Authors: Brian McGilloway
For my parents, Laurence and Katrina
he one benefit with getting a school picture taken was that it took so long you missed an entire lesson. Especially when all the other girls in the class were taking forever, fixing their hair, nipping out to the toilet to put on make-up they weren’t even meant to have in school. Her mother forbid her using it. ‘Fourteen is too young for make-up,’ she’d said. Not that make-up would have made much difference, Annie thought.
Annie Marsden stood, watching the group in front of her, their conversation soundtracked by the music leaking from her headphones. If they were aware of her standing behind them, none showed it.
A flash to their left. Up on the stage an old guy, white haired, slightly stooped, was standing at the camera while Nuala Dean preened herself, angling a little in front of the canvas image of a library of leather-bound books, their spines mixtures of red and blue and green. Showing her good side. At least she had a good side, Annie thought.
The line in front of her shuffled forward a space and she moved to fill the gap.
She glanced up only to catch the eye of her physics teacher. He was standing, his arms folded, watching her. Without unfolding his arms, he gestured towards his own ear then waggled his finger at her.
She obligingly pulled out her earphones and pocketed them. The group ahead of her had moved onto the steps of the stage now, their conversation reduced to a murmur as each prepared themselves for their shot.
‘Move up, will you!’ someone behind her said, and Annie shuffled forward again, pulling her cardigan sleeves further down, gripping their cuffs in her hands. The floor was yellow, she noticed. Assembly hall floors always are. Yellow because that’s the only colour of light they can’t absorb. Or it’s the only one they can absorb. She couldn’t remember which.
‘Give me a beautiful smile,’ she heard the old man say. The girl on the stool in front of him obliged.
‘Button up your top button, Annie,’ someone said. The physics teacher was standing next to her now. ‘Look like you have some pride in your uniform.’
Annie blushed slightly, murmured an apology as the girls behind her tittered at the comment. She struggled to bring the collars close enough together to clasp, in the end gave up and tightened the knot of her tie nearer her throat. She’d told her mum she needed a new shirt in September. Four months later and she was still waiting. Either that or she’d put on too much weight.
‘Aren’t you just lovely?’ the old man said, earning the reward of a smile from Sally McLaughlin.
Annie made her way up the steps, stood, next in line, for the shot, her stomach churning. Sally got up, flicked her hair over her shoulder and strode across and down the set of steps on the other end of the stage.
‘Sit yourself down, love,’ the old man said.
Annie came across to the stool, edged herself onto it, picked a spot above the photographer’s head to look at, waited. He was busying himself with the flash, adjusting the angle.
Hurry up, Annie thought. She was aware that her skirt was pulled up on her thighs a little, revealing the whitened scar of the ladder in her black school tights. She shifted in the seat, pulling at the hem.
‘Right, look at the camera, please,’ the old man said.
Annie, despite herself, did. She saw a distorted version of herself reflected in the concave of the lens.
‘Haven’t you the prettiest eyes?’ the old man said.
Annie instinctively glanced at the floor, just as the flash brightened the stage.
The wood was yellow.
e'd just got a pint in when the aura started. A quick flickering of iridescence on the periphery of his vision that already made his stomach turn. He shut his eyes in the hope that perhaps it was a trick of the light, overtiredness from the night before. The last thing Harry needed was another late evening, but then he'd promised the missus this for months. A bit of dinner, a few glasses of wine, then down to the pub after for an hour. The tentative re-beginnings of a relationship which had sprung leaks years earlier, but whose gaping holes only became apparent with the departure of their only son to university.
âEmpty nest syndrome,' one of the drivers had told him that day as he'd mentioned during break that he had to go out. They'd all been out the night before on a work do; John-Joe Carlin's leaving party. He'd been driving the BelfastâDerry train for thirty-three years, through all kinds of shit. And now, this evening, he was bringing his last train home.
Harry glanced at his watch, could just make out the time beyond the growing intensity of the flickering, his whole field of vision now haloed with shifting ripples of light. John-Joe would be on the final stretch of his final drive, passing Bellarena.
He stumbled back to the table where his wife, Marie, sat, glancing around her, smiling mildly at the other drinkers.
âI need to go home,' Harry said. âI've another bloody migraine starting.'
Marie tried to hide her disappointment, a little. âHave you none of those tablets?'
Harry shook his head. âThey're in my work uniform. I left them in the station.'
She tutted, turning and picking up her coat, the fizzing soda water untouched on the table where Harry had set it fifteen minutes earlier. âCome on, then. I knew it was too good to be true.'
The shimmering had thickened now into a perfect circle of tightly packed strands of light that seemed to encircle his pupil. Harry felt his stomach lurch, swallowed hard to keep down his meal. It really would be a wasted night if he brought that back up.
His phone started vibrating a second before he heard the opening notes of âThe Gypsy Rover', his ringtone. He stared at the screen, trying to make out the caller ID.
âJohn-Joe,' he said, answering the phone. âYou're done early.'
âEarlier than I'd planned. Something's happened. The train's just died.'
âWhere are you?'
âJust past Gransha. Coming in on the final stretch.'
That was less than two kilometres from the station. The train would already have been slowing, rounding the curve at St Columb's Park, then the last few hundred metres in past the Peace Bridge.
âWhat happened?' Harry asked, shifting the phone to his other ear.
âI don't know. We just lost power. Everything. Can you check it out?'
Harry glanced up at where Marie stood, the keys in her hand, the hoop of the key ring hanging off her wedding finger.
âI'll be right down,' he said.
s he moved onto the tracks, away from the brightness of the station, Harry was grateful for the silence after all he'd listened to in the car. The darkness actually helped ease his building headache a little. The aura had stopped as they'd pulled into the station, though that was perhaps because his attention was diverted into trying to placate Marie. After all, he was well enough, she suggested, to work, but not to take her out for the night. How could he explain that it was John-Joe's final night? That the man needed to get his train home, one last time? She wouldn't understand it. He could see her now, sitting in the car, the heater turned up full, arms folded, tight lipped, her expression pinched.
He could feel the migraine proper begin to build. He tried focusing on the bobbing of the torch he held as he walked the line. He glanced ahead a distance, to his right, at the looming shapes of the trees separating the train line from St Columb's Park.
Power cables ran along the track side, heavy copper, sheathed in plastic. It was to these that Harry turned his attention, for undoubtedly that was the reason for the train stopping. Sure enough, only ten yards ahead, just beneath the Peace Bridge, the lines had been cut.
He dialled through to the train.
âJohn-Joe? Sorry, man. You're not going to be bringing this one in for a while. The lines have been cut just outside of the station. We'll need to get the passengers bused out. Have you many on board?'
âOne. And he's sleeping off a session.'
It wasn't unusual. The Belfast to Derry train was so slow a journey most people took the bus. The line had been promised an upgrade for years. They were still waiting. Maybe, Harry reflected, the cost of replacing the broken lines would be the latest excuse for not doing it.
âMaybe just a taxi, then.'
âHow much cable is missing?' John-Joe asked.
âI'm still walking it,' Harry said. âIt's gone until at least St Columb's Park,' he added, shining his torch along the side of the tracks, noting the absence of the thick cabling.
He was moving away from the light thrown off from the street lamps of estates up to his right now, and heading below St Columb's Park itself. The moon hung low over the tops of the thick-limbed sycamores above him. To his left, the lights of the city seemed to wink at their own reflection off the river's surface. Harry could smell the sharpness of the mudflats he knew to be just a few feet away from him, a sudden drop down from the tracks to the river's edge.