Still wearing his blue fleece, Persistent Smith sprawled across the apple-green candlewick cover of his bed with a copy of the new railway timetable. It had been a long detour from the Bat and Ball to collect it from the London Road terminus but it had been worth it. He had also wanted to walk around in the fresh air and let the smells of beer and other people’s food get out of his clothes. He wrinkled his nose at the memory, glad that people could no longer smoke in pubs, then sniffed his sleeve. He could still smell beery cooking smells. The fleece would have to be washed.
The station concourse had been a challenge. The huge, enclosed space felt bigger than the outside, the air tinged with oil and electricity. The soft squeak of his trainers drew unwelcome glances from passengers, policemen and staff. Looming over it all, pulling at his eyes like a magnet on steel ball bearings, stood the departures and arrivals boards.
In situations like these the Hand was useless. Smith was on his own.
Chin on his chest and eyes averted from the boards, he hurried across the open concourse to the timetable racks. He knew if he looked up he’d be there all day. That would not be Good Looking. He had things to do.
Smith snatched a timetable and scurried away. Heels snapped staccato on the paving. There was laughter behind him. Someone must have told a joke.
He heard a soft knock and his bedroom door swung open. Short, thin and slightly stooped, Persistent Smith’s mother, Violet, stood there with a glass and plate.
‘Go away.’ Smith rolled over to face the wall and studied his timetable.
‘I’ve brought you some milk and biscuits, Derek,’ Violet put them down on his bedside table.
Smith rolled over and sat up. ‘Mummy,’ he said. ‘My clothes smell.’
‘Put them in the basket and I’ll wash them.’
‘I want to wear my fleece for breakfast.’
Violet Smith looked at her son with tired eyes. ‘Well then,’ she smiled brightly, ‘I’ll just have to wash it tonight, won’t I?’
‘Good.’ Smith returned to his timetable.
‘Say thank you, Derek.’ Violet said firmly.
Smith turned the pages faster and faster.
Violet’s tone grew harder. ‘Derek, I want you to say thank you. It’s Good Manners.’
‘He’s not back from work yet.’
‘Will he read me a story?’
Violet’s shoulders drooped a fraction. ‘I expect he’ll be tired and will just want to watch telly.’
‘He used to read me stories.’
‘Well, you’re older now and can read yourself.’
‘He did all the voices better. I want you to tell him to come up.’
‘And I want you to say thank you for my milk and biscuits.’
Smith turned another page. ‘Thankyouverymuch.’
‘I’m going into garden. The nasturtiums have got black fly.’
Eyes fixed on the timetable charts, Smith waited until he heard his mother walk from the room. Then he put in his bookmark, got up and firmly shut the door.
Smith inspected his drink. The glass was the right one but as usual it was unsafe. Not daring to pick it up he slurped a mouthful of milk, lowering surface to a less dangerous level. He ate the biscuits quickly, one after the other, then drained the milk. Suddenly he felt bad, he had not been kind, he had been ungrateful. His mother had been kind and now she felt hurt. He wanted to say sorry but he didn’t want to go into the garden. He returned to the timetable.
There was something peaceful about the rows and columns of figures, diagrams, and network graphics, a calm pleasure in discerning the ebb and flow of arrivals and departures. The residual tension of the trip to the station, of knowing people were looking at you, faded. The Hand lapsed into nothing more than fingers, palm, and thumb.
There would be plenty of time to work the adventure of the missing car later. For now Smith took down the previous edition of the timetable from the shelf over his bed and opened both copies at page one.
Last year’s times were as they were, this years were thus and so. The reason they were different would become apparent. What was of equal importance was that the times in the book were the same as those on the announcement boards at the station. Even more satisfying was when the trains arrived at the same time too. Not all of them did that, but almost all. For those that did not there was a reason. On the days he spent on the platforms Smith corrected the times in his book. It was satisfying and it was excellent. A triumph of numbers, predictability and order. People in a sense were not involved and their absence was welcome.
To be continued…