I stand hugging my light sweater around me on Platform 6 at Maidenhead Station. On the opposite side of the rails, men in dark suits and women in crisp blouses and skirts move up the stairs in waves and spill onto Platform 4 to await the train to Paddington. On this side of the rails there are only the four of us: the elderly couple sitting on one of the curving, wrought iron benches, the tall man, and me. A gust of wind brings fat drops of rain and the commuters on the other side draw back in unison.
I settle myself on a bench and look at the clock. The train isnt due for another five minutes. I pull my notebook and pen from my bag and begin writing. I hear a distant rumble that becomes a roar and look up to see the train to Paddington. It pauses to swallow up the dark suits and the crisp blouses and skirts. The cars pull away, revealing a handful of commuters who had presumably rushed up the stairs to closing doors and who now watched the departing train with resignation before drawing back under cover to flick open their newspapers. When I look up again six minutes have passed and the rain is falling steady and silent. I set down my pen and blow into my cupped hands. The tall man has not left his spot on the edge of the platform.
A chime sounds and an announcement that sounds like a recording tells us that the 9:15 to Oxford has been regrettably delayed. The elderly couple grouse briefly, then turn their attention back to their matching guidebooks. The tall man stands with his long arms hanging straight down, fists clenched, as if he were gripping barbells. He is soaked through now, his brown and gray hair flat to his skull, his sweater drooping. I want to go to him, pull him under the shelter like one would do to a small child.
I give him a name. Ralph. I write a scene between Ralph and me into my notebook. As chance has it, we are both on our way to Oxford. Both visiting old friends. Ralph has a past he doesnt want to talk about. I scrawl the word pathetic at the bottom of the page and circle it and circle it.
I spot the single headlight of the train, shining dimly through the gray rain. The elderly couple also rises. The platform shudders as the train approaches and slows to a stop. Another gentle chime, this time from the train itself, and the doors whoosh open. Ralph steps in and I follow behind him into the warmth and light of the car.
He has chosen a seat farther down the aisle. Within minutes, downtown Maidenhead gives way to the countryside and the meandering Thames River on my right.
I purchase a cup of tea in the club car and carry it back to my seat. Sunlight breaks through the clouds and shines through the window directly on the back of Ralphs bowed head, creating from his bald spot a halo. What would I say to him? How would I introduce myself?
The Thames widens and narrows as we move along. At times I cannot see it at all. At Didcot Parkway, Ralph suddenly rises and exits the train. I watch him step onto the platform, looking around as if hes not quite sure what to do next.
Quickly, I gather up my bag. Just as I rise from my seat, I see a woman approach him. She has long, blonde hair that blows behind her in ropes. She raises her arms to embrace him. He sinks into her. The chime sounds and I fall back into my seat. The train lurches, then accelerates out of the station. The elderly man is asking me a question. Something about Windsor Castle. I turn in my seat to watch the couple on the platform. They stand holding each other for as long as I can see them, probably longer.