His bald cherry head, bright red and ready to burst, jiggled as he ran towards me. Until then I still hadn’t decided whether or not to get on the train but, as soon as I saw him bouncing up the platform, it felt like I had no choice. He looked rich enough. Richer than me anyways. He wore a suit for starters. I’d never even tried one on. Not even for court. And why shouldn’t I have a suit? Why shouldn’t I be as rich as him? What gave him the right to have a cushy life whilst I had to fight for everything I had?
He launched himself through the first set of open doors he came to, suitcase airborne behind him and bouncing off the side of the train. Almost immediately, the guard blew his whistle and I stepped aboard, taking on last drag of my roll up before flicking it through the doors as they closed behind me.
When I reached his carriage, he was still wheezing. It was perfect. Not only was he distracted, so much so that he didn’t even notice me pass him, but he’d also sat in the best seat I could have hoped for. He was just two seats from the back of the train, facing forwards at the very last table on the right. And he looked about sixty. If he did catch me in the act, I’d easily get away from him.
As he loosened his tie and gasped for air I sat down directly behind him and took a look around. It was quiet. There were only two other people in the carriage. An old dear diagonally opposite us and facing in the opposite direction, and a blonde woman a bit further down who was too preoccupied by her phone to notice if I even sat next to her.
The man’s jacket had draped over the armrest as he sat down and his pocket was exposed. I reached around slowly, my index and middle fingers extended to probe inside. Then I pinched a piece of card between them and pulled it out smoothly. His ticket. Edinburgh Waverley. One Way. I didn’t need it, but I pocketed it anyways. At least it was out of the way. I probed again, reaching deep into the darkness of his jacket pocket. Plastic. Round. About an inch across. A pot of some kind. I pinched it hard between my fingers and slid them slowly out. Medicine. Pills.
I was about to dip again when I heard the door at the far end on the carriage slide open with a whoosh and then a rumbling of unmuffled tracks.
‘Tickets please’, called the guard from out of sight.
I sat back and fixed my gaze through the window. We were in the country somewhere. All I could see was fields and trees. Here and there a house or farm jumped out of the earth, but there were no people, no cars.
‘Ticket please’, the guard said again.
The sound of the tracks passing underneath seemed to be in rhythm with the landscape now. Even the pylons that looked to be shooting past just inches from the window followed the beat.
‘One second’, said the man in a thick Scottish accent. ‘I cannae find it.’
I’d paid no attention to his flustered searching until then, but he was repeatedly rooting through his pockets, standing up and sitting down.
‘Could it be in your bag, Sir?’ asked the guard.
‘No son. I’ve no opened it all day.’
‘Would you mind checking it for me? Just in case.’ It sounded more like an order than a request.
This is it, I thought. This is my in.
‘Can I help?’ I asked.
The man and the guard both looked at me as I stood up.
‘No thank you Sir’, said the guard.
‘It’s just’, I pulled the man’s ticket from my pocket. ‘I found this on the platform as I was getting on. I was about to give it to you anyways.’
The lad handed the ticket over to the inspector. I knew he couldnae have found it. I’d seen him. He was at the far end of the platform. He pinched it, the scally, I knew. The inspector looked at it a second, then he looked back at the lad, and then at me.
‘Where are you travelling to, Sir?’ he asked me in a stuck up tone, like he had the right to question me.
‘Edinburgh’, I said.
‘When did you buy the ticket?’
‘Just before I got on’, I replied. ‘Not half an hour ago.’
‘Yes, Sir. This seems to be your ticket.’ He clipped it with his metal clipper thingy and handed it back to me. ‘Try to be more careful. You’re lucky it was found.’
‘Aye. Very lucky. Thank you, Son.’ I looked up at the lad and held his eyes. He was good. Not a flicker.
When the inspector had checked his ticket and headed back under the nearest rock, I invited the lad to sit with me. Better to keep him where I could see him, I thought. He took the seat opposite me and put out his hand.
‘Joe’, he said.
‘Jack’, I replied, shaking his hand. ‘Where’re you off to?’
‘My mam’s’, he said. ‘She moved to Geordieland last month. Thought I’d surprise her with a visit.’
He was lying of course. Every word he said was probably a lie.
‘Where’re you from?’ I asked.
‘York by way of Manchester. I’ve moved around a lot. And you? You’re Scottish right?’
‘Aye. Leith born and bred. On my way home myself.’
He had bright blue eyes, which made him look even younger than he probably was. His shaved head and black stubbly face did him no favours though.
‘How long have you been down here?’
