In pursuit by Shawn Bennett

The bus was pulling in so I kissed her quickly and said thank you and have a good trip. She said, thank you and you too.

After walking away, I turned to see if I could see her on the bus, but I couldn’t. My body felt so tired and the rain had started falling heavily again so I put up my umbrella. It was the see-through domed type and I felt a little silly with it and also that my clothes didn’t fit me.

I tried to feel something about Alice being gone but I couldn’t really, except a bit relieved that I could go home and lie on my bed for a few hours before catching my train. It had been a very good few days – I knew that – but I was so tired and I felt a heavy kind of pain in my lower abdomen. The rain was pelting the long grass and the summer flowers by the train tracks where she had stopped to look. It was the kind of rain that would last a few days.

At home, I collapsed onto my bed. The pain sank lower in my abdomen, pushing me down. I lay very still and felt for a long time that I couldn’t move. Alice had been lying next to me just a few hours before – I thought about her for a while, but I couldn’t focus. It was hot under the covers, so I wriggled out of my jeans and took off my socks. After I had been lying still for about an hour I got up and went to the living-room to finish cleaning and packing.

For a long time, I stared at myself in the mirror, stretching and moving my hair around. Then I started cleaning and then stopped again. I wanted to feel sadder than I did so I put on Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby with clips from Lost in Translation on YouTube, which we both liked. I lay down on the couch and looked at Scarlet Johansson’s pretty face and Bill Murray’s sad old face.

The flat was clean enough and my bag was packed. I watered the plants and left, deciding to walk to the station instead of getting the bus. The rain had stopped.

The station was crowded and my bag felt very heavy. I walked around for a while looking for somewhere to sit until my platform was announced.

I found a platform where no one was and sat down. I looked into my phone camera at a low angle so no one passing would see that I was looking at my digital reflection. In the cloud-filtered light, my skin looked pale and unblemished. I’d lost some weight and my cheek bones stood out where they emerged from the muddy redness of my beard. I took several photos and looked at the shadows on my face. I thought about taking out my book but decided to wait until I was on the train. Every now and again some moment with Alice would come back to me. They made me feel warm and flat, as if everything in my life had been smoothed over like the wrinkles in a duvet.

On the train, I sat down in a quiet carriage and took out my book. It was one of hers and she’d written in it in pencil and underlined passages she liked. I remembered the afternoon we spent together in Holyrood Park, which rises out of Edinburgh in hills and crags until it peaks at Arthur’s seat. Edinburgh is seated in the aftermath of several ancient volcanic eruptions. The fragmented hillside of the park is the largest of the volcanoes that began to tilt after it exploded, occasionally allowing lava to leak out of its flank resulting in the canted look one catches from the city. In the summer, it is covered in flowers and shrubs of red, purple and yellow, while everything else is very green. Alice looked perfectly at home there, picking flowers and putting them in her red hair. When we lay down on the blanket, I felt we’d disappeared. Happily, I was sure no one would distinguish us from the grass or the flowers. Even if they looked close enough to see the ants and spiders, we would look like nothing except some unusual shadows beneath the grass. 

On the train, a group of Scottish women had arrived with a tray of sandwiches and a lot of drinks. They were very loud. One of them turned to the man seated behind them and said, forgive us for what you are about to see. They all laughed. None of them seemed to notice me, though they spoke to everyone else in the carriage. I thought I must look tired and unhappy.

Another man in his thirties boarded. He looked around the carriage in a way that made me think of animals, forests and hunting. He hailed the women as he passed and took a seat in the row in front of mine. Through the gap I could see that his nose glowed red. Then he turned back and nodded at me. I nodded back and looked down at my book.

It was a good book, but I found myself skipping ahead to look for Alice’s pencil marks. Every time I saw one I felt a slight sense of vertigo. 

The festivities began ahead of me. Drinks were poured and a toast of “Freedom!” was raised, which is a reference to the movie Braveheart, I think. The man in front of me jumped up and shouted with them for which he was rewarded with a laugh and a cheese sandwich which he put next to him on the seat and soon fell asleep next to. Before that, he pushed an empty vodka bottle under the seat. This annoyed me because I imagined a scenario in which I would be asked to explain it and I would say it was the man’s and feel like a snitch and he would deny it, etc. I knew this was nonsense, but I still nudged the bottle back onto his side with my boot.

In my book, a young woman was having an affair with an older married man. It was written in first person and her sense of detachment from her own actions, which reminded me of my own sense of detachment from my own actions, was starting to depress me. Rivers and forest were passing by outside the window. It was beautiful, but there wasn’t time to get a good look. For a moment, I lay my cheek against the windowpane and closed my eyes. In the early morning, Alice and I had been lying together half awake and cool air brought down by the rain had pressed in through the open window. 

The carriage had become boisterous. Everyone had been recruited to join the women, who I’d learned were on their way to watch the darts. There was a costume planned from a TV show I’ve never heard of. Three drinks had been spilt already and a boy of sixteen who was travelling with his father ran back and forth from the toilets with paper towels. The ticket collector had emerged at one point and I thought there might be an argument, but she just made a joke and they had a bit of back and forth. The conversation seemed to knock around without ever settling on a topic and every now and again a joke would be raised like a motion and there would be a brief pause and then a rush of laughter. 

The women left the train at Preston along with the rest of the carriage with the exception of the man in front of me, who had woken some time ago and begun drinking. 

He said to no one, “they made me drunk” and then, “lovely girls.”

An old couple boarded at the same time. The women said, “oh dear” when she saw the state of the carriage.

