Saturday, 7 August 2010
This story was submitted as an assignment a few months ago. Time away from it has helped me to see some of its faults and it's one that I'm still busy working on.
Jackie turned the rings on her finger so hard they moved like a Chinese burn. The sound of train wheels rolling over iron tracks forged a rhythm to her rage. Bleak countryside raced behind the slanted rain drops, which filled the window like grey net curtains.
“It’s horrible isn’t it?“ came a voice from above. A young man shook out his coat before lifting it up on the rack.
She looked up annoyed : “Yes, obviously!”
His smile disappeared : “I was only trying to be friendly.”
“Sorry. I didn‘t mean to be rude. I had a late night. Tired.”
No point in taking it out on him, she thought.
“No problem. I’ll leave you in peace. You don’t mind if I ….” He sided into the seat opposite and laid a slim case on the table between them.
“No, no, please do.” Her smile was weak.
Warmth from the big sloppy cardigan, that she normally buried herself in while lounging around the house, spread down through her body and cuddled her. The pattering of the man’s fingers on his keyboard soothed like a lullabye. She closed her eyes and drifted, details from the morning’s row replayed in time to the tracks. A train screamed past in the opposite direction, so close it felt she would be skinned alive. Her head jerked back as if struck. Her eyes forced open.
“Sorry? Did you say something?” The young man looked up.
Jackie looked startled.
“No… I hope I wasn’t thinking aloud.”
“It’s probably that lot,” he threw his head backwards to indicate to a group of teenagers laughing and giggling further up the aisle.
Jackie peered out from her seat. Two girls sitting opposite Beavis and Butthead-types looked heavenward, folded their arms and chewed on gum. Pony-tailed heads met as they gossiped; big circle earrings touched and bounced, hands flapped as they talked. She imagined the wearer of the earring she had found that morning. It was cheap artificial tin metal the sort that brought you out in rash. Just like its owner, she thought. An intense soreness burned from her finger which was red and chafed. She tugged and pulled her rings off, and felt instant relief.
“Noisy, aren’t they?”
“Just kids. Mine were just the same.”
The man looked up from behind his laptop. She continued : “They’re older now. Grown up and left home. Got their own families.”
“I‘ll be getting married soon but we won‘t be starting a family yet. My fiancée is committed to her job for the next five years.” His face suddenly spread and his eyes glazed as a ping indicated an email had arrived.
“That’s her now. She’s meeting me at the station.”
He hunched over his keyboard, his whole face a smile. His excitement would have been infectious if Jackie hadn’t seen it all before. Love had nothing to do with any of it. She turned back to the window, thinking of the earring and Kev‘s denial, and that punch she gave him.
“Well go on, then. Go on, fuck you if you can’t discuss this properly!” he’d said as he picked up scattered clothes and threw them in Jackie’s bag as she packed in fury, blood trickling down from his nostril, tears slicing through her mascara.
“Have you been married long?” The man looked up again.
“30 years.” She wanted to add with hard labour but didn’t.
“Wow. My parents never made it that long but it’s nice to see a living example of people who can obviously live happily together their whole lives.”
Jackie forced a smile. She looked back to the window and the man went back to his lap top.
She thought she’d forgotten how to cry and she hadn’t seen Kev so angry. At least it was a reaction. Better than his usual “grunts” for yes to a cup of tea, or “nah” on second time of asking when he didn’t acknowledge her at all. Her life had been servitude to a man who didn’t care and kids who couldn’t be bothered. She looked at her hands. Rough like worn leather. Her finger felt cold. Dry skin flaked in the ridge on her finger where the rings had been.
A young woman walked along the aisle with a baby clutched to her side. She held him with one arm and used her other hand to put pieces of paper on the tables.
“Excuse me that I don’t speak English. I am a homeless. I came here for better life but I am forced to beg to feed my child. Please help.”
The woman stood waiting. Jackie dug in her purse, pinched out a pound coin and held it out. Long, slender brown fingers grasped it from her hand. The woman smiled and nodded her head but said nothing in English or her Mother tongue.
“They make me sick, those people,” the lap-top man said as she moved up the aisle.
“It’s not nice to have no home … ” Jackie replied, “.. and it’s not the baby’s fault.”
“They shouldn’t have kids if they can’t look after them.”
Jackie leaned back in her seat, the train rhythm soothed her irritation. Bringing up kids was the hardest thing she’d ever done and it must be harder for those poor women on their own.
The thought of her own baby took her by surprise. For a moment she couldn’t breathe. Panic pushed itself out in a cough that was followed by a sneezing fit.
“Oh dear. It sounds like you’re getting a cold.”
“Stress,” Jackie said before she blew into a tissue. “The dusty train air doesn’t help.”
The train slowly rumbled into King’s Cross Station and forced her to focus on what was going to happen next. The lap top man reached up to the luggage rack and offered to help with her bag. He stepped onto the platform, walked ahead of her, and hovered outside the station shops by the entrance.
Cigarette smoke hit Jackie as she made her way outside and she inhaled deeply through her nose. Kev hated her smoking and she’d given up for him, but she missed it and turned back towards the newsagent’s, to get a packet of her favourite brand,. The lap-top man and a suited young woman with a brief case between her feet were kissing. Even with heels, his girlfriend had to tip toe to engage. She sucked her lip as she bent to pick up her briefcase. They turned hand in hand and walked off. Jackie said hello but the lap-top man didn’t see her.
