Let's all give Andy a warm welcome with this unmissable beaut of a début...
The doorway smells phone-boxy. I see him wrinkle his nose and consider whether it is me who smells phone-boxy. On account of my charity shop coat I suppose. And the rather unbecoming beanie hat I’m wearing. I wrinkle my nose too, just to make sure he recognises I’m not, no matter how I’m dressed, comfortable in a place like this. That I’m making the best of it, just as he is. Just as my son Robbie has been.
The rain is almost horizontal, angling into us, pushing us further back into the shop doorway to escape it. It’s windy too, it buffets against the station’s one, lonely sign, causing it to creak back and forth on its hinges. And if the wind is doing that to the rather permanent-looking sign, then I can only imagine what it will be doing to the ‘Welcome Home’ bunting which I’ve left above the front door. But that’s one thing to be thankful for, I reckon. The bunting was a terrible idea anyway. Doesn’t make sense; for one, here isn’t home, and for two, I’m not sure if Robbie will be especially welcome. Not yet.
The doorway man glances at me, offers a fleeting smile. Then his eyes flee to his watch. I try to peer over his shoulder, see exactly how late the train is this side. I can’t believe they’ve not got a big clock on the platform. They always have big clocks on platforms, I thought. But then, I thought platforms were supposed to have sheltered areas too. And there’s neither. Just the shop, in which I can see one of the sales assistants clearing up the day’s mess. Taking her time about it too, as though she’s waiting for the rain to slacken off a little.
He looks at his watch again. And once more I try to glance over his shoulder. He must feel my presence though, because he jerks his head round, and for a moment, there’s fire in his eyes, like I’ve distracted him from something. And then, quickly, he covers up the fire. Just like Robbie used to do.
‘Nice night to be out,’ he says. He doesn’t say it ironically or mournfully, just flat. And yet my heart leaps. How can he know? He must see my eyes widen in alarm, for he adds, ‘Only thing worse than the British weather is the British train system.’
Relax. Out can mean anything.
I nod out at the lashing rain. ‘My son used to ask me if rain like this was God crying.’ And for the life of me I don’t know why I said that, about Robbie. I don’t generally bring him up.
‘Oh yeah?’ says the man. ‘Suppose God could be too, day like this… ’ He shakes his head. A few drips of water fly off. ‘It’s siling though isn’t it?’
And straight away I know this doorway man is from Hull. Siling’s a proper East Riding term. The thought he is from Hull doesn’t necessarily fill me with pleasure. I look at him with a little more interest now. And realise he was in the shop with me earlier as the assistant was trying to shepherd us out the door. Studying the evening edition of the paper, he was. It’s a long time since I’ve read a newspaper. It’s a long time since I’ve read anything apart from my romances. This doorway man though. Looks like he reads a lot. Maybe he’s a student. Few years younger than Robbie. Hard to tell. Certainly his eyes look… Well, in one of my romances, they’d have been described as dark pools into which one could plunge. They look full of knowledge. Most of the rest of him is covered. He has a cap pulled down low, the peak shadowing his forehead. A scarf rolled up over his chin. The scarf is steaming, it is that damp.
It dawns on me we are waiting for the same train. ‘Where you headed?’
‘Nowhere in particular,’ he says, pulling a sodden Platform Ticket out of the back pocket of his jeans. ‘Waiting for someone.’
‘Snap,’ I say, pulling out my own. ‘I’m waiting for someone too.’ Have been a long time, I don’t add. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a conversation with anyone and I need to start re-learning boundaries again. What doorways I can and cannot cross. This is officially the longest chat since the estate agent showed me around the new place in the new town. Before that there was Denise at my old work, asking all those questions about Robbie being in the army and then, in the end starting that collection for him… Too much.
The doorway man awkwardly proffers a hand. ‘Clive,’ he says. ‘As in Sullivan. TheYorkshire cricketer.’
