The open rail crossing in the woods behind Wellington College.
Here’s a short story I wrote when I was still living in England. Every day, on my writing-walk, I went passed an open rail crossing tucked into the woods behind Wellington College. It inspired me to write this encounter between a group of very ordinary but very special people. It’s about that magic moment when our lives cross with those of strangers. I hope you enjoy it.
The Crossing by Virginia Macgregor
A mother walks behind her two-year-old along a country lane. The boy totters towards the train crossing, his arms stretched wide for balance; he lifts his feet high off the ground as if, at any moment, he might take off. The mother has tied reins in the form of wings to his back; they flap against his shoulder blades.
In front of them, bright scissors of rail stretch through the fields.
They take this walk every day, between the boy’s lunch and his nap. A loop, which starts in the village, spills into the lane, curves up the hill and down through the woods and then takes them home again, to their flat above the station. And every day, about half way through their walk, they stop to watch the 12.07 clatter past.
The mother and the boy walk even when it rains or snows, even when they are blown to the side of the lane by the wind. Even when it’s so hot, like today, that their blood swells thick under their skin.
A good walk to tire you out, the mother says. So you’ll have a nice, long nap.
She needs him to sleep. An hour or two for her to breathe.
Sweat gathers at the base of her spine and the sun beats down on her black hair. She should have put on the light veil her father laid out for her; it would have given her some protection. It used to be your mother’s, he told her.
Ever since her husband walked out, her father’s been helping her piece herself together again, offering the comfort of prayer and meditation and the shielding of cloth. She’s coming to understand the comfort of his faith.
She pulls at her son’s reins: ‘Slow down…’
The boy shakes his head and shimmies his shoulders, trying to be free of the straps. As his mother’s body draws closer, he walks faster, a stumbling kind of run, thick rubber soles slapping the hot tarmac.
A butterfly dances in front of the boy’s eyes. He snatches at it and then tries to trap it between his palms, but it flutters through his fingers.
Then the boy notices the dog on the other side of the tracks, near where the old man is sitting on the bench. He’s seen the dog walking around the village on his own, no lead, no owner, no one to tell him what to do. Lucky Dog.
‘That!’ the boy shouts, pointing across the tracks. ‘That dog! My dog!’
The dog sniffs at the dustbin next to the bench where the old man is sitting. Rough, silver fur, a nicked ear. When he breathes, his ribs push at the surface of his skin. He lifts his paws onto the rim of the dustbin and, with his long muzzle, pulls out a grease-stained paper bag and tears it open. Flies buzz around his face. And a red butterfly lands on his nose. He swats his tongue at it and shakes his head until it’s gone.
‘Leave that,’ the old man says. He holds out a bit of his wife’s sandwich.
But the dog doesn’t listen. He nuzzles at the bag, breathing in the smell of old meat, warmed by the sun.
‘Have it your own way,’ the old man says with a laugh. ‘You daft dog.’
The dog settles down to eat, but just then, the earth begins to thrum under his paws. Dropping the bag, he lifts his head. He thumps his tail against the hard earth and twitches his nose at the air.
The thrumming under the dog’s feet gets stronger; it fills his whole body and then slots in behind his heartbeat: a thrum and a chug and the rush of blood in his ears.
He looks down at the crossing.
A dot of a boy, blue wings on his back, his mother running after him. And, in the distance, a metal body snaking its way through the fields.
Next to the dog, the old man turns the pages of his newspaper. His warm fingers smudge the print. He feels the space beside him on the bench, the same lightness he carries with him wherever he goes. Once they were retired, they would come here every day. With no children or grandchildren or any other family to speak of, they needed these small rituals to structure their days. Two pairs of scuffed walking shoes, her feet tiny next to his. Two flasks. Two sandwiches (ham salad for him; tuna for her). A newspaper to share.
They’d found it funny, this strange little bench planted on the slope which rose from the railway crossing. Maybe, at different time, there’d been something to see. They liked it here more than just about anywhere else in the world.
