The Time Was Then

By Sue Simpson

Chain Border

Liz rushed towards the station. She stumbled over a loose stone and cursed under her breath as she groped for an invisible steadying arm to aid her balance. The seconds were rushing towards midnight and this was both a good and a bad thing for Liz. Good because there was no one to see her inelegant sprawl as she nearly found herself on her backside on the damp paving stones, and bad because she was wearing five-inch heels and was in imminent danger of missing the last train home. The height of her heels and the time of the due train, having direct relevance to each other at that particular moment, urged her to totter as fast as she could down the steep hill. If she missed that Twelve-oh-four train she was in for a long wait on the platform for the next one at six-twenty a.m.

Her shoes echoed eerily as she clattered over the stone tiled floor that led onto the platform. The small-town station was unmanned and as a woman alone and isolated at that unfriendly hour Liz should have felt alarmed, but she wasn't. Liz was street wise and wary enough to be able to look after herself. All she felt as she looked around the deserted station was the ice-cold fingertips of a perverted wind. Not for the first time that night her nipples had risen to taut peaks at insistent manipulation, and not for the first time goosepimples covered her flesh and caused her to shiver. The tiny black leather mini-skirt and matching basque top were little protection and she stamped her feet to try and induce some friction heat to her chilled limbs. A jealous rival had taken a razor blade to her only coat when Liz encroached on the vixen's patch a few days earlier, tonight's earnings would go towards getting a new winter coat. But that was little comfort standing in a dirty-old-man-headwind at midnight in the middle of November.

She looked up at the massive station clock. The small hand was on the twelve and the large wrought iron pointer was mid way between five and ten past.

Bugger!

Sometimes-quite often in fact-trains ran late. She hoped that tonight might be one of those nights. But Liz knew that if she didn't have a regular supply of bad luck, she wouldn't have any luck at all and her hope turned to desperation at the thought of spending the rest of the night on the freezing cold platform.

She stared down the tracks towards the gaping mouth of the tunnel that would spit out the arrival of any late running trains. A haze of thick fog swirled around the entrance and Liz thought she saw a figure forming itself from the icy mists. She rubbed her hands vigorously together and managed a half-hearted laugh at her fanciful imagination. The eerie atmosphere of the deserted station and the night's darkness were getting to her.

Silly Cow! She told herself. But her eyes were drawn back towards the tunnel and this time there was no mistaking the fact that someone was coming out of the darkness and walking towards her.

The woman was old and bent, she limped slightly and wore a long black coat that ended just above her ankle. Although the lady didn't exactly have the appearance of a tramp, she had about her an air of despondency and of having been dealt a bum hand from life's pack. As she neared Liz a waft of cigarette smoke and cheap booze preceded her.

At closer range she looked familiar to Liz but that was ridiculous, Liz didn't mix in circles that encountered many old people. She didn't smile at them in the street or give her seat up for them on the bus. She had nothing in common with the elderly and if this woman was a near neighbour of hers, she doubted that she would ever recognise her. Liz blinked in the poor lighting of the station.

Surely the woman didn't come out of the tunnel, she must have come from the side of it. Liz's eyes must be playing tricks on her with the lateness of the hour. She dropped her head and examined her shoes as the lady approached. The last thing she wanted to do was get involved in a conversation about incontinence with some old crone, things seemed to be going from bad to horrendous by the second.

"Missed the train then did you?" Said the woman not reading or maybe just not heeding Liz's stand-offish body language. "That was careless."

Something in the hag's tone made Liz look up. The woman's eyes couldn't be more than a shade off black. Even in the bad light the dark peer of her shrewd eyes pushed the blackness of the night into a diffused shade of charcoal. Her teeth were yellow and chipped, and the crevices of her chamois skin showed a lifetime of misery and hardship. She wore no make-up and her only perfume - had Liz been able to identify it - was the clinging remnants from a spilled can of Special Brew.

"Thought you'd missed it." she shook her old head and a tangle of grey strands blew across her cheek. "Yup thought you had."

Liz felt like telling the old witch that she didn't have to sound so bloody righteous about it but she didn't. In fact she didn't know what to say.

"Don't talk much do ya missy? What's the matter? Reckon you're too good to talk to the likes of an old lady down on her luck do ya? Don't worry Duck, I'm not going to ask you for money of anything."

Liz had no respect for anyone least of all herself, so she would have had no qualms in telling the woman to piss off, but she was cold and tired and didn't have the energy for an argument. All she wanted to do was get home and fall gratefully into bed. Like many nights before this one, the semen of several men would be left to ferment in her body until she washed the next day. The old woman, like the stale sperm, was a minor irritation in an altogether shitty night. But the way she was staring made Liz feel as though she should say something.

