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Northbound: A short story by Bernie McGill

'I know what it could be, it could be a star lost on its way somewhere ...'

Bernie McGill is the author of two novels, The Butterfly Cabinet and The Watch House, and short story collection Sleepwalkers. She is Writing Fellow with the Royal Literary Fund at Queen's University Belfast
Bernie McGill is the author of two novels, The Butterfly Cabinet and The Watch House, and short story collection Sleepwalkers. She is Writing Fellow with the Royal Literary Fund at Queen's University Belfast

By Bernie McGill

The platform at Lanyon Place is crowded with shoppers and their bags, partygoers adding to the scores of regular commuters. "We'll take the first carriage," Abbie tells Maia. "It's usually quieter than the rest."

Abbie holds her daughter tightly by the hand as they step up onto the train. They walk down the aisle of the carriage together, Maia's rag doll swinging from her free hand. There is one unoccupied seat at a table by a window but it is taken up by a large briefcase.

The woman seated beside it is wearing ear buds, is staring down at her phone. Abbie would walk on but they are both too tired to stand and lately she has been checking herself. She is trying to show her daughter that she must learn to ask for what she wants. She stops by the woman's elbow and asks if the seat is free. The woman lifts the bag without speaking and stands into the aisle to allow them to pass. Abbie raises the armrest and slides in to the window seat, pulls Maia onto her knee. A man opposite makes to rise when he sees her, offers his seat for the child, but Abbie says it's fine, thank you. They don't have far to go. She knows that Maia will fall asleep. She angles the child's feet towards the window and the heater, her back to the disgruntled passenger. At four, her daughter is already growing too lanky to sit comfortably on her knee.

"How's Mrs Gooseberry?" Abbie asks when they're settled.

Maia pushes the doll's woollen hair back from around her face. "She's sleepy," she says. Then, whispering, "Where's the carriage, Mamma?"

"This is it. We're in it," Abbie says. Maia drops her chin. "What is it?" she asks her.

"Mrs Gooseberry thought there'd be horses," Maia says and Abbie remembers too late that her daughter's idea of 'carriage' is velvet-lined and gilded; not this crush of people seated two abreast, in a metal corridor. She is reminded, again, that she must be careful with her choice of words, that Maia hears and sees the world differently to her. The train moves off. "Look out at the lights," Abbie says.

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It's late December. They have been to the Christmas market. Maia was awe-struck at the sparkling windows of the City Hall, the giant baubles in the trees, the market stalls festooned in lights.

"Can we go back, Mamma?" she had said. "For my birthday, or for yours?"

"But it won't be there in May."

"You mean it just appears at Christmas time?" And far from being disappointed, this had reinforced for her the magic of the place.

They have had Dutch pancakes dusted in sugar, and giant muffins and sweet hot chocolate and candied laces as long as Maia's arm. They have screamed down the helter skelter, dizzied themselves on the merry-go-round. It has been the best of days. For her mother, Abbie has bought a carved wooden angel. She managed to distract Maia with the choosing of it while the stallholder bagged a kaleidoscope too. She knows that Maia will adore her gift: the coloured beads, the prism of changing patterns. She already sees the world through a magic lens. Abbie knows that it won't stay that way.

"Tickets there, folks!" says the conductor, passing through the train.

"What about Mrs Gooseberry?" whispers Maia.

"Mrs Gooseberry goes free," Abbie says.

A dark-haired girl seated opposite them takes a pouch and a tin from her parka jacket, sets the things up on the table. She pops a cigarette filter into her mouth, starts to tamp and roll tobacco into a white cigarette paper, licks and seals the edges, drops it into the tin. Three times she does this and Maia is mesmerised. The girl smiles over at her. Abbie pulls her daughter a little closer. She does not want her to be introduced to harm with such dexterity, such skill. She would like, if she could, to keep her safe always.

"Look, Maia," Abbie says, pointing out the window, "look at the giant's big nose." Above the city, Cavehill is monstrous, hunched into a deeper darkness against the sky.

