2019 'SHORT TAKES' PROSE COMPETITION
CATEGORY A -
Passing by Pauline Cleary
The train is late. Gerard waits, worn valise in hand. The page of a newspaper hurtles past, whipped by the wind.
A girl to his right leans forward. Gerard takes in the leather jacket, short skirt.
The train lumbers up with a clatter. It’s this train he wants. Old fashioned carriages with facing bench seats.
He scrambles on. His gamey leg catches on the step but he wrenches it free. He makes his way to the rear carriage. Empty. He pulls at the door, edges through.
The train shudders. A whistle sounds and the train sways forward.
Gerard closes his eyes.
Crash! His eyes fly open. A girl is at the carriage door. That girl.
‘Do you mind?’ She gestures to the seat opposite.
Gerard finds his tongue. ‘I was going to sleep.’
She’s in the carriage now. ‘I won’t keep you awake.’
She settles on the seat opposite, stretching her legs under Gerard’s seat.
Gerard’s mouth opens and closes.
The girl closes her eyes.
Calm down he tells himself. Maybe she’ll get off at the next station.
His hand slides to his valise and he looks at the girl. Sandy hair. No more than eighteen. A shadow on her neck. Grime?
The girl snores, makes a little popping sound. Well, Gerard can wait her out. Most likely she’ll get off soon.
Her eyes open with a start. ‘I wasn’t asleep.’
‘No.’ He looks out the window.
‘What’s in the bag?’
‘My Grandad had one just like it.’
He edges the valise closer.
‘I don’t have anywhere to go you know.’ Her eyes fix on trees flashing by.
He nods, doesn’t want to know.
Silence. The rattle of the train is louder, and the shaking. He pushes out a hand to steady himself.
‘There’s a gun in there, isn’t there?’
‘What?’ He gapes at her.
She smiles. ‘Just a thought. One shot and then you could fall off the train just as it reaches the ridge over the valley.’
He freezes, hands glued to the seat.
She is talking to herself. ‘Or maybe just jump. Jules wouldn’t care.’
‘My boyfriend… sort of.’ Her mouth twists.
Gerard stares. It’s a bruise on her neck. Not dirt. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Old place out of town. My Gran used to have it.’
He stops himself. He can’t help this girl.
She turns to him. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Uh… just a trip.’ He’ll get out. This isn’t going to work.
‘I’m not really going to the shack.’ Her mouth twists. ‘I’m going to wait till the ridge, then jump.’
His mind goes into overdrive. ‘What! You can’t.’
She smiles, a bitter smile. ‘Why? Because that’s what you want to do first?’
He is shaking now. This is impossible. Could not be happening.
‘Why?’ Her eyes bore into his.
His hand goes to his chest. ‘Heart problems. I’m on my own.’
‘We can do it together.’ She’s leaning forward as though they’re planning a day out, her face lit up.
‘What, like, one, two, three jump? He laughs disbelievingly.
‘Why not?’ She smiles. ‘Nice to be with someone else.’
He shakes his head. ‘What if we hit a ledge?’
She shrugs, points to the bag. ‘Have you really got a gun?’
His fingers move to the clasp on the bag. He shakes his head. ‘No gun.’
‘Right.’ She consults her phone. ‘Well we’ve got about five minutes till we make the ridge I reckon. What would you do if you only had one more day to live ?’
He shuffles his feet. ‘There’s this hill way out of town. Beautiful view...’
She nods. ‘Maybe, you could see the sea from there.’
His mind goes back. ‘I went to the sea all the time when I was a kid. Loved it. The waves and the rocks.’
‘I’ve never been to the sea.’
‘What?’ He looks incredulous. ‘What? Never?’
‘Me mum never took us. Too many kids. Mum didn’t care any way.’
‘I’d take you.’
‘So what’s the best thing about the sea?’
‘Hmm. It’s everything. Just listening to the waves rushing in and out, and swimming and …’
He looks up.
‘We’re almost to the spot. Are you ready?’
He stares out.
She moves forward and he raises a hand. ‘Wait.’
The train seems to have got up speed. He reaches out, takes her arm.
Their eyes fix on the drop from the ridge, visible from the train window.
She grabs his shoulder suddenly. ‘If I don’t do it, will you take me to see the sea?’
‘Me?’ His hand tugs at his bad leg.
‘We can go together.’
He looks at her and the situation hits him.
He falls back on the seat, laughing. She is laughing too.
She moves to the window. ‘Look.’
They both watch silently as the train rushes across the ridge, and swings out on to the plateau.
‘We missed it.’ She leans back, shrugs. ‘Well, there are other times.’
He sits up. ‘Were you really going to do it?’
She shrugs. ‘Dunno.You?’
He screws up his face. ‘I wanted to see how it felt. If I could, you know, if things got real bad.’
She points to the bag. ‘So what’s in there?’
He opens it. An odour fills the carriage.
‘Geez, what is that?’ She holds her nose.
‘Bologna sandwich. My lunch.’
He snaps the clasp shut.
‘Would you like to see the sea?’
‘Yeah.’ She sits up. ‘I would.’
The train is juddering to a stop. He moves to the door.
‘There’s a pub on the hill. Do you want to have lunch there?’
She gestures to the bag. ‘What about your sandwich?’
He’s steadying himself as he manoeuvres his leg down the steps. He shrugs.
She’s taken his arm. ‘I’ve always wanted to go see the sea.’
He grins. ‘Well, it’s your lucky day.’
He tosses the bag in the bin as they pass.