Loneliness is an interesting feeling. It hits you in the center of your chest and leaves you standing there feeling as if you have lost something but not knowing what. I suppose I do know what is missing.
Once, a while back, I walked this part of the line, listening with one ear for the clatter of the train. That was before they electrified the tracks. Now the route I take is silent. There are no more trains here, and there probably never will be. The tracks are still there, mostly. A couple are missing but then I’m not surprised. In today’s economy I’m shocked that there are any left.
Last time I was here there wasn’t grass growing up through the metal, it had still been rusty, but the top of the tracks had been silver and so very shiny. Now it is rusted and dim. Still worth something mind. I know where I’m going, to the old oak. It was fabled at school that if you came here then any promise you said would be written in stone. Or ‘writ’ in stone as Jessica would say.
Back then, when everything was new and well cared for we had skipped along the tracks. The three of us; me, Jessica and Rachel. It had been fun, and strangely sad. We had been ready to go onto College and had taken this walk so that we would always be friends.
“Needs to be writ in stone,” Jess had said.
“Don’t see why,” I said. I’d been serious that day. I was sad but at the same time excited for the future. Mostly though I was listening for a train. One of my nightmares was to be caught under the tracks and cut into pieces. It had happened before on this track. For all I knew the kid, I remember it being a boy, had pushed through the same hole that had been cut into the fence. He had been coming to the old oak, probably with a batch of secrets that he needed to get off his chest. I remember thinking of the horror and promising myself I’d never do anything so silly. It didn’t work as six months later I was walking in his footsteps. So instead of enjoying the day completely I was listening for the thrunk thrunk of the train.
“We need to make a promise,” Jess whined.
I hadn’t said anything, I’d barely heard her. Listening.
“She’s not paying any mind,” Rachel said. “She’s listening.”
Jess had pouted at that. “Come on, Mel. You have to be here a hundred percent. This might be the last time.”
“The trains,” I said, giving a worried look over my shoulder.
“Nope,” Rachel had gloated. “I checked. There won’t be another for an hour.” She had looked so smug about that.
I scowled at her and she’d shrugged.
“I asked at the ticket office.”
Jess’s eyes went wide and scared. “You said we’d be here. On the track! What if we get caught?”
I could see panic brewing on her face. Rachel just rolled her eyes. “Don’t be daft. I said I was a spotter and needed to know.”
“Oh,” Jess said. She sounded almost disappointed. Then that brilliant smile lit up her face. “So we’re gonna be fine.”
She skipped ahead, me and Rachel walking behind her. She was crunching through the middle of the track, her shoes making sounds like autumn leaves. I was trying to balance on one of the rails. It was super smooth though so it wasn’t possible, but still I tried, giving a smile at each slip.
Now I tap the rusted junk of a rail with my stick. No good now. There was enough grip on the rail but not in me. I was due a new hip and the thought of falling was enough to keep me firmly routed to the grassy middle.
“Live a little,” Jess says, and I spin wondering if I’m hearing ghosts. She had said it back then when we reached the tree.
“Live a little, Mel,” she had said. “Make a promise that counts.”
I had scowled. “I just did.”
“Nope,” Rachel had said. “Your promise meant that if we were all here and if we reminded you then you might turn up.”
I sighed. “Okay…”
“On this day in say… fifty years,” Jess crowed, arms out and spinning, blonde hair flying.
“Fine.” And I had promised. Which is why at sixty-six I was standing under the oak. Still, I could hear Jess.
I look one way and then the other. I’m alone. I grin. Now one will see me if I make a fool of myself. A small and sensible voice warns me against falling but I ignore it, disturbed that it sounds like my mother.
Placing my stick firmly on the ground I put one hiking booted foot onto the rusty track. I lean my weight onto the stick, freezing at the exaggerated wobble.
“Careful there, Mel.” That was Rachel’s voice, full of bluster and laughter.
I’m haunted. I know I am. At least on this walk. “Shush,” I say and am pleased when everything goes quiet.
Lifting my other foot with exaggerated slowness I place it next to the other on the track. A faint bell of laughter comes to me and I look up to see Jess standing below the oak. She is completely in shadow. Leaning against the tree I think I can see Rachel, still in her pencil skirt that is far too short.
I smile, but I know it doesn’t reach my eyes. A sadness fills me.
We had been prophets that day, saying that we would split. We did and it was an abrupt separation, each going to different colleges, taking different routes to our happiness. And I really hope they were happy. Under the tree the two smile and wave. They start to fade and I raise a hand, waving back.
Something prods at my leg and I realise I have taken the stick from the ground. In fact I am waving both my hands, my balance perfect. I gasp and step quickly down.
“See,” Jess’s voice floats toward me. “There were no trains.”
This story was inspired by the photo and the first line and is part of the daily prompt writing challenge – build your own.