“Do you know they are talking about digging a tunnel?”
She had not realised she had been asleep. Monica straightened her back against the hard seat. Outside, fields and farms flashed by, green upon green. Rows of pea pods and onions shone in the heat. “What did you say?”
“A tunnel between England and France. Maggie met Mitterand.”
The train trundled on, and a parallel line of panic arrowed across Monica’s belly. For forty years the world had been ordered in a certain way, with water and sea in their place, checkpoints and a wall in Germany. She didn’t like this talk of tunnels. The thought of one country bleeding into another unnerved her.
Earlier that week she had tried again to persuade Rachel to stay or, at least, choose somewhere else. “Why does it have to be France?” she asked, the words falling hard as pebbles as Rachel leaned over the list of host families sent by the language college. “You know they don’t like us.” Don’t be ridiculous, Mum, rolled Rachel’s eyes. When there was an article in the paper about the disappearance of a tourist in Normandy, Monica snipped it out and put it inside Rachel’s text book. She found it in the bin when she retrieved the vegetable peelings the following day.
Then, as the departure date loomed, Monica resorted to sulks and silence, the old weapons. It was easier than trying to find the words. When Rachel talked brightly about the food she would try and the choice of restaurants in Paris, Monica turned towards the television and ignored her. A slightly drunk, well-spoken man was cooking outdoors, in a vineyard in Spain. These programs, with their extravagance and wasted food, fascinated her. Monica turned up the volume and nodded pointedly at the screen. Why don’t you want to learn Spanish instead?
They had docked at Calais just after noon and caught the overland train into Gare du Nord. Rachel found them a quiet carriage away from the inter-railers and they sat next to each other as the train shuddered and pushed through the countryside. Rachel’s suitcase rattled in the rack overhead; she had spent the last week packing and repacking. As the south of England boiled and the clouds gathered together like black coral, Rachel washed her skirts and vests. “I can go on my own,” she had offered, not really meaning it, but the thought of watching her child slide away from her on a train had sent splinters into Monica’s heart.
They’d been travelling for two hours when the train pulled into a little station, just north of Paris. Hanging baskets crammed with yellow flowers swayed as the train eased by and Monica leaned her head against the dirty glass. She thought she could smell oats and raw potato, though they hadn’t packed food and hadn’t eaten since the ferry. Monica sniffed. She must have been mistaken; the breeze held only the tang of fuel and hot metal. But then a yellow petal drifted by the window and Monica remembered a dandelion, forty years old.
That dandelion. A flash of stubborn yellow in a dark box of space. It had promised sunshine but had tasted sour.
“Do you think I’ll like them?” Rachel asked again, bringing her mother back. She held her notepad and was tracing the language college’s address. “I’ve heard that host families can treat boarders like servants.”
“Then you’ll just have to come home,” Monica said, without looking round. I hope they’re horrible to you.
But they probably wouldn’t be. Rachel had been cautious in her selections and refused the first two families the college had suggested. “Children too young,” she’d said about the first. “I’ll become their babysitter.” She rejected the second family because the father was too young; she’d muttered something about needing a lock on her bedroom door. At a loss as to where this sudden assertiveness had come from, Monica had said nothing. Her daughter’s suspicion, though, she could understand.
A guard looked in and punched their tickets. Monica looked at the purple stubs in her palm, resenting again that such small pieces of paper cost so much. Rachel had been saving and the college paid for half her fare – but Monica’s decision to join her daughter had been sudden. She had paused when the travel agent totted up the cost, hating the assistant’s bright red lipstick and blue eyeshadow. You look like a clown, you know that? But Monica had sighed, said nothing, and resentfully counted out her pound notes.
The guard left and then another passenger, just boarding, appeared in their carriage door. A tall, thin man wearing brown trousers, shiny at the knees. He carried a briefcase and stood for a moment. Monica held her breath, waiting for him to make his decision. The train throbbed in the midday sun. Heat suddenly funnelled the air around Monica into a rushing swoop.
Except it was not air, it was the sweep of a coat and the rush of a shutting door on runners. Monica’s calves were not pressed against a plump seat; she was eleven years old, tall for her age, and she was standing as she had done for the last three days, legs weak, trembling and so, so cold. She could smell oats again; husks crunched under her feet as she shuffled towards where there might be warmth. Someone beside her passed over half a raw potato and she ate it. And then, miraculously, there came a dandelion.
A noise in the carriage doorway and Monica, old Monica, mother Monica, orphan Monica, got up, was suddenly up, moving with such haste that she knocked Rachel’s notebook from her hands.
“You can’t sit in here!” the voice was high and Monica realised it came from her. “Not enough room! No space.”
The man paused in the doorway, eyes wide. He opened and closed his mouth, casting about at the empty seats.
“Mum, what’s wrong?”
“Not enough room! No space!” A tiny part of Monica realised she was now almost screaming.
Rachel was up, at her elbow, and both women clashed together as the train set off, jerking into the countryside. Rachel’s arm snaked around her mother’s waist and Monica felt the girl’s warm skin against her flesh. Monica sagged. But she did not take her eyes from the man’s face and watched as a finger, her finger, jabbed towards the open carriage door.
The man cleared his throat and held up a hand. Submission. His confusion was clear – and was that a little anger? Monica could not be sure – and he turned and left. They heard him stumble down the corridor towards the other carriages, briefcase banging against the sides of the train.
“Mum, sit down.” Rachel helped Monica back into her seat. The girl’s face was pink, eyes bright. “Are you feeling ill?” She reached into her suitcase overhead and pulled out a bottle of water. “You’ve barely eaten since last night.”
“We had breakfast on the ferry.” Monica took a deep drink of lukewarm tap water.
“Coffee and a biscuit doesn’t count. And it’s so hot.” Rachel tipped some water onto her handkerchief and wiped her mother’s forehead. “Better?”
Monica leaned back. “Perhaps a nap.”
Rachel stashed the bottle again and opened the window further. The air was moving freely now that the train had picked up speed, but it was arid and suffocating. Monica squeezed her eyes shut, tasting lemons again. She felt her daughter sit beside her.
Bit Rachel could not settle. She twitched and moved and sighed. Monica waited, knowing a question would come. As a child, if they were unhappy with each other, Rachel wouldn’t sleep but would slip down the stairs to sit on her silent mother’s lap until the hugs came easily.
When Rachel spoke, she stumbled over the words. “Mum, I didn’t know you could talk French. I mean, you started off telling that man he couldn’t sit in here, but then the rest…the rest was French, Mum. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“French?” Monica felt a shift within her, like the swoop that comes when falling off a cliff. It was there, then, after all these years.
“Just the same words, over and over. ‘No room. Not enough room.’” Rachel’s face was stricken. “Can you really speak it? Mum?”
But Monica said nothing. Instead she turned to look out of the window, back towards the station and the yellow flowers, and thought of an old, old dandelion.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”, a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.
© 2013, Rebecca Burns