Katie was surrounded by Blinkers.
Several lingered nearby; an agitated middle-aged woman shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, an unremarkable man with white earphones sitting on a nearby bench, two teenagers holding tightly onto their mobile phones, taking turns to feign interest in the other’s screens. Opposite Katie on platform three, a ragged looking teenage boy in a black, skull-laden hoodie bounced ominously on his toes.
They don’t know how lucky they are, thought Katie from her place beside the newsagent.
It was Tuesday, which of course meant her weekly catch-up with Sarah, her favourite cousin. It was a coffee-and-cake fuelled hour of gossip and memories that Katie looked forward to more than most things in her life. She would take the train and meet Sarah outside the Marinello Café on the seafront with its mismatched dark wood furniture and deep red walls. She did not, however, look forward to the journey.
To most, travelling between these two places was an unremarkable journey. Most, however, could use platform three. Most were not reliant upon the temperamentality of its lift.
Using platform two meant changing trains halfway, which in turn meant doubling the number of staff involved in her journey. Ramps would have to be found and fitted, people would be put out. Connections would be missed and Katie would be reminded again of how uncommon she was and how invisible she had become.
Several more Blinkers passed by. They had been named by a younger version of herself, when her anger could still be seen by those who cared to look. The world then had seemed full of people acting like blinkered racehorses as her opacity waned. Society had made it clear to an incendiary Katie that that which differentiated her was hers to deal with, not others. They would carry on with their lives as though her condition had never existed. Why should they contaminate their lives with such inefficiency?
The arrivals board showed two minutes until the well-intentioned commotion would begin. She looked in vain for signs of a transport worker with her ramp. What if they had forgotten about her? It had happened once before, on an outdoor platform one icy February evening. She had waited a full hour for the next train and when she finally made it aboard she had purple fingers and an uncomfortable feeling about the success or otherwise of her disembarkation at the other end.
‘The train now arriving at platform two’ came a muffled voice through the station’s ancient speakers, ‘is the nine twenty-six service to Billington. Change at Corley for services to Edge Park.’
Katie wheeled herself forwards hopefully, craning her neck as she looked for a member of staff. A young girl approached and sat on the bench beside her.
‘Hello!’ she said cheerily. ‘Mummy says I have to wait here until she’s back from the newsagent. She says if I go in there I’ll want to get another toy and she can’t afford her little sticks and something for me too. Is it OK if I talk to you while I’m waiting for Mummy? You look like a nice person. My name is Paige, but not like the ones you get in a book.’
‘Sure’ said Katie flatly.
‘Mummy says I can look after myself, so she doesn’t need to watch over me twenty-four-seven. I don’t know what twenty-four-seven is but it must be important because Mummy says it a lot. Do you know what twenty-four-seven means? I think you must know because you look clever. My Mummy doesn’t look as clever as other Mummies, but she says I shouldn’t ever say that again because it’s rude and my Uncle will come over again if I do. What’s that?’
Katie’s mind stumbled a little at the girl’s energy. ‘It’s a wheelchair’ she said at last.
‘No, that’ said Paige, pointing.
‘Oh. That’s my handbag.’
‘It’s very pretty. I don’t have any pretty things, except Flossie of course.’ She pulled a cloth dog from her coat pocket. ‘She’s my special teddy. I think she’s pretty, but Abigail Gallagher said she’s as disgusting as a bag of mouldy broccoli.’
‘Well, don’t let Abigail Gallagher tell you what’s pretty and what’s not’ said Katie, wheeling her chair around to face Paige. ‘If we all went around taking everyone else’s thoughts as facts we wouldn’t be very happy now, would we?’
‘Are you happy?’ asked Paige.
Katie lowered her eyes. ‘I used to be, when I was your age.’
‘You were five too?’ exclaimed Paige. ‘I like being five. It’s nicer than when I was four. Why aren’t you happy now?’
‘Don’t worry about that. Tell me where you’re going today. Somewhere exciting?’
‘Not really. Mummy said she has to go and see Nan.’ A look of concentration came over her. ‘To make sure she has everything she needs’ she said, nodding proudly to herself.
‘It sounds like your Mummy is very kind’ said Katie. ‘Not like that boy there.’
He banged his fists against the train doors as they closed in front of him, shouting an instinctive obscenity before spinning round to the steps that led to platform two and hurtling up them. Several people side-stepped quickly as he careered upwards. Had he been asked, he would not have remembered anyone being there. He was furious and focused. He landed on platform two, looking for something, anything, on which to take out his frustration; glaring at some and abusing others as he unsettled them with his fractured Brownian motion.
‘The train now arriving at platform two is the nine twenty-six service to Billington. Change at Corley for services to Edge Park.’
He didn’t notice Katie, only the open train doors. He flew through them and strutted malevolently to his seat.
‘He’s like my brother’ said Paige. ‘He’s always running around bumping into things too. Mummy says he can’t help it. It’s just the way he is, she says.’
‘Well, it sounds like your Mummy has her hands full. Do you have any other brothers or sisters?’
‘I have three big brothers.’