‘Oh, a few years now. Scotland’s always been home though.’
‘I went to Scotland once’, he said, his eyes brightening at the memory. ‘When I was a kid.’
‘Fort William’, he said. ‘My parents took me before my dad died.’
‘Oh, sorry to hear that, Son.’ He had better not be lying. Not about that. You don’t lie about that.
‘It’s alright. It was a long time ago now anyways. Ten, no, twelve years ago.’ Twelve years. That was how long it’d been since I’d seen the bairns. Something about how he spoke told me he was speaking the truth. I don’t know. Maybe it was just hope.
‘That’s not that long. Longer for a young lad like you though, for sure. Blink of an eye to an old Thomas like me.’
As we passed the time, getting to know each other, I started to believe him. He was a scally, for sure. But he wasnae a bad lad. He reminded me of my own son when he was a bairn. Young. Naïve. Easily led. But with a good heart. I still didn’t trust him, but I’d precious little worth robbing, so I decided to put him to the test.
‘I need the facilities’, I said mid-conversation. ‘Do you mind watching my bags?’
‘Okay’, he said, a little too fast.
‘Aye. You’re an honest lad’, I said. ‘They’ll be safe with you watching them.’
If he had any crooked ideas, I wanted him to feel at least a little guilty.
When I came back everything was just as I’d left it. No signs he’d tocked my jacket or my bag. Maybe I was right. Maybe he was a good lad.
‘So what do you do, Son?’ I asked. ‘Are you working?’
‘Not right now’, he said. ‘I was labouring for a while. But there’s no work now.’
‘Pish’, I said. ‘There’s always work. You just need to go looking for it. It won’t come to you, Lad. I remember when I was your age. It was the same then. Nothing changes. I used to travel all round the country for work. You go where you’re needed. You do what you have to. You look after your family.’
‘Is that how you ended up down here?’
I didn’t answer. I just let the silence percolate for a moment.
‘I’m heading to the buffet. Can I get you a drink?’ I asked.
‘Um’, he hesitated. ‘No, that’s okay. Thank you.’
‘I’ll get you a cola. You like cola?’
My son used to love the stuff. I didn’t give him time to argue. I just snatched up my jacket and headed up the train.
‘I’m sorry about this’, I said to the lass at the buffet. ‘I cannae seem to find my wallet.’ I knew where it was for sure. I just didn’t want to give up hope. So I kept searching.
‘Tell you what’, I said, after a minute. ‘Hold those drinks for me. I’ll be back in a mo.’
The walk back seemed longer somehow. Maybe I was just walking slower. I didn’t know what I’d say. I didn’t even know if he’d be there when I got back. Or if my bag would be. My heart started to jitterbug.
When I reached my seat, the bag was where I’d left it, in the rack above the chairs. But Joe was gone and there, sitting on the seat where I’d left my jacket, was my wallet. I opened it and checked if there was anything missing. There wasn’t. My cards, my cash, even my photo of the bairns. It was all there. I was relieved, and steadied myself against the chair.
As I looked up, I saw that we were at Newcastle station already. Joe was on the platform. He was arguing with a police officer. Then it looked like he tried to hit him and he ran back towards the train.
I straightened up. He was a good lad. Just lost his way a wee bit, is all. I’d been there myself. I dashed for the door, hoping to catch it before it closed. I didnae know what I’d say to him. I just wanted to help. But I was too slow. The doors closed as I reached them and I watched as the constable tackled him, dragging him to the ground.
As he looked up at me with his bright blue eyes, the train started to move and I felt my heart breaking.
It felt like my heart was going to burst. My suitcase wasnae big, but it was heavy and it was awkward to lug behind me. I ran as fast as I could. I’d waited more than ten years to catch this train. There was no way I was going to miss it. Everyone else had got on already. Apart from a young lad at the far end of the platform, I was the only one left.
By the time I reached the train I could feel the whole left side of my body tingling. I dove through the first doors I saw and grabbed hold of the nearest seat. I knew my heart was on the edge. I took the bottle of pills from my pocket and slipped two into my mouth, crushing them between my teeth.
A couple of minutes later, I heard the door at the other end of the carriage slide open and the lad I’d seen on the platform appeared. I paid him no heed at first, ignoring him to take off my tie. But then he sat behind me. All those empty seats and he came and sat next to me.
You’re a fool, Jack, I told myself. You’re a paranoid fool. Just been out of the game too long is all. Not used to folks is all.
