Mark sat on the metal seat, aware of every beat of his heart, his too rapid breathing.
The sickly sense of doubt rose up like a flood again as he pushed his hands deep into his coat pockets. He squirmed on the hard metal seat, empty stomach rebelling against stewed coffee long since turned cold in its flimsy paper cup, now forgotten on the floor by his feet.
He checked his watch again, willing the minute hand to sweep faster – or was it slower? Whatever happened next, whatever he decided to do, his life was going to change.
Mark looked up, staring at the people milling about, wondering if anyone noticed him, pale, cold, and tense. He felt so – obvious. The last few months had been a whirlwind, pleasure entangled with guilt, day following day. The intoxicating extremes had become an addiction.
He found his wallet, his shaking fingers finding their target unaided. He fished out a small photograph and looking at it, was transported back to the booth where it had been taken, all those years ago. Now, it was soft and creased with age. The trusting eyes gazed up at him, seeming to speak. He poked it into his pocket, pushing the pain and the accusations into the dark interior.
He looked up at the roof of the train station, staring through the glass, seeking inspiration from the clouds scudding briskly above. None came. This was all down to him.
Mark had found the website by chance, surfing the internet late one night, searching for advice and support. From there, he had found the forum and started chatting with people all over the world, exchanging experiences and opening a heart that he had thought had atrophied, old before its time.
One night, a ‘Private Message’ window appeared. He clicked on the link, biting his lip.
‘I see we have the same taste in music. So, who sang “Ghost Town”? And what year?’
The message was from Mafeking68. They had been sparring in the Music Chat Room for much of the previous night, a conversation that had lasted for hours.
And so it had started. They continued to chat, in the forum, then private messages and finally exchanging numbers so that they could text each other, enjoying the quick-fire jousting both day and night.
Mark knew he was playing a dangerous game. He had already placed his heart it in the hands of one man, and it had been broken anyway. Now, he was risking himself again, but this time with someone he hadn’t even met. One, a real man, a man made of flesh, the other as insubstantial as smoke. At the age of 39, he had no idea what he was doing, even less whether Mafeking68 – James – felt the same way.
Late one night as they were texting back and forth, the conversation suddenly stopped. He waited, and waited.
‘James, where r u?’
Moments passed and still nothing. He felt sick. He thought about calling him – they hadn’t spoken yet, both preferring to hide behind texts. They weren’t quite ready. Not yet. His thumb hovered over the Call button. He could call him. He could. It would be so easy. Just to make sure he hadn’t had an accident. No drama. No pressure… The screen on his phone faded slowly to black and locked with a click of finality. He sighed.
The words flashed on the screen, neon light glowing in the dark.
He didn’t pause, didn’t think, didn’t remember hitting the button to make the connection, didn’t weigh up the pros and cons.
Now, sitting on a cold metal seat, he wondered: How much did he really know about this man? Someone who had burst into his life on the back of a shared obsession with 1970s music? All he had were words and a pixellated image from the website. Was that even him? Really?
These thoughts and many more besides should have stopped him, but his heart had been beating far too loudly for common sense to compete. He had fallen hard and fast for a mirage of a man.
They had talked, and talked, and talked. At first, speaking had felt as easy as messaging and texting, if not easier. But something unspoken, something dark and heavy lingered. It pushed them apart each time they put the phone down. Mark carried his guilt everywhere. It lay heavy across his shoulders and etched furrows across his forehead.
He tried writing a list, the blank sheet of paper glowing in accusation before he covered it in anxious, spiky crawl. ‘Pros’ on one side ‘Cons’ on the other, underlined furiously. But when he got to the stage of only writing in the ‘Cons’ column, he screwed up the paper and hurled it across the room, angry. What was the point of trying to be sensible? Where had sensible got him before?
He must have lost his mind, he thought as he lay in bed, night after night. If he was still logical and rational, if he was sure of what he was doing, he would have talked about it to his mates. Or, even if he was uncertain, but not ashamed, he wouldn’t have kept James a secret, would he?
They finally met. With a sense of powerless and inevitability, Mark had known it would happen. The fantasy he had created from a tiny, blurred image was certainly different to the reality – of course it was. But James’s personality was just as it had been online. That stacked up, at least. And the magnetism, it was there – more than there.
The guilt. Oh God! The guilt. It still sat there. He didn’t dare voice it, but it couldn’t be ignored. Neither of them knew what to do about it, how to neutralise it, except to stop their relationship. And now – well now, that was out of the question.
Mark stood suddenly, seeing James take the stairs two at a time down to the platform, just as their train arrived. Mark reached out for his hand and felt tension in his grip – he was nervous too. This was not a time for words.
The journey was so short today. Before, on the countless times when he had made this trip alone, it had felt like a lifetime, an ageing experience. The scenery was still the same though. Nothing ever seemed to change out there.
On the short walk from the station at the end of the line, Mark felt as if his heart might burst free, it was pounding rapidly, like a caged bird beating its wings against the bars. This time, it was his turn to grip hard on to James’s hand.
He pushed on the heavy gate, waiting for the familiar screech of metal against metal. Someone had oiled it since he was last here. Today of all days, something was different. Was it a sign? They exchanged a brief glance, and the slightest encouraging smile played across James’s lips and came to rest in his eyes. He had said that there was no pressure and he meant it, but Mark knew that somehow, he could never move forward if he didn’t do this now.
There was nowhere else to go. They had arrived.
He stepped forward, leaving James behind. He couldn’t help, not with this.
“Steve. I’ve come to say – to say goodbye. I’ve met a man, someone I want to be with.” He swallowed, his throat on fire with the effort not to cry.
There was no response.
“I know we rowed, the last time. I know we didn’t make up before you left – oh God I will never, ever forget that! I wish it hadn’t happened. You don’t know how much I’ve wanted it to be different.” Mark breathed out, a long, shaky gasp. “But I need to take my life back now. I can’t live just for you, just through you, not any more.”
The silence suffocated him, heavy with accusation, or so it seemed. Mark was desperate, desperate to hear Steve’s voice, desperate for anything except this nothingness. But he couldn’t force him to do or say anything, couldn’t provoke a response, not like before. He swallowed again and pulled James forward.
“Steve. This is James. He loves me. He’ll look after me, but I’ll never forget you. I promise.”
He bent down, laying the soft, much-loved photograph to rest at the foot of the simple memorial. It was time to leave the man of smoke to rest in peace.