St Pancras Station, walking to, and you’re already late, or on the verge of being it. You approach the entrance, hurriedly, but in the corner of your eye you see a woman sprawled on the ground. The station beyond is at once glittery and austere; it pulls people in and churns people out – an endless flurry of bodies, giddy and frenetic, like molecules around a synapse. And as such she occupies a liminal space in their minds, and they pass her like a stream of water passes a rock. She’s a bench, a lamppost, a ticket machine, an information board, a sack of purple sheets left to fester in the early autumn sun. She is a reminder of what they could have been, what you could have been, what they always warned you about. The always-accessible example. The picture lingering, unbidden but indelible, in every student’s mind, the threat hinging on the back of every teacher and parent’s tongue. The knowing eye-brow raise. The awkward, side-eyed glance on high-street shopping trips for stationery and clothes. The pretend-you-didn’t-hear. The innocuous, fleeting daydream. I wonder what it’d be like. I wonder if it could ever be me.
Maybe she was warned, too. It makes you think: could she also have been young, once? Envision the little girl, the small bundle of newness wrapped in her mother’s arms. The first steps, and then the first day of nursery. The first trip to Brighton, taking the train, and seeing in the sea something invisible in the city. The dentist, always a struggle, and the hospital, always a worry. Petty squabbles. Trouble at school. Cosy winter nights in front of the telly. Summer holidays that blur into one. Get home before dark. It creeps up on you. Days spent trawling Camden Market and nicking penny sweets from the off-licenses on Caledonian Road and selling them to the scruffy boys who loiter outside the tube station, all before heading to the pizza joint with a purse of inadequate loose change and an imploring, tender smile etched on her lips. Give her independence, fine, but that group she hangs around with, they’re a bad influence; no doubt about it. The trouble is, they just grow up too fast, these days.
But you can’t know. You get the sense that, if she is telling a story, you’re illiterate to its words. You slow down anyway, apologising to the group behind, but their faces stay stern and implacable. And so to a chorus of tuts and sighs you look down to try and read her. You see that she’s ravaged by sores, and that her face is twisted in resignation. The skin is pink, red, scaly, dotted by frayed and chewed clumps that sit like cobwebs about her cheeks. Her body makes use of what skin it has left, stretching it back across the bones that jut out, shadowy, on her face. She’s like a shedding serpent, basking in the sun, though without the placid, natural grace of the animal’s pose. There’s nothing natural about the way her eyes, unwilling to brave the glare of daylight, are squeezed shut above their respective bags, or how her straw-nest hair is the only cushion between skull and concrete, or how her toothless mouth is contorted in a silent, agonised scream. Her arms are up by her face, as if in surrender, and the bony hands are clawed in an apparent state of paralysis. She lies on a thin, creased bed, and you hope she is sleeping, or even passed out, under her duvet of cardboard.
Because the alternative, you realise, does not bear thinking about. That you had just passed her, like the rest of them, as she lay dead or dying…it would make you something contrary to how you conceived of yourself. You look at your watch and see it’s even later than you feared. You had somewhere to be, you tell yourself, but it’s little consolation. You still have somewhere to be, to get to something you can’t miss. But as you sweat and pace in your flustering efforts to find the platform amid this endless rush of bodies, you can’t scrape her from your mind. And then – finally. Platform four. Up the escalator. A sullen-looking man in a purple jacket stands guarding the open barriers like a weary battle-commander.
If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. And with that, you turn back around, retrace your steps, and now you’re walking faster than you ever did for the train. You will talk to her, at least. Make sure she’s ok. Nobody will know you’ve gone full circle, because nobody is the same. And even if some are, they won’t notice, and even if they stare, it doesn’t matter. And if she shrieks and panics then you’ll simply merge back into the crowd.
You find only a handful of her effects. A torn plastic bag. A scarf. A few sheets of cardboard. But nothing else remains. As you sigh, you see your breath materialise in the crisp late-September air, and you put your hands into your coat pockets. It’ll be time to buy gloves, soon. You consider the brooding skyline before you, and the wisps of cloud that dangle above, wreathed in gold by a sun scarcely offering heat, and you think about the woman who has disappeared into the arms of this vast city. Cold arms, yes, but no colder than this little spot by St Pancras Station; this circle of space she made her own, if only for a while.
By Eammon Mckeon