Authors: Tim Clare
To commence transit the student must fully immerse himself in the black ocean. The sensation is not unlike drowning while being burned alive: baptism and cremation. Remember to remove false teeth.
Transportation And Its Practice
, A. Prentice
NINE MONTHS EARLIER
THE FIRE SERMON
ondensation streamed down the window of the third-class carriage. Delphine pressed her nose to the glass. Outside, the fields and hedgerows were blinding with snow. Amber fires burned in the eyes of lonely cottages. Her fingers closed round the crisp brown paper parcel in her lap.
Ever since she had seen the set of fine hog brushes in the art shop window, she had known they were the answer. Laid out in a case of polished mahogany, they were elegant and very, very expensive, exactly the kind of grown-up present a sophisticated daughter would give to her artist father. The same night, she had begun saving.
For weeks, she had dropped pennies into the sock that she kept wedged between her mattress and bedsprings, forswearing liquorice, sherbet, lemon bonbons, regarding the tuck shop with the calm, famished humility of Jesus refusing to turn stones to bread. She even sold the brooch her late grandmother had given her â an oval of pink jasper depicting winged cherubs beside a woman playing the harp â to Eleanor Wethercroft for a shilling. A fortnight before the end of term, she tipped out the sock to find a miserable six shillings and thruppence. That night she had lain awake, devastated. The next morning, a letter arrived from Mother. It explained that, instead of getting picked up by car, Delphine was to buy a ticket and catch
the train home. With the letter was a postal order for a pound and twelve shillings.
The carriage was cramped and stuffy. On the seat opposite, a big crumpled man puffed at his cigar. He had the persecuted air of one who feels keenly the resentment of his fellow travellers, and resolves, by way of revenge, to justify it. The
crossword lay folded on his knee. He alternated between jotting answers in pencil and breathing slow clouds of pungent yellow smoke. The young lady to his left tutted and sighed, a book
shuddering in her sheepskin-gloved hands.
Delphine pictured Daddy's delight when she stepped through the front door: his sleeves rolled up, his arms spread wide, ready for the crushing hug, the musk of oil paints and perspiration as he pressed her to his hard chest.
âDelphy! Oh, I've missed you. Oh, how I've
you,' he would say, over and over in an ecstasy of love and repentance, and she would wriggle free and eye him with a sudden sternness, and he would look upon her and see, with a start, not the little girl sent tearfully away at the beginning of term, but a noble and self-possessed young adult.
Then she would climb the stairs two at a time, past the photograph of Grandnan and Grandpapa squinting baffled and austere in their thin gilt frame, across the landing to her bedroom. In a wicker basket on top of the toy chest waited Nelson, her teddy bear, and Hannibal, her stuffed elephant. During the long nights of her first term at St Eustace's, if she had pined for them at all, it was only because she knew that seeing them again would reinforce how she had outgrown their downy, threadbare comforts now that she was almost a grownup, almost complete.
She had never bought Daddy a Christmas gift before. Up until now, he had been the magical provider and she, the dutiful receiving daughter. While a gaggle of aunts â on Mother's side â insisted on
bestowing twee, cloche-hatted dolls and Shirley Temple frocks, Daddy always came up trumps with a train set, or a junior woodworking kit, or Meccano, often barrelling in late but bearing a jolly, Christmassy smell, spilling over with festive joie de vivre.
Last year, however, he had not come home at all. Some time after six, Mother had risen from the settee, walked into the dining room and closed the door. Delphine had waited, blowing on the embers of the fire. Two hours later Mother left the kitchen, walking unsteadily, and went to bed.
Delphine realised now that future Christmases were her responsibility. She was a grown-up, and if she wanted magic, she would have to weave it herself.
The voice loomed close to her ear. She opened her eyes. âMay I see your ticket please, miss?' The conductor's breath was hot and peaty.
Delphine wiped condensation from her cheek and made a show of rummaging in one coat pocket, then the other. The conductor folded his arms. His eyes were grey lozenges converging on a steep, regal nose.
She stood, took off her duffel coat and turned it inside out.
