John watched the thin trail of smoke swirl into the air from the end of the other man's cigarette and turned away slightly, coughing.
The tall gum trees outside the train station bent in the wind, so much so that John was certain they would snap and crush the cars parked beneath them.
The wind found its way under John's coat and he hunched his shoulders in an effort to keep the chill out. His face prickled with the cold and, fisting his hands in the warm, rough wool of his pockets, he hoped the train would arrive soon.
A strong gust of wind rattled the shelter but the other man on the platform didn't seem to notice. He stood, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and steadily smoking. John found himself unconsciously breathing in time with the stranger as he watched him from the corner of his eye.
The wind whistled past them again, sending the numerous discarded cigarette butts which littered the ground around the strangers feet, rolling down the platform. The smoke from the cigarette held lightly in the man's fingers blew more forcibly than ever at John, who coughed violently, eyes tearing up slightly from the foul smell.
"Sorry, mate," said the man. "Do you want me to move?"
John glanced at the other man, taking in his wind ruffled blonde hair and the thin white scar through his left eyebrow. The man's dark jeans appeared to be of quite good quality, and John recalled seeing them in the window of one of the designer stores in the inner city. If he remembered correctly, they were Calvin Klein's.
John cleared his throat. "Oh no. It's all right, really. Don't trouble yourself."
The man blinked and John hunched his shoulders and glanced away quickly.
"It's no trouble," said the stranger, and took one last drag on his cigarette before letting it drop to the ground, only half smoked.
"You, ah, you didn't have to do that."
The man shrugged and squashed the cigarette with the toe of one shiny black shoe. "It doesn't matter."
John attempted to smile at the other man, but only managed something akin to a grimace of pain. He was not accustomed to confrontation. In fact, he did everything in his power to avoid confrontation, even the non-violent kind. This attempt at conversation made his stomach clench painfully.
"What's your name?" asked the man.
John looked at him in surprise. "I'm sorry?"
"Your name," he answered patiently. "What is it?"
"Oh. Ah, John. John Hamilton," he replied in a small voice, speaking almost to the ground.
The man nodded. "Nice to meet you, John Hamilton. I'm Lance Allen."
Lance stuck out his hand and John stared at it warily before taking it gingerly in his own. There was little pressure applied by either man and their hands fell back to their sides quickly.
"It's actually short for 'Lancelot' you know," Lance said. "My parents are big literature buffs. My four older sisters are named for literature too."
John made a small non-committal noise and, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose, shuffled away from Lance slightly.
"Yeah," Lance continued, "There's Dulcinea, from 'Don Quixote', Rohan and Elanor, from 'The Lord of the Rings', Orinthia, from 'The Apple Cart', and me, Lancelot, from the legend of King Arthur."
How strange, thought John. I don't know half those references, but what kind of parents give their children names like those? I had a hard enough time at school with the name 'John'. I don't suppose discovering that you're the result of an affair at age fifteen is good for anyone's self esteem though. Lack of confidence makes a person an easy target for school bullies, and of course, standing up for yourself only gets you beaten up. It's much better to just fade into the background.
The wind ruffled John's hair and he brushed it back impatiently. It has to stop though. I can't keep living life like this, distancing myself from everyone. Not everyone out there wants to hurt me, physically or emotionally.
John gave a small sigh. It's one thing to think it, and another to actually do it though, isn't it?
Lance, obviously unaware of John's internal musings and discomfort, went on, "I actually consider myself quite lucky. My parents were going to name me 'Hercule' after Agatha Chistie's famous detective, but eventually decided that they preferred 'Lancelot'."
When Lance remained silent for a minute, John glanced up at him. Lance shifted his weight again, and stared down the tracks, probably to see if the train was coming.
John followed Lance's gaze for a moment, then turned his attention back to his companion. Lance pushed a small stone around with the toe of his shoe before sighing deeply and reaching into the back pocket of his jeans. He extracted a shiny cigarette case with his initials engraved on the front and a lighter.
Why is he so fidgety? He looks impatient, but that just could be because of the cold. Maybe he has somewhere he has to be.
Lighting a cigarette, Lance took a long drag and turned to John. "Where do you suppose that train is then?"
John shrugged and turned to look at the electronic board above the platform. "It'll be here in five minutes."
Lance nodded and took a deep breath. John hadn't even noticed the tension in the shoulders of his companion until it was gone. There was something about Lance now that exuded calm.
"The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows," Lance murmured to himself.
John frowned and tilted his head slightly to the side. He studied Lance for a moment before looking back down the tracks. Alarm bells were going off in his head.
Something isn't right here. Something's going on. But what is it? It's almost like he knows exactly what he wants and how he'll get it.
John ran his teeth over his bottom lip lightly and steeled himself. He took a small half step towards Lance. "What was that you said?"
Lance's head jerked up, almost as if he had forgotten that John was there. "What?"
John pushed his glasses up his nose again. "What you just said. I couldn't quite catch it."
"… Oh, ah. It was by Plato, in his 'Dialogues'."
