Hot air blasts through the overhead air vents and Paul is grateful for the warmth on his neck as the uniform’s jacket is thin.
The sky is still an inky black and only the branches that brush close to the train windows are visible. They are travelling through thick, wild forest where no road was ever built, and the closest houses are farms nestled in the curves of nearby valleys. Plenty of deer and wild boar here whose eyes gleam in the undergrowth and plenty who, in panic, jump onto the track. It was on this line that a driver once ploughed into a herd of boar asleep on the rails, killing more than a dozen. Drivers and ticket inspectors have been known to carry them home, hoisting them into the back cabin ready to be gutted and carved with the hunters in their villages.
The train rocks and hums, and Paul imagines watching it from the quiet night, the hush before dawn break interrupted by its bright lights, its clicks and groans.
He slips into the front cabin with Paul the driver.
‘Hey Paul,’ he says.
‘How’s Paul?’ the driver answers.
‘Paul’s frickin’ tired. How’s Paul?’
‘Paul had a hot date last night.’
It’s warmer in the cabin, and there is something comforting about the regularity of the wooden slats appearing from the darkness and disappearing under the train. Paul only half-listens to the hot date story, examining instead the back of Paul’s neck. It’s still brown from the summer, the colour of the walnuts he would collect for mere tuppence as a teenager. He knows there’s a gradual degradation of tan from the outer to the inner, more intimate parts of his body. He knows this because they had sex in one of the hotels they sometimes stayed at for work. It happened more than once.
The imprint of trees grows visible against a bluey-grey sky. They round a corner and Paul the driver says: ‘Shit.’
It takes a second for Paul to see what the driver sees: a shadowy figure sitting on the tracks up ahead. The driver breaks and simultaneously sounds the horn.
They’re both swearing and the figure is coming closer and it looks like a man, but Paul doesn’t want to look, he doesn’t want to see who it is. The noise of the horn sounds unnaturally loud in the still half-light, and the figure doesn’t move as if it’s part of this stillness.
‘It’s too late,’ says the driver. ‘You don’t have to witness this. Get out.’
But he doesn’t have time; he crouches to his knees pressing his hands to his ears but in vain because the hit is so physical he feels it through his body, feels the crunch, feels the strain of the brakes.
The train stops. All is still once more. Out of the open window Paul can hear the chatter of a bird. The driver has his hands over his eyes. ‘Paul,’ he says. ‘Oh Paul.’
Paul puts a hand on his shoulder. His fingers are shaking. ‘Shit man, that was awful. Do you want me to go and look? To check he’s dead?’
The driver shakes his head without removing his hands. His voice, when it comes, is muffled. ‘No. I need to do it.’
‘I’ll come with you.’
‘You don’t have to.’
‘I’ve already heard everything. It’s fine. I’ll come with you.’
They climb down the cabin steps, the driver first. He turns away and is sick, holding the side of the train with one hand and Paul looks away before the mass in his peripheral vision becomes something more concrete. Instead, he gazes up the bank at the trees that seem to drip tears in the icy mist and in the distance, further back from where they’d come, sees a figure slip behind a trunk.
‘Paul,’ he says. ‘I think– there might be someone, up there? Did you see?’
The driver stands upright, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘Can’t see anyone,’ he says, but they stand for a second in silence and Paul can feel all the hairs on his body stand straight.
‘Hello?’ he shouts. ‘Hello?’
Nothing. The faint rustle of leaves.
Nobody believes he saw someone in the wood. Not the police, not his boyfriend, not the work psychologist at his compulsory appointment. He writes a lot of notes and prescribes a month rest and calming medication.
Do you live alone?’
‘Do you have friends or family you can stay with for a few days?’
‘Family, no. I can stay with my partner.’ But it’s Paul’s face that first comes to mind.
‘No family.’ The psychologist says it like a question.
‘Alive, yes. In my life, no.’
Afterwards, he feels restless. Walking along the canal, he counts eight runners and twelve working chimneys on the boats lining the bank. Counting calms him. He sends Paul a message.
Hope you’re okay.
Cyril surprises him with a massage night. He’s lit candles and bought some new essential oils.
‘For your first death. A passage of rite – of sorts,’ he says.
