The third article in Ariell G.’s Train Stories series steps off the train, onto the platform and straight to our online pages.
Anti-Hero vs. The World
By Ariell G.
ON PLATFORM NUMBER 7, there is a man seated on the wooden bench ahead.
He wears old, filthy clothes and holds a worn, cloth bag on his lap with both hands grasping it tightly as though it contained the secrets of the Universe. A wool coat that is too large for his frame, covered in so much dirt that one could assume it had been a light beige before becoming muddy brown, acts as his impenetrable armor, protecting him from the judgmental stares of the people who move past him. They always leave a 4-foot circumference despite the platform being only 11 feet wide, preferring to knock a woman’s purse, press against one another or push themselves to the very edge and risk falling onto the tracks rather than close the gap by a single inch, and be slightly closer to him. They float around him as though circumambulation were a daily morning ritual that they perform as habitually as brushing their teeth and drinking a coffee. Their glances of disappointment, disgust and derision bounce effortlessly from the transparent barrier surrounding him and the wooden bench that he has claimed as his own by sitting exactly in the middle – a fact that I find pleasingly amusing.
The station smells like an unpleasant mixture of too much morning cologne, fresh pastries and meat. Platform number 7 is laced with suits and ties moving like busy ants determined to complete their mission with little to no regard for each other. I continue to walk down the platform despite seeing an opening to stand near the beginning. I prefer to avoid the first train car, if there should be a tragic accident those are always the first to go… naturally, and watching the ominous, empty tunnel zoom out of sight through the back window makes it all seem slightly too real.
As I walk closer to the man seated on the bench, I notice that he isn’t asking for change from the passers-by, just watching each of them intently and eavesdropping on their conversations as if this were his private cinema. “There must be an invisible shield encircling him,” I think, confirming this as the only possible explanation as to why every person would stay exactly the same distance away, at all times. He must have noticed me looking at him without the usual scorn or pity because as I approach he says quietly, half wanting me to hear him and half not at all, “Spare 50p, miss?” “Why?” I ask, “For food, miss, I’m hungry.” He is no more than 40 years old, and judging by the way that he holds the worn bag in his lap, that is obviously his only possession. I wonder about his story, the fork in the road of life that was presented to him, at which point sadly, he chose the wrong path, the one that led away from civilization to the waters’ edge. The flood washed away those standing silently on the beach as the water slowly eroded the shoreline, commensurate with the natural waxing and waning of the moon phases. He was one of the many who were washed away by the force of water to be forgotten.
“If you’re hungry, I’ll get you some food from the sandwich place,” I say to him. “Would you like me to get you some food?” “Yes, miss, but there’s a chicken takeaway just around the corner! They know me in there!” he adds with sudden and unexpected enthusiasm. “Don’t settle for a sandwich when it’s chicken that you really want,” I think while smirking. “And why shouldn’t he tell me that he’d rather have chicken, who knows how often he has enough change collected to buy it?”
“I like two dark meat and one white, miss! With some chips! They have a combo with a drink… I like Coke!” he adds with a childlike joy. “Where is this chicken place?” “Just outside and to your right, around the corner with a red sign.” With that, I turn to leave, to walk the path that I had just traversed… for chicken of all things. Yet, as I was about to yell back ‘Wait here’, I notice that he’s following behind me with a sense of urgent panic in his steps. “Silly girl might not find the chicken takeaway, or maybe I didn’t give her decent directions. She definitely won’t remember my order, I better go with her,” I can hear his voice in my head rationalizing the current scenario in which he’s following 5 feet behind me with his cloth bag tightly in hand of course. We pass through the barriers and exit the station. He is still walking 5 feet behind me until he spots a big, red vertical sign, lit-up like a beacon for all those who are hungry. He shuffles ahead to open the door for me, and follows in behind before heading directly to the counter to place his order.
“Two dark meat and one white, with chips and a Coke.” The man behind the counter is silent and looks at me confused until I add, “He’ll have two orders of the same please. Here is 20 Pounds. That should be enough for both orders. You can give him the change.” Pushing open the door to leave, I hear the man from the bench say, “God bless you, miss.” “And you,” I reply, turning back to look at him. With that said, I exit the storefront to return to the station, the platform and the train to begin my day, a victim of temporal disillusionment.
That evening, I return to the station and platform number 7, walking along as I had that morning, the one when I met the man on the bench with the cloth bag, only now I carry my own bag. It’s 7:30 pm, and I’m headed out for dinner with an immense appreciation for something as fundamentally basic and universally entitled as ‘food’, and yet to him sustenance is a gift. “It’s not chicken takeaway, but it will have to do…” I think, smiling to myself.
Just as I did that morning, I watch the people pass the man on the bench with a wide girth, as though his unfortunate circumstances were contagious. Rather than imparting empathy and offering kindness, they only give stares of shame and disgust to him – it does appear de rigueur. They’re angry that he has seated himself on a bench… like a person, as though they would only accept him if he were lying prostrate on the floor or kneeling before them. Kneeling in servitude of what though? Should he be in awe of their ‘position’ in society? Or perhaps that they have money and he does not? Are they really better than he? The man on the bench has a sincere appreciation for the minutia of life and possesses a gratitude for even the smallest thing like a piece of chicken, a trait that has eluded all of the people glaring at him thinking that he should be begging on the floor – how dare he sit on the bench!
