I am waiting outside Botanic Station. I had been in Bangor earlier, playing some music for a charity event in a bar near the seafront. It was hosted by a TV sports journalist with a face made for Widescreen; it was, unexpectedly, even flatter and broader in the flesh than it looked on the news. I thought you were supposed to look bigger on the telly, not the other way round. He was very friendly and professional. I did my bit, got paid, and cleared off. Despite the offer of free pints, there would be no drinking for me – my wife and I had made plans for the afternoon, and soon she would be coming to lift me in the car.
It is busy outside the station, with ones going into the hairdressers and cafés, students getting carryouts from the off-licence, and music-lovers going into the second-hand record store over the road. I love that shop; it has a great selection of vinyl LPs and cassettes as well as CDs, and it’s not too pricey. Next door is a brilliant place that has an array of mops, clothes-pegs on cardboard, buckets, rubber washing-up gloves in packets, step ladders, laundry baskets, and all manner of other useful stuff, suspended and stacked around the door. The entrance entices with promises of an Aladdin’s Cave of plastic goods inside. I vow to go in and explore when I have a minute.
Her timing is not great today, and I’ve been standing here much longer than intended; long enough, as it happens, to have been singled out. As soon as I see him I know I’m in trouble. He is making a beeline for me, shuffling steadily up the pavement from my right. He knows I have seen him; that all-important eye contact has been made. He is wearing a green and brown tweed jacket and black trousers. The clothes are well-worn, but not particularly shabby. He’s in his late fifties, I reckon. He has sparse ginger hair and a short, foxy beard. His face is peppered with olive-coloured freckles and small red blotches; his nose is pimply. The cap of a bottle peeks indiscreetly out of his bottom jacket pocket; the flat-edged outline suggests that it is a half-bottle of Buckfast. His opening gambit is simple: Were you on the Bangor train? He knows I was; he watched me come out of the station. His voice is soft and he is well-spoken; it sounds like he took elocution lessons many years ago. The smell of drink off him is rotten.
He proceeds to tell me about a place he loves to go to on the train. He is very knowledgeable and civil, but I have no interest in his story, and the way he repeats everything several times is really annoying. I scan the road for the car surreptitiously; I don’t want to provoke a scene. I sense that he is building up to something, and in my mind I will my lift to appear, as if by thinking hard enough I can make it materialise. She is very late. In a moment of paranoia I imagine her parked up out of my sight, watching and giggling at my predicament. I glance round nervously. Realising that he is losing me, he asks what is in the box at my feet. I tell him briefly that I have been playing the concertina in Bangor. Just as I am explaining that I am waiting for my wife to come and collect me, she arrives at the kerb. Relieved, I politely bid him goodbye. As I go to move past him he looks at me accusingly: this is what he’s been waiting for. Eyes wide for effect, he slowly enunciates: My wife died.
In the car, she asks what was going on; laughs when I tell her. His face haunts me.