Monday, January 16, 2006

First Train

The wind comes from the North West, rattling the chain-metal fence like armour and sending a stray newspaper into somersaults of panic. The flag on top of the old high school wags its tail in excited greeting, here and there stray citizens emerge to bow their heads in awe. The wind pays them no attention, preferring to get on with its work, nudging the mist forward like a herd of sheep, sieving the light from the streetlamps through the bare and shaken branches of the trees. These tasks done, it arrives at the train station, whistling in shrill anticipation at the sight of the empty stockyard.

5 am. The station is deserted at this hour. The wind dusts the tracks for fingerprints, blowing a fine powder of snow across it, but the cold metal rail comes out clean. The track alone stands firm against the wind's urgency, maintaining the formality of its parallels to both horizons at once. Its very presence seems to reassure the landscape, reassert the familiar discipline of distance.

The temperature outside is - 10 C, not counting windchill. Standing on the platform, he tries to keep this fact from seeping in as though it were the cold itself, as though by denying his body the knowledge he could keep it warm. The wind howls all around him, as bitter as sour steel, and tiny patches of ice have sprouted all over the platform like some sort of skin infection. - 10 C! He stares longingly at the platform waiting room, in whose flimsy shelter a small group of fellow-travellers sit huddled together, trying to stay warm. He considers going over to them. It wouldn't be much warmer, of course, but at least he'd be out of the wind. He takes another look at the group. How miserable they look, how weak, gathered together like mangy cats. He feels a deep nausea rise in his throat at the thought of joining them. No, better to stay where he is, even if it means freezing till the train comes. But when will the train come? There's supposed to be one every hour starting with this first one, isn't there? He doesn't have a schedule. He spreads his legs a little, braces himself to face the cold, trying to ignore the ridiculous ease with which the wind cuts through his overcoat, sowing tiny spiders of chills in his skin.

It isn't long before the cold starts to get to him. Slowly the tiny ripples of the cold gather into a larger turbulence, the seep of their malice reaching his very bones. He tries walking about to keep the circulation going, but his shoes are new and the ground is treacherous and he is mortally afraid of falling. Besides, movement only seems to make it worse - every time his trousers rub against his thigh, the cold of the fabric is transmitted to his flesh. He grits his teeth and decides to stand firm. He can feel his muscles rebelling against this idea, can feel every successive tremor of the cold passing through him like a shockwave, but he tells himself that cold is all in the mind, really - 99% imagination - all he has to do is stick to strict denial and he should be okay.

Dawn arrives before the first train - the sunrise itself a kind of locomotive, first the distant rumble of light in the sky, then the first sight of the engine coming over the horizon and then the doppler-esque explosion of day barrelling its way into the world. It's a glorious sight, but he is too cold to enjoy it. By now his hands hurt as though they are trapped in a vise, and a terrible shivering has taken over his body, causing it to quiver like a rubber snake. His teeth chatter uncontrollably and so hard he is afraid something might break. He has never felt this cold before in his life, never endured so intense a hardship. He is starting to feel a bit dizzy and the conviction is growing on him that he has only to relax his vigil and the wind will blow him onto the tracks. At the same time, there is a small part of him that is proud - proud to have survived this, proud to have stood his ground. He has the terrible suspicion that the people huddled around the platform shelter are laughing at him. He must stand firm. He must show no sign of weakening.

When the train finally arrives he is the first one in, sinking gratefully into the first seat that he can find, his body still trembling wildly. In these first few minutes, his brain has been emptied of all cognition, he has become a glorified animal, the hoarding of warmth his only thought. It is now, in this first tortuous taste of heat, that he tastes the full magnitude of what he has suffered, feeling the extremities of his skin melt slowly from numbness to pain. Slowly, as his mind thaws, another thought begins to nag at him, though - something he has forgotten, something the cold has made him overlook. He checks quickly to make sure that he has brought his bag with him. Yes, there it is, lying safe and snug in the overhead compartment. What could it be that he has forgotten? Perhaps he is just imagining it.

It's the sight of the conductor that finally precipitates the answer in his mind, causing realisation to fall like a fat droplet. A ticket! He forgot to buy a ticket. How unaccountably stupid of him. Now he'll have to pay a surcharge. When the conductor reaches him he pulls out his wallet, asks how much the ticket will be. The conductor frowns. We don't sell tickets on the train, the conductor says, you have to buy them on the station. Yes, well, I'm afraid I didn't. Is there some sort of fine or something I need to pay? Maybe a special fare or something? The conductor shakes his head.

Five minutes later he is out on the platform again, one station down, and the shivering starts all over again. He watches the train pull out of the station, then walks gingerly across the empty platform (there is ice here as well and the wind is stronger) and buys himself a ticket from the vending machine. Another 55 minutes to go before the next train comes. For a moment he stares at the empty waiting room. The idea of waiting inside it tempts him, but something deep inside cries out that a gesture must be sustained if it is to mean anything. There is a lone wooden bench out on the open platform. He walks across to it, sits down. He has a long, long time to wait and the cold is just beginning to take hold.

9 comments:

Heh Heh said...

Nice. I like.

Anonymous said...

the end cudnt have been any better...i kinda imagined myself sitting on that bench...feels good...55 minutes of seclusion...on a platform...absolute bliss!!!

Lazarus

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

The gesture?

To quote Marcie, 'You're weird, Sir!'

J.A.P.

Falstaff said...

heh / Lazarus: thanks.

JAP: No dispute there - though why you reached that conclusion from this post (as opposed to the one where I contemplate suicide in airplane lavatories, say) I'm not sure.

tom pinkerton said...

You're good...occasionally worrying (like, in this post?), but really good.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work
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