Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
You could smell the testosterone as his eyes dilated and the tattoos on his neck grew darker and more menacing. The waiting room was about to turn into a scene of blood and carnage if someone didn’t intervene. Hannah felt the paralysis that came to her sometimes in her nightmares. But suddenly she knew exactly what she had to do. It would be an act of kindness that might just change the course of events, and it would finally release her from the emotional millstone around her neck.
Things had been very different only a couple of hours earlier. She’d arrived ridiculously early for her train, and her main worry was forgetting her portfolio. The large black folder was propped up against her seat, and she touched it regularly to reassure herself it was still there. It had been a struggle carrying it onto the station platform given how much snow had fallen overnight. So she was relieved to see the waiting room was open with plenty of free seats.
Her face was raw from the biting wind and her fingers were cold and wet. As she sat down, Hannah instinctively looked up at the large clock on the wall. It had seen better times but, unlike modern digital clocks, its tick was audible. It made her feel safe and helped to calm her nerves. This interview was really important.
It was amazing, when she thought about it, how complacent she’d become about her career success. There’d always been loads of opportunities and she’d relished being in demand. But all that changed when Simon left her. The fact that she hadn’t seen it coming shocked her more than anything. She’d thought they were really happy together and was busy booking a romantic holiday in Antigua when he announced he’d met someone else and was moving out. Since then it felt as if there was a question mark hanging over her head. What did I do wrong? she’d asked herself repeatedly, but in her heart she knew her career success had played its part. It turned out Simon had been having an affair with one of the receptionists at his office, and she was the last to know. The more she’d learnt about what had been going on without her noticing, the more inadequate she’d felt; the humiliation still stung all these months later.
She’d thrown herself into work to bring a sense of control to the chaos she felt taking over her life. She was one of life’s copers, after all, she told herself, and she wasn’t about to fall apart. But one day she’d woken up and couldn’t move. She felt bereft and confused, and by the end of the week she’d resigned from the job she absolutely adored. I just need some time, she told herself, but it hadn’t proved quite so easy. Her confidence hit rock bottom, and when she wasn’t crying, she slept or sat alone, trying to work out what had happened. So the call from the head-hunter had been an unexpected lifeline. This interview could reboot her career and give her the new start she desperately needed.
Hannah looked idly round the room. There were a couple in matching anoraks in one corner with their luggage neatly labelled beside them. They were holding hands not in a romantic way but as if clinging together for security. She’d become much more attentive to small signs since Simon had left. There were so many things she’d missed in her rush to get on that she was determined to pay more attention from now on. At the end of her row of seats a woman held up a small mirror and studied every inch of her face. Then she ran her fingers through her long dark hair and plumped it up like a film star. Her piercing green eyes darted around the room as if looking for compliments. Hannah rummaged in her bag and pulled out her book. The last thing she wanted was a conversation with a stranger. She needed to concentrate on her interview, to focus on how she would present her portfolio, and she didn’t want to miss her train.
The door opened and a man walked in carrying a large hessian bag in both hands with a newspaper tucked under his arm. He struggled to close the door behind him before taking a seat opposite Hannah. She glanced up surreptitiously to take a closer look. He was in his forties with dark hair and a closely shaved beard with flecks of grey. There was something gentle about his face that made her warm to him. He too looked up at the clock before gingerly placing the hessian bag on the seat next to him and opening his newspaper.
Hannah went back to her book, but she was struggling to concentrate. She checked the time again on the clock. Forty minutes had gone by, but there was still time to wait before her train was due. Waiting was another skill she was having to learn. It wasn’t easy to slow down and just let time pass.
As she turned back to her book, two men walked in. The first was a young man with a severe haircut, a thick neck and prominent tattoos. He looked as if he worked out at the gym and he strode into the waiting room with an attitude that said don’t mess with me. Hannah would have looked away immediately but for the fact that he was carrying a single red rose. He sat down a few seats from the hessian bag and placed the rose beside him with a surprisingly loving touch. The second man walked a few steps behind the first and sat down next to him.
“Sorry, folks,” said the station manager in a cheery voice as he stepped into the waiting room. “There’s so much snow up the line that all the trains are delayed. Not much we can do, I’m afraid,” he added, looking at the anxious faces around him. “Guess it’s what you’d call an act of God.” He laughed nervously before propping the snow shovel he was carrying against the wall, and leaving as quickly as he’d appeared.
