She always fed the birds,
her one commitment after Fred died.
When she started to forget –
her son appeared from far away.
He couldn’t leave her alone
and took her back to his remote place,
inland from Aberdeen
When her house was cleared
the half-full tub of fat balls
balanced on her bible.
The van, piled high,
wobbled off down the back lane.
followed by a magpie.
The woman sat at the back of the train. You couldn’t miss her, a hefty lass with a black jersey bodysuit patterned all over with white swirls and skulls, and a black leather jacket. Her hair was short and blue, a spiky bed-head style. She was about thirty and had a soft, inward smile. Her mobile riffed like a harmonica, different tunes for different callers, honkytonk and blues. The messages kept coming through. Later, I learnt her name was Vanda.
I got off at Hexham to change trains and Vanda did too. I waited on the
platform; she went out, through the exit, to the car park. Ten minutes later
she was back; she was accompanied by an older woman in sunglasses. The new
woman was petite and neatly dressed in a trouser suit, standard M&S or Next,
I’d guess. She steered three small children and a pushchair in front of her. The
children called her ‘granny’. The two adults talked with their heads close
together, intense and connected. The children closed around Vanda, six hands
stroked her and tugged at her body. The boy must have been seven or eight years
old and the two girls possibly five and two. Their upturned faces cracked with
smiles and their voices zithered with excitement. Vanda nodded towards the
older woman in agreement, some private pact, then the children kissed her
‘See you later Granny,’ said the boy. ‘Have a nice day.’
The granny retreated, her shoulders hunched. Vanda sat down with the children on a three-seater bench and they all talked at once. Their words zinged around in the sunshine,
‘I’ve missed you, mum.’
‘I’ve missed you too.’
‘And me too, mum?’
‘Yes, you too.’
The little one climbed onto Vanda’s lap, stuck her thumb firmly in between her chocolate smeared lips and curled her body into her mother’s breasts. She half closed her eyes and her tiny body relaxed.
Before the next train arrived, the boy got onto more serious stuff about school
and his new teacher, Miss Jennings. He repeated what Miss Jennings had said
during the last week, the first week back after the summer holidays, the things
she needed to know. I couldn’t catch it all, but I could see he was mad keen to
share it all. I wondered why she didn’t know already. His eyes shone as he
talked and stared up into her face.
When the train came in, the boy herded his sisters aboard; he ensured their
safety as an adult would. It looked as if he’d been doing that stuff for some
time. His mum managed the empty pushchair. The group chattered on during the
journey to Carlisle, every so often the lad would take one of his sisters to
I had a long, productive day in Carlisle and in the early evening I returned to
the station. Vanda and her family were there too. The children clutched Pound
Stretcher bags full of plastic toys, their chins were streaked with
dried tomato ketchup and sheened with grease. This morning’s energy had faded.
The boy shrugged off his sisters when they grabbed his arms, the girls were
worrity and unsettled. The biggest change was in Vanda; she seemed to be at a
distance from them, as if she had already put them to bed for the night. She
wasn’t tetchy with them, but she was on automatic pilot. One her third
visit to the toilet with the kids, our eyes met. I smiled. She smiled back,
almost, and raised an eyebrow. The moment passed.
The train arrived at Hexham station. Time to change. Vanda and her brood heaved
themselves off the train, assisted by the ticket collector. They were met by an
‘Grandad, Grandad,’ the children said.
The tired little troupe shuffled off out of the station, back to the car park. I sat there and waited for my connection. I hoped that I was wrong. I hoped that they’d all gone home together. After twenty minutes my mood picked up; yes, I had been wrong. But, no. As the train approached Vanda returned, her wild clothes and blue hair a foil for her empty eyes, her face set in a rigid mask. On the train, I avoided eye contact, although I wanted to hug her. I realised she knew I’d clocked it all. She needed her privacy. She travelled on towards Newcastle, her phone was quiet, and she returned to the life that kept her away from her boy and two girls. They would be safe in Hexham, probably loved, yet still starving for the smell of her, of Vanda.
Ceinwen lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, and writes short stories and poetry. She has been widely published in web magazines and in print anthologies. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in 2017. She believes everyone’s voice counts.