Short story: Pendolino, by Chris Strain-Clark

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The land racing past the train window tipped away abruptly so that for one vertiginous moment Jennifer seemed to be suspended miles above the fields spread out below.

The next minute she was swaying to regain her balance as the land rose dizzily on her side of the compartment. Now as the train rushed headlong towards what looked like a black hole, she closed her eyes and covered her face. Perhaps she was trying to hide from whatever awaited her at the end of this too fast, too short journey. She was not ready to see Geoffrey again, to meet his eyes for the first time in nearly forty years, to acknowledge that it was far too late now to go back and start again.

That was the trouble with the electronic age. Everything was too easy and happened too quickly. In the good old days of snail mail she’d never have dreamt of contacting Geoffrey out of the blue.

Not after that last disastrous meeting, overshadowed as it had been by pressure from her parents to end the relationship, and her own reluctance to agree to Geoffrey’s earnest importuning about free love. She had been so young! But when she had stumbled upon him on Facebook, it had been the work of seconds to become his virtual friend.

Would she even recognise him, and perhaps more to the point, would he recognise her? Jennifer had been a shapely teenager with auburn locks when they parted, and now she was a greying middle-aged woman. How had the years gone by so fast? It was all very well to exchange e-mails, and tell each other of marriages, divorces, children and grandchildren, of triumphs achieved and disasters suffered, and to convince themselves they still had a future together but even the long telephone conversations had failed to prepare her for this momentous meeting. Now she had to confront her old boyfriend face to face.

The pendolino’s rhythm changed as they reached a slower section of track, so Jennifer felt she could risk a quick peep at the scenery outside. Sure enough the tilting had eased, and their movement felt more natural though the high-pitched electronic hum was nothing like the old singing rhythms she remembered from the trains of her youth. When the loudspeaker crackled, she feared they were already nearing their destination, but the indecipherable announcement just heralded the arrival of the buffet trolley. Costa coffee - how unlike the railway refreshments of old.

‘Yes please. A small coffee, and an almond croissant.’

Jennifer watched with admiration as the very young attendant confidently poured boiling water into her corrugated cardboard cup. The angle of the carriage had resumed an alarming gradient and the air rushed past noisily as if they were trapped inside a high-powered vacuum cleaner. She was afraid to lift the steaming hot liquid herself, so nibbled her croissant first while her coffee cooled.

The old British Rail coffee she remembered had been tepid, and practically indistinguishable from British Rail tea, while the only food available used to be a choice between a stale sausage roll and a Lyons fruit pie.

That had been on their last real date, when they’d splashed out on a daytrip to Boulogne, a really exotic undertaking for a schoolgirl in the 1960s, though now she realised it must have seemed pretty run-of-the–mill to Geoffrey, already a postgraduate student at University College. She hadn’t known what to order in the little French restaurant under the city walls, and had let him talk her into Moules Marinière. A lifelong vegetarian, Jennifer had been appalled by the large bowl of cloudy water full of the floating shells of dead sea creatures, and had eaten only the bread that went with it.

It seemed the pendolino was not stopping at the next station, though it did a lot of hooting. It didn’t even slow down enough for her to read any signs before the fields started to plunge and rear anew. Jennifer gazed in amazement as her coffee stayed resolutely in the cup with no sign of disturbance other than a ripple of concentric circles moving slowly outwards. On the ferry from Folkestone to Boulogne - no channel tunnel in those days – the china coffee cups had kept sliding across the table. They’d had to jump to catch them before they fell to the floor. On the return journey she’d persuaded Geoffrey to buy her duty-free beer and cigarettes - she’d drunk and smoked until she’d had to stagger to the ladies to be sick.

Jennifer could hardly believe she’d been so naïve and now did not blame her parents for their concern when she’d arrived home in the early hours, pale, tired and wearing clothes stained with vomit and in disarray after a frustrated Geoffrey had attempted to go a step too far.

Nowadays they’d probably call it attempted rape, maybe even child abuse - she certainly hadn’t reached her sixteenth birthday. Had he been hoping to exploit her all along, or was he just carried away by sudden strong emotions?

He had written to her at the time, apologising, begging her forgiveness, but she’d never replied.

People were starting to stand up in the carriage, and collect their belongings. Maybe she was making a mistake, trying to recover a lost friendship and her own lost youth. She could easily hide amongst the passengers disembarking, he had no idea what she looked like now.

But as the train slowed down and finally drew to a silent halt, she couldn’t help searching the crowd on the platform for a glimpse of someone who looked like the Geoffrey she had once loved, the Geoffrey of the e-mails whose life seemed to have moved parallel to her own in so many ways.

And there suddenly was Geoffrey – older, greyer, smaller even – but undoubtedly Geoffrey, a Geoffrey who had no difficulty recognising his Jennifer. She flew into his arms as if it were only yesterday they’d parted. Perhaps it wasn’t too late after all.