The First Train
If there were still magic in the world, Jenna thought, she could have just clapped her hands or waved a wand, whispered an incantation, and everything would have gone back to how it was before. The tea would have risen like a splash from the kitchen tiles and the blue fragments too, reassembling on the table. And once they were a cup again, they would take back the tea, swirling it still and bathing in its warmth.
“Jenna, sorry, do you mind? I’ve got to dash.”
“Well, if you will put it so close to the edge.”
“No, sorry, my fault. But I’m late. Your dad’s waiting. We’re in a hurry.”
“So am I.”
“You were just sitting there doodling.”
“I didn’t think I’d have to clear all this…”
But Jenna hadn’t got to the end, stopped by her mum who had been looking at the floor.
“Where did you find that old thing?”
“Oh, at the back of the cupboard, thought it was kind of cool. It’s got a saucer and everything.”
She had held it between her fingers and tossed it from one hand to the other.
Her mum hadn’t needed telling this time.
“Sorry. Sorry. Anyway, I really do have to go.”
She had grabbed her bag.
“I do hope you washed it first.”
And she was already half out the door.
“Oh, remember what your dad said about Maggie.”
Maggie was Jenna’s older sister and their dad had been nagging her for weeks, trying to get them to meet. A reconciliation he’d called it. Maggie was reaching out. And her texts were like olive branches apparently.
“How could I forget?”
“Come on now, he’s right. You see so little of each other. And she says she’ll come to you. And she’s having a bit of a rough time of it at the minute. Give it a go. You two’ve got more in common than you like to admit. It’ll be good to spend some time together.”
Jenna shook her head—how little they knew—rested it against her fingers, her elbow on the table, and looked out through the carriage window, past the blur of bushes, trees and bricks, past the humming sound of the train’s speed rising.
If there were still magic in the world, she thought, and it didn’t show itself today, it probably never would. Something was shifting in the sky. A feeling hidden within a sleight of colour. First yellow held close by the leaves of the trees—the kind of yellow you get when a storm is coming—and then the orange-almost-red of the sun made pink as it brushed past the edge of the drifting clouds. Or something like that.
She smiled to herself, turned away, and reached for the bundle in her pocket—a tea towel tied around the fragments she had managed to salvage—undid the knot, checked inside, tied it back up, and opened up her rucksack.
They probably wouldn’t be a real cup again, one you could use, but she’d glue them back together nonetheless and keep them in her box. Left to her mum, they would have no doubt gone from the floor to the dustpan to the bin to never being seen again. She kept her hand in, rummaged around for her notebook, bunching and turning her face away as if it were a lucky dip. She looked at Maggie, thinking this might make her laugh. But Maggie was oblivious. She was busy typing away on her phone.
The search they were on, the trip they were making, they were Maggie’s idea, and so were the texts. It was her idea that Jenna should let their dad see them, accidentally on purpose. A cover story, she called it—
“Just in case they see us together.”
Jenna delved a little further, grasped the notebook and began to wrestle it free from the tangle, but still Maggie didn’t look. Instead, she pulled away, raising her phone as if Jenna was prying and clutching the locket around her neck, squeezing it gently before replacing her fingers in a ripple. Jenna shrugged, and dropped the notebook back in to the bag. That was where it had all begun.
It was about a month ago, and Maggie had turned up unannounced in the middle of the day, when she knew their mum and dad would both be at work. She had caught Jenna unawares. Jenna couldn’t remember the last time they had been alone together. They tended to only see each other for family occasions. Maggie was fourteen years older and it was like their lives were run in parallel, that was what their mum always said. But that didn’t seem quite right to Jenna. To her it was like they made up strands in the backdrop to each other’s lives. Maggie had been a teenager when Jenna was born and was leaving for university by the time Jenna had settled into school. As Jenna grew up, Maggie’s life was already taking shape and Jenna watched it from afar and saw how different it was to hers. How different it was to the one she had imagined she might have.
To Jenna, it seemed more like following a series of directions than living a life—the well beaten track to the future—and Maggie was passing the usual checkpoints as she went—no trouble, good marks, a degree, then a career, getting engaged, getting a mortgage. It was all so alien, which made Jenna feel like an alien herself. It was why she kept her distance. Not only from Maggie. Too many people she knew were already set on that path. Plenty of the girls at school, and the boys too she guessed. It was hard to tell, boys never seemed to worry about the future. It was like they knew it would be there for them when they needed it.
