The platform was longer than he remembered. And, some four decades on, he was no closer to understanding why the station name should be that of another village. One so small it hardly ever featured on maps. A hamlet really.
A scorching hot day, the track rippling with mirages. Even the songbirds and crickets were quiet. With a perfunctory tap of his cane he turned. At least they haven’t moved the pub he thought. From the outside it all looked familiar. The Broken Arms – beer garden, satellite and wifi. And the bar had moved. Jack thought “I have been away too long. Too much has changed”.
He clattered coins on the bar, turned and, with a little incontinent splash of ale on the carpet, sat down with a crumpled sigh.
Zara knew better than to ask. It was just one of his ‘moods’, one of the times at home when he seemed to withdraw to a different place. Maybe even with a different girl. She often wondered.
“It’s all different” he murmured. “It’s not how I remember it”. She placed her hand ever so gently on his. He looked up for a moment. “I wanted it to be the same”.
“It’s been forty years I’ve been away” he thought “that’s half a lifetime. More to some”.
Even the beer had changed. No longer the yeasty froth of yesteryear. “Bloody chemistry kit now” he said aloud.
“Come again” asked the barmaid, her jade green, almost orange, eyes, all buttons and bows, fancy ties.
“Nothing” said Jack “Nowt. Nowt of ‘owt”. Even the words sounded stupid and untrue in his voice. Pastiche. Phony Yorkshire.
He was a phony Yorkshireman. He knew it and it didn’t fool Zara for one minute.
Jack grew up in Yorkshire or at least he thought he did. His comical absentmindedness, and Zara’s gentle ribbing, had long since given way to dementia. He took tablets for it, when he could remember.
That tickled him. “When I can remember”. Without his noticing, she would count his tablets to be sure none were unaccounted for. It started as a kindness but the years had made it a necessity. Sometimes he muddled one tablet with another. Sometimes he forgot altogether. She could tell those days. He hardly recognised her, withdrawn to his private world.
Mostly she saw him on Thursdays. She did his washing, tidied the kitchen and read from the newspaper when he couldn’t find his glasses. “Down the side of the sofa?” she would ask, enjoying his childish look of surprise when there they were. They were always there. Along with biscuit crumbs, broken biros, postage stamps and torn scraps of paper with phone numbers.
“Penny for your thoughts” Zara would venture.
“They’ve gone up. They start at tuppence now. Inflation, you know” he sometimes replied. She rarely pressed him further. Sometimes he just talked gibberish. Once in awhile he mentioned names. She knew none of them.
Sometimes she would talk to Jack, remind him how they had met, replaying the narrative for him. Like Steinbeck’s Lenny, he never tired of hearing it. He was older than her but somehow, when she told the story, he was younger, stronger and braver. And, the bit he liked best, he was a Yorkshireman. One of the proud sons of God’s Country, as he never tired of calling Yorkshire .
“I come from tough northern stock” he would say, chest puffed with pride. Sometimes she would tease him, remembering the days when they traded one-liners, fast and furious, sharply sparring with each other. Those days were long since gone. He couldn’t think fast enough and she was too kind to hurt him.
He thought it was his idea but actually it was hers – to travel south, to visit the land of his exile one more time. He needed a change of scenery – she knew that. Something to close the gap between reality and his private distant world. Maybe she would find him again in Yorkshire, maybe the hidden places were real and she could share them. Maybe he was in “God’s country”.
Yorkshire belonged in those anguished dreams and false memories that overwhelmed reality as his mind crumbled. Outside of his demented reveries, he was a Kentish man, a man of apples and hops, his landscape punctuated by oast houses, fertile fields of fruit, of tractors and hay bales.
He hadn’t wanted to travel by train. Steam railways were in his blood, in the corners of his dissolving mind. He had no place for diesels. From the fragments of stories long lost in the eddies of time, generations of his family had built locomotives and carriages at the plant works in Doncaster. His grandfather had supped at the Black Bull, down by the marketplace. Supped too much, if truth were told. As his own memories of Kent faded, he replaced them with an imagined Yorkshire childhood.
But there were no more trains. So they travelled by car, ticking off the towns as they passed. They spoke little. Sometimes he slept, slumped forward against the seatbelt. Sometimes he seemed awake, but remote. Occasionally she would catch a tear. Sometimes she thought that the more he wandered, the more she loved him. “Isn’t that what love is” she thought.
He tried to show her some of the places he visited in his mind. The plots, overgrown with thistles and weeds, where his imagined grandparents lay. The bridge where he used to watch the great locomotives of the London North-Eastern Railway pass beneath on their way to Edinburgh. The houses where he had lived, the town fields and their rusting goalposts. They watched kestrels flutter above the motorway, past idle pit heads in Armthorpe and Askern. Where he conjured Rotherham, Barnsley and Sheffield from Ashford, Canterbury and Broadstairs, she could not follow.
Jack’s voice even changed. His accent drifted north with him. She hadn’t seen him smile in months as his decline had accelerated. But here, he positively beamed. At first. Gradually it became too much. His mind, filled with memories of a Yorkshire childhood, both real and imagined, confused him. Jack thought “I have been away too long. Too much has changed”.
Zara would take him each day to the Broken Arms where he would nurse a pint, maybe a sandwich to eat. The pub took him in, frail, distant and warm. Regulars listened to his incoherent ramblings about Yorkshire. Zara often left him snoozing in the sunlight. He talked about being “called home” as he put it.
It was a Tuesday when he died, quietly unnoticed by the fireside. No fuss or bother, his hand clenched around the price of his pint. Although in Kent, he was always now in Yorkshire.
Zara could hear him mouths the words – In. God’s. Country.