The Flying Scotsman.
I laughed out loud for a moment. A woman, in her thirties perhaps, or forties, though I hoped not, wearing pink lipstick and blue eyeshadow, revealed a set of surprisingly even though very narrow teeth to me. The gregarious American.
I cannot help coming from America! I thought. What was Johnson's reply? I remembered, but stopped the recollection, to smile back. I no doubt looked very out of place--or not, I had an incorrect version of the universal British man in my head, slender in a pinstriped suit and tie, weekday wear for the City. I wore blue jeans and a white dress shirt, untucked, over a t-shirt, very midwestern United States I have since been led to understand. And I had a suitcase with me.
Perhaps it was the suitcase.
This was not my first time in London, nor at King's Cross, but I had not before encountered the Flying Scotsman. It conjured an amusing mental image, that's all--a Scottish superhero, maybe, or maybe it was just that I still found the word itself, "Scotsman," slightly funny. Too much Python, again, too much influence from a single referrant. Angus Podgorny, the first Scotsman to win Wimbledon, against a blancmange. So I laughed, again, unable to help myself.
Surely, the people at GNER--it was GNER, wasn't it?--did not intend me to laugh at their train and its noble designation. Perhaps there was some ancient mythology at work here of which I knew nothing. Ignorance, madame, pure ignorance. I silently excused myself to the woman, who, like me, was waiting on the platform for the train that would take us north to York. A connection there would take me further on to Edinburgh, where she--a different she, you understand--would be waiting.
There would be plenty of time for thoughts of her once aboard. I had come a long way for an answer; my coming itself asked the question. Complicated and dramatic, I know, probably unnecessarily so as well. Some things need to happen this way. The form fit the content.
On the train--when not interrupted by that awful sense of precognition, that knowing without having heard, certainty without proof--I traced Tom Jones's--Fielding's Jones, you understand, not the other, though "It's not unusual" was in my head at the time, a product of the same mistake--journey through England. Then I gave that up; I had meant Humphry Clinker's. There was nothing in the scenery to disappoint my preconceptions of the countryside, aside from the seemingly large number of nuclear power plants, and I thrilled at the sight of sheep, cows, hills, and all things reassuringly English. A few words went down in my journal about it, little lines of poetry in base iambic pentameter, a ridiculous sonnet to my own Dark Lady. It gave me trouble; I couldn't quite make it right, always wanted to end up with an extra syllable or an awkward enjambment. I left it off without a closing couplet. Just a sextet and some of an octet, divisible into three quatrains with a little interpretational effort, as the distinction between Shakespeare and Petrarch escaped me, and I wanted it to be right either way.
I fell asleep trying to recollect which number was "Let me not to the marriage of true minds," feeling slightly ill, I remember. From the rocking of the train, you understand.
Beautiful. Simply beautiful. The coastline of England on the North Sea, tracks nearly atop the cliffs dropping into the deep blue water, cold, it must have been, even then, in the midst of summer, and deserted; not forbidding, though, by no means a sunless sea. Peaceful in its ruggedness, if that makes any sense at all. I thought at the time it did, and sat up in my seat--strange new people all around, I had not gotten on with them, they boarded sometime after York and my second nap--and pressed my face against the window.
It left an embarrassing oily smudge, which I made worse by trying to wipe away with the sleeve of my shirt.
Through it I saw the bridge at Berwick-upon-Tweed, by my map England's northermost town at the Scottish border's northernmost point. It looked so old from the train, in the reddening light of late afternoon. Brown and gray rooftops in a jumble. Medieval to my mind, isolated and quiet, a few houses just off the water below. Exciting, overwhelming, this sight of something so different from all I knew yet somehow familiar to me regardless. "Baerick," I reminded myself, grinning widely, "not Bur-wick." Then another laugh, smaller than that on the platform, escaped, this time attracting the attention of a young man with close-cropped hair and wearing Manchester colors: Britain's other kind of man. I would have worn a football jersey to blend in a bit better, but didn't know well enough which ones would get me thumped, where. Probably all of them.
She told me she'd be waiting at the station in Edinburgh. One of us was always waiting for the other; at a train station, a bus stop, an airport. Waiting to get there, waiting for the other to arrive. Distance was not the problem, though, you understand--we'd been far apart in America, once on the plane another couple hours meant nothing. No--it was the waiting.
Berwick is the crossover point. The last stop before Edinburgh on the Flying Scotsman. Last chance to go someplace else, or even back the other way. Tweed as Rubicon. I hardly stirred but in my mind as the high stone bridge passed away beneath the train. Alea iacta est.
Some minutes later--I forget how many, though I have since made the same journey again, for different reasons--the ground became high croppings of dark rock, for moments only revealing mountains (they were mountains to me) on the horizon and the sun's last light bleeding onto the clouds in streaks of scarlet and purple. Perfect, still perfect. The rose-red fingers of the sunset.
Had she been waiting long? I wondered. I checked my watch--9:15pm, fifteen or so minutes overdue. How much longer would she wait? Ten minutes more? An hour? A year? How long would I wait? Forever. Wrong question; wrong question, we agreed I'd take a cab if things went wrong, if I missed the train, that's what I meant, all it meant. I would find the way on my own.
My fingers curled around the strap of my backpack. I shifted in my seat. Anxious to get off the train, finally, after such a long ride. Eager to find out, excited to see her. You understand.
There she was, on the other side of the crowd at the top of the station beneath the main schedule board. She'd lost weight, I could tell right away. Got her hair cut, too, short. A year had changed a lot.
It didn't change everything.