Paul doesn’t have the heart to tell him that he’s not in the mood. That his hands on his body remind him of the separateness of his different limbs.
Two days later, he receives a phone call from his supervisor, Marjolaine.
‘How are you doing?’ she asks.
‘Well you’re welcome to come in and keep us company at the office.’
The crackle of laughter. Paul smiles despite himself.
‘Listen, I’m calling to know whether you’ve had any news from the driver you were with? Paul Montgramat?’
‘Damn. I always get you two confused.’
Paul smiles at the wall. ‘Everyone does.’
‘Have you talked at all over the last couple of days?’
‘Well, I’m sure it’s nothing, but he didn’t turn up for an appointment yesterday and his supervisor has been trying to contact him but no reply.’
‘What’s his address? I could go and see if he’s all right?’
‘I was going to go myself after work –’
‘I’ll go. I have lots of time.’
‘Well, that would be helpful. I’m not supposed to do this, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. Let me find you the address.’
There’s a pause and the sound of rustling paper. Paul hopes she won’t change her mind. He feels the need to do something about this nagging feel he has that something isn’t right. Even if it’s just checking up on a depressed colleague.
‘Ah there we go,’ Marjolaine says. ‘Sainte-Croix. That’s all I have.’
‘I’m sure I’ll find it.’
‘And…’ she hesitates. ‘Something else. They’ve found who it is.’
There’s a pause.
‘I want to know,’ Paul says.
‘Apparently he’d been depressed for a long time. Something about family abuse. His grandfather also killed himself on the tracks. It’s probably where he got the idea from.’
‘Good thing is, it doesn’t look like anything more than a straightforward suicide. There was even a note.’
Paul hummed. ‘Right.’
‘So no one else involved.’
An arm disappearing behind a tree. Something yellow flash amidst the grey and green.
‘What was his name?’ Paul asks.
‘Paul. Strange coincidence, right? I can’t remember his last name.’
He buys Paul the driver beer. A nice bottle. Local brewery. What else can you get someone in these circumstances? Flowers seem a bit naff. The bond of that shared experience suggests something stronger.
The satnav directs him through the Diège valley where the road elongates/follows a stream and he opens his window a crack to enjoy the sound of running water. The directions guide him onto narrower and narrower roads until he’s bumping down a dirt track through a wood of oak and maple.
He stops the car and checks the satnav.
He zooms out. Zooms back in again.
It is what he thought. They’re very close to the railway. Very close to where the accident happened. His heartbeat accelerates; he can feel it in his chest. Why did Paul not mention he lived so close? The GPS shows no other houses for miles.
He looks out of the window. The sky is grey; the trees completely bare, the yellow mush of rotting leaves the only colour in a winter landscape.
He lets down the brake and inches forward.
At the end of the track, there are two houses that must once have belonged to the same farm. He parks in the yard between the two. The roof of the barn has caved in, the splintered wood rotting, vegetation growing over the fallen stones.
A dog appears next to him and howls, showing its canines. It makes him start and he nearly climbs back into the car.
A man appears at the cattle gate next to one of the houses. He whistles to the dog who keeps barking but stops showing its teeth.
‘Can I help you?’ he asks. His skin is bloated and mottled like an alcoholic’s. It makes Paul’s flesh crawl.
‘Thank you, yes. Does Paul live in the house opposite?’
‘I’m Paul,’ he says, and he thinks he can’t have heard him correctly. ‘I’m Paul,’ he repeats.
It’s not possible. ‘How queer that you have the same name.’
No reply. When he’s about to thank him and turn away, the man says:
‘I’d leave him alone.’
‘Best that you leave.’
He stares at him, looks away. ‘I’ll just leave him a gift I’ve brought. He’s had a bad week – as have I – and I just want to check he’s all right.’
The man says nothing, turns back to the house. Paul takes his bag out of the car; locks it. There are no lights in the house.
He taps on the door but there’s no reply. It’s unlocked. He walks in, tries the switch. Nothing.
It’s gloomy inside. Outside the sun is already setting; the sky is turning blue. The weak light picks out rows and rows of bottles left on the table. He raises one to eye level. It’s the same bottle of beer as the one in his bag but empty and covered in a thick grime that clings to his fingers.
