In the further adventures of writing more often and pushing myself out of where I’m comfortable (which is mostly where I talk about writing and being a writer, but don’t do any in case someone wants to read it and then tells me I’m a terrible writer who should be ashamed of myself for thinking I can do it…) I am rummaging through old writing magazines again for writing prompts.
This prompt comes from a copy of Writing Magazine from last year, September’s issue, in recognition of World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10th) created to draw attention to a campaign led by Network Rail, British Transport Police and the rail industry called ‘Small talk saves lives’ – which recognises that a simple conversation could be enough to interrupt suicidal thoughts.
This prompt made me think about how much we say without speaking, how loud a silence can be and how much meaning can be read and shared in a small gesture or touch.
An island of pent-up, explosive motion sits, deliberately and palpably motionless, in the central seat of a bench at the edge of the platform. Despite the hour, and the people heading in their own busy ways towards work, the tense, dipped head discourages anyone from taking the empty spaces beside her. A space around her almost pulses with the volume of her silence.
Jenny, clenched around herself, letting her dark hair drop, unkept, across her face, is locked around her centre, and something in her mind is screaming such a painful silence that the strangers in the station seem to instinctively give it room, standing at a distance rather than resting their commuting bones beside her hurt where they might catch it. The electric fence of furious tension rings her, herding strangers past as their gaze slips by.
The metal of the bench is warmed by the beating sun, the waves of heat already absorbed by the baked stones reaching back in waves that blur the edges of the platform under a sky the blue of a postcard, but Jenny’s white-knuckle grip of the seat’s edge is hidden in a clenched fist of cotton as she pulls down sleeves to cover her hands, her feet tucked below in a skirt that brushes the ground. The clothes aren’t heavy, but still she stands out, dressed in her autumnal middle age in the burning heat of youthful summer.
Agnes, heading to work, has been travelling from this platform to the theatre where she dreams of being more exciting than she is, but her place has always been behind the scenes. Daily she can be found shaking the creases out of sweat heavy costumes and stitching repairs into burst seams between shows. Used to being unseen, Agnes, sticky in this heat and clinging to the shade to protect her ginger skin from summer’s cruel observation, takes in the scene.
Theatre is never still – at the edges of the stage Agnes waits and mouths the lines of actors so much bigger, bolder and braver than herself – but she holds no envy for their shining light. She takes great pleasure in her sidelined role, enjoying existing beside them, observing. This observational habit has caught a glimpse of Jenny, and something about the silence of her burns even hotter than the vibrating heatwaves on the trainlines passing through.
She wonders what the girl is mouthing, what unsaid words are holding her so still. It isn’t the stillness of a wait, of passing time in daydreams until the train scoops her into the rest of her day, cocooned in a space filled with other people’s lives.
That is the stillness of a person built from pain, from shame somehow. Agnes recognises it from the mirrors she avoids, and the question never fully forms in her mind, but the tips of her fingers tingle with it. Tiny hairs crawl to attention across the nape of her neck, and there’s something wrong that she can’t quite name…but this violently silent girl is the centre of a storm about to break.
A distant whistle doesn’t register but Agnes moves as if it has, stepping towards someone else’s storyline and biting her lip as she pushes through the bristling static that surrounds Jenny. Tentatively, not sure why she’s afraid, she takes the seat on Jenny’s right hand side and feels the curled-up girl beside her tense anew, though she was already stone still and firm.
The sound of her breath seems embarrassing, a slight catch and whistle in one nostril, and Agnes hopes that this quiet girl doesn’t think she’s grotesque, the bubbling human function of her breathing somehow feeling wrong, though there’s little she can do to change it. A sniff, involuntary, doesn’t shift the whistle, but the heaviness of rushing air sounds less obtrusive, and Agnes holds the next breath in, a sigh waiting to go when she thinks what she’s doing, why.
Another whistle on the still air, closer now, and the silent stone of Jenny glances up, a flick of blue that dulls the sky, just as quickly gone and waiting under the waterfall of hair. The stillness of her and the air under this early morning heat prickles dots of sweat across Agnes’ top lip, and the breath she was holding oozes back out in a damp puff.
Ten thousand conversations pass between them, lightning fast communication not voiced, not needed; people are bustling on the fringes of them, more feet stepping side to side, shifting weight from hip to hip, briefcases swapped from left to right, a gathering of people all together, but not at all, and Agnes feels the tension growing; a crescendo has to come, surely? This couldn’t have been better staged. The crackling, nasal tannoy tells them the next train doesn’t stop at this station, and platform two in five minutes will take them on to the next phase of their day.
A tiny nod.
The horn again, now almost upon them, and Agnes understands why she sat, why she crossed into the scorching sun despite the pinking of her rounded cheeks that takes so brief a time. Her fingers still tingle, her pulse speeding up as she lifts one hand; the prickling is as familiar as sewing slips, the needle marking her again, but her blood doesn’t bloom this time; the feeling shoots like lightning bolts to touch the arm beside her. When Jenny doesn’t pull away, Agnes feels emboldened, and slips her fingers further in, uncurling the cotton fist so slowly, and Jenny feels it too. The sleeve unfurls enough for elegant pianists’ hands to glimpse the day, and Agnes wraps her own into them, origami of comfort for a pain she doesn’t know.
The rigid, angular body beside her breathes some granite out and breathes this comfort in, again, again, and one more time; the grip tightens fiercely when the train rushes in, the tannoy shouting lost among the rushing air and flying metal, faces blurred as strangers travel to their destination, unaware and uncaring of the moment that just passed.
In the rush of air their hair blows, lifts, the red and black a dance of joyous life, and, smiling to herself, Agnes knows that it’s ok.
And so does Jenny.
The moment passes shortly after the train, and after a little squeeze, returned, Agnes reclaims her fingers, the tingle gone, and brushes her skirt smooth. She breathes again. The whistle of one nostril lost its impact, and she stands; the next train on platform two will take her where she needs to be. She’s done what’s needed of her here.