Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

What I Feel

Michael Amherst

I didn’t actually see the woman going under the train. It was my wife – who saw; who screamed out; who made a grab for my arm and made me watch. It was all over very quickly, not like I might have imagined. The train didn’t slow or shudder, but just ploughed relentlessly along the tracks. There was no splatter of blood or crunching of bone. You could hear nothing over the scream of brakes and the grind of metal against metal. The train cared nothing for the woman, as it stopped at the platform edge so that everyone could get on and everyone could get off. Or they would have done had there not been a body on the tracks.

I go to the same station every day and have done for six years – ever since I moved to the area and began commuting to work in the city. The fields fall away either side of the track and in the distance you can see the banks of rushes that pick out the line of the Severn. I see the same faces lining the edge of the platform, blowing into their gloves in winter and staring up at the sun in summer. You’d have thought that after all this time I might know some of them, nod at them over my coffee as I glance at the information board. But no, we have an understanding, a tacit agreement that we are all faceless. I watch and observe and listen. 

I knew when one woman was looking for a boyfriend, what with her new haircut and shorter skirt. And I knew when she had found her prize because, having always been ten minutes early for the train, she started to get later and later – until I saw her being dropped off in the car park by a man in a blue Golf, whom she’d kiss before running to the platform, her bag slamming against her knees. I knew when a wife had chastised her husband for not doing more to help with the kids, when, after months and months of standing on the station alone, he began turning up with his young son. Yet he continued to stare straight ahead whilst holding his son’s hand, impassive, as though it were the handle of an umbrella.

I know which cities have dynamic new heads of council, determined to change their image, because they plaster the wall of the platform opposite with signs proclaiming that ‘It’s all happening up North!’. I know when the BBC has invested too heavily in a new television drama and is desperate to pull in a large audience, or when a university is struggling to fill all its places for the coming year. I can tell when the economy is booming, by the myriad of adverts for exotic destinations with lavish hotels, and when it’s under strain, thanks to a plethora of billboards for last minute deals. I know all of this, and yet I feel nothing.

And I felt nothing the day that the woman went under the train. People talk about feeling dazed. I didn’t feel dazed. I just didn’t feel anything at all. She must have been standing too close to the edge, I heard myself telling people who came up to check whether I was all right. I don’t know what they imagined could have happened to me. I’d only watched. Watched like the rest of them. Why people feel the need to historicise every little drama that they bear witness to, I have no idea. Constantly reporting it to everyone, as though making a fiction out of it. ‘Did you see?’; ‘I was standing right next to…’; ‘Oh yes, I saw it all…’ It’s not as if they were the person who fell into the path of the oncoming train. It’s not as if they pushed them. Most of them probably didn’t see anything at all.

I thought I would just leave the station like everyone else. Shaking my head and muttering something about it being ‘a waste’ – I don’t want to be excluded from this community, even if I have no comprehension of it.

A woman in a fluorescent jacket with a walkie-talkie ushered people into the car park outside. It was cold and she spoke in clouds of smoke. I went with the flow, through the ticket barriers that had been opened as though for a special occasion. No one pushed or shoved. There seemed to be an invisible ring around me that no one wanted to penetrate. I could make out the shape of the bus and the crocodile of people waiting to get on, but the woman in the fluorescent jacket approached me and touched my elbow. ‘Come this way,’ she said. Her voice was soft yet firm. I didn’t want to, and for a moment considered walking on, but I could feel the people backing up behind me and their imagined impatience suggested I had little choice in the matter.

I sat on a bench by the ticket gates and watched as people shot furtive glances in my direction. A warm mug of coffee was brought, but I didn’t drink from it, instead allowing my eyes to rest upon its surface, spinning to an undefined point in the centre where it had been stirred. The heat fogged my glasses. I took them off and wiped them. I didn’t really need them anyway.

‘The police will be along in a minute,’ the woman said, and for a second I wondered whether they might think that I had pushed her. 

‘Was she – ’

‘My wife? Yes,’ I said. And then again, as though the first time had only been in my head, ‘Yes, she was.’

The woman cocked her head at this and sat down next to me. The bench had a large cushion covered in vinyl and her weight forced the air along it, causing me to bob up and then down again as it was expelled through the gaps in the stitching. She didn’t say anything but just stared at her walkie-talkie, turning in her hands. After a long pause she said, ‘I was married once.’ And I nodded as if I understood.

I had been told that an emergency services team were already there. Down on the tracks. I remembered the pitiful glance she gave me as she lost her balance. I don’t think she believed she’d fall. Her hand was on my jacket and she gave a shriek. I didn’t really know what was happening at first and it felt like a god-awful inconvenience, her grabbing me like that and nearly tearing my sleeve. By the time I understood it was too late. 