"Did you see it then? The train? Have I missed it?"

"Don't you wish you had Dearie? Don't you just wish you had missed the train?"

Lizzie had a very short lease on a low tenement temper. The crazy old coot was really pissing her off now. She opened her mouth to tell the woman exactly where she could take her foul breath and demented drivel, but her tormentor raised a hand in such a forceful manner that Lizzie thought she was going to strike her.

"Ah let me finish child. I've been walking the earth a few years longer than you have and that gives me a few natural rights when it comes to this here conversation. Bide yer time and listen to a bit o' wisdom and then we'll see what yer have to say."

Liz stared with her mouth still open. Things were bizarre and surreal and coated in misty-fuzz. She was wary of her unwelcome companion. She could easily overpower her should she have to, but she didn't know what it was about the woman that made her apprehensive.

"There was another train once. A train that I shouldn't have taken. We should have missed that train, you and me. Aye Lass, we shoulda missed that train."

Liz wondered if the woman was mistaking her for a daughter or something, she was talking in riddles, perhaps she had escaped from a local care home or something.

"You don't know who I am do you? No you don't know because you're too scared to look." the woman continued.

"Hey," said Liz rising to the bait. "I'm not scared of anyone. Shouldn't you be in bed with half a dozen sleeping pills and some pink knitted bed socks? You mad old cow. What're you doing here anyhow?"

The woman never flinched at the aggression in Liz's tone.

"Isn't that obvious? I was waiting for you lass."

"I don't know you," said Liz her voice laden with impatience and irritation.

"Oh but you do, you just don't want to admit it to yourself."

The woman had an attack of phlegmy coughing that left her breathless and rasping, but she seemed determined to stand talking rather than get off to wherever it was that she called home. Liz took several steps back in case the hag's cough was infectious.

"It were over forty year ago now. Sixteen I was sixteen and knew it all. Oh nobody could tell me anything. Stood on a station just like this, the sun was shining and running away was just one big adventure. I put me dignity on that train and never got it back. And you know the only thing that kept me away from me family and their love?"

She didn't wait for an answer

"Pride, stupid pride that wouldn't let me admit how wrong I'd been. My family would have forgiven me anything."

She looked Liz over, reading her, knowing.

"Yes even that, God bless them, they'd even forgive me for selling my body to strangers and perverts. But from the day I left to the day I die, which won't be so very long now God willing, I've never made contact. Dignity is too fragile to pack off on a train Dearie. Don't you wish you'd missed that train?"

Liz looked the old woman squarely in the eye for the first time and she confronted herself.

Elizabeth Caldwell smiled, as she saw realisation dawn on the younger woman's face, and Liz recoiled in horror as she saw herself forty years down the line. She didn't want to grow into this lonely downtrodden woman.

"What's happening? Are you a ghost?" Liz was trembling as fear rode its way up each of her vertebrae. The old woman laughed and phlegm rattled in her throat.

"No, no, dear. I'm as real as you are. I'm just a glimpse of what yer future holds and you are my trip down a sordid and dirty memory lane. I don't know why we've been given this meeting, or what if anything it'll lead us to, but here we are an` neither of us is too impressed with the other."

Liz's eyes filled with tears and she reached out a hand to touch her future. The woman didn't move. Liz's hand felt the scruffy black coat. She felt as though she should apologise for what she had made the woman become. She didn't understand that all that she was, Elizabeth Caldwell had already been.

She glanced at the clock. It was still only twelve fifteen, she had only been on the platform a little over five minutes and in that time she had travelled forward forty years.

"Keep an eye on the time Dearie because before you know it, you'll be wearing these old boots and hacking this cough."

She didn't want to tear her eyes from the second hand of the clock. Each second was ticking away as the hand moved in its anti-clockwise motion round the face. Something wasn't right and Liz felt dizzy.

She looked back to the old woman, needing to know what was happening to her … to them.

The lady had gone and Liz stood alone on the misty railway platform.

Tick, Tick, Tick.

She heard the clock, until this moment she hadn't been aware of the noise of its mechanism.

Tick, Tick, Tick.

It was speeding up, going faster.

She looked up and the second hand was moving quickly round the face. Twelve minutes past twelve.

She could see the minute hand moving Twelve-eleven, twelve-ten.

The clock was moving backwards, anti-clockwise, the wrong way.