Fear followed as she walked out onto the Euston Road. London had changed since her honeymoon. It was starting to get dark. She pulled her coat collar up, placed her handbag around her shoulder and held it close with one hand s she pulled her small suitcase behind her with the other. Lights from a big building drew her across a small evergreen park, spattered with dead branches from big trees. She walked the pathway between sad looking flower beds, bordered with winter pansies. Tourists with back-packs entered the brightly-lit hotel across the square. Jackie followed them in. They were German.
“Yes, we stay in London for two nights and then we go to Scotland,” they told the woman behind the desk, her hair gleaming and tied up in a neat French knot, smart uniform with badge that said Suzanne Jones, Head Receptionist.
She looked up and smiled, perfect white teeth on show, as she handed them their door pass.
“Have a nice stay!”
Jackie approached. The receptionist looked her up and down as the smile faded.
“Just one night, I expect,“ Jackie said.
“What’s the purpose of your stay?”
“R+R, and anything else I fancy.”
The receptionist handed Jackie her pass.
“Floor 4. Check out at 10am”
Jackie just made the lift. The Germans were talking in German but stopped and said “hello“ as she entered. They smiled and resumed their foreign conversation. Jackie always wanted to travel when the kids left home but Kev wasn’t very adventurous. Moments later, the lift pinged and the doors opened.
The room was down the hall. Three attempts later and she managed to open the door with the card pass.
"Whatever happened to keys!" she said aloud.
Suitcase heaved onto the bed with relief, she sat next to it for a moment, brushed her greying, shoulder length hair back from her face and dragged out the bobble that was slipping through the thick and unkempt style.
Jeans, jumper and a change of underwear were set aside from a mismatch of nothing useful from her case and Jackie headed for the shower. The strong spray of hot water
cascaded over her head and down her body and rinsed away any remnants of bad feeling. Soap ran into her finger. Jackie held it under the water to relieve the sting and then turned off the tap and got out.
Hair wrapped in a towel, she sat on the bed and worked some cream in while wondering what she could do in London. She reached for her cigarettes and sneered at the No Smoking sign on the polished dressing table. There was a smoke alarm on the ceiling and a window that opened wide. Hanging her head and half her body out, she drew in heavily, holding the smoke in for a moment before letting it out with a huge pleasurable sigh. Her life, her choice, she could smoke herself to death if she wanted. Busy people went about their lives below Jackie’s window as she smoked. A woman loaded with shopping struggled to the bus stop and dropped the bags with relief when she arrived. A suited man with open camel coat talked rapidly on a mobile and, without breaking step, negotiated himself around a tramp laid out on the pavement by the park in a wrap of blankets.
A happy looking couple chatted across the road, stopped talking and then embraced. The woman was heavily pregnant and the man had to lean over her bump to get close enough to kiss her. Jackie smiled. Kev had made such a fuss of her when she told him about the baby she was expecting.
“You’ll have to say yes now,” he’d said.
She told herself it would be fine even though she was so young. She was very fond of Kev. It wasn’t the sort of love that pins you up against the wall and grabs you by the throat but it was honest, loyal, hard working. Kev fussed and nannied her, brought her breakfast in bed, suffocated her, and said she should give up her job but she wouldn’t. It was on the bus home that the pain started. Heavy and unspoken grief haunted his face as he arrived by her bedside in the labour suite to witness their first-born coming into the world all sloppy and wet. It should have been pride. Jackie almost died with her son. Kev cried more when he thought he was losing her too. She opened her eyes to see him sitting on the end of her bed, praying. Him. Praying. For her. Their son lying cold in a crib by the window with dried blood still stuck in patches to what would have been a fine head of hair. She didn’t dare touch him but Kev picked him up, held his tiny, wrinkled body close, and sat next to Jackie. He loosened one arm and reached out to her , bringing her hand in to touch their son’s face with her palm, as if by a miracle they could warm the life back into him. That was the last time she had cried.
Tired eyes hurt and Jackie rubbed away the memory she didn’t want to dwell on. She laid on the bed and switched on the TV using the remote to flick through channels. She settled on the news. It was late ...
… Something round and silver lies on the ground… fingers reach for it …almost …what’s that?…her eyes are drawn to something else that glitters …shines and blinds .. She can barely see what it is…her hand reaches out…it’s a gem…a red stone…and another…just out of reach… precious ... side by side…
Jackie’s arm dropped over the side of the bed. She woke and thought of her rings as soon as her eyes opened. The TV was playing a cooking show to itself. She turned, felt for the remote and switched it off. Throwing the covers back, she moved to the dressing table and picked up her bag. She saw the red stones of her engagement ring glitter when she opened a zipped compartment and dug in for her wedding ring. She slipped them back on her finger .
Her phone buzzed gently in her bag. A missed call from Home and several other messages from Kev showed up as she flicked through. Staring at the phone a moment; her fingers hovered over the keyboard. Jackie slapped the phone shut, threw it aside, and curled up in bed with the blankets hugged around her. She hoped it wouldn’t rain tomorrow .