The man Peter noticed getting on the train at Fazakerley sits down diagonally opposite him. He spreads his legs wide and leans forward.
Do you know how to get to Mold, mate? the man asks.
Peter looks up from the playlist on his phone and feigns surprise at being questioned.
Where is Mold? I’ve heard of it. Is it Welsh?
Peter feels he has said too many words, but the man doesn’t seem to notice.
It’s North Wales, Flintshire, the man says, Flint Shire, just over the border.
Peter works out what he would do if he had to make a quick decision.
I think you change at Central, then get to Crewe. I think that’s the Wirral line. I think that’s downstairs?
He is no longer certain.
I mean down the escalator. I don’t know.
Ahh cheers mate that’s sound.
He is effusive in his thank you. It feels undeserved.
Is it Mold, mate? the guard asks. He stresses ‘mate’. Peter feels the guard’s hip, pressing against his shoulder. It feels sturdy, rooted despite the motion of the train.
The man looks down quickly nodding sharply.
Yep, this fella is right. Stay on this train to Central. Get off there and follow the signs down the escalator for the Wirral line. You need the Chester train which stops at Crewe, alright? Make sure you get off at Central Station. Voucher won’t get you back, otherwise.
Thanks, boss, the man says.
His eyes look up, but his neck stays down. The guard is standing a little in front of Peter now. He nods to Peter and then walks through to the next carriage. The man hunches over and examines the scrap of paper he is holding. Peter supposes that this is his voucher.
The man looks up and sees Peter looking.
Been on remand. I’ve just got out of Altcourse. Altcourse prison.
He says this bluntly and Peter is taken aback. But then again, he thinks, how else would you say it?
I haven’t even got my keys. They were in the door. Just let me get the keys I said. Just hanging in the lock. They said, ‘What keys, Jack?’ Comedians. I had just got back walking the dog when they came through the door. I ain’t done nothing this time either. Some lowlife there just grassing me up. Can’t get me no other way.
Peter guesses ‘there’ is Mold. Listening to Jack, Peter thinks about the time when he was 15 and he broke into his school. He remembers the giddy sensation as the plate glass panel on the domestic science lab just popped out with the lightest of pressure. He, and someone he had met in the park that night, stalked through the darkness tinged orange from the sodium lamps in the street outside. He felt like he was in a film he was watching. They whispered to each other about leaving fingerprints. He had had an urgent need to take a shit, so he did, holding himself over the sink like a gymnast. They got into the area behind the stage in the school assembly hall and stole some microphones, then left making more noise as they got further from the school.
He read the local weekly newspaper avidly for the next few weeks looking out for any mention of the break in. There was nothing, but he was convinced an investigation had been launched that would lead to him. For a short time, maybe a month or so, he had carried the microphones around with him in the bottom of his schoolbag, occasionally showing them to the other kids. Eventually, he couldn’t bear the feeling of being watched anymore. He buried the microphones in a ditch by a farmer’s field on the edge of town. He couldn’t remember what happened to his accomplice. Later, in the summer, Peter was caught shoplifting but got let off with a warning.
Peter realises that he gets off in two stops and is suddenly miserable. He has an overwhelming urge to stay on the train, to be with Jack. He moves across to sit directly opposite Jack.
Why so far from Mold? he asks.
Jack pauses and, grinning, leans closer to Peter.
Wales is full. That’s what the prison officers said. I don’t know mate. It’s the system isn’t it? I need to get back though. I’m worried about the dog. She’s been at my Ma’s and she’s a bit scatty. You’ve got to be careful around Minnie. She can be a vicious little bitch. You’ve got to handle her just so. Staffie cross. They get a bad deal. Beautiful dog. Two of them in Ma’s house together. I don’t know what I’ll get back to. I haven’t heard a word in two weeks.
I’m sure your mum is doing just fine, Peter says.
I can’t wait to get back. They will all be saying so you’re back then? How did you get out so soon? Got me bail posted I’ll tell them.
Was that your mum?
Jack’s head is so far forward his hair is brushing Peter’s forehead.
I don’t know who it was mate. I can’t say who it was. I just know I’ll be walking round town and whoever turns white when they see me. That will be the one. Then we’ll see what happens.
His breath smells of coffee and eggs. He leans back into his seat and Peter feels he should do the same thing but gets stuck halfway, so he sits, uncomfortably, bolt upright.
No, my Ma doesn’t have the money. I hope she’s looking after my baby. Thing is Minnie won’t like not being at home even though she looks happy, she’ll turn, and you won’t know why. Sudden like. And the thing with Staffies is, once they get hold, they can’t let go. Physically impossible. They clamp down and their jaws lock. You have to kill them to get loose.
Wow, that sounds awful, Peter says. He is nauseous but fascinated. There is something about Jack that seems physically impossible too. He is so toned and clean shaven. He looks less like a released prisoner and more like an underwear model. Maybe he’s a farm worker, he thinks. He finally reclines and nods.
The kids are pestering me for a cat, says Peter, and instantly regrets mentioning his children.
