I was hurrying towards Euston station when I realised. There was background activity whirring on my phone, signalled by a tiny icon squished in the top-left corner that I hadn’t noticed before. An app was tracking my live location. From the settings, I learned the app had a twin which lived on my boyfriend’s phone. He’d put them there, and he was watching me.
I felt sick and completely betrayed, but unsurprised. After 18 months together, I’d grown to expect this kind of behaviour from Pete*.
We’d argued the night before about me going to London. The details are blurry, but it was a lot of me crying and telling him that doing a writing placement in London was my dream and him telling me I’d leave to move there if I liked him too much and it wasn’t fair on him.
Pete’s abuse started subtly, waiting for me outside college or ‘browsing’ in the shop where I worked for hours to keep an eye on me. The naivety of being a teenager and his emotional manipulation meant I took this obsession for affection, but putting a tracking device on my phone was different. It wasn’t smart or discreet. It was like he’d read a snippet from a ‘How to be abusive 101’ handbook. I couldn’t ignore his abuse anymore but was too scared to do anything about it.
At least, I was until I met a stranger in the train station.
“Somewhere between the fourth and fifth drink, I forgot that I was seventeen and being abused, and was able to act like a normal human being”
I was folded into a bench on the platform deleting the tracker from my phone – disgruntled at an announced four-hour delay – when I met him.
Interrupting the roar of traffic, chattering voices, service announcements and the background breathing of the city outside, a strong Liverpool accent insisted ‘Let’s go get a drink then,’ from the side of me. I glanced over to a suited, handsome yet haggard man with an obscene amount of luggage and an inviting smile. He had to be in his 30s, but I felt strangely unintimidated, just ready for whatever he wanted.
Looking back, I don’t think this man even needed to be him. He was almost irrelevant in a way. Perhaps I could have gotten the same wake-up call from another student, an employee from the station, or one of those bizarre street performers you see beatboxing into a harmonica in the city. But he wasn’t. The stranger was, by his own explanation, a businessman with more money than sense and an unwavering need to socialise.
He led the way into the bar, and I breathed an internal sigh of relief as the bartender passed us two whiskeys without so much as a second glance at me, let alone a request to see ID.
Somewhere between the fourth and fifth drink, I forgot that I was seventeen and being abused, and was able to act like a normal human being. He was cocky, but in a way that seemed earned. More importantly, he was enthusiastic. Every detail of my life invited interest and questions, but he was excited about his own life too – proud to talk about it and happy to invite others into it, in a way I never had been.
“He called me dramatic, something Pete had called me, but the stranger said it in a way I’d never heard before – like it was a compliment”
Minutes melted into hours as we talked, drank, and talked some more. He made me laugh. Even better, I made him laugh too. It made me feel like a real person. He complimented my outfit, and in turn, learned about Primark for the first time.
We spoke about our jobs. His: a vague but incredibly well-paid position involving investment and travelling that was hard to keep up with. Mine: working in a supermarket. We speak about everything but our names and our relationship statuses.
I told him how badly I wanted to live here and be a writer, and his immediate, certain support knocked me for six. ‘Move down here and start fucking writing then!’ he commanded and joked that I should write about the two of us.
He’d just come back from a San Francisco work trip, and I told him that I could cry over this because I’ve always wanted to go. He called me dramatic, something Pete had called me, but the stranger said it in a way I’d never heard before – like it was a compliment.
It wasn’t until the bar staff started moving tables around, changing the restaurant area into a dance floor, that we realised our train would be along at any moment. He paid the tab but requested a quick dance before we left.
“I never saw the man from the train station again or learned his name, but the four hours we shared was the exact amount of time I needed from him”
So we did. It was a bit awkward as we shuffled around to music neither of us knew, but I realised this was the kindest a man had ever been to me without expectations. I could tell he was attracted to me, but my company was enough for him. Honestly, I don’t think I’d ever felt like enough before.
Back at the platform, the stranger hugged me, thanked me for keeping him company, and said he looked forward to seeing my name on a book one day. Then, he went to find his seat in first class. And I sat in second, comfortable in the knowledge I’d be ending the day with a breakup.
I never saw the man from the train station again or learned his name, but the four hours we shared was the exact amount of time I needed from him. The rush of initial attraction, first conversations and even a first dance, will never be tainted as my own relationship had been.
“It’s been eight years since the train station man unknowingly convinced me to leave one of the most dangerous people I’ve ever loved”
He might have had a wife back home. And he could have gone on to understand that I was a teenager with a boyfriend. But neither of us gave ourselves the chance to find out.
The beauty of being and remaining strangers is we could choose what to reveal and had the opportunity to shield each other from the parts of us that were unpalatable. We had the courtesy of being great for each other, instead of knowing too much.
When I arrived at my house, warm with renewed self esteem, Pete was waiting for me, performing his ‘worried sick’ face. I wondered if he could somehow see where I’d been or if he knew what I’d felt.
He clearly wanted to know why his tracker stopped, but he couldn’t ask me. So he didn’t. Instead, he flew into panic. He said I shouldn’t let my phone die in case I need to tell him my train is late. In fact, I shouldn’t leave again at all. He went on for a long time until my mum’s car tyres rolled across the gravel on the drive. It shooed him away like a stray cat being swept away by a broom.
I can’t pinpoint any specific thing the stranger from the station did to energise my decision to leave and never look back. Maybe his intense confidence was contagious, but thinking of our brief affair gave me the courage to dismiss Pete’s calls and eventually dissolve the relationship over the coming weeks.
I never saw either man again. Back then, it was frightening to have lost two male connections – one admittedly more fleeting than the other – but I know now that I didn’t need either of them. It’s been eight years since the train station man unknowingly convinced me to leave one of the most dangerous people I’ve ever loved, and it’s the greatest decision I’ve ever made.
*Names have been changed.
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