Bringing a crossword for the train journey has not managed to serve as a good distraction. Instead, the only thing accomplished in the last hour and a half has been an even pattern of bite marks along the pen and its lid. Just gnawing away. Oh, and of course various day dreams involving what could possibly happen on the train, upon its arrival and at the return. None of these could possibly be accurate, but we are dealing with an unplanned, unprecedented situation.
Could she be on the train? That was the thought that popped up on the way to the station. No seat number, but a clear memory of the seats chosen all those years ago. Something to help remember that time: that moment in their lives. Suddenly self-conscious, the same seat was selected this time. Then, just one minute before departure, with the seat beside still empty, the notion arose: it’s five years later, they no longer fit in seats 21 and 22. But reaching seat 27 brought the new realisation that five seats on, they wouldn’t be sitting together; even if she had been occupying that seat across the aisle. Another few years and they’d be at the table. Tanya always liked the table seats.
So was she on the train? The blatant scanning around the carriage before sitting hadn’t helped figure that one out. And she hadn’t joined at another station along the way, as far as could be told. There were other carriages, but to get the train is one thing, to hunt for someone who might not even be on it, is another altogether.
Of course, it has been five years. They must have both changed in appearance in that time. And while it was easy to picture her in each daydream and scenario from the past few months, it was always others who had seen her. They’d recognised her, but they hadn’t said she had changed in any way. Nor did they say she was exactly the same. Who knew what to look out for now. The short, bright blonde wisps of hair imagined could be replaced by anything, and that average, yet ever so slightly, well a bit more than, curvy body could have blossomed with an abundance of foreign delicacies, or suffered under stressful travel sickness. The clothes, the posture, the absorbing personality, all changed? With time, experience and hate: or love?
She could have caught an earlier train to be ready to meet on the other side. Or she might not even be planning to venture out on this unsecure plank. It is April fool’s day after all; this trick would be a long time coming. And well deserved.
Then, why get on the train? Why use the ticket? Why take the risk that comes with so many consequences, impossibly foreseen back then? The last few days had cemented that decision. But more importantly there was unfinished business to attend to today. Even if the result was to find nothing on the other side. At least then there’d be an ending to the whole thing. Staying in Newton Abbott would just leave questions and images, of an idea of what could have happened if this little action was taken. We know that from experience. No what ifs, just what was. Even the idea of that puts such finality, such conclusion, such peace on the whole issue. Still chewing on the pen; nothing else accomplished.
That’s what is needed. It needs to be finished. It was started by another, but it can only be finished if action is taken. But, this crossword is nowhere near started. And there’s still just about an hour left. OK. Seven letters. Architectural screen. Give up. Wait what are those panels they use in older movies to get dressed behind? Dressing screen? Room divider? Can’t think of just one word to describe it. But many other things come to mind. Completely unrelated. They pass the time just fine: memories and ideas.
Three hours of distracting thoughts all related to this one moment of getting off the train and out into the chilly coast. Keeping an eye out for any clue or familiarity. You really have to want to come here if you get the train, so what are all these other people doing here? It’s not exactly a stellar day. Just average English spring. Light jacket and maybe an emergency umbrella at hand. Oops. Let’s hope the sun stays out, then. Already better than the last time, though, so it was a good plan.
No-one and nothing at the train station. So what next? What did we do that first time? There were never any plans. Just explore and, in the winter, find somewhere warm. But that day was for play. The one straggling memory is that moment: huddled up on the steps by the creeping tide, so close to that pirate life, but safe on shore. “Let’s come back. I know we say only once to each place, but let’s come back here.”
Of course we will. That was the only answer that could have been offered. It was agreed before the request. But still she asked. Still, she had to make sure. She was the only one ever with doubts. Ever to think of the possibility that anything could be different between them.
She was right. It was possible. But only because she made it so. She opened that up. They were supposed to be pirates together. That’s what was agreed. Before she confused everything with other ideas. And here she is, doing that again.
“April fools, you fool.” Here she really is. The voice hasn’t changed. The presence hasn’t changed. But the beach is pretty empty and the wind sounds like whispers anyway. Was that it? Was it just whispers? You’ll never know if you don’t turn around. Go on. No, she hasn’t changed one bit. Well, she has: she looks older, slightly, in a mature, elegant way, and there’s something different about every little thing. But it’s her. It’s Tanya. “You’re here.” Of course I’m here. It was agreed before you suggested it. “You got fat!” Oh! That laugh. Like you can feel it vibrate in your heart. Wow. There was so much forgotten. “What, did Henry start giving you the leftovers instead? He looks great these days. But I kinda liked him chubby. Should I give you that nickname instead?” Was it just the previous week we last saw each other? How can she be so at ease with so much unknown? “What? Why so poo-faced? Coffee? Come on.” And there, the fingers wind together. Just like that. How did that even happen?
