short fiction

Tracks

The croak in my voice, as I ask the question, makes me realise I haven’t spoken aloud for days, four days: not since the hospital. The girls on the platform slouch with a practised boredom. Their eyes slide sideways at me, take me in, dismiss me. Yes, they say, already retreating behind hoods and shuffling scowls, this is the train to Dublin. I can’t put an age on them. Dressed in soft pinks and greys, they might be children still — long and lanky, a sudden spurt carrying them into unknown territory. But the eyes are ringed black — blue irises popping against pale cheeks — racing toward anonymity, hungry for more. It makes me feel old. I want to protest, make them see: I am you — I have been and am still you, I have not forgotten. The impulse fades; they’re not interested. I am invisible: thirteen again, in a tight teeming world of desperate nonchalance, longing to say the right thing, the trick of it, and the force of that need only edging me further apart. I nod and step away, counting the breaths in and out again as the panic, that has threatened to overwhelm all morning, ebbs. 

It has been one of those days; coffee spills, lost keys, tears, endless questions with no answers: but why, why today, why? The car doesn’t start, as if the rest weren’t enough. I have to take the train now — I’ve never done it on my own before — and there is no time to prepare, to breathe. 

My head jangles as I enter the station: where do I get a ticket, do I have change, how does the machine work, what time’s the train, what if I get the wrong train or can’t find my seat or if there are no seats? It is a wet, blustery day but I can’t face the parched heat of the waiting room and walk straight through to the platform where, for the first ten minutes, I am completely alone.  

It is easy to see the town has money. The stone faces of the Victorian station have been cleaned; its windows and soffits freshly painted. There are artful planted beds on the platform opposite, with spiky fronds flustered in the wind. They look wrong somehow, blousy: girls in cheap summer dresses on a chilly day. 

The sea is just beyond, behind the walls and fences, its roar folding over them, its white dash just visible off down the track. As I wait, a lone bird wheels and circles overhead, fighting the sudden gusts; it ducks into the eaves of the station, where it perches on the architrave, calling out its plaintive wheep-wheep. I am counting my breaths, rolling in and out with the sea, calming myself, when the train arrives from the wrong direction and I panic again. 

For a long minute I wonder what to do, the rush of noise pressing in around me, my face hot with the idea I’ve been standing in the wrong place, looking in the wrong direction, and if I move now to climb the stairs and cross to the other side, others, standing, waiting, will know. But if I don’t ask, I think, I will seem just as stupid — that's when I turn to the girls and blurt out the question, before I have time to think too much and get scared. 

Now I have not missed the train, I can think again. It is the last station on the line. The train wouldn’t come from down the track. Of course not. 

The carriage doors hiss open, releasing swarms of schoolchildren onto the platform, the hum of voices bursting out, rising, then drifting off through gates and turnstiles. I step inside — the wind carries free newspapers, wrappers and cartons in a scurrying stream before me — and settle at a window seat, on the side nearest the sea. The girls enter, chattering, and sit in the front section, all fluttering hands and tossed hair. The train sits, doors ajar, wind whipping across the platform, around the low stone building, carrying back a wheep-wheep, from the sheltering eaves.   

‘What is it? Are they all away to school or wha’?’

The voice rasps through the carriage, addressing no-one in particular. A blank question, dull, obvious; I stiffen without knowing why and fix my gaze on the window. In the reflection, I see her — elderly, yellow haired, dishevelled — shuffle along the aisle grasping a number of bulging plastic bags. A young Polish woman enters from the opposite direction and wanders down the carriage, pausing to ask: Is this the train to Dublin? I smile an apology: I think so, I say, I’m not sure. She frowns and a young man, sitting a few seats ahead, turns to her and confirms it is the train to Dublin. He looks at me, then — a quizzical look — and I blush. How stupid I sound, sitting here, not knowing if I am on the right train, as if it doesn’t matter. 

‘Well, you’re on the right train anyway,’ says the old woman. 

I turn away again, in case she is talking to me.  I see the Polish girl glance toward her, confused, and smile. Mistake, I think, but she moves on past and takes a seat near the doors as they hiss again and slide to with a rubbery clunk.  The train pulls out of the station and the old woman tumbles into the seat across the aisle, her bags spilling at her feet. She adjusts herself and looks around. I keep my eyes fixed on the window.

