Winner 2010 - 'Platform 13' by Claire Bowles

02/19/16 05:47:56PM
112 posts

The platform was empty now. Her only company was the constant drip of a leak somewhere in the dark depths of the tunnel. The sound echoed, reverberated. It was almost painfully loud in the silence. Long, slow splats that came at irregular intervals, like a gradual torture. The inconsistency of the noise grated on her, nerves taut waiting for the next drop to plummet to the floor. She knew for certain there was another explosion of water on brick coming, the only thing she couldn’t tell was when. The parallel with her own life amused her momentarily, but the humour didn’t reach her smile.

She had been sitting her for hours. The low, tiled benches circling the pillars that held the roof at bay were popular with travellers and when she’d first arrived, just at the tail end of rush hour, she’d had to stand. Loitering with other potential passengers, she’d edged towards the furthest away bench and managed to secure a seat in the confused melee as a train arrived and people fought their way off and on. At the time her actions had earned her several disgruntled looks, but the glances didn’t last long once their owners had taken stock of her face, and as the time had ticked by the commuters and shoppers and day trippers had melted away.

It was always cold down here. The tunnels were damp and the moisture chilled the stagnant air. Platforms twelve and thirteen. The low-level. From the sunny, glass-covered expanse of Glasgow Central Station, passengers descended down two escalators and a steep staircase into the dark basement of the station. During the day the platforms bustled with people and the trains were frequent. Now it was deserted. Eerie. That was why she’d come here. To be alone, to hide.

The screen above her head flickered to life. The blue screen flashed ugly yellow letters, announcing the next train. Lanark. She sighed as she fingered the change in her pocket. She had left the house in a rush, and keys, bank cards and her mobile phone lay where she’d left them, safely nestled in her handbag on the kitchen counter. She’d bought a sandwich and a bottle of water with half of the money, chewing it slowly as she watched the boards and wondered where to go. The rest she’d kept for a ticket, enough for one way. The question was where to go. She was directionless, knowing only the centre point that she longed to escape.

She felt the train before she heard or saw it. Its progress down the tunnel sent a rush of stale air flooding into the platform. The warm breeze tickled her hair, ruffling tendrils across her bruised and swollen face. She squinted, trying to protect her eyes from drying in the fast-moving air, and grimaced as the movement triggered a spasm of pain. The rumbling sound of wheels on rusted tracks grew progressively louder and she turned her head to watch the pin-prick headlights slowly expand into globules of bobbling light. Again, as she had every time a train had groaned into view, she felt a stab of indecision. Her legs tensed, ready to lift her to her feet and propel her towards the edge of the platform, but she hesitated. Was this the right train? Groaning and clunking as it nosed into view, the train chugged to a stop, a door facing her, just six feet away. The button blinked fluorescent yellow as the shrill beeps rang out, but the door remained closed. Glancing at the windows she could make out only a handful of late night travellers. No-one wanted to get off, and there was no-one else here to board. The train waited impatiently, the engine whirring as the driver ticked by the sixty seconds then hit the accelerator. His shift was nearly over; he had somewhere to go.

She felt a sense of relief as the final carriage pulled out of sight. No, Lanark wasn’t the right train. She’d watched it come and go eight times now, and each time she hadn’t been sure. Down here in the basement there were few trains and even fewer destinations. The choice would be much better up on the main level, where there were trains to take you anywhere you wanted to go. But it wasn’t safe up there. It was so wide, open. Too easy to be seen.

She lifted her eyes to the television set again, although she knew the sequence of the schedule off by heart now. The next train would be for Larkhall. Perhaps that would be the right train.

At that moment a clattering noise made her jerk her head up, eyes wide and nervous. She sat up straighter, straining to see what, or who, was causing it. A family came clambering into view, a mother with a small boy and a baby in a buggy being jolted as she was bumped down each step. The boy was holding firmly to his mother’s jacket as she kept both hands on the buggy, trying to keep her speed under control. They rocketed off the final step, dashing onto the platform.

Dammit!” she exhaled loudly, glaring at the television screen. She must have been trying to catch the train to Lanark, the woman thought. But she was too late, by now it would be free of these claustrophobic tunnels, cutting swathes through the countryside as the lights of houses winked as it passed.

The family ambled over to another of the pillars and spread out around the circle. The mother eased herself down, taking up half the ring with her ample backside and bulging bags of shopping. Her little boy disappeared behind the pillar, facing the platform taking trains north. She could hear him making noises as he played with an action figure. His voice was shrill and innocent, he was lost in his make-believe world. The child in the buggy was quiet. From here the woman couldn’t see the sex or age. She only hoped it would stay quiet. She couldn’t stand the noise of any more screaming.

