Anna Allen, born in County Wicklow, has lived in Connemara for over thirty years. Though the idea of writing nagged and haunted her, having married and started a family that grew and grew, there were too many other calls on her time.  However, the day came when she realised the only cure for the torture of wanting to write – was to write.  Her first contribution was published in 1972 to be followed by many more reflecting her views on relevant subjects of the day, in the Evening and the Morning editions of the Irish Press.  Short Stories came later.  When the chance to become a mature (University) student presented itself, Anna grasped the opportunity.  In 2007 she emerged from NUIG with an honours BA (English, Archaeology, Sociology/Politics and Philosophy, followed by an M Litt. in Feminist Philosophy.

Train  Hopping

By Anna Allen

Eating on the train’s a mug’s game.  What would you not pay Iarnród Eireann for a breakfast the likes of this and, where would you get one in Dublin, at the price, for that matter?  And at this rate a-going he’d soon have to start thinking of that end of things.  Jim ran his tongue across his lips while his nostrils dilated to admit the whiff of his full Irish breakfast.  The sizeable plate, warm to the touch, accommodated bacon, eggs, sunny-side up just as he had requested, sausages, two, at that and not dripping with grease from a deep fat fryer like you’d get in some places.  There were mushrooms, beans, black and white pudding, the lot, plus a bread-van full of toast.  He’d done very well to come in here.

   The place was packed, festooned with cops, mostly the plain-clothes variety, but no bother to him to suss them out.  Cops knew the places to go, or maybe the grub knows what it’s feeding.  And look at the walls.  Writers!  All dead and many from Dublin looking down from their frames on the cops and robbers alike; there was Joyce, Behan; Wilde; Shaw; Synge; the lot.  Yes, he was glad he’d chosen Galway today. 

   He was also glad he’d brought the bag with some clobber because at this rate a-going and all other things being equal, he might as well spend a few days here as anywhere else under the sun, or more accurately, within the free travel radius.  His chuckle was silent.  Free travel, just as well at the rate he was coming and going.  If the law of acceleration meant anything it would soon be going and going.  What was the use in hurrying back?  It was worse things were getting and not better.  This train-hopping scenario was taking on the semblance of a career; a way of life.

   What had started out as long walks had progressed into day trips fast blossoming into weekends and was in real danger of growing into extended holidays.  Life in perpetual motion was staring him in the face if he didn’t try to find a solution to the whole sorry affair.  And pronto.  It seemed, as they say in the media, that the situation, first conceived as a temporary solution to a temporary problem had, ironically grown legs.  His legs.  He poured tea from the stainless steel pot and noted with approval the lack of drips from the ubiquitous ill-fitting lid.  The hallmark of breakfasts nearly everywhere he’d wandered in.

   He allowed himself an ironic chuckle and milk for his tea.  It had been sufficient, for his purposes to catch a train to the seaside, since the time the walks appeared not to keep him in absentia long enough to satisfy her majesty’s pleasure.  Dalkey or Sandymount would then suffice.  Dollymount Strand on a nice summer’s afternoon where Joyce’s Dubliners could be deciphered at leisure offered little to moan about.  A kind of backhanded consolation, you might say, could be gleaned from the remains of his life.  Then, as extracting his hard-won creature comforts, self-autonomy or a modicum of serenity from his home-life became more and more fraught, it was out as far as Bray or Wicklow, or for a change of direction, Kildare or even, as it had been on one memorable occasion – Athlone.  That was the day when he actually noticed a woman and thought he felt something stirring.  He controlled an ironic titter.  Stirring?  It had to be in the memory cells.  She did look a bit like Margaret, ah, that was all there was to it.

   The day could be punched in walking around the town having a bite to eat here and a coffee there plus the odd pint of Guinness just for the camaraderie of bidding the time of day to whomsoever occupied the next bay at the bar.  That’s if anyone did.  People didn’t seem to have the odd pint much during the day anymore.  Jim dipped his toast in a perfectly cooked egg; all too busy out working to pay for the houses, the two cars and the mod. Cons.  The Celtic Tiger how are you?  If it’s on the way out then good riddance because the benefits it brought were well clawed back and in the meantime life, as it was known, had slipped away under the prancing, predatory feet of the slyly smiling big cat.

