Saturday, February 7, 2009

An evening on a train

She was bored. She felt a little tired, a little lonely, but most of all, she felt bored. She was on vacation in a foreign country that she had long longed to visit. She liked traveling alone, but she had just spent three weeks with strangers who had quickly become friends, and while the tired part of her welcomed the empty train coupe, silence had so completely taken the place of sounds that she missed it all, just a little. The place wasn't exactly silent- in addition to the usual sounds of the grind of wheels against tracks and the swaying squeaks of the train, there were sounds coming from nearby coupes- small groups of friends and families and even the slow but shrill whine of a baby at a distance. But after weeks of chatter with people who wanted to talk to her, who were almost laughably enamored by her foreign appearance and origin, who kept asking her how to say X in Y language, after weeks of barely threaded conversations in broken languages, she was alone again. She would miss some of the people she had met, particularly her roommate, with whom she had shared many hours of silly giggles, walks to the beach, hikes, evenings of gazing at stars and deliciously illicit afternoons of cooking in the room on a small camping stove. She knew that although they had shared addresses and may write an e-mail or two, they would never again have the same familiarity. They might even meet again in some different part of the world, but such a meeting would be nice at best and awkward at worst.

Any attempts at conversation with her neighbors, had she had the energy for it, would have probably been more of an intrusion than anything else. So she remained in her empty coupe, now sitting and now lying down, absently-mindedly reading a book, munching on some snacks, looking out the window at scenery that had been fascinating three weeks ago but had now become monotonous, closing the coupe door or opening it again and watching the children playing in the little hallway that ran lengthwise along the wagon. These children also stopped to stare at her from time to time, a brave few even venturing a step or two into her coupe, but as soon as a parent noticed it, the child was promptly reprimanded and pulled back to the hallway.

It was a warm evening and she languidly lay on one of the upper berths. From this vantage point she peeked out at people walking across the hallway on their way to the toilet, the smokers' corner or the samovar that was on one end of the wagon for passengers to make hot tea. This is when she saw a man in a large straw hat pass by, but she doesn't know if they made eye contact or not- her lazy, half-sleepy mind barely registered his presence. A few long minutes passed and, finding that the children were somewhat boring and the novel she had brought with her possibly worse, she tried to doze off for lack of anything better to pass the time with.

Although drowsy, she wasn't sleepy enough to be able to doze for more than half an hour. She tossed and turned and even put the pillow over her head to try to block out all the sounds and the electric lights. Finally, giving up, she decided to open her eyes and give up on sleep for the time being. Maybe she could try reading again. Thinking this, she was climbing down to the lower berth when she noticed that she was not alone in the coupe anymore. The man with the straw hat was sitting in a dimly lit corner, staring fixedly at her. She felt a little unnerved by the stare, but decided to welcome the opportunity to alleviate her boredom, reasoning that there were plenty of people around in case something did happen.

"Are you scared?" This was a strange way to start a conversation, but since he had asked, she decided to respond with the bravest face she could muster.
"No, why should I be," she asked, as if the thought had never entered her mind.
He didn't waste much time in preliminaries.
"I drank too much," he said. She didn't respond, trying to indicate that she had no interest in his level of inebriation, without saying it out loud, which would have come out rude. Needing little encouragement, he continued:
"My name is X. What is yours? Where are you from? What are you doing here?"
Although direct, the questions were more keen than rude. On her guard, she gave short replies and didn't encourage him by asking too much about his background. He didn't seem to mind.
"How do I look in this hat?" She wasn't expecting him to be fishing for compliments so quickly, but she replied with a non-committal "fine." This was not really something she was interested in developing, so she started gazing out of the window (though there was not much to see).

He quickly shifted gears.

"My brother died. He worked in construction in Rostov and yesterday, he had an accident. I came from Tula to pick up the body, but at the train station in Rostov, my pocket was picked. I needed money to transport the body but had not a single penny left. I sold my phone to get enough money to buy a ticket back to Tula, so I can come back again with the necessary amount of money. Then, with the remaining money, I drank. Now I am on my way back to Tula. I want to die. I feel like I can do anything. Are you scared?"

All this was very sudden and strange but he didn't seem to be making the story up to try and swindle her out of some cash. He never actually asked for money. But the repetition of "are you scared" and his assertions of being drunk unnerved her. She noted that the children were no longer playing in the hallway and were either eating their evening meals or even perhaps asleep. While the wagon had many people in it, the coupe also had a door with a lock, and she wondered how long it would take for someone to force the door open from the outside if it was locked. And if she were trapped in here with this strange man, and screamed for help, would people come to her aid? Realizing that her thoughts were wandering too far from what the present situation necessitated, she tried to reel them back in.

She tried to offer a word of sympathy to the man, failed miserably in actually helping the situation, wondered if it would be a good idea to sit and talk to this man for a while, decided against it, and pretended that she needed to go back to sleep. She lay on the berth, immobile as if she were asleep for what seemed like a long time (although it was barely fifteen minutes). To her relief, the ticket collector came by, saw that the man was not in his seat but in a different coupe, one with a single female half-asleep in it. The collector firmly insisted that the man return to his seat, and in another hour, a couple joined her in the coupe. They were quiet and boring, but she was not quite in the mood for anything more interesting anyway.


Sourav said...

Tell me one thing, why is the alcoholic such a regular feature in Russian literature? (or maybe because I am reading Dostoevsky now).

Tista said...

I think its because alcoholism is (and has been) a serious issue in this country.