The mother pushed the buggy gently to and fro, crooning soothing noises as she glanced around her. It was then that she noticed the woman, half hidden at the back, trying to be invisible. A polite smile began to form on her face, the half-apology, half-greeting smile to cover being caught looking at a stranger. It froze before it could cause dimples on her ruddy cheeks. The woman could feel her judgement as if she’d screamed it at her. The mother’s eyes roamed over her outfit, old and worn, but good quality and well cared for. The boots were leather, cracked with age but polished a gleaming black with a sensible heel. Womanly, but not provocative. Her legs were sheathed in grey trousers, with a neat seam and spotlessly clean. Over this she wore a green woollen coat, designed to bring out her eyes which sparkled defiantly from the face the mother couldn’t bring herself to stare out. The battered, swollen, damaged face that had led her here to this darkened platform.

No, the mother couldn’t bring herself to look there. Was it to hide her pity? Or did she see herself in that face? Was it to save her shame as she sat here, fully clothed but hideously naked?

Instead the mother chose to stare at her boot, to fix her eye on the sparkle that glittered there, a reflection from the yellow light above. It angered the woman. She could just as easily judge the mother as she sat there, five sizes too fat, shopping for herself by the looks of the fancy bags, with two children in tow, late on a school night? What kind of mother was she? Rage boiled up inside the woman, and she inhaled deeply, ready to lay forth her verdict on this unfit mother. But her will crumpled. She could not use this poor mother, with her two babes sitting there, as a vent for the anger that she couldn’t direct where it deserved. Instead she twitched her boot, pulling the mother from her trance. Realising she’d been caught staring, the mother looked hastily away.

Free from the mother’s gaze, she glanced again at the television. The Larkhall train would be arriving in three minutes. She hoped this disorganised family would be on it, off home to wherever that was. They were intruding. All thoughts of getting on this train were gone, she just wanted it to take them away, to leave her here in peace. Her fingers dropped down to the cold tile beside her, nails drumming an impatient rhythm as she waited. Seconds seemed to stretch, doubling in length. The little boy’s noises, endearing minutes ago, were now nails on a blackboard, driving pain up into her teeth. She bit back her complaint, praying the train would hurry, be early.

It wasn’t. The television clock finally ticked over, updating the train to “due”, but there was no distant rumble, no twinkling lights and no warm rustling breeze to announce its arrival. Another minute crept by, then another. She could feel every nerve in her body screaming. The sputtering and buzzing as the boy imitated a fighter plane, the cooing of the mother, the scraping of the buggy’s wheels on the tiled surface. Each sound was deafening, shouting at her. She crossed her arms over her chest, struggling against an irrational desire to just to her feet and run. Run from the station, run up to the family, run onto the tracks. She didn’t know.

But then, relief. A low growl, growing steadily deeper as the train thundered towards her. She closed her eyes, luxuriating in the sound, feeling the vibrations as the floor began to tremble beneath her. The woman stood. She slipped her hands into her pocket, the left one curling round the few coins she had left. Slowly she approached the yellow line, seeing the family copy her movements in her peripheral vision. Turning her head away from them, she watched the approach of the train. Saw the jaded looking driver in his blue uniform jumper stare straight ahead, bored. For one, mad moment she considered jumping. A flash impulse to throw herself before the train, but the first carriage had slid by before she could give the idea thought.

The train coasted to a stop. As if fated, the door paused directly in front of her, the button blinking invitingly. The family had already boarded, were probably trying to choose seats in the empty carriage. The boy would make a fuss, wanting to choose somewhere difficult for his large mother and all her bags. Still she stood there. The driver leaned out of his window and watched her, waiting. Seconds ticked by. She remained motionless. The driver half thought about shouting to her, thinking perhaps the door was stuck. But something about her held his tongue. He waited for a few more seconds, longer than he would have done, especially as he was already late. The woman never moved. Shaking his head, the driver pulled himself back in and pushed the accelerator forward, leaving the woman standing there, toes just touching the yellow line.

Silence again. An empty platform once more. But the feeling had changed. The sense of safety, of comfort, seemed to have got on the final train with the family. Now the platform felt isolating, intimidating. Turning away from the line she shivered. Time to go home.

updated by @americymru: 02/19/16 06:05:14PM