Some ekphrasis from Neil Campbell

Hotel by a Railroad

The hotel by the railroad was our home, and it fit my life as though the tracks going by were the memories of moving youth and the hotel itself the stable stopping off point of maturity. He owned it like he owned other things in town and he owned it like he came to own me, so that when I felt like taking my hands from what was left of his dead hair, I just sat by the window and watched the faces in the train windows, some of which looked back, most of which were talking to the face opposite, still others just looking ahead in limitless differences of blank and buffeted repose.

So what can one say of the spectre of youth in the middle years of it forever gone away? It is to say that I was beautiful beyond what you might imagine, and everything came to me, morning and night, in a pattern of proffered flowers. It was for me to choose which of the flowers to take and why I grew old with a vase full of different ones, where the smells still lingered and the fading colours could still be retouched by the golden light of whisky, the shaking comfort of cigarettes.

I had such power over them when my eyes were bright and my hair was shining and the skin on my face and all over my body was painted in depthless glamour. To those outside the room they held all the power, but when they came in with a saloon on their lips, all hard and begging to be sated, it was I who held the cards under the covers and in my waiting, wanting eyes. Don’t misunderstand me, even in my beauty I was never one of those women that can be told, but I thought it was in my interests to sometimes seem that way, to give them the notion of power and make them feel like they had it always, but I can see now that that was because I wanted them all to be more than they could be, and without exception they failed.

Thinking back now, with the flowers in my hands, I know I couldn’t handle those choices. Most of all of them had something the other didn’t have and vice versa and, in short, I wanted to be the lover and not the beloved. That is why in mistaken and faded marriage I looked at little more than boys who came to the hotel. I saw the girls they wasted themselves with, wanted those boys for myself. I wanted my ageing body next to the shining, perspiring youth of theirs, their flat stomachs and perpetual readiness. I wanted a full head of shining, colourful hair through which I could run my hands and somehow take the wrinkles from my fingers. And I found it, one jewelled afternoon where no trains passed, and the sunlight shone against the drape, and his head moved among the pinstripes of light surrounding and my fingernails sank into his careless laughter, and I bit him through the difficulty of breathing.

But as is the wont of the beloved he got on the morning train, and I watched him with his fragrant, apparently useless beau of the moment: the gentlemanly lift as he hoisted her into his arms at the top of the steps, the bright faces of both, the seemingly guileless eyes and his golden ability. I watched to see for so much as a glance up to where he knew I was standing, but I watched his movement along the window glass, saw him sit by the window still smiling at her, and her just stupid and smiling back. And it was then that I sat and opened the book and smelt the cigarette and heard the shuffling walk.

*Neil Campbell was born in Manchester, now studying for a PhD at Northumbria University. Short story collection, Broken Doll, published by Salt. Poetry chapbooks, Birds, and Bugsworth Diary, published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. Short story, Barren Clough, in the anthology, Murmurations. Short story collection, Pictures from Hopper, forthcoming from Salt.

This piece is based on a painting by Edward Hopper

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