Theriac

“theriac – *1:a mixture of many drugs and honey formerly held to be an antidote to poison 2:cure-all”

He rode the rails. Black jacket on. Holstered ticket machine hanging from his shoulder. Crumpled trousers, shiny seat arse, leather shoes cracked across the folds, unpolished since bought over a decade ago. He sweated on this cool September day. And he was in a bad mood.

He filled the carriage, stomping up and down the aisle of the sixteen wheel service train that ran from Newark Castle to Matlock and back. Feeling like he was surfing the iron wave in perpetuity. Sweating. His belly couldn’t help but free itself from the front of his grey shirt. It hung like a water balloon over the top of his trousers. Fingers mashed at the ticket machine in irritated servitude.
“Thank you, sir.”

His face was wet grey parchment, dripping at the edges, ashen and close to the end of its use. The message in the folds was Heart Attack. It bothered me in the way the horror of another human in pain reminds us all of how near we are to the same fate. All the jolting movement, the lack of air, too many railway buffet crisps; end of the line never coming soon enough at the end of a tough summer. Late hours, and rising blood pressure arguing with passengers about the price of a return to Nottingham. He’d go home tonight, eat a big meal, hang up the holsters and reach for the local pub, trying not to lurch with the days movement along the pavement. Maybe that’s what gets him through: weaving his way into a stupor, sated, and forgetting the party of schoolkids who threw things at the back of his sweating head all the way from Matlock Bath to Derby.

Outside Duffield station an old Railway enthusiast stood to attention and gave, what looked to me, a kind of Nazi salute to our driver from the outside of his neatly kept garden shed. We were on time. Clanking along through the overgrown embankments and the graffiti. Some things could be relied on. Still no excuse for being disorderly, even in retirement. Neatness and order. Cup of tea stirred clockwise at ten o’clock prompt before the north-bound train came past. Still getting out of the house in a shirt and tie and finding good reason for it. Still feeling useful.

The rain started as I left the station, forcing a worker from the massage parlour opposite on a fag break to stand in the leopard-print lined entrance in her stockings and blow the smoke through the wide open door. Even from the other side of the road I could see the track marks on her forearms. A taxi pulled up and a middle-aged businessman hastily exited onto the pavement and inside with his head down. Briefcase held tightly. Behind me, an Irish lady had started to recite the begging mantra she’d said a thousand times: “Got any spare change for a sandwich?”. I had, and I’d just eaten a sandwich. But she didn’t want a sandwich, not really. I hadn’t wanted mine either, but I’d eaten it. We were both fools.

By the war memorial two men lolled drunkenly against the Names of The Glorious Dead and tossed another empty can onto the polished limestone. Dirty blankets defined the limit of their personal space and the limit of all that was dear. They sang slowly and carefully in Polish. It sounded like a respectful dirge for the hundreds of names carved into the marble behind them.

I bought a bottle of pepsi from a corner shop, not realising it was out of date until I used it to wash down the prescription meds. Then on to the Clinical Psychology Department of the city hospital. Sitting in a circle with everyone else, all trying to find our own cure-all.