This story is by Rhianna Bonsall and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Kenneth stared out of the train window, at the sign informing him they were at Doncaster. He sighed, a sigh that seemed to come from the very depths of his soul. A hectic life, the one he led. Retirement had not been the peaceful reprieve he had expected it to be, but the train was calm at least. Train rides always gave him time to think. He liked to watch the world go by, watch commuters sit together and share space, even if just for an hour. Sometimes, worlds collide on trains, thought Kenneth, and it is a fascinating thing to see.
A young woman, elegantly dressed with long brunette locks appeared in the seat next to him, bringing Kenneth back to the little train carriage. She gave a small wave and a glowing smile to the older woman stood on the platform, waving and gesturing in an exaggerated fashion.
Kenneth chuckled. “That your mum?”
The woman laughed too. “Yeah, that’s her. No idea what she’s trying to say though.”
A wave of happy sadness came over Kenneth. Once upon a time, he stood on that platform, waving his girl off to university. Gosh, what a long time ago. His daughter was all grown up now. He coughed the thought away and turned to the young woman.
* * *
Emma blew a kiss at her mum one last time as the train set off, then settled back in her seat, checking her watch. She had plenty of time.
“Going anywhere nice this evening, dear?” said the old man seated next to her.
“I’m going to meet my boyfriend, he’s taking me out for an early birthday celebration.” She found herself getting butterflies at the thought of Ryan, which surprised her, mainly because she didn’t let herself get attached to men. Ryan had offered to pick her up from her mum’s, but she immediately declined. His driving absolutely terrified her, showing off in his bloody Vauxhall Corsa.
“Ooh, sounds exciting.”
It was exciting. Ryan always went the extra mile where she was concerned; flowers, chocolates, expensive food, the whole shebang. But nerves crept along Emma’s entire body, clutching at her stomach. She found herself confiding in this lonely old man on a lonely train, although she didn’t really know why.
“To be honest, I think he might propose tonight.”
Now, unless times had changed dramatically since he’d been a young sprout, Kenneth was quite sure proposals were supposed to be joyous occasions. A man announcing his love to his soul mate and asking her to be his forever. But the woman didn’t look joyous. In fact, she looked like she’d just been told her boyfriend had died, not that he planned to propose.
“And… that’s bad?”
“No, I mean, in anyone else’s head it wouldn’t be.”
“Well, do you love the young man?”
“Yes, I do.”
Kenneth crinkled his fuzzy brow at the woman, kind yet confused. “Then my dear, what’s the problem?”
The problem, thought Emma, is me. Her parents divorced when she was nine years old, and it had been the most traumatic experience of her childhood. Then, when she turned fourteen, she learned the truth. Her father cheated repeatedly on her mother. He broke her in ways too numerous and painful to comprehend. And afterwards she wanted little to do with him, or any man.
Then Ryan entered her life. As if someone left the back door open unwittingly, and a huge gust of breeze had come in, knocking everything askew and rearranging her life magically in a way that made sense, making her wonder why she’d never arranged it that way before.
Emma explained as much to the kind old man. He listened as though listening to his own daughter worry over a boy. And when she finished, he delivered fatherly advice.
“Well when I was a boy, I fell in love with a girl. She is now my wife, and I haven’t looked back since the day I proposed to her. Her father didn’t like me. But she fought for us. She fought for the life we shared for decades.”
Emma watched as a curtain of sadness closed on the weary face in front of her, as if ending the show of the happy old man on the train. “Your wife… where is she now?”
Kenneth forgot he was talking to the stranger next to him. He forgot he was talking to anyone at all. “She’s at the hospital, fighting a new fight. Cancer, this time.”
Pain shot through him, as fresh as the day of the diagnosis. The young woman sat speechless, and in the momentary silence, the train stopped moving. The earth stopped spinning. Sadness engulfed everything. “The doctors told us it’s terminal. They suggested she stop the treatment and make the most out of her last days, but she refused.”
The train ticket in his hand was now a tightly compressed ball of paper, but Kenneth barely noticed. A single decision from his wife had caused a rift between them. It felt like a rebuke to her life with him, to sell away the last of their days together, their one last romance, in return for more days of chemotherapy and suffering, more endless days of fighting a losing fight.
“You must be so proud.”
Remembering where he was, and who with, Kenneth raised his head, blinking back tears he hadn’t realised were starting to leak. It certainly wasn’t the reply he expected.
His silence made the woman continue. “That’s the reason you fell in love with her, right? Because she’s a fighter. Even in the face of something so huge, she can’t help but fight it for a longer life with you.”
The old man with the weary heart took a second glance at his life. His wife, his darling wife, suffered so much in the last few years. Yet here she remained, tirelessly fighting for their life together. Even if it didn’t work, it was in her nature. She’s a fighter. How could she not fight?
Kenneth smiled, truly smiled, for the first time in a while. He smiled through the tears at this stranger who had changed his life for the better, unbeknown to her.
They talked in their own bubble, this old lonely man visiting his dying wife and this young woman about to start a new life. Because she no longer felt afraid. You never know what hand you’ll be dealt, Emma reflected sadly as she shared tales with the old man. She needed to act now. Fight for a life with Ryan.
When the train came to a halt, the strangers got off, parting as friends. Emma, on her way to start a life with her love, and Kenneth on his way to say goodbye to his life’s love.
Before he made his way up to his wife’s hospital room, Kenneth stopped at the reception gift shop and bought flowers. Lilies. Her favourite. It was never too late to spoil her, especially when it could be his last opportunity to.
Rekindled butterflies bounced against the walls of his stomach as he approached her door, just like the day he walked up to her front door to propose. Pushing it open, his first sight of Dr. Handerson stood at his wife’s bedside almost caused him to drop the flowers in sudden fear of the worst. He realised his wife was crying. They were not the tears of a dying woman, though. Rather, tears of happiness. Utterly bewildered, Kenneth looked to the doctor as if looking to a higher deity for meaning.
“Mr. Oswald. I was just telling Rose the good news.” Genuine happiness lit his smile. “She’s been given the all clear. She’s a free woman.”
Kenneth dropped the flowers in the end anyway, at some point during the rush towards his wife, in the blur of tears and hugging arms. They cried and laughed on each other’s shoulders. Kenneth looked up at the doctor through the veil of tears. “She’s a fighter.”
The lamplights looked oddly ominous as Emma made her way through town, the red glow on the path giving the appearance of spilled blood. Approaching the restaurant, Emma saw commotion nearby. Her stomach dropped as she passed the car crash. She hated seeing accidents. They only served to remind humanity of the fragility of life.
Then she saw the car. His bloody Vauxhall Corsa.
She didn’t hear the policemen when they said she couldn’t approach. She didn’t even feel them try to grab her arm. She only saw the car, the crash, Ryan’s lifeless form. She still didn’t hear even her own wailing as she seized his hand and begged him. Begged him for what, she couldn’t say. Lost on the floor of the car laid the ring in its velvet box, a forgotten momento from someone else’s life, someone else’s world.
Sometimes, worlds collide on trains. And sometimes, lives do.