After lunch they had all agreed to go for a walk. There was a large park – over eighty acres in total – at the foot of the estate. When Wicktoria’s mother spoke about how marvellous this park was, she fell into lovingly reciting a sales pitch that was like a keepsake that had been caressed completely smooth in her hands. The park had been built in the 1920s, when they had believed in these grand civic programmes and in elevating the proletariat by treating them just like the aristocracy. There was a rose garden – the sort of thing that you more normally encounter in the grounds of a country house – and a special lake that people brought along model yachts to sail on. There was a bandstand and a Japanese pagoda. There was a miniature steam train that scurried around a botanical rockery.
So the park it was.
The park was also neutral territory. It was as though, in some extremely subtle way, Wicktoria’s family did not know quite how they were configured now that Artur had joined them and presenting an appearance to other people would help to fix everything that was currently in flux. This was the first time that Artur had visited the small town where Wicktoria’s family dwelt. He had been here since mid-morning and he had been smiling so continuously at them that his mouth now ached like a sprained ankle.
Artur and Wicktoria here felt akin to hitherto carnal animals that have been dressed up in bourgeois costumes and required to perform a simulacrum of a tea party. Whenever they were briefly alone, in little gaps between the scenes, he would silently bundle her up and ravage her and paw all over her body and howl soundlessly into the shell of her ear. He would shake both of them in his arms until he felt lightened of all his frustrations. Wicktoria was very bemused by this.
Fortunately, her family were kindly and their household seemed always to possess the relaxed atmosphere of a Sunday afternoon. Her mother was twinkly eyed and she behaved as if she had forged a special, conspiratorial connection with Artur; her father was dryly gentlemanly and courteous. There was a tomboyish younger sister who was indefatigably merry and who, despite her supposedly doleful luck with boys and college, never appeared to have any subdued or downcast spells. Bringing up the rear was a pair of grandparents who uttered rare, stilted lines, like self-conscious actors who have to deliver messages in a play.
It was warm for winter and there was a painful twinge of ethereal, sprightly brightness in the blue of the sky. At the far end of the estate, the template was for white-brick semis with baby-pink roofs, which made them look somehow like a crop of albino houses. You walked under a ring of very tall conifers to enter the park and then there was grass stretching up to the horizon. Many of the park’s attractions lined the grand walkway that comprised the outer circle of a network of avenues. The first thing that Artur and the family passed was a mini plastic landscape for skateboarders, on which masses of teenagers were exhibited as though they were chimpanzees.
The little sister pattered ahead and Wicktoria’s parents strolled in her wake, listening indulgently to her ongoing sing-song. Next came Artur and Wicktoria, clinging chastely to each other, with Artur’s hand actually busy massaging and loving in the sleeves of Wicktoria’s duffel coat. Finally, the grandparents drifted vainly after the family, still focused on them but getting further and further behind. The grandfather beat at the ground with a walking stick.
It was the little sister who first saw the garden station for the miniature train. This was pure fuel for the fire of her merriment, which sprang up bubbling anew, and she was immediately herding the surprised family on towards the platform. They all came up short in front of a comical-looking ticket office.
Only Artur stepped out of the group. “I don’t think so,” he said firmly. “This is meant for children.”
Indeed, most of the people currently on the platform were uproarious children. A few mothers were dotted like bleak islands in the sea of all the squealing and fussing.
Artur realised that Wicktoria had gently detached herself from him. She was reading an instructional poster that was stuck on to the side of the ticket office, with her head cocked to one side. Suddenly he had seen something that he had never really noticed before – that she was her sister’s sister – a little headstrong and infuriating as well. “Artur!” the sister groaned, wrenching at his arm. “Don’t be SO BORING!”
“No,” Artur persisted. “It looks very bad if we crowd on to the train and there are no seats left for the little ones.”
The little sister appealed to her parents, who regarded Artur with curiosity. “Tell him that this is silly!” But Wicktoria intervened to rescue Artur, handing him her phone. “Stand and take a picture of us please. You press it here.”
