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Alun Lewis "The Lapse"

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At 4.13 Henry showed his season ticket to the porter and climbed into the railway car. He nodded politely to Miss Burge, the teacher at the kindergarten, who sat in her corner seat knitting the green jumper she had started last month; and to the district nurse in her black pork-pie hat, her professional bag tucked warmly against her stomach. They both smiled back – nothing said, never anything said – and he went to his usual place at the far end of the car. He filled his pipe while waiting for the train to start, and then put it back into his pocket.

Back and fore, back and fore, like a shuttle, workwards each morning, home¬wards each night, ra ta-ta, ra-ta-ta, the train’s travelling beat – how many times have I done this journey, these last five years? If I put the journeys end to end it would stretch a long way – right into Tibet perhaps, along the Turk-Sib among the moujiks ... Oh dear! Henry yawned and gazed indifferently at the row of slatternly back gardens and flapping clothes lines past which the train ran. Twice a day for five years, Bank holidays excepted, those drab hotchpotch backs where the wives riddled yesterday’s ashes an the children sat on the steps eating bread and jam. It was so depressing to see those streets every day, always the same, and the people always the same – how many of them knew they had been condemned to serve a lifer?

And then, with a rattle and a wrench, the open country; the hills swooping like swallows. Below the embankment the black river swirled, wandering down from the coal mines at the head of the valley. And the train rattled over the bridge that spanned the river; Henry felt the drop under the bridge, sheer and empty in the pit of his stomach, like a bird flashing through a hollow cave. And on, accelerando, through the cutting. What shall I do tonight, the tired voice asked in his head. Pictures? Or a nap and a stroll down to the billiard hall? I don’t know what to do, I can never make up my mind. I know what’ll happen – I’ll stand by my bedroom window looking down into the empty street. And in the end I won’t go out, I’ll waste the night, as usual. As I waste everything. I ought to decide to do something, to get on ... One day I will do something, to justify all this waste, something grand, careless … I must …

I wonder what’s for dinner this evening. Mother will have it all ready, whatever it is, warmed up and waiting; and she’ll sit opposite me while I eat it, watching me wolf it; and at the end she’ll have a cup of tea with me ... Doctor said she’s alright. But often I dream she is dead, and I wake up sweating.

Halt number one. The schoolgirl comes in and sits where she always sits, and takes a book out of her satchel, a different book this week She has grown a lot in the last five years. She used to be a scrimpy, flat-chested little thing, her head always poked out of the window; now she sits absorbed in her book and there is a difference about everything she does. She must be about sixteen; she hardly looks it, with her mouse-bitten fringe and her black stockings. She’s got a strange face; those who don’t know her would never call it pretty. They’d only see her prominent top teeth, her weak chin, her flat cheekbones. They’d miss the secret quality, the look she has when she turns from her book to look out through the window. She’s pulling on her woollen gloves; she gets out at the next halt. I wish I knew where she lives – in the semi-detached red-roofed houses on the right, or the huddle of slums on the left? Not that it matters really; the train always starts off before she’s left the platform. Sometimes, if she hasn’t finished her chapter before the train stops, she walks along the platform with her book open ...

The little woman who only travels on Thursdays is snoring; she always puts her feet up and snoozes. Her head hangs forward, her oak-apple nose nearly dropping into her shopping basket, her pink umbrella laid across her lap. Her shoes need soling. Oh, curse it and curse it. It’s always the same, daunting you properly. Makes you want to smash the window, pull the communication cord, scream. And instead you swallow the scream; you can hear it struggling inside you, battering at the door of your throat. And you sit still, and look at the old lady’s brown hat, and Miss Burge knitting, and her reading. It’s been lovely, really, watching her grow up, wondering about her, her name and what she thinks when she’s reading and what Life will do to her, and feeling sorry for her, somehow ...

The train stopped with a shudder that rattled all the windows. The red roofs and the biscuit facades of the new houses waited faithfully outside. The girl closed her book and obediently went out.

And then, all of a sudden, Henry got up and walked down the car, past Miss Burge and the district nurse, who stared at him in astonishment. The blood was beating like a steel hammer behind his eyes. He fumbled and tugged at the carriage door. But he got out, and was standing on the ash platform, for the first time, ever. She was a few yards ahead of him, finishing her chapter, walking slowly, unaware. He stepped forward. The porter shouted “O.K.” to the guard. The engine-driver leaned over the footplate. Henry stood stock still, looking at the girl, at the railings, at the yellow advertisement of Duck, Son and Pinker’s pianos. The guard shouted “What are you getting off here for?” The green flag and the engine’s hoot … Henry scrambled back into the carriage, the guard shouted at him and a porter blasphemed. He shut the door with quivering hands and slouched back to his seat. Miss Burge and the nurse stared at him and at each other. He didn’t notice anything. He just slumped into his seat and clenched his hands, squeezing them between his knees. After a couple of minutes he blew his nose hard and rubbed some smuts out of his eyes. The train crashed into the black mouth of the tunnel with a shriek. It woke the old lady. She opened her eyes and tidied her collar, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to open one’s eyes, after they have been closed.

The train came out of the tunnel and stopped. The old lady picked up her basket and her pink umbrella, Miss Burge rolled up her knitting, the nurse fingered the silver hatpin that skewered her porkpie hat. Henry followed them out onto the platform and slunk past the guard like a criminal.