He’s been here since before the trains came. Before the mock-Tudor, and before the real thing. He remembers when there was nothing but fields around here, and he remembers what it was like it before the fields were made.
The weather has been unusually mild for December, but this morning there’s a nip in the air, and the trains are late again. A woman in a dark suit walks up to the electronic board, tuts, and returns down the platform.
“It still says three minutes… I’m sure it’s been saying that for the last twenty at least.”
“Typical, isn’t it?”
He’s grown adept in the language of commuters, over the years. The rules are strict, regarding what you are allowed to say, and when you are allowed to say it. But there is nothing like an unusually long delay, a train fault, an overhead wire problem, to loosen tongues. It’s as though everyone’s been given permission to offer little confidences about themselves, to make enquiries -- does anyone know what the problem is, have they said? I heard there was a tree down further along the line. I thought they said someone was taken ill.
The woman has taken her phone out now and is poking at it with her forefinger. He’s not sure when people started doing that. It doesn’t matter. There’ll be something else along soon -- another craze to help make the time pass. They always have to have something. It makes him smile, because he knows a secret they don’t. Time passes anyway, whatever you do.
“I wouldn’t mind,” she says. “But there’s late night shopping tonight -- I was really hoping to get away on time. This is setting me right back.”
He nods and smiles. “So much to do, this time of year, isn’t there?”
The woman is tall, with dark hair cut in a short, practical style. She is a doing sort of person, he thinks. She looks about forty-five -- but that doesn’t mean very much. Looks can be deceptive, after all.
“I really can’t believe,” she says, “that it’s nearly Christmas. How on earth did that happen?”
“When you’re having fun? But it crawls at a snail’s pace when you’re standing here waiting, doesn’t it?” She smiles at him and peers over at the board again. “Oh look, you see? Four minutes now! There’s something funny going on here, if you ask me.”
She looks along the track, but there is nothing there to see. Shivering, she thrusts her hands deep into her pockets.
“Cold today, isn’t it? You really feel it after all this mild weather. Climate change for you, I suppose.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“I think I prefer it cold, really. Warm just doesn’t seem right, not at Christmas.” She looks across at him, her gaze resting on his face for a brief moment. “I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I? Been waiting long?”
“A little while.”
He’s still not quite sure how it happened. And he’s had long enough to think about it. He does remember how cold it was that day, and how loud. The hurry and bustle of a people striking camp, making ready to move on. Someone was shouting instructions, and something was broken, and someone else was annoyed. People running about, and nothing where you left it. A child kept up a steady, high-pitched wail.
It would be so lovely, he thought, to stay in one place for a while. All his life, he’d dreamed of staying put. His were a people who moved, always, following the herd and the the weather -- but ever since he was very young, he’d thought about putting down roots like a tree, watching the sun rise and set from the same spot. He imagined the seasons and the years coming and going over the same small patch of land, and himself there to see it happen.
It was just a silly daydream. That was him all over, his mother used to say -- a dreamer and a dawdler. That morning, all he wanted was to get away from them all. Just for a little while. So he walked away across the snow, and then he walked a little further and down the hill, until the camp was out of sight. There were trees here. Spindly birches, for the most part, stunted and sparse, but in their midst was something else entirely. Cracked and hollow -- the remains of something greater, surely, than a tree. It was black against the snow, and wide enough for a person to climb inside and curl up… It seemed to welcome him in, offering shelter from the cold and the great expanse of the world.
The space was almost enclosed -- just a small gap like a door, through which he entered, and which filtered the daylight into a semi-dusk. Inside, it smelled of leafmould and the layering of centuries. He breathed in the scent and laid his head against the old, old wood. He hadn’t slept well for weeks. It was the cold, always biting at him, waking him up just as he’d drifted off. It woke the children up, too, and then they cried. His sister would try to comfort her little daughters, rubbing the warmth back into them, saying, “Shush, shush, it won’t be long now. We’re going somewhere else, and it’ll be summer there.”
When he woke inside the tree, it was almost dark. He climbed out of the great trunk, disoriented, still dizzy with sleep and a terrible feeling of wrongness. Stumbling back into the camp, his heart beating hard in his chest, he found there was nothing much left. A kicked-over fire-pit and some piles of rubbish. It was not really a camp at all now, because a camp is made of people -- and all the people were gone.
He sat down in the dirty, hard-trodden snow, his legs collapsing under him. Then he stood up again and walked aimlessly in circles, squinting into the darkness -- looking for something without knowing what. It seemed impossible that they should be gone, his people. But they were. They must have looked for him, he thought. Or maybe they just didn’t notice his absence -- they’d all been so busy. Perhaps he should follow them, although, now he thought about it, he had little idea which direction they’d taken. He’d never been good at that sort of thing. And there was little, anyway, that he could do in the dark.
He scraped together enough wood to build a fire, sat down beside it, and stared into the flames. Very likely, they’d realise soon that he wasn’t with them, and then they’d turn around, or send someone back for him. The best thing would be to wait here -- right here in the old camp, so they’d know where to find him. In the leather bag at his waist, he had a few strips of dried meat, and that would last him until his people returned. Failing that, he had some flints. He could catch something to eat when it was light. Somewhere nearby, so they’d still be able to find him. He’d just wait. It wouldn’t be for very long.
The woman’s train has still not arrived, so she heads for the coffee kiosk. When she comes back, she has a cardboard cup in each hand.
“Tea seemed a safer bet than coffee,” she says, holding one of the cups out to him. “There’s sugar if you want it. Sorry, I should have asked, really -- feel free to say no. I just thought you looked cold.”
He takes the drink from her, and sips cautiously. It spreads through him like the hearth fire after a long day hunting in the open -- the yellow flame that hugs the branch close, and melts the snow.
“Thank you,” he says. “That’s so kind. I was feeling a little chilly.”
The train is here at last, sliding up beside the platform with a low rumble. People stand up from benches, move towards the doors. She looks at him expectantly, but he shakes his head with a smile.
“No. Mine’s the other one.”
“Ah, right. Well, I hope it’s not too long.” She smiles and raises a hand as she climbs into the carriage. “Nice to meet you. Merry Christmas, if I don’t see you before!”
He watches the train as it recedes down the track, and then is gone. The girl who runs the coffee kiosk is singing to herself -- a song about the snow outside and the warmth of the fire. He’s heard it before at this time of the year, although it hardly ever does snow now. Christmas seems all the rage these days. He still prefers the old traditions if he’s honest, but, well... one must move with the times. He stands in the sharp air, drinks from his cardboard cup, and settles down to wait.