Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Tell the story of an unexpected journey.
You Are Very Beautiful
By Keith Gray
Sophie didn’t let me kiss her goodbye so I didn’t let her to follow me into the train station. I pushed my earbuds deep into my ears so my phone could inject random miserable songs directly into my brain.
Newcastle station was busy. The platforms bustled, the announcer’s robotic voice rang around the old brick and new glass walls. I sat in the waiting room not wanting to look at any of the other passengers. If I’d needed definite proof that it was completely over between us now, then I sure as hell had got it. Even so I kept watching the footbridge that spanned the tracks, searching the jostling people for a face that might look a little like Sophie’s. Or a lot like Sophie’s. Hoping… Maybe…
I turned the volume up on my phone. I didn’t want any of the outside world getting in at me. It was such a hopeless feeling. I couldn’t believe that something which had ruled my life for so long was at such a definite end.
Mum had warned me. She’d said Sophie might meet new people and make new friends. But it had only been three months! And now I hated my mother for being so bloody all-knowing and prophetic. I knew exactly what she was going to say – about ‘fish in the sea’, about ‘only being young’. But none of it would help because I remembered something else she’d once said. I’d been about seven but it had stuck in my mind. I’d asked her how she’d met Dad and why they’d married. I think she’d enjoyed telling stories from her youth and the thing I remembered was how she truly believed she’d met her someone. That everyone had a someone in the world, somewhere.
In fact it was the memory right at the top of the pile as the train that would take me back home and away from Sophie forever pulled into the station.
Hey, Mum. Maybe I’d found my someone. Maybe no one else is going to notice me. Maybe I just lost my someone. Maybe we only ever get one shot at this someone business and I’ve blown it big time! Ever thought that might happen? Have you?
I joined the crowd on the platform. I fought with the bustle long enough to see if Sophie had come to say goodbye after all. Then, head-down, I let the crowd jostle me onto the train.
I let the flow carry me to the nearest seat, not caring where I sat. I pushed my bag into the overhead rack, not noticing the reservation ticket poking up from the seat’s headrest. I slumped down. I was sitting at a table with the two facing seats and the one next to me empty. I hoped they stayed empty all the way to Doncaster. I had a book but only pretended to read it so I could ignore the other passengers – just like they were ignoring me. They squeezed down the aisle scraping me with their coats and bags. None of them noticed me. I noticed people, so why couldn’t they notice me?
I made a sudden point of noticing the people around me. The woman wearing dark glasses with a laptop under her arm. The student in a Nirvana T-shirt. The girl at the table on the other side of the aisle with the ponytail and pale sweater. She had a book open in her hands just like me, but wasn’t reading it just like me, staring at… me.
I dropped my eyes.
I stared at my unread book.
Then as the train hauled itself away from Newcastle station I carefully glanced across the aisle again. She wasn’t looking at me anymore. So I looked at her.
She rested her head back against the seat to catch the warmth of the sun through the window. Her skin seemed to shine. I pretended to read but kept stealing glances at her all the way to Durham. And she caught me. I tried to pretend I was staring out of the window beyond her but she smiled at me.
I couldn’t believe it. This pretty girl… This beautiful woman had smiled at me! I tried to smile back – embarrassed at looking goofy.
Our train stopped at Durham for more passengers. A fusty old dear with a bag almost twice her size insisted on sitting next to me. I couldn’t understand why until I saw the reservation tickets poking out of the top of the seats. I then felt obliged to help her struggle with her luggage. She didn’t say thank you. She spread a packed lunch of vinegary crisps and ripe tuna sandwiches across the table as if she owned it. I was pissed off and more than tempted to elbow her out of my space. Then I cringed when I realised the girl across the aisle was watching. But she smiled at me again, raising a single eyebrow. A shared, understanding, young person’s smile at the expense of adults everywhere.
The train continued South. I knew I’d stolen someone’s seat but didn’t want to give it up despite the horrendous eating noises the woman next to me made. She also spent 20 minutes shouting on her phone, not caring that I could hear every tedious word. Did even she realize I was sitting there? And the closer we got to the next stop, Leeds, the more worried I became that I’d stolen somebody’s seat. I looked across the aisle at the girl as often as I dared, in case it was the last look I got.