  Jim speared a sausage.  Where did that come from – the prancing, predatory feet?  I’m getting better at that kind of thing.  Maybe I should consider writing a book before I reach my dotage.  Now there’s a thought.  The right background was there for it.  How many Civil Servants had become writers?  Hugh Leonard, now there was one, and Eamonn Keane, R.I.P. well he quit to become a full-time actor, same thing really.  And of course he mustn’t forget the daddy of them all, Flann O’Brien. Artistic.  That was the word.  Well he wouldn’t have to quit and take his chances in the big bad world risking his permanent and pensionable job.  He’d retired on a nice fat pension, thank you very much Jim for sticking it all those years; now with his free travel on top he was supposed to be foot loose and fancy free.

  His tongue chased the flavoursome mushroom juice around his gums except, of course, things weren’t always what they seemed!  Foot loose, he was that and no mistake, but by default rather than by design.  He was on the run, you might say.  He had become adept at knowing when it was time to sling his hook.  He could pick up the vibe even before it hatched.  He used to wait till murder was on the agenda.  Silly him, it hadn’t occurred to him that there was anything expected of him, in his own house, except maybe to take another walk and then retire to his room.  Not only would the air fill with the impression that they wanted him gone, he wanted gone himself, so to speak.  Ah yes, Jim wasn’t one to hang around where he wasn’t wanted.  Ah no, here’s out of this Matt Brown were his sentiments as he headed to the nearest train station, there’s more to life than being in the way.

  It wasn’t that he didn’t love his son and his two grandchildren.  It was just…it was just that he’d settled in his ways, especially in the years following Margaret’s death.  It’d be five years ago shortly.  He never had to think or tot up the years.  He knew how long it was and when it was – organically.  The final parting of the ways was a living and vibrant memory.  God, just when they were looking forward to a good life together, having reared a fair sized family and spent every penny he’d earned on their education, when they’d all gone about their own business, off she had to pop and leave him lonely.  Devastated more like. 

  Now that his retirement had eventually come and he’d time and money to spend, he’d no companion.  No, he never had to apply to his brain to recall that fatal day.  He had it to a T and that, ironically, brought him back to the trip to Athlone and the first woman he’d seen since his wife’s death that reminded him he was still a man. Maybe she hadn’t taken all that sort of thing to the grave, after all.  The woman had smiled at him in a way that made him want to talk to her.  Touch her even.  She sat opposite him on the train and had lovely warm blue eyes and a neat body.  She seemed lonely too and about his age.  Maybe she was also on the run from some similar situation at home, on the other hand maybe not.  Maybe she was just enjoying the free travel.  He had noticed the ticket she handed to the collector.  The telltale colour was on it.  The State!  Nothing is discreet with that lot.  He ought to know. He’d also noticed the wedding ring, not that that meant anything.  She could easily have been a widow.         ‘“Visiting relatives?”’ she’d queried him as the train pulled into the station.  It could have been an opening gambit.  Maybe it was.

      ‘No,’ had been his sharp reply as he slung his bag on his back and headed to the nearest exit.  He could have added, ‘Visiting relatives?  Getting away from them, more like.’

  Of course some people didn’t see it that way.  Some people, and that included the rest of the family, were under the impression that he would benefit from the incursion of his youngest son with French wife and two chisellers in tow.  He didn’t want to be misunderstood.  Far be it from him to deny them a roof over their heads, neither did he want his grandchildren growing up looking upon him as an interloper in his own home; which was exactly the way Chan-tal made him feel much of the time.  Of course it was only for a little while; just to give them a chance to buy a house.  Kevin had been posted back to Dublin, Foreign Affairs.  Cheers all round.  Brussels was no place to rear two strapping, Franco-Hibernian tearaways.  He wondered what could be so different about Dublin, the way it is now. 

