It was my first time on a train.
It was my first time on anything like it, never before had I been on a bus, tram, plane or metro. It would not have been allowed, even if we had the money. My dad said there were too many people on trains. He did not trust their wandering eyes and creaky jackets and their briefcases and bags that could hold anything and be held by anyone. He didn't trust the attendants’ chipped nails and ever-calm, blank faces. He wanted to see when they worried, wanted to see if something was wrong.
I do not trust the attendant who steps down from the carriage.
She is too calm for something so hectic. The passengers around me clump awkwardly on the concrete, loose pebbles and flakes of fading paint crunch under our feet. She tells us to mind the line.
I notice that my bag is precariously dangling over the yellow border where I had pushed it to my side in my haste to get to the front of the line. I pull my bag closer, but my palm slides on the dry leather of the handle and I fumble. I am too distracted.
The attendant is staring at me. I heave my bag to my chest and clutch it against my blouse, ignoring the dirt that stains the white cotton. The attendant’s eyes are blank and grey. I do not like her.
I do not like her voice when she tells me that I’m standing in the line for the wrong carriage. I do not like how her gaze leaves me once I walk away. I do not like being so impermanent here, so forgotten as I trail behind the late-comers down the carriage aisle.
A man is in my seat. I double check my ticket and the numbers printed on the beige wall. I stare at the man until I am jostled out of the way by the woman who was supposed to be my seatmate. My dad said that some things are not worth the trouble. I purse my lips and walk towards the washrooms, and stand with the late-comers and the other seat-less.
The seat thief never notices my glare, never even looks up.
I stand and hug my bag until my hands are molded into the leather, until my mouth is cracked and dry from not talking, until my feet are almost too unsteady to grip the floor as the train shakes and shudders its way along the track.
Dad said to watch the villages pass by, but even if I could tear my eyes from the seat thief, the windows are too dirty to see anything aside from the shadows and great shapes of indistinguishable color. I study the top of his head, the baldness that he’s tried to hide, his stained collar, and the stains of his ears. Once this train pulls into my stop, I will never see him again.
The train pulls into the first stop. That’s how I know it’s been an hour, and when the train jolts to a start again, my knees give out and I end up a tangled mound on the floor. I don’t know where my legs start and the floor begins. I close my eyes and ignore the sounds of the exclamations and kind words of the other seat-less passengers. I ignore the smell of the washroom, and just breathe.
All I taste is leather, dust, and stale air. All I feel is the cracked handle of my bag, and how the joints of my bones rattle and clunk and clang with each bump of the tracks. All I feel is the stains of the carpet and my skirt and the calluses on my hands and someone's hand on my arm. Then all I taste is stale, dusty water, and all I smell is the metal of the tin and I drink until I cough it up and one hand becomes three and they’re holding me steady and taking the water away.
When I open my eyes, I see I am being helped by one of the other seat-less men. He looks at my face, but moves away from me once we lock eyes.
The water belongs to the attendant from the station and she rests a cold, firm hand on my arm. Her jacket is wet with spots of the water I must have coughed onto her. She still looks calm, like all this happens every day. It may happen to her, but it does not happen to me, and I turn my glare onto her.
She asks slowly where I’m heading and I release my grip from my bag to retrieve my ticket, my gaze never leaving her face. I cough once more for good measure and hand her my ticket which she holds limply in her hand. I want her to care, but she does not. She doesn't care about me. Her face never changes and she leaves me sitting.
I don’t watch her walk away, but I feel her footsteps grow quieter as the train pulls into a station. I stare at the dull leather soles of the passengers who pass me, and I can not quite remember if they are leaving or arriving. I stare at the floor, the dirty carpet, until the train regains its former speed.
There is a hand on my arm again, and it is the attendant. She has returned. I nearly delude myself into thinking that she comes out of concern, but that is wiped away when I look into her face and see nothing. She hauls me to my feet and I stand on the jolting floor..
She leads me to where the seat thief was sitting, but his seat, my seat, and the one next to it are now empty. Sink into the hard frame my seat and hold my bag in my lap, and the attendant is silent as she sets herself down beside me. I look at the dirt on the window. There are cathedrals and trees out there, if I squint, they’re mixed in with the fields and flat red roofs.
The attendant shifts occasionally, and leaves to get me more water once. She watches as I drink it and I feel as though I must ask her why she stays. Instead I ignore her and remind myself to be careful. My dad said trains are dangerous, for the people on it are all heading in the same direction, to different places. He said this made people uncaring, for they would never see you again. I think I used to understand that, but I am starting to relax in her quiet.
She touches my arm briefly to alert me that my stop is coming up. She stands in the aisle and watches me shuffle to the carriage door so that I can get there before the train stops moving.
She does not say goodbye as I walk past her, and I do not see her again.
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The part where the main character stares down the seat-thief is so relatable. The entire scene is very vivid, and you can feel the girl’s anxiety. Being a daily train commuter myself, I love the detail about the windows being so dirty you can’t see out of them; nothing to focus on but those around her, so no way to relieve her anxiety.
Thanks so much! It’s based off my own experiences, but I got lucky and an elderly man offered me a seat beside him so I didn’t have to stand so long.