This is my third post for Smutathon 2019, and is the continuation of a story I started in 2018. In some ways, it feels unsatisfying to share something that’s still a fair way from being finished, but I also feel like Night Train is a bit of a departure for me in terms of how I write – it’s already over 2,500 words and will comfortably reach 5,000 before I’m done – so actually it fits rather well with the Smutathon ethos of challenging ourselves to do something different; something more. You’ll find the first part here – I’m hoping the third part arrives before Smutathon 2020!
I managed to half-read the first 20 pages of my book in the time it took the train to pull out of Chamartin and ease through the Madrid suburbs into the flat, scrubby countryside that filled the gap between city and mountains. From my seat beside the window, I watched the streetlights slowly dwindle in number, till only the occasional car headlamp cut through the darkness.
Any noise made by my fellow passengers was swallowed instantly by the hiss and thump of the train as it sped along the rails beneath me. I did a quick inventory of the supplies I’d picked up from the Carrefour Metro outside the station. Two cereal bars. A slab of Milka chocolate. Fruit and water. More than enough to last till morning if I just wanted to curl up in my little cocoon and shut the rest of the world out for a few hours.
And fuck, it was tempting. I pressed thumb and index finger around the base of my throat and winced at the bruise flowering either side of my windpipe. Winced more when I remembered his hand there barely an hour earlier, squeezing a little harder with each jerking thrust, till we were both gasping silently for breath. Right to the very end, two weeks with Ed had left their mark.
So I could huddle under the low shower head and wash him from my skin. Scrub off each casually hurtful word and fresh unkindness. Start the healing process to the clack-clack rhythm of the tracks disappearing behind us, and wake up in Lisbon feeling like a new woman.
Yeah. Or I could go and get drunk.
At first glance, the buffet car did not scream old-world elegance. I smoothed down the front of my dress, conscious that turning my suitcase upside down in search of a suitable outfit probably hadn’t been a good use of my time. Arranged along a dull metal counter, half a dozen stools were occupied by diners whose visible lack of enthusiasm for the food in front of them killed any intention I had of taking the lone empty seat in their midst.
More promising was a cluster of tables at the other end the carriage, half-filled by men sipping quietly from cañas or nursing small glasses of red wine. I paid for a beer of my own and joined them, pulling out my book to show that I wasn’t looking for conversation.
Few things take the edge off a truly shit day like the first gulp of ice-cold lager washing over your tongue to hit the back of your throat. I felt my shoulders drop before I’d even finished swallowing, and the knot of tension pulling at my stomach seemed to loosen just a little. I took two more big sips, aware that in the stuffy carriage it wouldn’t be long before the beer drifted up towards room temperature.
“Wow, someone’s thirsty. You might want to go ea-“
The guy stood directly in front of me. Tall. Red-faced. Already drunk.
“Fuck off.” Hypocritical asshole, I nearly added.
He shrugged and walked past. Behind me, I heard a snort of laughter.
“What an asshole. A hypocrite too, by the look of it.”
I turned to stare at a man sitting cross-legged at the table behind mine. His hair was short and sandy, his pale skin almost luminescent in the harsh neon lighting. With sleeves rolled to his elbow and the top two buttons of his shirt undone, he looked like he’d also dressed for dinner but had thought better of it at the last moment – or when he entered the buffet cart. His expression was open, but neutral. Hard to read in a way that felt deliberate somehow, but not disingenuous.
“Yes. But I’ve met worse.”
“I’m sure. Enjoy your book.”
I raised it self-consciously in acknowledgement. Nothing about the novel itself was remotely interesting. It was filler: words that ran on into each other in a formulaic but vaguely comforting way, generating a sort of basic internal logic without achieving anything more profound. I’d bought it at Barajas Airport two weeks earlier, and didn’t intend to take it with me when I left Lisbon.
Half an hour passed. I finished one beer, then another, and worked my way slowly through a small bowl of nuts. Around me, the dining car emptied, as couples peeled away together and solo travellers took drinks back to their sleeping compartments.
I waved at the barman and pushed myself out of my seat. Getting drunk no longer felt either achievable or especially desirable.
“Uno más por favor. Y la cuenta.”
A hand on my wrist stopped me before I could move towards the counter.
“You’re travelling alone.” Same neutral expression, but clearly a statement rather than a question. “Would you stay and have a drink with me? I want to talk to someone who isn’t professionally obliged to listen.”
I looked at him again. On closer inspection, his shirt wasn’t as crisp as I’d first thought. There was a thin stripe of dust along the hairline on one side of his face, as if he’d flannel-washed it in a hurry and not quite reached the edge. His brown loafers were scuffed.
But he seemed direct and straightforward. There was an easy confidence to his tone. He had the air of someone allergic to bullshit, which automatically made him more appealing as a drinking companion than 95% of people I encountered in bars at home. I thought quickly, and made a decision.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m travelling alone. But I’m afraid I don’t want to stay in here any longer. I’ll have a drink with you, but it’ll have to be in my room.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“I’m pretty sure you’re not going to murder me. For one thing, your getaway options are currently quite limited. For another, the barman over there has definitely clocked you. I could do with some company too, and if you turn out to be boring or sleazy you can just fuck off back to your seat. Sound ok?”
“Well I can’t argue with any of that. So I guess it sounds just fine! I’m Mark, by the way.”
“Good to meet you, Mark. Shall we?”
Mark perched awkwardly on the lower bunk, as I resumed my seat by the window. He clutched the bottle of wine he’d bought hastily from the buffet car as we left. As he poured it into two plastic cups, I kicked off my shoes and curled my feet under me.
Wine in hand, I listened to Mark talk. His voice was soft and measured. He was on a career break. A sabbatical, he called it, though it was clear he had no intention of going back to his old job. Having missed out on interrailing as a teenager, he’d bought a Eurail pass and set off from St Pancras without a destination in mind. Two months later, he was ready for home and regular access to a shower.
“Hostels and station floors are fine when you’re 18 – or so I’m told. At 35, I’m clearly too soft and middle-class to hack it for more than a few weeks.”
His hands moved constantly as he spoke. They were soft but broad, and gave way to wrists wreathed in curls of fine blonde hair. I found myself watching his bare forearms, waiting for them to flex each time he made a fist or extended a hand out in front of him. I thought about how withdrawn Ed had been during my fortnight in Madrid. How little emotion he’d shown, beyond occasional outbursts of frustration or almost inexpressible sadness.
“You’re not in a berth tonight, are you?” I said, cutting him off mid-flow. “You’re just in regular seating, I mean.”
“Yes, that’s right. It’s just one night though, and those seats recline. They’re actually quite comfortable.”
I paused. His legs stretched out from my bottom bunk to the bathroom door, languidly filling the space between the two. I already knew what I was about to say, but I needed to wait for it to sink in somehow. For my brain to catch up and adjust to how weird it didn’t feel. At Chamartin I’d resolved to wall myself off, just for a while; to move through the world quietly, carefully – without leaving any footprints. It was absurd to abandon that resolve before I’d even left Spain. At the same time, I knew Mark would let me tread as lightly as I needed. I could pass through him entirely if I wished, and emerge the other side without a scratch.
“Well you need a shower, which is something I have right here. I have a spare bed too. Pretty sure it’s better than a chair, comfortable or not.”
It was Matt’s turn to pause. As I waited for him to say something, a light knock on the door caused both our heads to swivel round, like we’d been caught doing something illicit or forbidden.
“Excuse me, miss. It is Luis. I will fold down your top bed now. Ok?”
I looked at Matt, who nodded.
“Ok, Luis. Thank you. Why don’t you come in?”
To be continued…