A short story by Scott Fleming
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When he was younger Julian had a very clear league table in his mind of favourite stations along the Highland Main Line and Far North Line. Some he liked because they were quaint and prettily ornate, others because they reminded him of a particular memory. Aviemore, where the cast-iron columns and wood panelling were always freshly painted in barbershop red and white, and where his dad had once taken him to see a grotty glam rock band from Birmingham that Julian had read about in the NME play in the draughty function room of an out-of-season hotel, was definitely the best of both worlds. Then there were the curios, oddities like Culrain; single-tracked, unmanned, featureless save for a tiny lean-to, where the platform was at ground level and you had to step up onto the train; if it even stopped there, which it wouldn’t unless requested in advance. The ones that had really made his little heart swoon were those in the back-of-beyond where only the most minor, grudging concessions had been made to civilisation, where the platform was no more than fifteen feet long and the station house was a small whitewashed bothy; where all that the hamlet which lent the station its name consisted of was four or five houses clustered either side of the tracks and the countryside itself seemed to be folding its arms around the station to hide whatever lay beyond the thick curtain of trees and scrubs from the prying eyes of travellers.
Now, though, it was hard for him to make out any detail, or to care. Big or small, quirky or bland, each station slumped or rattled past the window on his right as anonymously as the next, just as Harlesden, South Kenton and Hatch End had in the pre-dawn gloom of Metro-land that morning, or Oxenholme, Penrith and Carlisle as the low midday sun burned through the mist in the Lakes, or Dunblane, Perth and Pitlochry as darkness descended again on the climb out of the Central Belt into the Highlands and every lit-up house the train passed became a priceless Edward Hopper original in its own right. In some of them you could even make out Alma Cadzow declaiming the day’s headlines, if the heat from the radiator underneath their living room window was strong enough to carve out a square hole of condensation in the fogged-up glass. Have a care and crank up the central heating, housewives of Perth & Kinross, there’s a bored voyeur here wanting an update on the regional elections and the salvage of the Mary Rose.
Exhaling slowly, Julian scrunched up an empty packet of M&Ms and shoved it down into the space between his seat and the next. You had to change train four times on this route, at Manchester, Glasgow, Stirling and Inverness, and now he was nearly there, just fifteen minutes or so away from Inverness, where the last train of the day would carry him all the way to Thurso. He wasn’t sure if he’d catch a bus or a taxi from Thurso, or if some kind soul would even deign to pick him up, but either way the last stage of the journey would be the easiest; no more changes, barely any other travellers, just less than an hour up, down and round all the twists and turns of the A836. He was in no rush. He wouldn’t even complain if whoever was doing the driving pulled into every passing place along the way and let the underwhelmed German tourists in their big Panzer IV motorhomes have the right of way every time.
It was a bastard of a journey alright. Julian could only remember making it by train once before. The simple fact was he hadn’t been home very often in the three years since he and Alex first went to London, but when he had he’d usually found an alternative to numbing his arse on a British Rail bucket seat for the best part of thirteen hours, by hitching a ride on the minibus of some synth pop shock troops off to play Inverness for the first time, or something like that. And of course there was the time he’d got a taxi all the way from the digs in Willesden, door to door, on the label’s dime. Like most of the best ideas, that was one of Alex’s. He’d done it first, one Christmas a year or two back, mainly because there was snow on the tracks and the schedules were disrupted and he couldn’t be arsed lugging his suitcase all that way – the big brown leather one that dwarfed him and made him look like one of the Kindertransport kids – but also because he’d wanted to see how far they could push their luck with the label. The first album had just come out and the first TOTP appearance was booked in, so they were definitely in the good books at the time. The difference was that Alex’s parents lived just south of St Andrews, making his crime that bit less egregious.
“See, what I did merely shaved a few quid off the buffet budget at this year’s Christmas party,” he had said to Julian with a mouth full of egg, beans and brown bread at their greasy spoon of choice just down from Willesden Green tube. “But if you’re really going to bill them for a minicab to John o-bloody-Groats, or wherever it is, that would put the whole label out of business.”
Still, he’d got away with it, even though the meter had clicked up to somewhere over £400 when poor, exhausted Clive from Millwall – whose life Julian could have written a double-sided concept album about by the time they got there – pulled up at the bottom of his mum’s driveway. Whether that was down to the label’s largesse or simply the Châteauneuf-fuelled incompetence of the expenses department, he never found out. Typists, execs and everyone in between always seemed to be bladdered on the rare occasions he and Alex had been summoned to label HQ in Fitzrovia.