She doesn’t order hot chocolate anymore. Coffee. Black. “Italy ruined me for coffee. It’s part of the culture there, they even feed it to the kids, so there was no choice for me, but to join in. Of course, you easily get hooked on the good stuff, and then you’re left high and dry, but still addicted, when you go anywhere else.”
“Did you cross everywhere off your list?” It’s hard to read those eyes now. The old anxiety is gone, but that search for adventure doesn’t seem to be fully quenched. “It just seems like you have plenty of stores and memorabilia from various places.” Poised. That’s the difference in her. She’s exactly the same, just poised. Suppose some would call it mature. It’s still thrilling to be in her presence, but there’s something more settled.
“Who knows. For now. Can’t say I’ll never want to travel again, but it was time to come home. That’s an adventure in itself: sticking to one place after such frequent upheavals. I’m missing the sun, though. Not everywhere I went was sunny, but I certainly pushed up my average of sunny days in the year by getting out of gloomy England.”
“We’ve had a few good summers in the past years.” Those eyes. That smile.
“And then the floods came. Ugh. I’d rather the hot rainy seasons any day. Hot and wet is much better. At least there’s less clothes to dry off.” Those lips. Stop thinking about her lips. Don’t get lost. It’s not that type of catch up. She’s so settled. It’s so easy to be quiet. At least she lets that happen. Like she wants moment of peace together. “Jacob.” Yes? Anything. Just say it. “You have a baby.” But all women bring reality back. “And she’s beautiful.” No resentment. Support. Longing in there somewhere.
“Alice? Who the…?” Oh that laugh. Goosebumps. Her sense of humour is still innocent and cheeky. Forgot all the laughter from that old life. “It was good to meet her and Angie without you there. That would have been awkward, but with just Angie it was easier to deal with the whole situation. I didn’t mean to bump into them that day. But it suited quite well. Gave me a better insight into what you’re up to. She’s so upfront about everything. She really wants people involved in her life, no matter who it is. And she wasn’t boasting or trying to show off, she just has a small field of vision and so she shares it, even if it’s not entirely appropriate.” Guilt? Why would she feel guilty? “I’m sorry, I don’t want to belittle her. I’m sure I’d be exactly the same if I had this new little family.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” You don’t need other people like Angie does. You’d let them talk and only share the brief basics.
“How do you know? Anyway.” You don’t need to say it. I should get up and go on the next train home. But I can’t. “Jacob. What are you doing here? What are you looking for? You’re not here for me. Not to get back together or see if there’s a chance for that. You’ve got a kid, and I know that’s it for you. You’re loyal.”
“How can you say that after what I did to you?” Just hate me already.
“That wasn’t your fault. People always do things they never thought they would. It just takes the right situation and emotions, and trying to ignore them. Yes, you did it and you could have handled the situation better, but actually, you couldn’t have, because you didn’t know what to do; you only knew what you didn’t want to do or couldn’t do and waited for anything to make that happen for you. If it wasn’t the cheating, it would have been something else. You let things happen to you. That’s why you’re here. I did all the work and you followed. If I hadn’t sent you all those tickets and reminders, or I hadn’t sent the final ones for today, you wouldn’t have come. You left it up to chance, or destiny, or me, just as long as you didn’t have to make a decision for it. I’d have been more impressed if you hadn’t come.”
You’d have been more impressed? Then what was the point? Was this just a test? What for? Did I fail? What do the results show?
“Whether you feel like you love her or not doesn’t matter now. You have to choose, for once in your life: what’s your future going to be? Alice is in it, regardless. But what do you want?” What do I want? I don’t want anything. I want a break. Rest. Peace. That’s why I came. That’s what I told Angie when she found out I booked the day off work. I could have lied. I could have made up a story, but I told her I was coming here. And even though you’re giving me an ultimatum right now this is the most content I’ve been in years.
