Dez was in high spirits when he boarded the train at Hastings. For one thing travel by train was a novelty; normally he drove everywhere. And for another, he was on his way to meet an ex-girlfriend. She’d said to meet at Tonbridge station. They’d probably go for a drink too, Dez had reasoned; she’d want one, anyhow.

Soon after the train got moving he began trying to think back. Eighteen years, he mused, almost a generation. So much had happened since. He was practically a different person. He watched the fields float past as if in a dream, smiling as he remembered their trip to Paris, the little ‘boat’ in which they’d ‘sailed’ over Peter Pan’s London at night, the runaway train he thought was sure to crash but delivered them safely, and the ghost train with its gloomy journey through cavernous rooms full of cobwebs and transparent monsters. They’d known one another just six months then. It had been their only holiday together; a few weeks later she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Dez had stayed with her all through it. He remembered the trauma above all. The trips back and forth to the hospital had seemed to drag on forever. Then finally she was cured. How agreeable and easy she’d been during treatment. What courage, he’d thought. That was when he really warmed to her. He had no idea how he’d cope with such an ordeal himself. Helping someone else in a predicament like that seemed easy in comparison. He admired her bravery. Although she insisted it had been caused by the scare of the Disney runaway train, Dez was certain the cancer had been growing from before they’d met.

That was at a disco in south London. In those days, she told him later, he was very good looking. That’s what had attracted her. The feeling wasn’t mutual. When she’d approached him he’d tried to avoid her. She hadn’t let him forget that later, but never one to give-up easily she’d followed him – or in his words: stalked... Eventually, though he knew she was unstable, he caved in. And so a friendship of a sort was born.

The train slowed. They were approaching a station. He gazed at the crowd on the platform as the train came to a halt. When the train moved again, the platform was empty and the carriage full. Now a stocky guy with a very red face sat beside him, blowing his nose and sniffing. The guy opened his briefcase and several used tissues fell out, one onto Dez’s leg. Dez quickly drew his leg away. The stocky guy gathered the tissues and stuffed them in his pocket, then he removed a file and started flipping through. Dez could see drawings, maybe of a machine or buildings. He turned back to the window. His thoughts drifted. They’d rented a flat as soon as she’d recovered enough to return to work. That had been a disaster, the beginning of the end. At first they were just awkward together, but little irritations from one another's habits soon developed into major annoyances. They discussed the problem, but their reasoning, if that's what it was, became irrational and unreasonable, and was interspersed with hyperbole and sometimes even hysteria. They really weren't suited to live together.

Dez was slowly shaking his head when the stocky guy sneezed and jolted him to the present. He felt the spray from it too. Irritably, he stood, grabbed his back-pack from the rack, and – with the stocky guy’s eyes mournfully following him - wandered down the aisle towards the centre of the train. He should have known it was mistake to get on at the front. In the area between carriages he was jostled by a group of louts who barged and twirled him from one to the other. With a nervous shudder he raised his arms and manoeuvred through. One of them leaned after him and jeered: ‘Loser!’. Slightly shaken, he took an equivalent seat to where he’d sat before. He’d been right, the next carriage was only half-full. A few minutes later the train began slowing for the next station. As it stopped the lout who’d called after him looked into the carriage and cried out, ‘Hey loser!’, then they all leapt out, shouting and laughing as they cavorted towards the barrier.

Dez struggled to forget the incident. Then he began to wonder what would he say to her? How should he act? And what would she look like? It occurred to him that he’d failed to ask her that. Eighteen years had passed, after all. She would have changed. But she must have assumed he’d recognise her, or her him. He cursed his absentmindedness. That was a big failing of his: absentmindedness, the propensity to daydream. All his life he’d prided himself on being reliable. If he said he’d do something then he’d do it. If he said he’d be somewhere at a certain time, then he’d be there. It was a matter of principle and self-respect. She’d genuinely appreciated this quality, and was pretty good herself in that regard: ever reliable. But his tendency for daydreaming and habitual inattentiveness frequently infuriated her. If only she hadn’t had such a vicious temper.