Somewhere just outside Culloden the train ground to a stop and stood still for five minutes, for no discernible reason. Julian always hated it when that happened. The lights in the carriage – empty save for him – flickered off and back on again, seeming even weaker and more piss-coloured than before when they blinked back into life. Julian sat up and peered through the glass, finding it vaguely amusing in a faintly ironic kind of a way that now, upon feeling his first mild twinge of interest in the view from the window for the first time since six o’clock that morning, there was nothing to actually see. Mist was meant to billow and seep, like it did in Hammer Horror films, but this mist – stolid, garden variety, quintessentially Scottish – just sat there; pale and perfectly rectangular, taking up all the space between the grassy banking and the higher branches of the trees. It was like someone had decided to give the Highland wildlife lung cancer and dished out ciggies to all the rutting stags and snarling wildcats; American ciggies, Camels and Lucky Strikes like the ones all the studio engineers had been puffing on last night.
Not the good studio, not the big one downstairs where Zeppelin and Floyd are meant to have played back in the day, but the box room upstairs, Studio 2B, where the pile of old porno mags stacked off to one side was always threatening to avalanche down onto the console. The sounds of the studio came back to him clearly now, as if being played on a couple of subwoofers someone had rigged up amongst the mist and trees out there. The engineers’ coughs, the heavy clunk of the tape deck as it spooled backwards and forwards, the soft mutterings of the Saturn Records rep strained through his beard and the knuckles he was constantly chewing on.
“Hmm… OK… Just a little louder, please… Let’s have track two again… Yes, little bit of a Gainsbourg thing going on in that one, isn’t there?”
Saturn were meant to be quite a hip, alternative label, based in Camden and boasting some sort of connection to the Banshees in their early days, but their A&R guy – like all the A&R guys Julian ever met – looked like a burger van owner, with his gingery beard, leather jacket replete with tie belt and naff pair of ball-strangling M&S corduroys.
“Hmm,” he had ruminated aloud when the four-track demo finished, turning to Julian with fist still firmly wedged in gob. “Well…it’s not like the stuff you and Alex do, is it?”
“It’s not supposed to be.”
It was funny looking back at that from a distance of 24 hours. He’d been so nervous in the moment, but with a clarity unavailable to him at the time he could see now that what frightened him hadn’t been the 80% chance of the rep saying no, but the 20% chance of the rep saying yes. What would he have done? What would have happened next? Would he still be in London now?
The train limped under the glass roof at Inverness station like an exhausted marathon runner collapsing over a finish line, an air of finality to its chorus of grinding and spluttering that suggested it would never again grace the Highland Main Line. Julian slipped his feet back into his black suede boots, smoothed out his jeans (once black, now mostly grey), pulled his heavy grey greatcoat back on over his black Aran sweater and retied his crepe de chine scarf round his neck. Sharp pain shooting up the back of his legs as he stood up and used them for the first time since Stirling, he bundled his Walkman and headphones into one of the greatcoat’s depthless pockets and his copy of Private Eye into another. He hadn’t actually cracked a page of the Eye since buying it in a bleary-eyed daze at Euston that morning, but had previously found that it made a great fashion accessory once folded and left protruding from your coat pocket at just the right angle. He could be en route to pick up his dole cheque then spend it in the adult cinemas of Soho for all his fellow Jubilee Line commuters knew, but as soon as they spied his reading material – poking up from his pocket like a little flagpole of urbane refinement – they simply had no choice but to assume he was off to a Brahms recital at the Kennington Park bandstand.
Heaving his duffel bag out the luggage rack Julian meandered through the moodily-lit concourse and out into the street, stopping by the war memorial to get his bearings. There were twenty minutes to kill before his next train departed. With no set destination in mind it was nothing more than impatience and a desire to kick the lactic acid out his legs that stirred him into motion, and carried him down through the streets till he hit the river. Waiting at the traffic lights to cross onto the Ness Bridge, the voice of Joe Strummer suddenly boomed into his right ear, something about splashing water in your face to bring you back to an awful place.
Alex once said that was the number one sign of a narcissistic personality, to believe that every song you heard was about you. Besides, ‘awful’ was kind of harsh on Inverness.
