Thursday 16 November 2017

Will to Choose

Sarah Howlett 

mulled ale

I sat between my two younger sisters, returning home from a busy day out. I was squashed and constantly being elbowed by them bickering around me.
“Girls, stop it, leave your brother in peace,” Mum turned from the passenger seat, tiring of the constant whining.
“Stop it now,” Dad snapped in frustration. He looked around to help police his daughters, he only took his eyes off the road for a moment but that was enough. When Dad looked back, the car had veered across the road. Dad tugged the wheel but lost control of the car. I felt sick as the car spun down the embankment, we all screamed so loud. Then finally the car came to a stop, I sighed with relief, the car was the right way up and no one was hurt. Then I found myself drawn to a bright light on our left. It was a train; we were on the track right in its path.
I tried to get out, but I couldn’t get my seatbelt off. It didn’t matter, the train was going to hit us.

 In a heartbeat, there was nothing. I blinked rapidly, puzzled to find I was no longer in the car. Had I been dreaming about the train? No, somehow, I was on a train; I could feel it vibrating beneath me as I lay on the cold floor.
“Are you going to lie there all day?” Dad offered out his hand.
“Where are we?” I looked around; we appeared to be in the cargo carriage of an old steam train.
“We're on the train, silly,” Mum laughed
She sounded so matter-of-fact, like it was obvious we should be on a train, but I clearly remembered being in our car.
Our day out had nothing to do with trains, old or new. Was I dreaming? I had never had a dream like this before.
My parents were acting very odd. My Mum was sitting on the ground, cuddling my sisters, and my Dad was looking for something. Even my sisters were being strange, for one, they were quiet, sharing Mum's embrace with no arguing or bickering.
“Are there any seats on the train?” I frowned, Mum couldn't be comfortable sat on the cold bare floor. “I'll go and have a look”
“No” Dad called quickly, “we have to stay together”
“Come and have a hug, honey, we’re fine where we are.” Mum offered.
“I won’t be long.” I decided I would go and look for seats anyway. These old trains always had more seats than passengers. There had to be some, somewhere.

I crossed the gap onto the passenger carriage. The train was old-fashioned, click clacking along, but the people were all in modern clothing. There were one or two empty seats but not enough for my family.
“Tickets please.” A voice called from further down the carriage.
I walked towards the ageing ticket inspector, dressed in old-fashioned clothing that seemed to match the age of the train.
“Ticket please,” the man asked me.
“Oh, I don't have one.” I quickly checked my pockets just in case.
“If you don't have a ticket you'll have to leave the train” the inspector warned.
“I'll ask my parents for it,” I promised. “Are there any seats further down the train?”
“Of course,” The man replied, “There are enough seats for everyone with tickets”
Two passengers on the left handed over their tickets for inspection and one passenger on the right hunted everywhere but couldn’t find a ticket.
“You have to get off at the next stop Sir” The inspector told him before turning to me “You too, Sonny”
“My parents have the ticket,” I insisted.
“You have to get off sometime, Sonny.”
“Where is the train going?” I frowned.
“The train goes to its destination” The ticket inspector replied bluntly.

I followed the inspector down the train, on my way back to my parents.
“Tickets!” the man called to a mother and her young child sitting together counting cows out of the window.
The mother hunted everywhere for her ticket, while the daughter found one with relative ease, screwed up in her pocket with other rubbish deemed important to five-year olds
“You need to leave at the next station.” The man spoke kindly to the woman.
“We'll be ready” The woman replied.
“Your daughter gets to stay. She has a ticket.” The man explained, something sympathetic and at the same time, serious in his tone.  “Station approaching”
“I can't leave my daughter. Can I buy a ticket?”
“I'm sorry, you have to move on.” The man placed his hand briefly on her shoulder.

As they walked on back down the carriage towards my parents, I was surprised so many people didn't have tickets
“Station approaching.” The ticket inspector stopped at the end of the carriage.
“What about my parents?” I protested “They're in the cargo hold”
“No one travels in the cargo carriage,” the man replied in a very matter-of-fact tone.

The train screech to a halt, throwing me forwards to my knees. Surprisingly, very few other people noticed the rapid deceleration of the train.
Outside, everything was a bright yellow light, I had to shield my eyes as I looked out, trying to find any signs of a platform but I couldn't find anything. Three passengers stood up, all of them had been unable to produce tickets earlier, and they each calmly left the train, disappearing into the light.
“Where are they going?” I asked. “What's going to happen to them?”
“They are moving on,” the ticket inspector explained.

