A.J. Walker



Otherlands: And A Coffee In The Railway Sidings

Henry thinks the coffee tastes good this morning. He threw away the packet earlier—bin day—and won’t ever be sure what it is. He has a sneaking feeling that it’s Guatemalan; that was his default thought, with his soft spot for Central America. It could be Kenyan, or maybe Indonesian. His head suffers from faulty internal subroutines like this regularly. Time wasted wondering, not knowing. Never sure.
He hadn’t always been like this. Once he was a dynamic go getter. Living second to second. Life to the max with fulfilling work and a manic personal life. He wonders what has changed. Perhaps it's Long Covid, or just Long Lethargy & Stupidity. Life once full now seemed an empty packet blowing in a guttering wind. He rattled around places without aim or explanation of why. Life was what rarely happened to him these days. Henry used to inflict himself on the world. Now he was in an eternal rinse-spin cycle.
Life was going but it was nondescript. He was a damp shirt spinning slowly in the washer.
He looked at the news headlines flashing up in silence on the screen. Weather related tragedies, pilot errors, wars, environment. Big stuff happening to people. Again. As always. Weather happens, war happens. Nothing changes.
Other places. Other lands.
His past was another land: Otherland. The past is a foreign country, he thought. His present and his future was a nondescript purgatory. He was within a vast expanse of railway sidings, forever not knowing where he had been or where he was going.
Long Otherland. Boredom. Shrugs. Bland nothingness doused in anti-spices—lest you enjoy anything.
Henry looked at the bookcases spread around the living room and tried to ignore the photograph albums. Recently he’d been spending too long looking at them. Looking at these Otherlands. He could barely recognise himself in any of the pictures. These images were of lives before the sidings. Before he’d boarded the train to nowhere. He heard the Talking Heads song, ‘Road to Nowhere’ in his head. Had he enjoyed that song in his other lives. Oh, to be on a road. Going somewhere. Anywhere. Just fucking moving. Even backwards. But he was marooned in a lonely train carriage. There was not a train to shunt him out one way or another.
He wouldn’t look at the photos today. It could push him over the edge. He looked at the remnants of the coffee and with his nose deep in the cup he took a deep draught. It smelt good. It was 10am on Monday and he assumed that this would be as good as his day would get. The way things had been lately it could be the highlight of his week. And he didn’t even know what it was he was drinking. Typical of his life in the sidings.
There was a knock on the front door and he took the last slurp of the coffee before answering. It was a delivery driver going to ask him to take in a parcel for a neighbour. That was exciting as life could be. A decent coffee and now this. Life was looking up. He chuckled to himself—how life had changed. Or maybe it hadn’t. He couldn’t be sure. It was two weeks before the next bin day and it came to him that he should dispose of those photo albums. He didn’t need the clutter. What was the use of pictures from other people’s lives for him to wonder at? Look at what you could have won. In particular there were pictures of this other Henry with a woman he didn’t even remember the name of—she looked bloody gorgeous. And he looked young and bullish. Happy. He couldn’t remember the event, the year. An Otherland. Look at what you could have won. There was a second knock at the door which roused him from his latest subroutine.
Outside Sarah tapped her feet whilst staring at the door apprehensive. She wasn’t sure if Henry still lived there. But she’d had a sudden urge to revisit him. It had been years since she’d seen him and Sarah had only thought about him again when she’d seen an old photograph fall out from between the leaves of a book she’d been taking to a charity shop. It was funny how sometimes photos could take you straight back in time. Like hearing an old song you hadn’t heard in years. She wondered if a catch up would be nice—maybe over a coffee.