‘Kirst… Kirst-ie,’ I mumble, adding the last bit because Kirst sounds a little bit too close to the truth when I say it out loud. Not that I get to say it out loud much. Not that I haven’t been doing my own solitary. My husband never spoke at all after Robbie left. Clammed up. And then one day he left, and in his note, it said ‘I don’t know how you can live with it.’ Which meant with him. With the knowledge of what Robbie had done. And there was part of me which couldn’t comprehend how my son could have done such a thing. With those hands which used to fit round my little finger. With those hands which used to reach for me as though I was his whole world, or at least his doorway to the whole world. With those hands which later I’d try to drag away from the plug socket after a toaster fire. With those hands which then became skilled at finding the knives, even though I locked them away in one of the top cupboards. Oh but they were Robbie’s hands, that was the point. That was always the point. My husband, Robbie’s father, couldn’t grasp it. But men are like that. Men do not understand about ties that bind, about what it means for me to have incarcerated my son in the cell of my womb for a nine-month stretch. Son probably got Stockholm Syndrome for me, his warder. I got whatever the vice-versa of that is…
I know the next logical question will be, so who are you waiting for then? And I’m already rehearsing in my head those practiced lines. About Robbie having been away in the armed forces the past eight years. I’ve even done some research into Yorkshire regiments. Where they ‘do their time’. That sort of thing. Back in the old place, which in itself was a new place, I sometimes got a little carried away though. Inventing daring escapades for him and the like. Across the doorway, in my pretend world, there was talk of the Victoria Cross. Eventually, there was talk of an injury too, which would see him sent home at last. Hence the collection Denise got going. ‘Help for Heroes’. A thought which made me choke back my tea and leave the job as soon as I possibly could. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred pounds.
So the next question could have been a real taxer. But it isn’t. Instead, the doorway man, Clive – though he looks too young for a Clive really – says, ‘So do you live around here?’
And I heave a sigh of relief. ‘Temporarily.’
He nods, understands.
‘Are you a student then?’ I ask.
He sighs. Lowers his head a little as though the rain which is creating such a ruckus on top of the shop is actually beating down on his cap. ‘Was,’ he says. ‘I left. Other things became… more important.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I say.
He looks balefully at the ‘No Smoking’ sign on the wall, and then up at the CCTV camera up there on its eyrie hanging from one of the roof beams. ‘Weather like this, nobody’d even smell the smoke. I’m gasping. Must be the stress or something.’
I’m not sure what he’s driving at, but I tell him that if we kind of crook ourselves further into the doorway, standing back to back, then he can have his smoke and I’ll be blocking him from the camera.
‘Really?’ he says.
‘Sure, why not,’ I shrug.
And so now we’re stood back to back, him looking up the track, me looking back down it. Which feels strangely apt. It also feels weirdly like a confessional booth. We’re talking, but we can’t see, don’t hardly know the other person, and so we’re freer.
‘Where’s your son? I mean, what does he do?’ asks Clive, suddenly. ‘Apart from talk about God crying?’
In my moment’s pause, I hear the loud exhalation of his smoke. I open my mouth to trot out the rehearsed lines, but somehow, the door won’t open. He stabs men in bar-fights, like Hull’s the Wild West. He gets sent to prison. Man he stabbed has been in a coma ever since. Each in their own cells… Though Robbie’s finally being released. Tells me he’s changed, but he wouldn’t even let me come meet him at the gates.
‘He’s… he’s… I suppose you could say he’s at the doorway between things at the moment,’ I stutter.
‘Sounds like my older brother,’ says Clive. ‘He’s been… He was at a doorway like that for ten years. But we let him go yesterday. Let him pass through. And now I’m here. All I want to do is look in the face of the man who did it to him.’
I hear the train’s long off-key honk signaling its approach. Then I see its lights rainbowing through the downpour. Though it might be because my eyes are now misted with tears. And as the train starts to rattle into the station, I wonder if there is another doorway I can hide in now.
‘I’m sorry,’ I breathe. But the train is on the platform now and it is too loud for anyone to hear.
AJ Kirby is a sportswriter from Yorkshire. He was short-listed for the Ilkley Literature Festival Fiction Prize.
To find out more visit his website: www.andykirbythewriter.20m.com
Novel: BULLY by AJ Kirby - a supernatural tale of revenge from beyond the grave.
Website for new novel - Paint This Town Red.
Website for new novel - Paint This Town Red.