âI'm sorry, I .Â .Â . it must .Â .Â . '
She clambered onto her seat and groped at the luggage rack, wobbling as the train went over a set of points. Her fingertips brushed the suitcase; she made several half-hearted grasps before the conductor stepped forward and helped her get it down.
She sat. Her thumbs fumbled with the catches; the lid sprung open.
âIt's got to be here.' Delphine smeared a palm across her eye, trying to make herself cry â the credibility of her entire performance hinged on it. âMy mother bought it me. I had it. It was
She glanced at the conductor. He glowered over flaring nostrils, nasal hair rippling as he exhaled. She rubbed her eyes again.
âI'll need to see it please, miss.'
She stared at the inside of her suitcase, cheeks prickling with heat.
She needed tears. Her eye caught a label inside the lid where Daddy had written her name and address, beginning:
Delphine G. Venner
Something in his familiar, flamboyant penmanship did the trick â her vision blurred. She felt a warm teardrop slide down to her top lip, where it clung. She began burrowing through clumsily folded underthings and small, scrunched packages, pausing to sniff, dab at her eye with a sock.
âCome on, miss â I've a whole train to get through.'
âAh now leave off the poor girl,' said the big man with the cigar. âShe's going as fast as she can.'
âI'm just doing my job, sir.'
âWell, can't you do it with a bit more chivalry? Look â she's distraught.'
Delphine pushed her face into her hands and heaved out two of her best wretched sobs.
âEvery passenger must have a ticket, sir.'
you her mother bought one.'
âTickets must be presented for inspection, sir.'
Delphine spread her fingers and peered through the gaps. The cigar-smoking gentleman had set down his newspaper and was puffing fractiously, bathing his head in a little cloud.
âCan't you let her off?'
âI can't change the rules for no one, sir.'
âDon't you “sir” me!'
The conductor took a deep breath and pushed out his lower lip.
The cigar-smoker looked to his carriage-mates for support. The other passengers became pointedly transfixed by a loose thread on a cuff, the view out the window and a novel, respectively.
âRight, fine. How much?'
âI'm sorry, sir?'
âFor what, sir?'
âFor a ticket, for a bloody ticket, that's what, sir.' He plugged the cigar stub into the corner of his mouth and took out his wallet. âI
am going to pay her fare, and when I get home I am going to commence a letter-writing campaign the pettiness of which you can't imagine. I warn you, I am a very lonely, very bitter bachelor with vast acres of time at his disposal.'
The conductor's eyelid twitched. Sensing a breach in his hitherto bombproof comportment, Delphine flourished a spotted handkerchief and blew her nose.
âThat won't be necessary, sir.' The conductor nodded at Delphine's luggage. âI spotted a ticket amongst the young lady's effects. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.' And, tweaking the peak of his cap, he left.
The cigar-smoker exhaled through straight white teeth.
âThank you, sir,' said Delphine.
âOh, don't you start now.' He reached the end of his cigar, pulled a face and deposited the stub in his jacket pocket. âWhat are you looking at? Didn't your mother teach you it's rude to stare? Go on, tidy up that clutter. Stop making a spectacle of yourself.' He unfolded his newspaper with a bang and began to read.
Delphine stuffed her things back into the suitcase, humming quietly to herself.
At the next stop, everybody but the grumpy cigar-smoker disembarked. She realised the low, throaty growl coming from behind the wall of newsprint was snoring. As the train gathered speed, she stretched her legs along the seat and took out a bag of pear drops. She sucked one then held it to the light, where it shone like an opal. Lulled by the rumble of the train, she closed her eyes and fell into a contented doze.
Delphine woke with a start, gripped by the conviction she had missed her stop. The carriage was empty. She swung her feet to the floor and turned to the window. Her groggy face gaped back at her. Beyond the glass, the night was rook-black. Her damp hair stuck to her cheek in strands. She shivered.
Pulling on her duffel coat, she got to her feet and walked around the carriage. It was deathly quiet, aside from a steady
. Her chest tightened. The train was heading back to the rail yard.
