The train was surprisingly empty. I had just finished my first year at university and so I was on my way home for the summer. It was a brilliant year. The best of year of my life. I was sad to be going home, if I’m honest. Don’t get me wrong, I was looking forward to seeing my family and friends, but I would miss university. The people, the parties, and even the lectures. But I had next year to look forward to, so I was happy.
The only other people on my carriage were a woman and her son, an old couple, and a girl. The little boy was listening to his mother read him a story, resting his head on her arm and pointing out what he could see in the illustrations. The old couple were eating sandwiches. Egg, guessing from the smell wafting through the carriage. I sat on the seats in front of the girl. She was crying.
I put my earphones in and sat back, wishing train seats were more comfortable. We pulled away from the platform and began the three hour journey home.
After about ten minutes, I realised that I’d been listening to the same song on repeat. I tried to change track, but I couldn’t. Regretting spending the last of my student loan on alcohol and McDonald’s, I turned off my iPod and took out my earphones. The girl was still crying. I turned back and saw her through the gap in the seats. She was staring out the window, her face covered with tears.
“Hi,” I said. “Would you like a tissue?”
She looked at me, slightly startled, before nodding. I reached into my backpack and handed her a packet of tissues.
“Are you okay?” I asked, feeling instantly stupid. Of course she wasn’t okay, you didn’t have to be a genius to work that out. She nodded again.
“Thanks,” she said, attempting a smile.
“What’s the matter?” She looked at me. I couldn’t make out if she was confused or annoyed. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.” I began to turn back around.
“No,” the girl responded. “No, it’s nothing really.”
“Okay. My name’s Tom by the way, if you do want to chat just nudge me or something, yeah?” I offered.
“Thanks Tom.” She managed another half-smile, “I’m Charlotte.”
I returned the smile and shuffled back around, not sure how to fill the time now my iPod had decided to stop working.
I must have fallen asleep soon after. When I woke up, the old lady was sleeping too. Her husband was reading a newspaper, trying not to rustle the pages too loudly. The mother was reading a different book to her son. I caught a snippet and thought it sounded like The Little Match Girl, a book my mother used to read to me when I was little. Charlotte must have seen me wake up from my nap and tapped me on the shoulder. I moved to sit next to her.
“Are you okay?” I asked again, feeling slightly less silly than before.
“I will be, I’m sure,” she replied sadly. “Did your iPod run out of battery?”
“No, it just stopped working. It would only play one song.”
“Oh, which song?”
I didn’t want to answer. I tried to think of a song that might not make it seem like I had a questionable taste in music. I had paused for too long. She laughed softly. I shook my head.
“Okay, don’t judge. I was listening to Time to Say Goodbye.”
“Ooh, a classical boy.” She mocked.
“No, it came on shuffle and then when I got on the train it just stuck on that song!” I protested. She didn’t believe me and laughed again.
The train came to halt. A short, middle-aged man stepped on with a golden Labrador. He sat near the doors, his dog laying down in the aisle.
“I expected it to be busier today.” I said to Charlotte. She looked at me sadly, I didn’t understand why. “What?”
“Nothing.” Charlotte quickly replied. I looked at her inquisitively, but decided to drop it.
“So, where are you heading?” I enquired.
“I was going home.”
“Yeah… well, I’m not any more.” Tears began to fill her eyes once more. I fell silent. “You have no idea do you?”
Her question confused me. “No idea of what?”
She sighed and turned away from me, looking out of the window at the countryside that passed us by. It had started to rain.
Just I started to try and work out what I had said to make her cry again, the train slowed down. It stopped. The little boy began walking towards the doors. His mother cried out, waking up the elderly lady. She reached out for her son, but he escaped her grasp. The boy continued walking forwards, edging past the Labrador and out onto the platform. The woman ran to the doors. She began to thrash her hands against the windows, screaming hysterically for her son. As the train pulled away, she sank to the ground. Her body shook as she sobbed uncontrollably.
I made to stand up and comfort the woman, but Charlotte grabbed my wrist.
“There’s nothing you can do.” She told me.
“I can at least try to comfort her.” I retorted.
“No, you can’t. Listen, Tom.” Charlotte pulled me back into my seat. “Just… think a minute.”
“About what?” I asked, frustrated and confused.
“How did you get here?”
“How did you get on the train. Think.” Her voice was soft, almost pitiful.
I thought back. I remembered waking up late in the morning, my head hurting from the night before. I threw all my clothes and books into my suitcase and packed away my laptop. My housemates helped me down the stairs and the taxi driver lifted my heavy case into the boot of his car. I hugged everyone and said goodbye. Then I arrived at the train station, got on the train and met Charlotte.
Charlotte listened to my account of the day and shook her head.
“No, think!” She urged. “Really think. Something happened. You never got to the train station.”
“Of course I did! How would I be on this train if I didn’t go to the station?” My frustration had taken over and my voice was too loud. All the passengers, the old couple, the man with the dog, and the distraught mother, were all looking at me. Sadly. But I didn’t know why.
I closed my eyes. I was in the taxi. The driver and I were talking about the summer and our plans. He was going on holiday with his family. I was telling him about my summer job in a bar. But I never finished. He pulled out onto a main road. I heard a car screeching towards us and slam into the side of the taxi and… And then I boarded the train.
I wasn’t going home.
I cried. Charlotte placed her warm hand on mine. The train stopped.