‘Sing to me,’ she cries. ‘Sing me one of the old songs’.

No-one looks round. Everyone is aware of her — her noisy, rustling presence — but pretends they're not, that a bag or phone or book or window has taken them to a place she can’t reach. Moments later, she rises and backs toward me, dangling the arm of her quilted raincoat in my direction; the seams and knitted cuffs are grubby and black.

‘Put that on for me,’ she says, ‘me arm’s no good.’

I slide the coat up onto her shoulder and she returns to her seat, without looking at me. 

‘Thank ye for doing that. Thank ye for that.’

I nod and turn my gaze back to the window, annoyed. She suckered me: used my shield of aloof politeness against me. If she’d chosen someone else, I would have smiled at her machinations and her victim’s embarrassment. I might even have managed a rush of indignation on her behalf. I could have been gracious and understanding at a distance but, at this range, all I feel is rankling imposition, then guilt. 

Of course, guilt — always there, bubbling just below the surface. 

A tunnel — the beat of sodium light skips across the window, the chair, my hands, casting quick darting shadows: yellow and black, yellow and black, yellow and black. In the darkness of the window, I can see her more clearly. She is staring across the aisle now, at my face, half-turned away. She sits forward in her seat, still watching me, leaning further and further forward, until I realise that she is trying to catch my attention, to make me notice her again. I turn a little closer to the window. Not this time, I think. Of course, I could be gracious now, I could turn and listen and nod and give her what she wants but I don’t. I’m not in the mood. 

Beyond the tunnel, the sea is yellow: split pea soup. 

The train rumbles on, coastline rising and falling. There, the cliffs  block the sea from view altogether; here, they drop away in sudden, vertiginous swoops to leaping waves, tiny inlets, where the sea dances and flirts with huge black boulders, jumbled at the cliff base.

One of the girls, up front, erupts in a fit of giggles that breaks off into a coughing fit. The old woman replies with a dry, open-mouthed bark: a child’s version of a cough. Again, the girl coughs and, again, the old woman echoes: louder, longer, her rasp reaching all the way along the carriage and back. A third, more discreet, splutter is met with such a fierce torrent of hacking and retching, the whole carriage falls to a bristling silence. The girls cast quick glances back, their heads drawn together, whispering. 

Anger brims in me - hot, beating at temples, grinding at teeth, anger. It’s still there. It’s been waiting. Her need is so strong, so grasping, it smothers me. I feel the fear rising again. I want to throw her off, to shout:

Why are you doing this? What is wrong with you? I'm sorry, OK? I’m sorry you had a hard life, that it all turned out this way. I’m sorry you can’t be happy - that you have to steal it from everyone else, suck it right out of the air. But it’s not my fault. OK? I can’t change it. I can’t fix it. No-one wants it to be this way. Why is that not enough for you? Why is it never enough?

I feel stupid tears welling and stare down at my lap to avoid being seen, down at tight fists, skin drawn smooth, shiny knuckles. Yellow and black, yellow and black. I close my eyes, gulping down air and start counting: in...2...3...4...out...2...3...4. Stretching the fingers wide, I turn each hand over to see neat rows of dark half-moons pressed deep into the pads of my palms. 

There is a rustling noise across the aisle; I brace myself. The old woman gathers her things and grunts to her feet, staggering with the sway of the train toward the door. 

I can be ashamed now. Perhaps there is someone waiting at the station, someone who thinks: She’ll be OK on the train, there are people there. Someone will help if she needs it, besides, what else can I do? But even before the empty platform slides into view, I know no-one is waiting; she will step off the train to ghost her way into other lives and no-one will ever see. I turn, at last, and she’s outside facing back in toward me, through the dirt-whipped glass. A few seconds only, before she is gone, but in that moment I see it, in her face, her eyes: 

I am you - I have been and am still you, I have not forgotten. 

The doors close to and the girls start to chatter again. The carriage shudders as the train moves forward, carrying us to the next place, down the tracks, out of sight; I turn back to the window and wait.

***

'Tracks' was awarded 2nd place in the inaugural Mslexia Short Story Competition 2009, judged by Helen Simpson.