“First-class return to Liverpool, please.”
“Hundred and twenty pounds.”
“Two adult returns and three children, second class, Bristol, please.”
“Fifty seven pounds.”
“Two returns, second class, Plymouth, please.”
“Twenty nine pounds.”
“Single to Dover, second class.”
The crumpled note and clinking coins are pushed under the little semi-circle hole in the thick glass – or is it see-through plastic? Penny has always wondered. She supposes she'll find out if it ever breaks. That might prove painful, since she would, as usual, be sitting behind it.
She pushes the rectangular card back, and as she does so, takes stock of the customer. Shaven head, brown eyes, late thirties, no particular accent, navy tracksuit. There is something scrawled on the back of his right hand, she notices as it reaches out for the ticket. She peers at it, trying not to let him see and blushing at the thought of how she's failing.
Phone K @ Calais?
That doesn't really tell her anything; because there's nothing to know, she thinks. He's just an ordinary bloke doing something ordinary and dead boring in Dover.
No, he's going on to France, and then maybe beyond for all I know. Italy? Germany? Spain?
He decides to stare right back at her if the nosy cow is going to be so rude. Very badly dyed blonde hair, goggling eyes and sullen mouth, mid twenties, chewing gum churning in her jaw, brand name T-shirt.
No sense of humour, that's her trouble, he decides. I mean, no smiles or pleases or anything. I'm hardly in a position to write a book on service with a smile, but really.
Boring old fatso.
He takes the ticket and leaves.
A bit later, he is strolling along a corridor in the station, looking at the displays in the shop windows without much interest. Even though it is increasingly late in the evening, the crowds at the train station are still swirling around him to the rhythm of their own lives. Their music of greetings, goodbyes, gossiping, buying, selling, joking and arguing in several languages thrums in his ears. Occasional words that make no sense by themselves stand out distinctively from the general blur of noise. Suddenly something bumps into him unexpectedly, hard enough to make him drop his suitcase.
“Sorry,” mumbles a voice whose complete boredom somehow makes it very familiar. He finds himself looking at the girl from the ticket window, earlier. Her shift must have ended. She bends down, picks up the suitcase and hands it to him.
She has some idea of what the word “manners” means, then?
“Ta,” he mutters, turning to go.
“If anyone has seen an eleven year old boy with dark hair and a red T-shirt, could they please report to the information desk now?”
“Sorry, couldn't hear you 'cos of that announcement.”
A party of tourists, chattering excitedly in Japanese, push past, and again her words are lost. In despair he grabs her elbow and steers her into the nearest café, where it is slightly quieter.
“I said, why'd you want to buy the ticket?”
She blushes, her gaze sliding down to her feet.
“What would you two like? Sorry to interrupt.”
The assistant is managing to tap her shoulders and leer with a mixture of professional impatience and over-familiar rudeness that makes her look queasy, but is still highly annoying He would like to reassure this stranger that Blonde Miss Marple is not his girlfriend, but he just says “Cappuccino, please.”
“Black coffee, please.”
He realises he is now buying this complete stranger a drink.
“What did you mean?” he asks her when he has somehow found himself sitting opposite her at a table in a poorly lit corner.
“Well…” she blushes again, tracing patterns on the table top with a fingernail. “It's just…sometimes…” and then her voice changes from embarrassed to peeved.
“It's dead boring, my job, so I play this game where I try to guess where the people are going. You know, who they are, age, job, what they're going to wherever they're going for. I mean, it could be a holiday, work...”
Penny trails out, her cheeks glowing red with the painful heat of knowing she's making an idiot of herself.
“It makes time pass a bit quicker,” she finishes, defiantly, with no idea what she's defying.
They sit in silence. She studies his face to see whether he is bewildered or bored. Her gaze travels from his mouth to his eyes and all over his face without finding a clue to his emotions.
“Oh, yeah, I haven't actually explained to you, hardly anyone buys a single ticket. They're all returns. No one just packs off and never comes back. So I was trying to figure you out; where you were going, why. And then, I bumped into you again, and I was still kind of curious. So I just blurted it out. 'Cos I'm stupid’.” She gives a humourless giggle that dies away to a gasp.
“Oh,” he says. “Well, I'm going to Dover, and from then on to Calais, 'cos...'cos I fancied a change.
What's your name?” He adds hastily, to distract her.
“Um ...” he glances around frantically, until his eye finds a crumpled Marks and Spencer's carrier bag. “Mark.”
“Now, what's your real name?”
