FICTION: Just When I Think I’m Winning

I saw myself again, across the tracks and sleepers, the younger me, half a life ago. I sat on a bench opposite the train and watched my immature, self-conscious movements, the way most fifteen year olds behave, thinking they are the centre of all attention, and the discomfort which accompanies that feeling.

I had been alone then, nervous about travelling without my parents, yet in many ways glad to be away from them, without their raised voices of anger, frustration and the feeling that each one of us was living a life inevitably doomed to fail.

I had arranged to visit some of my friends on the other side of town, friends I had made at a previous school, before we moved house, after my father admitted his affair and my mother insisted on changing locations, jobs and her happiness for an unchanging blankness in her face. The changes were supposed to be about making a fresh start, but things just got worse and the cancer of lies spread to every part of our familial anatomy.

The train journey was short, but the distance between what I had imagined my life as and what it truly was felt like a light-year. I had a carriage to myself and wanted it to stay that way, awkward in my teen-skin, surges of anxiety, hatred and fear, wanting to pull at my skin and scream until my throat felt raw. I remember that time as the worst of it, but it wasn’t and I needed to know that, and know there was a way to survive. I waited for the whistle of departure from the Guard, half-expecting to be dragged out of the carriage for not having the right ticket, or seeing my mother’s grey features by the window, telling me to come home, that she needed me to become the man-of-the-house and my father was leaving us. I wondered if I should keep going, away from the Horrible Truth about being powerless, caught between being a child and an adult.

I could catch another train, then another and another, disappear.

We had stayed in a narrow cottage at a seaside village called Staithes, in North Yorkshire, a few years before, and I remembered the feeling of unencumbered happiness, my parents holding hands as we walked in the rain on the Moors, buying fish and chips later and eating them by an open fire. Perhaps I would go back there to live, a new version of myself, working as a grocer’s apprentice as Captain Cook did when he arrived there and falling in love with the sea too. But I was overwhelmed by ever-changing moods then and would have been scared to make such enormous decisions. I might have been able to make them for myself now.

Perhaps I should have watched my fifteen year old self travel off without a word. But words were what I had needed, then and after, and never found.

I opened the carriage door and smiled at myself, flashing an involuntary response-smile back. History isn’t easy to face.

I sat down and put my holdall on the seat next to me. Traces of The Light were visible through the teeth of the zip, so I put my grandfather’s overcoat on top of the bag.

‘I like your hair. Do you dye it yourself?’

‘What? No. I mean yes. Why?’

It was the wrong opening for anyone and especially to a teenager. I should have remembered that much, keep it simple and friendly. Be a friend to yourself. A thirty year old stranger asking a fifteen year old about hair was always going to be wrong.

‘I used to have hair like that. It looks cool.’

‘Okay, well, thanks.’

I was trying not to stare at, or judge, myself: the lanky and graceless man-emerging, always-shifting to find some comfort and moving to the next position in case you need to escape, while trying to hang on to yourself. Hormones making the basic seem impossibly out-of-reach. It was all so difficult to take in when the only view we ever get of ourselves is from reflections. But I didn’t have much time, the journey was only twenty-five minutes.

‘Sorry about the stupid hair remark. This might seem strange, but I need to talk to you about a few things. It’s very important,’ I said.

The younger me was surprised by the engagement and looked to the right as if there was someone else I was talking to, that I couldn’t be interested in saying anything to someone so young and inexperienced.

‘What? Who are you? Why do you want to talk to me? If you get any closer, I’ll shout.’

There was still a slight stammer in my younger voice. I wanted to say it would eventually disappear after two years of speech therapy – learning to place thoughts in a row and order them into slowly delivered sentences of relevance.

I put both of my hands in the air to create an atmosphere of no-threat-calm. I wasn’t allowed to tell myself any specific details of the future, merely hints at a way to go that might produce a different outcome. My holdall held all the answers whenever I might need them, but I was taking a risk bringing those with me, potentially breaking The Promise.

‘I know this is going to seem insane to you, but there are things I remember that might help you in the future, things I forgot about myself.’

My younger self stood up and began to walk away, keeping an eye on me.

‘Your mother and father aren’t happy with each other,’ I said, feeling a drop in my stomach and an echo of the same sense through time remembered.

The fifteen year old me stopped, as I knew I would, and sat on the end of the seats, close to the door – ready to run, wanting to stay.

‘That doesn’t mean anything. Do you even know my mum and dad?’

The fear and petulance of adolescence muscled through the bravado. It broke my heart to see myself so vulnerable.

‘I do. We were very close once.’

‘So they aren’t happy, that’s not news and it’s not going to help me. I don’t have any way of… did you follow me onto this train?’

‘What you need to know is that your parents’ unhappiness, what they do and who they seem to be, who they spend time with, doesn’t have to be who you become. Think of anything you want to be, anywhere you want to go and just do it.’

