Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North


by Maggie Wallis

“Thanks for the lift!”

Alan swings his rucksack onto his shoulder, and slams the boot shut. Not fast enough to block out his father’s habitual farewell, thrown out of his mouth as he moves the gear stick into first and pulls down hard on the steering wheel.

Tyres veer away, car disappears.

Alan stands on the platform, his father’s words echoing like the cold call of a curlew.

Train lights appear through the dimness of a November morning. The train creaks to a halt, the yellow button lights up, the doors open. Alan stands aside as two cyclists ease their bikes off.

The carriage is busy. He rearranges the suitcases to make space for his rucksack. With a smaller pack and guitar in hand, he squeezes down the aisle, trying to make sense of the seat numbering.

23F. Where the hell is 23? Already he’s had to apologise for messing up someone’s hair with the neck of his guitar.

Ahead of him, two elderly people sitting opposite each other. The window seat adjacent to the woman is empty. He reaches over and pulls out the white tab.

Yes. His seat: 23F Carrbridge – Edinburgh.

The woman’s face tilts up. She grins.

“Excuse me. May I get into my seat?” Alan asks.

Her long fringe sweeps over the rim of her glasses. She wipes it away with her index finger, smiling in his direction.

“That’s my seat at the window. Could you let me in?”

In one agile move, she leaves her own seat and settles into the one beside the window, still grinning. As he opens his mouth to object, he catches the look of the man in the seat facing. The woman is now patting the place she has vacated.

“Make yourself comfortable, young man.”

Someone behind him is getting impatient. He wedges his guitar in the luggage rack overhead, and sits in the seat nearest, his backpack on the table. Over the top of it, he notices the expression of the man has relaxed.
Alan is irritated. He wanted a window seat. From his backpack, he produces the novel he is reading, its cover dog-eared.

His mobile phone vibrates from his jeans pocket. A text from his mum:
Just found your packed lunch in the fridge.  Mum   😀

He hates it when his mother uses emoticons.  He hates it when she sends him a sad face. He hates it that he hates it when she sends him a sad face. He puts his phone back in his pocket, shuts his eyes.

What the hell? It’s that bloody woman next to him, patting his arm.

He opens his book at the page where the bus ticket sticks out. A page gets scanned without taking anything in.

She is now tapping a quiet rhythm with her palms - elegant fingers, nails ungroomed. He is not surprised when he hears her voice in his left ear.

“That’s a big book you’re reading.”

Shutting his book, he settles back in his seat. Her face is turned towards his.  A big open smile. He finds himself reciprocating. Opposite, the man has his head down, as if reading his paper intensely.

 “Yes - it is a big book. Third time I’ve read it.”
“Can I see?” she asks. She turns it over.

 “Ah, The Lord of the Rings.” She beams back.
The smile disappears. Her hand shoots across the table.

“Duncan!” she says. “Duncan!”

She’s leaning out of her seat and grabbing his arm.

“My suitcase! Where is my suitcase? I don’t have my suitcase!”

Duncan’s hand settles on top of hers. “It’s in the luggage rack, dear. Just over there. Perfectly safe.”

Her hand relaxes and she slides back into her seat.

 “Well! That’s a relief,” she says, and beams in Alan’s direction, flicking her fringe away from her eyes. She lets out a big sigh.

Alan waits for her to ask him about the book, but she is looking out of the window. He clears his throat.

“Hmm. So… the Lord of the Rings. Is that one of your favourites?
She continues to look out the window. The man opposite intervenes.

“Isobel! The young man next to you is asking a question.”

She swivels her head round, her chin leaning into the cup of her hand.

“Yes, young man. What can I do for you?” Again, that delightful smile.

“You were asking about my book.”

“And what book is that?” she asks.

“You know. This book here. Have you read it?”

She lifts it up, scrutinizing the front cover.

 “The Lord of the Rings. Why yes! I read it to my son. And of course, before that I read it myself.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began...”

She recites the whole verse in a dramatic voice.

“That’s impressive,” he says. “How come you remember all of that?”

“Ah well,” she replies, “that’s one of my fortes - remembering verse. Don’t ask me to remember anything else though.”

She looks over to Duncan, and they hold each other’s glance for a moment.

Duncan takes the role of spokesman. “We’re travelling down to Perth. Just a small holiday. We both need a break.”

Isobel leans out of her seat and grabs hold of Duncan’s arm.

“My suitcase, Duncan! I’ve forgotten my suitcase! We must stop the train. I can’t go without my suitcase.”

“Isobel!” the man says with an edge to his voice. He sighs, then resumes speaking in a gentler tone.

“Remember, Isobel, how we had such difficulty fitting your case into the rack, and a kind man offered to remove his case, so you could put yours in the lower shelf?”

Isobel is suspended over the table, fringe almost concealing her face.

At length, she responds in a quiet voice. “I want to see my suitcase.”

Duncan clears his throat. “Young man…actually…what is your name?”


“Alan, would you mind letting my wife out for a moment? Then, perhaps, you’ll get to sit in your own seat.”

