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He walks into the unforgiving glare of a station waiting room on a freezing cold night and feels with a sudden and inexplicable certainty that the next few minutes will be important. He knows he’ll remember the girl with pink hair in a knitted beanie who is waiting inside, her cold flushed cheeks, her smudged eyeliner, her wind-chapped hands. He knows he’ll remember her black leggings, her scuffed plimsoles, and her bare ankles gone pink in the cold.
He knows as he glances at her uncertain eyes he’ll see them again and again, long after he glances away, long after this moment has gone. He knows that the window, which lies as flat as the palm of a hand against the night, and in which their reflections are mysteriously transposed over the cold steel of the rails and the electric glare of station lights outside, will remain bright in his mind.
A moment later there’s the clattering noise of the train, the screech as it brakes and slows, the lit empty carriages flickering slowly past. There’s the release of air, the clunk as the doors unlock and open.
They get on the same carriage but he goes right, she goes left. He sits next to a window and the train pulls away. The backs of warmly-lit houses scroll by. He sees empty kitchens, vacant tables and chairs.
All of a sudden in one of the houses he sees a man staring out of a window at the passing train. It’s just an instant but there’s something that troubles him about the man as if he’s someone he should know but can’t place.
Then he hears a voice.
When he looks up, he sees the pink-haired girl looking at him, eyes narrowed.
‘Do you mind?’ she says.
‘Mind?’ He feels himself drawing away from a confrontation.
‘If I sit with you,’ she says. ‘There’s someone back there, he keeps staring at me.’
He starts to turn around in his seat to look but she stops him.
‘Please don’t,’ she says. ‘You never know, do you, what people are like?’
Including me, he thinks, almost says, and she smiles and says, ‘I know what you’re thinking, but I’m an OK judge of character and you don’t look the type,’ as if she can read his mind.
She’s sitting down now, opposite him.
She shrugs, laughs at him, at the situation.
Her skin is still tight across her nose and cheeks with the cold, her eyes bright with tears from the wind they’re sheltered from now, this stillness inside the train that hurtles through the countryside.
Her pale thin face is beautiful, he thinks, her cracked lips and cracked hands, and her voice has that cracked quality too, her words are beautiful.
‘Did you have that question at school about being on a moving train?’ he says. ‘Are you moving or are you still?’
‘Can we be both?’
And her question seems to be imbued with a poetry of meaning, everything gliding against each other, a dance of worlds within worlds.
And then bang she’s gone. The world stops. Or not bang in fact. Silence. A clean blade cutting through everything.
Then it all happens again. The waiting room, that first glimpse of pink hair, wind-chapped hands. The glances and silence. The cold outside.
The layers of detail are extraordinary now, vast overlapping constellations that he feels himself move through like he’s high or hooked up to a computer simulation. A thread, a kind of silvery, watery ribbon of something connects everything to everything else now, her, him, the man in the house with the stare that troubles him.
‘That man,’ he says, changing the script for the first time after so many repetitions, and she looks at him for an instant as if she’s hungry for something; she beckons him with her eyes. ‘Did you see him?’
‘Why?’ And the question seems like a prompt, like a teacher encouraging a child to tell her an answer she already knows.
When he wakes up, he doesn’t know where he is.
The building is derelict. He can make out rows of podlike beds like it used to be a medical facility. He wonders if he’s been in some kind of accident. But where are the doctors, the nurses, the other patients? Through the broken roof he can see the branches of trees.
He realises he can remember nothing about himself. He only has the memory of the pink-haired girl and the train.
He walks through woods until he reaches a motorway service station. A few early risers walk bleary-eyed in and out of the glass-fronted building.
He sits down on a bench to rest. When he glances up, he sees a man frowning at him as he walks passed. He must look worse then he thought, he thinks. He looks away.
He feels eyes on him again not long afterwards and when he looks up he sees a woman standing not three feet away from his table, staring at him. She seems angry.
He asks her if something is wrong, but she says nothing.
He looks around when he hears a man say, ‘Are you sure?’
He’s addressing a woman whose small, defiant eyes are boring invisible holes in him. ‘I’m certain of it.’
A few other people drift over, sensing the disturbance, and he’s surprised to see not the need to be relieved from boredom on their faces but narrowed eyes full of distrust and in a few something that looks very much like outrage. He gets up, and tries to walk away but they close around him.
‘Yeah, no doubt about it,’ he hears one man say.
‘Drummond-Pierce,’ someone says accusingly. ‘Bryan Drummond-Pierce.’
‘You’ve mistaken me for someone else,’ he says.
‘Listen to him pretending he’s not,’ another one says.
He pushes past them and hurries out of the building into the car park. The air is cold; his breath comes out in white puffs as he walks quickly between the cars, looking for somewhere to hide.
He stows himself away in the back of a truck, and slips out when they reach a run-down seaside town.
He follows roads of junk shops and boarded-up houses until a dead-looking strip of sea comes into view and he waits under the trusses of an old collapsed pier, watching the sea crash in.
