In the mid-to-late 1990s, I started writing a piece of fiction aimed at what is now referred to as a Young Adult audience. As I have started to look back at all my writing to see what can be continued and what might need to be updated, I thought I would give you a taster of The Railway Carriage and see whether it piques your interest enough to want to know what happens. There are another two chapters which were written at the time, and the story is based around a converted Victorian railway carriage on the Isle of Wight which was owned by my grandmother and was where we spent all our summer holidays as children. If so many of my belongings were not still packed up in boxes from the move to Crete, I would be able to show you a photograph of that very carriage, which had been painted white. As it is, I give you something similar from Wikimedia.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be so painful? If I’d known, I’m not so sure I’d have gone through with it.”
I had to grab the banister to stop myself from falling. Mum didn’t know I’d heard. She didn’t know I was there. She was on the phone to her friend Sheila and I guess she thought I was safely up in my room.
I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation because there was too much noise inside my head. It felt as if someone was drilling a hole in my brain and pouring plenty of poison into it. So many questions. Angry ones they were too.
Why? Why hadn’t they told me? What had I ever done to them that they should have kept something like that from me? They’d been living a lie, pretending all the time. Her and Dad.
Nothing made sense any more. Apart from their love for Gabi. No wonder they were so doting towards my baby sister. Except that she wasn’t my sister, was she? How can you have a proper sister when you’re adopted? And what else could I be if Gabi was the first time Mum had gone through the pain of childbirth.
Looking back, I should have questioned Mum about it there and then. I should have walked on down the stairs, waited for her to hang up and asked to talk about it. But I didn’t. Then again, if I had, I wouldn’t have got to know Jakob and none of the other things would have happened.
Instead, I went back up to my room and lay on my bed for a good forty minutes. It took that long for the pain behind my eyes to subside. I couldn’t cry – I felt numb.
I couldn’t ring my best buddy, Sarah, because she was on holiday in France with her family. I didn’t even have a boyfriend who could give me some support because I’d given Johnny Lace the elbow when he forgot my birthday. (A bit extreme, I suppose, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s etcetera.) So I did what I always do when I need solace – I went down to the beach for a swim.
My swimming costume was getting too small for me but Mum had said that it would have to do me a little longer because they couldn’t afford to buy me a new one, what with all the stuff they’d had to buy for Gabi. Second-best, that’s what I’d been in the weeks since Gabi was born. Now I knew I’d always been second-best. Always would be.
It was mid-afternoon and the grockles were out in force but that didn’t bother me. When you live somewhere that most people only go for a holiday, you learn to pretend the tourists aren’t there; either that or go mad.
It wasn’t the hottest day of the summer but it was pretty close and I stormed into the water not caring whom I splashed on the way. You have to be careful of the rocks and seaweed but I’ve lived on the Isle of Wight all my life and I could draw a map of the rocks in Bembridge blindfold.
I suppose I swam up and down for about half an hour. The tide was going out and when it was too shallow to swim without paddling miles out to sea, I went and sat on my towel.
A couple of children were trying to build a sandcastle nearby. They didn’t have any spades or buckets so they weren’t getting very far but it was soothing to watch them.
There was no-one on the beach that I knew apart from Mr. Rozen. And I didn’t really know him. He lived next door to us in a converted Victorian railway carriage set at the bottom of a small, overgrown orchard. He kept himself pretty much to himself as far as we were concerned so I didn’t really know what he was like.
I nodded at him when I saw him. He was sitting further back near the wooden steps that led up towards Swains Lane, watching those same children with their sandcastle. He nodded in return and smiled. He had one of those very lined faces: wrinkles in places you didn’t think people got wrinkles.
I was glad that we weren’t on anything more than nodding acquaintance. Right at that moment I needed to be left in peace. I didn’t have the energy for polite conversation. How could I when my whole life was in crisis?
Eventually the children nearby were gathered up by their parents and taken off for ice creams and I lay down on the towel and closed my eyes.
I must have fallen asleep because when I next sat up, the tide was right out, almost as far as the fort. On a really low tide, it’s possible to walk right up to it. I stared at the fort for some time before the full import of what I’d learned hit me with renewed force.
Only then did the tears start. And I couldn’t stop them, they just kept rolling down my cheeks. I neither knew nor cared who noticed. I felt so alone. I wonder if you know what that’s like. My world had turned upside down and inside out and I didn’t feel able to trust anyone or anything. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.
I did once hear someone say that we come into this world alone and we go out of it alone but I didn’t want to feel so alone at fourteen. Who does?
And the tears kept on coming. My body didn’t judder and my head didn’t twitch but the tears continued to fall.
“Tell me to go away if you wish, but a happy lady you are not.”
I looked up to see Mr Rozen. I wanted to say ‘piss off!’ but I couldn’t find the right words.
“Would you mind if I sat down?” His English was slightly accented and rather formal. I still couldn’t speak and he took that as a ‘yes’.
“Is it possible I could help?”
“No matter. You do not have to tell me.”
Why wouldn’t he go away? Couldn’t he see my tears were none of his business?
“I cannot bear to see anyone cry.”
This made me cry even more.
“Olivia? That is your name, isn’t it? I’ve heard you being called in from the garden,” he added, as if not to explain would make it seem as if he had been spying on us. “My name is Jakob.”
My body was shuddering now. He put his hand on my shoulder but I was crying so hard that I was past caring about strange men on beaches. In any case, he wasn’t a stranger, he wasn’t offering me sweets, and he lived next door.
It’s difficult to explain but the touch of his hand had a calming effect on me and the tears eventually stopped. I told him that although my name was Olivia, everyone called me Mouse.
“Except when they are angry and calling you in for supper?” he suggested. He was smiling now. Really smiling.
“Yes,” I said, and couldn’t help smiling myself.
“No, no!” he cried when he saw me reach for a corner of my towel to wipe my face. “You’ll get sand in your eyes.” He pulled a wad of tissues out of his rucksack and handed me several.
“Thank you,” I said, and hiccupped.
“I have seen you many times swimming. You are a strong swimmer.”
“I love it,” I said. “It’s the only worthwhile thing in my life.”
“Oh now. I am sure there are other things. And whatever your problem may be, it will be sorted out. I am certain.”
“How can it be?” I burst out. “It’s awful! I’ll never get over it, NEVER!”
“‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Come. Let us go for a walk.”
And I found myself walking all the way round to the harbour with him and back again. Not speaking. Just companionable silence. I will always be grateful for that. He knew that was exactly what I needed.
Perhaps we made an odd couple because I noticed someone staring at us quite intently for a while. I’m average height for my age but Mr Rozen was probably about the same as me in spite of being so much older. I didn’t know how old he was then but I found out later that he was seventy-three.
He never questioned why I was called Mouse but I told him anyway as we walked back home along Swains Lane. “I don’t do a lot of talking but when I do…”
“…you make up for it!” He stopped outside his gate and shook my hand. “Perhaps we meet again for a swim, yes?”
I nodded. “I’d like that, Mr Rozen.” It would take a while before I felt happy calling him Jakob.
I watched him shut the gate and walk down the grassy drive. He was incredibly upright and solid for his age and if it hadn’t been for his wrinkles, you’d have thought he was nearer to fifty.
As I turned in at our gate, a red Volvo drew up opposite. I thought it was my father’s until I saw the number plate. The driver stayed where he was and as I closed the gate behind me, I was aware that he was staring at me.
Sarah Vernon © 27-05-15
Take care and keep laughing!