Escalator by Carl Thompson

It says ‘Please Stand to the Right’ in bold black on yellow a bit small aye but there it is every five fucking feet across the middle on both sides so you can see if you’re travelling up or down yet when he tried to pass did she not look at him like he’d shat in her handbag and it’s maybe ten seconds after and the moment is gone but he should have at least said something, something like it says stand on the right I don’t make the rules I’ll miss my fucking train yet you don’t give a fuck or maybe he could have got to the top and swung round with a boot kicked her all the way down she’s not the only one because the guy in front of her is giving him all sorts of daggers because he thinks if he does he’ll be a fucking hero defending this cow, this cow with her look is all he can see as he pushes through the gate her mouth turned up like she’s questioning his existence like he shouldn’t be there on the escalator he shouldn’t be there in the station, in the city, on the face of the fucking earth, that the guy up front with his briefcase and beard and big headphones he can exist, he’s allowed because he’s there to protect her from scum like him even the guard is looking now, the fat guard with bad breath on two bob an hour who’s meant to be on his side who was born in the same streets and schemes who’s meant to shake his head and wink and say typical, on you go pal yet he’s giving him a look and maybe its because he looks angry maybe it’s because he is, because he is angry, and tired, worn out, fucked from carrying his guilt and picking up hers, and the guy up front he took his as well and he’s carrying all of it, he took it off everyone, all of their guilt and they gave it willingly here he is they said as he scuttled past here he is to carry our guilt and he said gladly I will held out his arms and like coats at a party they gave it to him, they gave it to him and he took it, almost tripping at the top he got so burdened with it all now he’s sat in his seat and he sees her through the window she’s guiltless and carefree practically skipping towards the train, his train, he’s never seen her before he’d remember that walk he’d remember those shoes he knows he’s missed something every seat is half full every seat is occupied by one out of two, no solo seats nowhere to sit on her own, she looks from side to side because she doesn’t wish to sit beside us not the ones on this train the ones who ride every day like the heavy lad with his dog and the cleaner who talks to herself and the kid in the torn coat and the girl who always sleeps, she doesn’t want to know, you can see it, she can’t stand it, the smell the savagery where’s her protector on another fucking train no doubt he imagines she wonders what went wrong and how did this happen that I came to be on this line the line to the east the line through the schemes, oh to go south or west walk in the sun through tree lined avenues, she draws level to him and looks not at him looks through him here she sits behind and across so she can watch him but he can’t see her, he wants to turn round but he doesn’t anyway here comes daft Mick and his bag of cans to talk daft shite sits down next to Paul his arse claiming too much spreading over both sides, Paul looks through the window the guard looks at his watch, a whistle shrieks, the engines growl, slowly slowly the train moves still the aisles are rammed with people searching for the right place to sit, the train leaves the grand station arches rain hits the window in morse code lines, across the swirling river swirling darker they ride, Mick reaches into the bag by his feet fishes out a can pulls the ring pull with a skoosh he says you alright Paul, when Paul turns to answer Mick is already fishing in his bag he holds out a can Paul waves it away, I’ve got another four in there you look like you need it, the can is in his hand cool silver he opens takes two or three mouthfuls closes his eyes for a moment, and he forgets that she’s watching and doesn’t listen to the whispers from those on their phones a couple of lads walk down the gangway offer encouragement clanking away with their own heavy bags looking for a table to watch highlights on their phones it’s twelve minutes to my stop says Daft Mick just enough time you know I wouldn’t have bothered if it was less than ten I know a guy gets on at Pollokshaws West he’s eight minutes away and he’s on the wine little bottles I know he drinks them straight down I told him eight minutes wasn’t enough he said he drinks two in that time Paul says I think I might know him carries a bag of books that’s him Mick says you know he can’t read when I asked him about them he said he needed the weight well there’s nothing to the boy, so I asked him again he said I need something to carry to remind me to keep going that I won’t float away it’s like ballast he said, I think he buys the small wine so they don’t kick him out of his place he’s been warned twice grassed up by the pricks across the hall, ye cannae win says Paul what else has he got, those books is what he’s got, Paul takes another mouthful watches the wet blur of another train passing slow cars and tenement blocks lit up because it’s already dark though if you took away the clouds there might be a glimmer of light thank God I moved on he thinks, away from these crackpots and loons, before he finishes the can Mick