Greg emerged from the jaws of the revolving doors and was unceremoniously spat out onto the street. Behind him stood his office building, a six-storey, tired, palace of glass which drew the sun's heat like an enormous greenhouse. On the outside he found the sun and the air intoxicating. The fumes from the cars stung his nostrils and eyes but it didn't seem to bother him as he knew he had escaped for another day.
As he descended into the subway he heard music emptying and echoing through the tunnels. He turned the corner and could see a man with a goatee style beard sitting with his back against the wall strumming a guitar. He threw some of his loose change into the open guitar case and received a nod of thanks. As he came out in the open air, for a fleeting moment he thought of himself as the lucky one, the one with a job, a regular salary and a roof over his head. The notion was lost in the crowds and the noise of the traffic.
He walked with an abated, almost lazy stride to the platform and was overtaken on his left by a schoolboy with earphones and on his right by an office worker talking on his mobile, The usual crowd were there but there was someone new today. He guessed she was a student as she was wearing a floral print blouse, thick leggings and boots. She carried a canvas type satchel. She was leaning against the wal and smoking a cigarette. As she exhaled she leant her neck back as if she was trying to make the most of what was left of the setting sun. Round her neck she carried a camera that looked too expensive for her somehow. As Greg looked over in her direction she looked straight back at him and smiled. He wasn't sure if he should acknowledge her in some way. He managed a half-smile before staring back at the track.
Music was the answer, Greg knew that. It had never failed to soothe him at this time of the day. He reached into the pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out the tangled mess of his headphones. Although it was late, the air inside the carriage was still warm and he found himself breathing in a potent blend of spring blooms and body odour. The framed images of people waiting and staring on the platform weren't enough to sustain his interest. He could hardly keep his eyes open.
Whenever music was fed directly into his system the melodies and rhythms instantly began to take effect; they were better than any painkiller or anaesthetic. He started to relax and forget about the heart attacks and the cancer and the death. He had grown tired of hearing about them, tired of processing them, tired. There was a jolt and the framed pictures were slowly transformed into uninspiring cinema. He relaxed into his chair and felt the rhythm of the train...bury the death...bury the death...bury the death.
The exhaustion of another routine day was lost in sound and he found himself slowly drifting off to sleep. At the end of the line the damage would be repaired, by the next morning he would have just enough energy to face another day. His father had told him years ago that you either move forward or fall backwards; how right he was. He promised himself tomorrow not to help his younger, more junior colleagues. All they did was use him, attach themselves like leeches, fed on his knowledge and experience for a while and when they had their fill would abandon him, to further the own careers.
The music was working but he knew that there was something not quite right There were shadows, a background drone. One more track and he could settle again; no, there was definitely something. He opened his eyes slowly and saw her sitting opposite him, the girl from the platform. He instantly became aware of his slouched position, the scruffiness of his suit, the dirt on his shoes. He combed his hair with his fingers. He sat up and tugged his earphones sharply, plucking them from his ears.
A uniformed man stood beside them with a metal trolley. On the trolley, surrounding a round silver urn was an array of crisps and chocolate bars, serviettes and tiny pots of long life milk. The man stopped beside their seats and she ordered a coffee. The boiling water was poured on to the granules in a plastic cup with efficiency and attention, the steam rising into the air. Greg stared at the man and felt a kinship. Surely this man must be as empty and as fed up as he was, doing this menial job every day. He seemed happy enough though; indeed there was some degree of pride in the way he carried out his task. That was the solution, instead of wishing for and constantly searching for something else, why couldn't he be dignified and content with his lot and his station in life?
Greg watched his new companion shuffle in her bag.
'I don't believe it, I think I've lost my purse.' She delved to the bottom of her bag. Greg watched her, sensing her embarrassment.
'Don't worry. I'll get that for you. '
'Oh you really don't have to do that.'
'Please, I want to. I'll pay for that and I'll have a tea, no sugar, please,' he said to the man.
'Thank you. I can't believe I've lost my purse.'
'I don't think you'll thank me once you have tasted it. It's pretty disgusting.' Greg was aware that he could be in the process of being taken for a ride but he was happy to play along. Was this a trick that she used to play on someone every night, just for a free drink? She sipped from the plastic cup
'It's fine really.'
'Can you remember the last time you used your purse, was it to pay for your ticket?'
'Oh I haven't brought a ticket, I hardly ever do. They never check at this time of night anyway. Besides I'm a poor student, I have to save money whenever I can. You're not going to hand me over to the authorities are you?'
'Of course not. ' Although it was something that Greg would never do, the fact that she never paid for her ticket intrigued him, part of him wished he could be like that instead of doing the right thing all the time.