As he watched the trees whip past on the wooded slope of the embankment, his mind returned to the flat. He thought about when she’d begun to criticise him, picking him up on anything. She’d been right, but it was trivia. At least she’d never resorted to physical attack, though her rages had often scared him. The relationship had been tense from the moment they took the flat. Within a few months Dez was convinced that if he didn’t get away she’d end-up murdering him. He knew at the time this thought was crazy and a sign of his growing paranoia, but was unable to exorcize it. She was becoming increasingly possessive too, and in response he was increasingly cold. At one point he’d even taunted her, implying he was seeing someone else when he wasn’t. He felt ashamed of himself now for provoking her like that, and for much else besides that he preferred not to bring to mind; it had only added to the problems. What an idiot he'd been.

At this thought, he wondered again why in hell she’d wanted to meet, especially after all this time. More to the point, why had he agreed? Was it because she’d sounded distraught on the phone? The urgency in her voice gave the impression that only he had the power to solve whatever crisis had arisen. He’d even offered to send money, but she’d replied No she didn’t need money. Money was no good for this, she’d said. Had the cancer returned... the depression? She’d explain when he arrived, she'd said, specifying the exact train he should take. Could he have agreed simply out of curiosity? Though why would he be curious about anything at all to do with her?

Just then the ticket inspector came into the carriage. Dez felt for his wallet. His back pocket was empty. No way could it have fallen out. Where was it? He stood and searched. Then he remembered the louts. He began to sweat. Still he tried all his pockets, pointlessly searching. He explained to the ticket inspector what had happened. The inspector was sympathetic and said he’d seen the louts and would report them at the next stop, adding that they’d be recorded on the station CCTV, but that he didn’t hold out much hope for the wallet. Dez still had his mobile in the backpack. He called the credit card company to cancel his cards. By the time he’d settled again, there was only a matter of minutes before the train would arrive at Tonbridge. Did he really want to go through with this rendezvous? Shouldn’t he just stay on the train and get off at Sevenoaks? With no money he’d have to hitchhike home. Maybe if he met her she would lend him some money?  

Then he remembered the nightmare of breaking away from her. Why risk a repeat of that, he thought? At the time he’d wondered if he’d ever get free. That day, the day when he finally escaped, he’d gone to stay with a friend and they’d celebrated together with a bottle of Champagne. That was after he’d gradually moved out the few things he wanted to keep.

She’d be older and wiser now, of course. Yet for some mysterious reason she’d traced him. Eighteen years ago it would have been impossible. At least, it would without considerable expense, such as hiring a private detective. He wouldn’t have put even that past her then if she’d had the money. Now, though, it was the age of the internet and tracing virtually anyone was a simple process. How she would find him changed, though. Instead of the nervous youth, nowadays he was happy, settled, had a bit of money; life was pleasant and trouble-free. Why go along with this absurd charade, which was what it must be? He wondered briefly even if he’d ever really loved her. Perhaps in brief moments was all, and not very many of those.

The train was slowing now. He could feel his heart thumping. His seat was on the platform side, and he wondered how he would respond if the train stopped with her staring straight at him through the window. But when the train stopped he could only see children and people alighting. Hesitating at first, he decided to remain seated and continued to scrutinise the crowd on the platform. There was no sign of anyone who resembled her. Gradually the crowd thinned. Suddenly, with a change of mind, he stood and made quickly for the door. Then, with a lurch, the train started moving again. He sighed and turned back towards his seat. But the train went only a short distance. It braked sharply. He was thrown backwards and almost fell, but managed to grab the top of a seat.

A few seconds later an announcement on the train tannoy stated that due to an accident the train would be delayed and that passengers should await further announcements. He went to the door, opened it and stepped onto the platform. A small crowd had gathered around the front of the train with several rail staff in reflective yellow jackets trying to keep people back. A distant siren was getting louder. Two policemen ran from the barrier towards the front of the train. Dez felt a sudden numbing sensation. He peered briefly towards the back of the train, then turned and walked unsteadily to the barrier, through the exit and into the street….