Steady - A Short Sheffield Story
Steady by @treaclewaffle (Twitter) and blog littlelionlaura.net
Doncaster station. Train doors close and the vehicle hesitantly commences its journey. Leena sits in an near-empty compartment, a large suitcase by her side taking up so much space she needs to tuck her legs to the right side of the bench. Outside, the landscape is heading towards the end of summer and as the train quietly moves along to her destination, Leena enjoys the view over a setting sun on the English countryside.
She shifts in her seat and pulls the suitcase towards her while it gently rolls along with bumps on the tracks. She has just got back from the airport today after spending a blissful two summer weeks in the Netherlands, her home country. As much as she enjoys being back home with all her closest old friends, Sheffield is where her life takes place now. Every time the Park Hill flats slide into view, she cannot help but break into the shyest smile.
The setting scene outside allows the train window to mirror her reflection. Brown messy hair pulled into a loose bun, escaped strands of hair falling down the sides of her face, framing her petite pointed-chin profile. For a second she catches sight of her own glance in the reflection, calm blue eyes staring back at her, almost another person. She shifts in her seat again and feels her phone vibrate. A text message from Jo. When is she getting back, he asks. Can he talk to her when she returns?
She knows what this means, but isn’t worried much. They’ve been through it a couple of times before this summer. So, here they go again. No big deal. They’ll be fine. She places her phone in the left seat and turns her head back to the world on her right.
She considers the long journey she has been on now. The one where she finally decided to move to England for her studies. She got a great offer from the University of Sheffield and was undeniably excited to continue student life there. She couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but something about a life in England had appealed to her strongly. Her instincts said she had to get away from her home; to something new, unknown, exciting.
A bright year had laid ahead of her. She did enjoy England, even more so than she could ever have imagined. She quickly made new friends all around. Coincidentally, she met Jo, and they’d become close friends by the end of spring. They fell for each other completely by accident and spent almost every minute together.
She remembers meeting him and, initially, pursuing a friendship. She knew Jo had a girlfriend, but he never mentioned her. Not until their break-up, at least. But it wasn’t any of her business, and she didn’t mind at the time because even if she did like him, she wasn’t seeking a relationship anyway.
During their time together, she had noticed how he struggled with constant indecisiveness, almost too anxious to ever make a choice. Whenever they played board games with their friends, he would linger over the most insignificant choices for so long, it often wasn’t even fun to play anymore. He would take forever to end his turn. He was certainly not the one to make final calls.
In a way, this had reflected in their friendship too. Time and time again he’d expressed his worries about what they were doing, how they were connected, even though they weren’t even technically dating. They were just hanging out. That had always been the deal. Neither of them wanted or needed a relationship, and they were on clear terms about it, so she always managed to calm him down. They had gone through the mill about this repeatedly, and she felt sure they would make it through again.
Conisbrough, Mexborough, Swinton. The train picks up speed. Stations flash by unnoticed on her right side. She fidgets with her hands. Rotherham. Perhaps within she does feel a flutter of nerve. Meadowhall Interchange. She returns to his text and with a quick and easy swipe, she’s written a confident message confirming she’ll be back soon. Next stop: Sheffield Station.
She stands across him in her Sheffield kitchen. A cup of PG tea in her hands, dash of milk, just how she likes it. He’s leaning against the windowsill.
They’re talking now. He says he’s not so sure about their relationship anymore. Yes, she knows. He keeps having concerns and he doesn’t know what to do with them. He doesn’t know how to feel. She hears him. She knows all this. She tries to comfort him.
“Neither of us want a relationship, it’s fine, we’re really just friends.”
She blows on her hot tea and takes a careful sip. She waits. His face shapes a frown and his eyes express worry.
“I just don’t want you to be stuck with me. What if you meet someone else?” – a hesitant pause – “you should go with them if you meet someone else.”
This surprises her. She hasn’t thought about anyone else. She’s been fine spending her time with her friendly little Sheffield circle. They’ve been having a great summer, full nights out until the sun rises, playing darts at the university pub, slacking on common room sofas, watching popular shows on big TV screens. It’s been good. She squeezes her eyes for a moment and tries to remember him the way she first met him.
“I don’t want to meet someone else. I’m not looking for a relationship, I can’t do that right now.”
He purses his lips at that. Why does she get the feeling he doesn’t believe her? Why does she feel she’s defending herself? There’s anxiety in his eyes and a nervousness about his body. Though he looks perfectly fine leaning against the windows, he also seems tense. She thinks about all the times they’ve been through this before. How many times has it been? Three, four? One time it happened with just a short summer day in between.
“Where is this even coming from? What has set you off this time?”
She notices a slight bitterness in her voice. She didn’t mean it that way, she was just wondering. Besides, she feels like he’s holding something back. But why?
She hears him sigh. He puts his hands to his face and rubs it.
She knows where this is going.
“… and I didn’t want to say anything, but while you were gone I ran into my ex-girlfriend at this party… and I just can’t do it anymore.”
She feels her mouth is slightly open. Her body freezes. She’s not sure she’s even letting anything on of what’s happening inside. She feels heated, confused. Somebody’s shoved and pushed her, smacked into her. His ex girlfriend? Why is this girl he never talked about suddenly part of this story? She clicks her tongue and, to her own surprise, gives off a nonchalant smirk.
“Alright. Sure. If you feel that way. But you know we haven’t actually been dating, we’re just friends.”
She shrugs. This is frustrating. All the going back-and-forth. All the time and energy spent on calming him down.
Of course it was weird he’d never mentioned his girlfriend at the time, but what did that have to do with her anyway? She never considered it her business. But maybe it had been her business.
There should have been signs in the way he was treating this girlfriend at the time. There were definitely signs by the ways he expressed his anxiety. He brought red flags to their friendship all the time. Did she just brush them off?
But no – she knows she’s speaking their truth, she’s convinced this has always been the deal. Just friends. Nothing more.
“Well, whatever it is, Leena, I want to end it.”
And now he’s proved her wrong. Has she been stubborn? Has she been oblivious to her own actions? Have they secretly been acting a couple? Has she been pushing him without meaning to? Has some part of her inside been wanting more? All she can muster is a slight nod. She scrapes her throat, rearranges herself so she feels she’s standing up straight again. Inside, her heart is still pounding. She senses a distant ringing in her ears. The kitchen doesn’t look real anymore.
She hears the sound of her own voice. She tells him he’s probably right and he’s only being fair. She admits it wouldn’t have worked in the long run anyway. She does mean a lot to him, he says. Right, she whispers.
It's fine, she thinks. This is fine. She puts her head up. She says goodbye. She grabs her coat, and is out of the building.
Steady, steady, steady. Endcliffe Park. She watches the view and from her earbuds, The Staves pass her by. Oh god, oh god, oh god. She notices the changing colour of the trees and, finally, feels the end of summer. God, I’m only human and I’m helpless. A soft bristling breeze runs by and her eyes prickle. Why you running scared? Why you running scared?
Tears won’t flow, but she does feel like a fucking heart-broken fool. All these signs, and she chose to ignore them. She argued her way to this moment. She was the one who set her up. And now, here she is, feeling like she’s been kicked in the heart. Or at the very least, she has scratched it.
Nevertheless, she watches the English view, and soaks it in. She adores it. A feeling of contentment settles in her stomach.
She certainly doesn’t regret moving here. In the end, she must have been right after all.