Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Part Company

That's her handwriting
That's the way she writes

These are words in search of a heart. One heart in particular, if I'm being honest; any heart that will listen, if I'm being realistic. I can only whisper them to the rain as I walk home, and I am in a place that I have long known. Time does not always move forward, and as I drift through the raindrops, I half imagine that I might end up, these many miles, plane rides, and countries in tow, in that warm place where my dreams always end. But time does not always move. These words I offer in hope that they might find their way to your door. If not in flesh, then in spirit; if not in life, then in lyric.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I used to be the worst
Person that I knew
That was till this evening
When first I spoke to you.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

It Takes a Lot to Laugh

Yes, comfortably the longest post ever. Why so long to write a proper length story, deranged though the subject matter may be? The right experience matched with the right inspiration, I'd say.

I should have taken it as a sign that Rogan of all people expressed concern about my trip. "It's not that it's unsafe," he unconvincingly began his attempt to assure me, "just that it's...different". I had no idea what this meant, but didn't think to probe him on the matter. As far as I was concerned, the first part of his sentence was enough to make me fear that a hellish experience was in store. And yet, I decided to go anyway. I really ought to have spent more time working on that intuition business people go on about.

Never mind that the whole reason for this foolish expedition was an attempt to blend in with my coworkers. For the past year, our lunchtimes were dominated by talk of the various places each of us had been to, and the amusing anecdotes that proved that we experienced something far deeper than the dime-a-dozen tourists' impression. Anyone can just visit Taqor and blithely snap pictures of the Ulix Jewel; but can you say you've really experienced it until you've been on the midnight catacombs tour? Evidently not, according to my coworkers. So for a year or so, my lunches were largely spent staring vacantly into my plate, or feigning acquiescence with whatever rambling monologue happened to be the subject of current discussion. Each time I would tell myself, never again -- I will have a story to tell for my next trip. I had had enough of just blending harmlessly into the background.

I've begun to wonder whether it would have been easier to just make stories up, as I assume my colleagues must have done.

These thoughts gave way to action in a surprisingly short period of time. Before I knew it, I had booked to travel to N____, a somewhat minor but by no means unknown town just a few hours away from W_____. The opportunity arose when I heard from an old friend from college, who in a fit of nostalgia and alcohol, had thought to ring me one evening. After we spent an hour rehashing the old stories, he revealed that he had just moved to N_____. Quite why I don't know -- this was a chap who, like most people I habitually call a friend, was by no means a normal member of our race, so understanding his motives was a perilous business -- but he spoke highly of it, and suggested strongly that I visit to meet him and the other people he was working with. It would all be paid for, he assured me, and even if his colleagues turned out to be boors, there were the surrounds; “What is there to think about?”, he forcefully said. The prospect of having at least a worthy lunchtime story notwithstanding, I was mildly interested in seeing him again. Never mind the fact that even when he used to live in S____, I never made a huge effort to go see him. That's all irrelevant, beside the point. This is how life works, isn't it? Grab at opportunities when they arise, all that.

Rogan, one of my colleagues, was in my eyes exceptionally well-travelled, and was perhaps the initiator of most of our discussions about exotic locales and the secrets tourists could only dream of. In truth, while his stories were sometimes ingratiating, I didn't doubt the sincerity of his passion for travel, nor his savvy about the best way of going about it. Naturally, then, I turned to him for advice on how to get to N_____. "I'm away on business," I dropped casually one day. "Where to?", he countered expertly. I couldn't hide the quaver in my voice as I replied, "N_____, actually". Right after uttering those words I had a flash of insight that told me this was all profoundly stupid, and that he would see through this pathetic act for what it was. I was relieved when he simply replied with a warm "Oh! Splendid!", followed by an inevitable anecdote about his time there. I didn't pay much attention to the story, to be honest. The only thought I had was "Yes, you tell this story nice and proper, because this is the last time." Next time, it was my turn to take the spotlight.

When his story finished, Rogan offered the cautionary remark I mentioned earlier. His warning was with regards to the train from W______ to N____. Apparently, there were only two a day, which were fairly crowded, and often delayed by an hour or so in transit. The patronage was also, to use his words, "Divey", and not really given to helping fellow passengers. Certainly not a foreigner. "But don't worry", he cheerfully said, "I can tell you all you need to know about the system". He proceeded to rattle off details of platforms, booths, train lines, and detours. My hands were likely trembling as I wrote down his instructions, because he then assured me with a smile, "You've chosen well. It's a really beautiful place." I could only weakly nod as my mind was furiously working through the logistics of travel.

