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Contemporary Drama Friendship

“You’ll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that.”

Ronald Dahl 


There are three hundred and fifty thousand trains on Earth. Picture it, if you can. Each one in motion, whizzing around our globe, climbing hills and crossing bridges, wheels spinning as they thunder forward (or backward, depending on the direction you’re sitting) to reach a final destination. Perhaps that destination is the grand streets of Paris, a remote town on the coast of Ireland that nobody has heard of, or the bustling city of New Delhi. So tell me, out of the three hundred and fifty thousand trains on Earth, how is it possible that we’ve both chosen to board the 14:45 departing from Paddington station? Fate? Destiny? If things were different, and I was posing this question to you directly, you would probably roll your eyes and say something rational and pragmatic such as - an atypical circumstance, more like. I wonder, after three years, if you’d still respond with the same.

The train was already rolling forward by the time I noticed you. Tucked away at the back of the coach, legs crossed and your head bowing to a book. If we were in a Romantic Comedy featuring Drew Barrymore, I would have done a second take or spat out a mouthful of water onto the tweed-tailored man sitting opposite me. But all I can wonder is what you’re reading. Probably a novel about the architecture of twentieth-century bridges or an in-depth guide on the avionics of an aircraft. Even at the age of twenty-one, your bookshelf matched that of a retired engineer reliving their accomplished career. Someone that pats themselves on the back for every academic term understood.

Your red hair has grown. It's no longer a blunt bob above your shoulders, but wild, cascading in ringlets to your ribs. It looks nice. Occasionally a strand falls onto the page you’re reading, probably concealing the word ‘girder’, ‘air-foil’ or some other technical jargon, and you swat your hair away like it's a mosquito buzzing about your head. 

I never understood your choice of literature, why you didn’t choose to read something that made you smile. Or cry. Or do anything but furrow your brow and nod your head with intellectual approval. Remember when I lent you 'The Witches' by Ronald Dahl? Childish and silly, you called it. I think you forgot I was an aspiring children’s author. Forgot that I, too, was childish and silly and long ago you loved me for it.

The old lady sitting next to you leans over and says something. Your pink lips smile politely but your nostrils flare like a plastic bag caught in the wind. You never liked being interrupted. Perhaps she’s asked what your clever book is about, and now you’ll need to explain the ins and outs of constructing a wind farm. Poor you. Poor her. 

Before your eyes return to the page, they do a quick detour around the carriage, and for a second, I think you’ve seen me. My stomach curdles, and I freeze, willing my body to merge with the navy pinstriped seat behind me. Maybe it works, as shortly after, you burrow yourself back into your book. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. I’m sure it would be amicable, filled with ‘how are you’s’ and ‘you’re looking well’s’ - but how would I answer the question you'd want to ask the most. What were you doing in London?

London. The breath that blew us out. Three years ago, sitting in a coffee shop in Hoxton, I was writing a story about a boy who stole thunder from the sky. And in walked you. You ordered a double espresso and asked if you could sit opposite me, despite there being plenty of empty tables available. You asked what I was writing, and apprehensively, I read the first chapter to you. You liked it. At least, that’s what you said and at the time I believed you. That was the first and last time you asked to read my stories.

We moved in together six months later. A studio apartment in Shoreditch which smelt like mould and was infested with silverfish. To pay the rent I worked as a cashier at Whole Foods, and you as an admin clerk. But amongst the bad, there were some good times. Every Saturday morning we would eat alphabetti spaghetti on toast, and try to spell out the longest word. (You would always win. How could I compete with ‘troubleshooting’ and ‘coordination’?) And every evening we would play chess and listen to The Smiths on repeat. But despite filling our lives with games and Morrisey’s lyrical poetry, London remained grey. And eventually the people that live there turn grey, too.

