#37 An Incident On A Train
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In this story, set sixty years ago, poor Margaret falls asleep on the train and wakes up to an unexpected encounter.
#37 An Incident On A Train
Margaret awakes at a bang!
The train car jumps on a bumpy patch of the track, sending her bottom up into the air before returning, a little painfully, back down to the thinly protected bench. Her head rocks against the side of the car and she rubs the spot of highest impact beneath her grey hair.
She looks around in a panic, before realising she isn’t in an air raid but a train car.
She pulls out the pocket mirror from her handbag and examines herself. The skin around her eyes is puffed up like the U.S. Navy blimps she read about in the war. Her face is red and she has deep lines up the side of her cheek where it pressed against the rim of the window frame. She looks exhausted but it doesn’t surprise her. She always looks exhausted these days.
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She replaces the mirror in her bag and covers her eyes as the sun peels in from the opposite window. She takes a look around. To her left is a couple of advertisements pinned to the wall: one showing a beautiful blonde woman reaching her full lips to the rim of a glass of red wine, the redness of it punching out of the poster and into the room; the other showing a little round-headed lady reaching up to a great bright star.
Two very different religions there, Margaret thinks to herself.
On her right, a series of unoccupied benches rattle with the movements of the train, soaking up the sun in their empty, inviting loneliness. At either end, two doors lead to two different cars. This one, Margaret notices, is completely empty.
All of a sudden, it occurs to her that she doesn’t have a clue, not a single clue, where in the world she is! She was supposed to get off at Damerton but she’d been asleep so deeply she lost all sense of time.
Her watch, yes, her watch! Quarter to five! She’d been expecting to get to Damerton at 15:38.
She jumps out of her seat, nearly sent flying by the train if it weren’t for her grip on a poll, and leans towards the opposite window, hand-over-eyes, trying to get a view of where she is.
The sun is tall and bright on this late-spring morning and she can’t focus her aged eyes at all.
A shimmer here and there, a streak of light.
Oh my God! Is that the sea?
The sun momentarily dips behind a cloud, and all she can see is water; the train is running along the coast next to a vast, boundless body of water. What have I done?
She shuffles back to her bench and rifles through her bag for her journey planner, with the stops on it. Then, something prompts her to look up and scan around her. Turning to her left, on the bench at the back wall by the door and the two religions advertisements, is a long, tall black hat, like that of a pirate ship’s captain.
She screams and throws her journey planner to the floor, jumping back away from the hat. The hat rises and with it a man’s narrow face bearing little beady eyes. He has a curled moustache and concave cheeks, and eyebrows that point downwards like he’s either focused or angry. He lifts two lanky arms and rests them on the back of the bench beside him.
‘Hello, dear. Margaret, was it? How d’you do?’
‘Where did you come from? You weren’t there a moment ago?’
‘Oh, I’ve been here the whole time. I was just having a little sleep is all.’
‘Where are we?’
‘Funny you ask that. I haven’t the faintest idea.’
Margaret looks at him mistrustingly.
‘You don’t seem too worried about it. Haven’t you missed your stop?’
‘Oh no, no, not at all.’
‘Where are you going?’
The man starts to smile wryly, and then looks out the window as though he doesn’t actually have an answer to the question.
‘You do look tired, Margaret. Why don’t you go back to sleep? I’ll keep watch for your stop.’
‘I’ve already missed my stop.’
‘Oh, no you haven’t. It’s coming up soon.’
‘What are you talking about? We’re running along the coast now. I’m supposed to be nowhere near the coast.’
‘It’ll all be fine, Margaret, trust me. You’ve had a torrid time of late, what with the death of your husband, and I really would like to do this for you. I’ve got nothing else to do, so a little task to help out a fellow inhabitant of this planet would do me good, methinks. Go back to sleep and I’ll keep an eye out.’
Methinks! Who is this odd man?
‘How do you know about my husband?’
‘Bill? He was a good man, such a shame. And to go like that, how cruel.’
‘Did you know him? Who are you?’
‘I did know him, I knew him very well. Bill and I have long been acquainted.’
‘What is your name?’
‘My name…?’ At this, the man in the pirate’s hat looks out the window again and Margaret starts to get impatient. How can he talk so freely about me, but when I ask him a simple question like what his name is, he stares out the window like I’ve asked him the meaning of life?
‘Please, just leave me be. I’m going to get off at the next stop and go back on the train to Damerton, where I’m going.’
The man smiles like Margaret’s just told a satisfying joke. ‘It’s okay, Margaret. Just take it easy. I’m only a friend.’
‘You’re no friend of mine. I don’t know you.’
‘That isn’t true. You know me very well.’
‘Well if that’s the case, would you mind explaining how to me, because I don’t recall having met you before, let alone having made your acquaintance.’
‘If we weren’t friends, how could I know so much about you? I know it all because you’ve told me.’
‘What do you know?’
‘I know that your husband, Bill, died five months ago from pancreatic cancer. I know you have two children, one of which has moved to Montreal and doesn’t speak to you anymore because you disapproved of the woman, Amanda, he married secretly in 1959. I know that during the war you moved out of London and lived with your sister in the country, where you had a comfortable existence but, let’s be honest, you felt like a sick child being nursed by a mother, and you felt inferior to your sister for having to concede to her in this way. For this reason, you only see her once a year now, and this trip, this train journey, is so you can go and see her. And despite all your pain and suffering, which is as clear as day for anyone to see, you’ll work hard to convince her that you are still the successful one, that it is she who should look up to and learn from you. That you are in some way superior... I know how you feel every day. I know what you think, what you desire, what you like to eat and drink - partial to a chicken breast, am I wrong? - and what you don’t.’
Margaret is in shock. How could he know those things? He mentioned things even I’ve not mentioned to anyone else.
‘Who are you? I demand you tell me who you are.’
‘You already know.’
The man leans forward excitedly, and Margaret steps up from her seat and ambles away from the man.
‘Please leave me alone. I don’t know you. I don’t have what you want. I can’t offer you anything. I don’t have much money.’
‘I don’t want your money.’ The man doesn’t move, he only smiles at her. ‘I don’t want anything other than to help you.’
Tears sidle down Margaret’s cheeks. She cries a lot at the moment, she thinks because she’s so tired all the time. She cries at everything when she hasn’t slept.
‘Let me help you,’ the man says.
There’s a loud whooshing sound which makes Margaret jump. But it’s only the doors opening beside her. The train has stopped and there’s a platform to step down on. She stumbles out, almost falls, as she’s desperate to escape that man’s company. She looks through the window and he’s peering down at her, his grin the only clear image through the dirty pane. The doors close and the train starts to roll, and the man waves at her and, for what reason she doesn’t know, she waves back! She waves back! Why? Who knows!
She turns around and looks up at the sign above her head:
She’s at Damerton? How on earth has that happened? She’s nowhere near Damerton, as evidenced by the sea. She approaches a stranger and asks, ‘Excuse me, sorry for the question, what station have I just gotten off at?’
‘This is Damerton, ma’am.’
She looks around her confusedly.
‘Can I help you get where you need to go?’
‘No, no, this is perfect. This is exactly where I need to be.’
The man looks at her with an understandably puzzled expression.
‘Ok, well, have a lovely day.’
He walks up the steps and leaves her alone on the platform, staring around wondering what on earth has happened to her.