I stood and watched the station filled with light and then it dawned on me.
“The accident!” I groaned and lifted my hand to my head as I remembered “We caused the accident. All these people are dying and it’s all our fault”
“Ticket please, Sonny.”
“My parents have it,” I snapped, feeling frustrated and confused. Had my father's lapse in concentration caused an accident and all these people had been involved?
“Where exactly are we going?” I persisted.
“To our destination,” the man explained, unhelpfully.
“Unless you go towards the light,” I groaned “Those people, we killed them”
“Ticket please,” the man said.
“My parents have it. I'll go get it”
“Your parents are holding you back.” The inspector grabbed my arm, holding me still for a moment. “Don't let them ruin this for you”
“OK.” I frowned.
“Only three more stops left until our destination.” The inspector raised his eyebrows at me and then released my arm.

I glanced outside, fields were whizzing by once again as the train continued on its destination. I crossed back over into my parent's cargo carriage.
“Thank goodness,” Dad hurried over to me “We've been so worried about you”
“I was only looking for seats in the next carriage.”
“I'm glad you're back, we were getting worried” Mum called.
“Why didn't you look for me?” I asked. Was I the only one who thought this whole thing was odd?
“Did you find any seats honey?” Mum called, still hugging my sisters as though she would never let them go.
“No. The Inspector said there were plenty if we showed him our tickets.”
“Do you have a ticket, Will?” Dad asked.
“No” I replied, frowning “Do you have a ticket?”
“Ask your mother” Dad replied.
“Mum?” I turned to the woman.
“I have them somewhere.” Mum began emptying her handbag. She carried so much stuff in it. She struggled to find anything.
“Mum, Dad, I think we had an accident. I think we hit the train and now we're in some kind of limbo. I think we're in this coach because we weren't on the train, the real train. People are dying and then they don't have tickets so they have to leave the train.”
I paused and waited for my parents to react to my ludicrous idea, but my Dad just made a "hmm sound".
“Found one,” Mum called, finally finding a single ticket in her now empty bag.
“Where are the others?”
Mum continued looking, unmoved by my comments.
“What do you think Dad?”
“Whatever you say, Will”
I looked at the one ticket and frowned so much it hurt. Only one ticket? The inspector had said about my parents holding me back. Was this what he meant? As silly as it all seemed, I was beginning to work it out. The ticket was mine, but if I didn't have it on me when the train reached its destination, I would count as having no ticket. Would that mean I didn't get to live? Did that mean my family didn't get to live? Was that what he meant by my family holding me back?
“I think you need to get off at the next station. I think that ticket is mine and you have to pass over.”
I may have believed it, but I didn't want it to be true. I didn't want my family to die, but I didn't want to be stuck in limbo with them, forever sitting in the cargo carriage of an old train.
“Why do you think the ticket is yours, Will?” Dad called. “It could be your mother's, she's the one who has it”
“True.” I shrugged “Then the rest of us need to leave so she can live.”
“No, we all have to stay together,” Mum ordered “No one is getting off the train until I find all the tickets”
“Don't worry, Will, we all have tickets.” Dad smiled comfortingly “You know your mum's bag swallows things. So many pockets.”
I sighed. Maybe I was over thinking things.
“I'll go back and ask about seats.” I decided I needed to talk to the Inspector some more.
“Please stay with us,” Mum called “We can all stay together.”
“I won’t be long.” I turned, why my parents weren't doing anything about our strange train journey.

I looked around for the inspector and found him at the far end of the carriage.
“Excuse me.” I headed down towards him.
“Not another word until you show me your ticket,” the inspector called back.
“I found it. It was in my mum's bag.” I smiled confidently. “Can you tell me what you meant about my family holding me back?”
“You see that lady there?” The inspector pointed to the lady I had seen earlier with her young daughter. I nodded, remembering all the bits the girl had found in her pocket.
“She doesn't have a ticket, but her daughter does. She needs to get off the train, and her daughter gets to stay”
“So if she doesn't leave the train, the girl doesn't get to leave the train at the destination. So, what happens when the train reaches the destination?”
“The girl will be unable to move on. They will stay on the train.” The inspector shrugged
“Forever?” I gasped
“Station approaching,” the inspector announced, and pulled on the long silver chain. I stumbled backwards as the train came to a standstill.
“Are they dying?” I muttered as two people left the train, stepping without hesitating into the blinding light.
“They are moving on,” the man replied. “Only two more stops to go.”
“So my parents need to leave the train before the destination, is that what you've been trying to tell me?”
“All I've been saying, Sonny, is tickets please.”
I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. Was an eternity in limbo better than losing my family? I walked down towards the mother and child.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Can I ask a question please?”
“Of course,” The mother replied.
“Did you know that you have to leave the train for her to live?”
“All I know is I can't leave her,” the woman replied. “I would rather spend an eternity on the train than be parted from my child.”
“But you'd be keeping her on the train. Is that better than allowing her to live?”
“I don't want to leave my little girl. How could I?”
“Isn't it better to let her have a future?” I was trying to understand my parent's feelings “You're denying her a life of her own”
The woman looked down and sighed, I realised she was starting to cry.
“I'm sorry, please don’t cry!” I gasped.
“You're right.” She sobbed, putting her arm around the girl to give her a quick hug. “I have to leave the train for her move on”
I paused for a moment. I knew I had to face my family before the train reached its destination.

