So, here's a short story, which I wrote for my Open University course. I didn't put as much time into it as I should have done, and in it there were, as usual, things my tutor didn't like. Also as usual, after 24 hours of scowling at his criticism, I realised he was absolutely right, but hey-ho. Here it is, as I submitted it.
The Last Train For The Coast
Did you want to sit there? You can if you like; the other chair’s free. It’s busy in here when the Illuminations are on and everywhere else is full, although the food’s not great. The fish is frozen and the chip fat’s old, and nobody would really choose eat in an amusement arcade, with those bloody machines whooping and bleeping. Did you know they’re designed by psychologists? Well, they are. They’re designed to flash and play sounds in special hypnotic patterns. That’s why you can’t ignore them.
I eat here most nights. Not because I want to, but I can never seem to get served in the nice places that do sea-fresh fish in perfect crispy batter with a steaming hot cuppa and a smile. They’ve always just run out of food, or they’re closing. Always.
The Illuminations bring a lot of people to town, of course. You’ll have seen them: families, four generations sometimes, all out together. Or couples, because it’s kitsch and retro and there’s something daftly romantic about sharing candy-floss by the sea. Not many people come alone, like us.
The first time I came was with my wife and my little boy. He was so excited, out past his bedtime. We all held hands, Sheena and me either side, Daniel in the middle, and we swung him up into the air – one-two-three-go! – and he giggled so much I thought he’d never stop. We walked all the way to the North Pier, but Daniel’s little legs were slowing up by then, so we treated him to a ride back in a pony carriage. His cheeks were pink and he was clutching this silly glowing magic wand we’d bought him as if it was solid gold. We had lovely, freshly-cooked hot chips before we went home, tasting of the sea.
That was why I didn’t mind at first that I’d come back, even if it was by accident.
I was at the station, waiting for my train home from work, but I didn’t want to go. It’s depressing, going back to an empty house, isn’t it? No lights on. No little school shoes in the hallway. No dinner in the oven. And suddenly, I just couldn’t bear it. Not for another night. Not for another second.
A wave of clammy, nauseous panic washed over me. I turned my face to the sky and closed my eyes, trying to feel the breeze against my skin. I could hear my train approaching, and I knew I had to get on, knew I had to go home, but the thought of stepping into that emptiness, that loneliness, that house robbed of everything that mattered, made my chest constrict. The very air itself tasted thick and oppressive as I gulped for breath and commuters surged to the edge of the platform, jostling past me. The ground seemed to lurch under my feet like the deck of a ship in rough seas, and I stumbled forwards, and —
I can tell by your face that you think I’m going to say I fell on to the tracks. But come on – if I’d fallen in front of the train, would I be here talking to you now?
No, what happened was that the next thing I knew, I was lying on a greasy, juddering, carpeted floor. Somehow, I’d boarded the train. Either I’d immediately fainted, leaving me with no memory of getting on, or I’d managed to fall through the open doors as I blacked out, improbable though it seems.
I expected to find people gathered round me –well-meaning types asking if I was all right – but there was nobody. I lay sprawled in the aisle, alone. When I began to shift tentatively on the filthy carpet, I felt no pain and my dizziness had passed.
It was only as I got to my feet that I realised this couldn’t be my train. The carriage was almost empty, rather than packed with suited commuters. There was an electronic information display at one end of the carriage, flickering and spluttering on a smeared screen. I had to squint to catch the words, but of course, you know what I’m going to say: the train was coming here.
Now, that was strange. I’d no idea trains for this place passed through my station. I’d never seen them before. Confused, I took the nearest seat and tried to look outside, but it was dark and the window had been vandalised with a harsh, angular graffiti tag scratched viciously into the glass.
In one seat was an elderly man, sleeping with his mouth hanging open. Saliva dribbled down his chin, glistening wetly like slug-trails. The only other passengers were a sullen teenage couple, their feet on the ripped seats opposite them.
“Is this—” I began.
Before I could finish, the boy leaned forward, grinned and belched at me, filling the air with a rank scent of bad teeth and stale lager. His girlfriend picked listlessly at a scab in the crook of her arm.
“You’ve made it on to the last train, sir,” said a voice behind me. “Ticket, please?” A guard had arrived, the weight of the ticket dispenser slung around his neck making him dip his head slightly like an overburdened donkey.
“I think I’m on the wrong train. I wasn’t feeling well, and ... look, my season ticket won’t cover my journey, so can you just sell me a—”
The guard was already shaking his head. Confused, I passed him my season ticket anyway, in the hope that he’d somehow understand.
“That’s fine, sir,” the guard said, without looking at it. “We’re just about to pull into our final destination.”
“And I can get a train back from there?”
“You can try, sir,” the guard said.
Rubbing my face vigorously to clear the fog from my head, I decided to look on the bright side. I’d been dreading going home anyway, so much that I’d apparently had some kind of panic attack. And now, here I was on the way to somewhere I’d been happy, where I’d had a lovely night with Sheena and Daniel about the previous year. Maybe a night away would do me good. I could walk along the front, have some nice fish and chips, perhaps check into a little B&B. It was October, so the Illuminations would be on like last time, and the promenade would be buzzing with excitement. I expect you were thinking much the same yourself this evening.
The station was deserted when I stepped off the train, but it didn’t take long to find the promenade, guided by the carriage ponies’ hooves clip-clopping and the screams coming – I assumed – from the Pleasure Beach.
