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A wee story

Author: Luca Serra

″It doesn’t stop here″ Elise says with one hand to her forehead, one hand

in mid-air, palm up, as though the train had just slipped away, in the space

between her fingers.

″Wha?-nah, that can’t be right″.

We’re statues of nerves and disbelief. Other travellers in Haymarket station

walk invisible lines and diagonals, children zig-zag or leap to catch up with

their speedy parents, commuters rush to the platforms, while cautious

planners have time to waste – eyes narrow and widen to the mystery of a

phone screen, heads rest against rucksacks, coffee cups cool down in the loose

grip of a hand. I swear, I almost shed a tear of longing – I used to be one of

them. Everybody seems to be at the right place, at the right time. Except us,

of course. The ultimate insult is the guy playing piano behind the gates, the

smile of a dolphin on his face, reaching his own private nirvana, eyelids

quivering in ecstasy.

″Of course″ Elise says. ″It’s a train to Newcastle. It leaves from Waverley″.

I let out a sigh, a wisp of wind through which a curse word sails, long and

soft, barely audible to anyone but me. I am thinking of allocated seats, nonrefundable policy – the 120 quid we’ve just wasted by lack of planning, or care – or logic.

″It leaves in seven minutes, we’ll never make it″.

″Well!″ she almost shouts. ″What else are we gonna do? Worst case

scenario we’ll buy another one, I can’t miss granny and grandad’s anniversary″.

That’s fair, but this is the nightmare of a stingy man – a man allergic to

running after things.

I hear myself saying: ″right let’s go″ then everything happens like it’s a

Danny Boyle movie: we’re running to the ticket machine, the screen shakes

and flips, I mean, my screen – reverse camera, chaos, panting and sweat. The

pound sign flashes in the corner of my eyes, ding ding ding! I am having

flashbacks of our landlord warning us the rent will go up by 20 quid, again. I

am having a flashback to the harshest winter in ages, flashback of me cursing at

global warming for miserably failing when we most needed it. The bloody

Moonlight sonata echoes in fast forward, to the rhythm of our feet stomping

on the ground. Beep, beep, beep, door closing, the most externally slow

internally frantic approach to Waverley – the train softly drifts, my heartbeat

skids. In spite of everything, I can’t help but find some peace in the vision of

the rock on which the Castle lays upon, holding on to it. Its jagged surface

hosts a million lights and shades on a sunny day. Quite a marvel, it never gets old. Not so much the rock itself, but its presence – the inherent comfort of

familiar sights.

Off the train we sprint. At the gate we stick the ticket in and pace in place

like Looney Tunes characters on the run, waiting for the doors to slide open.

Another sprint is attempted, but our legs go soft and jellylike – we slow down,

chins up, eyes to the boards. The Newcastle train has gone. We cast a glance at each other, agreeing on what to do before we even speak. I pull her close and slide an arm round her waist. Together we walk; Elise is a lot more zen inside – I am a lot more zen outside, under the skin I am still raging for the money.

At the ticket office we queue in silence. My mind projecting a million

different versions of the interaction with the ticket officer – most boring

daydreaming session in a while – that’s for sure. I am building sentences,

ordering words, top 10 best excuses to get a refund or something, best

possible comebacks in case the officer says sorry, we can’t- ha! Wait-wait- we just didn’t know it didn’t stop at haymarket, big Disney eyes of pity – pleeeeease! My mind races, my brain urges confidence, my throat a firm tone. That’s how

people get their money back, it’s all about the tone. It’s our turn – she nods,

with a cautious smile, mouth closed.

As we approach the ticket counter, we receive nothing but a glimpse. Paula,

says the tag on her Scotrail polo shirt. Her smile is a half smile, the right

corner of her mouth rises in slow motion – a minimal effort to acknowledge

my presence.

From the sliver of her smile she mumbles: ″hiya, what can I do for you

today?″.

Elise glimpses at me, and the moment I speak, the words reshuffle in my

mouth, I can almost feel edges and corners poking the sides of my tongue –

some get stuck underneath my palate. I am stuttering and stumbling, and for

the whole time Paula nods that speedy nod that means I get it, I get it, I’ll let you finish out of mere politeness. For some obscure reason I carry on, perhaps hoping that the longer I ramble the more chance to get a refund: you know, I am saying, we didn’t know, cause, you know, it didn’t say, and like- like- we thought we’d just go to Haymarket, cause- you know- yeah, you know what?

The chair squeaks as Paula straightens up, a little jerk of her neck, thin grey

eyes move from the computer screen to my hands, now torturing the unused

tickets.

″You thought you’d get on at Haymarket?″

″Yeah, unfortunately″ I force a defeated tone, playing the adverb card that

adds nothing to the plea. Except, when I look up at Paula, it feels like

something is unscrewing on her face – her eyebrows descend, her chin and

mouth expand to left and right, and down, by a few millimetres, then, the corners of lips break out in a smile. She looks at me with big, soulful eyes, as

though the expressionless stare she had had a few seconds ago was nothing

but a glitch in her system, or a routine reboot operation.

″Can I have your tickets?″ she goes. ″I’ll just write a wee story-″

″Sorry?″ Elise says.

″Aye, I’ll just write a wee story on your tickets, I’ll say that there was a

technical issue or something, and they’ll let you get on the next one. Is that alright?″

I have no words as I hand her the tickets. She scribbles something on

them, I can’t quite decipher it. It’s a wee story, though. That’s what she said.

And at that very moment it strikes me – Paula fills up the tickets with blue

ink tiny letters, and the letters make words and fully formed phrases, but as

far as I know, it may as well be miss. Scotland’s signature, sweet old madame

Caledonia. Land of storytellers and generous souls – most, anyway. It could

be luck or magic, a sudden trick, I don’t know – what isn’t fleeting, though, is

a deep sense of gratitude that’s coursing through me. I say thank you so much! a hundred times, it feels as though I’ve just been rescued from the depth of a

crevasse or something. The incalculable joy of a stingy man. Paula gives me

the sideglance you’d give to a euphoric drunk – half amused, half pitiful – yet

she can’t hide a smile.

″There you go″ she says, handing back the tickets. ″Have a nice day″

I am so stunned I leave without a word. Luckily, Elise carries out the

greeting ritual – hand on her heart, tickets sticking out of her index and

middle finger.

As we walk to the platform she pulls the sleeve of my jacket. ″See? No

need to worry, you stingy cat!″

I let out a laugh of relief and she leans into me. We’ll read the wee story on

our journey down south.