Mr Blake frowned at Alice, his arms folded across his chest. He looked worried.
‘How’s it going at the Cowley Centre?’ he asked, walking to where Alice was standing, next to the school gates, iron painted black between Victorian red brick walls, the same colour as the school building, which reeked of discipline and wasted time.
‘The old people’s home? Oh, fine, it’s fine. Great.’ She said too quickly and Mr Blake narrowed his eyes as if he knew something, but he always did that, he was a teacher after all.
‘Good,’ he said, then said something about an umbrella and looked at the sky, swirling grey and dark, as angry as the black winterish birds that circled the top of the school building and cackled like witches. Then he said the strangest thing, ‘Be careful.’ It was the sort of thing he never said.
Alice was impatient to leave. As soon as Liv came down the steps, a blue jacket zipped up over her claret coloured school sweatshirt, they left.
‘So what shall we do?’ Liv asked, taking a packet of cigarettes from inside her jacket as they walked away from school. The packet was crumpled, old. She took out a cigarette that had already been half smoked.
‘I don’t know,’ Alice hated making decisions, ‘Do you think she’ll still be sick? We still have to go there, she might be well again and Blake was talking to me just now like he knew something.’
‘Of course she’ll still be ill’ Liv snapped. ‘She’s been ill all week. Come on, we’ll miss the train.’
Liv was right of course, not about the train, but about the old woman they were supposed to visit.
‘I’m sorry,’ the nurse said when they arrived. She smiled kindly, ‘Mrs Hildergast still isn’t very well. She’s asleep I’m afraid. Why don’t you come back tomorrow and I’m sure she’ll be able to see you then.’
So the girls left. This was the best work experience placement ever. Each afternoon this week they had been given the same news, Mrs Hildergast was ill. It was always the same and so every afternoon they were free.
The sun had all but set by the time she arrived and the street lights had partly come on. It was that oily time of day, when the sky looks like spill from a car engine, an iridescent sunset in which the night-time casts its black stain into corners, forming shadows behind benches on the station platform, behind the graphitised vending machine and in the gap that is the tracks between the platforms. No noise but the ticking of the big station clock.
Alice knew she would see him. He had been there every day this week, out of sight at the end of the platform, and each day he had appeared, stepping out of the shadows to watch her.
He was always in the same spot too and moving in the same awkward way, shuffling to the platform edge, moving slowly as if he were afraid of falling down the gap. Then he would lean forward and peer up the track, then check the time on the big station clock and then look to where Alice was standing, and watch her.
The man came out of the shadows as soon as Alice arrived on the platform. She tried to ignore him, but could feel him looking at her. She wanted to run out of the station. She wanted to get outside, where there might be people. But she couldn’t move. If I run he’ll chase me, she thought. He’ll catch me in the tunnel beneath the tracks and he’ll –
She heard his breathing then, it came in gasps. He was sobbing. It was as if he couldn’t control himself and he said something, he murmured something that Alice couldn’t make out and when she looked again he was looking up the track and shifting his feet as if he couldn’t keep still, screwing his hands into fist and then opening them again.
‘I saw that man again last night.’ Alice said to Liv the next morning as they travelled together by train from school to The Cowley Centre.
‘What the train spotter?’ Liv laughed.
‘Stop it. He really scares me, I’ve seen him every day this week.’
Liv laughed even more, delighted that Alice sounded so worried. ‘Has he spoken to you yet?’ she asked. ‘He probably fancies you.’
Liv had seen him too, on Monday on the one occasion they had travelled home together.
‘Hey look, it’s a train spotter!’ she had joked and the man had looked embarrassed at being singled out, ashamed of himself, which had made the girls burst into a cruel bout of laughter.
‘Leave him alone.’ Alice had said, trying to control herself, ‘He’s harmless.’
‘What? We’re only having a laugh.’ Liv had replied.
Alice noticed how out of date his clothes were, the funny way he walked to the platform edge and peered up the dark track as if looking for a train.
‘He must be one of those people who can’t help what they do, you know, he can’t help coming here every night and waiting for a train or something.’ Alice had tried to explain, but couldn’t find the right words. She had watched the man as their train pulled out of the station, the awkward way he paced back and forth throwing his hands in the air, agitated and unhappy.
Alice had thought about him all week, she couldn’t get him out of her mind, his white face, his gaping mouth and black dots for eyes. She didn’t listen to a word Liv said as they rode the bus to The Cowley Centre and when they got there the strangest thing happened.
‘I have good news for you, girls.’ The nurse said as soon as they walked in through the front door. ‘Mrs Hildergast is better. She wants to see you!’
The nurse spoke with such enthusiasm and seemed so pleased that the girls were forced to look pleased in response.
‘Let’s not stay long.’ Liv whispered, ‘as soon as we’ve been here for ten minutes we’ll say we have to go because we’ve got to get back to school.’
The room was dark, the curtains drawn and it was too warm. There was a fuzzy smell of disinfectant and tea steamed from a pot on a low table in front of the old woman’s bed.
She looked at the girls, unsmiling and then said, in a voice that was as tired as the end of a bad week, ‘I owe you an apology. I‘ve been hiding in here pretending to be ill, when in fact I just didn’t want to see you. But I’m sure you’ve managed to fill the time.’
She smiled at the girls and in her eyes a spark of life, a wickedness that gave her character. The girls liked her. She was interesting.
The old woman talked to them then, about various things, about her life, about how she would be dead soon and ‘what a relief that would be’ she joked, or half joked. The girls weren’t sure if she were serious and they laughed nervously and from what she said next it seemed she really was serious.
‘It’s my son, you see. I want to see him again. I lost him a long time ago.’
Alice sipped form the mug of tea she had been given, now cold, it tasted bitter. The old woman took a picture form the nightstand by her bed, a black and white portrait in a silver frame. She looked at it, not showing it to the girls.
‘He died over twenty years ago and I think I died at the same time.’ She looked at the girls and then added, as if she needed to explain herself. ‘I died inside when he killed himself. But it wasn’t really a surprise.’
She looked at the picture, cradling it in her hands as if it were alive, a premature baby that she had to hold with gentle open palms.
‘It was his mind, you see? He had the most terrible troubles with his mind. It was this week that he died, twenty three years ago this week.’ She repeated and then added, ‘threw himself in front of a train at Croft Park Station.’
Alice’s spluttered tea onto her chin, her throat suddenly dry, she coughed and it was with dilated pupils that she took the silver framed picture the old woman handed her.
The face in the frame stared back at her. Worried, small, angry eyes in his ghostly white face, just as she had seen his eyes last night at the station and it was with a steady beating heart, slowly getting faster that Alice arrived at Croft Park Station later that afternoon, after it had got dark.