Afterwards Charles could not have told you why he looked up when he did. He had been engrossed by news of the revised national budget by Peterborough and by the time the train pulled into York he was flicking past what seemed like the third appeal that week for anything he could spare for the victims of the latest flood, earthquake or famine. But for some reason he did glance up. Perhaps it was the sudden coughing from the opposite end of the carriage that stirred him. Perhaps if someone had not been so eager to tip their last few salted peanuts to the back of their throat there would now be no disturbance for the rest of the carriage to silently resent and, just perhaps, he wouldn’t have seen her.
She was sitting on the floor at the end of the vestibule, her back resting lightly against the glass partition and her knees pulled high to her chest, as though she was anticipating a large influx of others to squeeze in and join her in her apparent rejection of the various empty seats dotted throughout the train. As it was, however, she found herself left alone to peer out beyond the tracks into the dim early morning light over the distant rooftops, where still some street lamps strained to cling to their nightly sovereignty. She did not seem troubled exactly—no, that would have been too easy to assume—she was more distant, as though had you seen her anywhere, you would have observed the same vacant expression and the same detachment from her surroundings. There seemed to be a certain fragility about her—that was unarguable—but whether this came from her being alone, her nervous chipping away at her nail polish or the way her cardigan draped over her slender frame he was not sure. But as she carelessly moved her hands up to lift the body of chestnut hair that came falling around her face and guide it to rest over her left shoulder, Charles was struck by her beauty—simple and subtle as it was. It was the beauty that endures with youth and, while he fought every impulse dragging him back, he could not help but see the similarity. He longed desperately to stay there, amongst the coughing and the sports pages, where he could forget and ignore. But he had seen into her eyes, with the same distant and hopeful gaze that he had seen in someone else so long ago.
They too had been young, of course, as it is with many a person’s story bearing that particular kind of significance and truth: those stories that seem to sustain such a hold on us, embedding themselves so deep into our memories that we hardly know where we’d be, or who we’d be without them. Yet how abruptly they can be exhumed; how easily the vaguest resemblance or the weakest stimuli can undermine the work of years, where the sting of past pain had so steadily become soothed.
Charles had never even intended to meet anyone like her; his heart had been far too consumed by hopes revolving around his writing. He would make his way to London once he had graduated—the only place for any aspiring writer, he had heard—live in a single bedroom apartment near the West End, buying theatre tickets instead of groceries and sipping coffee instreet corner cafés. He did get there eventually, of course, but it was not in the manner in which he had intended; there was so much more, too many interruptions, yet to come.
It was barely the autumn of 1937 when he first made his way up from Manchester Piccadilly to university. He could still recall the advice that people had so often spewed forth when he spoke of his plans back home, and how often he had ignored them. The neighbours’ doubt and derisions had lain dormant in his mind—he was a working man’s lad and mustn’t forget it, after all—and yet he knew that with every mile the tracks led him further and further away from all of that. Every slight shudder of the wheels connecting with the track reverberated through his fingertips arched upon the armrest, right through to his very being, right to his core. The anticipation was almost tangible. He had never been quite as romantic as people had supposed, however, and had realised that Oxbridge was indeed out of the question, of course; even the most liberally minded Oxford don would hardly see him sporting his father’s best corduroy Sunday suit, hear the accent and spring to welcome him with open arms and an open pocket to the college scholarship fund. No, he had decided upon Durham, where he wouldn’t need to show his face until it was too late for them to change their minds.
Alighting now from the train nearly sixty years on, it all seemed so long ago that he had begun his journey bursting into the station and his new life, his new chance. How different he had felt. Slowly, carefully, he now relieved himself of his small leather satchel and brought himself upright upon his stick so as to be able to survey the station that he knew so well. Everything seemed unchanged—the distant cathedral, the chipped woodwork of the benches; even today’s train controller wore the same exasperated expression characteristic of the profession—and through the fog behind his glasses he could almost see her, waving him into the station, books in hand for the term ahead. He knew that in allowing himself even that meagre glimpse into his past he had made a mistake; it came upon him inevitably within mere moments without any possibility of anaesthetising censoring. He was rushed onwards two years later to that fateful November morning: the very last time he saw her. She had been standing upon the edge of the very platform where he now found himself lingering, with the smoke of the departing train billowing round her, merciless and suffocating. Her woollen shawls enveloped her, clung to her, clung to all they had been, all they should have been and all that they no longer could be. He had tried so desperately not to look back, to keep his thoughts on duty and not to allow himself to see her distant frame slowly and torturously drift away from sight, growing fainter and fainter as he drew further away from that place, where every part of himself and his future were left behind with her.
They had always known that that day would come, however, ever since they had crowded around the wireless amongst their fellow students and heard the announcement that we were, indeed, at war with Germany. Others had been excited, others indifferent, but it was at that moment they saw that their time together had been made finite. King and country would soon come knocking; Charles had no choice but to be ready to answer.
And yet the night before he left there would be no acknowledgement of their impending separation, no frantic embrace of those last hours. The pair of them told themselves that endings were for others to endure and yet the air was heavy with an unspoken, impenetrable resignation. They lay rigid on their backs, eyes fixed upon the ceiling, hardly uttering a word, almost touching, barely breathing. Never once did they betray their gaze to the nightstand at the left side of the bed, upon which lay Charles’ conscription papers.
He became aware that at some point during the course of his mesmerism, his hand had eased its way deep into his jacket pocket, to the small slip of paper that it had found there. He paused there for a moment, tracing his fingers along its folds and creases, before peering down to the words that he need not even read; he knew the article’s content all too well. It had been a stray bomb—unintended, inconsequential—and yet the list before him stood as proof of its magnitude. Third from the bottom, an inch above a slight tear in the page from back in the sixties, was her name.
He replaced the relic and began to make his way through the city towards the cathedral. They had told him that his heart may not hold out much longer and that he may not even see the new year, but that was of no real concern to him. He was back where he started and now, finally, he was done. His long battle with time, its constraints and its pressures had left him forlorn, empty and utterly alone. He had survived, yes, but as he stood at his pew amongst the deafening silence on the last Remembrance Day the doctors could promise him, he couldn’t help but think that he had barely survived survival.
Artwork by: Jonathan David Lim. You can see more of Jonathan’s work here.