The train collapsed at the station with its evening clockwork. Paul hit the button and the doors slid open. He climbed off the carriage and onto the platform, carrying a sports bag that’s buckle creaked with his every stride. Minding his step on the icy outdoor surface, he kept his head down. It was cold. Paul watched the rear lights of the departing train get eaten up by fog as he fiddled with the platform gate’s latch, which was proving difficult to unlock through his winter gloves. Puffs of steam fell from his mouth and nose as he grunted and sighed with exertion. Up ahead, the road into town was invisible beyond the wet patches that glistened in the bleary spotlights emanating from the inside of the station pub. Everything else in front of Paul was very black and still.
Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned around and saw a woman’s nervous smile. Above her lips and nose, which the shadows flattered, she wore a beret. Paul noticed how her slim-fitting red trousers disappeared into her black boots, and her ears, of a paler red, were already sore. She was Vivian from work.
They mumbled their greetings. As they took off down the road, neither was entirely sure they wanted the other to be there. My lips are numb, said Paul.
Vivian laughed. She said she hoped the poor conditions would make the journey a little more exciting than usual. Together they were swallowed by the black.
I would lend you my coat, but… said Paul.
Vivian told him not to worry, accidentally bumping into his side and quickly apologising. She began to feel reassured that he was right there walking next to her, knowing she’d be terrified making the journey alone. The clip-clops of her heels were slightly faster than the thuds of his boots, as they tried to judge the path’s twists and turns – her by instinct, him by experience. Vivian felt like she was walking inside a giant coffin.
Do you often get this train back? she asked Paul. I don’t usually see you down here.
Every week, said Paul.
My boyfriend used to drive me back, but, well, he doesn’t anymore, Vivian said after a while. She inhaled sharply and coughed – the chilly air too harsh for her lungs.
He lost his car about a month ago, she said. I got in at a different time last week, but I think I’ll get this service from now on.
Lost his car? asked Paul. How?
Yeah, not actually lost it, just had it taken off him. He’s an idiot, said Vivian, again bumping into Paul, and again apologising.
It’s okay, he said.
A passing car’s headlights illuminated the distant but menacing silhouettes of a stranger further down the path.
How sinister does that look? said Paul.
They heard gasps of breath getting louder and closer, and sensed someone was running toward them.
Watch out, mate, said Paul. Vivian said hello at the same time. The whites of the jogger’s startled eyes sparkled momentarily before them, then he dodged past quickly and carried on up towards the station, saying nothing.
This is unreal, she said, shaken, adding that they would usually be able to see the streetlights that lined the road.
I wonder what else is out here that we can’t see, said Paul. I’ve seen foxes around here, he added. They feed on the roadkill and whatever they can wrestle from people’s shopping bags.
You’d better not be trying to scare me, said Vivian, before she tripped on something and almost fell over.
Sorry, he chuckled. Are you alright? Paul held Vivian as she regained her balance. She released her grip on his sides, and he stepped on an object on the grass underfoot. It felt like a tree branch.
She nodded, which of course he couldn’t see. And so they went on, the buckle on Paul’s bag still creaking. Looking across to his right, Paul tried to mentally assemble the skyline he knew was there but couldn’t see. Fields of long grass and tilled earth, a power station, telegraph poles, in a great patchwork, for miles and miles. The cold breeze beat down on his left cheek.
You know I said my boyfriend lost his car? Vivian said.
Paul said yes.
Vivian paused for a few moments. She narrowly avoided a road sign’s pole on her left.
Well, he didn’t. I don’t actually have a boyfriend any more. We broke up three weeks ago.
Oh, said Paul. I see, I’m sorry.
I don’t know why I made that up, she said. It’s just everything’s changing. But sorry, I should have been honest with you.
Paul said that she shouldn’t feel bad about it, that he understood. He felt obliged to tell Vivian about his fiancée. How she left him suddenly for a mutual friend – something he initially took well, but eventually needed to take six months off work because of. He talked about the stress and the drinking, and the thing that helped him turn a corner – a poem he wrote about her, which he later burned.
He recited the poem to Vivian. It wasn’t long.
I’m amazed I still remember it, said Paul. That was three years ago. He smiled and shook his head.
Sorry, that was unnecessary, he said, though he felt better for sharing it.
No, she said, her voice breaking. She was relieved Paul couldn’t see the water filling her eyes. She hoped her tears wouldn’t freeze. That’s sad, she added. But beautiful, thanks.
Vivian’s side brushed Paul’s, then she grabbed his arm. They both felt much warmer. He was relieved she couldn’t see his blushes. A glossy road sign indicated they were approaching the town centre, and that their journey through the black was nearly over. Soon it’s not going to be like we’re talking on the phone to each other, she said. It feels like a long time since I saw your face.
You’ve not missed much, said Paul.
They came through the fog, and Paul looked at Vivian. He saw how the orange of the sodium streetlights glowed on her silky skin, then he noticed something else.
Vivian, where’s your hat? he said.
I don’t know, she said, feeling her scalp. It must have come off when I tripped back there.
You’d think you’d have noticed with it being so cold, said Paul. Shall we go back for it?
Do you really think we’ll be able to find it? said Vivian. He shared her pessimism. Some fox has probably taken off with it by now, she added. They both smiled, and looked into each other’s eyes, watery from the wind and other things.
Well that was an experience, said Paul, standing at the entrance to an apartment building. The light in its foyer flickered on, sensing his presence. I guess I’ll see you around at work.
Sure, Vivian said. She beamed. He wondered whether he should hug her. Turning back towards the building, he reluctantly decided not to. They hadn’t known each other long.
Take it easy, he said.
Let me know if you find my hat, she said.
He said he would.
The key found its way into the lock. Paul yanked the door open and slipped inside, removing his gloves. He couldn’t stop thinking of Vivian. He sensed an opportunity was being missed, and every upward step he took felt like it was in the wrong direction.
He thought about going back for her. For the first time in years, he’d shared a moment with another person that needed to be ended with a kiss. Yet he remained stranded on the staircase, moving neither up nor down, as the moment passed away from him and further through time. Running back out there in the freezing cold, crying her name, was a scene that belonged in a film, he thought. He wondered what smiles like hers, when they said goodbye, meant, and thought he might have read it all wrong. He felt pathetic.
When a feeling in his gut grew, he knew what to do. Gripping the banister, he went down the stairs. His pace picked up, and he felt a rush of euphoria, the dizziness fading. The door of the apartment building flung open, and Paul ran out. Reaching the corner of the street, his arms flailed as he slipped to a stop. And then he just stood there, watching Vivian’s figure take its form through the mist. She faced him.
As Paul started walking towards her, his hand brushed against an unfamiliar object protruding from his pocket. Without looking, he realised what it was.
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