THE TRAIN TO BRIGHTON by Caroline Ross Tajasque (3rd place, Jul21)

Salim was supposed to go on the tube.  But he doesn’t do the tube, not since he had a panic attack at Mile End station. The buses were all packed, 8.15 in the morning, you couldn’t get a seat and some of them didn’t even stop. That was when he’d started to feel it coming on, the sweating and buzzing in his ears.  Not now.  So he turned into Victoria station and that’s when he saw the train to Brighton.  Salim likes the sea.  He takes a seat.  On the floor in front of him is his red rucksack, the one he bought on holiday from a shop named Klassy Gifts.  He keeps tight hold of one of its straps.

In the window seat opposite Salim sits Dave with the sports pages, drinking tea from a mug. His son painted it for him in Primary School. He decided to do it in honour of his dad’s football team, the Gunners. But he hadn’t left enough space and he only got as far as the first four letters before hitting the handle.  So he did a picture of a cannon on the other side and gave it to his dad to take with him on the train.  And now every morning Dave drinks his tea out of a mug labelled “Arse” with what Dave can only describe as a giant cock and balls painted on the side.

Behind Dave is a wiry, grey-haired man-boy with heavily veined hands, wearing dirty sweatpants and a faded T-shirt. It’s a Definitely Maybe T-shirt he’d picked up on the original tour.  He and his mate Stu had gatecrashed the gig at the Jug of Ale in Birmingham, flashing their Council passes and pretending to be Press.  He jumped on the train just before the carriage-doors closed, knocking into this kid’s rucksack, as he ran to grab a seat.  Hardly touched the fucking rucksack and the kid’s having fits.  Wanker.  And now he’s off to catch Dead Ghosts at the Prince Albert.  Twenty years on and still fucking skint. 

Standing in the aisle, in crisp uniform and Clarks shoes, is Stella from Falkirk.  She is confronting Definitely Maybe.  She can smell a fare dodger.  He makes a perfunctory search of his pockets, pulling out roll-up papers, an elastic band and a nub of used gum.

 “How did you get through the barrier at Clapham Junction, sir, without a ticket?”  Stella asks.

“Dunno, darlin’.” 

He flashes her a smile.  It bounces off her laundered shirt.  Stella squints.  No-one Darlin’s her. 

Opposite Stella and Definitely Maybe are Terry and Ian. They were hoping not to bump into each other but they are both en route to the same party.

“I got these at Primark,” says Terry, showing off his red jeans. “Only a tenner.”

“You’re lucky,” says Ian. “I can’t wear cheap clothes.”

“You’d never know,” says Terry.

They laugh shrilly and their eyes shine in anticipation.  Everyone knows they can’t stand each other but, what the heck, life’s short. 

Over the aisle from Terry and Ian sit Dorota and Tomás, not talking. They arrived at the station on bicycles. “You come on bike, people know you are poor,” Dorota says.  She has great plans: a big house, a garden, a pool and a Mer-ce-des Benz. Her plans may, or may not, include Tomás. For now, both of them wait tables at the Grand on the seafront. “Not so grand,” she says, “we have better hotels in Warsaw.  More grand.”  Everything is better and “more grand” in Warsaw.

Meanwhile, Stella is sinking her jaws deeper into her prey.  “So, Mr Parker, how were you planning to pay for your ticket?”  A fly is buzzing listlessly round the carriage.  Stella crushes it between her fingers with quiet precision. 

Two rows back, Deborah, never Debbie or Debs, with her not so much “fuck-me” as “fuck-off” shoes, is enjoying the altercation immensely.  Queen of the debtors ledger for an engineering firm in Hove, she plays her favourite morning game – which of her fellow passengers looks like a serial killer? No, not him, maybe….yes!

Dave the Arse looks up and catches Deborah’s stare. He gives her his weak smile, the one Karen, his eldest, says makes him look like a paedo. The woman dives back into her paper and Dave leans back.  She fancies me, he thinks, get in!  A wife, two kids, bills to pay, going nowhere on struggle money, he worked out the other night that he’s worth more dead than alive.  He should be at work, but he’s pulled a sickie. 