We’ll die here, one day, he’d say to her.
Don’t be so morbid. She’d flap her hand at him and then she’d lean in and kiss his forehead. She’d mastered it to a fine art, this simultaneous loving and scolding. No more talk of dying, do you hear?
She didn’t believe much in death.
It’s not morbid, he’d insist. It’s romantic. He came alive the day he met her; it seemed only right that they should end their lives together.
They’d had this conversation many times.
We’ll be sitting here when we’re a hundred – or older. And after we’ve had our tea and sandwiches, we’ll read for a bit and then we’ll hold hands and nod off and slip away…together.
He looks down at his paper spread out on his thighs, and reads the headline.
Baby Boom Sweeps Through Britain.
He would have hidden this article from her. She mourned the ghost children they never had, would have dug graves for them, given half a chance.
He lifts his cap and wipes his brow. A heat wave is what the paper said. He no longer understands the weather: one day his lungs ache from breathing in the cold air; the next, he’s tossing and turning, too hot to sleep. Everything’s so jumbled up these days.
The dog has abandoned his paper bag, and is barking now. He followed the old man through the woods, stopping to sniff at foxholes and bushes before catching him up again. The old man has seen the dog hanging around the tracks a few times this week, like he’s waiting for a train to stop and let him on board. A thin dog, flea-ridden and mangy, no doubt.
I know, I know… the old man whispers to his wife. But I can barely take care of myself, what would I do with a dog?
With her soft spot for strays, she’d have taken him home in a heartbeat.
The dog thumps his tale harder. He’s growling now, a low rumble like thunder. And then he starts whining. A whole orchestra of sound in that thin body.
‘What is it?’ the old man asks.
But the dog is already tearing down the hill towards the tracks.
‘Daft dog,’ he says again, shaking his head.
On the other side of the crossing, the toddler points at the dog and cries:
‘Mine Doggie! Mine Doggie!’
The boy falls over his clumsy feet. A gash blossoms on his knee, but he gets straight back up and keeps running.
His mother is shouting now: ‘Stop! Come back!’
But the boy’s not listening.
The old man has seen them around town: the woman and her boy and the boy’s grandfather. His wife liked them, had planned to have them round for tea. She felt drawn to their faith, a gentler, kinder way of being in the world than the older faiths. I could convert, she’d joked. I think I’d quite suit a turban. Maybe he should invite them round. But he hasn’t had a visitor in months. It all feels like too much: cleaning the house, getting in fresh milk, sorting out the mugs and the teaspoons and the sugar bowl.
It’ll cheer you up, love…she says.
I’ll see, I’ll see.
He can see her rolling her eyes.
In the distance, at the end of the lane, the old man notices a girl jogging towards the crossing. She’s as thin as the dog. As thin as his wife got, towards the end. And she has the same wild, red, hair – so bright under the midday sun that it looks like it’s on fire.
You have the most beautiful hair in the world, he told her. He could never have seen himself with a dull blonde or brunette. My beautiful redhead.
He knows that she’s looking at the girl too. She leans in and whispers in his ear:
Invite her over. Make her a nice cup of tea.
She was a fixer by nature. Worked at the pharmacy in the village, slipped customers small bags of dried herbs and tinctures. Nature’s the best healer, she’d tell them. At a different time, she might have been hounded out of the village as a witch. But the people here loved her.
Even at this distance, the old man thinks he hears the beat leaking from the girl’s headphones. His hearing aid has a mind of its own: it chews up words spoken right in front of him and fills his brain with the twittering of a bird sitting high up on an electricity wire.
On the other side of the crossing, the running girl’s eyes are far away. She doesn’t see the old man or the boy or his mother or the dog.
She looks at her watch. 12.04. She’s been running for 50 minutes. Her aim, today, is to make it to an hour. 415 calories. Maybe more because it’s so hot. Her t-shirt is drenched, her mouth dry, her freckled arms pink from the sun.
