Dan is on the station platform, holding a woman’s handbag. He stops and looks back in the carriage.
What’s that? I ask.
Someone’s left it, he says.
Maybe they’re in the loo, I tell him.
I don’t think so. I didn’t see anyone get up.
The train begins to leave. We look along the platform and then Dan fishes in the bag. He pulls out a mobile phone. ‘Mum’ is on the last dialled list – a picture of a young, fun-looking woman with blond hair. Dan calls and while he speaks I direct him to our connecting train.
What did she say? I ask once he’s off the phone.
I left a sleeping bag on the tube once. I was halfway up the stairs when I realised. I carried on, thinking that the train would have already pulled out. But it wasn’t my sleeping bag – I’d taken it without asking. Just as remorse was settling in, I remembered this had been the train’s final destination. I turned and hurried back, but I was stopped from coming onto the platform by a guard.
I left something on the train, I told him, breathless.
What was it? he said.
A sleeping bag.
It’s okay! he yelled down the platform to another guard who was standing by the door of what I realised was my carriage.
They were already treating it as a threat.
Young, fun-looking mum says her daughter only realised, she’d left her handbag as the train pulled away. She’d had to watch it on the seat, disappearing. When she got home and told her mum, they phoned the station, but no one had been able to help.
Couldn’t someone radio the train? Ask the conductor to get the bag? I say.
Yeah, like they’d do that for a bag.
It was a Friday evening. We were on our way to Brighton for the weekend. Dan arranged to meet the girl’s mother at the same stop on our back through.
When she was driving, my mother used to keep her handbag in the space between her seat and the car door. One evening, she had to stop and deliver a letter. It was pouring, dark. She hurried back across the road and jumped quickly into the car, shaking out the rain from her hair. It wasn’t until we were home that she realised her bag was missing.
We got back in the car and drove to the letterbox. The two of us got out to look. The rain had stopped, but the puddles were still there with the city lights within them. Every so often, a car would roll past, but other than that there was only the noise of water rushing into the drains. The bag was gone. We drove to the police station, but nothing had been handed in. My mother was devastated.
The following morning, the phone rang. As my mother answered and listened, she frowned.
Who was that? I said when she put the phone down.
The man who found my bag, she told me.
My mother didn’t answer immediately. He’s bringing it over, she finally said.
Hmmm, she mumbled.
Earlier this year, Dan and I were in London, watching the six nations with a group of friends. It was February. The day started off cold and crisp. By late afternoon it had begun to snow.
Let’s not stay too late, I said, thinking of having to get the bus back to Oxford.
Okay, Dan said. Ten o’clock.
The rugby finished and we went to another pub. The streets were already thickening white. At a little after ten I said to Dan that we should go.
One more, he said.
I didn’t want to leave either, but knew that we should. One more seemed possible.
But after that, I suggested we get going. Dan had a few inches of beer in his glass. He was leaning on the bar, looking at me, but lacking some of the recognition.
Let’s stay, he said.
We can’t, I told him.
Okay, one more, he said.
A few minutes later I saw him with a pint in his hand.
I walked through the busy bar and went and spent a minute in the quiet of the toilets. I had stopped drinking a few hours ago. I was just beginning to find the time arduous, the busy bar seemed a personal affront. I splashed water on my face, took a few breaths in and went back out.
I found Dan and leant in close and said: this is one of those times that I’m being serious and it’s important for you to listen to me. Let’s go.
He nodded and finished his drink.
When we got out into the street, the snow was falling still – thick pieces, that I felt pass my face.
Jeez, Dan said. Why didn’t we leave earlier?
Do not even say that, I told him.
What? he said.
I carried on towards the station. There was hardly any moving traffic in the street. Buses had been parked half-heartedly, sitting at angles from the pavement, their lights off, looking abandoned. Clapham Junction was crowded. The trains to Victoria were all delayed.
What are you so annoyed about? Dan asked me as we waited.
I wanted to leave hours ago, I said.
So, why didn’t you?
I stared at him – that’s responsible, I said.
Dan suggests trying to find a taxi. When we get outside, the street is still in an eerie state of desertion. The light is a pale, artificial orange. It makes me think we’ve walked onto a movie set at the end of a day’s filming. We go back inside to check the train departures boards, but it’s hard to make sense with all the delays. I ask a woman in uniform about the trains to Victoria.
There’s one about to leave, she says.
We hurry back up to the platform and just make the train.
Result! I say, turning to Dan.
Once we sit down, I offer him some of my tea.
He takes a small sip, even though I know he doesn’t drink tea without sugar, and doesn’t really like tea anyway.
We pass ruins of gas towers, huge, just visible in the darkness. There are old warehouses, abandoned buildings, their windows dark, as if burned out. Battersea power station appears through the night.
I tap Dan on the arm and say: all these relics.
We talk about how many buildings there are that had a use before anyone living today had even been born.
Though, the power station wasn’t disused that long ago, Dan tells me.
But other stuff, I say.
The train stops and I remark on how empty the station is.
I guess, it’s late, I add.
As we get up to go, I notice a plastic bag under the table near us. Inside are foreign cigar boxes strapped together with tape.
This is dodgy looking, I say, picking up the bag to report it.
There is hardly anyone one on the platform. We keep looking up and down until a guard walks into view.
Over there, I say to Dan, pointing.
Wait here, he says, taking my arm above the elbow and squeezing. He seems angry as he takes the bag off me, which saddens me. I watch him hurry down the platform. He and the guard are talking now. They both keep looking in the bag. I am aware of a strange feeling – this sadness from before, or perhaps more of a confusion at what Dan could be so angry about. I know we’ve argued, but we’re friends, always friends.
Suddenly I think: if that is a bomb then at least I’m looking at the man I love.
Dan and the guard have put the plastic bag down on the floor. They are still talking, which strikes me as odd. I hear something and turn to see a man coming out of the carriage, wiping his hands. His face is shocked.
Have you lost a bag?
I realise what it was that bothered my mother all those years ago when that man phoned up about her bag.
Why didn’t he just drop it off at the police station? my mother kept saying. She wasn’t sure she wanted to open the door to him.
It made no sense to me then, a ten year old – not yet hardened against the world, still trusting, innocent.
I crept into the hall when the knock came. My mother hadn’t wanted me there. I caught a glimpse of shaggy hair, flecked with grey at the temples, an old, thick jumper. The man was short, muscular. His hands were workers hands, dirty nails, short stubby fingers. He told my mother that he hadn’t thought about the police station – that he’d simply found her address.
It was too late to phone last night, he said. But I knew you’d be worried. I wanted to bring it as soon as possible.
My mother gave him a few pounds, which I told her later was stingy.
He can get himself a pint, she said.
She was still aggrieved by something – something she couldn’t align in her mind, something this man had done. She was still trying to pick a hole in it, unable to believe in his goodness.
What were you and the guard talking about for so long, I say to Dan.
We were basically just looking at the package saying: so, this could blow at any moment, really.
Was that why you told me to wait here? I ask.
I thought you were annoyed with me, I say.
Annoyed with you? he says, incredulous.
He presses me against him as we walk through Victoria station, searching for the exit to the street where we can pick up the night bus home.