  One thing he’d admired in Chan-tal, even though it militated against the situation because it took two salaries nowadays to pay for a house and she’d have done well as an interpreter, she wanted to rear her children herself, in the home, all day every day.

They’ll keep you young, was an expression bandied about and other bloody clichés like – you won’t be lonely now, not to mention the old chestnut – it’ll be great having a woman about the house again.  You won’t have to worry about cooking for yourself anymore, not with a French woman gracing your kitchen.  Well, a gurgle formed somewhere in his gullet.  He pursued it with a forkful of dried pig’s blood.  The noise indicated neither strangled laughter nor tears.  If it was laughter then it wasn’t gleeful or happy.  It was a crossbreed of bitter amusement, ironic and black as the food that stymied it.  Cooking?  As if he ever minded cooking for himself.  It was one of the few consolations afforded him as a widower.  He could eat what he liked when he liked without anyone giving him the pip about what was good and what wasn’t.  Now he was afraid to be caught in the act.  Take this breakfast for instance, it would kill Chan-tal, he chuckled wryly into his serviette, then drew up short when he remembered where he was; someone might think he was mad, and this time it was a chuckle, of that much he was certain.  It would kill her stone dead to put a plate like this in front of him on a Saturday morning.  Lording over him in his own kitchen and the only morning he allowed himself a fry.  It used to be Saturday tea-time that all of Dublin sat down to a fry; himself and Margaret among them.  He’d shifted it to Saturday morning to avoid the pang he’d suffer on sitting down alone.  All else the same except for Margaret’s empty chair.  Since Chan-tal well he might despoil his own cooker; he might take the gloss off the kitchen or use one of her state-of-the-art appliances and not return it to proper place in her scheme of things.  Such food was bad for his heart.  As if.  He was fit as a fiddle, always had been and it was fitter he was getting since he’d become a sort of – Wandering Jew.

  It was when Anton, aged two-and-a-half, started banging the daylights out of his dead wife’s piano that the shit really hit the fan.  Maybe he was a bit ridiculous, considering the whereabouts of herself, not to mention the child’s potential to be a great musician like his maternal grand-père.  Chantal had a way of making him feel guilty about everything, but it went to his heart the way the young lad was thumping the keys without any parental control what-so-ever.  The noise was atrocious and it had become a daily occurrence.  The chiseller thought he was Beethoven or more accurately one of them aggressive Russian composers.

      ‘Take a walk,’ Chantal advised with the cock of a well-groomed eyebrow.

      ‘And you too,’ he should have said in the particular tone of voice except he didn’t want to exacerbate things.  But things were exacerbated and gradually over the period, which now had become three years, the walks had become longer walks and had grown organically into the day-trips.  The day-trips had become overnighters and they in turn had become week-ends and extended week-ends.  The near places had become far places.  The Wicklows and Athlones had become Cork; Waterford; Sligo; Longford; Roscommon and today he found himself in Galway and in time for his breakfast at that.  Well it was Saturday and he was damned if Chan-tal or any other Chan-tal was going to stop him having his fry.

  Jim drained the last drop from the teapot and sat back in his chair.  He’d done well to come in here.  He’d no idea why he had come in here.  There were plenty of places he could have gone into between here and the train station.  It was interesting to ponder the whys and wherefores of actions taken on a sub-conscious level.  What made a body open one door and not another.  Makes you think.  At least takes your mind off the more immediate things, like your home being inched out from under you especially if there was fizz-all you could do about it.

