The Sunday Magazine

A fateful 30-year-old choice, re-imagined and lived anew

Helen Leask’s essay is called, 'The Train, Re-Taken'.
What would happen if, knowing what we know now, we could seize the missed opportunities of the past? Helen Leask did just that. (Helen Leask)

Originally published on April 6, 2018.

By Helen Leask

When I first saw Tony at a neighbour's party, I'd almost given up dating. Since my divorce, I'd had a discouraging five years. Men stopped returning my calls after my daughter came up in conversation. She had a weird neurological disease that was getting worse. A kid with seizures and wacky behaviour — not what they'd signed up for.

So, I felt little enthusiasm for the party that night. I knew it would be another North Toronto couples' affair, full of men without wedding rings whose wives would materialize just as things got interesting.

Tony was standing on the deck, alone, arms folded. Haloed by the outdoor lamp, he looked like an angel. His expression managed to combine benevolence with trouble. Definitely my kind of angel. 

We skipped the usual dating interview, when you're each trying to figure out how much money the other person has. He told me he'd spent the summer in the wilderness with a chainsaw. We discovered we both wanted to own the original Oxford English Dictionary, all 23 volumes of it.

After 20 minutes I thought, "Okay, this is where his wife turns up." I decided to speed up the disappointment.

"What's your name again?"

"Tony," he said.

"Is there a Mrs. Tony?"

"There's an ex-Mrs. Tony, and she's over there." He said, pointing at a gaggle of women six feet away.

We ended up in my new Mini. We talked and talked.

Talk became the hallmark of our relationship. There was just so much to talk about. After the kids were in bed, our phone calls went for hours. I'd fall asleep with the phone stuck to my face.

One night, a few months in, the talk turned to a back-packing trip I'd taken when I was a student growing up in England, 25 years previously. I was riding a train from London to Greece and the train stopped briefly in a city called Ljubljana, then a part of communist Yugoslavia.

We realized — much to our surprise — that we'd almost crossed paths. On Aug. 17, 1980, as my train paused in Ljubljana, Tony was visiting the city from Canada. He was just a stone's throw away.

We talked about the coincidence many times; it became a game.

"If I'd got off the train in Ljubljana, would you have fancied me?"

His responses were always the same: "I would have kissed you," he said.

"Would it have been love at first sight?"

"I would have bought you an ice cream and shown you the castle."

"Would we have made love?"

"There are woods behind the castle; I would never have gone home."

The game always ended the same way, only semi-joking: "I should have got off that train."

The year I turned 50, I decided to recreate my original journey. In this version, though, we would meet up. The plan was that I would take the train by myself. Tony would fly from Toronto and meet me at Ljubljana train station.

Helen and Tony enjoy ice cream together at a castle in Ljubljana. (Courtesy Helen Leask)
The trip was the culmination of a brutal year. My disabled daughter had gone steadily downhill. Just shy of her 21st birthday, we first heard the words "progressive dementia." It was a dangerous game pretending that my life could have been different. But I played it anyway.

I reconstructed my original journey with the help of a 30-year-old train timetable. The route still existed. I booked online from London to Paris, Paris to Venice, and Venice to Ljubljana, to arrive on Aug. 17.

Venice's Santa Lucia station was just as hot as I remembered. The first time, I'd been 19 years old. The carriages had been packed and sweaty, the floors covered in cigarette butts. My baby-faced boyfriend and travelling companion didn't like women much and giggled whenever we kissed. He insisted we spend the entire day at the station because he despised crowds.

This time, I  spent the day in Venice making up for lost time.

The train to Ljubljana left Venice at 9:20pm that evening. I reclined comfortably in air-conditioning and watched borderless Europe flash past. A fussy lady sitting opposite me wearing two scarves complained unremittingly about the AC but the rest of the carriage hummed with harmonious conversation despite the late hour.

As we left Italy and crossed into the former Yugoslavia, I hadn't really expected to feel much; my biggest fear was that the recreation would be a letdown. She pulled out her credit card and rode a train from London to Ljubljana. Big deal. We pulled into Ljubljana station at 1:40am on Aug. 17. Tony was leaning against an iron post, arms folded.

I got off the train.

It was a dangerous game pretending that my life could have been different. But I played it anyway.- Helen Leask

I'd love to say that I set foot on the platform and the timeline realigned — I regained 30 years, and, of course, my girlish figure. But it didn't. And I didn't.

But, still: Tony was standing there. My second chance was right in front of me. And it was a completely illogical, irresponsible hoot.

And that, I think, is my own takeaway.

Like a train, we can only keep moving forward in life. But sometimes, it's important to jump the rails.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.