Strangers and a Train

This was another entry I wasn’t completely in love with, although it’s still better, I think, than April’s attempt, the writing of which felt like masturbating with a blunt cheese-grater.

I wrote this, May’s entry, for Storgy’s Exit Earth competition. While I was initially worried I had poorly understood the brief, I have since seen that quite a few entries chose to go for a more pared down, intimate interpretation of the theme, instead of jumping to more explosive, apocalyptic conclusions.

Despite being in good company, given the chance and a halfway decent time-machine, I would actually do a more explodey, apocalyptastic entry… but the show doesn’t go on because you’re ready, the show goes on because it’s showtime.

She called every night. Every night I was working. And she’d only ever speak to me.

Although, ‘speak’ is a generous word for it. Sometimes she just wept, almost silent little choking sounds. Sometimes big, ugly sobs, accompanied by pained wailing. Other times she ranted at me, spitting fire about all the tiny things that happened to her in the course of the day. The man who gestured to her from a passing car. The woman who moved away from her on the bus. The hundreds of tiny injustices she’d faced at the hands of strangers. Sometimes for over an hour. This while there were kids trying to call about their abusers, teenagers needing support to come out to conservative families, pregnant girls and people struggling through rape, disability and terminal illness.

I want to believe that all lives are equal. But she made it hard.

I do four nights a week at the centre. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Those are the nights the lines are busiest. And there are always ten times more callers at night. I guess people are too busy during the day to think about killing themselves. They must have day jobs too. That is a lot of shifts, in case you’re wondering. Most of the other volunteers don’t do that many shifts. But I’m guessing it’s a little easier for them to fall asleep at night.

By then, I’d gone back to driving the train. I had stopped doing the early morning commute though. Too many people to keep an eye on. So I switched to the ten to seven. It sounds like an awkward shift, but it’s not too bad. I got up at seven most mornings to take Groucho for a walk… a nice long one when the weather was good, but if it was raining, we stuck to a quick circuit around the park. And when the frosts came, I would just take him to the empty lot at the end of the block and stare him down until he dropped a steamer so we could go back inside. We were both getting too old to be messing around in the cold weather. But I tied to make up for it to him by taking him to the woods at the weekend to chase squirrels. He was a good dog. He was like a best friend to me when I was on mandatory leave.

I hated her weeping the most. I preferred​ it when she shouted me down, and raged against the unfairness of the world. When she went quiet and hopeless, like there was no fight left in her at all, I would start thinking maybe this was her last call. That she’d be the first one I’d lose. And I’d start to feel down, thinking how that would undo any good I’d done here.

I’ve been depressed. Not just after the fatalities, but before then. I knew what it was like to look in the mirror and feel trapped inside the body and mind of someone I despised. I know what it’s like to wake up without the desire to do anything… not just for that day, but ever again. I’ve looked into the abyss, and it’s shot some daggers back at me.

So I would hear her crying and I would know her helplessness, and her suffering. Her reasons might have been insubstantial, but her pain was real. They give us some training to answer the phones before we start, but I’m not a real therapist. I don’t have any degree that qualifies me to diagnose​ anyone, or tell them what to do with their lives. So I would do what I’d been trained to do, and I would sit and listen to a woman with nowhere else to go, and no one else to talk to, beg me to help her die.

I started calling her ‘Anna’ to myself, in my head, after the second time we spoke. Like the Tolstoy book. It’s cruel, but she provoked me, and then it stuck.

Now, I want to get this straight. I am a volunteer at the centre. No judge mandated that I come here after the accident, this is not some court-ordered punishment. Of course it is a punishment. But it’s a penance I’ve chosen of my own free will. I want to believe that talking to some of these kids has helped them make better, different choices. And I hope that I’ve been able to shock a couple with my own story into reconsidering their plans. And if nothing else, it fills the hours in a way that make me feel a little less useless.

I’m not a religious man. I don’t think there is a cloud-palace in the sky filled with dead loved ones patiently waiting for your arrival. I can’t even console myself with the hopes that child molesters and terrorists will burn forever in hell. I didn’t believe in God before those kids jumped onto the tracks, and I wasn’t inclined to start afterwards.

So I wasn’t trying to save Anna’s immortal soul. I’d reached a point where I wasn’t even trying that hard to save her life any more.

We’ve all got a one-way ticket out of here that we can use anytime we like. Who the hell was I to tell Anna when she could hand in hers? She’d​ never told me about any of the real problems in her life. I didn’t know if she was an orphan, or a widow. If she’d lost a child, or her job. I didn’t know if she was sick, taking hundreds of pills a day, and just weary of fighting her own body. Maybe she actually did have a rich husband who wouldn’t let her see her kids after she shacked up with a suave count. I didn’t know any of the big stuff.

