One Foot on the Platform
Eric dragged his bags down the station steps, the echoes of his row with Ginny still ringing in his ears.
‘You’re a good for nothing bastard, Eric. You don’t even put your children first. Surely you of all people should know better. But, no. Like father, like son, Eric, like father, like son. If you go this time, don’t bother coming back.’
Why couldn’t she see that he was doing it for them? For Ginny, Pete and little Joanie? One more time just to get them back on their feet again.
‘Got a light, mister?’
His thoughts were interrupted by a gravelly, 40-a-day voice from behind him. He turned to see a bleached blonde, who wouldn’t look out of place as the dame in a gangster movie, staring at him, cigarette held aloft.
He pulled a book of matches out of his pocket and struck one, the end igniting in a blaze. Holding it out to the awaiting cigarette, he caught sight of the logo on the front of the book. A sudden memory of his father flew into his mind, and with it came the fear that flooded the juvenile Eric every time his father came home.
Eric was three years old, stretched out on the floor of their wooden cabin, playing with the only toy he ever had: a wind-up tin train, its red paint chipped and scratched. He’d spend hours sending it around the kitchen, his mother telling him to, ‘Get off that floor before you wear the knees out of those jeans I spent hours makin’ for you.’
The door crashed open, hitting the wall and knocking back into his father, who swore loudly and punched it open again, before stumbling over the threshold, his eyes sweeping around the room. Eric picked up his train and scurried beneath the kitchen table, holding his breath in the hope that his father hadn’t seen him.
His mother wiped her hands on her apron as she pushed a chair under the table, making sure Eric was hidden. She watched, with narrowed eyes, Eric’s father collapse into his sagging armchair.
‘Bring me a whisky, bitch.’
‘We aint got no whisky, Frank. We aint got no beer. No wine. No fancy champagne from France. We aint even got no food.’
Frank belched loudly and closed his eyes.
Eric’s mother kicked the side of Frank’s chair. ‘You hear me, Frank? We aint got no food. No food for little Eric.’
Frank began to snore and her voice rose. ‘You happy, Frank? You happy you drunk the money for food? You happy you gambled our money in that godamn joint? What sort of man does that? A son of a bitch, that’s what sort of man.’
Registering the insults, Frank’s eyes opened. ‘You shut your mouth, bitch. Or I’ll make you shut your mouth.’
Eric clutched his train; fervently praying that his father would fall asleep again or, even better, storm out of the house.
‘For the last time, you stupid moron, it’s Joan. JOAN! Don’t you ever dare call me bitch again.’
Frank slowly rose from his chair and grabbed a handful of Joan’s hair, wrapping it tightly around his hand and pulling her towards him. ‘Well, what you gonna do about it,’ he leant in and whispered into her ear, ‘bitch?’
Without letting go of her hair, he brought his other hand back and slapped Joan hard across the face, a splash of blood flying through the air from Joan’s nose to land on the floor next to the table. Eric stared at it, horrified.
‘BITCH!’ screamed Frank, hitting Joan again.
Under the table, Eric squeezed his eyes shut, winding up his train and humming the words to the song that his mother had taught him, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’ Trying to block out the sound of his father’s roars and his mother’s cries, Eric’s voice became louder and louder until he was screaming out the words.
‘Jesus, what is wrong with that goddam kid?’ yelled Frank, releasing Joan’s hair, letting her fall to the ground. He scanned the room before seeing Eric crouched under the table. ‘I’ll shut the bastard up if you can’t.’
Frank kicked away the chair that Eric thought would protect him. Still howling his song, his voice harsh and his throat raw, Eric opened his eyes and thrust his train onto the floor where it sped towards Frank as he stepped forward to hoist Eric out from under the table. Frank’s foot came down on top of the train, and he was swept off his feet, his legs scissoring comically as he tried to regain his balance. He cried out in pain, his head hitting the floor with a thud and one leg twisting awkwardly beneath him.
Frank’s whimpers became a deathly final gurgle. Eric stopped singing abruptly and a still silence descended upon the cramped cabin.
Joan looked up from her prone position on the floor. ‘Please, Jesus, let it be over.’ She pulled herself to her knees and prodded Frank gently with her finger, before more confidently shaking his shoulder. Frank didn’t react.
‘Come here, baby, it’s over,’ she said, pulling Eric onto her lap and cradling him in her arms. ‘It’s over.’
Eric was transported back into the present by the screech of a train as it pulled into the station, its brakes working overtime. The door nearest him flew open with a crash and several passengers alighted.
He automatically lifted his foot onto the train, taking hold of the handle to pull himself aboard before stopping abruptly, looking again at the logo on the matches.
‘You getting on that train or not, mister?’ came the dame’s hoarse voice.
‘No. No, I’m not,’ said Eric, throwing the match book onto the ground. It wasn’t going to be the ruin of him. He wasn’t his father. He turned towards the exit, starting to run at the thought of seeing Ginny, Pete and Joanie. His family.
The train began to pull out of the station, the air churning as it picked up speed. The match book soared with the wind, its logo spinning back and forth. House of the Rising Sun. House of the Rising Sun.