Soon the drunk man started talking to them. He said he was nervous travelling to England being a Scottish person, which the couple found strange. I could see he really was nervous. He was travelling to Birmingham to meet someone he’d met at a rave. The old man said he was too old to rave and the drunk man took issue with that. The conversation teetered sometimes on the brink of something ugly, when the man repeated I am drunk they made me drunk again and again and at another time when he said he had learned the Queen’s English in the army and the old man said he had no trouble understanding him, but then had to ask him to repeat himself a moment later which caused the drunk man to articulate very slowly in an English accent. Otherwise, they seemed to get on fine. The drunk man talked the most. He was both a farmer and a fisherman in a village I’d never heard of. He worked on a sixty-foot boat – deep-sea, Cod, Sardine. Three-man crew. If the boat makes five grand, I make 500. What good is money if ye cannae spend it? Here I am spending it. Where are you getting off? Piccalilli Circus? – No, that’s in London – It’s a fucking joke. Christ. 

His name was Arnold Cary MacCalley MacPhilip. The old man laughed when he heard it, but then said that it was a good Scottish name. 

We had a chat of our own later on. After he’d tried to light a cigarette hanging out the train door while we were stopped at Oxford Road and someone had shouted at him. I agreed he should be able to smoke there, seeing as it was outdoors, though he did light the cigarette again briefly within the train. He was very drunk, so our conversation was vague, and I kept my answers noncommittal and positive. 

When he left I found myself wondering what would happen to him while he was in Birmingham. It is sometimes hard for me to imagine what happens to people for whom tumult follows like a wake.

The carriage now being empty, I felt happy. It is difficult to effectively imagine things with other people around; the other imaginations get in the way. Alice being gone I now had something to imagine, so I imagined her. I couldn’t yet put the last few days together in any sense. There were just times when we went places and said things. I then started to realise I was coming down from something I didn’t realise I was on. I put my thumb to the corner of my mouth and dragged it across my lips one way and then the other. This is a gesture I learned from Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. In the film he uses it to show his identification with Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart, perhaps because like them his life follows lines wrought by strange men he has never met. I did it once when I woke in the afternoon and had the sensation of still dreaming in the broad daylight, since then I have done it to remind myself of that feeling, which seemed somehow important.

The carriage shuddered. We were passing close to a grassy bank and nothing could be distinguished from looking out the window, only the thin bars of constantly alternating colour and light that seemed to stretch uniformly from the front of the window to the back. Trying to place one individual point was dizzying; actually, it was impossible. Rather than witnessing one point in space, one is forced to look at the transposition of many points, at movement itself – the eye is not designed for this – but a moment later we were spat out into a vista and everything looked still and faraway again so it didn’t matter.

There are many places witnessed from a train that cannot be found later. They appear as one brief image but then they’re gone. Their existence is manifest, but to me unverifiable, so I let them slip by with only the brief nausea of losing something beautiful.  

I took the two sandwiches from the ones Alice and I had made together for our respective trips. As I ate, I thought about the remaining connections we had. The fact that I could call or message her seemed unimportant. The established understanding of our friendship was difficult to think about without it becoming vague. I fell back on the sandwiches and other physical traces. There was the book and its pencil marks, the flowers she had collected and put in a jar which would still be in my flat when I got home, and the songs she had left in the memory of my computer. There were others too, but I had forgotten about them and would hopefully find them later. These things, though ephemeral, seemed much more solid to me and I thought about them and was happy while eating my sandwich.

I could feel Alice getting fainter already, which I knew had nothing to do with Alice herself, only my inadequate memory. Alice was as real as ever, on her way to Dublin. It was a part of me that was dissipating, and I realised that without self-hatred, only tiredness. For having traipsed again through my own territory, Alice was another boundary I had failed to cross. Now came the long slow retreat, with nothing but a distant view of a better country and the small consolation that I had risen from myself, I had been well enough, for a few days, to pursue beauty away from home. 

The train had slowed to a crawl. We eased through a fallow field, beyond which was a small cluster of trees and then rising hills. 

I didn’t have to do anything on the train. For three hours more I would be unobligated, but as Alice receded behind me my family rose up to meet me and I knew I would be forced to rise up to a state of being, to become something that would later haunt me. The train passed through a tunnel so there was nothing but the electric light and me. I closed my eyes and breathed. The train shuddered beneath me. I imagined a train crash. I imagined killing the drunk man I had spoken to earlier. I imagined the trial. I would act like Meursault in The Outsider. I would be convicted. I would live out my exile stoically but in great pain. On the day before my execution, I would stare up at the cut-out piece of sky. I would feel myself stretched out on a thin membrane, my world would spin above me as clear and distant as the stars and below would yawn annihilation. I opened my eyes.

We pulled into Milton Keynes Central an hour later. My father was waiting in a car outside.

***

The next day I sat on the deck my father had built. The family dog was resting on my lap. She was warm and asleep, and I could feel her breathing softly. I was holding the book, Alice hadn’t left any more notes, I guess she was getting carried away with the story. In the other hand I had a cup of tea. Everything was sunny. 

I would stay with my family for two days then I would go back to work. The thought didn’t make me anxious. Neither did my empty bank account. Or the thought that I would ruin things with Alice – that things were ruined. There was just the sun and the warm cup of tea and the dog’s steady breathing and the sad book that was almost over.


Shawn Bennett is a writer and artist living and working in Edinburgh. He studied Film and Literature at the University of Cape Town before returning to the UK.








 

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