International Writers Magazine: Boy on a train
In my childish vision
the train was boundless, the city was endless and the day lasted long
into the night. My supple mind was not yet confined by the limited possibilities
garnered from wider knowledge. The strange, green seats were like captured
sea monsters bolted to the carriage floor and I did my best never to sit
on them. Instead i played my games between them, under them, behind them,
anywhere but on them. And the tunnels! They were the best part of any
train ride. The darkness of space that fell so quickly, with all the sudden
finality of a guillotine, and inside the windows turned instantly into
mirrors, it was a wonderful trick. The dark, the mirrors, the monsters,
the distorted sounds; it was like a carnival fun house, and then bang!
You shot out into the waiting sunlight and the tunnel retreated quickly
back into itself.
Son Is Crying
I have some happy
memories of train journeys. They are of slow trips into the city
during school break with my mother, off to see a museum or an exhibition
or to buy some special thing, unattainable beyond the cities cosmopolitan
boundaries. I was a wide-eyed child, seeing very little of the world
around me, knowing even less of it, and believing all of it. They
were exciting journeys.
Yes, a train journey could be fun, but not this journey, not now. If it
wasnt for the common image of a train, I cant think of any
memory, any experience, any feelings less connected with today,
than the ones I have just described.
For a start, Im not a child anymore. I gave that up wholeheartedly
at my mothers funeral. It was a conscious decision, which stopped
me from shedding a single tear on her grave after the grave diggers had
finished filling the beloved pit with dirt. Of course, they didnt
realize they were burying a child with that woman, but they were.
The funeral coincided with my tenth birthday and my father, despite his
grief, or perhaps because of it was determined that it should still be
celebrated. So we had the wake and my birthday party together after the
funeral. Life and death rolled into one bitter cigarette that slowly burnt
through the afternoon in a confused haze of sympathy, whisky and birthday
cards. At least thats how it seemed to me. A few of the guests were
smoking heavily and our small living room was like an oddly decorated
and poorly ventilated crematorium. My mother never smoked, or drank for
that matter. I felt guilty for the most part and pretended I wasnt
At one point, later on I suppose, my dads brother, Uncle Henry wandered
over to where I was sitting. He had been either drowning his sorrows or
celebrating my birthday a little too enthusiastically and gave me a wobbly
smile before sitting down with his scotch and launching into a heartfelt,
if slightly misdirected talk. He began on the virtues of my late mother,
but ended with a poorly judged and slightly self-conscious metaphor.
"Were all just blind rats on lifes treadmill" he
said, and sipped his scotch quickly. "Running until were out
of breath and then we fall off. And sometimes..sometimes its sudden and
its a shock. But that wheel keeps on turning and youve got
to keep running lad, just keep running, do you understand?"
I said I did with a feeble nod and told him I had to go and help Aunt
Lucy in the kitchen. I guess it was his way of saying chin up
and life goes on for the rest of us, but I had felt better
before he described my mother as a blind rat on a treadmill. I didnt
blame him though, he really did believe what he had said and I pictured
him on the spinning wheel, not my mother. Uncle Henry wouldnt have
lasted long on a treadmill, he wasnt the athletic type. I cant
remember anything else about that afternoon, just Uncle Henry talking
about rats. Maybe its because he did fall off the treadmill not
long afterwards when his heart suddenly ran out of breath one afternoon.
So my childhood ended then, on my tenth birthday at around eleven in the
morning I think. From that moment onwards I tried to think, talk and behave
exactly as I thought an adult would; or at least as a child wouldnt.
It wasnt an endearing quality, it made my countenance severe and
my habits austere but I wore my decision like a suit of armor, protecting
me from the weaknesses of childhood and the selfish, immature, and foolhardy
decisions that characterize the teenage years of a young mans life.
I was rigid, I was condemned. The last tear to fall from my face landed
on my mothers shining casket. Thats my enduring image of her;
a shining black box staring blankly out of the yawning grey earth. I looked
around the carriage. Black boxes every one of them, or soon enough anyway.
Its strange how we remember things, and how we dont. How our experiences
are distilled by time, filtered through some great, incomprehensible sieve
so that only a few fragile memories remain to explain whole epochs in
our lives. Some are so light that if you could, you would tie them to
your wrist with a piece of string in case they float away and are lost
forever. Some are like convicts chains, heavy and shackled to your bones
with iron. When I think back to my school days, and there must have been
thousands of them all together, all I can remember are fragments of seemingly
unremarkable seconds. Flashing scenes of an empty, rained out playground,
a dusted chalkboard, a teachers face without words, a lonely pigeon calling
in a corridor. I remember the smell of other childrens lunches;
leftover meatloaf and tomato sauce, cold ham with salad, barbeque chicken
and mayonnaise; they were all so much better than my own quotidian ration
of peanut butter sandwiches, which I made every morning.
A platform appeared suddenly in the predawn dark. Even though the carriage
was almost full nobody had taken the seat next to me yet, which I was
pleased about. I dont like being forced into a strangers company,
having to make sure our arms and legs dont touch all the time and
sometimes they want to talk, which I really hate because theyre
normally just freaks and losers anyway. But at the station an older woman
sat next to me and smiled so strangely that I assumed she would start
talking any minute. I was wrong; she just sat there and started reading
Most of the passengers were commuters, half asleep and half alive, embarking
on the same mundane journey they took yesterday and the year before that.
