I am thrown awake by the swinging of the train. For a moment it’s difficult to decide where I am, which world, or century. The carriage is silent, all conversation has died as the train has continued its journey through the desert. I peer carefully over the top of the seat in front of me just to reassure myself that I’m not alone.
The woman who climbed aboard the train in front of me is still there, her shopping bags surrounding her, trophies of her high-street safari. The ceaseless purr of the train has lulled her to sleep. Most of the other passengers have also slipped and those that are still aware seemed drugged, listless. The train skips across points and I stumble back onto my bed. Sleeping has eaten into my time and thankfully the back of the journey has been broken, but even so I will not reach my stop for another 2 hours.
I glance down at the white band on my skin where my watch had been. I caress the spot with my other hand, vaguely worrying the hair and trying once again to remember exactly when my watch had vanished. Two days ago, no it would have been three, I’d just finished a coffee and was picking my way through the tables when I was asked the time. I looked at my watch before I’d even considered the questioner. “It’s ten after two.”
I looked up to see what effect my news had had. She was sitting at a table on her own. Smoke from a recently lit cigarette gently snaked around her face. She smiled briefly, thanked me and returned to her cigarette. She seemed troubled, her free hand slowly turned a packet of cigarettes, first lying it on its side and then, as if this did not quite please her, turned the packet until it stood proud on the table. And so the process was repeated, end, side, end, side.
I continued past the tables and out onto the sidewalk glancing back once to see her still marking time with the packet of cigarettes. I cannot say why this incident has affected me so much, it was an instant, once out of the tables I plunged into the usual sidewalk crowd and was swept away. And if you ask me to describe the woman I know I cannot. All that remains is a sense of impending sadness and ceaseless motion.
The purr of the train briefly changes to a more throaty snarl as it passes through a station. The woman in front murmurs, turns and returns to lifelessness. I enclose the denuded wrist with the fingers of my other hand and rubbed the skin.
Between the time at the café and the present moment much has happened, seconds and minutes have passed filled with the detail of life and I can recall none of it clearly. I had turned away from the café, or at least the crowds had hurried me away and I know I was happy for a while just to drift.
Dull calming minutes on the sidewalk with pauses and then flashes of speed as I rushed between the rapid traffic. In these minutes I felt as if I almost belonged. Proximity to all those people gave me a sense of normality, lives that I could be part of by simply reaching out to touch. I can smile at the nonsense of it all now, the notion that belonging was only a fingertip away. It was a lifetime away and maybe next time I will be good.
A tunnel eclipses the sun and the carriage is thrown into darkness. I blink hoping to restore the sun but the darkness continues. I close my eyes and I am back in the hotel lobby.
“Mister Simons, it’s 323”
“Are you feeling better?”
“Much thank you. Are there any messages for me?” I smiled hoping to cover my need for a no.
“Let me look.”
She turned away and walked behind the frosted glass screen. I heard a whispered conversation and the sound of suppressed laughter.
“There are two messages Mister Simons.” I took the pieces of paper from her as calmly as possible, my smile reflecting the professionalism of hers.
“Is that clock right?”
“Yes its 4:30”
I glanced at my watch “Ah, mine must be slow” I hesitated but could think of nothing more to say. How long could she maintain her smile for? “Thanks for the …” I waved the paper surrendering to her professionalism.
I managed to wait until the lift doors had closed behind me before reading the messages. “I’ll be there until 3pm” I could hear her voice, hard honeyed words for the receptionist “No, no other message, he’ll know what I mean. Thank you, you’ve been most helpful.”
It was too late now, even if I had wanted to be there. I crushed the paper, compressing the message, minimising it, reducing its significance. I held off reading the second message, somehow I knew it would not be as polite as the first.
The lift glided to a stop and the doors opened on the 11th floor as I read the note, “Where are you, you bastard”. This explained the laughter “Yes I said bastard, b-a-s-t-a-r-d and no I don’t want to leave my name.” No honey this time. I opened the door of my room, checked my watch again, just an hour to pack and leave.