The Crossword

Direct Provision (Irish: Soláthar Díreach) is a system of asylum seeker accommodation used in the Republic of Ireland. The system has been criticised by human rights organisations as illegal, inhuman and degrading, while proponents argue that it ensures asylum seekers are housed and cared for, in accordance with international law. — Wikipedia

Thomas sat on the train, heading towards Dublin from Kildare, early on a crisp February morning, just as he had every weekday for the past forty years. Thomas was traveling from a quaint little housing estate populated with people like himself: retirees and former commuters to the city.

In truth, Thomas had no reason to be on the commuter packed train this morning, or any morning for that matter. He had neighbors and friends he could call on to pass the time, and there was always something to do around the house. But, Thomas had never been a burden on anyone. Nor had he ever been fond of housework. He didn’t see either of those things changing now that Teresa was gone.

As the sun started to gain strength, he picked up the Independent. Thomas always thought there was no better way to start a day, than with a coffee and a crossword. The coffee to jump-start the mind and the crossword to follow up and give it some gas.

The train shuddered into its next stop, and the doors slid open allowing a gust of cold morning air to swirl through the cabin. Thomas clasped his hands around his paper cup and took a long sip through the slit in the lid.

Along with the change in temperature, the opening of the doors brought with it a wave of new passengers. After forty years using commuter rail, Thomas could almost sense when someone was going to sit beside him now. It didn’t even have to involve eye contact. Something about the way people moved could give away where they intended to spend their journey.

This morning Thomas was joined by a young man, no more than twenty he guessed. He had made his way up the carriage with short, swift, steps, never lifting his gaze from the ground in front of him. Thomas made note of his mop of curly black hair, and the shade of his skin. A sort of milky brown not unlike that of the liquid in his cup, he thought.

Best not to say that out loud though, Thomas thought to himself. No more than the price of the drink in his hand, the price you paid for saying something offensive, intentional or not, had gone up, since he first started coming to the city. He would be all over ‘Tweeter’ or ‘MyFace’, or wherever else, in seconds for saying something like that, even if he meant no harm.

The young man sat with his hands bound together tightly. He had a sitting posture as nervous as his walk, Thomas observed. As the man tried to get comfortable his shirt shifted, and Thomas noticed discolored skin just above his wrist. There were about half a dozen marks that looked like they could have been left by the track of a cats claw, only they were bigger. Thomas didn’t let his gaze linger too long. He didn’t want to make the young man conscious of his staring.

With the paper on his lap, Thomas settled into his crossword. He picked off a couple of the easier questions.

Thirteen down: HOME __ (5). Alone, of course.

Four across: HIDING UNDER THE COVERS(6). Afraid, he penciled in.

Eleven across had him stumped. SOMETHING EASILY DONE (11). Clearly, the coffee hadn’t fully kicked in yet. Thomas had completed countless puzzles during his commute over the years and was familiar with all of the common clues. He knew he had answered eleven across before, but it just wouldn’t come to him this morning.

“Piece of cake”. Thomas had to do a double take and he glanced at the young man seated to his left. Thomas had learned the hard way that people speaking aloud, in the modern world, didn’t necessarily mean they were talking to someone in their immediate vicinity. Thomas didn’t want to receive the awkward smile that came as a result of him answering someone who was talking to a microphone, this morning, so he played it safe.

“Excuse me, are you talking to me, son?” he asked, cautiously.

“Yes. Eleven across. Piece of cake,” the young man replied, gesturing down at Thomas’ puzzle.

“Ah, you’re dead right! Thanks, son,” Thomas penciled in the correct answer.

Thomas may not have been too well accustomed with what to say and what not to say these days. But he knew one thing hadn’t changed: If someone speaks to you out of the blue on a busy train, they’re probably looking for a bit of company.

“So, where are you from yourself?” Thomas might not be able to point to the answer on a map, but it’s a good conversation starter nevertheless, he thought.

“I’m from Syria. My name is Samir.”