When she gets home she’ll go straight to the bathroom and take off all her clothes and stand on the scales. She’ll breathe in, screw shut her eyes and make a wish as she waits for the digits to settle. And when she opens her eyes, she’ll feel that thrill, like electricity rushing through her veins: every day a little closer.
And then she’ll go to the kitchen and toast a piece of rye bread, cut up a tomato, a few slices of cucumber. And some celery. Celery is her magic food: empty calories, her body burning more than it consumes as it digests those thick, green stalks.
A butterfly hovers in front of her in the air. She closes her eyes, hoping to feel a breeze from its flapping wings. But when she opens her eyes, it’s gone.
She hears barking: it pushes in through her headphones and drowns out the music. She looks up at the grey dog; he’s standing in the middle of the crossing now. She’s seen him before, up by the churchyard sniffing at the graves. Maybe she could adopt him. It would be like having a brother or sister, someone to share the burden of her parents’ worry.
Who needs another child when we have you? Her mother said once, when the girl asked why she didn’t have any siblings. You’re enough to keep us busy for a lifetime.
Her mother and father hadn’t understood that they weren’t enough for her.
Yes, if she sees the dog again tomorrow, she’ll take him home.
She turns up the music on her iPod and runs harder.
The train conductor looks at the clock: 12h05m30s. Two more minutes and they’ll be pulling into the station he calls home, the end of his shift. It was long night: engineering works, a signal failure, passengers banging on his door as though he could do anything about it. And the heat didn’t help.
I pride myself on my punctuality, he wanted announce over the loud speaker. If I were one of the Mr Men from my grandson’s books, I’d be Mr On Time!
But passengers were angrier these days. A raw impatience. A time-is-money attitude. No acknowledgement of the things that went right, of how many times he got them to where they needed to be, safely and on time.
He slips his fingers under his white turban and brushes the sweat off his forehead. He’s glad to be retiring soon. In two weeks, he’ll do his final shift and when he steps onto the platform for the last time, he’ll receive a gold watch. It’s company policy, for those who’ve done twenty years or more. Funny, when you think about it, the gift of a watch for a man who’ll no longer have any need to tell the time.
He looks at the picture of his grandson stuck next to the clock, his beautiful boy and then squints down the tracks. Usually he can spot the barriers going down from here, but today a haze shimmers off the rails. He blinks and looks harder but still can’t see the crossing.
By the crossing, the mother calls out again:
‘I told you to stop!’ She grabs at the boy’s reins and then at his collar and, at last, he stops running.
‘Choo-choo train!’ the boy says, pointing down the tracks and pulling away from her. ‘Choo-choo train.’
She feels dizzy from the heat, would do anything to stand under a cool shower or to go for a swim. Some people in the village have swimming pools, the rich people who live in the big houses. She bets they hardly use them. For a moment, she imagines herself scaling the walls of their gardens. She pictures the rich men and women standing on their patios, watching the strange Indian woman and her little boy, floating, fully dressed, in their pool.
The mother and the little boy look down the tracks and wait for the red lights to flash, for the beeping, for the white barriers to fall.
She likes this part of their daily routine: standing here, holding his small, soft hand as they wait for the train to shoot past, how the clattering drowns out her thoughts, the rush of air so strong that it makes them gasp and jump back.
She looks at the sign:
How many times had she knelt beside him and explained those words?
Across the tracks and up the hill she sees the old man sitting on the bench. She used to know his wife, a sweet old lady who never failed to ask after her little boy. She’d comment on his dark mop of hair – so much hair for a newborn. And she’d comment on how quickly he grew, how soon he learnt to smile, how many words he learnt. Such an advanced child.
And the old woman had observed other things too. Like when the mother was lost in that post-birth fog, a fog that thickened when her husband left. And on these days, the old woman left flowers on the mother’s doorstep: daffodils or tulips or snowdrops, depending on the time of year.
I’ve found that flowers help, the old woman said. And she was right, they did. For as long as they lasted.
And then, just like that, she was gone.
The mother raises her hand and waves at the old man.
‘Hello!’ she calls over.
