Roland Harris felt as though the wind was piercing through his grey woollen overcoat, one April day, when the sky was overcast with clouds that seemed to threaten to pour down rain onto Kings Cross Station and its surroundings. He gripped his overcoat tight around his waist with one hand while in the other he had a large holdall, which felt as though it had to be pulled along as if it were a petulant child. It was not as cold as in 1976, but the wind during April in 1982 felt cold enough for Roland to shiver even after entering the entrance hall of the Station. Once inside, he waited for the train bound for Cambridge, where he was due to embark on a career as a Marketing Executive.
The train was due to arrive in less than quarter of an hour, but the time seemed to drag slowly on, so that he restlessly moved his feet forwards and backwards. In the near distance a wall poster advertising engineering courses at a London Further Education College jolted recent memories of his days in University College at London University. He saw a group of young people enter through the large doors and wondered what his classmates were doing in their professions. Then he suddenly remembered his experience with a classmate called Cathy, “That arrogant bitch” as he would call her discreetly. Those days he would send her expensive Christmas and Easter cards, but she never sent any in return. Worse still, they were never alone together. Instead, every time he tried to socialise with her, he always had to endure the company of his classmates. For some reason that he would never comprehend, she always appeared to be on intimate terms with Alan, that thick-spectacled bookish snob.
An increasing number of people entered the Station, and among them Roland saw a familiar face enter through the large glass doors. “Oh no, not Cathy is it?” His heart sank and his muscles tightened. He glanced at her again. This time he noticed she was in an army uniform, carrying a large holdall around her shoulder. “Perhaps,” he said inaudibly, “it’s someone else.” The stiffness in his muscles eased.
He kept his gaze on her as she walked by and it seemed she was travelling alone. Rather than wait in the entrance hall, she waited near the platform entrance. The train arrived sooner than expected, well over five minutes early. Roland waited for her to enter the train, and then he rushed into one of the other carriages. Soon the doors were closed, the whistle blew, and the train began to move. Within a few minutes, Cathy entered the same cabin where Roland was seated, placing a suitcase on the seat opposite. “May I join you? The other cabin does not have any passengers, and I feel isolated there.” Her voice was familiar.
“By all means,” replied Roland, his eyes widened in recognition, but he looked away at the scenery outside the windows.
Cathy took the seat directly opposite. “You look familiar. Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”
“Not likely.” Roland glanced back at her with a sheepish smile.
“Sorry, just curious.”
Soon, the chatter of a few passengers in the cabin could be heard, and the train accelerated slightly with a rhythmic click-clack which made Roland drowsy. He pulled out a novel from his holdall and pretended to read it, hoping that Cathy would become bored and move away. The rhythmic sounds of the train, however, made the effort difficult and he covered his face with the book, doggedly attempting the pretence of reading it.
“It must be a fascinating read.” He heard her speak as though from a remote distance and looked up.
“Yes, Fitzgerald is a prolific writer.”
“He certainly is. Do you read a lot of novels?”
“I don’t read many. I was never one for literature at College.” Roland felt keen to say more but suddenly checked himself.
“I understand,” Cathy replied
Roland put down his Fitzgerald novel, and then pressed his head back and shut his eyes. While he did so, Cathy studied him. She was convinced that the man in front of her was Roland, the slovenly classmate she knew at the University College. But the sight of him reading anything so intensely made her slightly doubtful. After a while, he opened his eyes and straightened himself, noticing that she was looking at him with a glimmer of recognition.
“Yes, I am. I’m somewhat tired, but not exhausted.”
Cathy pretended to cough slightly. “Dare I ask you if you were at the University College, last year?”
“Um, yes. Why?”
“I studied there at the same time.”
“Hum, did you? It was probably a different class.”
“Aren’t you that same boy in the Economics course at the University of London?”
“I doubt it.” He shook his head.
Cathy fell silent for a while. The only sound that they could both hear now was the rhythmic click-clack of the train wheels.
“Shall I leave you in peace?” As soon as she spoke, the train’s ticket inspector entered the cabin. Her words stung Roland and he struggled to find something more friendly to say.
When she began to stand up from her seat, he finally reassured her. “You’re welcome to stay.”
“Tickets please,” the inspector said aloud in a commanding tone at the same time. He took Cathy’s ticket and punching it with a stapler, he handed it back to her. Roland stood up from his seat and fumbled in his trouser pockets. He quickly put his fingers in his shirt pocket and pulled out the ticket which was full of creases.
“Everything okay sir?” The inspector’s voice sounded aggressive rather than sympathetic. “You look worried.”
“I’m okay. I’m okay.”
The ticket inspector looked down at Roland with disdain then moved on to the other passengers.
As soon as the inspector left them, Roland sank into his chair, rubbing the back of his neck. He felt unable to sit still. Presently he stammered, “You guessed correctly. I am Roland. The same Roland Harris who was in University College.”
“Roland Harris.” She beamed triumphantly. “Are you taking a holiday?”
“Sorry,” she almost murmured in disbelief.
“And you? Are you going somewhere special?”
“Yes. In some respects. I’m going to my barracks at Cambridge after a break which I spent with my parents.” Cathy announced it all cheerfully as though she was starting a lucrative employment.
