The Waiting Game
Historical Fiction | 1,413 words
It was my great honor to earn a first place award for this piece in an online short story competition, both for the month and again for the year. I hope you find it as poignant as the judges did.
THE TRAIN WAS LATE TODAY, AND IT WAS ALWAYS EARLY. A SMALL CONSTITUENCY of passengers mulled uneasily around the platform, emitting an ever-deepening hum of indignation as the clock ticked well past the expected arrival time. Businessmen cursed at their wristwatches thrust forth from crisp French shirt cuffs; housewives shifted their cumbersome parcels from one hand to the other while hissing admonitions at their mischievous offspring; a blue-uniformed station manager lurked in the shadows, hoping to avoid confrontation with the more outspoken patrons. From his seat beneath the branch line map, a small boy observed the hubbub through a pair of thick round spectacles. His name was Cosmo, and this was his regular stop.
Everyone who frequented Forstford Station knew Cosmo. His patched wool cap and bare shins could be seen occupying the same bench each morning from precisely 8:12 until 10:57, when the last southbound train came through before tea time. As the passengers disembarked, Cosmo watched them trickle out onto the platform with a hungry sparkle in his eyes; and when they had all gone, he would wipe his spectacles thoughtfully on his shirt sleeve, wrap them back across his face, and then go skipping away home.
“My dad’s coming home today,” Cosmo proudly told anyone who questioned him. “He’s been off at war two years, but I just know he’ll be home today.”
Every morning this statement was issued with just a smidge more conviction than the last. Yet the boy never exhibited even the smallest glimmer of disappointment when, day after day, the trains arrived fatherless; indeed, his resolve only seemed to grow as time wore on.
It was Cosmo’s ninetieth pilgrimage the morning the 10:57 was delayed. As always, his thin white legs swung excitedly from the bench seat below the branch line map, neck craned in the direction from whence the steam engine would eventually come.
The station manager in his dark blue cap and suit tripped hurriedly past Cosmo’s bench, his gaze darting to and fro to identify approaching malcontents.
“Big day, Cosmo, lad?” the manager asked in a distracted tone.
“Yes, sir!” the boy replied. “I can feel it. Today is the day.”
The manager mussed Cosmo’s cap affectionately. When he looked down into the expectant face, it was evident that the little mite believed it with all his being. His smoky blue-gray eyes shone a bit brighter and his smile spread a hair’s breadth wider than on all the previous mornings.
It stung the manager’s soft heart to see Cosmo wasting his summer holiday by loitering at Forstford Station on the fool’s hope that his soldier father might arrive home unannounced. He had even phoned Cosmo’s mother one afternoon to make sure she knew what her small son had been about before tea for the last few weeks; she hadn’t registered any concern, saying merely that she hoped he hadn’t been in the way. Perhaps she was of a similar mind to Cosmo on the matter.
Regardless of the plan’s feasibility, Cosmo demonstrated a spirit of optimism that was rarely seen during war time. His faithful vigil encouraged the passengers and brightened their hopes of impending peace, though they pitied him. For if a boy of six or seven could believe wholeheartedly in his father’s safe return home, how much more ought the whole of England to stand firmly in its belief that goodness would, in time, prevail.
The report of an engine whistle in the distance signaled the approaching 10:57, which could now be called the 11:14. A murmur of relief rose up from the crowd on the platform. Cosmo kicked his feet excitedly. Something in the air told him that his long wait was finally coming to an end. As the train hissed into the station, belching great clouds of steam in apology of its tardiness, Cosmo’s heart swelled with anticipation causing him to rise up to stand on his tip-toes atop the bench. His smoke-coloured eyes fixed on the third-class car where he knew his father would be riding.
If an incident could be conjured by sheer force of will, then young Cosmo was a conjurer of mythical proportions. As he watched, a steady stream of khaki-uniformed airmen emptied out of the third-class car amid shouts of surprised delight from the waiting passengers. Instantly, the mood at Forstford Station was completely transformed. Formerly impatient businessmen shook hands and clapped shoulders with the soldiers, feeling that they suddenly had all the time in the world to get to their appointments in town. Housewives dropped their parcels to embrace husbands and sons that had been writing them letters from the front only a week ago. Even the station manager beamed, although the train schedule was falling further behind. And they all pointed to Cosmo, wanting to be the one who had discovered his father for him.
At length, the commotion died down and the swarm dissipated as the train prepared to leave the station. Most of the soldiers had gone off singing towards the tavern for celebratory drinks, but a few lingered on the platform, and one of them had been watching Cosmo intently for several minutes before he hefted his rucksack over his shoulder and approached the boy.
“Cosmo,” he said into the bespectacled little face.
The child’s smile grew to its widest point. “Where’s my dad?” he asked brightly.
They were eye to eye as Cosmo stood tall and proud on his bench before the airman. The airman looked him up and down thoughtfully while he lit a cigarette and took a deep pull of its revitalizing smoke. He gave the appearance of one who had much to say, but the words wouldn’t come.
“I’m waiting for my dad,” repeated Cosmo. “He’s here, isn’t he?”
“You’re the spittin’ image of your dad,” said the soldier as he exhaled a cloud into Cosmo’s face. “How long you been waiting, lad?”
“Ninety days, sir,” Cosmo answered, undeterred.
“Ninety days? Aye, that sounds about right. Do you mind?” The man gestured to the bench and sat down without waiting for permission.
Cosmo made a final sweep of the platform through his thick lenses, then plopped down next to the airman. They sat in companionable silence for a while, the very picture of two old friends passing the time together while unspoken emotions mingled in the air between them. Cosmo breathed in the familiar spicy fragrance of the cigarette smoke and felt something begin to stir deep inside his belly. He dismissed them at first as hunger pains since he was, after all, missing tea. But he couldn’t go home when his dad was just about to turn up.
“You miss your dad, don’t you, son?” said the airman.
“Yes, sir. Where is he?”
“Have you really been coming here for ninety days to wait for him?”
“I think the wait is over, lad, don’t you?”
Cosmo watched, entranced, as the spent cigarette butt dropped to the platform and rolled under the bench. It was a Woodbine, the kind his dad smoked. Before his eyes, the dim orange ember at its end sparkled and then died. Everything around him became dazzlingly clear for a moment, and then the pain in his belly started to throb again. It lurched and leapt its way up into his chest like a pinball bouncing against the walls of its machine housing. As it ricocheted towards his throat, the airman stood up to leave.
“Your dad was a good mate,” he said. “I miss him, too. It’s been a lonely three months since . . . well, anyway.” The soldier lifted his rucksack and headed for the platform stairs. “I’m sorry for your loss, son. Go home and give your mum a kiss like a good lad. She needs you; you’re the man of the house now.”
Cosmo bent down to pick up the fragment of Woodbine, and when he looked up the airman was gone. The tobacco scent wafted up into his nose; it smelled like Dad. Without warning, the pinball pain exploded out of him as an immense sob, releasing a floodgate of tears that had been dammed up since that horrible morning, ninety days ago, when the telegram had come from the war office. For the first time, there on the Forstford Station platform, Cosmo said goodbye to his fallen father. When he was finished, he carried the cigarette butt home and placed it on his bedside table, where he looked at it every morning at exactly 10:57.