Faster.

Faster.

Liz's head began to swim and she stumbled back to sit on the cold iron bench along the platform wall. She felt dizzy, sick, disorientated.

Putting her head in her hands, she curled herself forward to rest on her knees. She felt the freezing slats of the bench on her bottom, and even more deeply she felt the mess that her life had become. Through her fingers she could see a large hole in the knee of her tights and a ladder disappearing up her thigh and under the leather of her skirt. She felt drunk and tried to clear her thoughts. Maybe that last client had slipped something into her drink. Perhaps this was some horrible hallucination. She tried to reason with her mind that just wanted to take flight in panic. If this was drugs then it would pass.

She concentrated on her breathing.

Inhale, one, two, three.

Exhale, one, two, three.

She had no idea how long she kept it up, and she wasn't aware that she had stopped trembling with cold and fear. She didn't even know how long there had been voices surrounding her.

Somebody tapped her on the shoulder.

"Excuse me? Are you all right love?" She raised her head and even on the covered platform had to squint until she became accustomed to the bright sunlight.

She looked into the kind face of a man about her father's age. Liz swiped at the tears streaming down her face and wished that her dad was like this man. He was smiling at her. Her dad didn't smile very often, he always seemed to be nagging. She was sure this man would never stop his kids from seeing their friends after nine-o clock at night. Hell it had only been one rotten disco. All her mates went to discos. But no, her folks had to show her up by insisting that if she went, then they'd be there to pick her up at midnight. Well that was it wasn't it? She couldn't go could she? Not with the olds turning up to take her home. What if she'd copped off with a lad? How embarrassing would that be?

She managed a weak smile. "Yes thanks, I'm fine."

"Well young lady if you don't mind my saying you look far from fine to me."

He plonked himself down on the bench beside her.

"Sandwich?" He offered, uncovering a pack of squashed cheese butties wrapped in tin-foil.

"No Thanks." said Liz.

"Don't blame you, don't think I will either. You know something? My missus thinks sarnies come in three varieties, cheese, cheese or cheese. Huh and you think you've got problems." He leaned over and threw the pack of sandwiches into the bin beside the bench.

Liz laughed and picked a stray hair off her jeans, then she sat up and for want of something to do with them put her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket.

"So where are you going, er?"

"Liz," said Liz. "And I'm going to Manchester."

"Bob," said the man extending his hand; Liz shook it with a shy smile. "Grim place though Manchester and quite a journey. Got family there have you?"

Liz shuffled uncomfortably on the seat.

"Er, yes." She lied "I'm going to stay with my auntie for a few days. Bit of a holiday."

"Ah right," said Bob, it was obvious from his raised left eyebrow that he saw right through Liz's lie.

"I see, must be a right old dragon this auntie of yours for you to be crying so hard at the thought of going to stay with her."

Liz felt the tears spring from her eyes again and found herself telling Bob how horrible her life was. She wasn't allowed to do anything. None of her mates had to study for two hours every single night. None of her mates had to be in at nine o clock, and none of them had to do chores for their pocket money. It was so unfair.

"Hmm," said Bob after listening patiently to what she had to say without interrupting.

"Your parents must really have a lot of faith in you."

"What do you mean?" asked Liz perplexed.

"Well for them to risk such anger from you and still go with their instinct to protect and love you, they must really trust in your judgement and love. Know what I reckon? I reckon they are probably wondering where you are. Know what my daughter does when she's in a pissy-fit with me?"

Liz laughed, 'pissy-fit' sounded funny coming from this man in a suit. "What?"

"She locks herself in the bathroom, uses all the hot water, and lies in the bath playing that god-awful loud music and sulking for hours. I can highly recommend it. Guaranteed to give your father the maximum discomfort possible. We old men need to pee often you know. Oh well here's my train."

With that he patted Liz affectionately on the knee. And got up.

"Just one last word from an interfering stranger sweetheart, just think on that runaways have a nasty habit of ending up either dead or very lonely." he said with a wink and walked towards his train.

Liz's train was due any minute. She waved as the man turned to close the train door behind him. Suddenly she had the image of a lonely old lady shuffling along a railway platform in the dark. Liz shuddered. And then she heaved her small hold-all onto her shoulder and walked out of the station.

As she hurried along the road in the direction of home. She passed an old couple walking a dog. The smartly dressed lady had her arm linked through the man's and they were talking. Liz stepped to one side to let them past and as she met the old lady's laughing, dark eyes she wondered briefly where she had seen her before.

Legends Online