Aiden woke up on the floor of a toilet cubicle in Marylebone station. His body was curled up, foetal-like, against the cold metal of the bowl. His head pulsed at the temples, his skin warm and clammy. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. He blinked wearily, taking in his new surroundings, and then steadied himself to his feet. In the adjacent cubicle, he heard the jangling of a belt, the closing of a zip, a toilet flush. Aiden waited for the person to leave, not wanting to draw any particular attention to himself.
When things had gone quiet, he opened the cubicle door and stepped out into the bathroom. The tiles beneath his bare feet were gritty and cold and he stepped over the pools of water with caution and through the turnstile to exit.
He found a homeless man lying beneath a threadbare sleeping bag in the corner of the vestibule area. There were flattened cardboard boxes below him and carrier bags of food heaped into a pile beside his head. In one of the bags, Aiden saw a pair of boots, and after noting that the sleeping man already had a pair on his feet, saw an opportune moment to borrow them. He would try to bring them back when he was done.
It was always the lack of shoes that made people stare. Aiden often noticed them, watching from the corner of their eyes, double taking over their shoulders as they passed. Borrowing the boots would enable him to blend in.
He picked up the bag and took them into the main part of the station where he slipped them onto his feet. They were brown, round-toe boots with slightly frayed gold laces, but apart from being slightly scuffed around the front, were in reasonably good condition. They felt loose as he tried to walk, but would certainly go more unnoticed than his bare feet.
His shoes never travelled with him. Anything that was grounded, always stayed behind. For most interlopers it was shoes, but if you travelled whilst sitting down, your trousers or skirt would be left behind too. The same would be true of gloves, he supposed, if you happened to be wearing them whilst balancing on your hands. There wasn’t always enough time to plan these things though.
With his shoe laces tightened, he ventured further into the station, into the hissing and the screeching of the trains on the tracks, the hustle and bustle of the passengers, the shops and the stalls and the footsteps and the voices, the echoes of the announcements around the arches of this remarkable building. He was looking for a woman: Rose Carter, aged 34. British. She was the daughter of Eric Carter,aged 50. Also British. Deceased.
Aiden felt like he knew Rose already. Eric talked about her in such detail and with such precision, it would feel strange to eventually meet her and not reveal the myriad of things he already knew. Such as how her front tooth wasn’t real, the original having been knocked out when she fell off a gymnastics vault aged 15; or how she loved the satisfying sound of shards of glass being sucked into the vacuum cleaner; or how she chose the blind puppy out of the shelter’s litter at aged nine, because she couldn’t bear the thought of nobody else taking him home.
He looked at the time on the departure board. It read 15:04. Rose’s train was in eleven minutes. She was due to arrive through the side entrance, next to the pub on Harwood Avenue, so Aiden positioned himself on one of the benches outside the French patisserie and waited.
He only had one chance at this, there was only ever one chance, and these journeys were never guaranteed to work. In a busy setting, he was limited to the actions he could take and the rules dictated that he mustn’t interfere with the path of anybody else. He couldn’t cause any sort of disturbance or involve another human being.
At 15:06, he saw her, walking quickly through the crowds, pulling a suitcase in one hand and clasping a hot drink in the other. She was rushing towards the platform, clutching her train tickets between pursed lips. His heart beat wildly beneath his chest, a wave of emotion rushing over his whole body. There was so much at stake.
Rose was as lovely as her father had described; a tall woman with a full, round face of olive skin. Her eyes were deep and dark, round black irises that stared out beneath a long, thick mane of hair. Her father had pleaded with Aiden to watch her carefully, study her for as long as possible, take note of every detail of his adult daughter, so that he could absorb it all vicariously through Aiden’s words when he returned. There was only so much the deceased could see for themselves.
But there wasn’t time for Aiden to drink everything in. There were only seven minutes before the train was due to depart and Rose was moving quickly towards the gate. He stood up, before she had time to pass, and marched with blind determination directly across the concourse. His shoulder slammed into her, knocking the hot coffee over both of them and sending the cup rolling into the crowd, between the feet of busy passers-by.
“Oh, Christ!” she cried out. “I’m so sorry!”
The tickets tumbled from her lips and she bent down to gather them, cursing under her breath. He took in as much as he could; all the little things, the precious things, the things that her father couldn’t know: her nails bitten to the quick, the multiple pierced holes in her ears, the swirling doodles on the back of her hand. Her voice, breathy and soft, revealing only the faintest trace of where she grew up, in the rhoticism of certain words.
“It’s my fault, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” Aiden said, wiping the back of his hand on his trousers.
“No, really. I was rushing. I should have looked.” She rummaged in the handbag over her shoulder. “Ach. I thought I had a tissue.”
She darted towards the tables outside the patisserie and snatched up a handful of napkins. Running back towards Aiden, she handed them to him, before clutching the handle of her case and attempting to leave.
“Here, let me clean that for you,” Aiden said.
He bent down to wipe the coffee off the front of her case, gripping the plastic firmly in his hands so that she couldn’t easily pull it away.
“It’s fine, really.” She pulled the case towards her, apologising over her shoulder as she left.
“Let me buy you another coffee at least,” he begged.
She was slipping away. He was running out of time.
“I’m sorry, but I’m so late for my train, I’ve got to go.”
