Last Train Home

Claire was tired, mentally and physically, But especially emotionally. She’d been working to deadlines for the past few months, as one project morphed into another, and she’d barely had any time off. The Sunday by the lake with her nieces had been restorative, but brief. Her sister and brother-in-law had urged her to take a break from the demands of constant work, yet as a freelance designer she knew she had to take the work when it came along. If she turned down a commission, they wouldn’t ask her again. Make hay while the sun shines, isn’t that what they say?

But lately it had all started to get meaningless, as one eleven hour day merged into the next, one assignment overlapped with another, a working Sunday followed all too soon by Monday. Yet she’d been making a name for herself and was considering taking on help to be able to meet the deadlines she was facing. So far, she’d managed to meet them all, but she was rowing against an increasingly choppy current and she needed another pair of oars.

As she sat on the train and the patternless fields of southern England wizzed by, she realised that tears were falling, smudging her mascara. The water was choppier than she’d thought. She dried her eyes but the tears welled up regardless, accompanied by those desperate thoughts that accompany emotional overload. I won’t be able to cope, I can’t say no to that big Swiss commission, it’s worth almost half a year’s salary. I need to find somebody, but who can step in at a day’s notice? And could I trust them? I’d have to oversee what they do and that could mean even more work if they don’t come up to scratch.

Her head went into her hands again. I can’t keep up the pace, something will have to give. When was the last time I had a good, worry-free night’s sleep? I know this stress and exhaustion comes with the terrain, but surely not at the cost of my health. Thank god it’s Friday. A voice at her shoulder whispered. ‘Take the weekend off. Be good to yourself. You’re headed for a breakdown if you don’t reduce the pressure.’

She allowed herself a chuckle as she remembered the angel and the devil from Tom & Jerry, one on each shoulder. So who was in her ear this time, the angel or the devil? Maybe they’d ganged up on her, joined forces to tell her take her foot off the gas. For her own good. Or did each have his own agenda?

The train sped through one commuter town after another, before reaching hers.

She stopped off in the White Hart for a large red, which was, in fact, almost a pint, as the mental decision had taken itself. I’m not working tonight, and I’m not working at the weekend. I can’t. The voice whispered at her shoulder again. ‘That’s my girl, you’re doing the right thing. Think of all those people who are slaves to work. Sixty hour weeks, Working all weekend. Neglect their kids, their partner, no time for exercise, don’t see friends any more. Gotta dash, I’m a bit tied up at the moment. I’d love to meet up, but I’m snowed under. I’d love to see you, mate, another time, I’ll call you. And you never do. But it’s my birthday, Auntie! Can’t you just pop over for Sunday lunch, you know Dad misses you. You haven’t returned my call, don’t you want to see me? I thought we had something.

She missed her friends. Her parents, sister, nieces. And Chris, why didn’t I return his calls? I liked him, but it just wasn’t the right time to take it seriously, risk commitment. Get into anything heavy. But I liked him, I think about him from time to time. Quite often, actually. But, that was what, four months ago now, he’ll have moved on. A tear slid out of her eye and down her cheek. Why can’t I be good to myself?

As she passed the roundabout in the park where she’d played freely as a young girl, she saw it now. Round and round they go. Pressure, responsibility, commitment. On the other side of the roundabout she could almost glimpse, hanging on with one hand, fun, laughter, happiness. She fulfilled her commitments and was raking in the cash, if truth be told, but she was never able to enjoy it. Never had time. Always tired, busy, tied up. Never hanging on with one hand, laughing with abandon, enjoying the ride. Well, why not this weekend? she said, turning into Athelstan Gardens.

There was a blue Audi parked opposite her driveway, engine purring. Hope it’s not the tax man. She drew nearer, house keys in her hand as she went in the gate. A car door opened, a voice from behind she recognised, even if it had been four months.

Claire, remember me?”

Of course,” she smiled weakly, embarrassed she’d not been in touch. Something stirred inside.

How are you? I hope you don’t mind me coming round, but I hadn’t heard and thought you didn’t want to see me. Maybe you don’t. But I can’t get you out of my mind. We got on well before, I just wondered, well, why don’t we have a drink or something? If it’s not ok, I’ll just go. I’m sorry if I’ve misread you.”

Claire smiled, a sliver of sunlight pierced her darkness.

You’re probably busy, I know you always are…”

This weekend I’m free, actually.”

I’ve got a bottle of red in the car.”

Best you bring it in, then.“

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, Claire and Chris strolled into the town centre to meet a friend of his who he said might be the person to help her. Young, some experience, focused and independent, Julia happened to live behind the station.

She might just be the answer to your prayers.”

And so might you be,” she whispered, kissing his cheek. He pointed to the playground in the park.

Come on, what do you say?”

Thought you’d never ask,” she said, and they ran giggling like kids towards the roundabout.

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