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Forever and Ever...
by Christopher Clagg
The light from the street lamps was half dimmed by fog, the noise from the train station half hushed, on a Sunday evening as I stepped from the curbside carriage and paid the driver, and then strode through the great oaken doors. Leaving normal life and drudgery behind, for the mystical magic of old trains, steaming in their bunks, with the shroud of evening a warm coverlet for a nights rest., tracks gleaming, windows fogged with the breathe and excitement of a thousand pleasant passengers.
But the station was empty.
Hallowed halls and arches, now bereft of even an echo, only shadows cascaded in those empty places and made not a sound at all. Not a single voice trod on the air. Or hawked from the magazine rack the latest rage or oblivion in the headlines.
I moved as if struck dumb, and wondered if I could have mistaken the Harristown station for perhaps another, less trod, more eerie place full of shadows and half mists.
But then I saw him, a man, similarly dressed as I was, in gray coat and bowler, no doubt a haggard fellow business traveler who...
But the bowler hat? And the profile? With the thin, penciled moustache at the edge of his lip? Just like my own? With the gray at the temples of an old man?
"I say, Fellow!" I called, and he stopped for an instant, gray tweed coat twirling, just as mine did. Turning, with his face all sleek cheeks and blue eyes, pointed nose that Emily always said was the curse of the family.
I dropped my umbrella and stood transfixed, staring into a mirror image of my own face staring back at me.
He gave a tight-lipped smile then and strode on, disappearing around a corner of the tobacco stand. I rushed after finding him boarding a train for Bristol, which is in the opposite direction of London, you see. Tapping his umbrella and stamping the dust from his feet as he boarded. Then disappeared into the bowels of the gray-black engine of the passenger carriage.
I hurried, huffing as I ran to catch up, steam venting from the edges of the wheels as the train lurched, and then glided, then lurched again, as I caught the handrail and pulled myself up and then fell through the doorway into the dark interior of the car.
* * *
My eyes adjusted slowly. The emptiness and soundlessness fell away then to small background sounds. A soft-spoken young woman's voice, speaking with an elder woman, who's voice nodded, if voices could nod, when she said "Uh-huh." The sound of an infant crying as a father paced, laced black shoes treading soldierly on the linoleum floor, the metal and wheels underneath grinding with that slick traveled sound that all trains have. The sound of steam escaping from vents and engines as the world whisked away beside us, caught momentarily in the window panes as still photographs of time.
Then black and gone into a tunnel and all the world reduced to only sound again. The young woman still speaking, the old woman still nodding.
But then a new voice, a familiar voice, sounded close. From a gray-tweed-coated fellow standing in the dimly lit carriage end like myself, holding his umbrella placed on the floor as if it were a cane, and a smile above that penciled moustache of his.
He smiled, and in that smile I had fearful dread, and imaginings and horrid thoughts all quick and dark in the back of my mind. For who wouldn't think such thoughts if you caught your twin in a train station full of empty people?
"I am an inventor, you see," he said, "a purveyor of chances and happenstances, a gambler in fates and facsimiles. A rodeo rider on the backs of might-have-been and would-have-been, should-have-been... memories."
He smiled and tipped his bowler hat, then offered a gloved hand in gesture toward the cabin and the voices inside. "After you," he said. And I expected more, but he didn't speak, just smiled through his moustache and paced the umbrella in even increments on the floor as we walked into the cabin, and the rush of voices that came up as the door opened wide.
* * *
The door whished closed behind us and the engine faded to a clump-clump-clump of rhythms beneath our feet. More vibration really, than a sound. The chug-chug-chugging of the rails and the wheels slapping against one another in some metal lovemaking that birthed great trains and miles of memories from Timbuktu to Saskatchewan.
"Why hello," said the young woman's voice, and I smiled and almost fell. The gray-tweed self of me caught my elbow and held me steady. "What," he asked, "if I am but a semblance of you, then ought there to be...?"
And then another voice, "Hello Pop!" My youngest son, who hasn't been young since before we left Cambridge twenty-odd years ago. The voice stood, rooted in twelve-ish red hair and freckles and stood only as high as my shoulder. I squinted and peered, my spectacles slipped down my nose and I pushed them up again.
The red voice was Robert, and the young woman's Emily. Sweet flower of my youth, tender maiden twenty, gone now sixty years to eighty and waiting for me at the gate of our own smallish gardened home. But here she was. Youthful and delicate. With black hair falling down her cheeks and resting on her shoulders, tucked into a pony tail in the back. Tied with a ribbon of pink and blue lace.
"Harold..." she whispered and I reached out a hand, just barely touching the edge of her jacket.
"Emily..." I sighed.
Robert sat then on the seat opposite and dangled his feet and hummed while Emily stared with deep eyes. I listened as my gray-tweed self tapped his pipe then said clearing his voice. "Well now... as to why you are here..."
* * *
I listened as the wind blew and the night moved outside the train, and I wondered if I would ever see daylight again. If I would ever venture beyond Halcomb to London by way of the Harristown station. Or if I would retire and grow roses and never step foot outside the county again. Complete in my old age, in my memories and my old ways.
