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"Day Out" by Mona McKinlay  

Mona is working on her first collection of short stories and novel, The Hypnotist's House.  She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.


© 2005 Mona McKinlay



All the tables were occupied. They made their way to the back of the compartment, Mel propelling Claire along the aisle, his hand on her hip.  "Over here!" shouted a tall girl in a camouflage shirt, pointing with a wine glass to two seats behind her.

Claire smiled at the girl and, dropping her bag on the floor, sat down by the window. Uncomfortably aware of the thigh hard against hers, she edged away. When Mel crooned "Close to you," she thought about crying, then decided to be grateful. His obsession with corny songs and trivia might be irritating, but at least they had caught the last train from Gare du Nord. The memory of Paris, with its suffocating heat was enough. That and his glazed eyes, as he had sat in the restaurant, stumbling through his sexual history since divorce. The resumé had concluded with the revelation that the last one had landed him with a bad case of thrush. Indifferent, she had gazed beyond his sorrowful head, out into the Montparnasse street, while he recounted his life as a psychiatric nurse, working the wards, desperately trying to stop scratching his dick.

The flat countryside flashed by as the train picked up speed. She slid out the tray table and flicked through the complimentary magazine, until a movement across the aisle drew her attention to where a middle-aged woman lay back, eyes closed in exhaustion.
Swiveling her head, feeling her neck crunch and click, Claire rummaged in her bag. Another migraine was starting, but her search for the pills was fruitless; they must have dropped from the hastily zipped bag in the sprint across the concourse.

She felt for the pressure points at the base of her skull and pushed hard, thankful that the seats in front provided shelter from curious eyes. No audience, except Mel breathing alcohol. Cathy had described him as a boozer, but an amiable one. She had been forthright, "Come on, Claire. You spent two years looking after your mother. You could wait forever for your idea of M.r Right. It's time you had some fun."

This was the second date and Claire had to concede that her friend was right. Mel was unable to take anything seriously: he liked to drink; he liked to crack smutty jokes. She pictured the mad, fleeing through the wards, away from Jim Davidson jokes and itching genitals.

"What a day, eh?"
She pretended to sleep. But then something, she took it to be a knee, jutted into her thigh. When she moved away, he moved closer, mumbling into her hair:

"I could get tickets for the Hollies... it's the big reunion some place in London. Might be a laugh. What do you say?"
She didn't respond. He began to wheedle, "You know...Under My Umbrella...Bus Stop..."

"Mel, please," Claire moaned, "Iıve a bad head. I just want some peace."

"Aw never mind then." He moved restlessly. "Want anything from the bar?"
Not waiting for an answer, he got up mumbling, "Excuse me, ladies," as he lurched past the table in front.

Someone laughed. "Donıt fancy yours, Vee. I reckon he needs some hair."
Rocked by the rolling train, Claire escaped into sleep.
The seat beside her was still empty when she woke to the swishing of the wheels on the rails punctuated by shrieks of laughter. She had slept for over half-an-hour. A food trolley had just gone by. It was hot and her headache was worse; she felt nauseous as she adjusted her watch to UK time and contemplated Mel's return.
Glasses clinked.

"To Vee!"
The party in front of her was in full swing. A voice said, "No, that doesn't count. We agreed air crashes. C'mon."

"I've another - what about that one in the Andes where they all scoffed each

"Oh, yuck, BIG YUCK. Trust you to think of that, Andrea."

"That's three to me."

"Whatıs the total, Vee?"

"Four to you. Three to Andrea and none to me."
"Bad luck, Vee. Never mind, letıs do the train ones."


"Yeah, that's obvious. God, I was only fifteen."

Claire looked over to where an old West Indian couple sat, gripping each other's hand. She remembered details of an aeroplane crash; the crossed severed fingers found in the wreckage. Her palm was cool against her throbbing temples, but the macabre image persisted.