hands him another Paul doesn’t even argue he tips his head back puts the empty by his feet Mick says you know Bronwyn passed, Paul thinks who’s Bronwyn then he remembers and nods thinks it’s always like this when I take a drink I need a second chance at a memory, I’m sorry Mick he says and Mick doesn’t reply, for a moment there is silence, a pocket of quiet confined to their small space, ach it was always on the cards, there was only three at her funeral, Paul nods and thinks what’s that smell, I’m sure it’s gas can you smell gas? it’s fucking disgusting she writes, the smell from these two one’s ragin’ on like a fuckin’ headcase and if the other one looks at me one more time I’m gonna LOSE THE PLOT don’t bother the reply says, don’t bother they’re not worth it, I know that anyways can’t wait to see ya how’s Danielle and Kev, it wasn’t me that told you but she’s gonna leave him I fucking KNEW IT a hundred miles an hour she types, what a prick yea babe but she’s such a bitch they deserve each other I feel for the next girl who falls for his shit fuck them how was work, it’s over that’s all, when you gonna leave that place her fingers move into a rhythm a hint of a smile I’ll be gone by Christmas why what you got planned I got something amazing she writes so much better than this you stick to it babe you damn sure I will, I know what it is you gonna marry the mad guy on the train she signs off with a smile and a kiss thinks about her job what might come next takes a tuna salad from her bag peels back the plastic picks out the olives skims through images on her phone reflects on a picture of a smiling girl pushing a pram, beautiful girl dark hair in ringlets big coat skinny jeans she wishes she could see the baby, baby looking up at her mam with sparkling eyes, tiny fingers like little fishes in the palm of her hands, she sits back in her chair takes another small bite catches falling crumbs with her fingernail looks at the cracked screen and another message, ticket please says Arthur the conductor for a moment she doesn’t hear, she hears something else said somewhere else, ticket he says, she puts her hand inside the top pocket of her denim jacket sees Paul who’s watching and the ticket is stuck, here we go Arthur thinks another one just like the rest thank you he says when she finally hands it over, thank you, he nods as he walks down the aisle at the faces mostly familiar some say thank you back though no-one says his name a boy on his phone drops his ticket and doesn’t move to pick it up and what am I meant to do pick it up for him so Arthur picks it up, it’s a fucking pain on the knees I know the woman behind is appalled at the size of my arse, this isn’t valid for this train says Arthur to the boy who smirks and looks at his phone Arthur points at the dirty ticket and the word Milngavie either you’re on the wrong train or you’ve bought the wrong ticket the boy says I asked for Barrhead is this not that train yes it is well this is the ticket they gave me, Arthur takes a breath I’ll have to sell you another and the boy shakes his head, fucks sake, pulls out a few coins from his jeans and puts them on the table, this will only get you as far as Kennishead, I haven’t got anything else, I’ll come back says Arthur as the train begins to slow approaching the station he leaves the carriage, enters the corridor where a man stands at the door reading drinking coffee using the space, a tall, relaxed man with a handsome beard who smells of something exotic something rich, Arthur says I’m afraid I’ll have to move you the man ignores him turning a page of his thick book and Arthur repeats himself the man pulls out an earphone sorry he says his accent indefinable, clear like an actor they exchange friendly looks Arthur is sweating rubs the back of his head down to his neck behind his collar, aware of the hairs that sprout there, trail over his shoulders, down his spine across his backside thick on his thighs, though the train has not yet come to a stop he pulls down the window in comes the breeze and cool rain, the wheels grip the tracks and groan and squeal and with a jerk all comes to a stop, Arthur opens his door looks along the platform through the grey drizzle waiting for the ones getting off to be replaced by others getting on, at the end an old woman in a raincoat and clear plastic hat drags a shopping trolley, then a kid with a bike, here a young couple, he steps to one side to let them on she smiles they take their time despite the rain yet they are not the last, the old woman drags on her trolley the wheels stubborn against the step, Arthur looks up to the sky only a grey mass of cloud she finally gets on the platform is clear the train moves on, Arthur waits for safe distance behind him stands the reading man, when Arthur turns he holds up a ticket and they exchange smiles, he gets back to his book Arthur thinks when I get home I should find something to read but then it may be too late he thinks about his shelf and can’t see the books, or the chair in his kitchen or the colour of his door his home is a strange place just for a moment Arthur doesn’t know which way to turn which way he was headed which way is right, steps back into the carriage and the boy has gone, of course he has that fucking wee prick, tickets please, thank you, tickets please, thank you, thank you this book is going nowhere and this whole train stinks