A young woman stands on a cliff wearing a grey dress as thin as gossamer. Her white face from this distance a mass of straight lines, her eyes half-closed. A sketch of a woman. The wind whips the dress around her stick-like legs. Her name is Martha and three weeks ago you wouldn’t have found her on the edge of a cliff or the edge of anywhere.
Martha lived an ordinary life. She lived in a small house, a cottage you might say, which had an open fire and coloured glass windows of magenta and green. Martha owned a dog called Stephen, a border collie named after an ex-boyfriend she had been particularly fond of.
She worked for a large organisation based in the city. They made cardboard containers used for carrying takeaway coffee cups and merchandising stands. Martha was the marketing manager and she often worked from home, as the commute was long, putting together presentations for new products. On Fridays she traveled into the city to join her colleagues for drinks after work. Martha didn’t have a busy social life, the occasional dinner with old friends. Sometimes those friends would set her up at dinner parties with single men. Men mostly called Simon or Gareth who worked in IT.
Friday night did mean traveling home alone after dark, which felt a little dangerous to Martha but she practiced her theory that if one didn’t think of bad things then bad things wouldn’t happen to one.
This particular Friday she dozed off on the train. There were few people in the carriage and the train, an express, didn’t make many stops which was why it was a shock for Martha when she jerked awake unexpectedly when it stopped. She opened her eyes and saw a smiling, untidy man sitting opposite her. He looked at her as if they were halfway through a conversation and he waited for her answer. He leaned forward, his mouth open, eyes bright and expectant, although a little bloodshot. “I thought you’d never wake up.”
Confused Martha straightened her clothing and wiped the line of dribble from the edge of her mouth. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so,” he grinned cheekily.
“Why were you waiting for me to wake up?”
The man frowned. “I didn’t say I was waiting for you to wake up, I just didn’t think you were going to wake up.”
Martha began to lose patience. “So you thought I was dead?”
“I didn’t think you were dead.”
Martha was put out to be having such a ridiculous conversation on waking. Especially after two or three glasses of cheap wine at the pub.
“Is your name Alice?”
Oh, God, him again. “No.”
“I thought while you were asleep that you look like an Alice.”
“I’m concerned that you’d think it okay to stare at a young woman while she slept. It’s disturbing.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Alice.”
Martha stared stonily at the young man. She was beginning to think he had escaped from an institution or forgotten his medication. In a low voice she replied, “I’m not called Alice. I’m Martha.”
He offered a hand with dirty bitten down finger nails. “I’m Barnaby.”
Martha wanted to stick her nose in the air, a cock-a-snoot her Aunt Phyllis had called it, but she was far too polite to do anything of the sort. She stuck out a clean white hand. “Pleased to meet you, Barnaby.”
Barnaby grinned, stood up and grabbed a brown paper package from the luggage rack above their heads. “Well, Martha, this is my stop. Goodbye.”
And off he went. Not into the sunset because it was already dark.
As Martha got into bed, pulling up the bedclothes she had aired that morning, she thought of Barnaby, of their odd conversation on the train. She sifted through the puzzle of him as she slowly drifted off to sleep.
In the morning she made her Saturday breakfast, a poached egg on toast with a glass of orange juice. After a good strong cup of coffee she took down Stephen’s lead from the coat peg near the front door, he came running immediately and she fastened it to his collar and closed the door behind them. Closed it on neatness and order, into the wild of the outside, where anything can happen. Of course it rarely did, but there it was; infinite possibilities.
Martha walked until she arrived at a fork in the path. One way led to the beach and the other to the cliff top. The cliff top walk frightened her so she always took the beach path. It was perfect day, although a little chilly in the breeze. Picture book clouds gathered in a sky the colour of cornflowers.
Martha stopped and Stephen stopped beside her. “Blow it, Stephen. I’m bored of the beach path. Nothing ever happens. Let’s try the cliff top.”
Little did Martha know that this small diversion from habitual events would change her life, ever so slightly. Because that is all it takes, a small change and like the twist of a kaleidoscope, the scene changes completely.
The weekend passed uneventfully except for this seemingly invisible change leading her to sit in the same seat she had taken the week before, the seat opposite Barnaby.
Drinks after work were loud and merry, they usually took Martha out of herself. Tonight she wanted them over so she could get the train home. She politely refused offers of lifts to the station. Martha wanted to walk. She wanted to think, to question, did she really want to see Barnaby again? The unsettled gurgling in her stomach gave her an answer she mis-trusted. After all Barnaby was an impertinent, scruffy man.
The train, again, was almost empty as Martha checked the carriages, trying to remember exactly where she had sat the week before. When she had decided on the seat most likely she made herself comfortable. The guard blew the whistle and the train jolted to life. Martha sat neatly in her seat, waiting. The thought occurred to her that perhaps Barnaby didn’t catch this train regularly. Perhaps it had been a one-off. He could have been meeting someone in the city for drinks, or an early dinner. A female person. Martha felt disappointment run through her bones. She turned to face the window, its darkness mirrored her own face back at her, in the glass beyond where blackness lay. An ordinary face Martha thought, staring at her pale complexion and limp blonde hair. She turned away from the window.
