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One Train May Conceal Another

by Cormac James


Once upon a time they called it “an accident on the line.” But the lie, and the truth, were too blatant, so they started calling it other things. “An incident involving a passenger,” “an interruption of traffic,” “circumstances beyond our control.” Still, no matter how it was described, you looked at your watch and made a mental note. If they’d been killed outright, there’d be a delay of about half an hour. If they hadn’t, things would be more complicated, and you’d have longer to wait.

Now a familiar voice came over the station PA—a voice that was well—fed, well-spoken, and more or less female. She said her piece, and rounded it off with a frank, eager apology. She left a little pause, then began to repeat the announcement, word for word. Repeated, the announcement was so obviously a recording we couldn’t believe we’d let ourselves be taken in first time round.

Even as she began to speak, we all knew we’d been waiting too long. Already, we’d taken to watching the new arrivals turn the corner, just to see their faces change. First they looked up and down the platform, then looked at the platform opposite, then at the electronic display. We’d all gone through the same process. Smiling at them, we were smiling at ourselves, at the way we’d been, not so long ago.

The man beside me lit a cigarette, filled his lungs, and flung a match at the tracks. On the other side of him, three girls in well-cut office suits were standing near the edge. I turned my head to get a better look. He seemed to think I was looking at him, and looked me straight in the face, eager to share the outrage.

In my pocket was a letter I’d received that morning from my father, sent from his hospital bed. It was his usual style, his usual ramble, and the plot, and the casting, were as lawless as ever. Earlier in the year he’d had his whole prostate removed, trying to stop the spread of cancer, but because of complications now he’d had to go back under the knife. To add to his troubles, only a month before he’d finally been obliged to put his mother into a home.

Wed. 21st Sept.
Bon Secours, Cork.

Dear John,

I hope everything is well with you. You heard my story—An Abyss and infomation on the Small Bowel, which they are trying to get rid of with massive doses of Antibioticts. As long as the Cure doesn’t rival the Disease, I keep telling myself. So far so good but I am down for another scan tomorrow Thurs which will tell if it is working or not. Otherwise they’ll have to open me up again and go digging.

I am fast after writing to my mother as I can’t go in to see her, so that is a bit of a loss to her (I suppose). Don’t get old my grandfather used to say to us and I’m starting to think he might of been right.

I was thinking of my cousin Mike Cullen R.I.P. of Skibereen last night. As you know he went away to be a Priest. This was the fifties which I can tell you was a lot tougher times than now no matter what the papers say. The year he was to be ordained he left the priesthood. A Spoiled Priest they were known as. Of course the family (most families) felt discraced. They treated Mike very shabby altogether after. His parents used to stop talking when he came into the room. So the poor man hit the drink and finished an alcoholic which you could understand without applauding I suppose. Before that he went to England where he was teaching and doing a line with a very nice girl. My mother met her. But his eldest brother was sent over to England to bring him back and he made the mistake of coming back and was then treated abonibally and turned to drink. He told me one time he went to a wedding in Galway and did not come back for 17 days. Anyway, when his parents got old in Skibereen, I remember them, it was Mike who minded them in their old age. But he was not forgiven (as far as I know). He stopped drinking after a stroke but he died soon after from liver damage.

My lunch has arrived. My diet is:
Tea and 1 slice of Toast for Breakfast.
Soup and Jelly and Ice Cream for Lunch.
Tea and 1 Slice of toast for Tea
For the Past 4 Days.

I suppose there is plenty in the world would be glad of it, and the hospital too, bad as it is. The nurses are 24 carat but thank God for the Private is all I say.

Regards, J.

On the station platform, as much to kill time as anything else, I read my father’s letter over again. I let the facts settle, and let the ghosts rise, and tried my best not to summon or interfere. What came was a blotched and faded vision, dredged from the very marrow of my early childhood. Christmas Eve. Our kitchen. A lean, white-haired man in a worn suit, no collar, no tie. I imagined my father bringing him straight from the hospital, to spend a few days with us. He would never have called it charity, because he liked and respected his cousin too much, but that’s what it was, in part. That man sat at our kitchen table and in his left hand he had a firm red rubber ball, which he squeezed and released, squeezed and released, with a fascinating, stubborn rhythm, like the rhythm of breathing, of someone fast asleep. I wanted that ball. I suppose I was a child like any other, and simply wanted whatever the other person had. I won’t say that’s when the pure, heady greed began, but it’s the first unadulterated memory I have of it. I can remember little else about that scene, that man. All I know is that he must have let me hold that ball, if only for a short while, for how else could I—here on the station platform, waiting for my delayed train—still feel it in my hand?