After going through it a few times, I concluded that in truth it was all rather easy, as Rogan said. There weren’t that many things to keep in mind, and everything was just common sense, really. All I really had to do was keep my wits about me, and not panic. Even I could manage that, surely.

The flight to W_____ was long, but uneventful. As I walked past the customs official, who waved me on with complete disinterest, I could feel the sweat creeping down my palms. It was time to see how bad this fabled train really was. I nervously made my way down the stairs to the train line.

The first sign that something was amiss was that, as best I could tell, I was the only person on the platform. It was odd, because it was right in the middle of the day, and the airport itself had been fairly busy. Most people on my flight had understandably gone to get taxis to the center of W_____ -- worthless tourists! -- but surely someone else must want to travel to N____? I double and triple checked the instructions that Rogan had given me. No, it very clearly stated Platform 7, and made a point of warning me about the nonexistent crowd. I feebly peered up at the notice board, which informed me that the train to N____ was indeed on this platform, and heading out in just a few minutes. "Maybe it's a national holiday or something," I attempted to justify to myself. In a few minutes, as promised, the train arrived.

As I entered the carriage, I saw it was also completely empty. Peeking into the neighbouring ones, as best I could make out, they were empty too. "Could I really be the only passenger on the train?", I thought to myself, as the doors closed. Well, I couldn't be completely alone, because there at least must be an attendant to check tickets, I reassured myself. A nagging worry that this might instead be automated passed through my mind, but I didn't dwell on it. I just sat down and waited for the train to get moving, which it did after a few minutes.

From what Rogan had told me, and I had confirmed from my own research, there were just three stops from W_____ to N____. Three reasonably lengthy stops, but still, three has always seemed a nice, comforting number. I had planned the details of each of these stops beforehand. Once I had shown my ticket to the attendant before the first, I would find a seat and try to sleep through the next two. Since I now had a seat the whole way through, everything seemed according to plan.

Imagine my surprise, then, when no sooner than five minutes after the train had started, I could make out another train station in the distance. I didn't remember reading about this, but I was tired -- it was possible I was just forgetting something. Maybe I dozed off without realising, I thought. At this point, a voice came over the intercom. This is where things were confirmed to be, indeed, amiss.

The voice over the intercom may have been human; I don't doubt that. But it certainly wasn't speaking any language that I had ever heard. It wasn't even clear that it was actually uttering words. It seemed more like an imitation of reeds being rustled by the autumn wind, punctuated by what sounded like a drill piercing a plank of wood. Whatever it was, it went on for perhaps a minute or so. Once it finished, the carriage again fell into a dead silence.

At this stage, my mind was racing in something approaching panic. Despite my dismal hopes to the contrary, the train pulled up into the station. As the doors opened, I tried to make out the name of the station, clutching onto the hope that perhaps this was somewhere in Rogan's instructions.

I froze for a second at what I saw -- as best I could tell, this was none other than the Airport station, and apparently the very same platform where I had just boarded no less than five minutes ago. Had I gotten onto the wrong train? Perhaps this was some kind of shuttle between terminals? That seemed entirely possible for a moment, when I saw that the notice board on the platform clearly said, much as it did five minutes ago, that this train was bound for N_____.

While this all left me a bit rattled, I told myself to calm down. After all, at least the train hadn't deposited me at some other station in the middle of nowhere. And even if it ended up returning to the Airport again, surely I could just get out and ask someone for help? The fact that I didn't speak the local language well enough to even order a cup of coffee notwithstanding, of course. Feeling slightly more in control, I waited patiently for the doors to close, and the train to make its way.

Five minutes passed, and this time there was no station in sight. At least we weren't going in an endless loop around the Airport. What a relief! It seemed that now we were well on our way to N_____, and I relaxed a bit and watched the train roll past the outskirts of W_______. It was supposed to be just under an hour to the first stop, where hopefully there would be at least a few passengers to keep me company. At some point I lost track of time, fixated as I was on the open stretches of farmland outside, and the rather exquisite hue the sky was taking as the sun was creeping towards the horizon. That Rogan was right, as ever, damn him.

When next I checked my watch, though, I realised that it had now been well over an hour since we left the Airport the second time. Even accounting for the delays that Rogan had warned me about, we really ought to have reached the first station by now. But from what I could make out, we were still far from anything approaching civilisation. I couldn't see how we could possibly be close to another station.

