Flash fiction: The Choice

I was up very early in the morning again. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I slept well. These days I drift through the night in a kind of grey, fitful fog. I doze now and again, but by the time I realise I’ve been briefly asleep, the longed-for oblivion has already fled back into the shadows, the cold grey light is filtering through the curtains and a blackbird is singing its welcome to another unwanted morning.

It was one of those mornings when I first got the message. Come to see me, it said. I’m waiting. You know where I am. I’d put down the phone quietly on the table and mechanically made my coffee. Ten thoughts at once barrelled through my head. Them again? Why do they bother? It’s about time. Where have they been? Brilliant! Awful! I can’t go. I’m going. Why not? What if it goes wrong?

That first day, I very nearly went. I really did. I packed my old rucksack, found my railcard, pocketed my phone and wallet. I’d walked all the way to the station and stood on the shiny rain-lashed platform. Until I heard the announcement about engineering works and replacement bus services, and I’d thought: why does it have to be so difficult? It’ll take ages. I can’t be bothered. I took it as a sign: maybe another time.

So today, here I am again. I pause on the brow of the low hill above the pan-flat landscape, looking down on the small town with its small station. Everything here is dwarfed by the vast sky, I’ve always thought; whether violent sunshine or heavy grey cloud like today, it’s always been the main thing, the star of the show. The land is prone, the marshland stretching to the distant horizon weighed down by brackish water, completely cowed. It looks like it gave up a long time ago; pushed flat by the sky, it never stood a chance.

The saltwater tang on the breeze stings my nose. I take a deep breath, filling my lungs. Below, I watch the train beetling its way slowly across the landscape. I know it’s really travelling fast, hurrying its way towards its destination, but from up here it doesn’t appear that way. Four carriages. The trains used to be longer, but fewer people seem to be making the journey these days. I glance at my watch and resume my walk. Better hurry now. The next train will stop at the station, and that’s the one I’m going for.

I’d nearly arrived when I get the text: pub tonight? I haven’t heard from her in a while. I stare down at the screen, frozen by indecision. Why not? I stand on the grimy high street, looking from the station back to the Kings Arms. I don’t have to go. Not yet; it can wait.

But how brilliant it would be to be on that train again. Gazing at the sun-dappled landscape as it races by, letting the gentle rocking loll me into delicious doze. The destination growing ever closer, ever more real. I would be with them again, at last. That train would be here soon.

The sharp horn makes me jump. The car sweeps impatiently by. I blink, shake my head to clear the daydream, and dive into the newsagent. I suddenly feel incredibly thirsty.

“So, what are you up to today?” The man behind the counter smiles; crinkled blue eyes, grey greasy hair. I’d never found out his name. “Catching the train?”

“No, not today.” I hear my own words with just the faintest glimmer of surprise. Oh. That’s it then. Soon I’d be walking back up the familiar hill. Day after day. I couldn’t say I liked it, not really, but it was here and it was mine, and it was easier.

The newsagent raises his eyebrows. I remember then this isn’t the first time he’d seen me here at this time, looking as if I’m on my way somewhere but turning back at the last moment. How many times have I made this aborted journey? How many days have I made this choice? I feel my cheeks flush; but followed immediately by a flash of irritation. What does it have to do with him? “Train’s cancelled,” I mumble. “There’s a replacement bus service.”

I don’t have to decide, I think. Not today. There’s always tomorrow

The man’s smile had gone. “Is there?”

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