'Intercity', illustrated by Orla Kennedy.

Fortnightly Fiction | Intercity

I was travelling home for Christmas, dithering, and just made the last train. As usual, I had two choices. I could get off more or less halfway and spend the weekend with my exhaustively predictable father or go much further, a long way towards the end of the line, and pass the festive time in the company of my neurotic, paranoid mother. If I chose my mother’s stop my father would later come on the phone asking me to explain why I preferred spending time with a crazywoman. If I chose my father’s stop my mother would later come on the phone threatening loneliness, aneurysms, and hell on earth with her beloved spatula. It was a no-win situation and my travel plans always brought out the worst in my unhappy parents. If I had any sense of my own I would have sought out a remote corner of the world, a corner that had never heard of Christmas or trains or telephones. But I didn’t have any sense. Like most sixteen-year-olds what I knew was next door to nothing.

The train was soon cruising, and I sat back and let my body adjust to the rhythmic motion. The conductor passed through and punched tickets. A trolley arrived with sandwiches and drinks. Across the aisle from me sat a young woman reading a book. She was a few years older than me, and she sat very straight in her seat, regal and elegant, a queen upon her throne. She had black hair, tied-up with a blue ribbon, the highest cheekbones I had ever seen and dangling from her ears a set of red sea-horses that shook gently with the motion of the train. She had the whitest complexion; calm, precise-looking lips, and a beauty spot above her right cheekbone, the side visible to me. Every couple of minutes or so, she brought a finger to her lips and used the moistened tip to flip to the next page of her book. A young man of around her own age sat opposite her. He was looking at her in such a way that made it clear she was a new face for his catalogue, someone with whom he would like to strike up a conversation, go halves with on hours of dim light and candles and whispered adoration. After that, who knew. He ordered a can of beer from the trolley, rummaged for some coins to pay. He set the can down on the tray-table he shared with the young woman and resumed his staring. He was now trying to catch her eye. But the book she was reading made for an awkward barrier and so he started to adjust his position in his seat. He slid down a little, then moved to the left, then to the right. He tried sitting up straight — like the young woman — and catch her eyes over the top of her book. But it was hopeless. She was glued to her reading.

I half-smiled and looked away from them. Trees, fields, farm buildings skidded by. I thought of where I would end up this night. This was during my parents’ third spell of completely ignoring each other from one end of the year to the other and correctly guessing their state of mind at any given moment was like trying to pin a dart to the wind. My father was a reader too. His claim to fame was that he had read 1,468 books on twentieth century military lunatics. He never missed a new title hot off the presses, was never slow to share his ever-expanding fountain of despotic knowledge. My mother often prayed to her voodoo charms (cactus plant, pin cushion, collection of bloodstones) that he would take this knowledge onto one of those television quiz shows – Mastermind, for example — so that she could pelt clumps of overcooked spinach at his noggin from the comforts of her sitting room. If they had to encounter my parents, Hitler and Stalin would have turned around and ran for miles. And here I was – a teenage bundle of fret and confusion – trying to decide which one with whom to spend Christmas day. I wished there were other brothers and sisters to spread among them. Off-buttons I could press. Oh, well. I would leave tonight’s destination undecided for now.

When I looked again his eyes had bulged and he was devouring her. Her face. Her arms. Her curves. Her tied-up hair. She was immersed in her reading and didn’t notice. From time to time he flicked a hand through his own hair. First the left hand. Then the right. Then both hands together. He still hadn’t opened the can of beer. I figured he was saving it for a celebration, for when he managed to crack this ice queen sitting opposite him. He sighed a little. Frustrated. Impatient. He was a good-looking fellow, with the kind of face used to attracting the sort of attention he was now having to dole out; no doubt about it, he wasn’t used to this kind of non-reaction. This was a brush-off like he had never experienced. She touched her finger off her moist lip, turned a page in her book and he audibly gasped. Nothing. By now the train had rolled into my father’s stop. I was curious to see how this cat-and-mouse would play out and decided to stay aboard.



The train wasn’t fully out of the station when my phone buzz-buzzed. I’m parked around the side. Approximately another minute elapsed before a second message came through. Between the yellow Beetle and the army-green Mitsubishi. Hot on its heel a third arrived. Army-green SUZUKI. The best part of two further minutes passed before a fourth message landed. Don’t tell me you are still on the train! I slid the phone into my pocket while briefly wondering were there any new Benito Mussolini biographies I could use to soften his bristle.

