A Train Ride
By Pratham Agarwal
The newest occupant to step into the train carriage looked in no way more peculiar than the ordinary people who frequented the quarters. He had a brown overcoat on his shoulders, dark grey trousers along the length of his short legs and a worn-out pair of shoes that seemed in no hurry to get anywhere. He glanced all around the carriage, half-cursing his luck. But in a moment, a smile quickly curled up his moustache. With a briefcase in his hand and the train ticket in the other, he rushed to occupy the only empty seat which was at the far-left corner of the carriage, adjacent to the window.
The briefcase was placed on the little space between him and the wall. A noticeable sigh was let out as he seated himself in the remaining space and checked if all of his things were in place. Satisfied with the little search that lasted less than a minute's worth, he finally looked up at the blank face of the gentleman seated right across him at an arm's distance.
Pleasant, fair, and decorated with a white beard that was probably trimmed the previous week, he sat back with his hands joined together on the table. The sinewy palms and slightly wrinkled skin suggested that the man was of age, but the fedora covering his head had just enough charm to shave a few years off the actual number.
He sat still. The hint of a smile remaining on his face as he observed the newcomer. A welcoming demeanour but not warm enough to break the silence just yet. A nod was extended by the new occupant. The old smile was now distinguishable. He then looked away, through the window, to the open field outside that the train was currently passing.
'Have you seen the ducks by the pond in St. Hollard's Green? They're really quite playful you know?', the old man posed the question cheerfully.
'No, I've never been to that side of town.', said the younger chap.
'You really must go some time. I myself work around there you see. Towards the southern end of Cally's street.'
'And what is it that you do?', said the young man having assumed that the other was retired. The old man studied his face for a moment, then looked away outside again, and said, 'I work in a shoe factory.'
The younger man unconsciously retracted his feet.
'Oh!', he said in a startled voice.
The old man smiled politely saying nothing for a few seconds.
The young fellow looked down at the table, then back up.
'Ah, where have my manners vanished off to! I'm Paul Wilson.'
'Shoe factory, huh?', he smirked, trying to rekindle the conversation.
The old man nodded.
'I'm a professor of taxonomy. I teach a course at the university.', he said with an air of superiority. 'I also work on my research in my spare time.', he added.
'I see. And what are you studying currently?'
'Evolutionary trees of the members of the Anax genus.' The old man had a half-blank look.
'Dragonflies!', Paul Wilson smiled.
'That must be fascinating. Tell me, what interests you in them?', he said, leaning in.
'Well, insects are terribly efficient creatures. I've always had a liking for them. Even as a boy, when most kids were afraid of tiny bugs, I found them rather fun to play with. When I was six, I bought a caterpillar back home in a jar and kept him as a secret pet for days. Dragonflies, they're beautiful. Fossil dragonflies have been found with wingspans of up to two feet. Imagine that!'
The old man's interest piqued. 'That does sound rather exciting.' He contemplated something for a moment.
'And what is it that you love the most about them?' He thought about this for a moment.
'Probably the way they can fly every which way; and the eyes of course. Big and bold. But enough about that. What about you? What's it like working in a factory?', he said with decreasing energy, realizing that he didn't really have the interest to hear anybody speak of shoes.
'Well, some days it’s fun. I polish the finished product so I don't really see the making bit. I do like the smell of leather though. The way it's so refined and pure. I carry a piece of it in my pocket to have it with me always.', he explained cheerfully while pulling a tiny piece of thin brown leather cloth from his pocket.
This seemed a little strange to Paul Wilson. His expression showed that he was amused. The train jerked and halted to a stop. The old man looked outside, studying the station. A blanket of warm sunshine covered the setting. The shops that served tea and biscuits were the only stationary entities in the hustle of people that were running in both directions. The sky was split in two by the footbridge that ran high over the tracks. The shrill sound of the conductor’s whistle cut across people who were waving goodbyes and shouting across carriages.
'Landington', John Clarke whispered to himself.
When he looked back in the train, Paul Wilson was hurrying toward the door.
'This is where I needed to get off! It was nice to meet you Mr John!', he shouted as he ran out.
John Clarke raised his hat and sat it back on his head.
He looked at the door just behind the opposite seat. While some persons did enter the carriage, not a single person used that entrance.
The doors closed and the train began to leave the station. The young man's place was taken by a woman in her mid-twenties. She wore a chic dark pink dress with a silk black scarf, adorned by a red handbag to occupy her hands and white gloves to cover them. Though the extravagance of her apparel troubled John Clarke, he nodded politely, 'Good mornin', miss!' She responded politely while addressing him as 'Sir'.
She put one leg over the other, adjusted the scarf and looked outside.
'Where are you off to this fine morning?', he said in a confident tone.
The woman had been smiling at some thought. She pulled her bag up to her shoulder and looked over at his face. John Clarke had a harmless old look. She smiled and spoke in a warm, attractive voice, 'A friend's birthday lunch. It’s going to be at the new French cafe by the river. Have you been there yet?'
'No not really but I do pass by the river on my way to work.' 'Oh! What do you do, if I may ask?', she said feeling a bit obliged. 'Why, I teach taxonomy at the university, of course!'
'How interesting! My sister is a science teacher too. But she only teaches toddlers. I assume you teach a graduate level course?'
'Oh yes, but that’s only the course. I have a class only in the mornings.' 'What about the afternoons, then?', asked the woman.
'Ah, it's then that I conduct my own research on Dragonflies, miss!'
The young lady seemed impressed. 'How nice.', she said in a prolonged tone.
'Oh yes! Mesmerizing creature they are! Amazingly abled in their flight and vision. It may interest you to know that fossils have been found that indicate wing-spans of over two feet!' The woman's eyes widened. 'Wow', she gasped imagining that possibility for a second.
