“Today’s the day,” she said.
Alex said nothing. He just nodded, slowly. She was watching him. Karen was always watching him.
“I make it sound like a holiday or something, don’t I?” she said. “Or starting work. Or your first day at school.”
Alex was quiet. He was looking along the tracks. A cold wind blew towards them, and he pulled her tighter to him.
“Do you remember your first day?” said Karen. “At school, I mean?”
He nodded again. “Hated it from the start,” he said. “It smelled funny. I suppose it was the smell of kids. Shit and puke and soap and shampoo. That special shampoo, the one for nits, I’ll never forget that. And shit. This one boy, he must have been ill already, he shouldn’t have come to school at all. God, what a mess he made. We had those little formed wooden chairs in those days, you know, those curved plywood things, and he’d shat himself while he was sitting on one. He stood up and this pile of stuff slid out of his shorts. Made a little cone of brown on his seat. Disgusting. I was nearly sick looking at it, and then the smell came. Jesus Christ! Kids were howling and moaning all over the place. That was day one. School got off to a bad start for me, and it never got any better. I hated it.”
Karen was still looking at him. “That was the biggest set of words I’ve ever heard you say in one go, Alex. Are you okay?”
Alex shrugged. “Yeah, fine,” he said.
Karen nestled her head into his chest. “You’re nervous, aren’t you?”
Alex nodded. Karen didn’t see him nod. She felt the movement of his body. With her head on his chest she could smell his aftershave. Paco Rabanne. Karen had bought it for him last Christmas, three months ago. He’d been dabbing it on every day since then. Alex had bought her a bottle of Chanel Number Five, because she’d once told him it was her favourite. He found out later that she’d never had it before. It was the smallest bottle you could buy, a little eau de toilette spray, but it cost twice as much as Alex could afford. He still owed his mother the money for it. But he’d got it for her, because he loved her. Alex knew this.
“How about you?” said Alex. “Are you okay?”
Karen straightened up and leaned over and kissed him on the lips. Her nose was cold where it touched his cheek. She had long black hair and blue eyes, bright and striking. They were the first thing he’d noticed about her. He’d thought she looked like a witch or a Goth or something until he looked into her eyes. He saw her properly then, the whole of her, full and clear, the minute he looked into her eyes. When they talked later, when he told her what he’d seen, she said she’d felt the same thing about him. Alex knew that wasn’t true. He was an ordinary man, a few years older than her, nothing special to look at. She’d just said that to make him feel special. That was at the Halloween party in town. That was when they’d first got together, five months ago now.
The station was almost deserted. It was getting late, and there were only a few more trains due at this time, some local connections and the through train from Edinburgh. Their train was due in twenty minutes. They’d arrived over half an hour ago. He didn’t like to be late. It was a thing he had.
Karen took hold of his arm and pulled it tight to her. He felt her shiver.
“Are you warm enough?” he said. “Shall we get a coffee or something?”
She shook her head. “I’m alright,” she said. “It isn’t worth bothering now. Cafe’s shut at this time, anyway. Just put your arms around me. That’ll be enough.”
Alex put both his arms around Karen and drew her to him. She was wearing a leather coat, and it felt cold. It made him shiver, too. She looked at him and laughed.
“Right pair, aren’t we?” she said.
Alex smiled and nodded. He looked around again, along the platform. The station lighting seemed to draw all the colour from everything. It gave a falseness to the scene, as though it had been staged. Door slams and hidden voices echoed across the concrete. A man with his hands behind his back stood farther down. He was staring across the tracks into space, rising up on the balls of his feet every now and then. His breath came in slow, regular brumes that dissipated instantly into the evening air. A woman reading a book sat on a bench behind the man. She guarded two small wheeled suitcases on either side of her feet.
Karen followed his gaze. “That could have been us, couldn’t it?” she said. “In a few years time, we could have been like them. Together but not together. Not a couple. Just two people, travelling together through life.”
Alex nodded again. He was still watching the couple.
“I wonder if they have any children,” he said.
Karen stiffened. She broke from his embrace. Sitting up straight and shuffling forward on the bench, she took a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and lit one. Smoke blossomed from her mouth, lingering in the air. Alex looked at her back.
“Don’t be like that, Karen,” he said.
Karen didn’t reply. Alex sat up and shuffled forward beside her. He put his arm around her.
“Come on,” he said. “Don’t be like that. I told you. It doesn’t matter.”
