The brakes screamed like a dying horse, and the speed dropped dramatically in a series of agonising jolts. The five-thirty commuter train was packed; every seat, aisle and corridor filled with suits draped around every type of body imaginable. Fat men dozed against windows, pencil thin women balanced on pencil thin heels, studying tablets and smartphones as they dangled with one hand on the grab rails. Nobody was making eye contact, jealously guarding the last illusions of privacy in this too-close-for-comfort setting. The train’s unexpected halt put an end to that. As the torturous screech of metal on metal filled the carriages, the commuters were thrown every which way, and the mechanical creaks and crashes were mingled with the bumps and thuds of falling luggage, heads against windows, bodies against bodies. Some cried out in shock. The train shuddered to a stop. There was silence. The shaken travellers began to pick themselves up, adjusting their clothing and checking their personal belongings. Nobody spoke.
Then the guard appeared. Barely out of his teens, his skin still riddled with acne, his skittish gaze bounced around the carriage, terrified lest someone should catch his eye. Mumbling ‘sorry’ and ‘excuse me’, he pushed his way through the crowded space and disappeared. Silence reigned once again.
The whisper started at the far end of the carriage, and gathered momentum fast as it slithered down the central aisle. “It’s a jumper, someone’s jumped from the bridge….” By the time it reached his seat, it was no longer a whisper at all. “For fuck’s sake!”, complained his nearest neighbour, in the carefully elocuted tones of one for whom the Square Mile is a second family home. “Why do they have to ruin everyone else’s bloody day?”.
Martin wanted to hurt the man. Very, very badly. Rage and nausea bubbled up together in an unexpected surge. They curdled in his throat so that for a moment he was unsure whether he would hit the guy or vomit into his lap. Rage, because who the hell did he think he was to judge someone else, because he at least would have a tomorrow in which to moan about today, because what was his mild inconvenience compared to the utter despair of a suicide? Nausea, because for a moment, he too had felt not sympathy, not sadness, but annoyance at the inevitable delay to follow.
It was this self-loathing and disgust which propelled him out of his seat. Desperate to nullify the shameful thought, he pushed forward, clambering over the tailor-made suit next to him. Perhaps there was still hope for whoever it was. He might still be alive. They might need a doctor. He could help. He stumbled into the aisle, catching his foot on a carrier bag placed on the floor. It tipped over, and a small, garishly wrapped gift fell out, complete with bow and reindeer tag. Martin remembered the date, and for the first time, felt genuine emotion about what was happening. It was the day before Christmas Eve, and someone had just jumped in front of a train. That someone part suddenly seemed incredibly real. Someone wouldn’t be opening presents with his family, someone wouldn’t be eating too many pigs in blankets, someone wouldn’t be falling asleep in front of some daft old movie on the sofa.
But someone who had all of those things to look forward to surely wouldn’t throw it all away like this? Such an exquisitely sad and brutal end, the life that led up to this moment couldn’t have been anything but tragic.
Jason hunches his shoulders and tucks his chin down, trying to ignore the first drops of rain tickling the back of his neck. He pushes his hands deep into his pockets and slouches lower on the park bench. A few feet away, his son, Michael, hangs disconsolately on a swing seat. He isn’t even bothering to swing. One toe dangles down, scraping tiny circles in the dirt. Jason had thought there’d be other kids here for him to play with, but the park is deserted. Fail. He remembers the way Sonia’s mouth had twisted when he’d mentioned their plans – she’d managed to control her sneer a fraction of a second too late. She’d have known there’d be no one here at this time. She could have said, you’d think she’d want her kid to have a good day out with his dad. No, better that he’s glad to get home after.
The tickling drops are gone, and big, fat splats of water are now falling from the sky. The kid doesn’t even have a hood on his jacket. They’ll have to go. No cash for a café though, he’s used it all on the train fare this morning. There’s nothing for it, they’ll have to go back to the flat.
As they’re pacing along the pavement, hands in pockets, heads down, the words escape from his mouth. “Having a good day mate?” As soon as they’re out, he’s cursing himself. Why would you ask that? Of course he’s not having a good day. It’s been bloody shit. At least the kid’s kind enough to lie.
