She is on her way home by train from Snow Hill Station. Does she see what she thinks she sees? If she does, what does it mean?
What do you Mean?
THE 5.38pm FROM BIRMINGHAM SNOW HILL is two minutes late. Something on the line has slowed it down. She has to stand. There would be a spare seat if the father with the two small children sat one of them on his lap, but he does not. So, she stands next to a man reading a kindle. He often jolts backwards and the heel of his shoe hits the toe of hers. The back of his neck bulges over his shirt and there are deep creases in the skin there, like a map. His ears have fine golden hairs along the top and it makes her think of the cat. A ginger cat. It had been run over a few days before. Her husband was distraught. She does not want another cat, ever.
At the Jewellery Quarter the father with the two children gets off. One child glares at her face as they get up off their seats.
‘Stop staring at the lady, Leo,’ the father says, but the child does not stop and she glares back at him. She has no children.
She sits down at the seat near the window they have vacated and watches the father try to hold the children’s hands as they step down onto the platform. The children swat him away. She tries to catch the attention of one of the children by staring, but they don’t look. The man with the kindle sits down next to her. He is a big man with loud breathing habits. She imagines he’s a snorer. She gazes out of the window at the platform on the other side. There is a man waiting with a dog on a lead. She prefers dogs. This one is a Border Collie. She likes Border Collies best of all for their intelligence. She tries to catch the attention of the man with the dog, but the train begins to move and the man is checking his phone. She wipes the condensation from the glass of the window and notices her own reflection flicker. She touches her cheek, then refocuses out onto the railway line. There is a shoe there, on the line, or what looks like a shoe at first. As the train moves on, she thinks, but isn’t sure, that it is not a shoe at all, it is a foot.
She thinks about the cat. She doesn’t want to but she does. She thinks about its claws. She was the one who had to tell her husband that it had been run over. She was the one who found it, she said. She had to get one of her husband’s shovels from the shed and scrape it off the tarmac outside her house. Scrape most of it, that is, anyway, except for a stubborn paw, flattened out of anything like three dimensional entirely, the pads like squashed strawberries seemingly embedded into the road there. She put the disparate parts into a Sainsbury’s carrier bag and put it in the outside bin, then emptied the cat litter tray on top of it, then the contents of kitchen bin. She told her husband she’d buried it in the garden, near the compost heap where it looked like anything could be buried. The binmen must have taken it because the bin is empty now.
The man next to her reading the kindle smells like ammonia. She wonders if it’s his breath or if he’s had a hard day at the office, or if he has a UTI of some kind. When she holds her nose, he looks at her and seems surprised. She lets him stare for a moment, then she looks outside and thinks the landscape looks like a reasonably good watercolour painting. As the train slows, she watches the thunkety-thunk of the railway line on the other side and feels the man next to her stand up. Just under the sign for The Hawthorns, on the line there, she sees a leg. She breathes on the glass of the window and sees how it fogs things out a bit. She wipes the breath away, and the leg is still there, on the line. She imagines the man reading the kindle has got off here, but doesn’t bother looking to check. There are old-fashioned posters on the wall of the waiting room on the opposite platform. Lovely pictures of train trips to Sidmouth and Scotland, York and North Wales.
In their eleven years of marriage, she and her husband have been on holiday together thirty-four times, she could name all the places in order. Then they had the cat and he didn’t trust anyone to look after it, so the holidays stopped completely, as did their date nights because the cat didn’t like to be alone, her husband said. At night, the cat yowled outside like a baby, wouldn’t sleep downstairs and took, first of all, to sleeping outside their bedroom door. There are scratch marks on the paintwork there. Her husband said to let it in, so it slept on their bed, then in their bed and snored softly all night, every night. Each night, her husband would hold the cat in such a gentle embrace, it made her want to weep. But she did not.
The train stops at Smethwick Galton Bridge, where it’s possible to see down through the slats of the metal bridge to the canal below. From that height, there is a sense of the water running like a scar, like a deep scratch through the landscape. Several people get off here to get trains to New Street or Wolverhampton, or Wales. One man stays on and sits next to her even though there are more spare seats. He places a bag on his lap and fetches out some material and a needle with a long piece of red cotton. He begins to work on the material with the cotton in the needle. It is a piece of intricate embroidery. The needle glints as the train begins to move. It is the low sun gekkering through the metal slats of the bridge and reflecting off the needle. Outside, when she looks, lying on the line, there is a torso, but the train is going too fast to see clearly, and, anyway, she is distracted by the man sitting next to her, embroidering what looks to be a devilish creature, and as if he can feel her interest, the man says, ‘It’s a kind of chimera.’ And he starts to give more detail, to describe what exactly that is, pushing the needle in, embroidering a creature, she can see, made up of disparate parts, which fascinates her.
‘You can like me on Facebook,’ the man says. ‘Are you on Facebook?’