Mel had probably found a drinking partner. Before collecting her car and driving back to Bethnal Green, she would make sure he got in a cab at Waterloo. Claire breathed out deeply. Loneliness and feeling sorry for him had caused her to give into his pleadings to go out with him again. She was crazy as well as sick. At least she could use her flexi, have a couple of days off, if she was ill in the morning. It was one of the few perks of
working for the council. Her line manager was accommodating; her own mother had died not that long ago.

Visualising sliding into bed, she sighed pleasurably, then started as a scream came from a seat in front of her.

The tall girl in the camouflage shirt jumped up. Spreading her hands, laughing at the ceiling, she clapped twice. "Gross! Pure gross!" Her eyes met Claire's, before she thudded back to her seat.

A magazine was thrown down on a nearby table. Glancing behind the old couple to the sunken face of the exhausted woman, Claire thought of the hospital room: sister, brother, sister, brother crowding the bed, her motherıs body a splinter of bones, neck stretched like a crane, the flickering of moth skinned lids, the gurgling of the tube.

"Yeah - there was a signal error. It crashed into another train."

"Nah, it couldnıt have been in the tunnel - Iıd have remembered that --"

"It's true, it broke in two. They were stuck in the tunnel for three
In the background somewhere there was the sound of a child crying, a slow, hard sound, sore to the ear. Three days. The time it took for the vigil at her motherıs bed to end. Death, settling easily upon the worn face, had quizzed the onlookers: are you still here?

These thoughts were interrupted by the crying moving towards her. It came from an Asian child, pretty in a swirl of tulle. The childıs huge eyes regarded her steadily through the tears. Friend or foe? She moved towards the toilet door with her mother.

Staring at the mother's hand on the child's shoulder, the pain behind Claireıs eyes welled. She forced back tears and smiled over at the old couple who were gazing towards the child. Beyond them, hollow eyes looked out of the window's reflection and Claire glanced away from the weary woman, sensing unwanted intimacy. At that moment a bellow came, "Bollocks!"

Why didn't anyone object to the noise ? Her breathing erratic, Claire stood up, swaying as the train tilted into a bend. Holding on to the headrest of the seat in front, she surveyed the four girls playing cards, before addressing the table, "Do you mind, I have a  bad migraine...I feel quite sick...the thing is...all this talk of disaster is making it worse. I really need to sleep."

Sitting back down, savouring the startled silence, she let her breath out slowly. A voice shrilled through the carriage, "Well, my God, I hope she's happy now. How selfish can you get? You poor thing. You poor thing. She's ruined your day, hasn't she? And we were having such a lovely day. Oh, Vee, you poor thing."

At the word "selfish," heat flooded Claireıs face. She stood up again. This time, she looked at the vacant faces of the other three, then stared at the large girl with the sneering mouth. "If anyone's selfish, it's you and your friends, intent on spoiling my day and everyone else's on this train. Why donıt you just keep the noise down?"  She heard the appeal in this and added firmly, "Is that too much to ask?"

Studying the flushed face in front of her, the girl's upper lip rose further. She shrugged exaggeratedly at her friends, who responded by sniggering. Claire sat down, annoyed by the lack of support from the other passengers.

She had just closed her eyes when the voice started up again.

"That takes the biscuit. That really does. She's come back - back to upset you. Does she know what you're going through, Vee? Does she know? I think you should show her. What do you think, Cat? Natalie?  Should Vee show that miserable woman what sheıs going through?"

A chorus of agreement was followed by a voice, indistinct at first, then stronger.

"Yes... okay. Maybe I will. All right. I will."

A dazed-looking girl stood up. Her hand went to her head, and Claire watched in horror as she lifted her thick blonde hair from her scalp to a burst of applause from her friends. "You're - a - star, Vee! Eur - o - star!"   The girl smiled vaguely; her hand went to her pink scalp, while her other hand twirled the wig higher and higher like a cheerleader. She made no eye contact with anyone and sat down to further clapping.

Head pounding, searching her bag again for a stray pill, Claire gave up and fell back against the seat. The voice continued:

"I hope sheıs satisfied now. She's absolutely evil, an evil woman. She can see what youıre going through - how bad the cancer is. She doesnıt give a damn about your wig. What an evil woman."