He looks at her, smiles and touches his yellow cap.
‘Want, beep, beep,’ her little boy says, pointing at the barriers. ‘Want, beep, beep.’
The mother looks at her watch. 12.07.
‘In a minute, darling.’ She takes his hand and pulls him back. ‘Be patient.’
‘Not pat-ent,’ the boy says, stamping his feet and yanking his hand out of hers. A flash of her husband in his small face. ‘Want beep, beep.’
It’s started, that wearing stubbornness. No longer her baby to do with as she pleases.
The mother looks up the tracks. It is a little strange. Usually, by the time her little boy spots the nose of the train swerving into the field, the red lights are flashing and the barriers are coming down and yes, there’s a beeping, as regular as the chiming of the clock on the church spire in the village. A Christian clock and still, her father uses it to guide his early rising, three hours before dawn, his bathing, his meditating.
Behind the mother, the running girl looks at the barriers, still up: she’s grateful that she made it before the train. In a couple of minutes she’ll be crossing the tracks, making good time, nearly home.
She loves the freedom of running in the middle of the day. No more school, not until the number on the scales go up, Mum said. And as the girl has no intention of letting that happen, this deal suits her just fine.
When all this had started Mum had tried to understand. For the first time in her life, she’d taken time off work.
I didn’t even take maternity leave, Mum boasted to whoever was happy to listen. At three weeks old, she’d handed over her baby, along with a tin of formula and a bag of nappies, to the first in a long line of nannies.
So yeah, it had surprised people when Mum took a break from work to be with her starving fifteen-year-old daughter.
She’d dragged her to psychiatrists and ordered boxes of books about eating disorders from Amazon. She even joined online forums – and Mum didn’t do social media. But the girl just got thinner. And soon, Mum was climbing the walls, her mobile going mad at all the missed calls from colleagues and clients. So she went back to work and adopted a new approach. No more softly, softly.
If you don’t eat, you’ll die, Mum chanted, like she was the chorus in one of those Greek plays the girl had studied at school.
This, the girl understood, was the scare-tactic phase. Maybe, phase three would be leaving her alone altogether.
Anyway, so as not to add fuel to the fire, the girl would make sure that, well before Mum came home, she’d have a shower and wipe down the glass and dry her hair and hide her sweaty running clothes. And she’d leave out a plate, with crumbs, to satisfy Mum that she’d eaten something.
Dad dealt with it another way: he pretended that nothing had changed. Talked to her like she wasn’t disappearing right in front of his eyes.
On the bench overlooking the tracks, the old man looks at the mother and the little boy. The boy strains at his lead, points his toe at the tracks and then looks back to check his mother’s reaction.
Cheeky monkey, the wife whispers into the old man’s ear. Shouldn’t the barriers have come down yet? she asks him.
He checks his watch: 12.07.
He’s getting old. Forgetting words for things. Last week, he woke up to find the freezer door open, a pool of cold water on the linoleum, the peas soft, the fish-fingers soggy in their cardboard. And yesterday, after looking for his keys for well over an hour, he’d found them on the outside lock of the front door: anyone could have walked in.
Yes, he was forgetting things.
But this walk, the trains, the falling of the barriers, came under a knowing that went back to some primal part of his brain, the same part that allowed him to remember the blue dress she wore on their first date, how it pinched in at her waist, how the short sleeves fell soft over her arms.
You noticed the sleeves? She whispers.
He nods. Of course.
He looks back down at the barriers. They really should have come down by now.
The running girl is getting close to the mother and the little boy.
On the bench, in the empty seat beside the old man, a butterfly perches on the wild flowers he collected on his way through the woods. Buttercups and forget-me-nots and meadow-sweat and a few poppies too. They’re wilting now, under the hot sun.
The butterfly beats its wings like a pulse, and drifts off again.
In a few minutes, when the train has passed, the old man will fold up his paper, screw tight the lid of his thermos, get hold of his cane, and bend his creaky knees until he’s standing. And then he’ll continue on his pilgrimage.