Their departure seemed to unfold faster than it would take to wash your hands. Whilst Artur was still bickering with the little sister, Wicktoria’s father had presented himself politely at the ticket office and bought six tickets. They were fifty pence each. As soon as he was back, the miniature steam train had wrangled its way into the station. Released by a final, awesomely piercing blast from the train’s whistle, a crowd of children swarmed energetically on to the platform, jumping at their freedom. A handful of smiling adults trailed after them.
A complete model train, wrought from gleaming brass, was displayed separately at the very front. The driver, and everybody else, sat behind it on “carriages” that were essentially long ottoman cushions on wheels. The old gent who drove the train looked suitably grizzled and Dickensian, with a peaked nautical cap and mutton-chop sideburns.
The incoming passengers climbed aboard and sat down and sat expectantly to attention. Wicktoria’s family all fitted comfortably on to the last carriage. The grandparents, the very last on the train, looked scared and shrunken. Next, the train had whistled, there was a clear pause, and then it began to rustle off down the tracks at a light walking pace. All of the passengers waved at the bystanders on the platform and the bystanders waved back.
Artur picked his way over to a kind of level crossing, where the train tracks intersected with the avenue that ran around the park. The train had originally gone in the opposite direction, but it had quickly curved back through an ornamental tunnel and over a dwarf viaduct and it was now hurrying to cross the crossing. Artur waved at Wicktoria and her family and they all waved dutifully back at him. He took a couple of photographs.
Artur returned to the platform. He could hear the train hooting in the distance, like somebody crying out listlessly to themselves. He glimpsed a row of a top of heads passing behind a low hillock.
After a minute, he could no longer hear the train or its whistling. Indeed, the park was now unsettlingly still. At the station, not many people were hanging about. As if trying to keep his spirits from ebbing away, Artur strode up to the ticket office to see if the poster on the side included a map of the circuit. Yet there was no mention of where the train went or how big exactly the circuit was.
The ticket office appeared to be closed – the metal shutter was down. Artur walked back to the platform again and looked down the train tracks. He could not see any staff. He was now the only person left at the station.
He listened to a magpie rasping from somewhere. The sun was beginning to set, breaking like a huge red egg yolk on the tips of the treetops.
Over five minutes had now passed and Artur felt very restless. He could not stop focusing on the mysterious, closed-up silence behind the hillocks, where the train was presumably still busying itself. What was the train playing at – it must have surely gobbled through its tiny coal-scuttle long ago?
When the previous train had returned, the children had been conspicuously full of beans. They had not looked like children who had been made to sit still for a long time.
Artur perceived a low building that resembled a storage depot a little down the train tracks. It was the sort of place where a model train and its carriages would be kept overnight. He began to walk purposefully towards it and, to his relief, at that moment a man in uniform came around the side.
“Excuse me,” Artur greeted him, “but do you know when the train will be getting in again?”
“The train?” Although dressed as a Victorian stationmaster, this man was oddly young and thin. He had red hair – he was a student, no doubt – and he looked very startled at having to field a question by himself.
“The train that left a while ago.”
“Trains leave all the time,” the young man agreed dubiously.
“Is there a timetable on the wall somewhere?” Artur prompted, trying to help the man out.
“No,” the young man said, blinking.
The young man turned on his heel and groped his way around the side of the building again, waddling quickly and furtively, without looking back at Artur.
The day seemed to be pouring away from Artur. He would phone Wicktoria and find out where she was. To his dismay, however, he looked down stupidly at her phone right in his hand.
About ten years later, Artur was speeding down a highway in Bulgaria with his friend Noah. They were in Noah’s truck and Noah was at the wheel. Sitting between them was a scrawny, rat-like girl who they had picked up the night before.
There was a moderate bemusement between them about how they had ended up with this girl, who had at some point materialised in their dorms at the hostel. The men had been drunkenly separated in a nightclub; Artur had thought that the girl had fallen into Noah’s clutches, whilst Noah had assumed that she had been recruited by Artur. The girl had had breakfast with them and then she had asked to be driven to the next town and now she was adamant that she was riding all the way to Istanbul. After a while she was in tears and blubbering messily.