at least the guard is a nice guy ten more long minutes Elle said she’d come get me though I prefer the walk, Lucas positions his bookmark takes out his phone another message from mum if I open it she’ll know, it’s been six months and still the calls come I understand why but I’ve been away for so long, he turns to the front page of the book reads the handwritten message Elle bought it for my birthday along with the clubs she spoilt me that day she thought it’d be my thing, strange how Elle and Jackie are close now strange the conversations they have and when I ask she says oh it was nothing just daughter and mother talk well she’s not your mother Elle and every weekend since, these things we now do, he’d never have done he’d have stayed at home, at the back of the garden with heavy soiled hands, Lucas looks at his hands at his ring at his watch, all your life in a factory and what was it worth dad what was it worth, the train thunders on turns a wide bend water spills from the roof of the gangway Lucas watches it pool strange how the next carriage on slips out of view, as if the people inside it are headed somewhere else the train slowly straightens and slowly they return, through the window Lucas watches the passing wasteland and its electricity endless wire neon light bus stops traffic lights places familiar though he’s never been, the stone bridge with graffiti how did they reach that low extendable brushes like window cleaners or circus-like chains of leotarded boys to hang on to the artist, the golden domed mosque squatting between high rise flats Shankland and Sons, what did they make was it poison that blew from that chimney stack, not long ’til his favourite stretch of line above a street of back gardens, here it comes, kitchen lights and movement though heads rarely seen dogs often sniffing on well kept lawns cats on high brick walls but not tonight in this rain, he’d counted the trampolines three in this small street four homes with extensions two still with coal sheds just one he’d live in, the house on the end bathed in darkness tonight back to the book page 295 not even halfway it started ok but now it’s a drag his phone vibrates in his pocket, he leaves it for a moment it buzzes again, he almost drops it as Daft Mick stumbles from the carriage Lucas ignores him reads the messages, four of them in all, begins to type but then deletes what he’s written puts the phone away reaches round to his backpack feels the contents from the outside checking for a towel he knows he put in there last night took it straight from the pile of washing that had been sitting in the spare room for days, just added to ’til it toppled over balled socks rolled under the bed, he’d claimed a pair and spotted his missing racquet, here’s the guard I need to move but this guy’s behind me breath like a brewery, the guard’s just smiling and nodding and this guy’s leaning almost resting on my back, Arthur says can I have a little more room please Lucas takes a step back not quite enough steps on his foot it’s the fucking drunks fault off he climbs into the rain Mick hops off behind him thanks driver he says and Arthur just stares, on come the school kids carrying trombones not satisfied with the bike racks they’re gonna block the aisles after them a woman shaking her brolly her make up smudged beneath her eyes Arthur watches her step into the carriage and take a seat brolly and bag between her legs, he sees that the guy in the gangway with the book is watching too look at this lot she thinks surrounded by kids one passing a gum lace to the boy sat in front the talk is just nonsense, they’re a foot taller than the boys when I was at school, look at him a full grown man eating chocolate mice, damp blonde hair brushed back to reveal unblemished features clean skin wide jaw full mouth he smiled when he sat yet didn’t really see me not in the way Adam would look, the look on her lock screen when she opens her phone and holds on for a moment before choosing her music, she puts in her earphones turns up the sound looks at her reflection in the window, sees the reflection of the boys, purple jack-in the-boxes with absurd hair and teeth mouths agape with cacophonous noise, she moves her umbrella lifts the damp material of her dress from her thighs looks down at the collection of legs beneath the table, feet at odd angles and twisted knees to avoid any touch, the music is meant to be calming she takes a deep breath, sings along in her head occasionally mouthing the words Adam could never remember lyrics so he made them up instead using her name, Jane he’d sing, Jane what’s for tea to any old melody he didn’t need music he was always singing and she always laughed, he knew not all his jokes were funny but he told them anyway, she looked at her watch her heart rate seventy two, eight thousand six hundred and fourteen steps battery life twenty seven per cent, she coughed into her hand she’d wish it would stop should have gone to the doctor but that would just be the start, this kid the smallest of the lot has broken his glasses and they cannot stop laughing, and one of them is beating the table and the one with the brace, no they all have braces, is he having a fit, all this while they hang on to their cellos and trombones and their phones, madly texting, there’s no other word for it she thinks, it’s a madness a collective insanity and for a moment she