The crowds shifted restively. Instinctively she stepped back. There would always be that feeling of having no control, the helplessness, the slight panic she’d always carry, when people gathered in such disarray, around her. The train was announced, the restive lot became a compulsive congregation of completely focused cattle. For that is what they seemed to her at the moment. She had a reservation in the AC III Tier, so she didn’t have to join the rudderless movement, surging into the compartment when the train stopped. Fastidiously, she waited, but not too long. When the bottleneck cleared, she picked up her suitcase, retracted the handle, and got in. Then pushed the door to the AC compartment open with her shoulder. Number 44. Lower berth. Thankfully the bay that she was in was yet to be crammed with luggage and children. Soulfully empty.
Twenty four hours more to get home. That was fine, for she knew she had enough to keep her sane. Her books, the view from the window, and her thoughts. It was comfort enough. Just another journey, which promised to be as uneventful as those she had been on, all these years. She hoped he would be on time when the train reached her station. It would be night, or early evening, and she wasn’t comfortable anymore being alone, even on a crowded railway platform. A smile formed as she thought about what he’d say, if she called, well after ten minutes of waiting. Just turn around, I’m at the porch, just turning in to park the car. Dammit, the parking’s full! Just gimme five, sweets, I’ll be there! And she’d wait. Less patiently, these days, she thought sadly.
She settled in, hung her tote bag which had water and some sandwiches, books and her toilet bag; pushed the suitcase under the lower berth, curled up in the corner, next to the window, tucking her oversized handbag close. She pulled out her glasses, checked her mobile, for messages, sent one to him, warning him to be on time, and spoiled it all by adding a smiley. She sighed. There was too much familiarity between them. Would contempt come sometime to visit? She’d been wondering too much about such things lately. The joys of having an empty nest? Ha! She thought, not quite. Not yet.
Just as the train slowly pulled out of the station, the man huffed in. A haversack, and a backpack. Fairly big, mean and black. The backpack, she told herself. Over the rim of her glasses she looked at him. He was busy settling in, so she could. Salt and pepper hair – a tiny smile appeared on her face- strong lines, crow’s feet, lanky and vaguely muscular. Odd, she thought. Perhaps he went to a gym. Tan cargoes, a light blue tee, and floaters. And a faint scent of aftershave that suddenly wafted. She found herself giggling inside her head at the way she was checking him out. She ought to know better that give him ideas. She looked away. Not soon enough, for she caught an interested look her way, from him out of the corner of her eye.
He eased himself into the berth opposite from her, away from the window. She looked comfortable there, and he didn’t want to disturb that look of contentment that seemed to radiate from her. A quick look-over gave him a glimpse of a pleasant, almost pretty woman, very self-contained. A seasoned traveller. He knew how it was. He was one himself. Did not like to be unduly bothered. Unduly. He turned that word around in his head. He wouldn’t mind being bothered by her though. She did look interesting. But enough. He felt like a kid caught out. He pulled out his Samsung Galaxy, toggled it on, and got involved in stuff, in it.
To an observer, they were engrossed, each in their world. One the depths of a wireless world, and another equally wireless, in thoughts. That is when I joined them. With the vision of a storyteller, who fantasizes, I’d already had the story about them. The man looked up, shifted, and I sat next to him, pushed my one bag under my seat, and settled my laptop bag on my lap. We nodded at each other. I looked over at her. She was looking out, her fingers drumming to a rhythm inside her head, gentle and lazy. I wanted to know, all of a sudden, what that could be. That rhythm. She turned at that moment, and caught my gaze. I smiled. Politely. She returned that smile. Next to me, the man paused, stilled, and slowly relaxed. Oh. So he was just as affected. I smiled again.
We made small talk, she and I. He listened, I knew, though he did not participate. I felt sorry. Weary. So I turned to him and drew him in. Was that the latest of the Samsung series, I asked him. I may look macho, but I am ignorant, and arrogant enough of my humility to show it. Plus, I had a whole lot more grey hair. He looked puzzled, and said no. Just the S two. I nodded. And we got to talking then, the three of us, about the way technology, mobiles, are getting smarter, and the way we’re falling behind. Then reading. And books. And I saw animation in them. That is when they were engrossed, again, this time in deep discussion about Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand, no less. Time flew, and did not. The noises from the adjoining bays did not seem to affect us much. We refused the offer of dinner, on payment, of course, brought around by the caterer. Railway food, like airplane food (so they say) leaves much to be desired. At least the trains have stations.
