Cathy stirs her coffee and watches the trains come and go on the digital monoliths hanging from the ceiling. Edinburgh is next to leave. She’s never been there. She tries to picture herself stepping off the train at the station, ready to start anew. Only she doesn’t know anything of the city. She can see herself stood on the platform, suitcase in hand, smiling at possibilities. But from there she doesn’t know where she could go. The image fades, leaving only the lightly wrinkled hand circling the steaming foam cup.
She looks at her wedding ring. She hasn’t had cause to look at it for some time. It’s a part of her: she doesn’t have any strong feelings about it, any more than she does the mole on her shoulder or the troublesome corn she can’t seem to remove from her little toe. All the excitement and promise that the ring held had burned down to dull embers as the years had passed. A picture of her wedding hangs above the fireplace in her living room. The two people gazing from it seem like complete strangers to her. She doesn’t see much of the handsome groom in the portly, balding man who padded about her kitchen that morning groaning for coffee. He’s still there. Just about. She catches sight of him in snatched glimpses and in certain angles of light. Now and again.
Manchester. She’s been to Manchester, though not for a long time. She wonders if the clubs she used to dance in were still open, whether the flats and houses she had crashed in still held any memory of her fleeting visits. She tries to recall if anyone she knew still lived there. But she lost touch with that crowd. And even if she hadn’t, what could she say after all these years? How would she be received by the distant shadows of the people she’d once known?
‘You’ve known about this for ages, why are you getting upset now?’ he’d asked earlier that morning while placing his bag of golf clubs by the front door.
‘You only told me last week.’
‘It’s Tony’s birthday. It tends to happen the same time every year.’
‘I don’t keep track of your friend’s birthdays. I’ve enough on remembering my sister’s, your sister’s, my mum’s, your mum’s..’
‘I can remember my own mum’s birthday Cathy.’
She gave him the look. The look she’d been practising for the past 20 years.
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I won’t go.’
‘Don’t be silly. Of course you will.’ She wandered into the kitchen, knowing he would follow, and poured herself another cup of coffee from the pot.
‘What do you want from me, Cath?’
She shook her head and took a sip.
‘You know Joe’s home,’ she said.
‘I think he’s old enough to look after himself. He doesn’t need us cramping his style.’
‘Yeah, but..’ She cut herself short. It wasn’t like she was presenting an impossible puzzle to solve. Joe was home. She’d taken time off work. He also had time of work. There were only a few pieces to fit together. If he wouldn’t make the effort then she wasn’t going to do it for him.
Cathy sees a young couple reuniting by the ticket gate. A girl is jogging towards her lover’s open arms. She tries to remember what it felt like to have someone that happy to see you, rather than accepting her arrival as merely an unavoidable occurrence, with all the joy of receiving a phone bill or a menu from the local Indian takeaway. As she watches their embrace she wonders if she can recall what it felt like to have a young body pressed against hers, sinking into her. The memory must be there in her mind, she reasons; her nerves must remember the sensation. But dragging it to the surface feels like trying to raise an old galleon with a row boat. She allows herself to consider what it would feel like now, her hands on his young, firm body. The corners of her mouth flicker upwards.
Joe had returned for the half term break the day before, though if she hadn’t picked him up from the station she might not have noticed. The only indication he was home was the sounds of virtual gunfire emanating from his bedroom, allied with the occasional expletive when he’d presumably been felled by imaginary bullets. She’d given up trying to strike up conversation with offers of coffee and lunch. She didn’t want to play waitress. To his credit he had tried to explain the game he’d been glued to for her but he got as far as the phrase, ‘sinister machinations of the omega collective’ before her mind had refused entry to any further information. It seemed a long time since she was the one explaining the rules to him. Monopoly. Jenga. Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Bullies. Puberty. Life.
London. She’d lived there once. A house share as part of an incestuous collective of friends who lived like they’d be young forever. Her mind scans a number of memories she’d buried, tucked away, for fear that they weren’t befitting a wife and mother. The smile takes hold – she’s grinning now. She remembers Mike. She remembers Sasha. She remembers endless, exhilarating nights and long, languid days. She wonders what happened to those people. She knows that Mike is now an accountant and Sasha works in PR. But she isn’t interested in them. She wants to know what happened to those people.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, stand with one hand on the kitchen door handle
‘Nothing. I’m fine.’
‘I’m fine. You go. Say happy birthday to Tony for me.’
‘Cathy..’ He looked down at the kitchen floor. She waited for him to continue. He didn’t.
‘Really, I’m fine. It’s fine. Go.’
He looked at her with a faint, sad smile. And then he did.
Nottingham. She’d never meant to go to Nottingham. It was a last minute change of birthday plans – a hotel booking falls through, Sasha finds something cheap there instead. She certainly hadn’t planned to meet anyone there. And yet there he was, striding tall through the bar like the world was his and his alone. His confidence then was like a hurricane. How could she not get swept away? As she sips the last of her coffee she wonders – if I’d have known then what I know now, would I have chosen differently? Would I have weathered his storm and set off on a different course? He’d asked her what her plans were and she’d known immediately that they didn’t matter anymore. They could be changed. They would be changed.
She’d stood in the kitchen for a while, finishing the last of the coffee in the pot. The house was quiet apart from the low rumble of gunfire coming from Joe’s room. He broke the quiet with a shouted term of abuse that, while she was impressed with its inventiveness, didn’t quite make her feel proud of him. She wandered over to look at one of his school photographs on the fireplace, aged 8, his overenthusiastic grin beaming out at her. It was then that she’d caught sight of their wedding photo. She wanted to speak to the strange woman who smiled back at her. She wanted to tell her how things would be.
Cardiff. There has always been a part of her that translated that automatically; when the announcement would come she would hear, “home.” She listens hard for it now as the last call comes to board the train. Her eyes flicker across the departure boards at the names of towns and cities that seem to read like invitations to her. Then she stands, lifts the handle on her suitcase and rises to leave.
A jaded young barista sighs and makes his daily sweep of the cluttered tables. He tosses rubbish left behind by customers it into a black bag. He pauses for moment, surprised to hear the rattle of a time-dulled ring skittering through the dregs of a coffee cup.