When she did talk, when she called up feeling more angry than sad, she only ever complained about the corner shop owner who embarrassed her when she didn’t have enough money to pay for a magazine, or the teenagers in her block who intentionally played loud music to keep her up at night. Maybe unlike those gay, pregnant, abused teens, she didn’t have a single, terrible reason for her misery. So she looked for reasons, and invented them. Maybe no one had ever told her that you didn’t always need a reason.

She always hung up without warning.

They looked about twelve. The kids I killed. The newspaper confirmed that he was fifteen and she was fourteen, but the extra years didn’t make them any less children. They held hands as they jumped down onto the tracks.

It takes a train going fifty five miles an hour almost a full mile to come to a complete stop.

I got three months’ paid leave and mandatory counselling sessions once a week for six months. I still see their faces in my dreams sometimes.

The next time she called the centre Anna wasn’t crying or raving. She was frightening. Focused.

“I know which one’s yours.”

I didn’t respond. I couldn’t.

“It’s the 26X. Ten o’ clock. Greenside to Eastlake.”

I could feel myself shake. I wanted to hang up, but I my arm wouldn’t move.

“Isn’t it?” she prodded.

“What do you want?”

“I want you to tell me that’s your train.”

Okay, I had told Anna about the accident before. I was an idiot. I had thought that sharing my experience would help others learn from it… although…that’s only half true. I did want to tell the story. So that I could become desensitized to it. I wanted to hear myself tell it, over and over, until it became more like fable than a memory, until I could recite the words without feeling them. So I told her about the boy and the girl. They way they had looked me as the train bore down on​ them both. How surprised they both had looked in that last minute. And that had stopped her crying.

“You got compensation for that,” she’d interjected, inappropriately.

“Well, yes, some. But-”

“Huh. I’ve heard it’s more than ‘some’. Are you still working? Or do you just do this now?”

“I still drive.”

“A train?!”

“Yes, a train.”

“Which one?”

“We’re not allowed to share personal details like that.”

“I’d say that story you just told me was pretty damn personal.”

“That’s different from telling you where I work.”

“Aren’t you worried?”

I’d let the question hang in the air. ‘Always’ I’d thought. Always worried. About everything. But then I gave her room to clarify.

“That it’ll happen again. Aren’t you worried?”

“Sometimes,” I lied, “Sometimes it gets to me. But you can’t live in​ fear. All you can do-”

“What happens, if it happens again? What happens to you?”

“I don’t like to think about that.”

But she did want to think about it. After that conversation, she became morbidly inspired. Something had sparked against in the grey of her existence, and she was a woman in desperate need of fire. The next time we spoke, she was armed with information.

“You don’t ever have to work again.”

I didn’t have to ask her what she was talking about. And I didn’t want to reward her wrong-headed thinking by quizzing her on it.

“It’ll be like I’m doing you a favour. And you’ll be doing me a favour. I just need to know which one is yours.”

“I’m really sorry, but I think you need to speak with another counsellor.” I surprised myself by saying.

Naturally, she hung up.

It didn’t take long to get the centre head, a gentle ginger giant in his mid-thirties called Shawn, to agree that Anna needed​ to be routed to a more experienced counsellor. Someone with the right techniques, who could manage her and help her find the help she clearly needed.

In keeping with her established pattern, she simply hung up on the new counsellor the first week.

On the second week, she threatened to slit her own throat if I didn’t take her call.

Every night she tried to goad, plead, beg and bully me into telling her which train was mine. In a way, it was a good sign. She cared about something, supposedly ‘helping her to help me’, and since she had a goal, she spent less time listing the countless wrongdoings against her. I played into it, teased her with a little more information each time. In every call it seemed like she was opening up just an inch more. Soon, I was sure, she’d get bored, and stop calling, or agree to speak to someone else. I fantasized I could even get her to go see a psychologist for the medication she so clearly needed.

So when she confronted me with the information about my train, and she was so certain, and so arrogant, I was honestly dumbstruck. None of my training had prepared me for a suicidal stalker, determined to die by my hand.

“Please,” I’d whimpered, “don’t.”

“I know you don’t want to, but if you think about it, this is best for everyone. You are so, so destroyed about what happened to those children. And you’re clearly still atoning for it, for some stupid reason. You couldn’t possibly let another driver, maybe even one of your colleagues, suffer the same thing, could you? Could you?”

Compared to every other conversation we’d had, she sounded positively gleeful. She didn’t wait for an answer. She had all the answers now. She had plans.

“So you spare some poor boy the same fate as you, you get to put a miserable old bag out of her misery and you get to retire next month. I’d call that a win-win. If you don’t go to work tomorrow, it won’t make a damn difference to me. But you can still save someone here.”

“Wait!”

I cautiously inhaled an unsteady lungful of air. She hadn’t hung up.

“You have to know which station. You don’t want to live and end up eating through a straw do you? I’ve seen that happen.”