At this stage I started to genuinely worry. A number of possibilities opened themselves to me. What if this was the wrong train after all? Or if the bizarre message on the intercom said something about a major detour? What if the train was heading straight to some depot in the middle of who knows where? Maybe that was why there were no other passengers? Yes, of course, I thought to myself; how stupid of me! They must not have intended to pick up anyone, which is why the train was empty.

Taking a few minutes to let this all sink in, I decided that either I would have to wait things out, or try to see if there was an attendant on board, and attempt to explain my situation with a mix of English and sign language. Neither seemed particularly appealing, but just sitting in worry seemed the worse of two. So I made my mind up to visit the next few carriages, to see if I could spot anyone who might be able to help. This would require me breaking one of Rogan's prime rules, namely, keeping my suitcases in plain sight at all times, but at that stage I really would have welcomed any pilferage as a sign of me not being completely alone.

As I made my way through the train, its movements seemed to grow increasingly unsteady. I had to hold on to the rails on top for fear of being toppled with the seemingly random bursts of sideways heaving, all the while attempting to go forward in anticipation of another passenger. The little sense of hope I had started off with found itself quickly diminishing, as it became apparent that even the next carriage was completely empty. It was worse than that, actually. It almost seemed to me as if no one had ever been on these trains. The seats were perfectly clean, the floors and doors spotless, and the map carefully plastered on the side was in pristine condition. There was also a faint but now discernible odour, as if of something newly unwrapped. Beyond all this, there was the vaguely disorienting sense that this carriage was an identical copy of the one where I boarded, with absolutely no distinguishing features or marks of its own. From the earlier episode with the phantom station, part of me wondered if this might be the same carriage itself. Not having the strength to follow such thoughts to their conclusion, I kept moving.

Some number of carriages down, I became aware of a noise a little further ahead. It was hard to make out at first, because it was rather high pitched, but with each uncertain tread forward it sounded unmistakably like the metal scratching against something. While not exactly the most reassuring of sounds, it proved a break from the seemingly endless monotony that had greeted me thus far. As I head to the end of the carriage, I could make out the source of the noise: the door in the next carriage hadn't properly closed, leaving the tiniest of gaps where the outside world managed to sneak through. At last, a respite from the deadening multiplicity of things!, I thought to myself.

Within seconds of this, I also became aware of a man sitting down in one of the seats next to the door.

He was a tall man, and from what I could make out, rather slim. He was wearing an unusually stylish coat, and seemed to be in some form of intense concentration. His head was slightly bowed forward, such that I could not make out his face. Something about him struck me as faintly unusual, though. It seemed as though every few seconds, there was a mild jerk in his shoulders, and as I headed closer to the glass door separating my carriage from his, I was convinced that above the high pitched shriek of the wheels of the train being slowly sliced by the tracks underneath, the man was giving out a dull, low-pitched groan.

Had it been a normal day, I would certainly have stayed put, and not thought to have stepped into that carriage. But I was desperate. Surely someone with that good a coat can't be all that bad, I half thought to myself, as I pressed the button to open the glass door.

In that next carriage, the sound coming through the open door seemed to get unreasonably louder. It also became apparent that my hunch was right, and the man was groaning. Despite a lifetime's worth of instincts, I pressed forward till I was a few steps away from him.

"Excuse me?", I politely ventured.

There was no response.

"Pardon me?", I attempted once again, this time a little more forcefully, but also betraying my latent fear through a slightly trembling voice.

This seemed to have got his attention, because the man slowly raised his head to look at me.

A look of utter derangement passed his face.

I cannot forget that look, because for a few moments I imagined that this would be the end of the paltry existence I had led, forever chasing shadows and a future that I knew was beyond my puny reach. He did not snarl, or smile, or indeed show any discernible expression with his mouth. Instead, he left it slightly open, like the door besides us that now seemed increasingly dangerous, thus revealing a small set of perfectly polished white teeth interspersed with a number of gaping holes. It was his eyes that convinced me that this man was no longer a member of our race, however, because they were like two small saucers, with pupils dilated beyond the pale, that stared blankly into my own.

In a pathetic attempt to overcome a fast rising panic, for some reason I thought it appropriate to continue my questioning.

"Do you know when the next station is due?", I asked him.

I think he heard the words, because he tilted his head slightly as I asked the question. He then opened his mouth slightly wider.