It wasnae long until the ticket inspector started his rounds. He took the tickets of the other passengers first. A young lass and a woman who sat reading a newspaper. Then he came to me.
‘One second’, I said, searching every pocket I could think of. ‘I cannae find it.’
It made no sense. I’d just bought it. I’d put it in my jacket pocket, I was sure of it. I checked, and then checked again.
‘Could it be in your bag, Sir?’
‘No, Son’, I said. ‘I’ve no opened it all day.’
‘Would you mind checking for me? Just in case.’
Stuck up Sassenach, I thought. Thinking he’s some kind of authority.
I gave the ticket to the guard, watching the man’s reaction out of the corner of my eye. He didn’t move.
‘Where are you travelling to, Sir?’ the guard asked.
‘Edinburgh’, the man said.
‘When did you buy the ticket?’
‘Just before I got on. Not half an hour ago.’
‘Yes, Sir. This seems to be your ticket. Try to be more careful. You’re lucky this was found.’
‘Aye. Very lucky. Thank you, Son’, the man said, looking up at me. He’d bought it. I was in.
‘And your ticket, Sir’, the guard said, turning his attention to me.
I pulled my own ticket from my pocket and gave it to the guard. He punched it and handed it back.
‘Thank you, Sir’, he said, already heading back up the carriage the way he had come.
‘Will you join me, Lad?’ asked the man.
‘Why not?’ I said. This was easier than I thought.
‘Joe’, I said, reaching out to shake the man’s hand as I sat down.
‘Jack’, he replied, taking my hand with a firm grasp. ‘Where’re you off to?’
‘My mam’s. Thought I’d surprise her with a visit.’
‘Where’re you from?’ he asked.
He seemed to be interrogating me, but I answered his questions all the same. Building trust, that’s what it’s all about.
‘So you’re heading to Edinburgh?’
‘Aye’, he said. ‘Going to meet my first Grandson.’ He stood up and removed his jacket and then took his wallet from the inside pocket, dumping the jacket on the seat next to him. Opening the wallet, he showed me the photo inside. It looked old. The colours were dull like they had faded over the years. There were three children. A boy, about twelve, and two girls, no more than five or six.
‘That’s my son. All grown up now, of course’, he said. Then, out of nowhere, ‘I need the facilities. Do you mind watching my bags?’
‘Okay’, I said.
‘Aye. You’re an honest lad. They’ll be safe with you watching them.’
As soon as he was out of sight, I grabbed his wallet from his jacket and slipped it into my pocket.
‘So what do you do, Son?’ he asked when he returned. ‘Are you working?’
Wish I wasn’t, I thought.
‘Not right now’, I said. ‘I was labouring for a while. But there’s no work now.’
‘Pish. There’s always work. I remember when I was your age. I used to travel all round the country for work. You’ve got to look after your family. I’m heading to the buffet. Can I get you a drink?’ he asked.
‘No, that’s okay. Thank you.’ Panic flooded my body. He’d just showed me his wallet. If he looked for it now, he’d know.
‘I’ll get you a cola. You like cola?’
I was stunned. I couldn’t even think of a reply. But then a reprieve. He just grabbed his jacket, and walked away.
I didn’t hesitate. As soon as the door closed behind him I pulled out the wallet and put it back on the seat where his jacket had been. But I didn’t want to hang around to answer questions. As we pulled into Newcastle station I got off and left the wallet behind. It was over. Finished.
‘Excuse me’, called a voice just up the platform.
I turned and made eye contact. Police. A travel cop.
‘Can I ask why you’re in such a hurry?’ he asked as he reached me.
‘Just want to get home’, I replied.
‘And where’s that?’
‘Newcastle. West End.’
‘Trouble is, we’ve had reports of pickpockets working this line. You wouldn’t know about that would you?’
He was going to search me. I knew it. I knew the signs. It wasn’t the first time I’d been searched, and I’d developed the habit of mentally running through a list of everything I had on me whenever the words ‘police search’ were so much as mentioned.
Keys, I thought. Ticket, wallet, watch, pills. PILLS! I still had Jack’s pills.
I looked back at the train. Jack was back at the table and looking straight at us. I didn’t wait, I just pulled the pills from my pocket and barged the uniform aside as I ran for the train.
I managed to make it a few steps but then he dragged me down and twisted my arms right up my back.
As the guard blew the whistle and the train doors closed I watched the pills roll down the platform. Twisting my head, I craned my neck and met Jack’s eyes through the windows of the train doors. The wheels hissed as the train started to roll forwards, and then Jack grabbed at his chest, his eyes bulging.