Artur knew that Noah was currently planning for them to fuck this girl. They still occasionally did this with girls, taking turns one after the other. Artur was always cautious and Noah more impulsive, so Artur habitually went second, which irked him and made him feel resentful and inadequate. The first time that they had done this – when they were both nineteen – they had been standing at a urinal and Noah had turned and casually asked him, “Hey man, do you want to fuck tonight?” Noah was here referring to a female classmate who he had in mind but Artur had gotten completely the wrong end of the stick. “Sorry man, I’m not gay,” he had whispered, aghast. Artur still remembered how Noah had been for five unearthly minutes impaled wheezing on a spike of delirious laughter.
“Let’s drive down here and talk about what we’re doing,” Noah suggested. He pointed the truck down a handy, dusty lane and pulled up in a layby. When the engine was cut, the sound of the girl’s sobbing rose to fill the cabin. The men stirred in their seats. “Do we still have some whisky?” Noah asked absently.
Artur shook his head.
The girl was further enraged. “Nothing to drink – no M – this is fucking shit. Why did I even come here with you?”
Noah grinned happily. “To have some fun?” He thought that the girl would stop sobbing once he had started fucking her, as though she was a swimmer who was merely deterred by the coldness of the water.
But the girl was berating the two men like a furious housewife. “I know why you’re driving to Turkey! You’re two stupid old losers and you’re going to have a hair transplant!”
They both bristled. Then Noah grinned again and placed his hand possessively on her arm. “GET OFF ME!” she roared, spinning around. “You know, by the way, that I’m only fifteen.”
“Yeah right,” Noah laughed scornfully.
Artur looked at her.
The girl began to yelp with panic. “Take me back,” she was pleading shrilly.
Artur opened the door of the truck. “I’m going to get some air,” he told them. He climbed out and behind him he could hear Noah talking over the girl in a calm, level voice. Artur lit a cigarette and walked over to the side of the road to inspect the country.
There was little to see. An arid ravine falling away with wiry, huddled trees and scrubby bushes. Then something had gleamed and caught his attention. A dinky model train was coming around the brow of the sandy hillside across the valley. In the dust bowl of this landscape, it gleamed fantastically, like a space rocket. Rows of pleasure-seekers sat in open-air seats but they were slumped in a curiously limp way, like pansies wilting in a window box. Some of them seemed to be drowsing.
Artur had not thought of Wicktoria for several months and he immediately resisted the prickling of his memory. The ache was now softened – even sweet and fond – but there was no use in searching for it again.
He peered at this train and its passengers, trying to make out any tell-tale detail, but next it had trundled around the hillside and it was gone. There was no way of getting to it, anyhow. He would need to climb over the metal rail on the roadside and slither down into the sandy ravine. He would be at least half an hour scrambling through dirt and bushes before he reached the train tracks.
On hearing a shout of vexation from the truck, he finished his cigarette. He then went back and hauled open the door.
“C’mon man, she’s just a kid,” he told Noah.
The girl glared up at Artur with automatic defiance, although after her face had frozen a shining teardrop continued to wend a route carefully down it. “We don’t have any whisky,” he told the girl. “We have some M left but we’re not going to share it with you. We’re two ageing men and you’re right, it’s probably obvious, but we’re going to Istanbul for discount hair treatment.”
Noah stopped silently shaking his head and mouthing “NO” and he looked at Artur frankly, with wonder. Artur got into the truck and slammed the door after him. “Please drive.”
He never saw the train again. Once, in his fifties, he was walking alone in a forest, gathering firewood, when he heard a hooting that sounded uncannily like a train in a tunnel. It appeared to be emanating from inside a dead oak tree. He turned smartly around and walked away from the tree as rapidly as though he had disturbed a bee’s nest. Later, the girl who had been sharing his caravan with him recounted several ghost stories about the forest and that, yes, trains could be sometimes heard where there were none. They had transported Jews through this forest on their way to a camp. Artur was grateful that no unnecessary dust had been dislodged from Wicktoria’s bones in the blackness of his heart.