No, not parallel. Jenna knew that was the wrong word. That would require both lines to follow in the same direction and she had always assumed hers zigzagged erratically, moving to and from Maggie’s consistent, narrow path, sometimes getting close but never quite touching. But then they had touched, hadn’t they? Because Maggie’s line had moved.
The Maggie that turned up that day was not the one Jenna had grown to expect. Something was different. A side of her Jenna hadn’t seen before. She seemed happy, but nervous, fidgety, but focused. She had acted like the host, made them both tea, as if she was back in her own home, and then she had invited Jenna to sit with her at the kitchen table. And once they were sitting, she had this kind of energy about her, like something frenetic was just below the surface. She kept pressing her fingers into the gaps between her knuckles, up and over, rubbing them. Or she would tap away on the locket she was wearing, like she was concealing it, but also presenting it. Like she was anxious for Jenna to notice. And when she did, Jenna saw that it was something different. It seemed so out of place.
“Is that new? It looks old. I’ve not seen it before.”
“This?” Maggie took off the locket and placed it on the table, pushing it from one hand to the other before passing it to Jenna. “It belonged to Jean.”
“Oh.” Jenna flicked it open. She’d expected something like a photo inside, but instead there was just a dull looking mirror. She shut it and passed it back. “When did she give it to you?”
“She didn’t, really. I just found it this time, a few months after, well, you know. I gave it to Mum. I thought that was the right thing to do. She kept it for a while, but then she gave it back. It was on the day after you were born. The first time we met. Mum said she didn’t need it anymore. I’d forgotten about it, but then I found it again, a couple of weeks ago.” Maggie covered the locket with her hand and drew it back across the table. “Does Mum ever mention Jean?”
“You know she doesn’t.”
There had been a moment of silence and Jenna had looked away. She looked away now, at the grey beneath the colours—a heron grooming on a nearby wall, the painted metal of a bridge, the stones which lay in piles between the sleepers and the tracks. Back then, she hadn’t been looking at anything, it was just that she was worried that she’d given the wrong answer, had cut off the conversation before it had even started. That was the way it had always been when they talked about Jean, their gran, their mother’s mother. Because she was the great unspeakable, unknowable. Because their mum and dad, it seemed, had always kept her hidden.
Jenna had not realised at first, that there were no pictures of Jean around the house, no mementos, that her mum never mentioned her. When something has never been there, it’s hard to know it’s missing. But she had heard other children talk about their grandparents, seen them pick them up from preschool and then school, and she had become curious. She closed her eyes, pressed her forehead against the vibrations of the glass, the shape of the memory locking her shoulders.
“Mum, is my gran a ghost?”
“That’s what Maggie said.”
“No I didn’t.” Maggie had turned to face their mother’s glare. “I didn’t.”
“You did, I heard you.”
And then back to Jenna.
“What I said was that sometimes she felt like a ghost. It’s different. You wouldn’t understand. And you shouldn’t be snooping around other people’s conversations.”
They had been caught in each other’s anger for a second, and when they had looked back, their mum was stood up, stepping this way then that, shaking out her fingers, looking like she needed to move but didn’t know where to. But then she had made up her mind and had headed for the door, tears in her eyes.
“Why would you say something like that?”
Jenna and Maggie hadn’t dared answer, but their dad had leaned back in his chair as if about to speak for them, she cut him off early.
“For Christ’s sake, I didn’t actually want to know.”
Jenna pivoted in her seat, her head still down, and tried to roll the feeling away, pushing her shoulders up and then down, and opening her eyes.
That first time, she thought, could have easily been the last. For a while, she had been too scared to mention Jean, too scared of the reaction she might get. But eventually her curiosity had won out, and on other occasions after that. Each one was different, thinking the way she had asked had been the problem. But whatever route she chose, the road was always blocked. Her mum would change the subject or become upset and she couldn’t bear to push it any further. She had always assumed it had been the same for Maggie, so the two of them had never really discussed it. At least not until that day at the kitchen table.
“Funny, isn’t it?”
“She used to come around here, on occasion, like me today,” Maggie had descended into a whisper, “when the coast was clear.”
Maggie’s smile had filled her whole face, something Jenna had never seen before. “I used to enjoy that. It was like an unexpected treat. Did you know she used to do that?”
“Mum never mentioned it?”
“No, she never mentions anything.”
