This Fourth Monday we’re trying something a little different. Instead of featuring three artists we’ll be reading one longer story by Dr. Suzanne Conboy-Hill here on the main page. I do hope you enjoy the piece and leave your comments. This is a puzzle I’d love for you to unravel.
‘The seats are elegant,’ she said, stroking the plush upholstery and leaning slightly forwards to avoid creasing the cream lace antimacassar draped behind. A proper lady would just lean back, take it for granted, stretch her creamy throat and tilt her chin upwards to look down on the porters lugging heavy cases and bags into the carriage. But she wasn’t a proper lady, she was pretending, masquerading, like everyone else who embarked at Brighton and paid a little extra to feel posh. Although she could not quite remember actually getting on the train. She hunched slightly, away from the lace fancy, and tried to look down her nose at the shining plates resting on the starched linen that was draped over the mahogany and leather dining table. She couldn’t see the table but she could feel it there, humming with deep polish, antique cigar smoke, and ladies’ lavender toilet water. A menu stood to attention in a silver grip: Tea, per pot 1/3, coffee, per pot, per person 1/8, bacon (portion) 2/8, kippers …
‘From the gentleman, madam,’ the waiter said, inclining his head a little and proffering a small box on a silver tray.
‘The gentleman? Where? Where is he?’ she asked, startled by the intrusion and now casting her eyes around the carriage for a sign.
‘He was on the platform, madam. He didn’t have a ticket for this train, today.’
‘Today? Was it him?’
‘Perhaps, madam. The box?’ He edged the tray closer.
‘Thank you.’ She took the box, put it on the table next to her coffee, and turned it around to see each face. It was blue and it had a rose coloured ribbon neatly tied up the sides and across the lid, so it looked as if it were held in a silk cage. There was a cream tag with filigree edges tied to the ribbon: it said Victoria. She touched the ribbon with a reticent finger tip, ‘Do you think he might have been a parallel?’
‘I really couldn’t say, madam.’
‘What year is it?’ she asked, pushing up the lid of the box a tiny fraction, as though a ghost might bolt out suddenly and rattle around the carriage breaking the crystal lamps if she opened it wider.
‘Nineteen sixty five, madam.’
She nodded, tapped the lid closed and handed the box back to the waiter. ‘Put it with the others, please,’ she said, ‘in date order.’
‘Are you not going to open it?’ the waiter asked, hovering in a slight stoop, ready to give the box back.
‘It’s not time,’ she said.
‘Right you are, madam.’ The waiter turned, walking with measured steps accustomed to the hitch and roll of a carriage in motion, to a stack of storage cupboards so deeply burnished that the orange oil smelled of centuries, not decades. He opened one and began to shuffle the line of boxes along the shelf a little to make room for the new one. She watched as he moved them with reverence: the pink one, the seashell, green for a wet Spring morning, umber –smoky evenings and garden bonfires, one black as night, and one glittering and glowing with stars and sunbursts. The new box came chronologically after the sparkling one and he eased it into place, but it was a squeeze, and he had to jostle it a little. As he did, from the far end of the shelf came tumbling a deep red round box which jingled and chattered and thumped as it fell onto the carriage floor. Its lid came off and rolled over and over, dancing along with the speeding diddley-dums of the train, and coming to a halt at her feet.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘When is this one?’
The waiter picked up the red box. ‘You should look inside, madam,’ he said, stepping back.
‘I don’t want this one.’
‘There’s no choice, madam.’
She curled her fingers about the box, held it up in front of her to examine the exterior. It had a pattern; one of those that didn’t quite resolve while you looked at it directly but hid in the corner of your eye instead. Deep red, almost tactile, like flock. It was heavy, as though it contained more than its size allowed, more than anyone could know. She brought it down under her chin to peer inside; it was like looking down a telescope the wrong way. No, a kaleidoscope with brass and candles, chandeliers and velvet. No, not even that. She felt dizzy.
Tickets. Did she have a ticket? Her hands were grappling with a ham sandwich that felt like cardboard and smelled of nothing, which was probably fortunate. No grease to wipe off, at least, she thought, as she patted at the pockets of her raincoat. The woman next to her was doing the same while juggling a large shopping bag on her knee and heaving in massive mouth-breaths so she sounded like an over-worked vacuum cleaner. The bag fell off and dropped onto the feet of the man opposite, who apologised in that peculiar way the British have of conveying affront. He fluffed up his newspaper and poked his ticket over the top between two casual fingers, as if to say this is how to do it. She thought it looked like a Punch and Judy show. Maybe he had a crocodile behind that paper –
‘Tickets please. Have your tickets ready.’ The inspector was coming closer and she had still not found her ticket. Did she have a bag? A wallet? She cast about for a clue, hitched sideways to check under the seat.