“Ah very good. I had a friend called Sammy once. He’s gone now though. Prostate cancer took him. God be good to him. How long have you been in Ireland then, Sam?”

“Around two years. I have been living in a direct provision center since I fled my country,” Samir looked past Thomas towards the country-side they were moving through, more often than not, as he replied.

“I’ve heard about those centers on the news. I don’t suppose you find much peace there, then? Or any cake either, I’d bet,” Thomas’ default response has always been to try and lighten every situation with a bit of humor.

Shouldn’t have said that out loud, Thomas watched Samir’s face for any sign of offense as he wondered if this was one of those situations where humor would have been best left aside.

“Or anything easily done, either,” Samir looked at Thomas with a playful smile on his face. The two men shared some easy laughter and Thomas felt relief that he hadn’t upset the young man.

Despite Samir’s awkward mannerisms, Thomas was enjoying his company. Most of his journeys on the train didn’t involve any conversation whatsoever, so he was going to make the most of the opportunity.

“How about helping me finish this crossword then, Sam?” Samir was as glad of the offer as Thomas was of the acceptance.

As they made their way through the clues together, Samir’s thoughts turned to his father he had left behind in Syria. It had been many months since he had seen his father or even heard his voice. The thought of where he might be now brought an ache to Samir’s stomach.

“What do you think about this one? Nine down. Group of similar things. Six letters,” Thomas hadn’t noticed the change in Samir’s demeanor. He was enjoying the crossword so much, it had built a tunnel around his vision.

“Family,” Samir’s response, and the crack in his voice as he uttered it, grabbed Thomas’ full attention again. He turned to Samir. The explanation was painted on his young face. Thomas didn’t need any words to understand what Samir was thinking.

“Do you want to know why I’m on this train, Sammy? Look around. I can’t see many other seventy-year-old men here this morning. All I see are professionals, the kind of people who have to endure the rush hour journey in this tin can every day,” Thomas gestured around the cabin as he spoke.

“I’ve be… I was married for nearly fifty years. I have two sons. Wonderful, successful, lads, both of them. My wife, Teresa, passed not long back, and the economy took my sons to Australia,” Thomas cleared his throat before he went on.

“I know plenty others my age who are in the same boat. Now they spend their days pining over what they’ve lost. It’s all they talk about, Sam, and I can’t stand it.”

“That’s why I’m sitting here beside you here today. I have no control over death, or the economy, or whatever else forces people apart. But I do have control over how I spend my time. I travel to the city every day because I can, and it makes me feel alive.”

“I know your situation is probably much harder than anything I’ve seen, and I’m not trying to belittle it at all. I don’t want you thinking that. But, I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: Keep the faith, Sammy. My sons are gone now, but I see them at Christmas. And Teresa is with me every day. Your family is the same. I’m sure you’ll see them again someday, and they’ll be with you in spirit until then.”

The ache in Samir’s stomach hadn’t subsided, but somehow he felt a little better. Thomas could tell from the look on Samir’s face that he appreciated the sentiment. He didn’t need a spoken response.

“I never asked for your name, sir,” Samir felt embarrassed when he realized he had forgotten.

“The name’s Thomas, but my friends call me Tom.”

“I hope I see you again, Tom. This is my stop,” Samir gathered himself in preparation for the rush towards the doors.

“Lovely meeting you Sam. Hang on a second. Take this.”, Thomas scribbled quickly onto the crossword page of the Independent. He tore the page and handed it to Samir.

“There’s no need to leave it up to hope, or luck. That’s my address. Come and see me any time you like. My number is there as well. Call before you come and I’ll stick the kettle on.”

“Thanks, Tom. For everything. I will see you soon,” Samir hurried towards the platform before he missed his stop.

As Samir stood on the platform, he looked back towards the train. He shared a nod and a wave with Thomas as the train began to pull out from the station again.

See that, Teresa? Seventy years old and I’m still making new friends, Thomas continued towards the city with a smile on his face so wide, it could have convinced anyone that he still had his real teeth.

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Stephen McLean

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