by Stewart Wilson
Birmingham station again. I always end up here when I need to go somewhere. There's something about it, I'm sure the way it was designed is some kind of occult symbol to draw freaks, drug addicts and the insane. Like me. Normally I'm here during the day, but this time it's night and I'm waiting for one of the last trains. The place has transformed from a shining beacon of travellers, thronged with people, to an empty maze of shadows and strange echoes. The train isn't due for another half hour, so I light a cigarette and start scribbling on my palmtop.
I'm a writer by trade. That's what I like to tell people. I graduated with a degree in web design a month after the dot-com bubble burst and couldn't get a job if I sucked off the interview panel. So I wrote some articles for a local paper and called myself a writer. Better than being plain old unemployed, or so I thought at the time. Turns out that people with English degrees make better writers, and my shit wasn't making the grade. Nobody wanted commentary on breaking technology when they could hire some halfwit to drool about the basic facts of the Internet and how that made it EVIL. I was out the door in no time, told never to submit an article or use the place as a reference. I didn't even manage to get a date with the redhead receptionist. She was probably shagging the editor as it was.
Of course the problem there is that I was living in a two-bedroom flat and the lass I was living with had lost her job two weeks before, meaning that between us we couldn't make rent. I was sick of her whining about how she'd never get a job because Daddy had cut her off from all the best parties. Next time I shack up with someone I have a rule: If I don't think I could stand them the morning after sex, they can fuck off. It's shallow, but I'm buggered if it don't seem good.
So I slung all my gear into a couple of bags. My computer and all my CDs were put in boxes and left with a mate of mine who knows the score. If he doesn't hear from me after a couple of weeks, he lets some people know and sells it on. I've been free of it for only two days and I am fucking glad. Free of having to be people's emotional support. Free of the wankers who I though I liked once, who now just bitch at me because life isn't being fair to them. Free of the people I genuinely do care about as well, but I need to.
My preparations are almost complete. I check my pockets. No driver's license or bank cards, no mobile phone, no laptop, no keys. Just a hundred quid in cash and some train tickets in my wallet which were paid for with cash. My jacket pockets hold only a pack of fags and my lighter. The palmtop is my only luxury and even then I've wiped the memory before setting off.
The train arrives and I get on board, passing a woman who swears at how cold it is in the station. I park myself at an empty table in the smoking car and light a cigarette. Trains always seem strange in the dark. Away from the stations there's nothing to see out of the windows, so the whole thing feels like the only capsule of reality that there is. A little packet of reality, streaking through the darkness. I have to remember that for the next time I write a story about life and death.
A lass sits opposite me and asks for a light. She's fit enough, in a kind of underappreciated girl next door way, but I've always had a fetish for glasses and long hair. I slide the lighter over.
"Thanks. I didn't think I was going to find anyone in here I could ask."
I crack a grin. My journey has well and truly started, I worry about nothing but myself now. "So out of all the people in here, you choose me? I'd be flattered, but—" I exaggerate a glance around "I'm not really surprised."
She chuckles and hands the lighter back, her own cigarette aflame. "So, howcome I'm so lucky as to have you to ask?"
I shrug. Honesty may be the best policy this time. "I'm on a kind of journey."
"What knd of a journey?" She stresses the last word, thinks I'mn trying to pull the mysterious stranger to get into her knickers. It might be worth a try, later.
"It's something me and a few mates pull every so often. We meet up at Liverpool station and set off at random, and we travel the country for a week or two. No advance plans, no reservations with places so we have somewhere to sleep. Just us, on the rails, seeing the country." Maybe not total honesty, but close enough.
"You've done it before?" She says, interest flickering in her eyes.
"Yeah. I'm the reason we only go by rail any more. Second time we did this I ended up in Rotterdam without any real idea how I could get back and no money." A grin. "Crazy shit like that seems to happen a lot."
She nods. "I can see that."
"It's just something we do to remember who we really are, away from everything that defines us." I grind out my cig and she does the same, getting up to head back to her seat.
Some paper falls from her backpack, and reaching over it looks familiar. It should, it's a printout of an article I wrote for a website, on the Solitaire's Journey and the mystical nature of it. I dressed it up in pretentious bollocks at the time, how it cleanses the spirit and reestablishes the sense of identity through mystic communion with the Self, or some of that shit. I shake my head. None of this will help where she's going, I could see it in her eyes.
I pull out my palmtop again, and start scribbling. Names of everyone who depended on me, who used me as a shoulder to cry on or as a free counselor without ever giving me anything in return. I delete the file. I'm gone now, someone else treading my own path. I left a nasty message online which will probably make them think I killed myself or something daft like that. Ah, well. Fuck'em if they can't take a joke.