Seeing in Sepia
The noise was overwhelming, the station bustling with the ceaseless come-and-go of people and trains. People pushed past the old man as he stood motionless on the platform, his eyes fixed on a point in the distance. Someone bumped into him and muttered an apology, but he did not seem to notice. A few people stopped, trying to see what he was looking at, but his gaze rested on something their eyes could not see, and they soon gave up. They immersed themselves in the tide of people, leaving the old man alone, a stationary point in the crowd.
He remembered the noise. He felt again the excitement of the crowds of children against the grey backdrop of their parents' worry. He thought it might have been raining, although the cold drizzle did nothing to dampen the buzz of chatter on the platform and children ran back and forth, dragging their parents behind them or leaving them to follow at their own pace.
"I'll see you soon, Georgie, I promise," his mother said for what seemed to the little boy to be the hundredth time, smoothing his jacket and making sure the label was tightly affixed to his coat. She licked her thumb and rubbed at a spot of grime on his cheek, so hard he felt as if his skin would come off.
"I know, Mum," he said, barely even looking at her, trying to wriggle out of her grip. There was too much to see to waste time being scrubbed again. He had never been to Wales before. He wondered which of the other children would be going with him, and he turned his head this way and that, trying to pick out individual faces in the milling throng. His mother's grip proved surprisingly strong, however, and he frowned up at her. She pulled him close to her and hugged him tightly. He pushed himself away with all the horror of a little boy hugged by his mother in public.
"Let go, Mum!" he said, his attention already stolen by the action on the platform, the promise of the train's open doors. "I'm going to have adventures," he told her, looking up at her with excitement. "In the country. They have adventures there. And dragons! Do they have dragons?"
"I'm sure you'll find them," his mother said, giving him a small smile and ruffling his hair. George nodded, already picturing the battles in his head. His father had shown him Wales on the map, and he thought it certainly looked like a good place to find dragons. He would need a gang, of course. He scanned the platform, hoping to find potential gang members, but it was no use. The constant motion of the crowd made it impossible. He shrugged and gave up. He would find his gang when he got there. His heart seemed to swell at the thought of his destination. He wondered if it would be near the sea. He had never been to the sea.
The whistle blew, and George bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, too excited to keep still. "Come on, Mum," he said. "I've got to go! I'll be late!" He tugged on her hand, dragging her towards the train, where other parents shepherded their children on board. George moved to get on too, but his mother pulled him back and crouched down beside him, so that her eyes were level with his.
"Promise me you'll write us, Georgie," she said, and George thought her voice sounded funny, like it did when she was sick. "I want to hear all about your adventures."
George nodded, already half-turning to board the train. His mother pulled him to her one more time, and held him until he struggled out of her grip and clambered on to the train, dragging his small suitcase behind him.
He found a compartment with a few other children in it and made his way over to the window. He wanted to be sure to see everything on his way. He waved to his mother, who looked pale and fragile in the early morning light that filtered down through the high ceiling of the station. He wondered why she looked so sad.
As the train began to move, he stuck his head out of the window, crowded in beside the other children, who were doing the same.
"Bye, Mum!" he called, waving furiously, trying to make his voice heard over the others. "Bye!"
She waved back, calling out something that George couldn't hear. It could have been "Be careful," or "Write us," or "Wash behind your ears." It could have been "I love you."
George watched her until the train picked up speed and moved out of sight, a figure alone in the crowd on the platform, her face buried in her hands.
The bustle of this platform was different. The sadness of departure seemed to lack the finality it had had when he was young. Or maybe he was just getting old. The thrill of adventure did not seem quite the same as it had been. Well, he supposed, everything changed. Everything died. He looked around, but his eyes remained fixed on the sepia images of his childhood. The past bled into the present wherever he looked, staining it irreversibly in ways that the hurrying people all around him did not appear to notice. For him, the remnants of the past were everywhere, in the face of a child looking for her mother, in the clattering noise of a departing train, in the hands of the old clock that still laboured their way around the dial, high above the platform.
George folded his fingers into a fist, almost able to feel the letter in his hands even now.
It came a month later. It had been short, formal, to the point. The bomb had hit his street. His house had been destroyed. There were no survivors. Someone offered him their sincerest condolences. He did not know what the word meant, but he was too dazed to care. He was not sure he wanted their condolences, whatever they were. George stared at the letter, unable to comprehend the words he read, feeling a strange numbness spreading over him.
Mrs Williams put an arm around his shoulders and squeezed him tightly as the letter fell from his hands. "You poor boy," she said, pressing him against her chest and rocking him gently, the cadences of her strangely lilting English still unfamiliar to George's ears. He wished his mother could have been holding him. She didn't speak like that. "You poor boy," the woman repeated.
George wanted her to let him go.
The platform was crowded with children, some of them in school uniforms, apparently going on school trips. George wondered idly where they were going, before his attention drifted away from them, to other children dotted throughout the crowd. Some clutched their parents' hands tightly, while others pulled away, eager to explore. With a pang, George remembered his own pulling away, his own eagerness to board the train. He wondered what his mother's last words to him had been. He had replayed the scene a hundred times, awake and in dreams, but his mother's lips moved meaninglessly as she slipped away into the distance and George left her behind forever.
He had never written to her. He had meant to, of course – but there was always another adventure to be had, another dragon to slay, and he had put it off and put it off until, in one cruel blow, his family had been traded for condolences without his permission. The letter he had never sent still haunted him.
"Dear mum and dad
Everything is very nice here. I am very well. Today, I - "
He had gone no further. He did not remember how he had planned to finish it, or what had caught his attention and drawn him away from the scrubbed kitchen table, leaving the letter unfinished and unsent, a grim monument to those he had loved.
People jostled him, but George ignored them, his face turned towards the past. He attracted a few curious looks, but the travellers were too intent on their own journeys and their own loves and losses to pay any heed to one old man, standing on the station platform with tears rolling down his weathered face, alone with his ghosts.
A/N: Written for the December Writing Challenge Contest. The prompt was "In Transit". Please read, review and vote for your favourite story!