Another moment’s silence. Jenna had nothing to add, but Maggie was just taking a breath.
“So she’s never told you that you’re named after Jean?”
“She did?” Maggie couldn’t hide her surprise.
“Yes, but it was a long time ago.”
“You never told me.”
“We don’t talk about these things, do we?”
“Suppose not…I just thought…When did she tell you that then?”
“It was on my seventh birthday. Not the actual day, when we did it again.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“You weren’t there. It was just after Dad left for good. Well, not for good. You know what I mean.”
“Did he leave on your birthday?” Maggie had shaken her head, but there was no surprise this time.
“Not quite. He disappeared, you know, as he would. We waited for him, but he didn’t show up until the next morning. Mum was really upset. And a couple of days later he’d gone. Just left us the note and a few hours to get out. That’s what Mum always used to say. Anyway, a few days later, she decided she wanted to do my birthday over again. Said she wanted to wind the world back a week. We were staying at her friend Lauren’s by then, while she tried to get something sorted. But she felt so guilty. So she booked us into a hotel for the night and we had a party there, in the room, with room service and everything. It was great. God knows where she got the money from. Anyway, that’s when she told me.”
“But how? Did she just come right out with it?”
“Well, not exactly…”
Jenna had paused. She felt the pause now. One of those pauses where you think you might get caught not saying something, caught screening your own response. To have said it would have been to make it real, too real, out-in-the-world real. And some memories aren’t ready to be out-in-the-world real. They are better as dreams, free from having to settle. Free to be hopeful, to unpick the good from the bad. Free to be fuzzy or sharp, sketched or inked. That night had been like that. Opening her eyes to the dark, unsure if she was really awake. Hearing her mum’s crying muffled by the sound of the bathroom fan. The door was left ajar, but she knew she wasn’t meant to go in. She’d knocked instead and asked her mum if she was alright.
“Yeah, I’m fine Jenna. Go back to bed, I’ll be there in a minute.”
It had felt much longer than a minute, but eventually she had come back. They had held each other and then her mum had reached past her and put the light on on Jenna’s side of the bed.
“I just wanted to see you. See your face. You’re a beautiful girl Jenna,” Jenna couldn’t remember another time she had been called beautiful, “You look a lot like your gran when she was younger. I’ve got a picture somewhere.” Her mum’s face had lit up for a split second. “Well, I guess it’s back at the house with everything else.”
“What was she like, your mum?” Jenna had paused. She hadn’t known what to call Jean.
“She was very clever, resourceful. Always had an answer, or was determined to find one, whenever a problem came up. Not always the right one though. Head in the clouds, some people would say, but they didn’t really understand.
“She was, I don’t know, difficult. Yes, difficult. We had our difficulties that is for certain. And our secrets. But she was kind also. Not in an immediate way. Often at the wrong level. Slightly above what was needed a lot of the time. But kind, definitely. Kindhearted, you know? Even if she didn’t always have the people skills to make something of that.”
She had reached forward and brushed the hair from Jenna’s face. “I’ve never told you this Jenna, but you’re named after Jean.” She looked straight into Jenna’s eyes and Jenna tried hard to look back.
“I don’t understand.”
“That was what I wanted to call you, but your dad didn’t. We used to fight about it. He said he didn’t like the way it sounded. Well, neither did I, but that wasn’t the point. Anyway, I thought I’d found a compromise. I took the letters and I rearranged them to make Jena, with one n. But your dad said that wasn’t a real name. I told him it was. But he insisted it wasn’t. So then I told him good, because she’ll be the first. He was adamant, but I stuck to my guns. He said people would pronounce it wrong, spell it wrong. He wouldn’t stop, gave every reason under the sun, it was relentless. He wore me down and so I said I’d think about it, wait until you were born.
“And when you were born, oh well. Did you know you were born with your eyes wide open? The midwife says this one’s been here before. But I took you and I held you and I looked into your eyes and I thought no. Because you were something so fresh, so new. Eyes so wide to this world so new. And I felt my old world become new again, and I thought Jena with just the one n was the perfect name for that, and for you.”
“So what happened?”
“Your dad, he can be very stubborn. He said he wouldn’t come to get your certificate. And the dads have to come you see, otherwise it’s not official, given we’re not married, me and your dad. And I needed him to be there. And then when one of the paediatricians came round and read out your name and called you Gina and he was on it like a flash. I told you this. I told you that. And I was tired and spat out something like fine, we’ll put in another n. And he agreed straight away. Before I knew what I’d said. Like that extra letter had changed everything. Like the cord had been cut. And I had nowhere to go then and it just stuck. I guess I thought I’d always know where it came from really.”