Karen took another drag on her cigarette. “You say that,” she said, “but it must be on your mind. Why would you think about it otherwise?”
Alex rubbed her back. “It’s not, really,” he said. She turned and looked at him. “Honestly, It’s not. It was just something to say. Passing time, that’s all it was.”
“I told you when we met,” she said. “It was one of the first things I told you about me.”
“Yes, I know,” he said. “I remember. You were very honest. You always have been. Let’s drop it now, shall we? I didn’t mean anything, Karen. Swear to god.”
“What’s god got to do with anything?”
Alex shrugged. “Figure of speech,” he said.
Karen sucked on her cigarette. She let the smoke drift out of her nostrils. The wind stole it from her and she leaned back again.
“That’s all he is, though, isn’t he?” she said. “A figure of speech. Something we made up, ordinary people, mortals or whatever, just to torment ourselves with. We imagined him, and our imagination got the better of us. Wonder how many people have died because of that? Because we’ve got such a vivid, warped, terrible imagination? Wouldn’t it be good if we could find a way to prove to all these people, all these believers, that they were wrong? That the thing they believed in was something they just dreamed up, in the past, in a cave or a desert or forest somewhere, one of their ancestors just came up with this mad idea and stuck with it and used it to terrify everyone else into submission. Could we do that, Alex? D’you think we could do that?”
She was looking at the end of her cigarette. The wind was making it glow and flashes of ash and ember blew away towards the tracks. She flicked the butt away and watched it bounce over the platform edge.
“It would be good, wouldn’t it?” said Alex.
“No, but seriously…”
Alex stood up. He walked to the edge of the platform and looked along the track. There was a smell of diesel and oil in the air. A local train was setting off on one of the other tracks, heaving itself from a standing start along shiny metal rails towards a tunnel. The tunnel was dark, though there were dim lights running along the inside of it. The train followed the curve away out of sight. The sound of the train became distant in a few seconds. He looked in the other direction, the direction their train was coming from. There was only a distant darkness.
Karen came and stood beside him. She wrapped her arms around him.
“It’s going to be alright, you know,” she said.
Alex nodded. “I know,” he said.
“Making the decision was the hard bit, wasn’t it?” she said. “Once we’d done that, it was as good as done, wasn’t it? Once we’d committed. We are committed, aren’t we, Alex? Both of us, I mean.”
He nodded again.
“We’re just nervous, that’s all,” she said. “It’s a big thing, isn’t it?”
“What?” she said.
He looked at her and then looked away again. “I just remembered something,” he said.
“Something Bill Shankly said. He was the manager of Liverpool, the one that got them started on the path that led them to where they are now. He was doing an interview and this interviewer says to him, ‘to you, football is a matter of life and death’, and Shankly says ‘it’s more important than that.’ I just remembered that, just now, when you said about it being a big thing. Something more important than life and death.”
He laughed again.
Karen stepped away from him. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared at him.
“This isn’t a game, you know,” she said.
“No,” he said.
He looked at her and mirrored her, wrapping his arms around his body. He stood facing her and looked into her eyes. They shone brightly in the station lighting, and he was lost.
“No,” he said again.
Alex looked up at the illuminated board that showed arrivals and departures at the station.
“Four minutes,” he said.
Karen was still looking at him. “You ready?” she said.
Alex nodded. “You?” he said.
Karen nodded. He saw her blink rapidly. He couldn’t tell if she was holding back tears or if the wind was affecting her. She held out a hand to him. He took the hand and stood by her side. She swapped his hand into her other hand and put her free arm around his back. She leaned into his body.
“I wonder what it’s like,” she said.
“We’ll know soon,” he said.
“I’ve always wondered,” she said. “I’ve always thought about it. From being little, I’ve always wondered what it’s like.”
“I think it’s coming,” said Alex. He was looking along the rails into the darkness.
The station announcer’s voice garbled on the public announcement system. The words were unintelligible but they both listened hard. Alex shook his head.
“No idea what he said,” he said. “That bloody system is crap.”
He felt Karen grip his hand hard. “It’s coming,” she said. Her arm circled tighter around his back. She looked up at him.
“Forever,” she said.
They heard the two-tone banshee moan of the through train in the tunnel and then felt the violent surge of air rammed towards them and saw a barrage of lights hurl out of the darkness with a roar like an explosion.
They surprised each other.
Alex was surprised by the push in his back.
Karen was surprised by the pull on her arm.