Art Pact 145

During the long journey home I stabbed and poked at myself with recriminations a doubts. The train carriage was almost empty, old rolling stock smelling of must and the stale breath of a million commuters. Ugly grey smears of buildings slid past the window, garishly coloured in by the ubiquitous cheap flashing LED signs: NAILS, 24 HOUR, OFF LICENSE.

In the grand scheme of things it hadn't been that bad a night, but the night had closed in on me and the grand scheme had vanished, to be replaced with a petty diagram of myself, lonely and bitter about my own shortcomings. Dark thoughts cruised through my mind, matching the shadow clouds that crawled past the window. I wondered whether anyone had noticed when I left or whether it had just seemed to the others that there was suddenly more room. I thought of myself as a curtain - a draping lifeless thing that had just hung in the flat and blocked out the light of other people's fun. I wondered whether it would have been better in the long run if I had stayed at home - the safe old standby: pizza, film, booze, brainlessly web-surfing during the ad breaks. Would anyone at the party have had less of a fun time if I hadn't been there? I doubted it, indeed the further I got from the flat the more the idea seemed like a grotesque mockery of reality. How could I possibly think that I had the slightest chance of understanding the others' happiness, let alone improving it?

I tried to think of some counter-example to this cynical appraisal, but all the images I could bring to my head were of me on the periphery of some tighter-knit gathering. They seemed to live their lives as part of each other, every detail intertwined so that their conversations were mish-mashes of in-jokes and references to shared pasts, all but impenetrable to the outsider. I was nothing - a dilettante, an alien dipping my toes into their world, barely allowed by the entrance visa that had been Clark's card, but not recognised as a real person by the locals, just a dull visitor who had somehow wandered into an enclosure of more exotic beasts.

The train drew into a station whose name I could not make out - it was late enough that most of the lights had been turned out, and only the LED indicator was still bright enough to make out, scrolling through the seemingly endless list of stopping points for this train. There were no more entries on the list. This was the last service until the following day. I thought about getting up, and a sudden whim came on me to indulge my despair by wallowing in it - to get up and off the train, to wander out into the darkness of whatever town this was and to spend the night walking the old cold streets. The impulse warred with apathy for a few moments and finally won, only to be defeated as the doors began to beep. I rushed for them, but they closed before I could reach them. The train's motors whined and it began to pull away slowly, wheels slipping so that the carriage shuddered ever few seconds, yanking petulantly at the engine that was pulling it.

I was torn inside - frustrated at the way the train had thwarted my plans, yet at the same time embarrassed that I should have thought that such a self-indulgent tantrum would make any difference to anything in the world, least of all me. I was not the walk in the rain type, not some sort of film noir hero. I was just some anonymous arsehole on a train in the middle of the night, no doubt just like thousands or millions of other anonymous arseholes around the world. I would gain nothing from wandering around, nothing except perhaps a fever or the flu. No-one would stop me and become a friend for life, no-one would have their life changed by spotting me drifting aimlessly from road to unfamiliar road, and certainly there would be no revelation waiting for me with the sunrise. I would have finished the night as I began it, except that I would be lost, I would be down one train ticket, and I would probably be both freezing and starving.

It seemed only fitting that the train got emptier and emptier. Even these strangers, it seemed, could barely stand to be in the same vehicle as me. At each stop I heard the clack of doors and the piercing sound of the guard's whistle, and watched as we pulled out past the newly-minted pedestrians who had escaped the train at that stop - the tired and happy couples, the business-men heading home after some late trip. They seemed purposeful. My carriage emptied down to just me, and at each further stop fewer and fewer people emerged from the other carriages, until I knew that there were just three people aboard the train any longer - the guard, the driver, and in the middle me.

Freed from the constraints of society, I lay down across the old seats and stared up at the ceiling. The light fittings were full of dust and what looked like the corpses of old spiders, but despite the nagging disgust and the fear that one of them might suddenly spring back to life long enough to fall into my mouth, I could not move. I was tired, and the sheer difference between my position now and the energy of the party a mere hour or so ago seemed inconceivable. Had I really been at such a place? Why had I accepted Clark's invitation?

I don't remember closing my eyes, but perhaps I did - I knew that I had at least ten more stops to my station, and I certainly didn't feel that many, but when the train had stopped for five minutes I began to get suspicious. I levered myself up onto my elbow just in time for all the lights to go out. The inside of the carriage was thrown into pitch darkness. I sat up.

We were in some sort of sparse siding - I could see other trains dimly in the gloom, and far behind them a shrubby bank that led up to a curtain of trees.


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