Minnie’s killed cats, says Jack. Be cruel to interfere once she’s got them. Just make it worse all round. They were shitting on my grass though. Have to take them in a binbag and dump them when I’m out walking with Minnie. Ripped to bits.
Jack shakes his head and sighs.
You’ve got kids then? Jack says.
Peter can’t stop himself from volunteering the information. He feels a bit dizzy.
It’s good to see a happy family, Jack says.
Well, it’s just me and the kids actually, Peter says.
Alright, Jack says, I didn’t mean anything.
Peter looks at the floor and then as though remembering something, glances at his phone for a second. A moment later he puts his phone into his pocket and looks at Jack.
Sorry, says Peter.
It’s alright, mate, says Jack, like I say I didn’t mean anything. You get on with your kids?
Yeah. Yes, says Peter.
Well, that’s half the battle isn’t it? Me, well it’s just me and my baby. Don’t think Minnie would let me have a family. Certainly couldn’t have kids in the house.
Right, says Peter.
Peter puts his fingertips to his forehead and presses until the skin bleaches under the pressure.
Jack grins suddenly and leans forward again. He places his travel voucher in his pocket and then spreads his arms wide his palms outwards and fingers splayed.
I like the idea of happy families, he says, my Ma and me we don’t get on now. Things have changed since Dad died. It was like a switch being flicked. Suddenly she had no time for me at all. Didn’t want me at the house, not even when there was a spider big enough that it could sit on your nose and tickle both your ears. If there ever was a spider that big.
Peter smiles at that image. It replaces the picture of Jack’s mum being shaken to death by Minnie that had lodged there a few moments before. He starts to feel warm and a bit drowsy.
Yeah, Jack says, she gets a neighbour to do that now. She’s never said why it changed.
Jack starts to speak more quickly. Peter thinks lazily that Jack has moved much further away, but he can see Jack’s right there, within touching distance and Peter can still hear every word.
So, it’s nice you and your kids get on. It’s nice when you’re a kid. I remember, well, let me tell you something. When I was about seven, there were woods next to where we lived. Every Sunday morning, Dad would wake me up, get me out of bed and dressed. We’d get in the car and drive to the far side of the woods. It wasn’t a long drive, maybe five or ten minutes, something like that. Then he would take me into the woods and leave me there. He’d give me a pocket knife and tell me to make my own way home. I asked him why, and he said it was because he was sick of me. He looked like he was joking. I think he wanted me out the way, so he could fuck my Ma. Undisturbed, you know? He would leave me at around nine, I guess, I didn’t have a watch. I always made it back. Depending where he left me, it might take me until the middle of the afternoon to get home. My Dad would always be asleep on the sofa and my Ma would be cooking Sunday tea. There’d be a sandwich wrapped in clingfilm in the fridge. To tide me over she’d say.
One time I found a rabbit in a snare. She was still alive. It looked like she had been there for a while, eyes wide but knowing she was done. I cut her throat and took her home. Ma went for me when she saw I’d got blood on the kitchen table. She beat me so hard that Dad woke up and had to pull her off me.
You leave that outside. She was screaming.
We never drove to the woods again. I missed it, though. Do you think that’s weird? People think that’s weird. It just always felt like something was going to happen and it wouldn’t matter if it was good or bad. It was like being asleep, dreaming, but knowing you’re going to wake up at any moment.
Peter blinks and looks at Jack. He sees the fleece jacket with dried grass on the sleeve, the jogging bottoms, the bone of his bare ankles, dried mud on his lace-less trainers. He realises he is staring and clears his throat.
It’s my stop, he says, as the train doors open, Sandhills.
His legs are so heavy as he stands, and he staggers as he extends his hand to Jack.
Good luck, he finds himself saying.
Jack clasps Peters hand and, with an unexpectedly weak grip, shakes it. As he releases the handshake, Jack’s face twists into an expression of disgust. His eyes catch Peter’s and turn over like a shark’s.
Bad luck sticks, like lint, to some people. That’s what my ma says.
Peter backs away from Jack. He turns just scraping through the closing train doors and gets off the train. He doesn't look back. He doesn’t want to look. He feels as though a sniper has a bead on the back of his neck and the feeling doesn’t completely leave him when Jack’s train heads into Liverpool. Peter walks across to the other platform and looks out from Sandhill’s elevated position towards the Mersey.
He sees the container cranes on Seaforth Dock stand silhouetted, idly waiting for the world to deliver its cargo. He watches the turbines spin sluggishly against the low sun and plans what he’ll make for the children’s tea. He can see the dealership where his wife bought the car. He’s thinking he’ll probably have to learn to drive. He dares himself to try cooking a meal Lizzie might have made, listing the ingredients he can remember that he’ll need to buy from the shop between Southport station and his house. The platform has suddenly filled with people and Peter sways gently with them like he is a deep-sea diver standing on the sea bed. He doesn’t hear the station announcer, nor the chuntering of the diesel train as it trundles down beside the platform towards him. He’s cued up the next song on his playlist and is thinking about Jack, lost in the woods. ●