At the next one, I got down, and so did he. We got ourselves some packed chapatis and vegetables, and got back. She was opening her packet of sandwiches, and seeing us back, offered us some. Soon we were all sharing food, laughing, joking. Food, the universal ice-breaker had accomplished its task. I stepped back and watched them. There seemed invisible threads weaving around them in a tapestry. Something would happen there, for sure. She looked like life had happened, alright, and he too bore the badge of having creamed a few moments in life. The crows feet around his eyes were testimony enough. He’d moved across to sit next to her, and they were poring over a passage from the book she had been reading. Quiet laughter and nods. The sounds around were muting. Time to find some sleep. As it was off season, the journey was more than bearable. It was actually comfortable. We slept, each in our own world of dreams.
A whole day waited to unfold and it couldn’t come soon enough for her. For him. Cocooned in their separate, yet together, thoughts, they slept. At morning light, and coffees and teas later, having become human again, I watched them. You could not tell that till a few hours ago they were strangers! The silences between them, us, really were even more comfortable. Well, I mused, there was something in here. The tale teller in me rejoiced. The romantic wove tapestries. I quite forgot we were in a world apart. One that did not even stay still. When that thought struck, I justified myself. Still? Was the world still, ever? Food for thought, I chewed upon it. Or rather the romantic in me did. And did not like the flavour. Soon. I thought. The story would really really unfold soon. It had to. This was merely an interlude.
He wondered when he would meet her again. And she looked up and caught that thought. She knew, as he did, that while the impossible was nothing, possibilities were few. So they, by mutual silence on that tetchy topic, spun a web, and trapped themselves in it. Soon, she would leave. And he would have to stay. And what of me, I thought. Who do I give succor to? The romantic, the tale teller or just the passer-by, feigning disinterest?
Her station arrived. She thought she’d have a few more minutes because he would be late, trying to park the car, hoping she would not fume. The man helped her with her suitcase, stood at the door, then got down, almost took her hand, when she was whirled around by a big, handsome man. A first! Me first, he fair hooted. And she stood simply surprised, unsmiling, her lips parted in a slight daze. I still have it me, you know, he said. Let’s go. And took her hand.
The man stepped back. Stunned into silence by a sudden intensity of disappointment. Not even a proper goodbye. At least they could have kept that. He turned around, and stepped back into the compartment. Which was when she stopped, turned and looked for him. The train started moving, slowly. Agonizingly, for her. For him.
I watched the parting with that undefinable tremor of poignancy. He came back, and sat. Still not having overcome that deep disappointment, and I could almost touch the ‘what if’s going through his mind. He looked up at me, despairingly. My eyes, they calmed him down, and with an imperceptible nod, he shook himself out of his mood. Another six hours to go, he said. And I’ll get off. You’re off before that, aren’t you? I nodded. It was night, and we crept into our berths, pensive. We’d said our goodbyes, for it would be the middle of night by the time we parted company. Ships that pass by night. How true it was.
The lingering moment of that parting stayed with me for a long time. Long after I had forgotten when it was, and who it was. But their faces were an indelible memory, that haunted. I wondered if they met. Did they? And then? Several years later, a train on the same route, in a noisy bay, in the holiday season, I was desperately trying to hold onto sanity in the midst of a cartwheeling bundle of kids, springing from the side berths to their frazzled mothers and aunts and dads and uncles and cousins, in the main bays. I decided to take a walk, and get some air, even if it meant the sultry, moist air with it. I had almost reached the door of the AC compartment, when I felt a sudden prickling on the back of my neck. Breath held, I turned around. In the bay, but last, was a universe of stillness. A salt and pepper lanky man, with his arm around a pleasant looking woman; both reading from the same book. I guessed they had been reading that same passage, from Ayn Rand.
Buoyant, I left.
12 March, 2013
Online, since 430pm
Almost 1800 words, and a short story this. Sigh. But I had to. Part of the Story of My Experiments with Fiction. Even there I cannot avoid a cliché! So God Help Me, I’m going to hit ‘Publish’