The town changes after nightfall. People shift in the dark. Figures lurk in doorways, keeping out of the light. Someone stops suddenly in front of him, comes close enough to his face for him to smell his breath and says, ‘I got tears, you looking?’ Drummond-Pierce, if that’s his name, quickens his pace, the sound of movement all around, a wet shuffle in the night.
He sees the flickering light of fires under a flyover, and he makes his way towards it. He hears moans, muttering. Someone blocks his path and breaks into a lewd grin. ‘How much do you want for a gobby?’ he says. Drummond-Pierce pushes past, and the man laughs mockingly at him from behind. ‘New, are you? You’ll learn.’
He sits down away from the other bodies in the shadows, not tired but not knowing where else to go. A moment later a figure approaches through the flickering light and stands over him.
‘Is it true?’ she asks. ‘You’re new?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
She shines a light in his face.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Having a proper look at you.’
She switches off the torch.
‘You shouldn’t be here.’
‘How much do you know?’
‘About what?’ He’s confused, but her voice is kind. ’I’m trying to find someone,’ he says.
‘A girl with pink hair.’
‘Do you know who you are?’
‘I can’t remember anything,’ he says. ‘I was in some kind of accident, I think.’
She holds his hand. ‘Don’t worry for now,’ she says. ‘You’re tired.’
There’s something about her manner that he’s drawn to. He feels protected, mothered. She lets him lay his head in her lap and she strokes his hair.
‘Those pretty eyes,’ she says, looking down at him. ‘There’s a place out on the coast road, the old lido. You need to go there.’
In the morning she’s gone. There are only a few loiterers left.
‘Best to get going,’ someone says. ‘Might be roundups, you never know.’
He sets off along the coast road until he gets to the old lido, a big white building with an empty pool full of rubbish.
He walks in through the open gate, the wire fence half pulled down in places.
The building is falling apart and it’s dank inside. He hears footsteps as soon as he enters and a tall, slender woman turns the corner of the corridor, smiling a wide, beautiful smile that vanishes when she lays eyes on him.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I thought it was a customer.’ She turns without another word and begins to walk away.
‘I’m looking for someone,’ he says.
She stops and looks back over her shoulder. ’Isn’t it usually them that do the looking?’
‘A girl with pink hair,’ he says. ‘Have you seen her?’
‘One of us or one of them?’
‘One of who?’
‘Oh, just follow me,’ she says.
They go down cold corridors where rising damp darkens the walls. It’s odd to see this beautifully dressed, perfectly made woman in such a place.
‘Who are you?’ he asks.
She glances over her shoulder, just to be sure he’s on the level. ‘You really don’t know?’
Through rain-misted windows, he can see the grey sea and sky smudged across the horizon. Eventually they go into an unlit room where bodies are sprawled on mattresses.
‘Will you take a look at these vampires,’ she says, walking through the bodies. She whips back a curtain and light floods in. The men put their arms up to shield their eyes from the daylight. The woman laughs. He sees the vials he was offered on the street, what they’d called tears.
‘You might as well say hello now you’re here,’ he hears one of the men say, and he turns in surprise, the voice just like his own. The man is sitting up now and his arm no longer shields his face, which is identical to the faces of the other four men in the room, and identical to his own.
‘A girl with pink hair?’
‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ one of them says. ‘Not real though, so you can forget about trying to find her.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You’re a fucking manmade. We all are.’
This man, this duplicate of him, pauses. ‘We all dreamt of the pink-haired girl. We all fell in love with her. We all came looking and if we didn’t get rounded up and burned or had our heads chopped off, we ended up in places like this. You’re just the same as us. A fucking toy.’
It clicks, everything makes sense now, but there’s still the memory of the girl, the threads he senses connecting everything, riding against it. He looks at these pale bodies sprawled on mattresses that look exactly like him, but feels there’s some vital difference between him and them.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m different from you.’
‘Oh, think you’re the original? We’ve all had that thought.’
‘Is Drummond-Pierce still alive?’
His duplicate laughs. ‘Lynched years ago. Head on a stake. We’re the only ones who are relatively safe. The Bryans. Because of what we are of course. They come here, sneaking away from their wives, from their husbands, their loved ones and they take their pleasure.’
‘Take the tears,’ one of the others says, the weary voice of someone who has seen too much. ‘You can be with her then.’
‘Where are you going?’ the tall woman asks.
‘It’s better to just accept who you are and move on,’ she tells him. ‘Think of the teachers. The engineers. The doctors. What have they got? At least we can still do what we were made for.’
He leaves the lido and walks along the coast road. He doesn’t care what he’s been told. He’s going to do what he set out to do at the beginning and find the girl.
He walks down road after road, through one town after another, looking from face to face, entering every train station he can find until, finally, he steps out of the cold into a platform waiting room late on a cold night and knows. Just knows. He looks up and there she is. The beanie, the pink hair across her thin face, those windchapped hands.
What happens is what always happens. He does what he always does.
They glance at each other but don’t say anything. Not yet. There’s the tension of wanting to break the silence but at the same time wanting it to continue. And he knows they will both get on the next train. There will be the man in the house looking at the train passing and at some point she will come over to him and ask if she can sit with him. The train will pull into the final station and they will get off together and, in the next heartbeat, she will disappear.
Or she won’t.