‘Do you like being the only girl?’
‘I’m not the only one’ said Paige defensively. ‘You forgot about Flossie.’
‘Oh yes, of course. How could I forget about Flossie?’
‘It’s her birthday today’ announced Paige.
‘Is that so? Well, I hope you have something nice planned for her.’
Paige held her hands gently over Flossie’s ears, leaned towards Katie and whispered. ‘I don’t have any money to get her anything, so I’m going to draw her a picture of our dream home. There’s a bedroom just for us and a big trampoline at the back of the garden.’
‘That sounds lovely.’
‘If I was as rich as that fancy man there’ said Paige, pointing ‘I’d buy the world’s biggest doll’s house so Flossie could have the whole place to herself.
‘Money isn’t everything’ said Katie. ‘He probably works all day without seeing his family.’
He had almost made it.
Resetting his newspaper under his arm, he strode quickly along platform two, skipping occasionally in that delicate balance between speed and poise so characteristic of senior office workers of a certain disposition.
He wanted any lonely seat he could find on the train, of course. He winced at the sound of a volatile youth pinballing unpredictably around the station. He skipped a little, then widened his gait.
As he approached the train he noticed a lady sitting just a few paces away. Even at a glance he could see she needed help. A familiar guilty feeling was smothered. He hopped briskly onto the train as if he hadn’t a care in the world. To his relief there was a pair of empty seats in front of a wheelchair bay. He took the one beside the window, placed his briefcase on the seat beside him, and sagged.
‘He mustn’t be very happy’ said Paige.
‘He was in a rush. I don’t like being in a rush. Mummy always shouts at me then. And he’s on his own too.’
‘Maybe he likes being on his own’ offered Katie, glancing anxiously along the platform. ‘I sometimes like being alone.’
‘I don’t. Except when Uncle comes over.’
‘I suppose we all have ways of dealing with things’ mused Katie, half to herself.
‘Mummy says everyone has their burden. I know what that means because she told me once. She said me and my brothers were a burden so it must mean that everyone has kids. Do you have kids?’
‘No, it’s just me.’
‘So, you’re just like that fancy man then? Me and Flossie will be your friends if you like? I think Flossie would like that.’
‘That’s very kind of you, but I need to go. This is my train now.’
‘How do you get up the steps?’ asked Paige with innocent curiosity.
‘There’s usually a ramp, but it looks like they’ve forgotten about me.’
One of the teenagers looked up from his phone and tapped his friend on the arm. ‘Harry, give us a hand here.’
‘Oh! There’s really no need…’ began Katie.
‘Of course!’ said Harry cheerily, leaning over towards Katie. ‘Do you mind if we carry you on?’
‘Do I mind?’ said Katie, unsure how to deal with such a simple display of consideration.
‘Great, let’s do it.’
The two teenagers brought Katie to the train door, counted to three, and hefted her up into the train.
Katie inched forward into a broader space, turned towards the carriage, and positioned herself in the familiar bay. ‘Morning’ she said to thenewly monikeredfancy man, who pursed his lips and nodded politely.
She shuffled comfortably into her seat and looked through the window, gazing curiously at the scene on platform two. Paige’s Mummy had returned, giving her a stunted slap, presumably for talking to strangers. The teenagers had returned to their seat and recoupled themselves to their phones. Only the unremarkable man seemed impervious to the whole thing. Then she caught sight of another man approaching, greeting him warmly before leaning slowly towards him. The unremarkable man pushed him away gently before looking furtively around the platform.
Inside the carriage, the volatile teenager had settled down in an aisle seat. Katie watched as he tapped on his phone, put on a set of oversized headphones, and slumped a little lower into his seat. A moment later a middle-aged woman entered, scanning for an available seat.
The fancy man stared intractably at the platform outside.
Please don’t ask the teenager, thought Katie.
The woman stepped up to the boy and nodded to the empty window seat beside him. Katie braced for the reaction.
The teenager looked up from his phone and raised one eyebrow.
‘Sorry’ said the woman. ‘I can see you’re comfortable, and I wouldn’t usually ask, but there aren’t any other seats.’
The teenager stood and took a step backwards down the aisle. ‘Please’ he said, putting out an arm in invitation.
The normality of his reaction sliced through Katie’s perspective. She distilled life through a lens of conspicuousness. Yet, the fancy man navigating his fear of socialisation, the teenager wearing his behavioural challenges on his sleeve, the men on the bench, and Paige’s Mummy must all endure theirs without casting a perpetual signal to society.
Perhaps this made things harder, or perhaps easier, she wasn’t sure
‘You know’ said the fancy man, surprising Katie and himself. ‘You’re lucky.’
‘Lucky?’ she parroted.
‘Yes, lucky. From a certain point of view. I wish people would help me sometimes, but that’s easier said than done, of course. Sorry to disturb you, I shouldn’t have said anything.’
He refocused his gaze to indicate the conversation was over.
His philosophy, however, was not. It left an instantaneous scar on Katie, one that would echo through the rest of her life. Perhaps she was not as invisible as she thought, and perhaps that was not such a bad thing after all.