"Is it? And do you make it a habit to quote long dead philosophers?"
Lance chuckled slightly, surprised. "No, not usually."
The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.
John considered the quote for a moment. He was not familiar with Plato, but he had always been a good English student. Meanings could be derived from anything if analysed in the right depth.
There's no time for that here. The quote is obviously about life or death. It's that simple.
Something in the back of John's mind clunked into place. His eyes widened and he stared at Lance.
Surely not? He can't mean to – Can he?
But suddenly John was certain. Lance was not impatient about the train being late because he had to be somewhere. He was impatient for the train to arrive, so that he could throw himself in front of it.
John pushed his glasses further up his nose. He shuffled a step towards Lance, but then stopped. What was he supposed to do? Call him out on it? But what if he was wrong? Lance would think he was crazy.
But what if I'm right? If Lance kills himself here, how will I ever be able to live with myself?
John dithered, torn between doing what was right (assuming Lance was suicidal) and avoiding confrontation. He watched Lance flip his lighter in the air and catch it in his palm with a solid 'thud'.
Maybe I'm just being paranoid. It wouldn't be the first time.
Lance glanced up at the electronic board above the platform. "Just two minutes now."
Lance took a deep breath and slipped his lighter back in his pocket. He rubbed his hands together, as if to warm them, before clasping them together. He took a step towards the edge of the platform.
John's eyes widened and he jumped forward, taking Lance's elbow in his hand. "What are you doing?"
Lance looked at John, brow furrowed, then glanced at the hand restraining him. Shaking his arm loose, he said quietly, "That's really none of your concern. I suggest you leave and find another way home."
Lance turned back to the tracks and took another step while John was standing stiff as a board.
This is crazy! Why is this happening when I'm the only person around? It's just my luck … but it is happening. If I do nothing, I'll have his blood on my hands. No walking away this time. I have to do something.
John straightened to his full five foot eleven and dragged Lance up by the collar, slamming his back into the shelter of the platform. He hit the wall with a loud crash, which vibrated all the way down the platform.
John only had a moment to be shocked at himself before Lance's mouth dropped open. "What are you doing?!"
"Are you out of your mind?!" John yelled.
"What are you talking about?"
"If you think I'm going to let you jump in front of that train, you're sorely mistaken."
For a moment, Lance said nothing, just stared in shock, then said, "What makes you think you can stop me?"
"I have my ways!"
Lance shoved at John's chest. "Let go of me! I can do as I please!"
Lance pushed John away and sent his fist flying at John's face. The stinging blow connected with John's chin but he didn't flinch.
John grabbed Lance's arms. "Will you stop?! Listen to me. We can talk about this. Why don't we go somewhere and talk about this, because I'm not going to just stand here and let you kill yourself. You don't deserve that."
"How would you know? You don't know me. You don't know what I've been through."
"Maybe not, but whatever it is, it can't be so bad that you feel you can't live with it anymore. There are other ways of overcoming things like that."
"Really? What would you do then, if the woman who gave you life couldn't love you enough to keep you? What if your mother had put you up for adoption and never spared a single thought for what you might go through because of it? What if your best friend of more than ten years got married and moved away? What if he was so caught up in his new life that he never dropped by to see you, or even picked up the phone?"
John stared at Lance in silence and wondered if the other man was aware of the tears running down his face.
Lance wasn't done however. "And what if, when it came down to it, you told the woman who took you in, the only mother you'd ever known, that you hated her, that she wasn't good enough? Then before you could tell her you were just angry, didn't really mean it, she was killed going round a bend late at night by a drunk driver? If you had all that on your shoulders, what would you do?" Lance shook his head and gasped. "I can't do it anymore. It's too much."
John sighed. "No, it's not. You can find a way to work through it. I'm not in quite the same situation, but I can relate. My mother had an affair and I was born. My father knew as well. Everyone thought I should know too, but it sort of just destroyed me. I was a happy kid, but I kind of lost all of that. I've been avoiding it and forming new relationships ever since. The people I trusted the most betrayed that trust, just like you. That's no excuse though, for your behaviour … or mine."
Lance was silent. John kept his gaze locked with the other man's and loosened the hold he still had on Lance's arms. He kept a hand by Lance's elbow, in case he made a run for it, but somehow John knew that the storm had passed.
Lance swallowed. "Do you really think things will work out?"
"Sure. You should talk to your family about it, and maybe try a counsellor. It'll all be okay."
"How do you know?"
John shrugged. "I don't, not for sure anyway. What I do know, is that I've spent too long drifting through life like I'm the only one in it. Your actions always affect others."
Lance nodded. "You're right. Mum would have my ass if she knew what I was thinking."
John chuckled and turned as the train approached the station. Looking back at Lance, he said, "You should come and have dinner at my place, Lance. I have a spare bedroom too, if you don't want to go to all the trouble of getting home again."
For a moment John was shocked by the words that had come out of his mouth. He'd never initiated something, anything, before. Maybe things were going to change.
"I'd like that. Thank you." Lance smiled.
And together, the two men boarded the train, and rode towards their futures.