Stella stands her ground, in warrior posture, hands in front of her to block a punch.  An earthquake couldn’t shift her now.

“It says here, Peter, that you have a fine unpaid since Christmas.”  Her job is, at best, tolerable but occasionally she encounters a real scumbag and that makes her life worthwhile.  Stella’s voice has gone up in pitch and is starting to lose its air of patient superiority. 

“So what you’re telling me now is that that is not your real name.  Am I right?  You’re not Peter Parker?”

“No.”  He stifles a laugh and that is a mistake. 

Across the aisle from Deborah, staring out of the window, is Joan. She came back from a cruise on the Costa Vomitoria, a few months back. Ken’s idea it was, holiday of a lifetime, because she’d just turned 70. Third day out, the whole ship, including Ken, came down with the Norovirus and her “holiday of a lifetime” had turned into ten days on the Marie Celeste with the living dead. Then, when they got back, Ken had got sick, proper sick this time, and a few months later he was gone.  She takes out her compact to fill in the crevices. She has Ken’s ashes in a silver tube and she is going to scatter them off Brighton Pier, the same pier under which a young Ken had given her a kiss-me-quick hat and she’d given him her virginity. God, what happened to the last fifty years of my life?

“I’m sorry?” A sweaty young man with a heavy rucksack looks at her.

Christ, she must have said that out loud.

“Are you okay?” Salim asks.

Joan nods and stares back out of the window.

Salim hugs the rucksack closer to him, hoping the Inspector will not bother him, now that she has her claws into Peter.   He feels the panic returning.  It had started at school. That was the first time he’d realised he was a Paki. A kid with a pinched-poor face, a buzz cut and feral eyes shoved him onto the bins at the back of the playground and everyone had laughed. When Salim went to secondary school, he’d tried to change his name to Solly, but that hadn’t worked. He still got called a Paki and now the Jewish kids hated him too.

The carriage is quiet.  Stella is writing.  No one dares disturb her.

Even Terry and Ian have stopped talking.  They are getting more into each other, not sure if this feeling will last after Brighton.

Tomás eyes the two of them wistfully.  Dorota is on her phone, the one he bought her, texting her friends, with her long red finger-nails ticky-tacking as she types.  She was so happy when he gave her the phone.  “It is Apple,” she had said and flung her arms around his neck.  Two weeks later she found it was only Reconditioned Apple, cheap one.  Tomás does not have a phone. 

Deborah is bored.  She’s done the Quick Crossword, the Codeword, the Sudoku and the Killer Sudoku.  The bloke opposite her keeps looking at her and smiling weirdly.  Pervert. 

“Still got it,” thinks Dave the Arse.  He remembers meeting his wife at a disco in Dartford.  They’d danced to Lay, Lady, Lay.  She’d said she loved him and then thrown up into her purse. 

Joan starts to cry, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief she made from one of Ken’s old shirts.  

Salim/Solly is shaking now.  It’s 8.57, three minutes to go. They’ve just left Clapham Junction and East Croydon is at least ten, fifteen minutes away.  No way out.  His eyes start to well up and he pulls the rucksack in front of him to try to hide the darkening stain in the groin of his trousers.

But Deborah sees and smiles her thin-lipped smile.  Yes, him, he’s the serial killer.  She leans back, closes her eyes, satisfied.

Salim slowly pushes the rucksack away from him into the aisle. 

Stella doesn’t see.  She is busy radioing ahead for back-up at East Croydon where she and Peter Parker will be getting off. 

Salim looks at his watch, the one with the Mickey Mouse face, also from Klassy Gifts.  He starts to shake.  It is 8.59.  Silently he begins to count the seconds:  56, 57, 58, 59….

Outside, a dead-eyed gull watches the train as it screams past towards its final destination.

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