They looked like soldiers, lined up neatly in their solemn seats, being
carried minute by minute to a waiting battlefield. They all had on the
standard uniform of their career. Well cut suits, embalming sallow skin
and starch, stiff collars enclosing a suitable Tuesday tie, and the whole
creaseless pile held upright in a pair of pointed leather shoes that reflected
the carriage lights like fake diamonds in a twenty cent toy wedding ring.
What a life! Backwards and forwards between their kitchen tables in a
slowly turning satellite suburb and their monotonous desk in a brightly
lit moonscape office. For five days a week its dark when they open the
front door in the morning and its dark when they shut it at night and
for what? For the opportunity to swing their flashing pick in the great
mines of speculated wealth, which rise high above the horizon, into the
thick blue sky. Which still, just like the gold mines that built them,
entice men from their homes and families to seek a quick fortune in a
promised land at the bottom of an elevator shaft, in which great fortunes
rise and fall with an ease vastly disproportionate to their size. And
like the feverish miners who sought their enduring wealth in cold, dark
tunnels, so do the commuters swaying gently on the dark early morning
Not that I feel sorry for them though. I spent ten years of my life being
shuttled back and forth from that city, until I saw it for what it was
and if they cant see it then they deserve their hopeless lives.
Im not even sure what I did their now. I remember rearranging numbers
in a glowing white screen for hours on end and I remember there was a
ladder I was trying to climb, hopelessly chasing some preconceived yet
indefinable goal. Promotion, rejection, promotion, coffee, skip lunch,
miss the train, level four, take the stairs, systems error
remember what I did. I dont know who employed me, I cant remember
the face of a single colleague. I can see the street outside my window
but I cant name it. I arrived at platform eight every morning and
caught the number eleven bus from the station at eight fifteen.
I do remember the day I was made redundant. It wasnt my decision.
They said thank you and shook my hand as easily as a demolition crane
falls on a condemned building. Then they gave me as much thought as the
crane driver gives to a cockroach in the rubble. No, I dont feel
sorry for those commuters. They can chase their careers all the way to
hell as far as Im concerned. Ill be up there waiting for them.
They probably think Im off to work on this train, just like them.
I feel like telling them what Im really doing, what fate is waiting
for me at the end of this mundane death march into the waiting city, but
I cant, otherwise I couldnt do it. Its a decision which
requires brave action, not useless thoughts and words. Bravery and an
iron will. Its a decision Ive made and Ill carry it
through, just like every other decision Ive ever made in my life.
Suddenly the woman next to me began her predicted banter.
"I hope you dont mind me asking" she began hesitantly.
"But is that a photograph of Judy Wakefield youve been holding?"
"Um, yes...yes. Shes my mother, or she was, she died quite
a while ago. Did you know her?"
"Oh Im so sorry, I didnt know she had passed away. Yes
I did know her, of course. Gosh, we were great friends once, your mother
and I, next door neighbors for most of our childhoods. People called us
the Thompson Street twins, or terrors, depending on how we had behaved,
because that was the name of our street; Thompson Street, numbers 23 and
25, right next door to each other. There wasnt even a fence in those
days. We were inseparable for a time, until late high school. I was about
sixteen I think when they moved to another suburb and we lost contact.
Too busy chasing boys most likely. You look just like her you know! Gosh,
she was such a bright spark, I was always convinced she would become a
famous actress or something like that
I think I was quite jealous
of her in a friendly way. You have her eyes! Thats what it is. I
recognized them as soon as I saw you, but I didnt know where from.
I suppose youve been told that by lots of people though, you share
a striking trait"
I was so transfixed by the womans words that I didnt even
realize she had stopped talking.
"Oh, Im sorry" she apologized needlessly. "If you
dont want to discuss her thats okay, I understand"
"No, no , its fine" I gasped. "Nobodys ever told
me that about her eyes, about my eyes. I never knew"
"Well its quite true" she assured me. And her voice wrapped
around me like a blanket.
The train started to slow down now as it approached the next station.
"I have to get off here "she said, with audible regret. "But
here, let me give you my phone number and my address and if you ever want
to talk about Judy, just give me a call or pop over, and the pleasure
will be all mine, Oh and I dont even know your name?"
"Its Paul, Paul Wake
well, you know the rest"
"I do indeed" she winked. "And my name is Margret Appleby,
but just Marg is fine."
As Marg got up she put her hand over mine, it was so warm I thought she
must have a fever.
"Take care of those eyes, Paul" she murmured. And then looking
straight into them, added. "There arent too many eyes like
yours in this world, and weve already lost one pair."
I waved goodbye to her as the train pulled away from the early morning
platform, it was now feebly lit by a low sun, sparkling wet with dew.
I looked down at my mothers picture, which I still held tight in
my hands. It was a black and white photograph, taken in her first year
of university. I dont think Id ever noticed before, but her
eyes were beautiful.
The train swayed forward and I stared at the picture, at the faded eyes
shining back at me from my mothers flush young face. She looked
so hopeful, so vibrant, so alive. She seemed more real than the seat in
front of me and the person sitting in it, more real than anything I could
touch. The muscles in my chest felt weak and the picture started to tremble
in my tingling fingers. My whole body started to heave and vibrate as
though it were being shaken by a minute earthquake originating from within.
I could feel every nerve in my face respond to the touch of motionless
air around it as an alien lump rose in my clenched throat. I stared down
into her eyes with my own quivering pupils. The train swirled and blurred
in blind silence around my body and eventually I cried, before I even
realized what was happening. The tears ran in warm rivulets past my nose,
over my shaking lips and down my foreign chin until they fell freely onto
my mothers soft young cheeks. I had already decided that I would
not cry today, but my mothers eyes were wet through.
© Max Slachter December 2007
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