  Look at your one!  Maybe she got the bug from your men in the frames.  Saw the writing on the wall, so to speak.  Jim pursed his lips to fend off a robust titter.  His wit was getting the better of him.  It must be the change of air.  The woman propelling a pen quickly across the page of a copybook was definitely bent on what she was doing.  There she was sitting alone at a table directly opposite where he sat himself and that he was now about to vacate.  Had she come in recently or had she been there all the time?  He’d have to pay more attention to the here and now instead of endlessly mulling over his situation.  What was the use in removing one’s corpus and leaving one’s mind behind?  He ought to begin living on these journeys, partaking of the life around him, seeing the destinations as places to be rather than as alternatives to the one place not to be

 The woman, she was writing attentively, seriously.  What was she up to?  He looked again.  She was attractive enough, interesting might be a better word.  She lifted her head and looked straight at him, their eyes met as if by synchronicity.   Her smile was less playful than that of the woman on the Athlone train.  It was more circumspect, more, more wistful.  Yes, that was the word.  Was it empathy he saw there?  A certain appeal?  If she wanted to write why wasn’t she at home doing it?  Did she also belong to the evicted community of elders?  Not that she was old in that way.  Like himself, she’d lived.  Life’s dirty little tricks were written all over her, but there was something still youthful enough about her.  And why was she looking so intently at him?  Maybe he was putting out vibes.  Was the male antenna once more awakening?  Pity he must go soon.  He couldn’t just sit there with an empty plate in front of him.  He shook the empty teapot.  Not a drop.

   Your woman had awarded herself another cup of coffee and was scribbling furiously again.  Jim shrugged and stood up.  He put on his coat and slung his bag across one shoulder with a flourish.  He could feel the woman’s eyes following as he waited at the counter to pay his bill.  He knew he cut a presentable picture from behind.  His clothes were casual but good.  He’d been a suit long enough but he’d retained the habit of co-ordinating his colours.  If your woman was still looking, and he could feel she was, she was looking at an expensive pair of light brown suede loafers and socks to match.  She’d see as far as his socks.  He was self-satisfied with his smart pair of fawn casual pants and his long coat, well his three-quarter length weather coat that was about as remote from an anorak as Bertie Ahern was from being elected President of the United States of America.

  The bag, well who could fault a good heavy canvas bag with thick leather straps?  But was the design of the bag that stood to him just now.  No official I’m here for the weekend baggage-on-wheels for him.  No, it struck him now if it hadn’t before, that Chan-tal, fair play to her, had a deft hand when it came to choosing presents.  He was willing to brush aside his bad-minded first thoughts that had plagued him when she presented him with the hiker’s accoutrement.  Talk about a hint!  But now he was more than happy to imagine the impression such a classy item upon his left shoulder presented.  He switched it to his more readily observable right shoulder with as much élan as the chic Chantal and her bag would allow.  As he presented his gold credit card he flushed with wonderment that his image had suddenly become something of importance to him.  He was tempted to squint at the woman but felt the gesture would ruin the effect; would detract from his air of self-absorbed nonchalance.  Yes, image matters, he found himself aping an advertisement while his mind, unbidden, adjusted to the slogan – size matters.  Well this was a different matter(s) altogether.  He’d have to escape and quickly before his nervous system rewarded him with a round of applause, not to mention curtain calls in response to the performance of his sense of humour and certainly before his imagination produced a measuring tape for your woman to wave at him, meaningfully.

  Things were at a sorry pass when the mind found nothing better to conjure than TV adds.  A flash of anger threw water on his rampaging imagination.  Whatever about that, she or any other she like her would scarcely fancy a life of train-hopping.  He made for the door and didn’t look back.  In spite of the brilliant sunshine the chill air rushed to meet him as he hit the street.  ‘It’ll have to be the Lotto or sharper drop in house prices’ he muttered as he crossed over to Joyce’s bookshop, ‘before I’ll be thinking beyond the next train ride.’

  The click of a woman’s heels close behind made him turn around.  It was your one from the café, the writer.  Better not complicate matters!  On the other hand was it not time he realised he had a life of his own to lead.  He wasn’t dead yet; no, not by a long chalk.  He put his hand in his pocket.  ‘Eh! Lazarus, there ye are how are ye?’  That decided it.  The next train he’d hop was one back to Dublin.  He had a life to retrieve and all that goes with it.  Then he could train-hop, or not, as he saw fit.