The late summer sunshine danced on the endless flat fields whizzing past the windows of the train, falling away into new horizons. Glenn sat fidgeting, running his fingertips of one hand over the cuticles of the other. A copy of ‘On The Road’ lay on his lap face down, opened at the last few pages, its ending salvo awaiting. He desperately wanted to emulate the cultish feeling of beatnik bohemia, yet he couldn’t muster it.
It was a sunny day, but as they were passing through Utrecht the sun came under a patch of grey clouds. Tension caught in his throat as he feared what was ahead, that the sinking feeling would return; the one which could and often did leave him drained, detached, and utterly miserable. For reasons unknown, he had struggled with all of this since he first started at university. For his first two years, he self-medicated by getting blackout drunk a few times a week, which went under the radar of ‘fresher culture’. He had been looking forward to starting for all the same reasons as everyone else: the parties; the social life; stories of wild, free sex. The unrestrained release of a group in their late teens and early 20s institutionalised by state education. Yet, leaving the village meant Glenn’s whole world changed forever; his crutch to understanding was swept away from under his arm and he found himself adrift. Rather than embracing the unknown, he was sinking. He hated himself for not enjoying what was supposed to be the time of his life.
Two summers ago, quietly and without warning, everything changed. It was the summer after they left school, and Glenn and Megan drove to a nature reserve. To him, Megan had always been an adventurous spirit. She always seemed to have a deeper, more ethereal understanding of the world than his other friends. She somehow kept drawing him back in, or a part of him at least. For Megan, ordinary limitations seemed to evaporate. She quite convincingly claimed that magic really does exist.
“You just have to look for it.”
They walked for about 20 minutes through the grass, down the sloping hills, following the sound of crashing water. When they reached the grassy banks of a narrow river Megan gave Glenn a cheeky, sideways glance and ran, throwing off her clothes, stripping down to her bra and pants.
He followed, fumbling to emulate the same free spirit. She ran to the flat rocks at the top of the waterfall and looked down, her back to him. She turned, winked, then jumped. As she fell, she let out a delighted shriek which echoed off the rocks. His heart in his mouth, he stepped carefully, deliberately up to the spot she’d been standing and looked out below. She was bobbing in the pool, blue eyes beaming with pure adrenaline and joy. Her triskele necklace draped around her neck gave her the look of some wild woman from Celtic mythology.
“YOUR TURN! COME ON!”
But he couldn’t. He stood there, staring down at the rippling pool of water 50 feet below. He replayed the jump repeatedly in his head, and just couldn’t. His legs began straining as every muscle in his body tensed up, the water crashing in his ears. Megan’s smile began fading. She started clambering her way back up the rocky path. He sauntered back to pick up his clothes.
“I’m sorry.” Was all he could muster.
“No, it’s fine.” She looked at him differently, askew.
“It’s just…the height, the cliff. It reminds me of…”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think about that.”
He was telling a half-truth, to save some face. It was true that many years before Glenn’s dad died after a climbing accident; his own adventurous spirit cut short in his prime. Megan knew that, and she also knew he was bluffing. She knew him inside and out. But she didn’t judge.
“It’s ok.” She smiled wanly at him and put her arm around his pale shoulders. Friends, nothing else. Something shifted in his mind then, as if he were on the verge of taking his own great plunge. They hardly spoke the whole drive home.
"Het volgende station is: Nijmegen. The next station is: Nijmegen."
The automated, guttural Dutch voice on the tannoid announced that they were coming to Glenn’s stop: the town where he would be studying for a year. It appeared across the other side of a wide river: a peculiar mix of gothic and austere mixed with the modern and practical. Tall, narrow buildings with slate roofs, red brick and sandstone. An old church tower with intricately designed iron spikes. Narrow tugboats at work chugging up and down the river. Reams of cyclists spilling out of and into the town across their own lane on the rail bridge. It was all foreign, strange and new.
He grabbed his two suitcases and made his way to the train doors. They began slowing down as the neat platform slid into view, the station sign displaying a place he could barely pronounce which he’d only seen on official documents until now: Nijmegen. It was real, happening. A rush of hot fuzz began oozing from the tip of his head, down through his body. In the hissing of the train’s brakes, he once again heard the crashing of the waterfall. For a second, he swore he saw Megan waiting on the platform amongst the crowd, her face looking at him again with that radiant joy replenished. As the doors slid open, the clean, humid summer air of a strange, new land reached his nostrils. He took a big breath in, washing away all his uncertainty and doubt. All he had to do was to put one foot in front of the other, and trust.
As he walked through the busy station a new feeling arose. He decided to call it ‘opportunity’.