I remember studying your face. Your cheeks, once rosy, had faded and become sunken. You found pleasure in books about steel and concrete, rather than stories about boys that stole thunder from the sky. One morning I looked in the mirror, and I was dull, too. I hadn’t attempted to write in months. Or read. My Ronald Dahl collection was left gathering dust upon our bookshelf, right next to a pile of dog-eared pages that once resembled my works in progress. First drafts about cows that can fly, quick-witted monsters and a girl with lightning in her fingers. London was killing me. Killing us.

Why don’t we move? was a question I asked every evening, after returning from my shift at Whole Foods. 

Your nostrils would swallow me. Where would we go?

Anywhere but London. There’s no inspiration here. Nothing for me to write about.

I glanced up at the hardback copy of 'Matilda', slumped drunkardly against ‘Mechanics of Materials for Dummies’. What about Cardiff?

I never told you the reason I picked Cardiff. No doubt you would have thrown the ‘childish and silly’ card at me, or perhaps that was a reflection of my own thoughts. I set my heart there because it's the birthplace of Ronald Dahl, and maybe - just maybe - I could follow in his footsteps from there.

I can’t move to Cardiff. My whole life is in London.

And my whole life was outside of it.

That was the deal we made. I would leave, and you would stay. Do you understand now why I can’t respond to your question: What were you doing in London? Why didn’t you leave three years ago, like you said you would? The answer is simple and complicated, just as our relationship was: What if? What if you changed your mind? What if you decided one day to join me?

“Are you alright?” Suddenly I’m back on the train, and the old man sitting opposite me has his hand on my knee.


“Are you OK?”

My vision is blurry and my cheeks are wet. With my sleeve I wipe my face and smile awkwardly. “Yes, I’m fine, thanks. Sorry, allergies.”

The man smiles, not bothering to pick holes in my flimsy reasoning, and removes his hand. I find comfort outside. The English countryside zooms past, patchwork fields of yellow and green greet me, with red-brick farmhouses guarding the land. But soon my attention draws back to you.

What are you doing here, anyway? You never wanted to leave Zone Three, let alone venture outside of London. Are you no longer living in the grey city? Did you move on without me?

The train begins to slow. You shut your book and haul a rucksack out from under your seat. We dock at Reading station and you begin walking down the aisle, towards the exit and I stare down at my lap, knowing that soon you’ll be striding by. But you don’t look at me. And I don’t look at you. We are just passing strangers on one of the three hundred and fifty thousand trains on this Earth. The doors ring as they open, and you step off the train. Off the train and away.

The world is out of focus again. I’m blowing my nose into a disintegrating tissue I’ve found in my pocket (an aimless attempt to make my fake allergies convincing) when something out the window catches my eye. Something red, billowing in the wind.

And there you are, staring right at me as though you're willing the window that separates us to shatter. One hand is outstretched in the air, waving side to side and something golden glints on your ring finger. The other hand is wrapped firmly around your book. But it’s not a novel about elevators or a manual on how to design dams. In large block font the title reads: The Witches by Ronald Dahl.

It wasn't London, was it?

What if it was us.

I place my palm on the glass, and as the train crawls into motion, we smile our goodbyes. I smile at you because you're living in colour again with your cheeks all rosy, eyes glistening like the diamond embellishing your finger. And you smile at me, because you know I'm heading exactly where I'm meant to be.

A distorted voice emits from the speakers, and soon your image is replaced with streaks of colour, blurred across the window.

Thank you for boarding the Great Western Railway today. This is the 14:45 from Paddington, now leaving Reading. Calling at Swindon, Bristol, New Port, and our final destination, Cardiff.

October 21, 2022 15:12

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1 comment

Shirley Medhurst
10:21 May 13, 2023

Great introduction with the reference to number of trains on Earth! Lovely imagery once again in your writing: "nostrils flare like a plastic bag caught in the wind" really stands out. One point to consider: at first, the description of the scene when the narrator spots the girl on the train is in the past tense, then it changes to the present tense ("by the time I noticed you", then "lady sitting next to you leans over...) I like the way you say London makes everyone grey when their relationship is fading, then the girl has found her colo...


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