The station clock hanging from the wrought iron roof brace seems to have stopped. The dark hands and black numerals of the Victorian timepiece fade behind a grey mist swirling in from the sea. I squint to bring the numbers into focus. Less than three minutes to go.
Come on, John. Breathe. She’ll be here in a minute.
Jayne called earlier, when the train left Euston, so I know she’s aboard. All I can do is wait and hope I can hold myself together until she arrives. The tension hurts like a knife thrust through my stomach, but all I can do is wait.
I try to stay calm, but the thoughts in my head churn. Can I find the right words? Will she say yes? Why is everybody staring at me? Did I brush my teeth properly? Why am I shaking?
I stare up at the near-stationary clock and beg it to tick faster, but Sod’s Law of ‘Screw Me Over’ doesn’t leave me alone and the fog rolls in again, thicker this time.
The temperature drops like a rock thrown from a railway bridge.
I’m wearing my second best rig especially for Jayne. My preferred fashion statement is one I’ve cultivated for the past decade: stonewashed chinos; blue denim shirt; worn trainers. Jayne says the clothes add to my Bohemian façade. She slays me sometimes. My best ensemble, a dark blue business suit, is reserved for special occasions. Like the registry office? Trouble is the denim shirt is too thin. It doesn’t provide much protection from the cold bouncing in chilling waves off the concrete platform. My back’s freezing, but that’s the least of my worries.
A shiver racks through me. Cold sweat tickles my brow.
The elderly woman beside me leans closer. She’s ignoring my personal space, but I forgive her, life’s too short, right? She must have picked up on my nerves because she nods and gives me a comforting smile. “Don’t worry, son. The train’ll be here soon.”
I nod and return the smile. “What’s the time?” I ask surprised how weak my voice sounds. Thirst dries my throat. I could do with a drink, but don’t want to ask. Don’t want to be any trouble.
“Nearly half past.” She looks worried for me.
Must be gone half past by now, surely. I want to confirm the time on my wristwatch but I can’t look. My clenched and trembling fists are the only things holding my knotted stomach together.
“You’re very pale,” says the Good Samaritan.
“I’ll be alright when Jayne gets here.”
“Jayne’s you wife?”
“Not yet. Might be. Let you know in a couple of minutes.”
A shadow falls across her face and she frowns but says nothing.
I stare up at the clock again, but it still hasn’t moved. Is the damned thing broken?
Today started well and for once, improved by the minute.
Jayne phoned after breakfast to confirm she’d booked leave for the whole of next week. I punched the air in silent delight, but played it cool. “That’s good, babe. Guess we can find something to do.”
She lit my morning with one of her infectious giggles. “I can think of plenty of ways to occupy our time, and none of them involves leaving the apartment.”
“Wow,” I replied. “Can’t wait.”
She didn’t know it, but I’d reserved a suite for us in the most expensive hotel I could afford. Not the most expensive in town, of course, but pricey enough.
After her call, I had a manic burst of creativity. I found the ending for the short story I’d been fretting over for nearly a week. The words flew from my mind, through my fingertips, and into the computer. After three edits and a final proof read, I hit the ‘send’ button with a joyous flourish and celebrated with a cup of tea. It’s not that I’m teetotal. I like a drink as much as the next bloke, but at eleven o’clock in the morning? Nah. That way leads to ruin. Time enough for the bubbly stuff later—during the celebration I hoped was coming.
It only took the commissioning editor an hour to accept the submission, and next month’s mortgage was covered. He even accepted my proposal for a monthly series on local walks.
One proposal accepted, and one more to make.
I punched the air again and this time accompanied it with a whoop of joy. Before finishing for the day, I completed another chapter of my book. Things couldn’t have been better. Five more chapters I’d be able to type those words all writers love, The End. Then the hard graft will start, the edits, and the re-edits, but that’s another story. I hadn’t felt as good in years. Everything was tumbling into place.
Two hours spent cleaning the flat and fifteen minutes to shave filled the rest of the afternoon. Jayne would barely recognise me without the designer stubble, but I wanted to make the day special.
The sun beat down and warmed my world.
On the way to the station, after smiling and nodding at each passing stranger, I collected the sapphire engagement ring from the jeweller’s and placed it carefully in my button-down shirt pocket. The stone match my Jayne’s cornflower-blue eyes, I couldn’t have chosen better. Didn’t even mind that I’d be paying for the blooming thing for the next twenty years.