“Alice through the looking glass.”
Martha started. “I’m not Alice, I told you. I’m Martha.”
“I know. But Martha didn’t go through the looking glass.”
Within minutes Martha wondered why she had made so much effort to bump into Barnaby again. But since she had she would make the best of it.
“What do you do, Barnaby?” Martha inspected her fingernails.
“Do? What do I do? What does that mean? I breathe, I sleep at night, I eat three meals a day and occasionally have a biscuit with my mid-morning coffee.”
“Don’t be belligerent. I mean how do you earn a living?”
“Perhaps I am belligerent; perhaps I get paid for it.”
Martha’s face fell into a peeved expression.
“Sorry. I went too far.” Barnaby grinned. “I run a second-hand vintage clothes shop. 1920s flapper dresses, ball gowns, that sort of thing.”
“You’re joking, aren’t you?”
“No. Odd job for a man, is that what you’re thinking?”
“Yes. I mean, no. Sounds great.”
“I like it. I have a fascination for period haute couture.” Martha blinked and Barnaby continued. “I don’t wear them or anything, only on the rare occasion we get menswear donated. A Hugo Boss suit from the 1980s or something from Saville Row. What about you?”
“I’m the marketing manager for Cardboard-A-Go-Go.”
Barnaby spluttered. “Sorry, I’m sure it’s a good job. But Cardboard-A-Go-Go!”
Martha bristled. “It’s a dynamic place to work.”
Barnaby spluttered again. Silence fell. They stared at each other, then at the invisible fluff on their clothes and the black window which reflected themselves back at them. A snort escaped from Barnaby. A loud, impossible to suppress, kind of snort. He giggled, Martha was indignant, furious. But then she let out a high pitched noise, alarmingly loud. They clutched their stomachs at their own ridiculousness and somewhere in the distance, if you really listened, you could hear a hammer striking ice and the wonderful splintering sound this made.
Martha and Stephen’s Saturday morning cliff walk went up a notch when Martha let her dog off his lead. She watched him to make sure he didn’t go too close to the edge but he was a sensible dog. However, another shift had happened. It sounded, if it had a sound, like a rock being moved from the mouth of a cave. An open sesame sound, like rocks yawning.
On Sunday Martha didn’t stay at home preparing her presentation on cardboard display stands for cuppa-soup. She took herself off to the local cinema and watched back-to-back rom-com’s.
A bright and bouncy Martha turned up at the office that week, full of innovative ideas for cardboard display stands for cuppa-soup. Her complexion still pale but with bright pink circles on her cheeks, her hair shiny and full. Her colleagues caught each others eyes and winked.
At the end of a productive week at Cardboard-A-Go-Go the Friday night crowd buzzed. Martha’s thoughts were elsewhere, residing with a scruffy, bedraggled man. A belligerent and somewhat rude man. A man who had made her laugh, who showed her a space deep inside her she didn’t know she had.
Martha took her usual seat on the train. She played with her hair, straightened her skirt, she sang the lyrics of selected works from Oliver The Musical in her head with her eyes closed. Barnaby’s seat remained empty.
Martha’s weekend was flat. At the fork in the path she couldn’t decide so she took the road into town. She tied Stephen up outside the cake shop and cheered herself with a vanilla slice, tucking into the layers of pastry and custard with a light layer of toasted almonds on top. She’d read it wrong. She was just a girl on a train. Even her name had disappointed him.
On Sunday she worked on a slide presentation for a new product, cardboard shoe horns. But it all seemed futile and pointless. Perhaps she should buy herself a cat and name it after him, it had worked with Stephen.
Martha’s pink circles faded. She worked from home that week. On Friday the clock swept over the numbers, slices of time she would never get back. Hadn’t she wasted enough, escaping to her bolt hole, with its sparkling door knobs and colour coordinated linen cupboard? Where every item, no matter how small, had its home. Did it matter? The last twist of the kaleidoscope? It was only five o’clock and there was still time.
The platform heaved with Friday night crowds full of promise for the weekend, dark suits and brief cases, high heels and silk blouses, cramming into the train Martha had alighted from. In the days of steam he would have emerged from a cloud of it. Messy hair and wearing brown corduroys, an unlikely suitor, he suited Martha.
They stood hanging on to the overhead straps.
“Sorry about last week. I had a house clearance in the suburbs. I got back late.”
They faced each other, afraid to spoil it with inappropriate comments. Until they reached Barnaby’s stop.
“I thought you might come home with me,” Martha blushed.
He shook his head. “I’ve something to do. I’ll meet you tomorrow on the cliff top.”
“But how do you know…?”
“I’ve seen you there on Saturday mornings, walking your dog.”
The wind whips her hair. She’s fearless and if you come closer you’ll see a smile. He has been here before, on her cliff, overlooking her beach. The air is cool but inside Martha she glows.
And then he stands next to her with a small white dog. Martha knows her dogs and this one’s from the pound.
“He’s gorgeous. What’s his name?”
“Veronica. Don’t ask.”