‘This your bag, lady?’ A man with small round glasses, a wet anorak, and two missing front teeth shoved at something with his foot. ‘You want to keep that out of the aisle, someone could break their neck tripping over that.’ He was holding a beer can in one hand and a plastic carrier bag in the other, and he seemed to have nowhere else he wanted to go.
‘Oh, yes. Yes,’ she said, and leaned down to pull in the bag. It was brown with fake leather straps, a bit frayed, and a broken zip. Maybe the ticket was in there. She tugged the strap to bring the bag under the bench seat, folding herself over sideways to reach down without touching the pair of American Tan knees opposite that tapered down to the pair of neatly aligned navy shoes with stubby heels. Just behind the shoes was a heater that had been clicking and clacking and belching fumes but had not yet belched out any heat. Perhaps as well, she thought, or this place would smell like wet dogs in a workhouse laundry.
She leaned further and pulled harder – here it came, another inch. Ah! She heaved it up onto her knee next to the ham sandwich.
‘Open it then.’
‘Open it, what do you think it’s there for?’ The man with the beer and the missing teeth had gone. Instead, the ticket inspector loomed. He peered down at her from under his peaked cap. ‘Look sharp.’
‘Oh.’ She pulled on the broken zip to open up the top. ‘Is my ticket in here?’
‘Nope. One of the others, on the top.’ He flicked a glance at the overhead racks where briefcases, boxes wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, small scuffed suitcases, and a few coats juddered against the nicotined paintwork of the carriage as it creaked and clattered over points and sleepers on its way to –
‘What’s our destination?’ she asked.
‘Same as always, Miss. Now look in the bag.’
She withdrew her gaze from the man with the peaked cap and let it fall towards the open bag. There were some small items within; an embroidered purse – green, a cosmetics bag with gold tassels and stars on it, a pencil case – blue fake fur, and a jewellery box made of black plastic.
‘It’s the black one, isn’t it? Do I have to open the black one?’
‘Up to you. But I’d go for the pencil case, if I were you.’
‘The pencil case.’ She stroked the pale fluffy material, then picked it up. ‘It’s empty,’ she said. ‘No pencils.’ She turned it over to look at the other side. This side was different because someone had used a fluorescent pink marker all over it and dotted bright pink hearts into the blue acrylic fabric. They had given it a label too, across the top by the zip – Victoria.
‘Look inside then, or we’ll never make it.’
She probed the opening and slid her fingers through to the interior. Were there ghosts? Probing a little deeper, she found the edge of a scrap of paper and pulled it out. It was lined, ink blotted, with doodles all over it and a heart with an arrow through it at the top. There were initials inside the heart, blurry due to someone having spilled something over it. In the centre though, and just clear of the tidal edge of the inky water mark, were some numbers 221020121330 221019821230
‘What are these? What do they mean?’
‘Do I look like Sherlock Holmes? Your guess is as good as mine.’
‘So they’re not important?’
‘Didn’t say that.’
‘It might help if you were a little more – helpful.’ She cast a critical eye at the inspector and then examined the scrap of paper again. Were the initials important? And the numbers? The train jumped and jiggled, swung this way and that, screeched and whoooed, and thundered into a tunnel. Noise crowded the air so that speech retreated and fell silent. A small bag also fell and tumbled onto her shoulder, then into her lap. Deep red patent leather with a gold fastener and a velvet strip running under the clasp.
‘That’s the one,’ the inspector said, mouthing exaggerated syllables and nodding at it. ‘Time to open that one, we’re nearly there.’ He tipped his cap at her, straightened up, ‘Next stop, London Victoria, thirteen thirty – that’s half past one in old money,’ and moved off down the carriage. ‘Next stop, London Victoria, thirteen thirty – that’s half past one …’
The train hurtled along, thrumming and tilting and righting itself so that styrofoam cups slid back and forth along shiny tables to bump into the laptops, tablets, netbooks, and iPads people were pretending to work on while they tapped on links to videos and updated their status — we’re on the train, LOL! She gathered her Tesco backpack to her and stuffed it under her arm to keep it out of range of the man whose girth threatened to escape his shirt and assimilate everything within reach.