“I’m not asking you to be with me or even put me in the mix. I just want you to make some decisions in your life, to be a part of it and become a father Alice can look up to and admire. I’ve seen you over the past weeks, and you didn’t notice me. You’re walking around in a daydream, just letting everything wash over you. Snap out of it. Live your life. Choose to be a part of it. There’s so much more if you actually just look at the world.”
“But you were my world. You left me.”
“You didn’t want to come. And I couldn’t be everything to you. You were enough for me, but you couldn’t be everything. Can Angie be enough for you? I know Alice can, but don’t let Angie suffer. Choose to be with her. Choose to love her. And just do it. But don’t give her the hope and never actually show her.”
“But I could love you so easily.”
“Love isn’t easy. If you expect that, then each time it gets hard you’ll give up. The most powerful love I’ve seen has been the most difficult moments in people’s lives, and even though they don’t deserve it in moral or legal terms, or it’s just not easy or beautiful or picture perfect, they still love and are loved. That’s what’s so wonderful about it. Despite us being these rubbish humans, we can still have and give the most splendid thing possible by choosing to love. And choosing to accept it.”
You’re right. She’s right. What’s the point in living like a zombie? I died the day I decided not to go with Tanya to see the world, but I can live now if I just buck up and… wait. “Who says I didn’t come for you? I’ve regretted every day of my life since I said I wouldn’t go with you. I gave all those excuses to make it sound like I couldn’t go, but really I just didn’t want to listen to you. I liked things the way they were. I wanted it like that, but you wouldn’t let me have it that way. If love was about choosing, then I could choose right now to love Angie and that would be it. But if I did that, I’d be choosing not to love you anymore. And I can’t do that.”
“You already chose not to love me anymore. When you said no. When you let me go away, alone.”
“No. You said before, that all of that wasn’t my fault. You said I let it all happen, like today, and I didn’t actively do any of that, so then I didn’t choose it. I wanted you, but I couldn’t have you on my terms. So I wasted my time until you came back. And now you’re here. Now I can choose. So don’t tell me to choose Angie, and choose to love her and be with her when I don’t love her. You’re right, love isn’t just about a feeling, but you do have to start with that. Love isn’t just about a choice. It’s both. I don’t have that feeling for Angie. She was just there and she chose me. I did have that feeling for you.”
“But you didn’t choose to be with me.”
“Can’t I choose now? You’re telling me to choose to love and be with someone. Can’t that person be you?” I could stare in those eyes forever. Just don’t say no. Don’t let it end. I need the hope. “Henry told me that maybe people can forgive the worst things and love someone anyway. We were talking about you. You say you don’t blame me for what I did to you. So, that means you forgive me, right?” See, you can’t deny that. You’ve forgiven me for cheating on you. “So, can you choose to love me? You’ve forgiven me, even though I did the worst thing possible to you. Doesn’t that mean you’ve chosen to love me already?” OK. Think about it. Take all the time you need. Just don’t let this hope end.
“I forgave you for cheating. But that wasn’t the worst thing you could have done. Letting go of me was the worst thing possible. And you did that long before you cheated on me.”
“I’ve never let go of you. You said it yourself, I didn’t choose what happened.”
“But you didn’t choose to be with me!” Is this the end? Now I see the hurt in her eyes. Is this what she’s felt all these years? This is what she’s thought of me? “How could you love me if you let me go away?”
“I didn’t let you. I didn’t have a choice. You chose to go. You chose to leave me. But I still love you, Tanya. I never stopped. I just didn’t know how to do it. If love isn’t just a feeling, but about choosing too, then it’s not completely instinctive. We need to learn how to do it. You’re teaching me. I can learn. But I can’t learn with Angie. She already knows that. She’s known from the start that I don’t love her; I’ve never said it to her. And I say it to Alice every day. You’re right; it’s not fair to Angie to be with her in this way. I’ve been giving her hope of something impossible, but you’ve been giving me hope too. What was the point in sending the tickets and living on my street and coming here today? You didn’t just do that to see what I would do, or to tell me to be with Angie. You wanted to have an ending for what’s between us, but it would never be the end. If I left now and went to Angie, like you’re telling me to, then we’d both still be thinking about each other. More so, because of this moment. That’s not the closure we need. We both know that’s not right, and not fair to Angie. But we do have a choice. And I’ll sit here until you make yours.” So why don’t you just leave? You’re putting up such a fight in all you’ve said and in these agonised expressions and wriggles you’re making. But take all the time you need.
And there, the fingers wind together. Just like that. How did that even happen?