“But I didn’t.”
“No I suppose not, but you do now.”
Maggie’s phone rang clear, a single note, then buzzed against the table. The drone of the braking train was next and Jenna realised she had drifted off, missed her chance. Maggie already had the phone in her hand and was onto her next reply.
Jenna hadn’t told her half of what had happened with their mum that night. It should have been easier, Maggie had been so open, but old habits had taken over. She shook her head, watched the flickering sky between the houses, then the dark of a tunnel, then her sister’s reflection, staggered by the layers of glass. Maggie was so focused on her screen and Jenna imagined the letters grouping into options as she typed, the phone choosing for her, another sentence forming. Imagined that moment when you turn off the screen and you see yourself looking back. She turned to do the same, tried to picture the photo. It still felt like it was part of the dream, fixed there from the morning after.
She had brought it up at breakfast, when her mum had sobered up, and again when they had returned to their room, but had been ignored and then dismissed.
“The one you told me about. The one of Jean when she was my age.”
“Jenna, you know I don’t like to talk about this.” She had already started packing. “Goodness, if I didn’t have enough on my plate already.”
“You said it was back at the house. I only want to look at it.”
“Well I must have been mistaken. I don’t have any photos of your…of…of my mother.”
“Sorry Jenna, we’re in a hurry. We have to get back to Lauren’s. I said we’d be there by ten.”
Jenna hadn’t understood what had just happened. It was like the night before had been struck from the record. Like she was supposed to just forget about it, and Jenna wasn’t always very good at that. Nonetheless, she had kept her quiet and stored it away for another time.
And that was how it had stayed, the whole time they were away. It was only years later that she had thought of asking again. After her dad had returned and they had moved back into the old house.
Everything had been as they had left it, but for the dust and mould and the smell of damp. A deep clean and they could have carried on from where they had left off, but too much had changed in the years they had been away. Her and her mum had moved about so much—from one temporary room or flat to the next—that they had shaken off much of their previous life. All that time, they had got by with so little, only the things they could carry as they left—for Jenna, just her box and her old rucksack—and what they had gathered along the way. Now they were back to a house full of things, more than they had dared to remember. But all these things, even the house itself, felt like exhibits in a museum of a life left behind. So her mum had decided to clear it all away. Some they sold or gave to charity, and the rest they put in the loft. Jenna and her mum had taken it in turns, one up the ladder and the other passing things up.
“It’s weird that isn’t it.”
“What?” Her mum was turned away, looking for the next box.
“With everything else, it’s like nobody has set foot in here for years, but there,” she had pointed to the top of the wall, just by the hatch, “this bit of the wallpaper, it looks like it was torn off yesterday.” She looked again, no dust had gathered on the exposed plaster.
“Oh that. That’s always been like that. We’ll sort it out when we redecorate.”
“Oh, right.” Jenna took the next box and slid it into the gap with the others. She was about to do the same again when she noticed this one was marked with the word photos. That was when the thought had come, but it had come as speech and, before she could stop, she heard herself saying it.
“Is that picture of Jean in here?”
“When she was a young girl.”
“Oh, no. It’s just family photos. Me and you and Maggie and your dad.”
“Right,” Jenna had squeezed the box between her palms, “wouldn’t it be better then to keep them close to hand?”
“No. We don’t need them right now. I know where they are.”
Jenna had wondered after that, if her mum was lying, but she never could bring herself to check. It had still been just the two of them that week—her dad had been working away—and she had wanted to make the most of it, because she had felt that everything was about to change. Felt the gap between them opening, like an unstitched wound. She looked at Maggie. She was sat right back in her seat. Jenna placed her palms on the edge of the table and pushed herself into the same position.
Sometimes, she thought, a table can be a stitch, one which closes the gap between two people. That’s the way she had imagined it being. They would lean in and rest their elbows, swapping theories in low voices, or ideas about what to do next. Like co-conspirators on a mission, their own secret mission, no one else would know. But, Jenna thought, a table, like a secret, can also be a border. Today, she could feel the divide between her and her sister. It was like they had gone back to the way things were before. She kept her eyes on Maggie, she looked so tired, so different to two weeks ago. That day she had been buzzing with energy, filling the kitchen with the light of late summer. That day, the table had brought them together.