The moment of recognition was hard. Each of us watching the other's smile to see what was in it, or more, what was not. I would have preferred to approach her from behind; this was painfully awkward, finding each other this way. Close enough to see, too far to speak. An idiotic grin on my face, I'm sure, if hers was any indication.
But she was beautiful. And I loved her again with the kiss we took before the words came. Before we spoke, we remembered, and the past washed over the present.
The present was thoughts of the future.
I looked down into the face--a thousand ships?--that looked up into mine, brown eyes, light skin, so beautiful, just so very beautiful, and young, and mine again. Mine again, again, another stretch of waiting within waiting ended. Right and wrong at once, strong and weak, there and not.
A fortress built with cards.
"Hey, you," she said.
"Did you get here alright?"
"Nope. I actually sent myself ahead to tell you I missed the train. So I better go back and catch up with me, or space-time will collapse."
I followed her out. What was I expecting? I thought of a couplet to append to my sonnet. I wish I'd written it down right away.
That might have made it true.
"We'll walk, if that's ok."
"It's sort of far."
She walked ahead of me by a step or two, leading me up the long flight of steps to the surface.
Long is the road and hard is the way. Fatigue clung heavily to my legs, pulled hard against my shoulder, as we crossed over Princes Street into the New Town, the black gothic arm of the Scott Monument stretching above the castle behind. We did not talk. If her thoughts were the same as mine I can only guess. I suppose they were; we were waiting again, already. For the right time and place.
I had come a long way to find them.
Jet-lag. That was the sickness sloshing from side to side in my stomach, you understand. Time-zones and airplane food. Nothing more than that.
She walked a little faster than I could. The wheeled suitcase kept hitting the backs of my shoes.
"We'll drop off your bag and go out."
"I thought we could go to Rose Street."
"Ok. What's that?"
"Pubs. You hungry?"
Silence again. Traffic sounds and bagpipes. Gray people in gray clothing dodging cabs, looking the wrong way when crossing the street. A bus nearly clipped me. My suitcase tipped back and forth on its wheels.
Very late, I felt it, very tired. I had to use the bathroom, but pushed on. Pushed through every step while words gathered in the quiet. Nothing had to change if no one said anything. I would not start it, then. Not me. I would wait for her.
The heat was on me now, sticking to both sides of my skin like wet leather. The pub felt close and warm. I never remember its name, though I have been there many times since, for different reasons.
Flowers hang in baskets from its awning. Narrow doors, dark wood, brass fixtures. Every pub on Rose Street.
The large back room, away from the bar, was empty but for us and one or two other couplets nestled at small tables in the corners. Very quiet; close to eleven on a weekday.
I had a pint in front of me, full, I don't drink beer but didn't know what else to ask for. She had a glass of wine, half gone already. How are yous whats ups thats greats so glad you've come all this way to see me.
That's how it started.
Her face changed, darkened. Her lips parted, then closed again. Tentative. As if it only needed a single word, the first, to split the barrier, change everything, ruin everything.
But I would not let it go so easily. I fought it. I tried, hard, to hold back the ocean with a broom. We endure not yet a breach. It will never pass into nothingness, thou shalt remain in midst of other woe. It is an ever fixed mark, an echo and light unto eternity! I went on, quietly, drowned out, until she finished.
"Don't wait for me."
And that was all. The orange-yellow lights and spotty carpeting slipped away, blurred out, my brain refused to see them. Cigarette smoke curled into ghosts in the air, their bony fingers scratched at my eyes, reached down my throat to choke me. The beer turned to acid in the glass. Sound died for a moment. I thought I was going to vomit. No-- my stomach was too far down in the earth, it wouldn't have the strength, couldn't.
I never took my eyes off her. Never stood or shifted, never turned away to check the time. It would not have appeared to anyone that everything became different all in an instant.
Because it did not.
The invisible snap of my neck was my brain rebuilding the world into what it already knew. This version of things was in place in my imagination already, but well behind in time. Synchronize your realities, gentleman, the race is about to begin, again, it starts all over again.
This was how it had to be, she told me. The one thing was the only thing, the everything, that would not change with waiting. That part of us is over. The days that are no more. You understand.
I laughed. A great laugh, a loud laugh; heads turned from all the corners to see me, the gregarious American. I cannot help coming from America, I told her. I could not. I had to come all that way, aboard the Flying Scotsman. I took the Flying Scotsman from London, I told her, to Troy, with a woman in her fifties wearing pink eye shadow and blue lipstick who won Wimbledon against Tom Jones. I went on to Rome, passed nuclear sheep eating a blancmange cooked by Petrarch on the hillside above the North Sea, and jumped off the bridge at Berwick to play football with a man in a pinstriped tie and suit with red fingers and a raven who showed me the road out of hell.
It took me a year to get here, I yelled at her. It took me the whole of a year. I am waiting. Do you understand?
We made love--that is ridiculous--we slept together that night, the way people will in the aftermath. Meeting at night, parting at morning, it's all so perfect, isn't it.
She led me back to the station. Walked beside me, touched my hand once or twice. I had been with her one night, or ten. I do not precisely recollect the dates. She put her arms around me at the top of Prince's Street; the Scott Monument appeared somewhat smaller, quaint, huddled up next to the ferris wheel and the bright green grass below it. The one o'clock gun fired. I jumped. We laughed.
Then I went back down the long set of stairs into the station, to wait for the train back to London.
I have been back, many times, for other reasons, aboard the Flying Scotsman. Edinburgh's a beautiful city--the festival, hogmanay, a gateway to the highlands. Other friends, other loves. New memories. But I always see her there, standing in the scenery, tapping her foot at the station. Waiting for me at a table in the corner of a pub on Rose Street.
There is an ancient mythology at work.