The train station was crowded. Flashes of the floor showed black slush dragged into the scuffle from outside. Everybody was trying to get home. There was a train about to leave for Leeds that I could have taken, but I changed my mind and waved it away. I was drunk from the pub across the road. Work drinks. For hours people who ignored me in the office grabbed my shoulders and said don’t go, don’t go, then finally go on then, go on, Merry Christmas.
In the station, a chugger in an elf’s hat mouthed motherfucker at the people who ignored his appeals. He would smile, his cheeks lit up beneath the fairy lights of his hat, and then switch to spite as soon as he was refused again. This went over and over.
I saw myself just missing every train until there were no more. It was part of the problem I had. But January was the month when I wanted things to change. For now I was eager to know what drinking in a busy station would feel like.
There was another train in forty-five minutes. Sometimes I made conversation with the guy at the beer shop in the station. But that night I was short on time. I couldn’t waste it talking about novelty porters named after Santa. I went straight to the fridge and took three favourites, and only glanced at the man as he took the payment. He searched for me with disappointment.
Off home for Christmas, he asked. I had left it too long now to ever know his name. I nodded and smiled at the cans. They looked like the sum of my Christmas shopping. I had yet to buy anything for mum, or her husband. I would choose things the next day in haste with a hangover. I took the bag from the counter and the man wished me a Merry Christmas.
You might see me again, I replied.
I found a bench on the edge of the slippery crowd. They made it dark with grey and black coats that swept past. The bodies tried to dodge one another whilst looking up at the board. The ads on its screen kept repeating. But it was the only place now that glowed with festivity. My seat was divided up in a deliberate way to deter sleepers, and I wondered who would think of lying down in a place like this anyway. But it had tired me.
I put in my earphones and the panic of the passengers soon blurred with the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album. As he sang “Oh come, oh come Emmanuel,” I gazed above the rush and drank the first beer fast. An old man sat next to me and tried to see what I was looking at a few times. I should have taken out an earphone and asked him, how many of these people do you think are ready to go home?
When I woke up, my tongue was thick and dry. The crowd had cleared and only remnants of the Christmas parties roamed the station. Women and men staggering, their kebab boxes flapping.
I suddenly felt the desperate need to piss. I sprang from my seat and heard empty cans fall to the floor. I saw some that I couldn’t remember buying.
I could not see a way into the nearest toilets without stepping in vomit. I almost needed it enough, but then the smell came up and I ran. The barriers were all open, and as I hurried past the screen I saw the final train to Leeds, due in fifteen minutes. I was so afraid of pissing myself, of piss flowing down my jeans and soaking into my trainers. It was the last day that I could take an affordable train. I knew that if I pissed myself, I would spend Christmas here in Newcastle, alone.
The toilets on platform seven looked so clean that I almost missed them. They were immaculate, as though they had been refurbished that same day. I trembled as I unfastened my belt and pissed with delight. I laughed as it all came out. It would have been perfect to have another three beers now, I thought.
I turned to wash my hands and saw an attendant sat by the sinks. Beside him there was an abundant arrangement of aftershaves and deodorants. They crowded the sink in bright glass bottles, blue, gold and green. I was drunk enough to fear that I had blacked out and ended up in a club.
By the time he’d finished, my hands felt too good for me. They looked wide awake and full of hope. I held them out like new purchases.
Where are we, I asked him. He looked at me with a smile.
Washroom, he said. He continued to smile, and nodded now too. He saw the fear on my face and clapped his hands together as he roared with laughter. Come, he said, and closed his eyes. I wanted to fall down and sleep on the glistening tiles.
He led me to the sink and began to run water through his hands. They looked rough and broken many times over. The water made the cracks in his hands seem deeper. Come, he said, and moved his hands from the flow for me. The water was soft and warm.
He leaned over me and said, sorry sir. He said it again as he chose a bottle of soap and offered it to me. In the lit-up mirror I saw myself as pale and distraught from the bench I’d slept on earlier. But the man’s reflection next to me gave no indication that he sat all night next to the place where strangers shit. He said good soap, nice smell. I cupped my hands and he poured. Yes, he said, drawing it out as I made a lather. There was a powerful smell of oranges. The man laughed again, but quieter this time. I closed my eyes and smelled the oranges and listened to his laugh. When I had washed off the soap, the attendant took a white, fluffy towel and shrouded my hands within it. He grew serious now, focussed on the task. When he was sure my hands were dry, he put the towel in a wicker basket on the floor. I reached for my wallet but the man halted me and chose a lotion. It was full of oranges again and he said the same, the same.
By the time he’d finished, my hands felt too good for me. They looked wide awake and full of hope. I held them out like new purchases. The man shook his head. He took a bottle of aftershave from the collection and sprayed it on my neck and my wrists. I let him decide when he should stop.
Long journey my friend. Smell good. I remembered my train.
I have to go, I’m sorry, I said. He took it with the same lightness of everything that had passed between us. It was only when I offered him the twenty that he looked weighed down.
Too much, he said. No change yet.
All yours, I said, and put the wrinkled note back into his hands. It was the only way I could say it.
I jumped onto the train as the doors were closing. I fell onto the nearest seat. I held my hands over my face for the rest of the journey.
Aaron Fahey was raised on the Isle of Man and lives in North London. His fiction has appeared in Open Pen. He is currently working on a collection of stories about men who make terrible decisions. Twitter: @Aaron_Fahey