He notices me, saying only “Thank you, miss,” as I approach. Standing to face him, I hold out the bag that I have brought on this journey. He looks up and smiles, extending his arm beyond the loose confines of his oversized coat sleeve to retrieve it. The moment his hand touches the bag, everything freezes. As if time itself has stopped, the people around us stand motionless, mid-step and mid-sentence. His hand grasps the bag, and his loose sleeve has fallen down his arm to reveal the wounds that he has sustained in consequence of choosing the wrong path. Lines trace the entire length of his inner forearm like a ladder, worn as badges from the past. Despite being scars, time has no meaning to these lines, they still look fresh as if from yesterday and they are clearly visible, able to be counted – 9 total. Electricity consumes me with a feeling akin to Perrier bubbles tingling as they fill my body and slowly rise to my head. I imagine the blood flowing from the first cut down the inner arm and magically retracing the spider-web of veins that it once occupied, longing to return. It won’t stop. It’s endless. I’ve never seen a red so bright and vivid as this, imbued with a vibrancy of life that can only be understood as divine. There is no pain, merely fascination, thoughtfulness and reverence for that which eternally lies just beyond our grasp and comprehension. The courage to die and the courage to live are parallel, compelled by the exact same force of nature. So, he cut life up with a razors edge and took it like a line, with all the gusto of an addict in withdrawal. He takes the bag from my hand and looks inside. “It’s a wool coat,” I say, “I knew that I bought it for a reason. Besides, you’re more deserving of it…” I affirm more so to myself than to him, he’s not listening. “Thank you. Have a seat,” he says as he moves to one end of the bench, and so I sit down.
Instead of the platform, we’re in a park at night, sitting on a wooden bench. A small lamp that stands at attention next to us is the only light for what seems like miles. The water on the grass from the storm that has just passed smells of the sins of the day having been washed away. “Welcome to the inner workings of your psyche,” he says as he places his new coat inside his dirty cloth bag.
“It’s cold outside,” I tell him as if he doesn’t know, “do you have a place to stay? Do you need warmth?” “I’m waiting.” “Waiting for what?” I ask naively. There is no need for me to ask really, “You’re waiting for the twists and turns of the past, present and future to meld into a road that you may walk aware, as the passive observer of your own distinct gait moving down the pathway of your existence,” I think to myself. “I was a teacher before the sauce got the better of me. I’m waiting for the day when I return.” I look at his worn eyes, those that belong to an 80-year-old man… not 40, as he speaks the words identifying his one weakness – it is only a courageous man who can recognise, admit and correct his own shortcomings. I can see him recalling all of the moments that it got the better of him with regretful sadness, his eyes welling-up with tears that he is visibly trying to contain judging by the pained expression on his face. I try to jolt him out of his recollection with only more words, an endless supply. “What if, despite waiting, it doesn’t arrive?” I say. “Then I’ll remain on the bench, in between two tracks and two trains headed opposite directions.” I stare straight ahead into the park at night. “A man who acts as a duality in a drama is afraid of being both the hero and the anti-hero, so his body lays inert and in a state of perpetual limbo. He must know that….” I get lost in the darkness that begins just where the circle of light cast by the lamp overhead, shielding us in an orb of soft yellow, ends.
The next morning I reenact my scene, as though someone has pressed ‘replay’ on the previous day, but with added dynamism in anticipation of saying ‘Hello’ to the man on the bench. The tedious morning monotony only serves to shine an unforgiving light on the paucity of time in life. I spot the bench in the distance, encircled by the usual morning ants wearing black suits and black skirts, determined to do their errands or get to work or school. Only this morning was different, they weren’t floating past him at all; they had stopped walking and now stood 4 feet away from him perfectly still. I quicken my steps and wonder at the horrible nature of some people who could literally stand glaring at him, rather than walking by as they shot glances of scorn. Upon reaching the circle, I gently push my way through to create a gap in which to stand and see the reason these people have gathered.
There he sits on the wooden bench, as he usually does – in the middle, holding his cloth bag tightly with both hands and staring straight ahead to watch the passers-by. He is wearing the wool coat that I gave him last night… it fits well, but it was made for a tall man with long arms, so the sleeves are far too long for him. This fact is, perhaps, a blessing in disguise considering the ladder marks on his inner forearms. He wasn’t moving his head or eyes for some time, but it was only the moment when an older man pierced the wall of spectators and walked toward him, placing his thumb and forefinger gently on his eyes to close them, that I realized that he was gone. Chicken – four pieces of dark meat, two of white meat – as his last meal. A death row convict is allowed to order any meal they like, and so he should have the same consideration. The only difference being that neither he nor I were aware that he was even on death row.
“I never bothered to ask his name,” I say silently in my head, “but he looked like a ‘Charlie’.” It’s as though knowing his name would have grounded him in an unforgiving reality that I preferred to imagine he wasn’t subjected to – he was a concept that appeared and disappeared on a whim; he was a solid that turned into a gas during the process of sublimation; simultaneously real and unreal. I prefer to think that he wasn’t real; that upon walking onto the platform, I was the only one who could see him – a gift for only me to enjoy each morning at the station.
(Article I) I Dream of an Empty Train Car…
(Article II) Restantes