My parents were delighted to see me return, greeting me with big hugs like I had been gone forever.
“We found them.” My youngest sister waved a ticket in my face.
 “Great.” I grinned, I didn't have to lose my family after all. “That's fantastic. Where's my ticket?”
I longed to actually hold it and show it to the inspector. “We can get some proper seats”
“I don’t have your ticket honey,” Mum explained. “It seems I was wrong. I only had mine”
“Seems we all had our own.” Dad laughed as though the lost tickets were highly amusing.
“Wait!” I gasped, pushing away from my mum “That means I don't have one.”
If I was the only one without a ticket, it meant I had been wrong the whole time. It wasn't my family stopping me from living, it was me stopping them. I had to leave the train so they could live. The ticket inspector had been telling me the whole time.
“I'm the only one without a ticket,” I explained “I have to leave the train”
“No!” Mum grabbed my arm in the same place as the inspector “You aren't going anywhere. We're all going to stay here together”
“I can't.” I pulled away. As wonderful as staying with my family sounded, I couldn't deny them a future. My sisters had their whole lives ahead of them. “I know what I have to do.”
“No Will,” Mum begged. “Stay with me.”
“I can't.” I hugged my mum tightly and for the last time, sobbing into her shoulder. “I love you but I have to do this.”
“Oh Will, I love you too.” Mum gripped me so tightly.
“I love you guys.” I hugged my sisters next. I grinned through my tears as I thought I would actually miss them “Even if you are the most annoying sisters going.”
“It’s her fault,” the older one whispered in my ear.
“Only because she started it,” the other one added.
“Promise me you'll try to be nicer to each other when I'm gone."
“For you!” the girls replied, hugging each other as I left them.
“I don't think we brought anything with us,” I told my dad, unsure whether I should hug him. We hadn't cuddled since my twelfth birthday.
“You know you don't have to go.” Dad held out his hand to shake mine.
“I have to.” I shrugged dismally, shaking my father's hand “But I don't want to.”
“Oh come here.” Dad pulled me into him and hugged me like never before.
“I love you, Dad,” I muttered.

I couldn't stop crying as I made my final goodbyes, they wanted me to stay but I couldn't do it to them; I couldn't condemn them to an eternity on the train for my sake. I wondered if they would remember these final moments after the train reached its destination, then I turned and walked away without looking over my shoulder. It was unbearably hard to walk away from them, if I looked back I would change my mind and then I would ruin their lives forever. 

The Inspector was waiting for me as I stepped back onto the passenger carriage.
“Ticket please," the man called instantly.
“I don't have one” I confessed.
“I knew it!” The inspector chuckled. “Station coming right up”
I inhaled and nodded as the inspector reached for the chain. I clung onto the rail as the train came to a stop and I looked out at the light.
“Will it hurt?” I hesitated.
“Yes” The inspector nodded. “But only for a while”
I nodded and drew in a deep breath, finding no comfort in the man's words.
 “Together,” a voice stammered behind me and a hand slipped into mine. It was the mother who I had convinced to leave her daughter. I gripped tightly and we both stepped into light.

The light was warm and peaceful as it enveloped me, the woman melted away from my side into the brightness. I leant back and relaxed, thinking it hadn't been too bad. Then came a whooshing pop and the calm was gone. The inspector was right, everywhere hurt, a tight pressure seemed to stop my body from moving. It was noisy, beeping, voices and scraping all around me. I curiously opened my eyes and looked at a blurry world of flashing lights and an overcast night sky.
“Hello.” A woman in a green uniform appeared in my line of sight “Don't worry, you're going to be fine.”
I frowned, I tried to talk but only managed a groan. I closed my tired eyes and thought about the train and the passengers on it; unaware they were in fact journeying to the afterlife.  That was the destination; death. The light was life. I had chosen to live, I hadn't let my family hold me back and keep me on the train. But I knew there was still hope for my family. There was one stop left on the limbo train's journey. They could decide to leave, if they wanted to, couldn't they? The inspector hadn't seen their tickets and they had been so keen for everyone to stay together, they might follow me. They might... they just might...!

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