The sleet was worse as he made his way back home to collect his suitcase. Ellen was waiting for him at the door, already dressed in a coat, hat and gloves. “We have to hurry if you want to catch the 12:35 to Southampton, Dad.”
“You’ve checked the schedules?”
“Of course, Dad. The 12:35 has the best connections to Chichester. Otherwise, you’ll have to go via Winchester and change twice.”
Out into the sleet again. “Your brother doesn’t seem very happy these days, does he?” he ventured cautiously.
“I haven’t noticed any change.”
Maybe she was right about that. It was a long time since Owain had been that cheerful little kid that had brought so much sunshine into his life. A long time ago. Where had the time gone?
Rhys felt again the jarring contrast between the man he was now and the young man who had left the ranks one cold morning in 1916 to make himself into someone different. Sometime between that morning and this afternoon, he had become an ageing widower with two teenagers who needed something from him he couldn’t even identify, much less give. He loved them both, but somehow that wasn’t enough. He was failing them. He could sense it – almost taste it – but he didn’t know what to do.
The railway station was damp, dirty, crowded and confused. Today was particularly bad because too many people crowded inside to avoid the cold and sleet. Wet wool, dripping Wellingtons, squalling infants and metallic, unintelligible announcements pressed in around them. Rhys felt an intense, fierce desire to take his daughter in his arms and hold her to him, to tell her out loud that he loved her and was worried about her. But Gladys had abhorred all public displays of affection and trained him to avoid them. The children were her product. Distant and self-possessed, Ellen saw him to the train.
“Now, I’ll ring the phone box on the corner every evening at 9:30 sharp. If I can’t don’t get through, I’ll call again at 10 pm and then 10:30 until we connect. I’ll give you the number of the Sergeant’s Mess when I ring through tonight. Understood.”
“Of course, Dad. I’ll wait there until we’ve had a chance to chat.” Then, with only the barest touch of her cheek on his, she urged him to go aboard. “You’ll want to get a seat. It’s almost two hours to Southampton”.
Dutifully, Rhys climbed aboard. But the train had come in from farther west, and all the seats were already taken. People were sitting on their suitcases in the aisles, and it was near impossible to find a place even to stand.
Rhys fought his way to a window as the train lurched into motion. He shoved it down despite the outraged protest of an elderly woman passenger. He leaned out as the train started to gather speed and waved frantically to his daughter, still standing primly on the platform in her hat and gloves. Ellen waved back calmly and unsmiling, but Rhys felt a terrible, weighty premonition of impending change. He sensed that he had just left his whole life behind. There on that platform was the last 20 years of his life embodied in that seemingly mature young woman who was really only a seventeen-year-old girl – and he was being carried away from it all at increasing speed.
For a moment, he thought he’d made a mistake and wanted to get off the train again, but it was too late. All he could do was close the window and return to his abandoned suitcase in the aisle in a dazed state. Numbed, he sat on it, closed his eyes and surrendered himself to his fate.
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