In some ways, the seafront was as I’d remembered. The sky was oily-black, there was a sharp chill in the air and everything, everything, was lit up one way or another, flashing, glowing, glaring, from the Tower to the doughnut stands to the fortune-telling booths, so that when I closed my eyes, the lights seemed imprinted on my retinas. You know how in some high streets, they’ll only give McDonald’s planning permission if they tone down its frontage to fit in? Give the Golden Arches a nice classy racing-green background? Well, here they’d toned it up, made it more garish. The sign was rippling and flashing, just like the Illuminations themselves, and you could have seen the big M on the top from the other side of the bay.
The billboards over the entrance to the pier still showed the usual dated, old-school comedians. I stood still for a moment, my ears ringing with the music pumping from the arcades and the furious tantrums of children demanding candy-floss, and looked up at the dull-eyed grin on a comic’s bloated face, his sweaty double chin blown up to grotesque proportions. I hadn’t seen him on television for years – could have sworn he’d died, actually, but I must’ve confused him with someone else. A lot of those comedians do say they’re too blue for TV. Perhaps that was it.
It soon became clear that I hadn’t picked a great night to come here. It was starting to rain in stinging, vindictive drops, flicked into my face by a blustering wind. Everywhere I went people shouted at me to buy crap – glowing things, mostly, like the wand I’d bought for Daniel. Flashing plastic swords, bunny ears, devil horns. The latest novelty seemed to be glowing dreadlocks in neon colours: all around me, flaccid, LED-lit sausages of hair, pink and obscene like spilled guts, bobbed from little girls’ heads.
There were giant teddy bears, too, grinning monkeys with nylon fur, knock-off Bart Simpsons: glassy-eyed arcade wins clutched by fat, sticky-faced children, but too tawdry and characterless ever to become favourite toys. They’d just gather dust like Daniel’s wand did, until he left it on the stairs and Sheena didn’t pick it up, so it snapped when I trod on it and stabbed me in the bloody foot. I was furious, and it caused a row which she could have avoided, if she’d just thought to tidy up. But that’s her trouble: she doesn’t think.
I inhaled deeply, trying to catch fresh, salty air, but just as I couldn’t hear the sea over the constant cacophony of other competing sounds, I couldn’t smell it, either. The air tasted of cooking fat and burnt sugar, pony manure and cheap perfume and aftershave from the stag and hen parties. You’ll have noticed men and women hate each other here. They congregate in separate groups, the women shrieking and cackling like sequinned parrots and the men shoving and swaggering as they’ve got balls the size of oranges. They even buy t-shirts with slogans. If cucumbers put the bins out, we wouldn’t need men. The best thing about a blow-job is the 5 minutes’ silence. The women think men are stupid and lazy; the men think women are nags and slags. What’s odd is that these are people about to marry. Whatever people say about me, I could never hate my wife the way these men seem to hate women, and we’re divorced.
You look a bit frazzled, I must say. It’s the bass pounding from the club next door, I expect. That relentless threatening thumping wears you down. I’m staying next to one of those clubs – it was the only B&B that would have me. I can’t tell you how many places I tried. Nice ones, in residential streets. But they were always full, or the owners just slammed the door in my face. And then finally, one of them– an elegant old lady, with her hair in a bun – looked at me for a long time. She pressed her lips together sadly, shook her head and said, “Oh, love, you won’t find a room in a B&B like this.”
“But when places say ‘vacancies’ outside, why not?”
“You need to go to Shane’s Bar and Guesthouse,” she said. “On the seafront. Shane’ll usually have a room for ... people like you.” She opened her mouth to say something else, but stopped and simply shook her head.
I’ve been at Shane’s for a year now. There are chipped life-size models of the Blues Brothers sitting in the Reception area. The sheets are nylon, the breakfast sausages are like condoms filled with anaemic salted mush and every morning, even though the bathroom’s en-suite, I have to clear a slimy, matted wad of soap-scummed hair out of the plughole. Which is strange, because as you can see, I’m bald. But I stay because there are no rooms anywhere else. Not for me. Ever.
Sheena, when she left, she stayed in a guesthouse for a bit, with Daniel, and the first place she found let her in. Of course, that wasn’t here, that was back at home. She didn’t even go far, only over the other side of town, which is how I found her. She went to a women’s refuge after that. I knew where it was, but I couldn’t go there because of the restraining order. She said she was frightened of me, which is ridiculous. She knew we had good times, and it’s not difficult to keep me happy; it’s just there were things that set me off. Everyone’s got something that sets them off.
What’s strange is that there’s no fight in me now. Nothing sets me off here. Not anymore. I’m too tired. The noise never stops, and I don’t sleep. I don’t even try to get away these days, not like before. Oh, I hadn’t told you that part, had I? Sorry, I got sidetracked. I’m like Ronnie Corbett in his armchair; I keep digressing when I tell a story.
I did try to leave – the next morning, in fact. But the station was deserted and I waited for hours before a train came. It pulled in and dropped a few people off, but when I tried to get on, the guard – it was the one from the previous night – said it was out of service. I asked him when the next train back was due, and he laughed and said, “Oh, no trains back, sir. None at all.”
“Wait!” I said. “Tell the driver to stop a minute, just—”
The train was already pulling away. I ran alongside it as it picked up speed, thumping on the door, but the guard just kept laughing.
I couldn’t see the train-driver at all. His cab was dark, but for the dials and switches on the dashboard, glowing in the blackness.
Perhaps you were thinking you’d go home by bus instead. Or taxi, and hang the expense. Maybe you’ll give that a try, in the morning.
I expect when you’re back in here tomorrow night, you’ll let me know how you got on.