Alan gets up to let Isobel out. She’s looking out of the window again, whooping with delight, pointing to a skein of geese against the pale sky. The man cocks his head and looks at Alan. Alan leans over and taps Isobel on the shoulder.

“Eh, excuse me.”

She turns around. “Have we arrived? No, we can’t have arrived, silly. The train’s still moving!”

“You wanted to check your suitcase.”

She looks afraid. “Oh dear. I am being a nuisance again. Just coming.”

She bounds out of the seat, grinning her head off again. Duncan shakes his head.

 “That smile,” he says. “If it weren’t for that smile!”
They navigate the corridor - she in front, Duncan shuffling behind and holding on to the hem of her cardigan. Alan slides over to his seat and pulls out a magazine from his bag.

Twenty minutes later, they return with tea in lidded cups. Alan is left undisturbed as they chat about their bed and breakfast, and their plan to meet Isobel’s sister.

The conversation tails away, and Alan is aware of Isobel’s fingers edging over on to his side of the table.

He leans his head against the cold of the window, and squints at her.

 “You must have got on at the last stop.” she comments.

Alan has no ready answer, but she is unperturbed.

 “That’s an elf!” she exclaims. “Isn’t it?”

Pictured in his magazine is a wood elf - dressed in warrior clothing, a golden cape round his shoulders, a spray of blonde hair cascading down his back.

“I used to paint elves, “she said.

“You used to paint elves,” Alan repeats slowly.

Her eyes are fierce. “You paint elves, don’t you? I can tell.”

He turns away. That old fear churns in his stomach. What if he finds out? What if he does? Then another voice. Alan! This is an old lady! She’s not going to tell on you. And anyway, what does it matter if he knows, you big wuss.

He looks round. She is waiting. He smiles.

“You’re right! I do paint elves.” he confesses.

She starts to bounce on her seat. “I knew it! I knew it! Duncan! This young man paints elves!”

Her husband looks up. “How wonderful, my darling. You’ve found a kindred spirit!”

She turns to Alan. “Where we lived - down in Devon, that was - we had a long rambling garden with lots of old trees. The elves played close to the small pool that was part of the stream.”

 Alan looks down.

“They got used to me being there. First time I saw them, I thought I was seeing things. But no! I would sit for hours on end, and nearly always, at least one or two would emerge from beneath the tree roots, and come down to the water’s edge.”

Alan wills her to stop talking.

“Then I started to paint them from memory, catching their balletic movements, their fine features.”

Her head flops forward. “There are no elves where we live now.” Her voice catches.

Duncan looks over at Alan.

“So, Alan, tell us about your painting,” he says in a voice that commands an answer.

Alan looks round the carriage to make sure no one else is lugging in.

“Well… I don’t do paintings. It’s … you know … little metal figures that I paint - elves, trolls, dwarves. Sometimes I paint the same one twenty times until it is just the way I want it. It’s my passion. My dad doesn’t approve. He thinks it’s weird, and a waste of time; says I’m too old to be playing with toys. He’s banned me from getting any more.”

“So you’ve had to give up your passion! What a great pity! How unbearable!”
Isobel is clutching on to his arm, her eyes wide behind her specs.

Alan reassures her. “Oh no! I haven’t given up! I do it secretly. At night time.”

“Secretly! Secretly!” Isobel seems delighted. She speaks in a deep husky voice. “Duncan! He does it secretly!”

People are looking over. Alan clutches her wrist. “Please! Keep your voice down.”

She covers her mouth, her eyes dancing behind her big specs. Then leaning in, “Have you any with you?” she whispers, her eyes on his sack.

“Eh…maybe a few.”

“Go on, show them to me!” Her hand flashes out to the zipper of his bag.

His hand on top of hers, Alan looks over to Duncan, who intervenes. “Isobel!”

She pulls back, folding her arms, hands tucked under her armpits. Her head droops. There is silence. A few minutes later, she is snoring.

Alan gazes out of the window. Fields chase away behind them, a faint early winter glimmer over paling stubble. His hand disappears into his bag, feels around for the cloth tie bag, cushioned inside with wool to protect the three figures inside. He opens it, and fingers each one, knowing them.

He imagines himself in his bedroom. The loose floorboards at the back of the walk-in cupboard. The oblong tin where he stores his figures. The box where he keeps his paints and brushes. His night-time forays into his paint station. His stepping-stone walk across the creaking floor. His fierce heart beating, as if it were going to meet its lover.

The train slows, and the tannoy announces: “We are now approaching Perth. Change here for stations to Glasgow Queen Street. Please make sure you take all personal belongings with you.”

She is sitting quietly, her hands flat on the table. He clasps her left one in order to pass it on. She does not pull away. For a moment the figure nestles, cool and hidden, between their palms.

She closes her hand round it, brings it to her mouth. She looks into his eyes. No smile. An ancient stare.

And she is gone, her husband ushering from behind.

Her wide stride. His flustering steps.


BelongingsStory by Maggie Wallis
Belongings (Audio)Audio by Maggie Wallis