In the end, we are all just passengers.
I am musing, lost in the silence of my thoughts, when the doors open. They’re old, made of some flimsy, plasticky material. The hinges creak, but the people either don’t notice or don’t care. Maybe even both. Their sole focus is getting on the damned train.
They are orderly, which is strange for a country town like this. I suppose it’s early morning, and these are the diligent workers and top-level students who have hard-earned scholarships to private schools. There’s chitchat of the usual kind, between colleagues and co-workers. Some people are on their phones, others reading books or sheafs of paper they were supposed to get through the night before and totally forgot about.
I watch people. I always have. How their eyes betray their mouths, the fidgeting of fingers and toes while they talk to someone they don’t want to. Guys hitting on girls that don’t even know they exist, others trying valiantly to strike up conversation to alleviate the boredom of a long ride. Some fall asleep, their heads lolling to one side or the other.
The last person to get on the train is a young woman. Her hair is mousy brown, and it looks tidy, but also like she’s combed it in a rush. With her fingers or some such. She’s slender, a little too skinny, in my opinion. She keeps her head down, so I can’t see her eyes or the shape of her nose. She’s pushing a pram with a little boy in it. He’s silent for the moment, but I can tell that all he wants to do is shriek and shout. She whispers to him reassuringly, the desperation in her voice clashing uncomfortably with her veneer of calm. She really wants him to stay quiet. She stumbles onto the carriage just as the whistle blows, drawing a considerable amount of attention to herself.
They all turn to watch, but the train is about to leave. An almost deathly quiet falls over the carriage as the doors close, unfolding themselves like contortionists finishing an act. There’s a healthy thwack as the cheap engineering meet, followed by the announcer’s scratchy voice. It’ll be thirty clicks to the next station. She (oh, it’s a she today) sounds as disinterested as everyone else on the train. I guess you would be, cooped up somewhere all day, knowing no one really cared about what you were doing.
The first stop after this one (this one doesn’t really have a name, it’s just ‘The End’ or ‘The Beginning’) is called Azure. It’s a pretty name. I’m sure it meant something in the old days but I can’t really remember. Something to do with light, I think. Now it doesn’t mean anything, not on its own.
But it does mean home, or work, or that place where my friend Sam lives. Nowadays it means everything.
The train pulls out of the station. I expect a puff of smoke, like you used to see in the black and white movies. There never is one, and there isn’t one today. I am disappointed, once again.
And so I continue to watch. People look straight through me, and I’ve done it so often that I’ve overcome the discomfort associated with staring at one particular person for an extended period of time. There’s nothing interesting yet. The outer suburbs are where the action begins. Gossip, rumour, yelled out from one side of the carriage to the other. Or being texted furiously on phones. All this whispering business is almost archaic. And the people who just want peace and quiet. Their faces are pinched with annoyance, but they know it would be bad form to yell, so they keep their heads down and ride it out.
The woman with the pram is trying to find a seat. Most of the people in the carriage have gone back to their regular activities; sleeping or reading or conversing. She’s having difficulty – the seats are arranged in a strange formation and it’s hard for anyone to navigate to begin with. They don’t look so good, either. They’re mostly ripped, threads bare for anyone to see. Their sides are covered with grubby hands and year-old chewing gum. Quite frankly, I don’t even know why people would catch the train, if not for reasons of necessity.
After a decent amount of manoeuvring and ‘excuse me’s and ‘thank you’s, she finds a spot. It isn’t comfortable, but it’s good enough, considering. She tucks the pram into the corner, the boy facing towards her. She slumps in relief and I can see she wants to close her eyes and rest, but at the same time, she knows she can’t. Her eyelids flutter, straining, and she manages to hold on.
I look away, not wanting to make her more nervous than she already is. She probably doesn’t even know I was watching, but I take precautions anyway. I scout around the carriage again, making sure I haven’t missed anyone or anything else. It’s still all relatively the same, so I turn my attention to what’s outside.
The sky is not clear, but a hazy combination of pastel orange and blue and grey. It’s smothered with cloud, with wisps floating off on either side. They seem happy. I wonder if they know that they’re just liquid droplets, held together by the tiniest of threads. That their lives could be cut short by an accidental change in the makeup of the air. But the point is, they’re free. I envy them their freedom. I hate being so restricted. Light crackles the edges of a cloud crest, setting it daintily on fire. I try to see the whole crest, but I’m at an awkward angle, so I settle for what I can see for the moment.
The boy starts crying, as I knew he would. His wails pull me away from the sky and back into the carriage. I watch the people around them. They don’t seem so impressed. There are furrowed brows aplenty, and they try not to stare but they can’t help themselves. Goddamn children. Why won’t he just shut up? What a crap mother. I bet they’re cursing to themselves. She tries very hard to calm him down, but he keeps crying. Probably louder, if that were possible. Tears almost run down her cheeks. She loves him; that much is clear. All she wants is for him to be quiet.
For some reason, my thoughts drift back to the clouds. Someone once told me that if you could see the defined edges of a cloud, it meant that a storm was coming. A big storm. I almost shudder. I hate storms.
I glance back at the woman. She’s collapsed back into her seat. Ricky (that’s the boy’s name, I’ve learned) is sobbing softly now, instead of yelping and squealing like before. She’s worried, but happy. For the moment. She’s thinking. I don’t know what about, but I hope it’s something pleasant. Her mouth is folded into a half smile, and I wonder if she gets these moments often. She reminds me of someone. Someone in my past, whose face is blurred by a haze of fingerprints.
The announcer’s voice breaks into my thoughts. She sounds even more bored than she did thirty clicks ago. Everyone knows which stops are which (there are signs, for goodness’ sake), so her job is a little redundant. Sometimes I pity her, but what good would pity be?
The woman gets off at Azure, along with a trickle of casually dressed teenagers. She looks afraid. I wonder what Azure means to her – home or work or that man she doesn’t want to see. Her child is quiet again, his big blue eyes wide with… something. I can’t tell. The doors open, creaking greedily, and she struggles to push the pram out without toppling over. No one helps her.
I watch her walk off into the distance. I want to help her, but I can’t. I hate being so restricted. She disappears, and I’m greeted with a new batch of people. They’re all about the same, barring that one guy with tattoos all over his body and a giant Mohawk. They used to be trendy.
The train lingers at the station because we’re a little bit early. I don’t know if I like this or not. But I know I want to stop watching. For once, it would be nice to be watched. I scoff to myself. Wishful thinking.
Azure isn’t busy at the moment (well, at least, the station isn’t), but it’s dusty. The kind of red dust that sticks to everything it touches and takes ages to wash out. The wind isn’t helping, either. The clouds continue to float, swaying with the wind but still seemingly unaffected. They seem so happy. The dust flies into me, and I can feel the grit and the red. What was it they used to say? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. At funerals. I don’t know if they said it at mine. They probably did. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
It doesn’t say anything about sand. Of course not. No one cares about sand, do they? It’s just that stuff on the beach. When it’s warm, you can sink your toes into it and it feels like heaven. But no one cares. Even if you’re in a special handful that’s picked to start a new life. One of watching. Of restriction. Of helplessness.
I started life as a person. Now I’m just a passenger. A pane of glass. Clear as day, dark as night. A passenger.
This piece was first published in Issue 2 of Rambutan Literary. Click here for the original post.