Fortunately no one accused me of seat-thievery at Leeds. A red-haired boy of about my age sat across from me at the table. I tried to catch his eye to apologise for all the crisp crumbs, maybe even get him to join in with my loathing of the woman beside me. But I was invisible to him. He stared out of the window.
I sneaked a peek at my seat’s reservation ticket. The typed bold letters read SHEFFIELD. The next stop.
In between Leeds and Sheffield I tried to take in as much of the girl across the aisle as I could. I watched her undo and re-pull her ponytail. I watched her mouth crinkle into a smile at what she read. I made a vow to read that book too. There was still an empty seat at her table and I knew I could step across the aisle between us… But I’d never be brave enough. She’d been polite to me, that was all. Sophie was the only girl who’d ever properly noticed me.
The train conductor announced Sheffield and I reluctantly got to my feet. I didn’t dare check if the girl across the aisle was watching me.
The next carriage along was the buffet car and I found myself a corner to lean in. I didn’t want the same problem with another seat. Doncaster was the next stop, my stop, anyway. And the closer I got to home, the further I felt from Sophie and the tighter the lines of connection between us stretched. They’d snap soon, no matter how elastic I’d been pretending and hoping they were.
I was surprised to see the girl from across the aisle standing in front of me. She was taller than me and she swayed on long, blue jean-clad legs with the movement of the train.
‘Your seat’s still free. No one got on at Sheffield.’
I didn’t know where to look. I’d have taken a step back if I hadn’t been leaning against the wall.
‘That’s OK. Mine’s the next stop anyway.’
I could have kicked myself when she walked away.
Doncaster was speeding closer. I knew this route well enough. There was a tunnel before the station. But somehow the whole journey had felt like one long, long tunnel – darkness all the way from Newcastle. Except for…
Did I have the guts to go to the girl across the aisle and speak to her?
But the conductor announced Doncaster. The buffet car dimmed and the train slowed as the station’s tunnel swallowed it up. Feeling frantic I searched my bag’s pockets for a pen. As the platform slid into place I folded back the cover of my book and scribbled on the inside.
The door chimed, clunked, glided open. I felt light-headed as I stepped out. I walked back along the platform, swaying worse than the girl across the aisle had done on the train. Was I the only one who could hear my heart? I knocked on the window.
The girl from across the aisle, who was now on the other side of the glass, looked at me. Other passengers looked at me – the annoying old woman and the red-haired boy both looked at me. The crowd on the platform stopped to see what was happening. The train driver poked his head out of his cab and the conductor hung out of the door – wide eyes on me. The bustling station paused, the Tannoy held its breath. It felt like the whole world was watching me.
My hand trembled as I bent back the cover of my book and held it up to the window. I saw the girl’s eyes flick to the message I’d written in big, bold letters.
The train cheered me as it started to move. It’s engine hailed me in its eagerness to carry this girl wherever she wanted to go. The girl who’d noticed me grinned, smiled, laughed. And again her eyes flicked to what I’d written as the train moved away, turning her head to read it three times, four times, to make sure what she was seeing was really there.
‘YOU ARE VERY BEAUTIFUL’
And it was. Because she was.
Sunday Writers' Club Team Member and Author
Keith is an author from the UK best known for his award-winning novels for children and teenagers. He’s published over 20 books which have been translated into a dozen languages and has edited 2 anthologies of short stories for Young Adult readers. His novel ‘Ostrich Boys’ was adapted for the stage and played to sell-out audiences in such far-flung places as Birmingham, Seoul and Mumbai. He’s traveled to book festivals all over the world promoting reading, writing and literature to teachers, teenagers, parents, librarians and anybody else who’d listen. You can find out more about Keith on the Sunday Writers’ Club “About” page here.
A fantastic story, Keith! I’ll share it with Felix who will totally relate to this right now. Thanks for sharing.
Bravo Keith, you have that ability to get right into a young voice. I could feel the agony of the unrequited love (however temporary), the intensity of the spark of new interest and the courage that rose up at the last minute. Lucky girl! True story?
I enjoyed reading this and i was really cheering on the young protagonist, bless him 🙂