Hannah could feel a rash appearing on her neck and a narrow stream of cold sweat running down her back. Being late for her interview didn’t bear thinking about. She was anxious to send a message and started to search frantically for her iPhone in her coat pockets. As she did so, she saw the hessian bag move out of the corner of her eye. She stopped looking for her phone and sat transfixed as the bag started to writhe on the seat. The bearded man muttered something under his breath and put his hand gently onto it. Hannah stared as a small black nose appeared followed by a shiny black head; it was the most enormous rabbit she’d ever seen. It hopped silently onto the seat and looked around at its new surroundings. Hannah couldn’t help but smile. It was such a beautiful creature and a totally incongruous sight. She couldn’t imagine why a big black rabbit was travelling on the train up to London.
“What a lovely rose, is it for me?” asked the dark-haired woman, smiling flirtatiously at the tattooed young man.
He looked across to his companion as if unsure whether to answer. “It’s for me Gran,” he said quietly. “It’s her birthday and I’m going up to London to see her in hospital.”
“Oh, how lovely,” she replied, “is that your responsible adult with you?”
The older man smiled wryly and nodded.
Hannah fiddled with her phone, but she found herself distracted by the exchange.
“I’m Karen. It’s nice to meet you. Are you out for the day from somewhere?” she continued, bold as brass.
“Yeah,” he replied, “from Northfield.” It was the local prison, everyone knew that, and it catered for some of the most violent young offenders.
“Oh, how interesting,” she replied. “Whatever did you do to get put in there?” It wasn’t the sort of question Hannah felt was appropriate, and she wanted to tell the woman to shut up, but at the same time she couldn’t help wanting to hear his answer.
“I’ve had issues,” he replied coyly. “I started nicking stuff and ended up in a bad place.”
“I see,” said Karen, clearly enjoying her interrogation. “I guess you’ve probably got a drug habit, that’s really difficult to live with; believe me, I know.”
“Yeah, well, I attacked a geezer with an axe and took ’im hostage,” he said. “It all kicked off with the police and I ended up doing somefink really bad. So they banged me up ’ere in Northfield.”
Hannah watched as the couple in the corner physically shrank in their seats, and the mild anxiety in the room turned to fear. It wasn’t enough to dampen Karen’s curiosity. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Robbo,” he replied in a whisper, as if wondering how much he should disclose.
“What treatment are you getting for your addictions?”
Robbo looked across at his minder and received a silent nod. He rattled off a long list of different drugs and grew more animated.
Karen explained that she was an actress and was travelling up to London for an audition. She asked about his grandmother.
“She’s all I got,” he said with a catch in his voice. “Never had a proper dad, and Mum was wasted most of the time, so Gran took me in and looked after me. Now she’s not well. It does me ’ead in I can’t be there to look after her.”
The couple in the corner held hands more tightly and their knuckles turned white. Hannah abandoned any thought of reading her book. Her imagination was running riot listening to Robbo’s story. Where was this conversation going? she wondered.
Then, as if in slow motion, Hannah watched as the big black rabbit hopped across the row of seats towards Robbo. It contemplated the red rose on the seat and sniffed it before starting to munch the petals one by one. Robbo looked down and Hannah could see what seemed like a red mist descend upon him. “What the hell,” he screamed as he stood up, towering over the scattered remnants of the rosebud. He seemed so much bigger and stronger than before. Without warning, Robbo picked the shovel up from against the wall and turned menacingly towards the rabbit and its gentle owner. He raised it above his head and the veins on his neck stood proud as they pumped blood into the snake tattoo that wound around his shoulder. Someone gasped as the tick of the clock filled the room.
“Stop, stop,” Hannah heard herself shout as violence threatened to erupt.
Robbo turned towards her with a look of pure hatred. She felt her necklace sticking to her clammy neck. It was silver with a beautiful red rosebud on a chain. Simon had given it to her on their first wedding anniversary and she’d worn it ever since. She knew she should have taken it off long ago, but to do so was to accept he was never coming back, and she wasn’t quite ready for that. Now she urgently undid the clasp and held the necklace out to Robbo. “Take this for your grandmother,” she said. “I’m sure she’ll love it.”
He blinked and slowly put the shovel down before taking it from her with a grace she hadn’t expected. “Thanks,” he said, turning the necklace over in his hand before putting it in his pocket and looking across at his minder.
Just then the door swung open and the station manager appeared for the second time. “Me again,” he said breezily, blissfully unaware of the drama that had just been averted. “Really sorry, folks,” he announced, “but all train services have been cancelled for today; your best bet is to come back tomorrow.” He seemed surprised at the lack of a reaction. He spotted the shovel on the waiting room floor and without a word put it neatly in the corner before turning around and walking back to the ticket office.
Hannah sighed and picked up her portfolio. There would be plenty of other interviews and job opportunities, she thought. As she left the waiting room, she realised that the question mark over her head had finally disappeared. The black rabbit had been a lucky talisman after all. She smiled to herself as she walked purposefully into the fresh white snow.
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