The journey was interminable. The train rattled on with dogged determination, pitching me this way and that. I needed sleep. The loo I needed more than sleep. I lurched and listed along the coach aisle, only to find the exasperating red ‘engaged’ sign flashing. My need now at boiling point!
I’m such a fool, fleeing on a whim like this. Turning my back on the jet set glitterati; rubbing shoulders with the café society. ‘For what?’ I ask myself.
The lure of a caffeine fix sucks me into the station caff. Wipe clean Formica tables and fixed metal seats complement the drool making sniffs ‘n’ whiffs of spluttering bacon, frizzling with hash brown and black pudding: ‘Forget the coffee,’ I tell the young girl. ‘Make that two bacon and sausage baps with a large mug of sweet tea.’
‘Brown sauce?’ She asks robotically.
The thick Northern accent strikes a chord that resonates through my bones. I feel twitchy. I wait on the uncompromising seat until the girl plunks down before me a blue stripy mug of strong tea. I wrap my fingers around the steaming brew and see black leaves swirling as I stir in sugar. Now I know I’m back on home soil.
I mean, I made my way in the world. I made it big style. Me, Pete Swift, raised in an old coal mining community in the North East. Not for me the pit lamp and coal dust, following in my father’s footsteps. Pneumoconiosis – Black Lung Disease they called it. No, I was smart. I studied. I gained qualifications - and I got out!
It wasn’t my intention to dump Kathleen. She was my best mate, a sweet and homely girl with a generous heart. It was a relationship of sorts, but I always knew I wanted more than marriage, 2.5 kids and a mediocre car. She knew that too. She said she’d wait for me.
Kathleen, dear Kathleen. A solitary figure standing on the platform, rapidly fading into the annals of my unremarkable past life, as the Inter-city fast train carried me South, toward the dazzling city lights of London. She’d let me go - to have my fling.
I return my mug to the serving hatch on the way out: ‘Thank you sir. Enjoy the rest of yer day.’ The girl drones mindlessly, attempting a happy smile. Standard server’s parlance, minus Cockney twang – odd! I ring for a taxi.
Standing back from the house, I feel nauseous. What sort of reception should I expect? It’s been 20 long years since I saw Kathleen. Will there be a husband or partner? Kids? Our brief telephone conversation confirmed only where and when we would meet.
I muse on how she’ll look in her 40’s. Plain features, weighty around the hips, like her mother? I glance at my watch; my stomach lurches, my mouth is dry. She would surely want answers. What could I say? Success - too soon? So many moves?
An abundance of chic and sophisticated colleagues … female colleagues …
My fight or flight button kicks in. I turn to walk away. What a pathetic excuse of a man I am! A door is opened behind me: ‘Well at least stay for lunch.’ An appealing whiff of sage and onion seasoning drifts by my nose. ‘Still like it rolled into balls and sizzled in hot oil?’ I nod. ‘Roast leg of pork with crispy crackling and home-made apple sauce?’ I smile.
‘Yorkshire puddings with onion gravy?’ I venture, daringly. She opens the door wide and gestures for me to come through. She wears an apron; she still cooks wearing a plastic apron, like her mother did.
There are no formalities. She pops the wine and carves the roast, being sure to serve me the crispiest bits of crackling. I see no wedding ring.
I look across the table at a true friend, my best mate; rosy cheeked and pleasantly plump. And what I see is Kathleen, the quintessence of womanhood. She looks up with that cute ‘wise owl’ expression of hers … and nods.
‘Leave room for dessert.’ She says.
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