For a couple of moments nothing was said. Both of them sat watching the endless fields of yellow rape seed, the white headlights and red tail lights on the roads to the side and above the track. There were oast houses, silhouetted now, with their angled chimneys reaching into the sky; the sky that was turning a deeper shade of blue. The whole countryside had a blue tinge. More stations and villages came and went and so did the people waiting and staring, tired and resigned. She sat there, her cheek pressed against the window, deep in thought.
'Aren't they beautiful?'
'The lights over there, aren't they gorgeous?' She pointed out of the window and into the distance. Towards the coast, as the sun was going down, the lights of the houses and streets had started to glow, Jutting out were the lights of a pier, a runway leading into the sea.
'Oh yes, I see what you mean.' He leaned towards the window. 'Yes they are lovely aren't they?' He felt like he had to agree, just to be polite.
'I wonder what makes them flicker like that. ' She craned her neck to follow the lights as the train turned away from the coast. ' There was silence. Do you know why they do that?' She had turned away from the window and stared at him, the train now passing through a tunnel.
'The lights you mean. I'm not sure.' The dimly lit carriage brightened as a result of the blackened windows. 'Is it because they are a long way away? I mean if we were there...next to them, they wouldn't be flickering would they?'
'No, that's right, but that still doesn't explain why they flicker. Is it our eyes playing tricks on us, do you think?' He found her persistence a little disconcerting but he couldn't help searching for the answer. The music had relaxed him; he was able to delve into the recesses of his mind, where all the non-essential information had been stored. There was something there, he knew it. It was buried, but it was there.
'Wait. I think it's something to do with pollution and air particles or something. Yes, that's it, I'm sure it is.' He surprised himself with the answer. He was good for something after all.
'Pollution...yes that would explain it. ' She seemed content with his answer and her body relaxed again.
Another stop heralded the swish of electric doors and the recorded female voice echoing the busy, bright information strips that displayed the next stations down the line. A group of three teenage lads burst through the door to the carriage and took a seat opposite. They were loud and swearing. One of them opened the window and spat onto the platform. Greg found he was instantly irritated by them; he was fighting not to say something. He looked over at her, but she was not bothered. She continued to look out of the window with an enigmatic look on her face.
'I take it you are studying photography at college, then?' He pointed towards the camera.
'How did you know?' She smiled.
'Are you enjoying it?'
'I love it. I should be out there really; this is the best light of the day, the golden hour they call it.'
'What are you hoping to do after you have left college then?' What a boring question, he had regretted it as soon as he had asked it, but for some reason he desperately wanted the conversation to carry on.
'I don't hope to do anything after college. '
'How do you mean?'
'What I mean is I'm not going to make it to the end of college.'
'You're going to drop out?'
'No, I'm not going to drop out.' The conversation was broken by a commotion next to them.
The biggest of the teenage lads had got the smallest one in a headlock and was scraping his knuckles hard down on his skull, telling his captive to apologise. The smaller one resisted. Then the knuckles were used in a tapping movement slowly increasing in force. Greg could feel the anger rise in him again.
'Don't get involved,' she said, 'leave them to it.’
'Why not? He's obviously getting hurt, and look how much bigger the other guy is.'
'You're not going to stop it, you might even get hurt yourself.'
'Maybe you're right, I'll probably get stabbed or something. '
'I'm glad I won't have to worry about all this much longer.'
'Why won't you have to worry?'
'It's not important; like I say you don't have to get involved.'
Greg did begin to worry. However strange this girl was, he liked her. She had provided some company for him, female company, which was rare these days, and he wanted to get to the bottom of her weirdness. She had taken the frustration away in his mind and it had been converted into curiosity. He looked over to where the teenagers were sitting. Everything had calmed down. The bully was sitting there with a smug look on his face and the victim was staring out of the window with tears in his eyes.
He looked back at her and saw she was getting ready to leave.
'This is my stop now. Thank you very much for the coffee.'
'Wait. Are you OK? I hope you don't mind me saying but you seem troubled in some way. '
'Troubled, yeah that's a good way of putting it.' She looked out of the window and into the distance.
'Is there anything I can help you with?'
'No, there is nothing anyone can do. '
'Are you sure?'
'Listen, you are too nice for this world. It will crush you, I can see it. '
For a moment he watched her leave taking in all that she had said. She talked in riddles. Was she incredibly weird or suicidal or what? He watched her walk past the teenagers. He watched her place her bag by the door. He watched her stumble against an old lady as if she had come over dizzy. He watched the door open. And then he ran after her.
'Where are you going?'
'I'm going down to the beach, to sit next to the pier and listen to the sea. I might even get a few shots of the pier at dusk. There is no need for you to come.' She continued walking without looking back at him. 'Look at the lights, they're not flickering now. '
Greg looked up at the lights of the pier, bright and piercing. They shone down and captured him as if he was an actor on stage and that is exactly how he felt, as if he had unwittingly walked into an unfolding drama. He could leave now; forget that this encounter had ever happened. He could wake up tomorrow and get on with his anaesthetised life. He would always wonder though; he would be thinking of her sitting on the beach alone. He chose to follow her, the pebbles crunching under his feet.
