. The pages unravelled a story of a young woman whose inner life illuminated connections to herself that ventured beyond similar taste in bags and reading material. Her own emotional predicament was not, not unique. She was special only in the minutiae. And she was not alone in donning a mask for the world.
Strange how a person’s prose can be more revealing than actual nakedness. You could, she realised – yes, even at her stage of life – get people, get whole generations, so wrong.
The notes in her own bag could wait. She’d get them back. Tomorrow would be soon enough, when Jane Danvers - as was carefully pencilled in her journal - would interview her for an editorial position at the paper where she was Editor-in-Chief: the Berwick Courier.
Turns out she’d got one thing right, at least.