I hadn’t, but if I were going to throw myself under the wheels of a train, I’d want to be mathematical about it.

“Listen to me carefully,” I closed my hand around the receiver and whispered into it harshly, “You bitch, if you’re going to do this, then do it right. Gustenberg station. The train will be at its fastest. Stand right at the sign for platform C. Don’t move until you see the driver’s face. Until you see my face. And then jump with everything you’ve got.”

There was a long silence and I panicked, thinking perhaps she had hung up much earlier. Then I heard her exhale, with something not unlike relief.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, and it was the closest she’d ever come to saying ‘goodbye’ to me.

The next morning I got up at seven, had a cup of coffee and took Groucho for a nice, long walk, even though it was drizzling. I didn’t mind. I don’t think he did either. As I dressed and drove to work, I had the same empty pit in my stomach that I’d had the morning I went back to work after the accident. I felt sick and afraid. It felt like my life was ending.

We were late getting started. I watched with Rudy, the train manager, as a family boarded with their luggage, as a mixed group of giggling teenagers tried to find enough seats to sit all together. A young couple at the back caught my eye as he followed her onto the train, a gentle hand on her back. The children I’d hit would still be younger than them, even if they had lived.

There are three stops before Stephen’s Cross, and they are all relatively close together. The train only really picks up to its full speed after we leave it.

Including acceleration time, it takes about fourteen minutes to get from Stephen’s Cross to Gustenberg station. It takes a train going fifty five miles an hour almost a full mile to come to a complete stop.

I pulled the brakes at twelve minutes. Rudy flew from where he was sat into an interior wall, dislocating his shoulder. Of the eighty nine passengers on board, two received concussions and one of the teenagers, a boy, walked away with a broken nose from the sudden, unannounced and extremely violent stop. All of them were, rightly, furious. It made the local news. I was asked to resign the same day. My recent, traumatic history affording me a generous severance package, laced with pity.

I didn’t go back to the centre for two months. I didn’t feel capable of talking anyone away from the edge when my own balance was so precarious. I also didn’t know what I’d do if Anna called. I wanted her dead almost as much as she had wanted to die.

But by the time the leaves started to turn on the trees, I was back doing four nights a week. I had to. I had friends there. I had a purpose there. The way I saw it, if my mental health did decline too far, I was surrounded by people who were trained to recognise it. I was safe there. And I decided that if Anna did call, it would be my turn to hang up on her.

But she didn’t call.

She came over.

Shawn called me into his office, where a plump woman in her mid-forties, younger than me, hunched over a coffee cup filled with water. She had dark, greasy hair, pulled away from her face with a plastic clip. She was wearing a pink tracksuit and gold flip flops. Her makeup was lightly applied, but the powdery finish made her skin look dusty. She’d been crying. This was Anna, in all of her mundanity.

Shawn made up an excuse and left us alone, giving me look as he passed me, to let me know he wouldn’t be far.

I refused to sit next to her, and the silence felt like it lasted an hour. Neither of us knew where to look. Neither of us wanted to start talking.

“What are you doing here?”

“I read about what happened. And to you. You were sacked.”

“I asked you what you were doing here.”

“I’m sorry that happened.”

“That didn’t ‘happen’! You did that! That’s your fault!” As the pitch and the volume of my voice rose, I found myself leaning over her, my face hovering over hers. Her bottom lip began to quiver.

“No! I wasn’t there. I didn’t go,” she whined. And then she burst into tears.

It was almost too much. I think, if she hadn’t been seated, I might have hit her then.

“Unbelievable.”

“I’m sorry! I just… you were so kind to me and I just…I didn’t mean for this to happen. I want to make it right.”

“You can’t. Do you get that? People were hurt. I lost my job. A job I loved, that I fought to do again. And you took it away from me, forever.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I ruined everything. I’m just worthless. I should have just k-”

“Stop. Stop talking.”

It occurred to me then, that maybe Anna finally got what she’d needed. That one terrible burden to pin all of her sadnesses to. A story that she would want to tell over and over, until her past self became as distant as a character in a book. Until it sounded like an anonymous, cautionary tale, even to her own ears.

She continued to cry as I went behind Shawn’s desk and retrieved an application​ form. Ten pages, double-sided. But she could fill it all in here. I had nothing but time.

“Fill it in,” I said, clapping a pen on the table next to her.

“What is this?”

“Stop crying and fill it in. I didn’t lose my job to lose you as well. You’re going to apply to become a counsellor. You’re going to get counselling. And you’re going to help people, people like you. And one day -don’t you dare ask me when- I’ll forgive you.”

And one day, I thought, I’ll forgive myself too.

She stared down at the form, turning it over several times, flummoxed by the level of detail it required.

“How…Where do I start?” She asked, eventually, picking up the pen like it might sting her.

“Square one,” I told her. And then I asked for her name.