Half an hour later, the train dreamed itself towards the platform, and even as it arrived it brought groans of dismay, as though the delay were only now being confirmed. The wheels hissed and tutted, and with a lavish sigh we were all invited inside. I followed the girls into a carriage toward the rear, and stood where I would have a good view.

Across the aisle from them were two young men, about my age, who sat facing each other. They were sharing a can of beer, dutifully passing it back and forth. Their faces were furious with drink. I watched the bigger of the two cast an expert eye over the girl nearest him, the one with the long blond hair. He was smart. He let them all sit down, and get settled, before saying anything. At first, I couldn’t quite hear what he said, but it seemed to be something about her skirt, which was far shorter than the others. Listening, his friend was already wrestling with laughter.

Across the aisle, the girls tried to ward off the danger with small talk, about house prices, boyfriends, jobs. They were whistling in the dark. So he leaned even closer to her, to be sure of being heard. This time, his words had a physical impact, which she tried to control.

Since quitting the platform the train had slowed and stopped every five hundred yards, then stuttered on only to quickly stall again, as though the driver kept stopping to ask the way. Now it gathered courage and bulled on at top speed, as though to overtake the train it should have been. Now the carriage was careering over the tracks, bashing my shoulders against the door, as though desperate to get out. Outside, the Irish Sea sparkled like tinfoil, and the gulls swooned and mimed in the wind. Through the carriage windows the sea tilted and swayed, sucked the slop from the strand, and beyond the glass the images flayed each other mercilessly, like images in a film.

Meanwhile, the drunk continues his harangue against that skirt, which is tormenting him like a shameful memory. He has a vivid imagination, but a narrow frame of reference. I hear what it is he asks us to imagine, and I don’t resist. Still swaying on my feet, I let his words warm me, from the inside out. I am ashamed, and impressed, and curious. The confusion is rampant, gleeful, just under the skin, and my face feels like something set aside to dry, which must not be touched. Finally, she raises a palm to her tormenter’s face—or to where she imagines it to be, somewhere behind her back. Because she’s long since twisted her shoulders, and resettled her hams, to turn the other way. She raises her hand, like someone stopping traffic, and lets it hanging in the air. Behind her, unseen, he stands up and undoes his fly. Standing, he toils against the heavy swell. Bravely, he takes it out, and lets it drag him toward that ominous, merciless hand. He is imitating the idiot she wants him to be, and he has a talent for comedy.

The train staggered onward, then slowed again. But even as its courage faltered, it was still moving toward its goal, and carrying me toward mine. As it slowed, I said a silent prayer. I didn’t know how much longer I could resist, the temptation to intervene. They were only two seats away, and I could be on him in a shot. But now the train began to build up a little momentum again, and then braked hard, and I saw that I’d been outrun. The station was approaching. It was too late. I would never come to their rescue, and earn their admiration.

This was our stop, mine and the girls’. I watched the three of them walk away from the carriage. They moved along the platform with a diplomatic grace, which I studied for a personal reproach. They were tall, slim, impeccably groomed, and carried themselves with a sober triumph, even now. Inside the carriage, their two tormenters were already elaborating the story for each other, like old friends at a reunion. Obediently, they passed the can back and forth, and reprimanded it for their audacity. The doors closed. The train pulled off. Soon the platform was almost empty. There was only me and the girls and a few other stragglers, waiting for our connection. At the far end of the platform, a lone guard was standing with what looked like an ambulance crew. He had his notebook out, and he was writing down the facts.

Probably everyone had their own way. Some would wait alone on a deserted embankment, on the inside of the curve, so that even the driver might not see. For others, it would be from the platform, with an audience. Probably some took a running jump, as from the edge of a swimming pool. Or simply stood there, near the edge, and leaned forward, leaned a little more, waiting for gravity to take over, refusing to resist, and just let themselves fall.

Out of respect for what I’d seen, I left my notes in my bag—the notes I’d planned to look over one last time on the train, if only to show myself what I already knew. I was heading to an interview for a job I didn’t want to do, and which I would try my very best to get. I was well prepared. A little further along the platform, the girls found themselves a square of sunlight that had squeezed between the station billboards. Waiting, they fingered their hair and tugged their suit-jackets down tight over their breasts, which betrayed themselves like stolen goods.

 

Cormac James was born in Cork, Ireland. He has published short fiction in Columbia, Phoenix Irish Short Stories, and The Dublin Review. His novel The Surfacing will be released next month by Bellevue Literary Press. (5/2015)

Copyright © Cormac James, 2015


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