Gerard McKeown

Cullybackey Train Station

Gerard McKeown

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  The smell of freshly spread slurry followed me all the way to the train station.  Walking in through its rusty gate out onto the station platform, I saw a girl reading a book on the bench nearest me, and a guy on the bench down at the end. The girl was huddled in a big red coat with white furry lining that made her look like a young Mrs. Claus. The weather was mild for such a heavy coat. Maybe she didn’t have a lighter one. The coat hung slightly open. I could see she was wearing a school uniform. Its shades of red and blue were those of a boarding school on the coast. This meant she was waiting for the Portrush train. Her red tie said she was an A-level student, older than I’d first thought.

  She looked up at me, and I realised I’d been staring. I walked down the platform past her, past where the middle bench used to be, and sat down beside the guy on the last bench.

  Out of the corner of my eye I could see the girl looking around. She looked first behind her then up and along the metal frame of the tin overhang, probably trying to spot CCTV cameras, but there weren’t any; there never had been. This station had been rotting away for years. I stopped looking at her because her wide eyes and hunched shoulders now made her look more like Little Red Riding Hood than Mrs. Claus. She had good reason to be frightened; someone had got mugged in the station only a month ago. She could relax; I wasn’t going to mug her.

  Turning my head slightly I could see that the guy was about my age.  He was balding young and had sensibly kept his dark hair short, though it made him look a bit thuggish. He leaned forward on the bench reading the booklet of train times. I could see over his shoulder he was looking at the page for the Belfast timetable. As he read down it he tapped out a rhythm with his feet. He kept looking at his watch even though there was a station clock, the only thing that worked in here. Looking down I noticed it said Prada on his shoes. I thought they only made shoes for women. He either had money or he wanted people to think he had.

  The smell of slurry was making me feel sick, I didn’t fancy putting up with it for the next ten minutes. A smoke might deaden it. I fished a twenty deck out of my pocket.

  ‘You don’t have a light on you?’ I asked the guy.

  ‘You don’t have a fag?’ he said, nodding at the packet.

  ‘Here,’ I said reaching him one. ‘You waiting on the Belfast train?’

  ‘Yeah, you?’ he asked, as he searched through his pockets.

  ‘Aye, going to Antrim.’

  ‘Lucky for some, I’ve got to get a train to Dublin.’

  He didn’t have a Dublin accent. He was probably a student.

  ‘You’re lucky enough,’ I said. “Are you studying down there? It’s a class city to go out in.’

  ‘It’s not all partying, especially when your loan runs out.’

  ‘You can’t be too skint if you can scoot about on the trains.’

  ‘No, my loan came in there last week,’ he said taking his hands out of his pockets.

  ‘Do you have a light?’ I asked, nodding at his cigarette.

  ‘No, but hold on; that girl was smoking earlier.’

  He got up and walked off before I could tell him not to bother.

  She didn’t look so scared when he started talking to her. She gave him a light, but instead of coming back over to give me one, he kept talking. I couldn’t make out what he was saying but she seemed very comfortable with him, all smiles and chatty. Why had she looked so scared at me?

  I looked down at my cigarette. He’d have his smoked soon.

  The Portrush train could be heard rumbling through the countryside towards us before it came into view.

  The guy had his phone out now and was keying in the girl’s phone number. How had he got her number when all I got were frightened stares?

  When she boarded her train he wandered back over to me. Just as he was taking a final drag his eyes met mine.

  ‘Aw, sorry mate, I totally forgot.’ he said, reaching it out to me. ‘Here take a light from the tip.’

  As I took it the head fell off and burnt out on the ground.

  ‘Aw well mate,’ he said, sitting back down on the bench. ‘You’ll live longer.’

  ‘I suppose,’ I said with a sigh, putting my cigarette back in the box.

  ‘Did you know that girl?’ I asked.  

  ‘No, never met her before.’

  ‘How come she gave you her phone number?’

  ‘I asked her for it,’ he shrugged. ‘I’m going up to the Port this weekend with some mates. Said I’d meet her.’

  “So that’s how it’s done.”

  ‘It’s easy enough,’ he said. ‘You could have done it if you’d wanted to.’

  ‘You think?’ I asked.

  ‘Yeah, I mean you might need to do yourself up a bit. I mean no offence, but you’re a bit scruffy.’

  I turned away and looked at the station clock. The Belfast train wouldn’t be in for another ten minutes. I turned back round again and sank my forehead into the bridge of his nose. He let out a shout as his hands flew up to his face. My fist smashed into his ribs, sending him sprawling off the bench. I jumped up and booted him hard in the chest, pleased at the look of pain and confusion in his face.

  ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,’ he shouted as I stood over him.

  ‘Give me your wallet and your phone.’

  ‘I don’t have anything,’ he yelled trying to back off along the ground.

  I booted him in the ribs. He yelped as he tried to scramble away.

  ‘Don’t lie,’ I shouted. ‘Give me them.’

  He took them out of his jacket pocket. His hand shook as he reached them to me.

  I legged it out of the station. It was a short run across the fields to the lay-by where I’d parked my car. It was only when I reached it that I looked in his wallet. There was eighty pounds, which I pocketed. I threw the empty wallet and the phone, which I had only taken to stop him calling the cops, over the stone wall into the river. This would be the last time I did the station; after two muggings in as many months they’d definitely sort something out with cameras.

  I could hear the Belfast train roll in, as I put the key in the ignition and turned the engine on. The rumble of the train mixed with the rumble of the engine and the shake of my hands grew into a giant unsteady scene with me at the centre. Looking across the fields I saw the train slow to a halt as it reached the station. My body became used to the shake of the car, and my hands calmed slightly, enough for me to drive off out of the lay-by into the countryside.


Gerard McKeown


Gerard McKeown is an Irish writer living in London. His work has been featured in: 3:AMLitro and Neon, among others. His story Dunvale was highly commended in The Moth's 2015 Short Story Competition. His story The Longest Nickname in the World was longlisted for Over The Edge's New Writer of the Year award.