'There we are.' She sat on the pebbles. 'What a beautiful place to die.' The words were shocking but somehow they didn't come as a complete surprise.
'What do you mean, "die"? ' He thought he knew exactly what she meant.
'What I say. This is, would be, a beautiful place to die.'
'You are not going to die; we are going to get you some help.’
'I'm beyond help, at least that's what they all say. Come and sit next to me if you insist on staying.' She patted her hand on the pebbles next to her. 'I'm starving.’
Have you got anything I can eat in that briefcase of yours?'
'Are you ill then?'
'Please I'm starving. '
Greg sat down next to her. He placed the briefcase on his lap and opened the two metal locks. He searched for anything he could offer her to eat. Documents, pens, a calculator, the only edible item was an orange left over from his lunch. He always left his fruit. He offered it to her.
'Are you not going to peel it for me?' She laughed. 'You're a very special person...that's no good I don't even know your name.’
'Why do you need to know that?'
'So that I can finish my sentence. '
'OK, in that case it's Greg. '
'OK, well in that case you are a very special person, Greg. I'm Emily by the way.' She looked down at the pebbles. 'What job do you do?'
'Nothing exciting, I'm afraid. I work for an insurance company. '
'You're a salesman? You're too nice to be a salesman.'
'No, not a salesman, a pen pusher actually. I process life insurance claims, I have done for about fifteen years. '
'You say it as if there is something wrong with that. Everyone needs a job.'
'But not everyone stays where they are. Most people move on, "onwards and upwards" and all that. '
'Stop giving yourself a hard time. You're obviously supporting your wife and family.' She pointed to the wedding ring on his finger.
'I was, not anymore. ' He twisted the ring up and down. It had become tight over the years and when he moved it he could feel the relief from the pressure easing in the base of his finger.
'Well like you, some things are better left unsaid. Let's just say she saw a better option for herself. She did move "onwards and upwards". '
'Then if she did she made a bad decision. ' She put her hand on his shoulder and stared into the sea. 'I feel at peace here.'
'At peace? You don't look at peace, you look cold. Do you want my jacket?'
'I'm not cold at all.' There were goose bumps all over her arms.
'Why don't I phone someone for you, anyone?' He looked down at her mobile.
'There isn't anyone, Greg. Listen I'm going to make the best of the light and take some shots from the pier. If you want to, you stay here and wait for me. When I get back you can take me for a drink and we will talk some more. '
'How long are you going to be?'
'Not long, only about ten minutes or so. It will be completely dark soon and then I would need a tripod to take any decent shots, so I won't be long.'
Greg watched her walk over the pebbles with her camera held tightly, she left the beach and walked towards the pier. Greg closed his eyes and let the sound of the sea relax him like the music had done on the train. The fresh, salty air cleared his mind. Should he have left her alone like that? She said that she would come back, she was just a bit low, that's all there was to it. Perhaps she was really ill. He would take her into the pub opposite and he would get to the bottom of it. But there he was again helping other people, instead of himself. Everybody else had a life and he had none, he just took up the slack of other peoples' problems without resolving any for himself. She was probably another drama queen, like a lot of them were, going through life drowning in fanciful and exaggerated dilemmas. He fell into a trance. He liked where he was, in this beautiful place and he felt his life opening up again. Yes for the first time in years he felt optimistic. He didn't want to leave. He kept waiting for her to come back.
After a few moments he opened his eyes, the sea was no longer relaxing. There was an anger to it, an urgency. He looked up at the pier, the long stilts silhouetted against the horizon, the sea lashing against them. He decided he must go and look for her.
He walked up the slope of the entrance to the pier. Along the side were a couple of ice cream and souvenir shops but they had started to close and wind down for the day. Several people with dogs walked close to the barriers on the side staring into the distance and pulling their reluctant pets behind them. Then he saw the lights at the end of the pier and they started to draw him in. The reds, oranges, blues and purples, they were flashing and the noise, the noise was irritating and attractive at the same time. Perhaps that's where she had gone, outside the amusement arcade at the end of the pier; that would make a good photograph, all those colours in the failing light, yes that is where she would be.
When he got to the entrance of the arcade and tried the door it was locked, it was closing as well. As he stood there, the lights and flashing stopped, someone had pulled the plug. For a moment he was blinded by the dark and he stumbled over to the barrier at the edge of the pier. He was the only one left, there was no one else. He played with his wedding ring again, twisting and turning. This time he took it off completely and threw it into the waves below.