'In fact, I'm studying the evolution of the entire Anax genus you see.', John Clarke said. 'That really is quite something.', she said cheerfully. 'It must be captivating. I find even the tiny science experiments that Izzy does for her kids at school enchanting. I can only imagine how the real discoveries must feel.'
John Clarke modestly smiled while lowering his head slightly.
'You're very kind.', he said. 'But do tell, what is it that you do?'
'I work for a finance company.'
The old man gazed at her with wrinkled eyes and a polite curiosity, as if to say 'go on'. 'But I do much of my work from home itself. The company doesn't need my presence. Just the reports. So I don't have to spend much time in a boring old cabin, you know?'
'Oh yes, sitting behind those desks can be quite depressing indeed.'
The young woman let out a laugh, 'Yes! Yes, they can!'
'Besides, I do like staying at home for the brighter part of the day. The solitude is blissful.', she added with a melancholic touch.
'I do understand.', John Clarke said, smiling weakly.
The young lady looked at him with the satisfaction of being comprehended. Then, for a moment, she lifted her gaze to his hat. 'These reports are to do with clients, I assume?'
'Oh no. Internal statistics. Performance, growth and all that. Not very interesting I'm afraid...' 'So, the employees.'
'You could say that. More on the organization as a whole, actually'
'Hard to believe that anybody could really be interested in this stuff. Or are you just being polite?'
'Oh no, different people interest me. I rather like to hear someone speak about what they do every day. Adds perspective to my feeble imagination.' The girl unconsciously let out another tiny little laugh.
'Well, I do have a few girls working with me sometimes. When we need to work together, we pick someone's house to have a little sit-down-and-work time along with some tea. We've gotten quite close over these months actually.', she said with a bit of introspection. 'So it isn’t completely monotonous.'
'Oh, that's swell! I imagine that would be fun. To work as if one was at leisure.'
'I suppose that's true. Though I never thought of it like that. Perhaps, only ...'
The movement in her bag broke off her speech. Her phone was vibrating. In a moment, it began to ring. The woman excused herself and answered the call, saying it was her husband. She remained seated in the same place and spoke in a low voice. John Clarke looked around conspicuously. Inside the train. At his palms. Then outside. He leaned back on the wall of the carriage and began comfortably gazing at the passing trees. A smile curled up on his face without warning. Presently, the woman began speaking in worried tones. An argument may have been passing between her and the caller. A few minutes passed. John Clarke looked at her out of curiosity. Then he looked away almost immediately.
When the train finally stopped at Billarneé, the woman smiled at him, waved, and then left the carriage with her phone still at her ear.
John Clarke continued to stare outside, pondering about something. The train was moving at a steady pace, casting its shadow on broken pavements. After a few minutes, he looked back inside to surprisingly find another woman sitting opposite him. He hadn't noticed her taking the seat. But this particular simpleton was fairly older than her predecessor. A mature white woman well in her sixties. Her hair white and covered with a small beret the size of her fist. She wore a less than fashionable overcoat along with a look of experience and placidity.
The old man studied her for a subtle minute. She seemed to be interested in the moving trees outside more than anything else.
'Good day ma'am', is what John Clarke would've picked if it weren't for her breaking the silence first with an 'Aren't illusions fascinating?' 'I suppose they are.', he said uneasily.
'It's all a matter of perspective.'
'That's true. Take me, for instance. I work all day at home preparing employee reports for a finance firm. They don't need me to be at their workplace. So I stay at home and get the job done by the end of the week. Some might think that to be dull but I find it rather convenient. I can position myself how so ever I wish at home, procrastinate or sleep even! I don't have much to worry about really.'
'Oh is that so? Working from the comfort of one's home. Not something that just anybody can boast about.', she said smiling and observing him in the moment. 'I guess not. But ..'
'So where are you off to right now?', she broke him off.
'Why I, .. am on my way to a dear friend's home. It’s the old chap's birthday so I thought I would pay a small visit.'
'Ah, I see. Must be a dear friend?'
John Clarke said nothing for a moment. He smirked and then nodded innocently.
'And how do you know the old chap', she said with a smirk of her own.
John looked at her. 'Curious', he thought to himself.
'He and I have known each other since college.'
‘Is it?', she interrupted while shifting to rest her face on a palm; observing him fly. 'Yes. Where are you travelling?'
'And where are you getting off?'
'The next stop.'
'That’s quite a long journey.'
'Yes. It sort of is.', she said quickly.
'I myself will be getting off after a couple of stops.'
'So, your friend lives in Lisendine?'
'Well, yes. More toward Inkstoen actually. But that’s the closest station.' The old woman said nothing, but she didn't falter her gaze away from him.
'So, what do you do in your spare time?', she asked with some added interest as if to please his vanity.
'Ah well, I do have a vested interest in the country's business, my dusty old violin, some mystery novels and also do with a bit of cooking and whatnot.', he ended with a coy smile. The woman raised her bushy eyebrows. The train decreased its speed. Both heads looked outside for a second observing the change.
'Yes, when you're old you must find things to keep you occupied, don't you think?', John Clarke said as she turned her sight back to him, 'but I suppose you could call me a man of many colours.', he chuckled.
The train came to a halt. The old woman pulled her grey cloth bag up to her shoulder and got up. John Clarke raised his hat and got off his seat by a few inches himself. A hunched gentleman.
The old woman used the exit right behind her seat. She looked back at John just before she got off the train.
'Oh, I never doubted that, professor.’, she said laughing.
His smile widened but only for a moment.
‘I could tell from the conversation you were having with that young lady previously that you were a man of many colours indeed!'
By Pratham Agarwal