What followed was an act that would be remarkable in ordinary circumstances. In the state I was in, however, it seemed incontrovertible proof that this demented individual would see my last minutes. What he did was to emit a pitch perfect note, a high C I think it was, which he then sustained for what seemed like a minute, but was likely the order of several tens of seconds. He then proceeded to overlay this with another note in counterpoint, and then yet another. This was an immense technical feat, and I might have appreciated it more had the notes he put together not been so stubbornly atonal and vaguely ominous. The sound had a distinctly unpleasant edge to it, as though one were being slowly sealed into a coffin. It was as though he were suffocating me without even moving his hands.

While he was engrossed in his performance, I noticed that he had not blinked once since I approached him. There also seemed to be some saliva, or I shudder to think what else, dripping from the side of his mouth.

I began to slowly step back, in preparation for what I assumed would have to be a physical encounter. I had begun to plan how I might get out of this, with fanciful thoughts of making a run for my original carriage, and then using my suitcase as a shield or possibly implement of offense. I carefully surveyed the man, who continued not to blink, but also not to be cognisant that I was moving. It was almost as though he were locked in a stasis, beyond all time, ensconced by that abysmal sound that he continued to emit.

As I was close to the glass door, I was startled to hear the intercom go off again. It was the now welcome strains of that inhuman voice, which now sounded like the steady hum of a fridge, and what sounded like a swarm of insects in the background.

The voice, however, had a marked effect on the man seated in front of me. No sooner had the announcement over the intercom stopped, than he got up from his seat with alarming alacrity. Fearing confrontation, I braced myself. But it turned out he had no interest in me. All he wanted was to fetch his suitcase, placed in the rack opposite him. The suitcase, in stark contrast to his coat, was old and battered, with a handle that was barely affixed onto the trunk. The suitcase was black, but there were inexplicable chippings all over it, as if in some moment of mayhem he had taken an axe to it in an attempt to destroy it and its contents for good.

His face still betrayed no known emotion, but with his suitcase in hand he seemed somehow complete. He confidently strode towards the slightly open door, in anticipation I assumed of an upcoming station. This made me slightly relieved; I recalled now that the last time the voice on the intercom spoke, we were just about to arrive at a station.

What happened next, however, I was not expecting. The man forced the door open, and jumped out of the still moving train without pause.

It took me a few moments to comprehend what had happened. My legs now felt rooted to the ground, and I could feel a chill developing down the lower half of my spine. I thought to make it to the window to see if the man was ok, but I realised it was futile. It was now fairly dark outside, and the train was moving at a fairly high speed. There was no chance that I could make out anything outside the train.

After a few minutes spent in complete paralysis, I became aware of the fact that the train was showing no signs of slowing down. I had to conclude that we were not, in fact, stopping at the next scheduled station.

With time, I decided that it was best to sit down and try to think things through calmly. There was no use in thinking about the man anymore, because whatever happened, I certainly had no part in it. Or had I? Was he perhaps reacting to my presence? I did not want to pursue that line of thought any further, so I thought instead to simply shut my eyes, and try to block out the world. My mind was taken back to my lunchtime colleagues, in that world now so far away. I tried to imagine their reaction on hearing this story, and I could predict how they would tear it all down, and attempt to paint me again as a simpleton who was given to exaggeration. I had not quite realised just how much I fundamentally disliked these people, and how I despised their banal conversations and glib put-downs. Why was I trying to impress them, again?

The hate swirling in my mind, I drifted to sleep.

I don't know how long I was asleep. Days, maybe. Does it matter? All I know is, I awoke to catch the tail end of another message on the intercom. This time, though, it did seem like the train was slowing down. I had reached a state of supreme apathy from my slumber, and so felt nothing close to excitement when the train did in fact pull into a station. From what I could make out, it was indeed the second station on the way to N_____.

As usual, there was no one who got on board.

The doors closed, and the train slowly made its way forward.

That was some time ago now. Certainly more than a week ago, but who is to say, exactly? There has been the occasional announcement over the intercom, each displaying surprising variety in terms of the sounds and distortions employed. After around the sixth of these, I gave up anticipating a stop at the next station. Strangely, though, I'm no longer especially worried about when it will happen. Part of me has come to enjoy the silence here, and when the sun is up, the view outside is sometimes quite pleasing. Even if we do not stop again, I think I will not mind all that much. Then again, for some reason, I do think we will make the final stop eventually. And I can only hope that N____ is worth the wait.