Rose quickened her pace, running with speed towards the ticket barrier, her hair and her coat flapping wildly behind her. Aiden followed, trying to match her speed, whilst dodging the people and the cases that slalomed in front.
“Rose, wait!” he called out. He shouldn’t have said her name, but he panicked. Rose looked behind her, a confused and furrowed look drawing in on her face. But all the while, she kept on moving.
When she reached the barrier, Aiden was right behind her. She fumbled at the gate, trying to slot her ticket into the machine.
“Stop following me!” she yelled, those black eyes looking furious now.
“I’m sorry, Rose. I didn’t mean to upset you, I - ”
“Who are you? How do you know my name? Ach, for Christ’s sake!”
Her ticket wasn’t being accepted through the barrier. She tried again and again, and each time it reappeared through the slot, the doors remaining firmly closed. She collected her bags up and made her way towards the guard.
“Excuse me, my ticket won’t work,” she said.
“Rose, please –“
“Leave me alone!”
Aiden was losing her. As an interloper, you should never become too close or too known. He was ruining this one chance and would probably never be sent amongst the living again but he couldn't return and tell Eric that he'd failed.
The guard waved Rose through the wide-aisle gate, along with a number of other passengers whose tickets didn’t work in the machine. She ran down the length of the station towards her platform and Aiden followed her, futilely, from the other side of the ticket barriers as far as he could go. She gave one last look over her shoulder, one of revulsion and disgust, and he felt instantly ashamed.
“I have a message from your dad!” he called out as she nearly disappeared from view. “From Eric.”
Rose stopped suddenly, allowing the suitcase to bang into the backs of her knees, and Aiden swallowed his words, realising he’d said too much. The controller signalled the train’s imminent departure before the electronic doors of the train beeped to a close. The whistle blew on the platform and the train eased itself away from the terminus. It didn’t matter what he said now, the train had gone and she wasn’t on it. He could leave now, disappear without a trace. He didn’t have to say another word.
And yet, when he looked at her face, those black eyes now wet and inky with tears, he knew he couldn’t just leave. She met him at the gate, her hands clutching the top of the glass barrier between them, and studied the man’s face sceptically.
“You knew my father?” she asked incredulously.
“I did. I do, sort of,” he confessed.
He wanted, desperately, to tell her the truth, but how could he? How could he tell her that she was about to meet the love of her life on that train? Albert Kirkwood, 32, Canadian. They would have gone to New York next year and Albert would have proposed in the Rizzoli Bookstore on Broadway. They’d have been married the year after, on his mother’s ranch in Calgary, and then in the following May she’d have given birth to a daughter, Olivia, a tiny 4lb immeasurable wonder, born five weeks early in the Edinburgh Infirmary. Rose would have held her for no more than a minute, her body literally aching with love, marvelling at her shock of black hair and her wide dark eyes, each tiny finger as magical as the next. And then after those precious sixty seconds, she’d have been whisked away, Rose’s view of her baby shielded by a sea of white coats and blue tunics, with urgent voices and loud machines, bright lights and primal screams – both hers and Albert’s. Rose would never recover from that. The spark in her eyes, the fire in her belly, the rhythm of her beating heart; extinguished, de-railed, broken. Rightly or wrongly, Eric had saved his only power, his one chance to connect with the living, to spare his daughter from all of that. But Aiden couldn’t tell her. No living person could know that it was possible.
So Aiden told her something else. It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was a truth.
“He’s very proud of you,” he said. “He knows about your artwork, the exhibitions and the grant.”
“How do you know that? Have you been following me?”
“No, I haven’t. I promise you. He talks to me, that’s all.” This much was true, and it felt like a plausible way to explain.
“So you’re a psychic or something?”
She laughed in distain, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand, her eyes still wet with tears.
“If you’re a psychic, tell me something only I would know.” She was challenging him now. She didn’t believe him, but she wanted to.
“I know about your gymnastics accident, how you lost your tooth. I know about the blind puppy, and how you turned down a place at Edinburgh to go to art school even though it meant leaving your mother on her own….” He was watching her for a reaction as her eyes bore intensely into his, wild and unblinking.
“He knew you were there right up until the end. He heard your voice and he felt your hand in his. You told him it was okay to let go. You made him feel safe, Rose. He wants you to know that.”
Her eyes were streaming silently now and she swallowed the painful ball lodged in her throat. Aiden felt a sudden rush of nausea wash over his body, his legs weak and jelly-like beneath him. His time was running out.
“I’m sorry to have upset you, Rose. I should go now.”
Aiden turned, away from the gate and away from Rose, and made his way back through the crowd. He needed to find an isolated spot in order to travel back.
“Wait!” she called after him, sobbing now. “Wait! You can’t just go!”
Aiden started to run, feeling weaker by the second, weaving in and out of the crowds. It was Rose’s turn to chase him now, having abandoned her bag at the gate and hurling herself over the top.
Aiden reached the main exit, pushing his way past commuters and leaping over cases. He turned left, and left again, around the back of the building, and onto the nearest side street, where he leant on a set of black railings, each breath becoming more shallow and thinner by the minute.
Rose had followed, frantically calling after him, tears cascading down her face. She fell out of the station and turned the corner onto the quiet residential street, where she thought the man had gone. But the street was empty and he was nowhere to be seen. All she saw was a pair of boots, old and brown, with gold worn-out laces and scuff marks on the toe.
It was always the shoes that got left behind.