Train fare was a waste of money and all. Seven quid, standard class to God’s Waiting Room, the crappiest little town in the county. No shops, no pubs, no need, all the locals are in nursing homes. He’d thought it’d be good for Michael to spend some time with his Grandad. Funny how that title, ‘Grandad’, changes someone. The most ferocious old tyrant in the world stops being scary once he’s someone’s Grandad. Still, he’d known the visit was a mistake the moment they walked in the door. Other things were still scary, like the smell of the home, and the toothless old witches propped up on cushions in the day room. ‘Grandad’ had been pleased to see Michael though, not that he’d acknowledged Jason. They’d talked about football training at school, and watched Neighbours together. Then Michael had touched one of the old man’s Collector’s Edition Matchbox cars. The old git had brought his cane whacking down on the boy’s hand. They left after that. God knows what he’d tell Sonia about the bruise.
Key in the door, he’s trying to picture what’s on the other side, work out what damage control will be needed. Empty cans can be grabbed on a march through the living room to the kitchen. No need to worry about take away wrappers, he’s been too skint for that since he lost his shifts at the pub last month. But once they’re in, he sees there’s nothing, and that’s so much worse. Nothing says ‘I live here’. Nothing says ‘home’.
Kid doesn’t say anything though, he’s straight over to the box. The match is on and they slump together on the sofa. Jason nods off. Waking with the end whistle, he sees he’s alone and wanders into the kitchen looking for his son. He finds him on the phone, crouched over and whispering. “Can you pick me up now mum? There’s nothing to do here, and it’s cold”. He looks up and they lock eyes. Jason sees in his son’s gaze a flicker of shame, quickly replaced with defiance. His own gaze is a mirror image, a spark of rage followed by a wave of bitter humiliation. There is a click and a whirr, and the television falls silent in the other room. The meter’s run out.
Sonia is thin lipped when she picks up Michael. At the door, she delivers her parting blow. “Got your Christmas present from your dad?” There is no present, she knows that. And now Michael knows that too. Seven years old and he knows his old man can’t afford a Christmas present for him. Or maybe he thinks he just doesn’t care enough. They leave. Jason sits silently in the gloom.
At five o’clock, he stands up. Enough is enough. Enough that his own old man is eighty years old and still beating the shit out of little kids. Enough that he’s not young enough or cool enough to bartend at the local any more. Enough that his kid hates him, and his ex despises him, and he can’t afford to feed the meter or even get a stupid plastic toy for his son at Christmas. Enough drizzle and cold and darkness. He opens the door and strides out into the street, no shoes, no coat. At five thirty eight, he’s at the bridge. Nobody else is crossing. He clambers up onto the railing and swings his legs over the side. He waits until he hears the zing of electricity in the rails below. He listens to the rhythmic rumble of the train creeping closer. He stands, holding tight to the railings behind him. The train comes into view. He counts to five. He spreads his arms and steps forward.
The image was so clear in Martin’s mind that he almost cried out a warning. Acid rose in his throat, and once again he found himself swallowing bile mixed with emotion. Pity for the wretched soul who threw it all away because he thought he had nothing left. Shame at all he himself had, and gratitude too. Overwhelming both feelings was a sense of righteousness. Somebody must do something. Somebody must step in and save Jason, or whoever the broken body in front of the train belonged to. That somebody was Martin Gibbs. Doctor Martin Gibbs, he reminded himself.
Armed with a new air of purpose, he elbowed his way through the carriages to the front of the train. The cabin door stood ajar, and stepping inside, he saw it was empty, the side door hanging open. He lowered himself down onto the tracks.
The front of the train was largely hidden from view behind men in high visibility jackets. One stepped aside, and Martin’s stomach turned as a sea of red appeared between the men. Fragments of flesh littered the grass and tracks behind them. His resolve wavered, then set.
“Excuse me!” He called to the men. No one looked up. He tried again, louder, and caught the attention of one chap on the edge of the crowd, who strode angrily towards him. “Stay on the train!” he bellowed.
“I came to help…” stammered Martin. “I’m a doctor…”
The man froze, stared and then guffawed. “Don’t think there’s much you can do here doc”. He beckoned Martin towards the group. As they neared, a breeze swept over the tracks, picking up one of the scarlet scraps and placing it gently against Martin’s shoe. Martin fought to keep his stomach contents down. He focused his gaze on the tiny remnant of…of…..
The hi-vis coated crowd separated as Martin drew closer. The face of the victim was still visible amongst the wreckage, and it was one Martin had known all his life. A heavily bearded face grinned up, as one arm fluttered lazily in the breeze. The ‘sea of red’ rearranged itself into what was just about recognizable as a scarlet jacket and trousers, despite the train through the stomach. Martin succumbed to a wave of dizziness as his mind struggled to tally the scene he had imagined so clearly with the reality in front of him.
The victim was an eight foot tall inflatable Santa Claus.
Note: I’ve just entered this one into a short story competition for which ‘Christmas’ was the theme…bit too dark maybe? 🙂