She imagined spending the night on the cold carriage floor, Mother doubled over in tears on a deserted platform, policemen searching the tracks by electric torchlight, digging in snowbanks, the whisper of pencil lead on notebooks, her fellow passengers brought in for questioning, the finger of blame swinging sure as a compass needle towards the large man with the cigar â
well, he was still with her when I left
â the conductor recounting with relish the man's sudden, unprovoked aggression, his wild gesticulations and fiery eyes â
like a fiend he was, sir, like a man possessed
â the newspapers tattooed with lurid headlines: CIGAR-SMOKING CHILD-SNATCHER STILL AT LARGE, and Daddy, ashen, wracked with torment (at this she felt a pang of guilt), before a knock at the front door, and in she would glide to bellows of relief, to tears and a hug as tight and strong as plate armour.
The train began to slow. Delphine looked out the window and saw houses, and a little way ahead, the lights of a station. She yanked her suitcase off the luggage rack and waited at the door as the train shuddered to a stop.
When she stepped onto the platform the full chill of the evening struck her. She set down her case and spent a few moments fastening the toggles on her coat, the engine snorting and steaming behind her. The guard blew his whistle and the train started its long trudge out of the station. A breeze ghosted the nape of her neck. The last carriage filed past and she was alone.
When Delphine turned around, a woman in a cream coat with big black buttons stood farther down the platform. She was soaked in lamplight, her face flat shadow, the crown of her head blazing gold. All around her was ice.
âDelphine? What on earth are you doing there?' She began striding up the platform. Delphine braced for impact. âDelphine? I've been waiting for you outside first-class. Why are you down here?'
âThey said first-class was full.'
? On a little branch-line stopper like this?' Her mother drew back and puffed as if recoiling from a hot stove. âThe thing was half empty!'
Delphine hung her head.
âOf all the .Â .Â . ' Mother cast about the station, heels scraping the icy platform. âWhere's the stationmaster? I shan't stand for this. I'll wring his â '
âNo.' Mother tugged Delphine's chin sharply upwards and fixed her with keen hazel eyes. âYou paid for a first-class ticket, you should have got a first-class seat. We're not leaving until I receive a refund and a frank and thorough apology.'
âIt's fine. I didn't mind. I â '
âShh! That's quite enough. Honestly Delphine, why didn't you say something? You really must learn to assert yourself.'
Delphine picked up her suitcase and followed Mother in a forced march down the platform to the stationmaster's office, which was closed. Mother rapped on the glass.
âMother, it's closed.' Delphine's fingers ached with cold. Her mittens were deep in her suitcase.
âYour problem is you give up too easily.' Mother switched from her knuckles to the heel of her fist.
âPlease, let's just go. I said it's fine.'
âDon't be obstinate.' Mother dealt the door three crashing blows. âHello? Ah, it's no use. There's no one there.' She turned and sighed. âWell? Are you coming? Philip is waiting with the engine running. It'll never restart in this weather so unless you intend to walk home .Â .Â . '
Delphine hurried towards the exit.
âDelphine! Don't run!'
Delphine sat next to Mother in the back of the car, listening to the motor strain as it climbed the gears. Road poured through the headlamps, pocked and bright between tall, dark hedgerows. Snow had fallen lightly; every so often the wheels slithered in a patch of slush.
âWhen we get in you're not to bother your father.'
Delphine bit back her disappointment.
âYes, Mother.' She glanced out the passenger window. âI'll say goodnight to him then go straight to bed.'
âWhat did I just tell you?' Mother grabbed Delphine's wrist. âDelphine. Look at me. You are not to bother your father, is that clear?'
âYou're hurting me.'
âIs that clear?'
Delphine was breathing heavily. âBut I only want to say goodnight.'
âHe's been working very hard and he is very, very tired. Dr Eliot,' she flashed a glance at the back of Philip's head, lowered her voice, âDr Eliot said he needs rest. You can speak to him tomorrow.'
âHe'll be happy to see me.'
Mother closed her eyes and exhaled. âOf course he will. Look, you can speak to him first thing. Let's you and I keep to the sitting room tonight. I'll have Julia make cocoa and you can tell me what you've been up to at school.'
âI'll just poke my head round the door of his studio.'