He closes his eyes and charts the walk they took together:
It started on the doorstep of their two-bedroom cottage at the top of the high street. They took out a mortgage thirty-five years ago today, the day they got married. And a month ago, he made the last payment. He wishes she could have hung on long enough to know how it felt – to walk around the rooms, knowing that they were theirs now: ours for keeps, he’d whispered to her through the empty house.
From their doorstep, they would head out of the village to the place where the grass grew high and the trees stood thick and the birds sang low and deep. They would follow the river and she’d collect the wild flowers she loved. Then, they’d come out through the clearing, into the open fields, sometimes thin and stubbled, sometimes high with sheaths of corn, sometimes, in mid-winter, thick with sticky mud. And then they’d get to their bench, overlooking the tracks. And on their walk back home, they’d stop, sometimes, to deliver a flower or two to someone who needed it.
When he gets back to the house today, he’ll make one more stop: the cemetery by the church in the village square. He’ll kneel down and pull up the weeds from her grave and brush away fallen leaves and trace the letters of her name on her headstone. He’ll avoid looking at the dates, because they betrayed him. They were meant to go together, or, at the very least, he was meant to go first.
And because today, all those years ago, was the day he said, I do…for better…for worse…forever… he’ll place his bunch of wild flowers by her headstone, and hope that, wherever she is now, they’ll help her.
He shifts his gaze to the little boy by the crossing.
That child is too close to the tracks, she whispers. What’s his mother thinking?
She’d have been a worrying, fussing kind of mother. It’s what happens when you’ve wait too long for the thing you love: you expect, at any moment, to lose it.
He turns down his hearing aid and closes his eyes.
Over by the crossing, the music in the running girl’s ears is drowned out by the chug and bolt of the train. Disoriented by the noise, she crashes into the mother.
‘Sorry,’ she says, out of breath.
But the mother doesn’t answer. Her eyes are fixed on her little boy. The reins slip out of her fingers and he runs to the STOP! LOOK! LISTEN! sign. He touches it, like it’s a game of tag, and then runs back to her and throws himself into the folds of her skirt.
‘Stop that,’ the mother says, holding out a finger.
Leave him alone, the girl wants to say. It’s only a game.
The girl bends over and presses a palm into her abdomen to ease the stitch. She hates it when her body lets her down. She hates stopping.
She yanks her headphones off and looks down the tracks. The train is getting closer. If she doesn’t hurry and cross, she’ll have to wait for the barriers and that will ruin her run. Just as she’s about to set off again, she sees the old man standing up and waving his newspaper. And the dog, barking at the tracks, his mouth as wide and black as a cave. And the mother, holding out her arm.
The little boy runs towards the train.
‘Grandpa! Grandpa!’ the boy cries out, waving frantically at the train.
The little boy knew there had to be a reason why the barriers didn’t go down: Grandpa wanted to see him close up, not from the road or from the other side of those silly white poles.
Very soon, the little boy will be three, and on that day, Grandpa has promised to take him into the driver’s bit of the train. He’ll sit him on his lap and let him push and pull at the buttons. When he’s grown up, the little boy is going to be a train driver, like Grandpa. And he’s going to wear a white turban too.
Later, after the walk and his nap and after playing a bit with his wooden train set in the lounge, they’re going to have tea together in the flat they share with Grandpa. The boy once asked Mama why they lived above the choo-choo trains and she said: Grandpa likes to keep an eye on them. Which made the boy think that Grandpa was in charge of all the trains in the world.
But for now, the little boy wants to wave at the train, to say Hello! And it’s coming closer.
The ground shakes under his feet. Soon, grandpa will put the breaks on, and then his train will stop, and he’ll open the door to his carriage and step out and swing him onto his shoulders and say to all the passengers:
‘Look – this is my grandson, my little man, my best boy.’
The rumbling gets louder. The ground shakes harder.
Grandpa is sounding his horn now. On his birthday, the little boy will be allowed to do that too:
‘Hi Grandpa!’ the boy calls out, stumbling over the tracks.
