27 January 2010

The Train

I witnessed something recently on an overnight train; it was a small thing that happened quietly in the middle of the night whilst other people were somehow managing to sleep. It wasn’t a thing to wake the others for, just a moment of humanity to sit and watch from the silent darkness of my own bed.

I’d woken gradually to a full bladder and one of those slow-formed questions about holding out until morning. Realising that the answer was of course no, I sat up and looked around in the gloom of the carriage, at the dark-coloured limbs hanging over the edges of the other bunks. I wondered at their effortless sleep. Meanwhile my bladder truly needed emptying but the silence and unfamiliarity pinned me hard to the bed, and I could feel sleep-inertia wrapping itself warmly around my shoulders. So I ended up sitting there, dumb and foreign and inert and needing-to-piss, for quite some time.

Then from up at the end of the carriage I heard the cough of a child. I looked over. In the lighted section by the carriage doors, a man with a moustache was sat leaning against a partition wall. Next to him, curled into a ball comprised mostly of limbs, a young boy was trying to sleep on the metal floor of the train. He was restless and clearly unwell. His cough was frequent and the sound of it rattled through the body of the carriage and blended with a metallic noise that was the background to all other things. The man by the boy’s side looked down at him with love, occasionally running a hand across his back or through his hair. The man’s other arm was around the boy like the walls of a castle.

I don’t know how long I watched the two of them for, but at some point another man appeared from the doorway to the adjoining carriage. He was carrying a huge pile of cardboard and other things that I couldn’t make out. He stopped and looked down at the man and said something to him too quietly for me to hear. This new man had a moustache too. Eventually a bright smile came over the face of the seated man; he gathered the young boy in his arms and stood up, holding him closely. It was then that I realised what was happening. The other man laid down the material he had brought from the cargo carriage; plastic sheeting, bubble wrap, layers of cardboard, until he had a single plastic sheet in his hands. I wondered how long it had taken him to collect it, to carry it through the umpteen carriages of sleeping bodies, and to convince the man guarding the cargo to hand it all over. I wondered if the guard had taken any money.

The man laid his boy down gently, then took the final plastic sheet and laid it over his small frame. Slowly, slowly, the boy’s head disappeared under the cover as he curled himself away into a warm and comfortable place. Then the two men, they were strangers I believe, shook each other's hand for a very, very long time.

I finally came to my senses and wandered to the toilet, nodding to the men as I passed. I emptied my bladder whilst smiling to myself and wondering if things like that happened all the time when hardly anyone else was watching.