I suppose that was where Johnny was standing that dreadful day, when he must have woken too early with a bad head and dragged himself out. It had been midsummer, when the light in the early morning is so pitiless, mocking the failure to sleep.
As the tube station staff banged open the shutters he came in and bought a ticket from a machine. A one-way trip to anywhere. It didn’t matter any more.
He would have heard the rumble of the distant train. His heart would have thumped as he turned his face toward the hot draught that blew from the black O of the tunnel’s mouth. As the track began to rattle the little grey mice scuttled into the cracks in the concrete below. He would have thought a prayer. Finally the white light picked out the curve of the rails then appeared as a dot and grew, until it was too late to apply the brakes sooner and the silver cabin where the driver sat hurtled along beside the platform at the head of the train.
I pitied the driver, to have to see that.
The platform edge is marked ‘MIND THE GAP’.
The doors slide shut and my train draws away.
Now the station seems forlorn, as though it’s still grieving. No-one else is here. I’m almost out of breath climbing an escalator frozen between its steel casings in fluorescent light. Tattered posters advertise language schools where no-one studies; forgotten shows in theatres that have shut; flights to countries war-torn from the map.
I try to remember whether I’d read something about Charing Cross station being partly closed. And now, I don’t know how long I’ve walked alone along this corridor, the tap of my shoes on the smooth tiles echoing as the low hum of a far-away train vibrates away. But I’m getting closer to the down-and-out. I’ll have to walk past him. He sits with his back against the curve of the wall, legs folded up and hugged, head bowed and half hidden against his knees. He might not even notice me.
Sometimes there’s a bad smell from these unfortunates, who have nowhere to find the basics of human existence. But not from him. As the draught stirs the crumpled papers along the tunnel, I catch a whiff of cologne. It’s the cool, expensive one that always breaks my heart. The one that I bought Johnny, on his final birthday, when I’d already decided that I was never going to buy him a birthday present again.
I had to get out.
As I approach he turns his head sidelong, his cheek still resting on his knee, tawny curls falling away from his forehead. I should walk past. But I stop. I stand before him now, his face raised to mine.
A face lost for twenty years.
‘Johnny,’ I whisper, as if saying it too loud would make it real. Guilt and horror shriek in my head like black crows. ‘I’m sorry…’ It hurts me to see him. I had forgotten how handsome he had been, with his lips almost twisting into that smile I could never look away from, his brilliant eyes, his eyelashes like a girl.
‘You did what you had to do.’ Did he just say that? Or did I think it? The words, somehow, were there.
‘It was your drinking,’ I tell him. ‘It was your drinking that put you under the train, not me.’ It’s as if I’ve told him this a hundred times since, and each time, with a drinker’s denial, he’s pushed it away. But now, I see him nod, just as I notice the pattern of the pale tiles on the wall where he rests his back.
‘I’m free of it now.’ That half-smile again.
I crouch down to see him, to hear him better, but through where his body might have been the grid of dark grouting comes into ever sharper focus.
‘I don’t want it now… I don’t want anything. But I want you to be happy…’ Now his voice has gone.
I want to tell him that I married someone else in the end, that I’m as happy as anyone can be, who has teenagers. But there will never be another chance.
I stand up, and continue along the corridor.
The scent of cologne has gone.
The signs pointing me to the Way Out are lit up.
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