“That’s cool though, isn’t it? It’s a connection between you and Jean. I’m glad she told you.”
Maggie had reached across and taken Jenna’s hand.
“Jenna, can we go up to your room, I want to show you something?”
At first, Jenna hadn’t known what they were looking for. Maggie had gone straight to the window, smiling and shaking her head like she’d spotted something she’d never noticed before. But to Jenna, the view was as it always was. The backs of the other houses, the pub and the funeral home, the train track and the main road.
“It’s crazy isn’t it? Most of this was here when this was Jean’s room. She would have seen pretty much what we’re seeing now.”
“Jean lived here?”
“You didn’t know?”
“Oh, she grew up here, and then inherited it I think. It was Jean that gave it to Mum.”
“This house was Mum’s house? She was given it? But she can’t have. How did Dad lose it then?”
“I don’t think it was just hers for long. He can be very persuasive, can’t he? How do you think he got it back?”
“I’ve never wanted to ask.”
“Probably best.” Maggie leant across the bed and put her hands on the window sill.
“You know, sometimes, in the months after she disappeared, I used to come in here and wait for one of the vans to drive through those gates, one of the private ambulances, and I’d watch the little fan on the roof spinning away, and imagine it was her inside. Or I’d see them cleaning the cars, loading the coffin and the flowers, putting the tissues in the back window, and I’d pretend they were doing it for us. I mean, I knew they weren’t, Mum was so certain, even without any of the ritual, but I found that I couldn’t be.”
She looked down.
“One time, they all went back inside and I imagined her pushing the lid off and climbing out, exiting through the driver’s door, cool as you like, giving a little wave and returning to wherever she had been hiding out.” She looked at Jenna. “Weird isn’t it?”
“Unexpected, maybe, but I wouldn’t say weird.”
Jenna smiled. Maggie too, only for a moment, but Jenna thought she could see something like an afterglow.
“I don’t know why, but at some point, I must have stopped all that. The watching I mean, maybe the imagining too.” She turned away. “I suppose you get used to these things, in a way. Or things change. Soon, she was only there by not being there, by having been there. Do you know what I mean?”
Jenna nodded, because that was it. That was what it was like for her. And, over time, she’d come to understand what Maggie had meant all those years ago. Maybe not a ghost, but it was like a haunting. That feeling of getting close, only to taste the cold breath of unsaid words, or stray glances, of tears and conversations continued in whispers in other rooms, only to realise they were as close as you were going to get.
“Yes, I think I do.”
Maggie’s hand was covering her mouth, but her eyes widened. She scratched her cheek.
“Well, I don’t think it needs to be like that anymore.”
She looked back out of the window.
“I don’t know if Mum told you, but things haven’t been going so well for me the past few months. I’ve been kind of lost. Before I found the locket, things felt like they were coming to a head. I needed to make a change. I was clearing things out, anything really, I thought it might help. I thought I could start again. Sometimes, I wonder how close I got to getting rid of this.” She held the locket in her fingers. “I could’ve easily missed it, but I didn’t. And when I saw it, I thought of Jean for the first time in a long time, and it was so weird,” she stopped herself, “and unexpected—”
She smiled at Jenna.
“—because it made me feel a whole lot better, almost instantly. I tell you, this thing’s like a magnet. I’ve been wearing it to work, and each morning, on the train, I put it on, and it gathers all these thoughts about Jean, all these feelings. She feels so close. And, well, something else as well, I didn’t know who to tell. Well I did. There was only one person I thought of.”
Jenna didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t worry. I was as surprised as you are. But I thought you were the only one that would believe me. Because,” she paused for breath, tried to slow herself down, “on Thursday evening—last Thursday—I was leaving the station, on my way home, and I had the locket in my hand, and I got that feeling you get, when you walk past someone you know, like you’ve almost missed them, and when I turned round to see who, there she was, disappearing round the corner.
“I know it’s sounds crazy, because it couldn’t be, could it? Probably just my long lost imagination returning. It must have been someone who looked like her. But, I don’t know, it didn’t feel like that. It was like the locket was pulsing against my palm, and I couldn’t shake it off. That’s how it felt. And I thought, Jenna, what if it really was her?”
Jenna shrugged against the gap, it felt too small.
“I know, I know. But what if it was Jean I saw? What if she’s still alive?”