I was in my early twenties when this inability to feel first concerned me. My mother had died and I just remember thinking, ‘Well that’s that’. Nothing more. It was a statement of fact. One day she had been there – on the end of the phone and at the other end of a motorway – and then she wasn’t. I consumed it like any other piece of news, flashing up on a television or computer screen. Dismissed almost instantly. 

I was sorry for her when my sister told me how she’d screamed: screamed at the realisation that the cancer was going to win, was going to take her – or maybe it was pain, I don’t know, I didn’t ask. I was sorry that it should have been so difficult. I didn’t cry at the funeral. Didn’t know how to cry as I looked at these people with their tears, hugging one another. ‘It’ll hit you later,’ one well-meaning woman said to me. I smiled and thanked her for coming.

Then there was my previous girlfriend – before my wife, before I got married. We’d lie in bed naked together and I’d look into her eyes and see my solitary reflection drowning in those pools. She’d stroke my face with the back of her hand and I’d smile as she pulled me into her. Yet I felt detached. I didn’t want her to be there, in my bed, in my space. I didn’t want her hands touching my skin, her eyes measuring me up as she timed my thrusts. Her performative moans at a habitual pleasure. Even my cock felt desensitised as though I were penetrating a sock worn over many days. I’d find myself thinking about something else – a report I hadn’t finished for work, or the letter I’d never replied to from my solicitor concerning the final items of my mother’s estate. And I thought that it shouldn’t be like this – this indifference.

So I began to make games for myself, to keep me interested. I’d hold her roughly, fucking her harder, deeper and wondering how long before she said I was hurting her. Once I rested my arm across her neck so she couldn’t quite breathe, and there was fear in her eyes as I gradually brought my weight down upon her windpipe. Afterwards she cuddled up to me and told me that she’d never had it so good and I wanted to hit her because even then, even when the unreal idea of crushing the life out of her had flashed across my mind, it felt like nothing more than an option.

Maybe you imagine it to have been different with my wife, but I assure you it wasn’t. I watched her kiss and lick my flesh as a disinterested bystander. I said ‘well done’ to her once for a lack of anything else to say. She danced around our wedding day and pulled me over to friends and family and I smiled at everyone, convinced that at some point I’d wake up – be roused from this never-ending sleep

My best man, an old friend whose visits and calls were measured out in cup finals, shook me by the hand and I accepted his congratulations as though they were a message meant for someone else. I spoke for a few minutes and because it was brief everyone thought I had been overcome with nerves and emotion. I was told that I spoke movingly, of love and marriage. But in truth it was a perfectly prepared essay – it could have been on God or myth or any other number of abstract things that I’ve never felt or seen but still hope exist. 

And then we moved to what my wife called ‘the family home’. I watched her excitement at the deliveries of new furniture and the triumph she felt after months of negotiations when the kitchen was replaced. We’d sit together for hours of an evening, either in front of the fire or at our local pub, with piles of gardening magazines as we talked gazebos and rose beds. I looked through them with her, trying to share her pleasure and imagining ancient Tudor gardens with Renaissance man and wife pacing the borders and felt that there must be something of this I could enjoy. But it always remained a fiction, a story that played out in my head, and after the many months of landscaping and the glorious party that we threw in the height of summer, I could see nothing but a wealth of leaves and stems bought from a garden centre and spread about a dismal plot round the back of our house. 

Then she began to talk about children. I suppose she was never really happy with me – what with all this wanting. I was never enough for her. But then I never understood or shared any of these things with her. I tried. I tried to see what she saw, feel what she felt and want what she wanted. I played a role and found it very hard to keep up the pretence – I exhausted myself doing so. 

Evidently I couldn’t do it because she began to suspect that I was having an affair. She accused me of being distant and ‘having my head somewhere else’. I got home late and she assumed I was sleeping with someone from work. I didn’t disagree, I couldn’t tell her that I just sat at the station watching the trains go by, drinking hotter and hotter coffee and wondering whether the burning sensation in my throat and stomach would grow into something real. I couldn’t tell her that of course there was no one else and that, far from looking elsewhere, I had accepted the fact that she would do as well as anyone. 

She was a beautiful woman, I had been told so many times. Had she not been I couldn’t have married her: given that this whole thing is a sham, a fabrication for god-knows-who, I have no means of judging what I should want other than the superficial value judgements of other people. So I pitied her because she was beautiful and willing to please, and because I couldn’t deny that whatever there was ‘between us’ was fake; I felt none of it and only pretended, to spare her feelings. 

I believe that I was swimming down into these thoughts when a hand touched my shoulder. I looked up and the policeman and woman stood over me with kindly faces. The coffee that I had held earlier was gone and I wondered whether I’d been sitting there for a long while. I didn’t know what to say and when I tried to speak my voice caught as though against a trapdoor that my thoughts had wedged tight against my mouth. 

It occurred to me that there would be no need to go to work today. Indeed, that doing so might be regarded as odd – unfeeling. I considered this and then hit upon something and asked one of the police officers to call my work and tell them what had happened.

