Fictional short story by: Veerle Fanoy
Illustrations by: Emma Krone
– An ear-piercing screech fills the carriages. For a split-second I ask myself whether I should be here, confused by the alarming noise that comes out of this train. But the rhythmic puffing eases my mind as the train starts dragging its mass through the landscape. The dry, miserable bush outside the window drifts by and my stomach feels funny. I wonder whether I feel sad for the thirsty bush or nervous about where I’m going. I decide I feel sad for the bush because it can’t leave this shrivelled place but I can. I can pull my feet out of this dry earth and look for water; I would be a fool if I didn’t. I hope mum will understand…
Across the aisle, three rows down, sits a woman with dark-brown hair and a dark-green beret. She reminds me of what the landscape on the other side of the window should look like. The blue of her eyes would make a lovely little creek. She’s reading a book – ‘How To Build Your Inner Home’ – mum would laugh if she were here. The yellow seats surrounding the lady are empty. I turn in my seat in search of other passengers – the leather groans – but a sea of yellow pains my eyes. I realise that I have not seen anyone board the train in the last two hours, apart from an old man with a folding chair and a newspaper under his arm, who disappeared into a faraway carriage. I try to remember how many stops we have made, but I can’t because every town we passed looked like the previous one. No conductor has come to check my ticket. I watch it sunbathe on the little table, and I can almost see the black ink that spells ‘Sepp Lucas’ melt into the white paper.
The weary landscape starts morphing into houses, first sporadically, then endlessly. Sun-baked twigs and leaves become suburbs of concrete, hubs of sky-high buildings as the train nears the first city amid the desert. Two more stops, then I’m where I need to be. The train seems anxious about this sudden concentration of life amidst miles of dry nothing; it thunders through the city, desperate to get out. Thrown off by the urban landscape, the train almost forgets to stop at the station. Duty trumps instinct and the train brings itself to a halt, though annoyed at being disrupted. My head smacks into the window I was dozing off against, and the lady’s ‘How To Build Your Inner Home’ thuds on the floor. The lady with the green beret grabs her book and bags and exits the train. I wonder why she needs an inner home if this city is her home. The city would be enough for me.
As the train starts making its way out of the town – clumsily but resolutely – the carriage door slowly creaks open. After thirty seconds of puffing and squealing, it reveals a guy. He’s tall, his hair a bit red and a bit brown. He has very dark eyes, and I’ve seen them before. My neighbour’s dog, Moose, had the same dark eyes, which always said ‘I’m too tired to play’. Those eyes would annoy me, but also make me a little sad. It was just a stupid excuse, I believed. Then I would realise that maybe dogs don’t do excuses, and I would feel sad for Moose because maybe he really was too tired. But now these eyes don’t make me feel sad. This guy is not a dog and so he must be able to make excuses. Though they don’t make me feel annoyed either. Curious, more like. He must be around twenty years old, but why does he look so exhausted? Slowly he makes his way through the empty carriage. The wooden floor squeaks under his heavy boots. I turn my head to the window and continue to follow him through the reflection. The squeaking stops once he reaches my seat, and the guy swings his bag on top of the overhead luggage rack as if it’s a feather. I make a note to myself that I should try that too. He places himself on the seat in front of me, facing me. As a means of asking “Why are you sitting here?” I turn my head and squint at him. He returns the gaze for a few seconds, but decides he doesn’t care and turns his head to the window. I make another note to myself that I should try not to be careless ever; it’s not a nice look.
“I’ll never get tired of this view,” he says while his eyes glide over the parched bush. I’m not sure whether he’s speaking to me, but the sea of yellow behind him tells me he probably is.
“It’s dying,” I reply. He turns his head towards me and something in his eyes makes me think he’s not taking me seriously.
“Where are you headed?”
“City on the east coast.”
“That city is also dying.”
“No, it’s not.”
He seems amused and I’m annoyed. I hope that this conversation ends here.
“How old are you?”
“Fourteen,” I say, and I suddenly feel the need to compensate, so I glare at him.
He raises his eyebrows at my age or my glare, or both.
“What’s someone like you going to do in the big city?”
“I don’t know yet, I’ll see.” As soon as I say it I’m not sure whether I should have.
“Do you have a place to stay?”
“Yes,” I lie.
His grin melts into a frown and he says: “You’ll probably drown in that place.”
I’m about to burst out of my skin, and I’m trying really hard not be a little boy and get upset at him. I turn my head to the window to end the conversation: but after a few seconds I crack.
“I won’t!” I pause. “I’m a great swimmer.”
A sigh and still the frown. “So you’re running away from home?”
“I am,” I sigh. This conversation tires me. It’s not fair that he’s treating me like a little boy. If I was one I wouldn’t have left home.