But my tweed self coughed and tapped his umbrella and made a fine argument to the contrary. And I wondered what then would happen to me, and my life, and my Emily, gone now in the distance and waiting, old and still smiling on our porch stoop some hundred miles from London as stars came out and the wind blew up chill and reedy.
"So, you can see, that it is quite impervious, and shall we say imperious as well that you should be here? That it was not just circumstance and whatnot that turned your shoes and brought me, with my machine and all, out of the depths of alternity, and here. But destiny?" He smiled and I frowned.
He moved then and took me by the elbow and I thought to protest, to maneuver away, but before I could, he pointed through a dusty glass window into the next compartment , and there stood a youngish fellow against the bar of the car with a Guinness at his side, weeping. All of twenty and weeping for all the world as if he were ninety-two!
"Aye," said my tweed twin, "Is not for me alone, that I thought you needed come, but for his."
My puzzled look must have amused him, because he smiled and pressed on, his voice not unlike mine, in that I loved an oratory. Vain fellow that I had become in my time.
"You see, not all of our lives, yours and mine, have been as judicious, or as kind. And there you see before you, us, as we would have been, if the universe had been crueler and taken our Emily from us at the tender age of nineteen.
I stood unafraid and rooted to the floor as his shoulders rose and fell with his sobs. As he, young as I used to be all those many years ago, anguished over losing Em.
"But...?" I turned back, seeing Em in the seat across the car behind us,
"Ah...," he smiled and tapped his bowler with the tips of his fingers as if he had forgotten some basic premise or thought. "She's not IN his world," he indicated the young weeping man, "but, in THIS one, and he pointed toward the end of the car, where I had not noticed before, a younger tweed triplet of mine, in the company of his friends singing off-key songs and bellowing at the dark-tipped night beyond the windows. Not yet having met her. Wouldn't meet her until they both reached Bristol. With him on holiday and her travelling home would bump into one another getting off the train.
"Excuse me!" I had cried and bowed tipping my hat, and caught an instant's sight of her eyes, her hair, as I swept my hat in a gentleman's gesture and then froze at how beautiful...
Her voice was honey, her smile a sunlit ray, her years were graceful and gracious and tender and loving and hopeful and patient and enduring through all the years of our marriage. And it was the memory of all those years that made my shoulders slump as I watched that young me, without her, or the memory of her to come, or in all the years to come. And I stood rooted and my voice was hollow as I whispered.
"I am the inventor here, but not the husband, not the confidant, or lover." My tweed twin said at my elbow, watching the young man, still sobbing. "But he never had the chance to love her..."
He frowned then for a moment, and then gave a half smile as if to ward off the brunt of the hurt.
"You see, I did not get to love her. I was an orphan and moved to America with parents who traveled and devised and developed and invented... I had this machine," and he tapped the walls of the train with his umbrella, "but not Em."
He slumped into the seat adjacent to mine. "I tried to love her, but... well... I don't know what to say..."
I looked at him and wondered how that could be, an inventor's heart and all the tinkering and not have a love to cross your life...?
"And I am here for...?"
"If you change places with him...?" He whispered, as if afraid that his plan might all fall through, that fate and time and circumstance might all fall back into the depths of a regular train station, with no magic in it at all...
I looked into his face and saw his eyes and they were my own eyes, but they hadn't known Em. For there was still that trace of doubt and uncertainty and awkwardness that is in every man, until a woman has hold of him, and makes him her own, and eases out of him, that youngish and afraid childishness, and makes a man. That can face a world, or war, or the twining strands of bridge ropes and jump if the need be, a thousand feet, into oblivion and waters black and cold. For her. For the world, for our children.
I smiled then, for the first time and nodded, even as the old woman had nodded and said uh-huh, and his shoulders relaxed and the plan was intact and the world, at least our world, would go on.
I rose then and stepped to the door, and didn't look behind, not even to wish my tweed twin well. There would come a time... I stepped through the door and called the young man,
"Harold!" I said, aloud, my voice full of conviction and the memory of Emily's love. "Don't worry!" I called in a bold voice across that space and he stopped crying for a moment and looked up.
* * *
And then he was I and I was he, and I looked up and the wind blew the door open and the darkness fell out of the windows dark and black and terrible, and I leaned my face back down on the counter and cried.
Because I remembered Em, and I now only twenty would face a life, alone, without her.
* * *
Light fell, half out of the sky, half out of a dream in the afternoon outside in the garden. I sat up as a tin horn from a tin lizzy blew and a Model T skidded to the edge of the cobbled road.
I rocked back on arthritic knees and looked up from under a dirt-grimed sweat-stained cap, the lid covering my eyes, to see...an older gentlemen step from a carriage of steel and leather and pull up the goggles at his eyes and slip the cap from gray hair to under an arm.
He smiled and there was something familiar...
"Hello," he said, and then I remembered a young man at the bar in the dining carriage of an ancient, almost long-forgotten train.
"Harold...?" I stood on rickety legs and peered at him, and he moved forward and put out a hand and a smile.
"Thank you for sharing her with me, for giving me, all those years and memories. Thank you."
He clasped my shoulder and I felt his young fingers through my garden jacket.
The sun got in my eyes for a moment and I cried.
Story © 2002 by Christopher Clagg email@example.com
Illustration © 2002 by Patrick Stacy firstname.lastname@example.org
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