The Stations and the Cross
Philip Walford

The Stations and the Cross

Behind peaked roofs and padlocked lattice gates, under a soft concoction of moonlight, star-light, and sodium lamps, shunting trains at Victoria station sound a little like cattle, lowing hollowly in their chains. It isn't until after midnight, when the fat controllers have shut up shop and gone home, that you can really hear it. It has to be quiet. No ping-ponging public address, no shuffle and shout of commuters, just the squeal of metal wheels on metal tracks and a howl entirely without heart.

He knows all of the stations. He cycles through them, week by week like a supplicant during Lent: Euston—David is condemned to death; Paddington—David is given his cross; Waterloo—David falls for the first time. David doesn't meet the blessed mother these days; the strain of it all led to a divorce about three years ago now, and they've barely spoken since.

Sons of a certain age go missing all the time, but usually they turn up. They get into expensive trouble bunking off to Soho on a school trip to the British Museum, or they break something of value and spend the night camped out at the house of a favorite aunt. There's a madness in their cause but a sanity in its consequences, a minor comfort on nights spent with one less body in the house. Then they come home. Giles walked out one day without saying a word and never came back.

The rails cut through the low houses of Pimlico on one side and a looming estate on the other. From the bridge you can look down at the acres of furrowed track, brown as soil with specks of greenery peeking in pubescent tufts. Looking the other way, he sees a gang of kids, snorting with secrecy, toting a sports bag full of spray-paints. He doesn't waste a lot of time scrutinising the vandals, they seem mostly black or Asian, and he guesses they live in the council houses that start just down the road and to the right. He can't imagine, even in the half-decade that's passed, that Giles would feel comfortable among them. The spray-painting kids laugh and push and mock and belong. Giles belongs far away, in the broken place, now sold, that used to be their home.

David stalks the stations at night, his bones frozen by each aching call of the rolling stock, looking for his lost child, believing that he might still find him.

Daylight gives him hope. It was in daylight that he started. Only a week after the disappearance, he journeyed to London, because where else does a boy run away to? As the train swayed into King's Cross, he felt a lurch in his belly that might have been his atoms yearning to split and duplicate, to create the infinite versions of himself he would need to cover the city. As it was, he staggered from the carriage and paid 20p to void his bowels in the blue tiled lavatory off the station concourse.

He spent that day standing on the pavement on Euston Road, watching bodies pour through the doors, spilling onto the street like an oil slick that sometimes paused to get its bearings. He looked for Giles' face among the crowd, mentally stripping away scarves and hats and raised collars in pursuit of a pair of eyes almost identical to his own. The first day he saw nothing, not even an accidental resemblance that might have led to a shout and a hand on a shoulder, a deep apologetic awkwardness. He has come back almost every weekend since.

Giles was fourteen when he left, the kind of bright, mop-haired boy you might see on a BBC sitcom or a certain type of advert. He had his mother's soft features and his father's vowels. David carries a photograph of his son in his wallet, taken on his thirteenth birthday. It shows Giles smiling wildly above a mound of presents. The original is still in its frame; the blessed mother wouldn't let him take it, even though it was the best likeness, so he took the negative and had a reprint made. At the office where he used to work, a girl in the admin room laminated it for him, and knowing what had happened, she laid a hand on his shoulder, which felt mothering despite the gulf between their ages.

He didn't pull out the photograph much at first. When he stood before the rain-etched entrance of Euston or Waterloo, laminate in hand, all he could think of were missing cats, their photos stapled to ancient tree trunks or glued to warship-grey telegraph poles. Missing cats never turn up. So instead he limited himself to luck, watching for a certain height, a certain gait, a certain tilt of the head that, when Giles disappeared, he began to suspect might be as unique and identifiable as a fingerprint or a sunburst iris. Every uncertain boy with a backpack was his son until they turned around. He played this game with chance for several months, a period of lunatic hope that coincided precisely in length with the time during which he was able to stop himself from crying over the missing boy. After that, he began to show the picture around and cried approximately once a month.

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Philip Walford

lives in London. More of his published work can be found at