A Philanderer on the Night Train
A Philanderer on the Night Train
I close my eyes and she is there, on the underside of my eyelids. She will not go away. She is etched in acid.
I'm riding the train to loneliness again, rocketing through the end of the day when the rectangles of light from the houses match the intensity of the dark blue sky. Soon everything outside will be black and all I will see in the window will be my reflection. The carriage is empty and warm. It can only ever be too warm or too cold; loneliness has no comfortable in-between.
The door to the compartment rumbles open and shut. The smell of patchouli falls like snow through the air. I open my eyes and she is sitting opposite, wrapped in her afghan. Always the afghan, the afghan that smelt of animal whenever it rained. Her face is pure venom.
‘If you have something to say, say it,’ she says. Only she says it like she doesn't care; like she is not prepared to listen; like I would be wasting my time. I decide to try anyway but before I can unpack the right words and assemble them into what I need to convey, her patience wears out.
‘Shall I tell you why you will never be happy,’ she asks. ‘You will never be happy because you are a coward.’
Time has not diminished her directness, her ability to swing her words like a scimitar, cleaving through flesh, bone, dignity; slicing the plump arteries so that self-doubt spurts black and wet, leaving its dark forensic splatter across pale walls.
She finds my inability to find a riposte funny. While she laughs, she produces a cigarette, menthol as always, and proceeds to light it with the gold Dunhill I remember giving her for her birthday, in the days when smokers were not the pariahs they are seen as now. She settles back in her seat, smiling and confident, a blue haze swirling in the air between us. The cat with the mouse. The spider with the fly.
‘Look at you. You always insist on the seat that faces the direction of travel. Is your past so terrifying you must forever sit with your back to it? I always think it is the past that makes us, don’t you agree. Oh silly me, I was forgetting, you cannot see your past. You have your back to it. How appropriate for someone who is only interested in where they are going. Always looking forward to the next opportunity.’
‘I call that ambition,’ I said.
‘Of course you do darling but where we are going is irrelevant. It’s how we get there that counts. Do you ever think of your children?
‘I have no children.’
She laughs again.
‘That you know of. How many women have there been? All those sweaty encounters. All those body fluids. All those eggs. Fertilisation, at least occasionally, would be inevitable don’t you think. Do you still find me beautiful?’
A loaded question. Answer truthfully and be damned. Answer falsely and be damned. Whatever answer I gave, it made no difference. She has chosen the seat from where she can see my past; the place where I have come from. Not just my past. Our past. As always, she holds the advantage. She lets the silence lengthen, stretching tighter and tighter until it sings. When she finally speaks her tone is mocking.
‘I know you do. I bet there are nights when you try to imagine how it was to taste me on your fingertips. Can you still taste the others?’
I wanted to tell her I could not. I wanted to explain how they were no more than a faded mosaic of half remembered faces; a pool of forgotten encounters, once as colourful and exciting as a butterfly’s wing, now a grubby stain that could never be removed.
She leans forward, flicks the silver ash from the tip of her cigarette into the tiny brass ashtray below the window.
‘It’s not true what they say,’ she says. ‘The past is not another country. It’s not a place we can leave. It’s not a place we can go back to. It’s not even a place at all.’
The train is moving faster, the carriage swaying and jerking erratically. The first drops of anxiety are pooling in my stomach, the precursors of nausea. I do not travel well these days.
‘The true past is much more terrifying than that.’ Her voice is soft, controlled, but with a razor’s edge. ‘Only, you know that now don’t you. You know the past is really a great weight we must carry around with us, getting heavier and heavier the longer we live. A burden of tangled conscience, weighing us down little by little, squashing us back down into the dirt. Not for me though. I’m done with all that. The past means nothing to me.’
I understand what she is saying but I have nothing to add. I know where she is going with this and there is nothing I can do to stop her. She knows this. She knows because she has thought it all through, slash by slash, cut by cut. All I can do is wait for her to carry on.
‘I can hardly remember some of it,’ she continues. ‘I remember being held down on the kitchen table, staring up at a bare light bulb hanging from a grease yellow ceiling, while the old woman prodded around inside me, scooping me out like a blocked drain.’ She pauses, takes a long pull on her cigarette before going on. ‘I knew something was wrong. It was two days before the bleeding stopped,’ she says. ‘At first I tried using old newspapers to soak up the mess but it just kept coming and the world slowly dimmed. In the end it was just like going to sleep.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I reply and immediately curse myself for uttering such an inadequacy.
I see her muscles tighten. This time when she speaks, each word shakes with restrained anger.
‘You pathetic bastard. No doubt you were still thrusting away at one of your whores while I staggered home trying to hide the blood. Whoever she was I bet you could walk past her in the street right now and not recognise her. I bet you could walk past them all and not recognise any of them.’
Her eyes are glistening, the voice wavering just a little, her self assurance slipping away like water. Is this the time to make my case, to explain my stupidity, to demonstrate contrition, to show her how it could all have been different? I reach forward to touch her hand but she pulls away sharply, a sure cliche of rejection
‘I was alone at the end. I want you to always remember that,’ she snaps.
‘You didn’t have to do it,’ I say. ‘We could have worked something out.’
‘Is that what you think? I didn’t do it because I couldn’t have you. I did it because I didn’t want anything more to do with you. I did it to make sure there was no excuse for you to come after me. As soon as I was well enough I was going to get as far away from you as possible.’
I fall back against my seat and close my eyes. There is no arguing with her today, or yesterday, or any other day. She always wins. She is always right. I am a coward, afraid to face the shames of my past, too afraid almost to even look in the mirror. Tomorrow I will ride the same train and we will have the same conversation. Not just tomorrow but the day after, and the day after that and as many days as it takes before she finally lets me remove the burden I have placed upon myself.
The door to the compartment rumbles open and closed. When I open my eyes there is no sign of her ever having been there. It is dark outside. In the black reflection from the window an old man stares back at me. It is an old man still looking for forgiveness where he knows forgiveness should not exist, though he knows he can never give up trying.