When he looks at her though, he stops talking and embroidering so abruptly that he pricks his finger and a droplet of blood seeps onto the material, and she turns away, her ears pressurised from the train’s entry into a tunnel. There is a particular kind of blackness in a passing tunnel wall. The brevity of it, the sound of it, and, most importantly, the feel of it, makes the whole sensation synaesthesic. She closes her eyes for the pain of it, that blackness, and when she opens them, the embroiderer has gone, but the feel of his needle lingers about her. She thinks about what he’s said. She is on Facebook. She would look there at night when her husband was fussing the cat, playing games with it with a piece of string. She ‘likes’ a few things on there. She has posted holiday photos of her and her husband, but no-one has ever commented or liked any of them. She won’t ‘like’ his page, this man, this embroiderer. She thinks his work is unsettling.
There is rain grazing the window now, the sealant is rotten and water leaks onto her lap. She thinks about the time she bathed the cat. She bathed the cat because she came home from work to find it had pissed and shit on the kitchen floor. She smelt it before she saw it, that deeply meaty smell that seems vaguely edible. Two piles in the middle of the floor there. She cleaned the floor and saw that the cat was under the kitchen table, growling at her. She bathed it in cold water and washing up liquid in the sink, to get the shit off the fur round its arse. Soaking wet, it wasn’t a very big cat at all, not a very big frame of a cat. It must have been all fur. When she held it by the scruff, its claws sprang out like something mechanical, like needles, in fact. It didn’t scratch her. It tried to, but it didn’t. Not just then. That night in bed, as he cuddled the cat, her husband had commented that there was a smell of lavender. Lavender, she’d told him, is relaxing, makes you sleep deep and well and long.
No-one seems to get off or on the train at Rowley Regis. Outside the place seems in darkness with only the light above the sign flickering with the rain. A man appears, smoking a cigarette, from the darkened waiting room on the opposite platform. He peers into the carriage as if looking for someone, he bends his knees and cranes his neck to see in. He walks forward across the line that says Do Not Cross This Lineand stops with his toes on the very edge of the platform. He looks directly at her. He takes one last drag of his cigarette and flicks it onto the railway line. It lands on a body, lying diagonally, limbs splayed, the head on the line itself, the back of the head auburnish, bloodied. She sees it for only an instant, lit by the tip-light of the cigarette before it is put out by rain. This is not right, she thinks, surely. But she is alone in the carriage and there is no-one to mention it to. She decides to wait until the next station, if someone gets on, then she will say something to them.
It is, by now, very dark. It is dark territory between those two stations. And then, quite suddenly, the lights of Lye are shaky pinpricks on the horizon. When her husband took the cat to be spayed, the vet said it needed to be kept inside for a while, looked after, kept warm and cosy, that it might be a bit touchy for a while. It had come back with a long line of stitches along its side. The view outside the carriage reminds her of that.
She feels cold and small, there is no heating on in the carriage. The station at Cradley is filtered through a gingerish light and lots of tiny raindrops float in non-specific directions in the glow of it. She thinks about how her husband looked at the cat as he brought it back from the vets, how he called it ‘darling’ and ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’, how he stroked it. ‘Give it some love,’ he’d said to her. ‘Show it you care.’ And he held out the cat to be loved and cared for and she saw how the whiskers twitched and the stitches oozed a bit of something onto his hand.
A Guard, gets on. He is damp, his uniform is, and he smells of a roast dinner or a chip shop as he approaches her. He looks like he’s trying to grow a beard and moustache but without much success. He is young.
‘Ticket?’ he says, and she shows him her Pass and he takes it and looks. He sniffs something liquidy and his moustache wriggles.
‘Excuse me,’ she says. ‘I saw something. On the line. I think. At Rowley.’
She points over her shoulder and her wedding ring clinks against her knuckle.
The Guard is looking at her face now, and then at the Pass.
‘And maybe there have been things on the line all the way from Snow Hill, if you know what I mean?’ She holds out her hand for him to give her the Pass, but he does not. Not straight away.
His moustache twitches again, there is food in there. ‘What do you mean?’ he says.She can’t take her eyes off his moustache, the way it moves when he talks. She shakes her head, smiles and takes the Pass from him.
At Stourbridge Junction, she gets off the train. A rat or a mouse, or the wind or a cat, or something twitches the weeds next to the steps that lead to the way out. The platform is slippery with rain and wetted oil. Someone could fall and hurt themselves. The air smells of something deeply meaty and it makes her feel hungry. She looks across the carpark and sees the high beam of the headlights of their car flash at her. It is her husband, waiting to take her home. She sees the colour of his hair, even redder in that light. She hopes there is food in the house, to cook quickly. Or maybe she will eat out today for a treat. Or maybe she will book a holiday. She had almost forgotten she can do exactly what she wants now.
Kerry Hadley-Pryce was born in the Black Country. She worked nights in a Wolverhampton petrol station before becoming a secondary school teacher. She wrote her first novel, The Black Country, published by Salt Publishing whilst studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. Her second novel, Gamble, was published by Salt Publishing in June 2018. She is a PhD candidate and visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, researching Psychogeography and Black Country Writing. Her short stories are published variously online and she is currently working on her third novel.
Kerry’s Twitter handle is @Kerry2001