Woollen shawls are clasped tightly around ample bosoms by hands in fingerless gloves. Stout women, dressed up for this festive ‘Dickens’ day, seem to suit Victorian costume.
The weather’s not very Christmas Carol. It’s cold in a damp way, the temperature just this side of freezing. Rain’s coming down in that nasty, seeping way it has of wetting you through before you’ve noticed it.
A straggle of stalls lines the road, selling homely, knitted tea-cosies and cross-stitched cards with robins. Jars of winter chutney and bags of chocolate fudge. Second-hand books and scented soaps. And a lucky dip, for charity.
The final parade passes through. Local schoolgirls dancing with pompoms. A squeezy concertina band. Clog dancers.
The little fairground rides are busy. Giant tea-cups, peppered with young boys and girls, rotate to the music. A bit bemused, these tiny ones, not quite sure how to take this new experience.
It’s darkening, now – and colder. People wander homewards, many of them train-wards.
Six carriages glide into the platform with a grind and a squeak and a squeal. Doors open and wet people crowd on board. The beep beeps, the doors begin to close.
‘Oi, someone, hold the doors,’ yells a young man, ‘I’ve got my box stuck!’
He’s struggling with a large luggage-trunk. Someone pulls and the trunk makes it on board but the young man’s still outside. A shoulder to the almost-shut door and it gives way. The young man stumbles in and the train departs.
‘Cheers!’ he grins. ‘First time anyone’s helped me with my trunk. Always getting stuck.’
It’s a very infectious smile.
He flops onto his trunk, a puppet whose strings have been cut.
Dark hair frames his face under a slightly battered top hat. Beneath a black tail coat he wears a white shirt with a floppy red bow at the neck Brightly coloured, stripy socks stretch over his ankles under black baggy trousers.
His shoes have seen better days.
‘Have you been at the Dickens day?’ says the door-obstructer. Obvious – but someone had to ask.
‘All day. Juggling. Magic. Since this morning. Worn out.’
Uh-oh. A disastrous mistake, for one wiped out.
‘Hey mister,’ calls a child-like voice, ‘you a magician?’
He leaps up. Jiggles around like a rag doll with a caffeine addiction.
‘I’m a magic man, I’m a magic man,’ he chants, jumping from one foot to the other.
‘Do us some magic then, mister.’
They’re all in sugar-mouse pink, the girls. Not yet out of puppy fat. Pink hats, pink gloves and furry pink boots. Dark shiny hair reaching nearly to their waists – or where they would be if they had any.
The two youngest sit, open-mouthed. In awe.
Magic man tips off his hat, throws it in the air and catches it.
‘Where’s the rabbit then. You a magician or what?’ Rude little girl may have problems with her adenoids. A charitable interpretation of her open mouth.
‘It’s cruel to rabbits to keep them in a hat. How about ribbons instead?’ he twinkles, pulling streams of ribbons from his hat – pink ribbons.
As the train rattles ahead to the next station he performs a few little tricks, enough to entrance his audience of sugared-almond girlies.
Older, cynical eyes watch, surreptitiously, from under brows ostensibly directed at books and mobile phones.
Laughter begins to trickle around the carriage like spilled milk as he teases the girls, like kittens with a ball of wool, their understanding always just beyond their reach.
He does quite a clever a card trick.
‘How d’you do that then?’ demands a pink princess.
‘How do you think?’
‘I know, I know.’ Sugar-plum bounces in her seat with excitement. ‘You saw it in the window.’
‘Yeah. I take a train with me everywhere I go.’
Grown-ups snigger into their hands. The girls go quiet.
Magic man – reprieved, looking tired – sinks onto his trunk.
The train doors open and close. A group of lads climbs on. A surly posse.
Cans in hand, swaggering.
The carriage is quiet. Everyone is watching.
Magic man says something no-one hears. The boys, though, look nonplussed.
The girls move seats, so they’re next to Mr Magic.
The lads huddle together, watching in disbelief, as if hypnotised. Silent as boys can seldom be.
‘This train is for Hunt’s Cross. The next stop will be Blundellsands and Crosby.’
The door-blocker stands and sighs. Reluctant, it seems, to leave.
The young magician looks up.
‘Thanks,’ he says, twice. ‘Thanks for helping. I hope you have a great Christmas. May at least one of your wishes comes true.’
‘I don’t have any wishes,’ says the door person.
The magician’s gaze is oddly compelling.
‘Everyone has wishes,’ he says, ‘whether they know it or not.’
The train rustles on down the track and the dark night closes around it, bright lights shining yellow through the windows, fractured into fairies by the rain.
The magic man vanishes, into the night.
And a wish hangs in the air.