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The International Writers Magazine: Boy on a train

The Son Is Crying
Max Slachter

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.
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.

Yes, a train journey could be fun, but not this journey, not now. If it wasn’t for the common image of a train, I can’t think of any memory, any experience, any feeling’s less connected with today, than the ones I have just described.
For a start, I’m not a child anymore. I gave that up wholeheartedly at my mother’s 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 didn’t 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 that’s 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 wasn’t there.

At one point, later on I suppose, my dad’s 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.
"We’re all just blind rats on life’s treadmill" he said, and sipped his scotch quickly. "Running until we’re out of breath and then we fall off. And sometimes..sometimes its sudden and it’s a shock. But that wheel keeps on turning and you’ve 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 didn’t blame him though, he really did believe what he had said and I pictured him on the spinning wheel, not my mother. Uncle Henry wouldn’t have lasted long on a treadmill, he wasn’t the athletic type. I can’t remember anything else about that afternoon, just Uncle Henry talking about rats. Maybe it’s 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 wouldn’t. It wasn’t 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 man’s life. I was rigid, I was condemned. The last tear to fall from my face landed on my mother’s shining casket. That’s 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 don’t. 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 children’s 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 don’t like being forced into a strangers company, having to make sure our arms and legs don’t touch all the time and sometimes they want to talk, which I really hate because they’re 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 a magazine.

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 tracks.

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 can’t see it then they deserve their hopeless lives. I’m 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… I can’t remember what I did. I don’t know who employed me, I can’t remember the face of a single colleague. I can see the street outside my window but I can’t 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 wasn’t 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 don’t feel sorry for those commuters. They can chase their careers all the way to hell as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be up there waiting for them. They probably think I’m off to work on this train, just like them. I feel like telling them what I’m really doing, what fate is waiting for me at the end of this mundane death march into the waiting city, but I can’t, otherwise I couldn’t do it. It’s a decision which requires brave action, not useless thoughts and words. Bravery and an iron will. It’s a decision I’ve made and I’ll carry it through, just like every other decision I’ve ever made in my life.
Suddenly the woman next to me began her predicted banter.
"I hope you don’t mind me asking" she began hesitantly.
"But is that a photograph of Judy Wakefield you’ve been holding?"
"Um, yes...yes. She’s my mother, or she was, she died quite a while ago. Did you know her?"
"Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t 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 wasn’t 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! That’s what it is. I recognized them as soon as I saw you, but I didn’t know where from. I suppose you’ve been told that by lots of people though, you share a striking trait"
I was so transfixed by the woman’s words that I didn’t even realize she had stopped talking.
"Oh, I’m sorry" she apologized needlessly. "If you don’t want to discuss her that’s okay, I understand"
"No, no , its fine" I gasped. "Nobody’s 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 don’t 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 aren’t too many eyes like yours in this world, and we’ve 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 mother’s picture, which I still held tight in my hands. It was a black and white photograph, taken in her first year of university. I don’t think I’d 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 mother’s 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 mother’s soft young cheeks. I had already decided that I would not cry today, but my mother’s eyes were wet through.
© Max Slachter December 2007>

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