In Chester

Remember that all relationships are complicated.  This short story that offers a sideways glimpse of a place I love …

In Chester

“It’s nearly the weekend!” She’s at it again; thinks I’m still at school.  “Move your idle carcass Stuart.  Catching that train on time will not kill you.”  There’s the noise of the hairdryer and breakfast television talk of child molesters and celebrity smiles fills in the gaps.  “I can’t run you to the station you know” she shouts and I listen to the light switch click off through the wall. “I’m already late.”  It’s a relief when she’s downstairs, singing bits of some lyric I never knew; no chance of her remembering the whole bloody lot.

My dad’s dropped last night’s overalls by the sink; she’s left wet footprints on them.  A half-hearted flow of lukewarm water makes today a beard day.  Next door’s kids were bawling in the night again.  You’d think they’d have worked out what to do with them by now.

The 7.45 to Chester is full of the usual commuter prisoners.  The half walk, half run to the station means that my skin sticks to my trousers as I sit next to the skinny blond; a regular.  She makes the half smile of; I know you but don’t think any more of me than that; leans away.  A tannoy announcement full of that special distortion reserved for trains and school fairs makes a mash up of place names and random noise.  The professional mob leaves at Hamilton Square, then a mixed crop for Ellesmere Port.  Not doing this journey in reverse to Liverpool at 6.15 is nearly a night out in itself.  I’ve enough money for a taxi back, if I go home; had it out of my overdraft.

My walk along City Road is full of disorientated grannies dropped from buses like unloved aliens.  They’re wearing rain coats and sensible shoes, defiant in the early heat.  We’ve a regular dosser sleeps in the office doorway.  He’s moved on for the day leaving behind a Special Brew empty and his stink. The office is alright for a bit when you’re first in, get the kettle on, and check the diary for the day’s viewings.

The others filter into the office in the usual running order.  Office junior, always early, frightened of everyone.  Three sales girls who come in on the next train; together.  The lettings girl, Lucy, a pleasure for the eyes, walks in from Hoole.  She balances by her desk, swaps flat shoes for heels; perfect feet attached to goddess legs.  It is a moment.

Some punter walks in off the street. “Excuse me” she says but doesn’t mean it.  Cow describes her attitude and dimensions as she fills the space in front of me.  Acid bright top, white trousers and red varnish on fat toes.  “We’re looking for something in the five hundred bracket, possibly a bit lower.  River views, either side.”  She glances at her watch and with an accent as broad as my smile I resist the temptation to doff an imaginary cap.

“Certainly madam.  Let me get some particulars together for you.” I begin the trail around the office.  Mostly I do as I am told, but a slight of hand adds the very brief details of a repossessed flat in the wrong end of Blacon.

Over the usual day filler of phone calls I watch the girls as they bully each other.  I gather from the snatches I hear that Lucy has pulled the short straw for lunch, the rest are going shopping; again.  She scowls at her desk.  It’s not just that I fancy her but I swap the cover for my Monday slot next week.  The corners of her mouth lift.  A meal of rich tea biscuits and my own company makes for a slow hour though.

The girls come back in together except for Lucy who trails in minutes behind the boss.  His wife left him last Christmas so he’ll be happy enough to slum it with us lot at the Races.  You can see why he’s on his own; he laughs at everything.  He puts Tesco carrier bags on my desk, the bottles inside make a skittle fall against each other.  I take this as a sign that work is over.

“C’mon Stuart! Party time.”  Unsurprisingly he laughs. “Crack open the fizz man.”  I prefer my bubbles slower than these but it’d be rude not to.  A space is soon cleared and three tea cups and four plastic glasses ready.  The office junior is the first to show the signs; he actually starts talking.  He watches the girls as they get their stuff together and disappear, one by one, into the loo.  There’s a lot of flesh on display when each finally emerges.  There’s a gap in the fashion show as another bottle is opened, they cluster round the table giggling, teetering in fancy shoes.  I take my chance and go to change my shirt, spray on some deodorant, splash my face.  The effect’s not shabby.  I don’t think it’s just me but the door catch sticks.  When I do get free Lucy stands there as my rescuer.  My mouth goes dry.  I want to talk to her but I can’t think what to say.

On the way down Watergate Street the tourists need to give us a wide berth; the four girls walk arm in arm, with Lucy on the end.  The pavement’s wide and I put my arm around her waist, let my hand slide down towards her hip.  As she pushes me off her hand rests in the small of my back; just for a minute.

