After much consideration, I’ve decided to start a short story exercise.
This “exercise” in creativity is to select a photo, a random photo from the Internet, and use it to generate the inspiration.
I chose this:
OK…, here goes.
The Waiting Room
Taking his usual place on the rickety bench, in sight of the old clock, he laid the freshly picked flowers down on the seat next to him.
“Always good to get here early,” he said, his hushed voice rising up into the soft arches of the sunlit room, mingling with the leaves of flaking paint and the winding tributaries of cracks in the plaster.
The old clock chimed, marking the hour.
“Ah, plenty of time left, old friend.” he smiled.
Finished in mahogany, it’d hung on the white-washed wall for as long as he could remember, marking time, staring down at travellers, watching the world fly by.
But the place was quiet today.
Nothing going on.
Just the smell of wood oil and stale cigarettes, and, outside, the sun and the Blue Jays playing.
Noticing creases bunched up on his trousers, forming little waves, he smoothed them out.
He checked his tie was in place and adjusted his hat.
“Couldn’t be doing to look a mess, now, can we?” he mumbled to himself.
Glancing again at that faithful chronometer, he recalled Hank, the old station master, dressed in his freshly pressed shirt, cap and waistcoat.
He’d always have his E. Howard in his hand at this time of the day, checking everything was running to plan.
People would be fascinated how quickly he’d hook his finger around the chain and deftly flip the timepiece out of his waist coat pocket. With a flick of his thumb, it’d click open.
He’d often be seen talking to passengers, a pencil rubbing against the side of his head as he explained the timetable to folk on their way to the city.
Then, it’d be back to the boys in the waiting room, sitting together, shooting the breeze, listening to the sports news over a fresh coffee.
But, inevitably, time would always take priority.
The watch would always slip out, reminding him of his job.
“Can’t beat this one,” he’d croak, squinting at the silver hunter case decorated with rail road regalia. “Never loses a second. Best one you could find in this darned land, if yer want my opinion.”
But, every now and then, he’d be different.
The watch would take him to another place.
Grasping it tightly in his wrinkled hand, feeling the weight, its importance, and the synchronicity of its mechanical heart beating out the rhythm of his own life, Hank would often let melancholy sweep him away.
“Never, loses a second…”
In that moment, everyone sat in that cosy little group would see the change.
Time would take a back seat, and a memory would smother those brief minutes.
He’d think about his Lily, hanging up his waistcoat, delicately putting the watch in the pocket.
It’d been her ritual.
Her way of sending him off to work.
But…, that’d ended.
Ended the day she’d passed on.
“Never loses a second.”
The old boys would sit still, getting uncomfortable with the silence, sensing his thoughts.
“She’ll have been lying up there for well on two years now…,” his voice would be quiet, distant.
He’d look to the window, across the fields, out to where they’d met, all those years ago.
“Fine woman you had there, Hank. Fine woman. She’s missed by us all.”
They’d give their half smiles, waiting, watching for him to look back.
But he wouldn’t.
And the silence would creep in further, refusing to leave them.
It’d spread, drowning everything, washing them away to another time.
Heads would drift down.
And eyes would find the knot holes in the bare floorboards, tracing the weaving lines, the lines that had once marked the passing of time in the now dead tree.
They’d be walking up that hill together.
And, as the sunset came around, shrouding the land in its vibrant palette of saffron and ochre, the dancing fireflies would lead them through the Johnsongrass, towering above their heads on all sides. Those tiny living stars would gently dance in the evening breeze, leading them up to that silent resting place.
The resting place for all.
In that moment, they’d hear the silence.
That cold silence that’d send shivers down their spines.
A deep feeling of regret and sorrow would pull them down.
Reluctant to let go.
But it finally would.
When it did, they’d breathe sighs of relief, thankful that reality, with all its mundane aspects of life, had brought them back to shore.
The water cooler, the radio calling out the scores, the people milling around the platform, and
Hank, who’d quickly realise that he’d forgotten the time.
Snapping out of the trance, he’d give the watch one last look, and slip it back into his waistcoat pocket.
To take their minds off the silence and the memories, he’d look to the old clock on the wall.
“Why that old girl’s getting lazy by the looks of it. She be slowing down like the rest of us, eh?” he’d laugh. “They just don’t make’em the way they used to.”
At that, he’d head outside and return with a small wooden stepladder.
Propping it against the wall, he’d climb up to the clock, open the glass front and put the old winding key into the little slot.
Finally, he’d adjust the hands.
This had been his routine.
A breeze wafted into the room.
And a noise outside caught his attention.
He looked to the door, half expecting him to walk in.
“Hank, are you there?”
No one answered.
He peered out through the window, waiting for the familiar hat and waistcoat, the rattle of the watch and chain, the soft blue cloud of smoke.
But all he saw was a crow perched on the rusting signals.
“It’s getting late, old friend.”
He looked down at the flowers and memories flashed through his mind.
He caressed their soft petals.
The memories took him up to that hill again, watching Blue Jays pirouetting above the trees, spooked by a slow shunting train that had whistled its presence from far away.
The Johnsongrass sang its whispering melody.
Another sound broke the silence.
The door to the waiting room was pushed open.
A woman, dressed in jeans and white t-shirt, out of breath, and hair out of place came in.
A smile of recognition and then relief spreading across her face.
“Here you are. I thought we’d lost you!”
She sat down next to him.
“Dad, you can’t just wander off. We’ve been looking everywhere….”
“I was waiting for Hank. He’s gonna come. We always wait for Hank.”
“C’mon dad, let’s get you back.”
She put her arms around his shoulder.
But he just stared at the wall.
Stared at the clock.
But all he saw now was a place that was cracked and blistered, a multi-coloured mess of spray paint and abuse, a world that had been forgotten, left to rot.
“I guess Hank ain’t coming today.”
Sighing, he picked up the flowers.
“I wanna go to the hill.”