As the train moves on, Abbie becomes aware that the woman beside her is beginning to nod her head in sleep. Bit by bit the woman's head slips sideways until it is resting on Abbie's right shoulder. She begins to snore gently at Abbie's ear. Abbie shrugs her shoulder but it makes no difference. She looks out the window, at the light leaching out of the sky. Maia is counting coloured lights: the red and the yellow and the orange, the blue and the white and the green; on tower blocks and in storeyed car parks; the lights dancing on the black river; the street lights and traffic lights; the garlanded cranes and the reflected digitised lettering of the train's information display. There is a whole imagined world on the other side of the window. Then lulled by the movement of the train, and the digital beep of the ticket machine, Maia's head falls against Abbie's chest, and her dark eyes close.

Abbie is due back at work in the hospital on Christmas Eve. Today's trip was intended as consolation for not being at home on Christmas morning when Maia will wake with Abbie's mother to open her gifts. But the work means that there will be something for Maia to open that Abbie has bought for her herself. The job is not an easy one. She feels for the patients who do not want to eat the pureed food that she is tasked to spoon into their mouths, who refuse the thickened liquids in the cups she holds for them to sip.

They do not want the indignity of having their soiled bed things changed by her. What they want, more than anything, is to be well again, to be able to walk out the ward door.

She has to switch off that part of her that sees the world the way they see it, the view from the hospital bed, and this is the part that she finds the hardest. She would like to take some time and talk with them but there is never enough time for this.

She has to move on, has to rattle her trolley along the hospital corridor, refreshing the other patients' water jugs as she goes. Often relatives stop to ask her questions but she is not able to help them. "You need to talk to a nurse," she says. Abbie heard a man on the radio talking about how working night shifts is not good for you. He said it messed with your circadian rhythms. He said that sleep deprivation could lead to a loss of empathy. She wonders if, perhaps, the woman beside her is sleep-deprived. In the glass she catches a movement from the man who offered her his seat. He nods over at the sleeping woman, pulls a face, smiles at Abbie. She cannot help but smile back: a covert exchange in the dark of the glass.

At Yorkgate a party of half a dozen men dressed in suits and white-trimmed Santa hats boards the train. The sleeping woman stirs and rights herself, goes back to her phone. The men stand in the space between the carriage doors and the toilet pod, laughing and ribbing each other, swaying as the train moves off. The smell of beer and aftershave drifts down the carriage. Across the aisle, a woman is crocheting, picking at her work with fluid expert moves. A ball of white wool unravels, shot through with silver thread; a stocking grows in her hands. The woman leans in to her companion and says: "Those long-stemmed green glasses I have in the cupboard, would they sell if I left them in to the charity shop? They're a bit old-fashioned now."

"You never know," her companion says. "Somebody might be glad of them for Christmas."

Abbie slips her phone from her pocket, glances at the screen. One-handed, she thumbs a message to her mother: "We're on our way home." Somewhere behind her, a man is talking about the bargain Christmas lunch he's had. "Roast potatoes; mash; turkey and ham; veg; stuffing; gravy; the works. And all for £4.90. It's no wonder," he says, "that they're queueing out the door. £4.90. You couldn't make it for that." On Instagram a celebrity has ordered hundreds of tons of fake snow to transform her Californian home into a winter wonderland.

On Facebook Abbie's mother has posted in the neighbourhood group, asking when the black bins are to be collected. Further back, Abbie can hear throat-clearing and coughing. It's the season for sickness: the hospital wards will be packed. Outside in the dark of the countryside, a whistle, a rattle and a sudden flare of light as a train passes parallel to them, on its way into the city.

The man who had offered her his seat has a large hard-backed notebook in his hands and is writing or drawing something in coloured pens. He has a smooth bald head and a short dark beard and tattoos that disappear up his sleeves. He is concentrating on the page. Then he glances up at her and, embarrassed, she looks away back out into the dark. The wind has picked up. It has begun to rain.

The train slows, pulls in to a stop. Under the sign for Mossley West, a bush of bright red berries grows out from a concrete wall. It's not holly; there are hardly any leaves and the branches are long, straight. Her mother would know the name: cotoneaster, or pyracantha? She remembers something like it growing in her grandparents' garden, the exotic names in her grandparents' exchange: burberis, japonica, arbutus, viburnum. She has always loved the music of words. Maybe one day, when Maia is older, she'll find her way back to them again.