wants to get up and push past, she coughs again feels the pressure inside her, she looks back to the window still she can see them, metal-mouthed burgundy sticks and blobs she closes her eyes breathe in one two three four out two three four this is fucking stupid pulls out her earphones lets it all flood in, that fractured noise, McQueer you’re such a twat my dad’s gonna go mental give it a rest ya wank bollocks for lunch if he fails he’s fucked, and she smiles, even laughs, the man-boy he stops talking and another he stops eating and she looks directly at them, scans all their faces, the laughter subsides, the conversation drifts and dies and one nudges another en masse they avert their eyes, some are pointing and lifting their oversized instruments Jane wonders at her power, but realises it’s the girls they’ve seen, different school the same age kept apart, what a terrible thing to do to she thinks, to censor them, eager Montague’s and blushing Capulet’s, go to them she wants to say, go to them, don’t be afraid they’re not all like me, go all of you go and they do, but not in the direction of the girls, instead they push and argue and whisper and shuffle towards the door, still their eyes are drawn the length of the carriage to the gaggle of girls, Jane looks down at the table pushes aside an empty energy drink can his glasses are still here, Ralph Lauren an arm missing surely he can fix these, she lifts them up by the one arm, looks through the lenses quite strong for a young kid can I have those miss, he’s standing in-front of her, she hands them to him, thanks he says holds them in his hand his brown hair falling over this eyes his jacket too big worn cuffs covering the knuckles c’mon ya dick one shouts and they laugh, his uniform oversized, his trousers dark from dragging through the rain a sticker on his satchel says I survived the upside down which means nothing to her she stretches out her legs puts her earphones back in, chooses a random playlist with unfamiliar songs maybe I’ll find a new track a new band see them live maybe go to a festival look at them at Glastonbury they were eighty years old dressed in flowery suits and straw hats I hope they enjoyed it I’d be knackered by the end, do they allow animals I couldn’t leave Max not after the year in Cyprus when we put him in kennels Adam was right all along I thought he was being silly when he said Max was too highly strung he didn’t eat he didn’t sleep he needed shots from the vets that stupid fucking dog it broke my fucking heart off go the kids she watches them gather, the tall blonde boy his arm around a tall blonde girl play fights erupt in the rain from the gangway Mary watches smiling a man offered her a seat but her trolley wouldn’t fit besides she’s not infirm yet seventy-three and out every day still it is a miserable one she’ll be glad when she’s home on the way she’ll pop by Liz in number five drop off her coat its a shame the way she is, not much older than me that boy of hers locked up her fella gone not two years past and they won’t move her downstairs on consideration of the boy, Mary opens the top of the trolley, there it is, such a lovely coat too pure wool from the charity but you’d hardly tell one button missing she got it replaced and while it’s not a perfect match it can hardly be seen, she’s so glad Liz decided to get it cleaned it had started to smell something rotten like the junky upstairs he hardly ever washes Mary gave him a ten-spot last time she saw him, maybe he’s not a junky but she know he smokes something dodgy you can tell he’s always fidgeting wears clothes too sizes too big dirty fingernails too Liz tells her to ignore him but she couldn’t do that, not when she saw him with that blood on his shirt his eye swollen shut, get to the doctors he didn’t answer just looked away, take this get something to eat well she thought he might cry but he didn’t he just stared at the money put it in his pocket took off down the close leaving his front door ajar, well of course I went in I needed to see how he lived, it was nothing like I expected quite homely in fact, prints on the walls and a couple of thirsty plants, on top of the old tele a wee framed picture of his little girl she must be sixteen now living with her mother down south it could do with a polish here and there if he’s got a hoover I’ll run it over this carpet, she looked around but couldn’t find one, not even a carpet sweeper well at least I know he’s not dying wait a minute she opened his fridge nothing in there the lightbulb not working is this even on, two tins in his cupboard custard and beans, she went back to her flat grabbed one of everything she had two of, it wasn’t much but it was something, left her milk for him in the fridge she knew Liz would lend her some of hers, put some sugar in a cup and tea bags on a saucer, closed the door behind her and hoped he had his key, here comes that conductor she reached underneath the coat and took out her purse, tickets please he said as he approached, tickets please here you go Arthur


Carl Thompson is a Glasgow based writer. He has had work published in Open Pen magazine, Sanitarium and the now sadly defunct Black Book of Horror. Most recently he has been working as part of the editorial team for Scots lit publishers thi Wurd  He very occasionally posts on Twitter here.

 

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