Thursday, December 16, 2010

Short Story - The Story That Can't Be Told

I walk into the railway station still cursing the traffic under my breath. The clock on the wall with a white dial and square black numbers and hands shows a time well after midnight. The platforms appear deserted except for the odd porter hurrying along, smelling of dried sweat on decayed leather. I hear the sound of running water on utensil, sometimes flat and sometimes gradually dampening, punctuated by a harsh clamour of the most recently washed joining the rest of the pile. It mixes with the occasional lonely hoot of a locomotive on its way to the shed. I ask a passing porter and he informs me that the last train of the night has already passed.

I find an empty bench in an unlit corner. A dog lies on its side next to it; it’s left ear flaps lazily when I place my suitcase on the bench. I stretch my legs out in front and tug my tee a few times near the belly so it lies loosely and creased, camouflaging the paunch. The weather is balmy. A faint breeze rises and falls. In the distance, infinite lines of semaphore signals trace the path of railway tracks.

There is no open tea stall in sight. I close my eyes and try to sleep. Perhaps, I do. I am not sure. When I open my eyes again, everything is the same. I decide to stroll on the platform in the hope of finding an errant hawker still peddling stale readymade tea from a steel cylinder. Even if I do not, I say to myself, it will let time pass more unobtrusively.

To my right, the platform ends sooner. So I walk in that direction first. I consider briefly, if I should carry the suitcase, but decide against it. It is dark under the bench and it is unlikely that, even if someone were to pass by it, the suitcase will be noticed. The glimmer of lights from the platform on the track beside me, move with me. I walk for a while, gazing intently and continuously at them, until it makes me a little dizzy. Have you ever felt a bizarre restless desire, without reason, to jump onto the tracks just when a train is about to pass? Just to see what happens? Happens to me all the time. I have to turn away and look elsewhere until it passes. Presently, the platform ends and I turn back.

It is not until I am almost at the other end of the platform, that I notice it. Through a fissure in the parapet wall that lines one side of the platform to mark the perimeters of the railway station, I see a line of square white lights. The light disappears by the time I register it. I step back and forth a few times, until I locate it again. I move closer to the wall. The lights reveal themselves to be from windows of a train compartment. On each side of it, I see the ends of adjacent compartments. Through the windows, I spot human outlines. It is a train! The porter was wrong! There still is a train tonight! I rush back to my bench and pick up the suitcase. The dog, I notice, has slipped away.

Of the long line of ticket counters, only one is open at this hour. A pleasant young girl smiles sleepily from behind the grilled window. I ask her for tickets and she explains to me that there are no more trains for the rest of the night. “But you are making a mistake!” I tell her, “there is another train! I have seen it just now!” She looks bemused. “No Sir,” she explains again, “there is no train.” “What rubbish!” I scream, “are you stupid? I have seen it myself, I said!” Her forehead creases. “What train, Sir,” she asks, “where have you seen it?”

I tell her. She looks at me strangely. “You want tickets for that train?” she asks. I am thoroughly exasperated by now. “Yes yes,” I say, “that very train! Is there a problem?” “No, just that…”she starts to say and then pauses. “Wait”, she says, “I will consult the station master.”

I throw my hands up but she does not see it, for she is gone by then. I wait impatiently. She returns, and I can say this confidently since I’ve been watching the clock all the while, seven minutes later. “Has the Station Master agreed to offer me a ticket?” I ask her testily. She busies herself with typing whatever it is that she needs to type for a ticket to be produced. After she hands it to me and I glance at it to confirm the requisite details, I ask her if she will tell me how to get to the train. “I saw it through a crack in the wall. I didn’t have time to find a route.” I tell her. She offers me directions. As I am about to leave, she says, “There’s another train in just less than three hours Sir. Are you sure you don’t want to wait for that one?” I don’t even bother to answer. I look back once and see her smiling sadly at me.

The train is scantily populated, as befits the time. I walk past a few compartments before entering one. It appears empty. I pick a seat and stuff my suitcase under it. Then I pace the entire compartment a couple of times. It is indeed empty. The train begins to move.

I drift off to sleep. I do not know if I dream, since I never remember them when I wake up. But when I do, I find another man sitting opposite me. He is a middle aged man, quite unremarkable, except for his strange choice of attire. He wears a woolen overcoat, under which, I catch glimpses of a sweater. A muffler is coiled around his neck and he holds one glove in the other gloved hand. When he realized I am awake, he smiles feebly and greets me.

“Are you alright?” I ask him, “it isn’t that cold, is it?”

