University of Portsmouth student Phoebe Hedges finds a new mystery in a very familiar train journey.
It was the end of my first year at university and I travelled home for the summer. Yet each weekend, I found myself spending my student loan to make the three-hour commute back to Pompey. First, it was under the guise of playing Dungeons and Dragons with my university friends. But slowly, I realised this wasn’t entirely true. I wasn’t making this journey for the city, or a game. Moreover, I realised home wasn’t always the place I left behind in Gravesend, instead it was becoming the person I was travelling back to in Portsmouth.
I checked my phone as I stepped onto platform nine at Waterloo East station and willed the free Wi-Fi to work faster and show me the live departures board. There was no time to stop — not in London — so I kept walking up the platform, towards Waterloo. As I reached the top of the ramp, my phone came alive, buzzing with notifications and text messages as the departure board simultaneously loaded. There were three trains to Portsmouth Harbour. The first one left in two minutes. Then twenty-five minutes. The third wouldn’t depart for another hour.
I broke into a run, and forgot patience as I moved recklessly down the right-hand side of the escalator without holding onto the railings. I cut through the crowds of suits and suitcases, and spared a cursory glance at the overhead departure boards to check they aligned with my phone. They did. I kept moving, weaving my way across the shiny tiled floor, and watching as multiple clocks told me I wasn’t moving fast enough. I could no longer taste my morning coffee as I charged through the barriers. My heart hammered in my chest and the taste of blood on my tongue replaced the fuzzy sweetness of coffee and vanilla syrup.
Breathless, I threw myself through the doors of the train, and struggled to find my feet as the shifting weight of my backpack threatened to throw me into the other doors. I checked my phone again. On the departure board, there is my train — due to depart one minute ago, DELAYED. I sighed, and slowly slinked off to find a seat, taking it slow after my half mile sprint down the platform.
I settled into an empty four-seater, threw my oversized backpack into the seat next to me, and rebelliously put my tired Converse on the chair opposite. I rested my forehead against the window, staring past my sullen reflection.
My phone vibrated in my hand, reminding me about a text message I had chosen to ignore.
Good morning. Text me and let me know where you are. I want to meet you at the station.
I studied the message for a few minutes. The text wasn’t unexpected; after all, I was just about to stay with them for the weekend. It read like all their other text messages: straightforward, to the point and friendly.
But just friendly?
Recently, reading Andi’s texts had come to resemble a full-time job at Bletchley Park. Each time I reread the message, the creeping memory that I had tried to put out of mind crawled across the skin of my cheeks. The feeling of Andi’s prosecco infused lips on my face last Friday felt more than friendly.
i’ve just left Waterloo—google mas says I’ll arrive at 12:37– but it’s raining, you don’t have to come and meet me— we don’t both need to get wet 🙂
With Dua Lipa’s New Rules playing through my iPod, I tried to make my reply friendly — we were friends — but not too friendly. No one had ever offered to meet me at the station before, but I warned myself against reading too much into an act of kindness. Andi was a good person. They probably offered to meet all their friends at the station. It’s just what people do.
I’ll be okay, I’ve got an umbrella. 🙂 It means I can see you sooner.
I studied this message for longer than three minutes, staring at my screen until it faded to black. I watched my reflection until my lungs began to burn, I was holding my breath. The message wasn’t making any more sense the more I stared, or giving me any more answers. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t about me at all. Andi was probably just excited to play D&D again.
But they wanted to see me sooner. That was more than just friendly, wasn’t it?
I chewed my lip as I turned to the window. We left the London suburbs and drove into the England you only see in postcards. I still had a long time to go until Fratton, and instead of wasting time deciphering the enigma text, I focused on the scenery. Rolling hills ran over the horizon, occasionally framed by trees that it was hard to imagine could be anything but evergreen, here in the heat of midsummer.
Rain came and went from the window as the train passed through farmland and lush green fields. Still miles and miles and forty-five minutes ’til Pompey. I passed stagnant bodies of water and for a week I would adamantly maintain that the long necked opalescent, silver bird drinking from one of the murky pools was a crane. I would later be confronted with the possibility that it was a heron, but until then, would remain blissfully awestruck in my ignorance.
I was amazed at the scenery passing by the window. How many of other passengers noticed the menagerie of wildlife I thought only existed on Springwatch?
Further along a fox, healthier than any I’d ever seen in the city, watched the carriages hurtle past. Its coat, shiny and thick, was a glowing amber, broken only by patches of snowy white. Two beady, black, intelligent eyes locked onto mine as we passed, it’s head twisting to follow as the train flew past. Then I was gone.
just got onto the island—you really don’t have to come and meet me
I didn’t understand why I kept texting Andi, why I was giving them the option to go back on their word. Something in me (experience?) whispered not to get my hopes up. Andi probably wouldn’t meet me at the station, they were probably just being polite.
Too late. I’m already there. 🙂 See you soon. 🙂
I flew beneath the Havant Bypass. The girl in the window had a subtle smile at the corner of her lips. I looked past her to snatch a last glimpse of nature before the concrete labyrinth of Hilsea and Fratton swallowed up the train. My smile was nothing in comparison to the hidden stretch of splendour behind the Voyager Industrial Park.
At high tide, shimmering blue water laps the gravel shore. Families of mallards and coots bob along its surface, bills opening and closing as they chatter through the window pane. An occasional dog and its owner out on a walk made me momentarily jealous. The locals know how to get to such a place on foot when I only ever skimmed the surface from the train.
Maybe this was a place to tell Andi about. Maybe we could walk between the wildflowers and the weeds, even if neither of us had a playful golden retriever to give us the excuse.
All too soon, the train slips back into its natural habitat. In the burgeoning white gold sunlight, something is different. Though warehouses still bleed into council estates, and though ratty flags of the St George cross still flap as we fly past, the dilapidated gardens don’t look so dead. The smashed-in windows of garden sheds sparkle in the sunlight, the bleakest corners of the city brighten.
Then, finally, the train pulls into Fratton Station, disturbing a roving gang of slate grey pigeons as they pick at the abandoned bones of Ken’s Fried Chicken. I haul my backpack over my shoulders, and half step, half fall, onto the platform.
As I begin to climb the stairs, our eyes meet and Andi smiles. Maybe Fratton isn’t so ugly after all.
Photography of Southsea street art (artist unknown), Sarah Cheverton.
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