“That,” he says, trying to make a joke of it, “you'll never know.”
She is offended and snatches a discarded newspaper from a nearby table, holding it in front of her face.
Penny tries to concentrate on the newspaper, but her mind is far too busy shaking up a potent cocktail of annoyance, confusion, curiosity, embarrassment and nervousness, and every story seems to be a nonsensical stream of words and numbers. Instead she flicks the pages so fast that they create a draught as she tries to take in a series of photographs.
The leader of the Opposition gesturing angrily in debate, a bank manager who has been assaulted during a bank robbery hosting a press conference, his grey suit looking odd beneath the bruise on his right cheek. A stick-thin mother and child in a country thousands of miles away which is being torn apart by famine crouch on the floor of their hut.
“Mind if I borrow that? I need to take a look at the horses.”
He pulls gently at the newspaper, thinking she is about to let go, but she stubbornly holds on. He pulls a little harder and the sleeve of her baggy top suddenly rides up her arm, exposing a row of bruises frowning darkly against her pasty skin.
He is surprised to find his fingertips resting on her biggest bruise. He is even more surprised to notice the way this makes his heart beat against his chest, his breath catch in his throat like it doesn't know the way out. Penny snatches her arm back and glares at him, pulling her sleeve down.
“Keep your hands to yourself. And, I had an... I fell... I dropped... my boyfriend was a bit drunk.”
Her frightened eyes dart nervously to and fro, struggling to escape his gaze, and without warning, a series of angry words begin to rattle like bullets from her mouth. People at the nearby tables stare and glare.
“I hand out the tickets! Every day! It's the most boring job ever! I watch them all head off to wherever, and I try to guess, but I've never even left London myself! I have to go home every day, and it's not much of a home! It’s not fair!”
He feels like he should say something, that he should know what to do, but he has no idea what she's angry about and whether or not it's with him. So he gulps down his coffee, and frowns a little, blotting out her shout by concentrating on his own memories.
The ugly wallpaper pattern of red and orange flowers was so much brighter under the bed than in the rest of the room. There was a bit of it which was loose, peeling away to expose the cracked plaster beneath, and he would curl up, muscles burning and cobwebs tickling his neck, and gently tug at it hour after hour, until the bare patch was almost as big as him, not that he was very big back then. Underneath the bed the yells and thuds from the kitchen sounded otherworldly, like next door's music.
He remembers his mother afterwards, putting on more makeup while he tugged the blanket on the bed down so it would hide the damage to the wallpaper.
“Robbie was a bit drunk, that's all, love.”
It's her who's grabbing his arm now, waving the newspaper under his nose.
“Look!” He obediently looks down at the film reviews. Her voice has suddenly changed again, to sunshine brightness, like his mother's.
“The World's Smallest Elephant, that's the new kid's film. Looks daft, doesn't it?”
“I used to love those cartoon films.” He knows how to play along with her.
“My favourite was Big Smile.”
“I wanted to see that one, but my stepfather was taking me to the cinema, and he said I was practically a grown-up now so I should see an action film instead.” He shuffles around awkwardly in his seat.
“Shame. You missed a treat.”
“Look, I, er, I really need the toilet, and then I'd better catch my train. So, er, goodbye, eh?”
He pushes back his chair and sets off in the opposite direction from the toilets, heading, she notices, towards the exit rather than the platform. After a few hundred meters he starts to run.
My presence does that to a lot of men, she thinks. Ha ha ha.
It's as she turns to go that she sees the chair pushed back and sees the single ticket and the envelope abandoned on the seat.
She ruffles through the envelope. There is no way anyone would accidentally take several thousand pounds out of his pocket and leave it behind.
She wonders why he was carrying an envelope full of notes. She wonders where he really was planning on going, where he's going now. She wonders why someone would write Phone K @ Dover on the back of their right hand, and why someone else entirely would punch a bank manager in the face, using their left hand, leaving a bruise on the right cheek. She smiles.
Then Penny runs away from the café, to catch her train.
Rosemary J. Collins (16) lives in Cheltenham and studies English, French, History, Politics and Film Studies. She has won the 2009 FILMCLUB Young Film Critic of the Year Award and the National Theatre Big Break Scriptwriting Competition. She has self-published two novels, a poetry collection and a short story collection on www.lulu.com. She's been published in Young Writer Magazine, The Red House Young Writers' Yearbook 2008 and First News. Her ambition is to write as much as she can as well as she can.
-Photograph by Christopher Barrio
-Model in photograph: Jacquelyn Jennie Thumart