He feels so hot from running and waving that his head spins, like at the park when he’s been on the merry-go-round for too long.
Behind him, the dog barks. Maybe he’s come to see Grandpa too.
From the crossing, Mama yells at him, telling him to come back. But she’s always doing that. Saying things like: Stop. Listen. Slow down…
He can hear her running after him now, her shoes clip clopping on the tracks. But she’s slow, she won’t catch him.
‘Run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man,’ the little boy sings.
He keeps running towards the train; the chord from his reins trail along the tracks.
And then he stops and, for a second he looks up at the old man: he’s standing on the bench and waving his newspaper at the train. His hair is a mess, and his lips are tight over his teeth and he’s shouting Stop! like Mama.
And from the corner of his eyes, he sees the running girl. She never, ever stops running: she runs along the high street and she runs along the river and she runs through the fields and she runs along the railway tracks and she runs through the woods and around the church yard. And because the little boy always sees her when he’s out walking with Mama, he thinks she must be running all the time, even when he’s not there to see it. And she runs really fast, faster than anyone at school. Sometimes, he looks behind her to check that she’s not running away from a dragon or a fire.
The running girl is waving at him, like Mama and the old man. And she’s saying ‘Stop!’ too.
Why does no one want him to say Hi to Grandpa?
His head spins faster and his skin feels so hot it’s like the sun’s shining out from inside his body.
He looks back up the tracks and squints his eyes to see if he can spot Grandpa in the front window of the train.
And he does see Grandpa, but it’s not the Grandpa he’s used to. This Grandpa has a red face and he’s screaming his head off about something that the little boy can’t hear because he’s too far way and there’s a thick sheet of train-glass between them.
Maybe he’s cross at the passengers. Maybe they’ve been Hidiots again.
The train is close now; the boy feels a change in the air. The hot smell of metal. The chugging so loud it’s like his head is going to explode. Chugging and hooting and all the shouting from Mama and the running girl and the old man waving so hard the boy thinks he might fall off the bench.
His heart beats faster. He feels sick.
He wants to go back to Mama now, his legs won’t move.
Closing his eyes, he feels his body sway. Red and yellow fireworks flash behind his eyelids.
‘Mama…’ he says, but his voice is swallowed up by all the noise.
And then a warm-breath brushes the back of bare legs. And there’s a tugging at his shorts. And then he’s flat on his front, gravel digging into the side of his face, his lip split from the fall. Blood in his mouth. And a moment later he’s being dragged across the tracks.
The running girl throws up on the burnt grass.
The mother crumples to the ground and hangs her head.
The old man gets down from the bench and sits down. He holds his palms to his chest. His whole body is shaking.
Breathe my love, she whispers to him. Long, slow breaths…
The dog lies down and drops his head onto his paws. His tongue lolls between slack jaws. His eyes are bloodshot. His ribs rise and fall, his breath erratic.
As the breaks of the train tighten on the tracks, the thrumming under his paws slows and softens. Just before the station, at the far end of the field, the train stops.
And beside him, the little boy rolls over and sits up and stares at the tail end of the train, his eyes wide.
The running girl wipes her mouth and takes a breath. She walks over the side of the tracks and kneels beside the mother. The mother’s shoulders are shaking and there’s a gash on her wrist from her fall.
‘It’s okay,’ the girl whispers. ‘It’s all okay now.’ She touches the woman’s chin and lifts it. ‘He’s fine.’
They both look down the tracks. In the field, the little boy sits next to the dog. He’s smiling and shaking his head and pointing to where the train went.
‘Come on.’ The girl takes the mother’s hands and pulls her up.
Together, they walk down the tracks.
The girl sits down next to the dog and puts her arms around him and listens to his heart beating.
‘You’re a hero,’ she whispers into his soft, grey ears.
The dog licks her hand and then flops down again, resting his head on her lap.
The mother lifts the little boy off the ground and presses him hard against her chest. She kisses his cheeks and forehead and his little chin and his nose. She wants to make sure that all of him is still here, her boy.