“No,” he says, “I always put these on when I travel at night.”

I nod disinterestedly. Outside, a full moon shines brightly. I wonder why it has escaped my notice so far. It seems to be a cloudless night, although it is difficult to say, since the lights inside the compartment reflect off the glass and obscure the view. The other man has dozed off. I get up and walk to the toilet. When I come out, I find one of the doors to the compartment unlatched. It creaks softly. I open it wide and stare outside. A full wind blows into my face and I shut my eyes for a few seconds. The train, I sense, is moving at great speed.

The view outside is surreal. The train is blazing its way through a bridge. The sky is indeed clear, and bathed in moonlight. The moon is a perfect circle, and occasionally, small wisps of cloud flow across it. When they do, they look like paper burnt at the edges. I look for stars, expecting to find whole clusters of them, but find only one, that shines brilliantly a little to the left of the moon. I am not sure if it is, in fact, a star. It could be - probably is - Venus. Below, everything is pitch-black. I wonder what this bridge crosses over. The train is still over it – bridge of great length. Almost as if it were crossing an ocean. But that couldn’t be – there wasn’t an ocean on this route. I made a mental note to check what it could be when I reached my destination in the morning.

I lean out of the train and count the compartments. There are twelve. The light of the moon, strangely, does not touch the land. Everything lies in darkness. Just the train with its luminescent windows. I wonder what this scene must look like from a vantage point outside the train. A stark moon. One shining planet. And the train as a streak of white light suspended in the darkness.

I see a face appear at the door of the next compartment. It belongs to an old woman. She wears a scarf that hides her hair. The scarf flutters in the wind. I smile at her. She smiles back. I resume staring at the moon.

Through the corner of my eye, I detect movement. I turn and find that the lady has taken her scarf off and her hair, long and grey, blow eerily behind her. She is staring at me. I don’t know what you say. So I smile again. She whispers something, but I can’t hear her. The wind carries her voice in the opposite direction. Then she jumps.

I am so shocked, I become paralyzed. It is perhaps that I even stopped breathing momentarily, for when I regain my composure, I find my chest heaving, drawing in great gusts of air. I keep staring at the door, where the lady was until a few minutes ago, almost hoping that I hallucinated and that she will appear again. Or maybe, if I hallucinated, there wasn’t a lady at all. Another face peeps out. It is not the old lady. It is a young woman, extremely pretty, and she smiles at me before I can. I smile and then remember about the old woman and start to tell her what I have seen. She shakes her head and waves her hand before I am through the first sentence. Then she jumps.

And now I notice the macabre spectacle. On each side, at every door, I see faces. They appear, stay there mutely for a few seconds and jump. A dozen bodies together, almost in unison. Their faces are replaced by others’ and then they jump. Thus it continues. I am so struck by horror, I cannot take my eyes of it. I realize I do not even see what I see. Indeed, my vision appears from that vantage point of my imagination, and I see from there, in addition to the moon, Venus and the train, bodies, their backs lit by the train lights, in free fall. Then they disappear.

Someone places a hand on my shoulder. I turn to find the man who was sitting next to me. “No! No!” I scream, “don’t push me!” He shakes his head and pulls me in, instead. He drags me to my seat. From inside his overcoat, he produces a flask. The brandy flows warmly into my stomach. The sound of the train comes back to me. It is still on the bridge and still at great speed.

“What train is this? What is happening? Did you see what is happening outside? Did you see!” I sputter

“Yes, I know.” He says.

I gulp down more brandy.

“You shouldn’t have forced yourself on this train.” His voice is deep and rich.

“What train is this? What train is this! Oh my God!”

“It is the train of suicides,” He says, “on every full moon.” He continues to speak for a few more minutes.

“What? The Government! What rubbish!” It seems my voice returns to me, “that is just bullshit! Such a thing could never exist!”

“But it does.”

“No, it doesn’t! If it did, everybody would know!”

He smiles wanly. “Well, everybody does.”

“And…and, who are you then? Why are you here?”

“Oh,” he says and places a hand firmly on my shoulder, “I am here to make sure nobody has a change of heart.”

5 comments:

fd said...

Almost up there with the ghost train scene in Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome. Good for me I read both in broad daylight!

Kushal Chowdhury said...

Almost? :-)

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Leothayn Dan said...

In response to the Hardy quote:'So be my grave without a name/That earth may swallow up my shame.' The Poet, by Aleister Crowley.

An interesting corollary on the themes of humility contrasted with human pomposity and overawing, natural ecological efficiency; to the world-soul.

satyam singh said...

yes said almost ,?