The cross-town walk to the station gave me the chance to rehearse my speech. On the way, I had second thoughts about the location. A railway station didn’t seem like the most romantic place for a proposal, but I couldn’t think of a more suitable venue. Jayne and I met under the clock three years ago to the day. You might say we bumped into each other, although after seeing her on the same train every day for a week, I made sure to time my exit from the train just right. I’m clever like that.
I paused at the concessionary stands on the station concourse long enough to pick up a small bunch of pink carnations, Jayne’s favourite, and marched towards the ticket barrier.
My nerves jumped.
Pete, the railway guard who’d known Jayne and me since our first meeting, winked and pointed to the flowers. “Bloody hell Johnny, you’re splashing out a bit. Special occasion or guilty conscience?”
I showed him the ring.
“Wow! Who’d you steal that from?”
“Cheeky bugger!’ I clapped his arm and threw him a hurt look. “I’ve been saving up for months to make the deposit on this hunk of rock.”
“Beautiful, mate,” he flicked a glance to his left and frowned. “Better put it away though, it ain’t safe here.”
“Don’t worry on my account, mate. I can handle myself.”
I pushed through the barrier and sidestepped a scruffy-looking man, a big guy with a ponytail and a wizard’s beard, who staggered along the platform.
Pete screamed a warning.
A hand on my shoulder pulled me around and I stumbled. Wizard-man, spat in my face. “I’ll have that, fucker,” he said.
His arm swung left to right at waist height, something brushed my shirt. He snatched the little red box from my hand before I knew what was happening.
What the fuck?
The energy drained out of me as though flushed from a cistern. I started to shake. Something wet splashed on the concrete at my feet. I stared down at the eight-inch gash in my stomach. Offal spewed out of my belly like a spilled can of sausages-in-tomato-sauce.
Jesus! What the hell? Oh God, no. Not now.
I collapsed and had to use both hands to hold the loose flaps of my belly together. Blood and guts oozed between my fingertips. I vomited over my nice clean shirt.
Everything hurt. My vision dimmed.
The haze clears for a second and the clock reads seven-thirty-three. The train’s late. Of course it’s bloody late.
I’m still hanging on, but it’s a toss-up for who’ll reach me first, the train, the ambulance, or the hearse.
The concerned old dear, the Good Samaritan, leans over me with sadness and worry in her eyes. Her skin is as pale as mine feels. I try to say something fit for an epitaph, but my mind’s woozy and the thoughts won’t gel. What’s the use of a writer who can’t think of anything to say.
Looking on the bright side, the publicity might do something for my posthumous book sales. Dying didn’t do Stieg Larsson’s sales any harm. Yeah, right? Who’s going to know, or care? Who but Jayne? And maybe Pete.
I’m going into shock, I can hear Angels. No, it’s the train’s horn.
Pete’s standing over me, eyes glistening. “Ambulance is on its way, mate. Hang on. We got the drunken bastard, he didn’t get far. Here’s your ring.”
He holds up something red but it’s out of focus, I can’t see it properly.
“Need … Jayne … soon.”
Pete can’t hear me, I’m trying to shout above the noise in the station and the babble of onlookers, but my voice is weak, coming out as a whisper.
“What did you say?”
He kneels and I speak into his ear. “Jayne… hurry.”
A tear drops from Pete’s cheek and splashes onto mine. My vision’s going. I can’t see the clock any more, or the station roof. Pete and the Good Samaritan fade and blur, but the sound of steel scraping on steel registers clear and loud.
“It’s here, Johnny, the train’s here! I’ll go fetch her.”
Colours fade to grey and white. I struggle to breathe. My fingers are numb but I don’t let go. I can’t let go.
“Johnny!” Jayne’s silhouette casts a shadow. Hair brushes my face. Her perfume blots out the iron-rich stench of my blood.
She’s here. I made it. I can go now.
“Love you, babe … marry me?” I manage. Pete hands her something red.
“Oh, God … yes, darling, yes. Just stay with me,” she cries and brushes her lips against mine. The two-tone ambulance siren drowns out her next words.
I want to reach out and touch her face, but I daren’t or I’ll lose my grip and my grip’s the only thing holding me together.
My hands relax. I give way to the light.