‘What does that mean? I can’t just be anything and go anywhere. I hate them and all the…’

I felt the burst of angry energy travelling across the carriage like a refraction. I winced and put my head down.

Deep breaths, keep going forward.

‘It means when you find someone and you fall in love, which you will, hold them close, listen to them, try to be loyal, don’t lie to them or cheat, and don’t ever leave them.’

‘What? Who am I going to fall in love with? Have you been watching me? Are you a weirdo or something?’

I had forgotten how stubborn I could be.

‘I was in love and I became complacent and killed my emotions because it seemed normal, because my parents had taught me to protect my heart by freezing it and not allowing myself to be hurt first. The important thing is to let yourself love and be loved. And no, I’m not a weirdo, although we’re all a bit weird.’

I managed to raise a laugh from my younger self, who quickly remembered to close the door on happiness before it seemed to be a possibility.

I glanced to my right, at passing horse-chestnut trees, all looking the same height and width, swaying like an admonishment to me, reminding me of my secrets and The Promise. There were rows of pylons in the middle distance and abandoned freight carriages, light brown with rust, left to rot.

I saw my younger self in the reflection of the dirty window – there was a smiley face drawn in the grime at the top of the frame. I looked angry, staring at the back of my head, but waiting to hear more. I had my attention, but statements without details are akin to empty, wrapped gift boxes.

I saw the watch my father had given me for my fourteenth birthday then. It would be thrown into the Thames from Waterloo bridge in two years time, the contempt for his behaviour and eventual departure had to be cauterized in some way. He had been given the watch by my grandfather who bought it in Dover during the Second World War. I couldn’t tell myself how much I would miss it or him.

‘Why are you even here? What does my life and family have to do with you?’

‘I made a promise.’

‘To who? What promise?’

I was losing myself again.

I sat forward and I moved further back. The journey would be over soon.

‘Your mother and father love you, but that can’t define who or what you become. That’s the thing to remember. And the love I mentioned is the best thing you will ever know. Please don’t ignore it and let it die again.’

‘Again? Why do you keep talking about things I don’t understand. You’re not saying anything. This is too strange. You are a weirdo and I want you to go.’

‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here. I’ll go now.’

I stood up and smiled at myself. I had forgotten how much I had changed in fifteen years and where I had come from.

‘I do know who you are,’ the younger me said.

‘I know you do.’

‘What happened to you?’

‘I can’t tell you that.’

‘Mum says you disappeared.’

‘She’s probably right.’

‘She said you got lost abroad.’

‘I definitely got lost.’

‘I do want to know more.’

‘You will. Just don’t… don’t jump to any conclusions, think about everything, all the good things. Think about your mum. I know that sounds empty, but the love she has for you is eternal and won’t ever fail.’

‘What about my dad, is he going to be okay? I want to understand. You can’t just leave now. We can keep talking. I can take the journey back with you.’

‘I made that promise. We’ll see each other again.’

‘Is there anything real you can say?’

I looked into my eyes. The connection was made.

‘Remember to love. Whatever happens, remember that one thing. And look after that watch. There’s never enough time, you need to keep an eye on it.’

The fifteen year old me slumped back and looked annoyed. Our moment had passed. I left the holdall and the carriage.

I walked along the train. There were other carriages, I was in each of them – aged sixteen, seventeen and on into the future. My face changing year on year, sometimes looking more optimistic and other times hopeless. I saw myself aged twenty-two, gazing at a photograph: young lovers in Florence, standing with the River Arno behind us – her undiluted smile and hug bringing tears to my eyes – just after crossing the Ponte Vecchio to search for a small hillside church outside the city – Santa Maria something – that was supposed to grant wishes and miracles to the worthy. I was in love then and I let go.

I returned to the bench where I had found my younger, hopeful self, hopeful in the sense that new questions can ignite. Perhaps it had all been a Divine Joke and The Promise I made was as empty as I felt. But there might be a version of me who still had a chance.

The bench was the same I always waited on, waiting for something to come along.

I looked at the sleepers and the tracks once more, hearing the low hum of vibrations of approach. I looked and saw the place I had jumped for some reason and died before I had time to think.

My train would be arriving soon. It was always on time.

D D Gothard has a CertHE and Masters degree in creative writing from Ruskin College, Oxford and Bath Spa University. He has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals - most recently in The Honest Ulsterman and The Incubator. Gothard was shortlisted for the Waterstone's Writer of the Year Bursary in 2009. "Friendship and Afterwards" (Yolk Publishing 2014) received a People's Book Prize nomination. "Simon says" (Urbane Publications 2015) was a WHSmith's Bookshops bestseller. "Reunited" (Urbane Publications 2016) was a Blackwell's Bookshops featured novel. The author was an arts correspondent for After Nyne magazine.

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