‘Did Mama see?’
The mother nods, slowly.
The mother nods again. She should be shouting at him and shaking him and telling him that he must listen to her when she says Stop! That he mustn’t run away from her. That train tracks are dangerous. But all she can do is kiss him and hold him tight.
A breeze drifts along the tracks and, for the first time today, the running girl and the dog and the mother and the boy, all breathe.
The four of them walk up the hill. They stop by the old man on the bench.
‘Did you see?’ the little boy asks the old man. ‘Choo-choo train?’
The old man nods and smiles. ‘Yes, I saw.’ He rubs his knees and then rubs his brow. Then he looks at the running girl. ‘Are you heading back to the village?’ he asks her.
‘Will you take these for me?’ He picks up the wild flowers, their head bowed, and holds them out to her. ‘Put them on the grave by the yew tree.’
The girl takes the flowers. ‘Of course.’
‘Thank you,’ the old man says. And then he sits back and closes his eyes and feels the sun warm on his face. He’s going to stay here and doze for a little while.
As the old man sinks into sleep, the boy and the mother and the girl and the dog walk to the village. And down by the crossing, the red lights start flashing and beeping and the barriers come down and a ghost train rumbles through.
The train driver stands on the platform, his legs weak. His fists tight at his sides.
Why didn’t the barriers come down? He wants to shout at the sky. At God.
He takes a long breath to still his mind.
‘Grandpa! Grandpa!’ His little man throws himself at his legs and buries his face in his trousers. Then he looks up, his hair ruffled. ‘Why not Grandpa stop?’
The train driver’s muscles relax.
He looks over at his daughter. She shrugs her shoulders and gives him a tired smile, as if to say that nothing matters now, that their little one is okay.
‘I’m not really allowed to stop in the middle of a field,’ he says, lifting his grandson off the ground and holding him up so that they’re face to face. ‘Maybe next time you can wait for me at the station.’
The boy nods and then holds out his hand and strokes his Grandpa’s turban.
‘I’d better get home,’ the running girl says, the dog at her heels. ‘See you around.’
They watch the girl walking down the high street, the dog at her heels. And then they go up the back stairs to their flat above the station.
The train driver goes to his room, draws the curtains, takes off his shoes and lies back on his bed. For a long time he stares at the ceiling. Through the wall, he listens to the mother reading the boy a story before his nap, later than usual today. What a day for a little man, he thinks.
When the little boy is asleep, the mother goes to check on her father. She tiptoes into his room and stands for a while by his bed. His eyes are closed, his thick eyelashes brush the tops of his cheeks. His hair, longer than hers, flows over his pillow. And beside him on the bedside table sits his turban.
She walks into the small lounge, steps over her son’s wooden train tracks and sits down, cross-legged, on the carpet. She brings the tips of her thumbs to the tips of her second fingers, closes her eyes and waits for her mind to still.
A butterfly flits in through the open window and settles on one of her palms. It sits there for a very long time, beating its wings and then, just before she opens her eyes, it flies away again.
Down in the village, the running girl and the dog walk to the church. They stop at the old lady’s grave and the girl places the wild flowers by the headstone. She closes her eyes for a second, feeling that it’s the right thing to do. And then she and the dog head back to her parents’ house. She’s going to make the dog some lunch, feed him up and get him strong. And then she’s going to call her parents and tell them what happened and talk to them about the dog and that she wants to keep him. He’ll help me, she’ll tell them. Like he helped the little boy.
Later that afternoon, as the sun drops behind the village, as the heat of the day dissolves into a warm breeze, the old man sits on his bench above the crossing.
His hands rest in his lap and his eyes are closed.
He’s walking through the forest, carpeted with bluebells and snowdrops. She’s ahead of him, bent low, picking the stems one by one. Then she turns and smiles.
Come on, slow coach…she calls over to him.
His heart slows.
And then stops altogether.
A butterfly swoops down and sits on his knee. For a while, it stays there, flapping its wings in the warm afternoon breeze.