‘I just – I don’t think I could explain it to them, you see.’ 

The woman nodded and I felt triumph in mimicking the behaviour of others so well. After all, it is what you would do, isn’t it? Maybe you would try and call work with a tremor in your voice but you’d have to give up. You would ask someone else to do it. I had worked this out, intuited it.

As his colleague walked over to the phone the policeman began to ask me what had happened. He seemed embarrassed, as though now were not the time, as though I might resent him somehow. I smiled a shallow smile and took a deep breath. I had my story prepared and he had a notebook open, ready to take it down. 

I told him that my wife was in no way reckless and that I assumed she must have lost her balance. That she didn’t call out exactly, it was a small shriek, as if a wasp had been worrying her legs. That when she’d grabbed my sleeve I at first thought she was messing around – I resented her even for upsetting my coffee – and that when I finally realised what was happening it was too late. My hand didn’t reach for her in time. I kept saying this, kept telling it in several different ways. I guessed that I should fixate on a detail and described intimately the feel of her coat, slightly damp from the earlier rain. As I said this I rubbed my hand along my trousers.

They asked if I would like a lift home and at first I didn’t respond. I thought about saying I wanted to stay at the station. Everything around me had fogged into a grey blur: the wet paving outside, the slippery floor made by an army of tramping feet, the newspapers flaccid in the stand opposite. I told them that I’d rather walk and they asked whether I thought that wise. The man, who seemed more inclined to talk about emotions than his female colleague, as though for her to do so would diminish her in rank, insisted that I’d had a most terrible experience and that I was obviously still shocked. I assured him that I would be OK and then left the station.

A few months after the garden was completed I had an overreaching urge to jump all over my wife’s rose bed. It sounds ridiculous I know, and it was ridiculous. That was why I wanted to do it. My wife spent ages tending her roses and my childish delight in doing something not only forbidden, but also so incomprehensibly mindless was irresistible. One evening whilst she was out I stood in the centre of the bed. The roses grew big and tall about me, their heads bobbing at the height of my waist. I leapt up and down and crushed them beneath my feet. Their thorns snagged at my trousers, their stems snapped at the heel of my boot. When she returned I wore a face of mock anxiety. I sat her down and told her that by the time I’d chased away next door’s dog, the damage had already been done. She sighed and got up and then sat down again. I took her by the elbow and led her outside. My hand was trembling and I hated her as she held it because she thought I understood.

As she sat on the sofa, touching her hair as though mending the stems that bled in the darkness outside, I became aware that this act of violence hadn’t been enough. I became convinced that what I needed was some great gesture, a sudden jolt that would push me headlong into the world of sensations that currently washed over me unnoticed. It would need to be something terrible, the sort of act unintelligible to everyone else. Motiveless even. That was when I decided to push her.

I thought of it a few days before. I couldn’t kill her in a manner that seemed premeditated and neither did I wish it to be a savage action, such as coming at her with a knife. In both appearance and execution it had to be accidental. This was to be the key to feeling. For that reason the action itself must remain pure and utterly indifferent. It was a shame that by having conceived of the idea I could not avoid an element of premeditation, but I decided that the method should be allowed to come upon me suddenly and chanced that such a scheme was less likely to arouse suspicion. 

My wife rarely took the train into the city, so when she told me the night before that she intended to go shopping I suspected her of having other plans: a secret boyfriend, or an appointment with a divorce lawyer. But nothing in her disposition the following morning suggested that. She even seemed cheerful. I don’t believe I had any notion that her death was fast approaching, any more than she did. It was only as the passengers for the coming train got off their seats and walked towards the platform edge that I saw how easy it could be. How shocking and yet utterly believable: a bit of horseplay between a young married couple gone wrong, a distracted woman losing her footing in a pair of stilettos.

There are only two tracks at our local station – one into the city and one out. As the commuter train rounded the corner in the distance I leaned in front of my wife as though checking it was coming. Standing back, having satisfied myself, she followed my lead and as she peered forwards I gave her a glancing blow with my elbow, just as one might do when standing too close to someone in a dense crowd. She lost her footing and made a grab for my arm, spilling hot coffee over my briefcase. The train was screaming into the station. Amidst the confusion I reached out for her and could see the look of panic as she felt my extended hand pushing her into the path of the oncoming engine as opposed to pulling her to safety. The wheels thundered against the metal. It was all very quick. In fact, I can hardly be sure that the thud of her body between train and track wasn’t merely the revolving wheels clipping at the gaps in the line.

It was several seconds before I lowered my outstretched hand. Voices shouted all around me, and one man screamed. They all seemed to think I was in shock, and I suppose in a manner I was. But not how they thought. I felt nothing for her or myself. I only wanted them to stop shouting like a chorus of clamouring gulls.