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Kidsgrove station is so empty it belongs to you; Monday afternoon stretches out in a contented yawn along its train tracks, which disappear into the green blur of the countryside. You count your fags and take a deep breath of fresh air. You light one and wash the first drag down with a mouthful of coffee. For now, you can forget where you’re going back to, and imagine you’re a beatnik. You pull the Jack Kerouac novel out of your satchel and flick to where you stopped last night. You’re bored before the bottom of the page. On the Road was great, but Satori in Paris, which you chose because it’s his shortest book, is a tedious account of him sitting in restaurants correcting the locals’ French. Still, only fifty pages to go.
You’ve already decided you’re not going to Alsager for University. The campus is great, and the staff seemed nice, but as a location it’s too small, a lovely little country village forty miles south of Manchester. That student outside the station made up your mind.
‘Is there much to do around here?’ you asked her.
‘Well, there’s the student union. Or the pub.’
The pub? The only one? They must shag lots to relieve the boredom. You’d have bucked her, and not just because you’re a horny virgin. She was going in the opposite direction to you, or you’d have thought about chatting her up, then bottled out, as usual.
Last night you had the pleasure of a single bed in a stripped room, with a white quilt set and magnolia walls, just waiting for a personality to paint it. The only colour in the room came from the empty wooden bookshelves in the corner. You could make out their unvarnished softwood frame in the dim evening light. You propped Satori in Paris up in the left-hand corner of the top shelf and tried to imagine this was your new home. You wondered how the shelf would fill over the coming year, how you’d change too. Alsager doesn’t seem like the place for that. The population of Alsager is probably smaller than your backwards little Northern Irish town, maybe smaller than your ratty wee shithole estate. Kidsgrove is probably the same; they’re only ten minutes apart on the train – like Ballymena and Antrim. That’s not to be unkind though; you love that here you have the physical space to muddle through your own thoughts.
You’ve just read two pages without taking any of it in. You refold the dog ear two pages back and put Satori in Paris into your bag. Your take-away coffee is cold, but you drink it anyway. You wonder if it’s backwards that you were impressed they sold coffee on the train. You’d love a warm one, but there’s no café or kiosk in this station. You’ve another half hour here until your connecting train to Crewe arrives. You could go explore Kidsgrove, but it would take you outside this little bubble, that feeling that this place is all yours. You want to savour it, because you know you won’t ever be back here.
But you wish you had a spray can or a permanent marker, to write something like, ‘Fergus was here.’ You’re not sure why this urge has grabbed you now; you’ve never so much as graffitied a school desk. The closest you’ve come was when that wanker Rodney wrote ‘Fenians’ on your gate, to advertise to the knuckle dragging bruisers round your estate that here was a house to throw bricks at. You took a permanent market to it and put curls, tails, and crosses on every letter, until the word was squiggly nonsense. You guessed few saw it, until your bedroom window got smashed a week later. No one round the estate has hassled you to your face, yet. You’re wondering if you can make it all the way to university without getting a serious kicking. That’s why you’re going somewhere in England, just to get away from all that green and orange shit. Strange to think you were friends with Rodney when you were little. Then when it came time to go to primary school, you were in the burgundy and blue of St. Louis’ and him and your other friends were in the grey and red of Ballee primary. That was the end of you hanging out, not because you were at different schools, but because of why you were at different schools. Now you take the piss when one of those, ‘wouldn’t it be great if Catholics and Protestants could all get along,’ ads comes on the television. There may be a ceasefire; there may even be proper peace on the horizon, but you’re not taking a chance on it all going to shit again. When your windows got put in you were almost surprised it hadn’t happened before, especially considering how, coming home from your first day at grammar school, in your conspicuous purple Ribena Berry blazer for St. Macnissi’s, (Garron Tower you call it if anyone asks), you were confronted with fresh blue lettering on the side of your house ‘WELCOME TO LOYALIST LANNTARA’. The only catholic house in the estate, nowhere near the entrance, either by foot or by road. Your parents had more sense than to wash it off, and sure hadn’t they put up with red, white, and blue kerbstones right outside the front door for years. Just keep your head down and keep yourself to yourself. That was the attitude that served you best. Even though most of them know your name – how do you forget a name like Fergus? – you always introduce, or reintroduce yourself by your nickname – Dustbin, although it sounds trampy. It was a nickname you were given for all of a day during your first year at Garron Tower, but you leapt on it like it was a twenty pound note lying in the street. Speaking of which, you only have a Bank of Ireland twenty left. You need it for your train ticket in Crewe. You hope they take it or your stranded. It’s so stupid that they think it’s Irish money: Ireland uses the punt. Your twenty says Pound Stirling.
It was Sinead from school who gave you the idea with changing the letters. Someone, she says she knows who, wrote in permanent marker on the post box at the end of her street, “Follow the smell of fishy fanny to number 54 to find slutty wee tramp Sinead Faulkner, who goes behind her mates’ backs and gets fingered by their boyfriends.” She clocked it on the way home from school and hoped to fuck her parents hadn’t seen it.
The oul man behind the counter at the post office gave Sinead a dirty look when she bought the permanent marker. He’d probably watched whoever wrote the message. Sinead told him to fuck off when he told her to stop writing on the post box, even though it was obvious she was obscuring it. The oul man said he’d phone the peelers. Sinead said she’d tell them to fuck off too. The graffiti was still there the last time you walked past it, a spidery set of illegible squiggles.
You look round for a stone. There are a few pebbles lying about but nothing big enough to write with. The whole length of the platform you can’t find any. It’s only when you cross the bridge onto the other side that you find a decent enough stone down at the far end. It’s a nice chunky wee rock, that sits snug between your curled index finger and thumb. The overlapping red brick pattern of the platforms walls would be too difficult to scrape anything on, but your walk revealed the perfect spot; the bridge has flat, freshly painted, cream coloured walls at the steps on either side.
Scoring the three straight lines of an F to start your name, you watch a faint trail of fine powder fall away with each stroke of your stone. Letters with straight lines are the easiest to draw, curvy ones are trickier. Dark grey tracks appear on the wall, as you scrape through the new paint at the old wall underneath. When you’re finished, you draw a heart that looks, funnily enough, like an upside-down ball bag. Maybe that’s where the heart symbol comes from.
You spark up a fag and admire your handiwork, pleased that no one knows you in this village. Your anonymity affords you a clarity of expression that you don’t have back home. Soon this village with know that ‘Fergus Lvs Sinead’ like the sappy bastard you are. Your two Fenian names that don’t belong on lamp posts round your own estate, or on the council chipboard of sealed up houses, where you’ve stopped and puzzled with envy, over semi-familiar names that blend in with their surroundings. Some of them you can put a face to, but that only makes you more jealous.
As you hear your train thunder through the countryside towards your station, you wonder if anyone who hops off will see your message, if they’ll consider it as they pass, maybe even stop for a few seconds, and ask themselves if they know who wrote it. Although they won’t understand the specific reasons surrounding your motivation, putting it out there means you no longer need them to.