He puts it down and picks up another.
The same bottle.
After a while he stops. He places his own bottle on the table. Leaves it.
The room is empty and there are giant cracks in the walls so wide he could stick a finger in. The kitchen is traditional, a little alcove with a rounded roof. There is washing up in the sink that looks black with age. The window looks out over a field lined with trees. Something out there moves, and he looks closer. There is a figure walking across the open expanse. Paul quickly turns, finds the front door, and hurries around the side of the house. The figure is just a spot close to the trees on the farther side.
‘Paul,’ he calls, but the figure doesn’t turn round. He sets off after it at a trot. The grass is long and wetness seeps into his shoes. When he’s halfway across, the figure disappears into the trees. He calls again and starts to run. When he reaches the wood, he hesitates. A light bobs and wavers in the darkness, rapidly retreating. Following, he stumbles on tree roots and rocks, arms extended, grasping for holds on the surrounding trees. They’re on a path, a beaten track. He wonders how there can be a beaten track in this godforsaken place. He has no idea how much time is passing. He tires, but he’s gone too far to turn back. At some point he wonders whether he’s being lured to his death. He picks up a stick.
The light stops moving. He also stops, wary. There’s no movement. As he approaches, he sees they have reached the railway. The light, a torch, is lying on a wooden slat next to a seated figure.
‘Paul,’ he calls, and his voice ricochets between the steep banks.
Paul the driver doesn’t answer; his eyes are closed. Paul scrambles down to the track and stands, awkwardly, in front of him.
‘You knew him,’ he said. ‘You knew him and you didn’t tell me.’
‘Please go.’ His voice is distant, robotic.
Paul sits down opposite him. He wants to touch him, feel his lips against his own. But he’s a little scared of him. ‘What happened?’
A couple of minutes pass and Paul lets out a groan. His eyes are still closed. ‘I knew,’ he said. ‘I knew.’
‘About his grandfather?’
‘It’s not your fault.’
He rocked. ‘I knew. I knew.’
‘You were a child.’
‘I knew,’ Paul repeated it, again and again. ‘I knew. I knew.’
After a while, he stops talking and they sit in silence.
Paul can’t stop replaying that morning in his mind. If he’d stayed in the back cabin as he was meant to, if he hadn’t distracted Paul, maybe he would have seen Paul a split second sooner. Maybe he could have called him. Maybe Paul had called and Paul hadn’t picked up because he was in the cabin. Maybe, maybe, maybe…
Round and round.
The temperature is dropping and Paul tucks his gloveless hands under his armpits. Paul the driver seems to have fallen asleep, his chin sunk to his chest. Paul checks his phone: no reception. They’re alone. He should go and call for help. But who knows how far he’d have to walk and then how long it’d take someone to get here and he’d have to wait for them at the house and it meant leaving Paul. His eyes are closing. Better to stay here with Paul. To be with Paul.
He’s woken by a vibration. The sky is changing colour. He can feel the humidity in his throat.
‘Paul,’ he says.
Paul doesn’t move.
‘Paul, a train’s coming.’
He can hear it now in the distance.
‘Paul,’ he repeats, standing up. ‘You have to move. Now.’ He half climbs up the embankment. ‘Please,’ he says. ‘Please move. Just please, please move.’ He can see the train’s lights. He starts to sob. ‘Paul. Paul!’
The train grinds around the corner; the brakes are screeching, and the horn blaring, and in those last, brief seconds, Paul turns and looks him in the eye. Paul recognises the shade of his irises. It’s the same as his own.
The thump of body giving to metal is so loud he feels he’s been hit, and he falls to the ground clutching his chest.
There’s a silence. He looks up. The train has travelled several metres.
He wipes his eyes.
He can’t move.
The cabin door opens and a head pops out. There are voices. He turns and runs up the embankment, and as he runs he can hear:
Peggy Lee was born in the UK but raised in the south of France. She has worked as an editorial assistant for a trade magazine, as an assistant agent at the Standen Literary Agency and as a bookseller at Waterstones Piccadilly. She has just completed a Creative Writing Masters at the University of East Anglia. Peggy has previously had stories published by Everyday Fiction, Liars League London and Creative Writing NZ.