The train picked up speed again. The drinks trolley made another patrol. The neighbouring carriage struck up a festive note. Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All the Way. The young woman continued her reading while, in turn, her admirer massaged his can of beer, flicked his hair, shifted about in his seat and sighed that ever bit louder.

During the first stand-off between them I had travelled to World War 1 battlefields with my father where I had stood in the shadows of looming poplars and listened to him harangue in the manner of one of his demented heroes. I had spent significant spells throughout the second stand-off reading long, dramatic letters from my mother lamenting the various ways life was chipping away at her and of conclusions drawn: There is a crack moving across my bedroom ceiling. Slugs are taking over the kitchen. I smell burning rubber all the time. And would you believe that just last week I didn’t recognise myself in a photograph. I wouldn’t mind but I was the only person in the photograph. Better days are coming – they are called Doomsday and I forget the other one. I’m going to learn the tango and move to Buenos Aires. ‘I tell you, son,’ my father said to me in all sincerity when he accidentally-on-purpose discovered among my things the letter containing that last bit and then waved it in my face. ‘This woman’s river no longer runs all the way to the sea.’   

He stared at his can of beer and began tapping it off the tray-table. Nothing. He gripped the can, raised it, and let it drop down onto the table. Still nothing. He rolled the beer can along the table and when it reached the edge he made no attempt to prevent its fall. And fall it did, landing with a dull thud. It could have been a bomb for all she cared. It could have blown open a hole in the carriage floor.

It was now fully dark. Beyond the carriage window I made a vague attempt to decipher the poem comprising the Christmas scene whizzing by, but could make out nothing save for my reflection cast from the carriage light, and the young woman’s book and gently-shaking sea-horses. I looked at the reflection of the book, conjured the riveting tale. A redemption saga of murderous desire giving way to simple longing. A comi-tragedy of youthful anger lapsing into spiritual angst. An urchin’s procession from rags to glory. A timid soul’s confrontation with an invisible monster. Whatever it was it had her hook, line and sinker.

My phone buzzed a fifth time. Or was it the sixth? I was starting to lose count. This time it was my mother. I have a feeling my favourite son is en route. Quickly then she sent some more messages, most of which hinted at and then declared what I could look forward to eating upon my arrival. You’ll never guess what I am going to cook for you. Go on, guess. I’ll give you a clue. It’s my signature dish. That’s right. I’m preparing my very special mung bean stew.

The train thundered along. The festive songs continued. I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart. And then: It is the season to be jolly. Tra-la la-la-la la-la la-la. The young woman didn’t register the sing-song, she was too engrossed, but her admirer decided he was now a crooner of repute, and the beer can had suddenly transformed itself into a microphone, projecting towards its intended victim a heady mix of unfettered pleading, emotional chaos and specks of errant saliva.

Not even the flicker of a solitary eyelash.

We were rolling into my mother’s stop when he finally decided to crack his can of beer. He brought it up and pulled the tab and at once a geyser erupted. Froth and beer spewed in the direction the can had been tilted. It covered her hair, her book, her face, her dress. It ran down her high cheekbones, along the curvature of her nose, dripped from the tips of her earrings. My phone was going again. I got you something I’ll think you’ll like it. Guess what it is. I’ll give you three guesses. Go on, guess three times. The conductor paraded through the carriage, calling out the name of the stop. The train jerked to a standstill. I looked to the busy platform as my phone buzzed through more messages. You’re not guessing. You’ll ruin the surprise if you make me tell you. Hey, did the great dictator order you not to guess? The young woman reached out her finger and turned another page of her sodden book. Beer and froth puddled the floor around her feet. Her dress was drenched. Her earrings dripping still. The young man looked over at me and raised his arms as though to say, I give up, why don’t you have a go. My phone buzzed again and without checking it I stood out of my seat, drew back the window shutter, let the phone drop out of my outstretched hand and sat back down.

The train gathered speed again. Next door the festive tunes continued. In Christmases to come my mother would upgrade her spatula to a hurley stick and my father would talk up the number of General Franco biographies he had read and develop an obsession with Muammar Gaddafi. For now I settled into my seat, allowed my addled head bob along with the motion of the train. One last time I glanced over at the beer-drenched queen, ever steadfast under the intense scrutiny. I half-smiled, turned away from them and wondered what awaited at the end of the line.


Featured illustration by Orla Kennedy.