The racecourse is a dream on days like these, out from under scaffold crusted walls, full of people with no aim other than having fun.  It’s a shame it can’t all be made to look good like this.

When we get down there the firm has shelled out on some fancy tent thing even if we’ve still got to pay for our own drinks.  I’m a happy man though, they’ve got my usual; I get a round in. Someone passes round race cards; a few of them go off first to place bets.  Lucy stands close, looking at the floor, or maybe her race card.  It’s hard to tell.  I put my pint down when the boss comes over with more fizz.

We go out to look at the track.  Lucy and me.  People wander.  All the women are in lovely bright colours.  Some of the men too.  The horses are doing a walk round.  They are muscular and sleek.  I’d never thought of them other than as a source of muck for my granddad’s allotment. Their coats have been brushed to lie in patterns.  They don’t look away from the track ahead.

Lucy’s shoes sink into the soft ground; it rained long and hard in the night; she puts her arm through mine.  She smells nice.  Her dress is green like the grass beneath us.  It hasn’t any straps.  Her skin is warm.

One of her friends comes over.  She’s looking very hot.  They’ve both finished their champagne and I get sent to get more.  At the bar the boss gets talking and the round I buy is bigger than I’d thought. I miss the first couple of races, maybe more.

When I get back to Lucy she waves a full glass at me and takes one from me in the other hand.  I can’t put my arm round her when she stands like that.  Her scent still reaches me when I get close.

We all turn when the next race starts.  The noise the horses make with their hooves is the sound of your heart against the pillow in the night.  Lucy’s arm is round my waist.  We watch her horse win.  There’s lots of shouting as everyone tries to work out how much money she got.  She jumps up and down screaming in the middle of us all, holding her dress up in between.

When it all slows she comes back to me.  She’s quiet, a bit pale, tells me she’s going to the ladies.  One hand over her chest she leans and kisses me on the mouth.  She’s coming back for sure.  The next race starts.  Ends.  The office junior makes his excuses.  He’s no money left.  He told his mum he’d not be late.

Another race.  My horse comes in fourth, which is better; still no win.  I can’t remember the name of the chap that buys me a pint to commiserate.  One of the girls comes over.  “Lucy chucked up.  Said to tell you she’s gone home.”  I look at her.  Her red face matches her red dress but her lipstick has spread over her chin.

It takes me a while to find the gate out of the racecourse.  There are bodies everywhere.  All of them laughing, clutching at one another.  Once I’ve worked out I’m on Nun’s Road I walk back towards the city.

The office is dark when I walk past.  I ignore the dosser when he shouts to me.

A full bladder makes it hard to walk.  There’s a pathetic looking tree at the bottom of Bridge Street that I’ve used before.  It’s easier to think now. I’ve got to go home. Can’t see any taxis.  Need to check my money.  I look twice but find only my weekly rail card.  No notes, a few quid.  Won’t get me home.  Might get me to the station.  Back to that fucking station.

The traffic lights by the Falcon pub make a rainbow from the corner of my eye; the colours seem to bleed into the night.  I need to sit down. By the railings I sit on cold steps.  I can hear someone singing, shouting in the distance.  Water rushes under a manhole cover, stirring the sewage.  A mini cab crawls past at the lights, it’s my fat arsed boss; two of the girls.  “Station Stu?”

I’d love to say no but nod, defeated.  It’s hot inside the car; one of the girls is wearing Lucy’s perfume.  He’s still laughing.  The rolling noise of it fills my head.  We’re stuck in the car together.  I want to make it stop but we arrive soon and get out to pay the driver.  The hiss of hard wheels echoes from the station platforms.

Through the barriers, they’re all on this platform; I need to cross over yet.  The train is a distant square coming towards us through a grey night.  They’re still hugging and more; worse.  The one wearing Lucy’s scent makes a lunge to include me.  I don’t want her and reach to push her away.  My hand slaps against her round face and her cheek sags under it.  She turns away, swings back at me, misses.  As she makes the full circle she crosses the yellow line at the station edge and falls.  Just a step over the edge.  Her words reach out over the noise of the tannoy, the too late hiss of air brakes, the voices.

I can smell the metallic tang of blood on hot iron.

(c)  August 2013 Rebecca Sowray

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