The music was coming from a subterranean pub/club down some steps to the right of the traffic lights. The place looked to be harbouring at least 150 bodies more than its licence permitted, their sweaty faces pressed up against the glass as they toiled under the oppressive red neon, the collected body heat and the almost involuntary impulse to robotically contort your body in time with every ‘bomp, bomp…bada-bada-ba’ of Norman Watt-Roy’s bass riff. Every male in there looked like Jocky Wilson, every female like Cilla Black. The wee man didn’t seem to want to go from red to green and the song didn’t seem to want to end. Even after the light finally changed and he got out onto the middle of the bridge, Julian could still hear it; the bass riff reverberating down through the bridge supports and the water into the very bedrock of the place; the lyrics wrapping round and winding through the stones of the castle up on the hill like the words of a protective spell spoken by some medieval sorcerer.
Day trips to Inverness had been a big deal when he was a boy, back in the days when it was pretty much the only urban conurbation he’d ever clapped eyes on. It had the feel of a Wild West frontier town, where he and the old man could sell their hogs, buy provisions for the winter and maybe watch a cattle thief hanging outside the town hall. He felt indifferent towards it now, like he did every small or medium-sized city in the UK, but that was only natural. It was like that when you went directly from being one of 100 in Nowheresville, Sutherland for the first 17 years of your life to being one of seven million in the mega-city sprawl of London, only really getting round to visiting all the towns and cities in between when the band was booked to play some backstreet cabaret club or miners’ welfare. He wasn’t even that fussed about Glasgow; in fact, he was more scunnered with it than ever now with all these eejits acting like Postcard Records and the publication of Lanark suddenly made it better than Berlin in the 1920s.
Looking downriver towards the Firth, Inverness was kind of beautiful in its own shy, withdrawn way: the tall trees, neat council-planted flowerbeds, the church spires, the lances of gold light shimmering away on the water’s surface. If he squinted hard enough Julian could almost pretend it was a Legoland Budapest, and he was back there beside the waters of the Danube, smoking joints and arguing about Eurovision winners with Spanish Dani, Swedish Lena and the rest of the Inter-Railing crew, the summer before he went to London for the first time. He dug the Walkman out and shuffled through the collection of tapes he’d stashed in another of the greatcoat’s many pockets. He required exactly the right musical accompaniment to fit his mood and the atmosphere of the place on the way back to the station. After careful deliberation he selected Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms, turned it over onto side two, fast-forwarded through to Jean Walks In Fresh Fields, and started walking. By the time he’d crossed the bridge, strolled down under the trees on the opposite bank, crossed the footbridge and come up through the backstreets to arrive again at the foot of the war memorial, he’d rewound it and listened to the same track over again five times.
The station was floating in a haze of salt and vinegar and busier than before, but everyone was subdivided into little groups that talked quietly and eyed each other furtively, as if the concourse was the waiting room and the platforms the headmaster’s office, and everyone was waiting to go inside and be disciplined. Even the pissed up stragglers that had had enough of dancing to The Clash were not immune to this strange, cold pall hanging over everything, keeping their flushed and damp faces aimed at their feet as they guiltily consumed fish suppers one chip at a time. Julian waited for everyone else to get onto the train first then walked up the platform to the furthest away carriage. It was empty, as was the adjoining carriage, so there was no sound other than the old train’s somnolent rhythm of shunts and creaks on the way over the River Ness. Julian plucked a tape out of his pocket at random and played it on his Walkman, but snorted derisively and bundled the Walkman away again when he realised it was the demo of his own solo work that he’d played to the Saturn rep. Soon he was fantasising about winning the pools and using the money to construct a bullet train line between Thurso and London Euston, so he could interrupt his exile with the occasional visit to Camden Lock or the British Museum whenever the fancy took him. He remembered how this stage of the journey would tend to unfold on those trips to Inverness with his father; how he would always get tired and grumpy after so much walking, and how his dad would buy him a comic and a Crunchie bar at the station to keep him entertained on the train, only for him to nod off before they’d even reached the other side of the river, as dad stroked the hair behind his ears and murmured ‘nearly there’. After slipping off his shoes and resting his feet on the chair opposite, Julian closed his eyes and nestled his head into the corner of the window on his left. There was no-one else to do it for him, so he stroked his own hair behind his ears and said the words to himself, ‘nearly there’, over and over, feeling like it was a dream and he had already fallen asleep some time ago.