‘What year is this?’ she said to her phone.
‘NOW,’ it said, in large font, and pinged a text message into her notifications: See you at Victoria <3
‘Is this a parallel?’ she said, asking the screen out loud and jumping as the man next to her spoke in response.
‘There are always parallels.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I meant, is this a bridge?’
‘What colour box did you have last?’
‘Hm.’ The man inclined his head side to side and pulled the corners of his mouth downwards. ‘Might be a bridge, might not be. Have you checked the others?’
‘No, where are they in this, this…?’
‘Segment? Here.’ The man pushed his tablet over to her and swiped the display to show the apps loaded onto it. There were more than before; along with the blue one that she’d opened earlier, didn’t understand, and closed again, the glittery silvery one, and that black one. She shuddered. The black one opened once at a bridge and she had tried to get rid of it by throwing it out of the window, but it was re-delivered at the next stop. It was here still, innocuous, innocent, velvet black, night black. She wanted the glittery one again. The dancing dizzying headiness of meeting him and everything else standing still around them.
‘The red one’s updating, better get to the doors,’ the man said, huffing his legs towards the aisle to let her by.
‘There was a bridge in 1985,’ she said, hovering over the glittery silvery icon. ‘That was our time. It looked like our time’
‘Time? Relative – ha ha! No going back, up you get.’
‘He’ll be there this time, won’t he? At the next stop?’
‘Maybe, maybe not. What do you have?’
‘He sent a text. It said, ‘See you at Victoria’.’
‘One of him sent a text to one of you. Might not be the you that’s here, if you get me.’
‘But I haven’t changed.’
‘Tracks change. Points change. Sometimes you get shunted into a siding or your schedule is delayed or re-jigged. Sometimes your train crashes, or arrives at the terminus.’
She stopped at that. ‘I’ve looked in all the boxes, the files, they’re always the same.’
‘For this you, not for all the others.’
She watched the red icon; its update was nearly loaded, she should go to the door. ‘Does he have a black box too?’
‘Have you looked in yours, checked the contents?’
‘No,’ she lied. She had been half standing to move out of her seat but the thought of that box brought fear to her knees and she sat again. ‘Do you know what’s in there?’ she asked, wondering if the man had seen what she had tried not to see. ‘Do the others all have black boxes too?’
‘Some do but the contents are different, depending on their choices.’
‘But mine will always be mine?’ She realised that she had never really looked, only tried to destroy.
‘Which one of us died?’
‘He did. Back then.’
‘And now?’ She looked up at the ceiling, at the bright carriage lights that cast unforgiving shadows under the sleep deprived eyes of its hot-desking passengers. She looked down again; the red icon was updated and ready to be opened. It seemed to pulse like a slow heart beat and she hovered her finger over it.
‘Tell me about the blue box,’ the man said. ‘What was in it?’
She pulled her finger back and curled it lightly, out of danger. ‘Just a card with some numbers. They didn’t make any sense.’
‘And where did it come from, this box?’
‘I don’t know – they always just appear on a table, under a chair, in the middle of a drinks trolley, or on a – ah, this one was delivered, the waiter said it was “from the gentleman”.’ Her hand’s memory made her pat the prickly velour of the train seat. Not plush this time, but a train seat nonetheless.
‘Well then, let’s take a look at the card.’ The man tapped on the blue box and brought up the splash screen. ‘Here we are, 221020121330,’ he said, ‘Any ideas?’
‘Well no, it’s nonsense,’ she said.
‘Not if you look at your phone. Date, time?’
She studied the digital display; nearly half past one, October 22nd. ‘Oh.’
‘And Victoria station is what?’
‘It’s the terminus, the end of the line.’
‘Where all the lines converge.’
‘Parallels don’t converge.’
‘They don’t, do they? Mustn’t be parallels, then.’ He winked, dabbed at the digital display with both thumbs – swished and dabbed, swished and dabbed – then handed her the tablet. ‘Better get a move on.’ The red icon sat on its own at the top left of the screen. It pulsed, and with each pulse extended out a little over new wallpaper that looked silvery in the darkness of the dimmed carriage lights. ‘Everything you need in there,’ the man said. He winked again, ‘Mind how you go, madam.’
Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill has been all sorts of things and expects to be all sorts of other things before she finally stops bothering everyone. She’s slowly racking up published stories.