The train idles at the station, raindrops bead on the window catching light, bright as Christmas tree baubles. Maia stirs, raises a hand, begins to count them one by one. The wind has blown a burst rubbish bag along the platform.

The tarmac is scattered with wet paper hats, torn crackers, stained paper plates. The departing passengers have climbed the steps to the road above; the carriage doors have closed. Then over the Tannoy comes an announcement: there is a short delay on the line. Passengers exchange glances of mild annoyance, sigh and settle back down to their devices. Eyes droop. Mouths yawn.

Her voice low with sleep, Maia says, "Mamma?"

"Hmmm?" Abbie says.

Maia points out the window. "What could it be?" she asks.

Abbie smiles, squeezes her daughter. This is their latest game. The game says that everything can be more than what it looks like. The game says an object can be more than just one thing.

Abbie looks to where Maia is pointing and sees that something silvery, metallic has caught in the berry bush outside, is shimmering in the station lights. It looks like the foil bag from the inside of a wine box. She can make out the black plastic tap.

"Oh," Abbie says. "Let me see. It could be a Christmas party skirt - for Mrs Gooseberry, maybe?"

"Yes!" Maia says.

"Your turn."

"It could be… a pillow. For a fairy."

Abbie laughs. "You're getting too good at this."

"Your turn, Mamma."

Abbie looks again. She doesn't say that it reminds her a little of an IV bag, that the tap could be a cannula, the narrowing of one world into another. Instead she says: "It could be… the lining for a tiny astronaut's suit."

Maia claps her hands. "What else, Mamma?"

"No, it's your turn."

"I'm stuck," Maia says.

The man from the seat opposite is leaning to look out the window now. "It could be…" he says, and Maia looks across at him. "A mirror? For magpies, maybe?"

"Yes!" Maia says.

"It could be…" And it's the cigarette girl. "A parachute - for an elf?"

Maia chuckles. "Yes!" she says. "What else? Mamma, what else?"

"A bad balloon," Abbie says.

"An alien's bladder?" says the man.

"A giant's cufflink," says the girl.

Now crocheting woman is looking too. "A glitter ball," she says, without laying down her needles, "for square people."

Maia laughs.

"A mattress," says a voice from further back that could be cheap-Christmas-lunch man. "A mattress for a fish."

And now the Santa-hatted men are looking out too and they are joining in and it could be the face of a clock, a handkerchief, the stand for a wedding cake. It could be an evening bag, a pendant, an earring. It could be a roasting dish.

"I know!" Maia says. "I know what it could be. It could be a star."

"One that's fallen?" Abbie says.

"Or just lost," says Maia. "Maybe. On its way to somewhere else."

Another announcement on the Tannoy: the line is now clear. The brakes of the train release with a sigh, the carriage moves away. Under the sound of its movement, Abbie can still hear talk of silver salvers, barbecue trays, invitations, photo frames. The next stop is where Abbie and Maia get off. "Excuse me," Abbie says to the no-longer-snoring woman, making to get up, and the woman rouses herself to allow them to pass.

"Happy Christmas," says the cigarette girl.

"Happy Christmas," says Abbie.

"Happy Christmas," says the man opposite, and just as she has made it to the aisle, he tears a page from his notebook and passes it across to her. She is unsure but she takes it and they head for the carriage door.

"You missed the game," Maia says, to the no-longer-snoring woman, but the woman's not looking at them. She's looking down at her phone.

"Happy Christmas," say the Santa-hatted men, and the crocheting woman, and Christmas-lunch man.

"Happy Christmas," they say. The train halts at the station; the carriage doors open; Abbie and Maia step off. Under the platform lights, Abbie risks a glance at the page the drawing man has passed to her and laughs aloud.

"What is it, Mamma?" Maia says and Abbie shows her. It's Mrs Gooseberry, on the back of a unicorn, hair flying behind her over Mossley West. She has left all the coloured lights down below where the red berry bush is growing. She is holding on tight to the unicorn's mane and her chin is lifted, looking up to the sky, to where they are both headed, to what they are following: a gleaming misshapen four-pointed star.

Bernie McGill is the author of two novels, The Butterfly Cabinet and The Watch House, and short story collection Sleepwalkers. She is Writing Fellow with the Royal Literary Fund at Queen's University Belfast

www.berniemcgill.com

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