He decides to ignore me and I do the same. I’m confused about what just happened; I don’t understand why the city makes him frown so much. Eventually the creaking of the carriage door interrupts the quiet. In the doorway stands the conductor, it’s the first time I’ve seen him. He starts talking as he walks through the carriage, not bothering to look at us or stop. “Train’s down,” he says. “Next town’s about thirteen kilometres further ahead on the track. Pretty darn hot out there, stay hydrated!” Then I realise I hadn’t even noticed that the train had stopped. I make a note to myself that I should never be so busy with my own thoughts that I don’t notice everything around me anymore. I follow the conductor through the carriage with my eyes, and I see him disappear through the open train doors into the heat. I start to get the feeling that we have to follow him. The guy with the heavy boots lets out a groan and gets up, making the yellow leather sigh. I slowly rise out of my seat, trying to come to terms with the idea of walking to the next town. I lift my bag off of the luggage rack, less smoothly than I had planned. I make my way through the sea of yellow. As I reach the train door and peek through the door frame, I see no one – not even the conductor. I look in the direction we came from to find the guy with the heavy boots staring into the distance, and I wonder what he’s thinking about. He lets down his head – again he reminds me of Moose – and slowly starts walking in my direction. “Come on, buddy,” he says as he passes me, his head too heavy to look up.
And so we make our way through the shrivelled land. We leave the ramshackle train behind, which it probably doesn’t mind. I keep thinking about how sad the guy looked when he was standing there and how well he blended in with the miserable landscape around him, and I’m not sure what to think of him now.
“What were you thinking about earlier?” I ask him while keeping my eyes on my feet.
“About where I came from and why I left.”
“I took this train from my village to the city once, and after a while I left the city because I hated it for not making me who I wanted to be. But right there I was thinking whether it really was the city’s fault. ”
His reply surprises me, partly because I didn’t expect an actual answer, partly because I didn’t think he was that stupid.
“Obviously it can’t be the city’s fault because it’s just buildings. They can’t make you into anything.”
“Jesus, I know that,” he snaps at me. “What I meant is I that thought I wanted to escape the people around me and the place I was in.” After a short pause he looks at me and asks: “Why are you leaving home for the city? Because of the buildings?”
I have to think for a little bit before I know what to say. It’s definitely not just because of the buildings, and now I wish I hadn’t said that.
“Because I was bored,” I eventually say. “Everything and everyone made me feel so bored. I know I’m not boring, but it felt like I was. And my uncle is always telling stories about how everything is possible in the city, and how it makes him feel free.”
The guy with the heavy boots smiles a tired smile, and his eyes seem to say “I know”.
In the middle of the dry bush we find a water pump to fill up our bottles. My mind starts to wander off to my mum while the pump is screeching; every morning she would go to the pump on the other side of the village before making me breakfast (oatmeal with cinnamon). I ask myself whether I will be able to make oatmeal like mum does, and then I realise my excitement to leave home consumed my mind so much that there wasn’t any space left to think about a plan. I want to ask the guy with the heavy boots about it, but he’s got that look on his face again. I also want to get angry at him, because it’s his fault that I’m nervous. I decide to do neither, and instead we keep walking.
Somewhere along the track we find a small hub of houses, and they are coloured pink and gold in the light of the setting sun. We make our way through the streets, and I ask myself whether you can call something a street if it’s just sand. I decide on yes, because a street lets people and bikes and cars through, and this one looks like it can do that. In front of the last house I see the man with his folding chair and newspaper, and I blink my eyes really hard but he’s still there.
“Did the train break down?” he shouts at us.
I want to ask him so many things at the same time – how did you get here? When did you get off the train? How did you get here before us? – but I’m exhausted from the heat. I settle for a “Yeah.”
“How could you tell?” the guy with the heavy boots asks and I get the feeling that these two have seen each other before.
“She does it occasionally. The poor lady’s getting old. I could feel that today she was having a particularly rough one. I didn’t want to pain her, so I got off a few stops back.”
“Is she the only train that runs between the cities through the bush?” the guy with the heavy boots asks while I gawk.
“Ah yes,” the old man laughs. “From the east all the way to the west. Through the dying land, every day. But she’s strong. Travellers bring so much luggage, and she carries it all with her. Even the things they don’t think they’ll need. Because she knows they will need it.”
“Because they will need it,” the guy with the heavy boots repeats in a low whisper, and he slowly starts nodding his head. We walk off and leave the man in his folding chair behind, but he’s still nodding.
“Why are you doing that?” I ask.
“You know when you want to run away from something but you can’t seem to get rid of it? That’s why I didn’t like the city. I wanted to be someone else but instead it showed me that the village I left is a greater part of me than I realised.”
The tracks split in two. The station of the next town rises in the distance after what felt like seconds but also hours, I can’t really tell the difference anymore. My head is heavy of everything that has been said today, and of the heat. I think of why I left and where I’m going, and wonder how the city’s going to treat me. In silence we walk up to the platforms. As I walk towards the train that’s replacing the poor lady, I see that the guy with the heavy boots stops.
“I have to take the train up north,” he says in response to my raised eyebrows.
“Ah,” I say.
“Good luck in the city!” he shouts as he walks towards the train on the opposite side.
“Wait, where are you going?!” I shout back.