“That’s why you’re in army uniform?” Roland said vacantly.
“Yes,” she replied laughing. “Why, what else could it be?”
Roland blushed with embarrassment. He was not sure why he asked her that question.
She leaned her head back waiting for a reply, looking at him with narrowed eyes. When she saw him fumbling with his fingers, she said, “You are still the same Roland. You haven’t changed in the slightest since you were at University.”
“I’m sorry you are offended.”
“I’m not offended at all.” She sounded unconvinced of his apology.
The train fell silent except for the murmur of a few passengers, and the rhythmic sounds of the wheels. As he looked out the window, Roland cast his eyes upon the vast green expanses of farmland and a few villages scattered around the countryside. He glanced at Cathy every now and then. Her eyes seemed almost shut. His fingers twitched, and a hunger gnawed in the stomach. Before he could stand up from his seat, a young train steward appeared, with a large tray of drinks and sandwiches and some biscuits.
“Anyone for drinks, sandwiches or biscuits?”
Cathy’s eyes opened and she asked to buy some coffee and a tuna sandwich. The young steward served with a glowing smile, feeling proud to serve an army officer.
“Wait,” said Roland impatiently, and frantically searched his pockets until he found his black leather wallet. “A Pepsi cola and some custard creams please.”
The young steward shook his head and blinked after serving Roland. “I wasn’t going to run away, sir.” Then he sauntered onwards to the other passengers.
“So, tell me, have you been in London for long after you graduated?” Roland asked after the steward left the cabin.
“No, not quite.”
“I expect Army work involves a lot of travel?”
“It does indeed.”
“I suppose it means time away from your family?”
“It means I miss my parents above all else.”
“And your husband too?”
“I’m not married and don’t intend to for quite some time.”
Roland’s eyes widened in surprise, but he replied, “I understand.”
Roland felt her proximity that seemed closer than it had ever been. Feeling a warmth in his heart, he opened his custard cream wrappers. “I’ve always been curious as to the Army. For a few years I considered joining the Army, but then I did Economics.”
“You could have joined. You look fit enough.” She sounded as though she was disappointed.
“I suppose I am.” Then he leaned back and looked out of the large train windows. “I expect I’m not brave enough to enlist,” he said after a pause.
Cathy looked at him with disapproval. She always suspected he did not have a hope of being in the army. After all, such a childish personality would never perhaps even pass the medical tests that army personnel go through when trying to enlist.
“Are you going abroad anywhere after going to barracks?”
To Cathy the question seemed to be silly, but she decided she would answer it anyway, just to pass the time.
“I’m going to the Falklands.”
On hearing the word “Falklands”, Roland bolted upright and coughed violently with tiny pieces of biscuit shooting out of his mouth. His eyes stung and became moist. Cathy tried to dodge the biscuit pieces and when the coughing subsided, she seemed to lean towards him.
“Sorry, did I say something wrong?”
“No, no. You said nothing wrong.” He began to feel a warm glow of admiration for her.
Soon the train began to accelerate, the rhythmic click-clack of its wheels became louder and faster. Roland gazed towards the scenery going past which changed increasingly from rural to urban. He seemed engrossed in thoughts.
“I say, Roland.” Cathy interrupted his thoughts. She pretended to cough a little to catch his attention. “Are you also stopping at Cambridge?”
“Yes. I start work there in a few days. The company that offered the job arranged the accommodation.”
“That is wonderful.”
“In fact, I’ve got a position as a Marketing Executive.”
“That is lovely.” Cathy smiled broadly in surprise and a measure of admiration.
“You said that as though you don’t believe it.”
“I believe you,” she replied cheerfully. “You must have done a lot of preparation for this job, I expect?”
“Indeed. I did a lot of voluntary work in the field beforehand.”
“Wow.” She applauded.
Roland fell silent when the announcement came over the train speakers that they would be arriving in Cambridge in ten minutes. Cathy noticed the sad expression on his face.
“I hope you’re not upset. When I mentioned the Falklands?”
“Oh, I was just surprised. I read the news reports.”
“Sorry.” Cathy sounded sympathetic and patronising at the same time. Roland’s face brightened up.
The train soon reached Cambridge and came to a halt at the largely open-air platforms. As they stepped out onto the long platforms, Roland and Cathy were greeted with a bright sunny day and a breeze that was cool and moderate in strength. They walked together towards the exit until they presented their tickets and went out the glass doors of the station exit.
“Well,” said Cathy as they stood near the waiting taxis. “I hope your marketing work goes well.”
“Thank you. Can I buy you a drink or so before you leave?”
“Thank you but I should be heading to barracks. Thank you so much anyway.”
“You’re always welcome to visit me,” he said quickly.
“I will sometime,” she replied and hailed a taxi. “Bye.” She waved at him as she went towards a taxi that was available for hire.
Roland waved back at her as she entered the cab. “Bye.”
As her taxi drove off into the city of Cambridge, his eyes became moist, and he felt a sadness that made his heart feel heavy. She seemed to be leaving him without his being completely sure he would ever meet her again. He stood for a few minutes outside the station and then reluctantly hailed a taxi.