As she pressed further into the window, Claire thought about going to another carriage for the remainder of the journey. But finding an unoccupied seat was unlikely. Her watch said that it was 7.40 p.m. - another hour and they would be at Waterloo, free of the horror of the day. At this, she began to drift into oblivion, voices distant, the pain bobbing nearby while she lay somewhere under a blue sky, sun upon her face.

Mel's whisky slur woke her. "Did your ears pop? In the tunnel? Mine did."

Claire struggled to sit up. "I must have missed that bit. I was sleeping. That's one consolation, I suppose."


Blinking down at the table, she saw a squashed walnut tart and lump of brie nudging each other on a cardboard tray.

"Not now, Mel. I feel sick." She gestured towards the seats in front. "I've had a terrible time with that bunch of ghouls. All theyıve done is talk about disasters." Claire looked into his watery eyes. "One of them's wearing a wig. She pulled it off and her friend said it was my fault - I can't wait to get off this bloody train."

The laugh was more of a wheeze. "We've a few of those on the wards." His voice slid into thick intimacy as his hand squeezed her thigh. "I'm just a sweet transvestite - Rocky Horror Show -- '74 - or '75 - ? They banned it in Singapore. Did you know that?"

Claire pushed the damp hand away.

"Aw, lighten up. Could be a case of alopecia."

He picked up the magazine. The smiling faces of crewmembers looked out from the front cover. "This is the Captain of Your Ship  -  who was that?" Shrugging, opening the magazine, he read: "18 carriages...up to 766 passengers - 560 Standard Class and 206 First Class." He whispered, "Most of the trannies and cross dressers go First Class. I went on this course in Lewisham last year: 'Sexual Minorities and Awareness'." Mel grinned, breaking off a piece of the cake and thrusting it into his fleshy mouth. "I'll bet your pal in front is one."

"I'm going to stand in the corridor." Claire grabbed her bag and stumbled over his legs to the aisle. Darting a look to the table in front, she saw the girl called Vee, wig reinstated, and her tall friend slumped towards each other, both asleep, while the others peered into mirrors, applying makeup. Avoiding the curious glances of passengers, she made her way to the corridor, where she remained for the rest of the journey.

Ten minutes before arrival at Waterloo, the automatic door swished open to a jubilant Mel. "Reparata and the Delrons - 1968!" In response to her blank look, he added, "Captain of Your Ship." When she didn't respond, he asked, "Got everything?"

She ignored the question. "I might not go in tomorrow, I'm really --" Her voice trailed off as the other passengers began to spill into the corridor. A trolley case jabbed her ankle. She turned to see a familiar looking shirt, with splashes of brown and green.

At the terminal, she walked quickly, Mel lurching beside her, complaining, "Where's the fire?" They emerged from the station into the yellow light of the city night. 

Across the road at the taxi rank, a queue had already formed.  A whoop of laughter sprang from a dark huddle at the end. Recognising her tormentors from the train, Claire gripped her parking ticket.

"You shouldnıt have too long to wait."

"I could take a sicky tomorrow."

"Look Mel, I'm tired. My head still hurts. Iım going home on my own."

"Aw don't be like that."

Claire shrugged off the arm that crept around her shoulder. The action was more vehement than she intended, and he stumbled from the pavement almost into the path of a van which swerved to miss him.  Regaining his balance, he stood in the road.

"Just go, Mel, go over now. You won't have long to wait."

His bemused face gazed after the van.

"The road's clear. Go on."

Receiving no reply, she shouted, "Cross the road, Mel. Please cross the road!"

From the end of the taxi queue came a female chorus, "Cross the road, Mel, cross the fucking road!"

Claire watched Mel's bulky shape negotiate its way to the opposite side. Halfway, he turned and held up an imaginary phone.  "Later," he called to her departing back.

Running for the car park, the last thing she heard was, "Is that your wife? Is that your wife? My God, she must be evil."







All work is copyrighted property of Mona McKinlay.






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