Talking on trains

Submitted into Contest #27 in response to: Write a short story that takes place on a train.... view prompt

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I had come to the decision that it was time to do something reckless. People have different definitions of reckless. Some climb tall buildings without any ropes. Others drink themselves into an early grave. A few wrestle crocodiles. Me, I got on the 15:37 InterCity to Vienna with the intention of speaking to someone.

It was the perfect train for my reckless endeavour. The journey would take more than four hours and the train was just busy enough. Plenty of people, but not to the extent that it was standing room only. I would have to sit down next to a total stranger. And then, what could be more natural than making conversation?

Everything, of course. Train etiquette states that you may use phrases like “Excuse me, is this seat taken?” and “Can you move your bag?” before sitting down, with possibly an “Oh, sorry!” when the train jerks unexpectedly and you end up elbowing your neighbour in the face. If you are a cute little old lady, you can chat about your grandkids. Small children are allowed to ask questions and they happily abuse this privilege by asking their mum how long it will take until the old man across the aisle from them dies. The little monsters never ask about the landscape zooming past outside, oh no.

I could see two available seats in my carriage. One was next to a man who was staring out of the window at nothing in particular. His fingers were tapping out a complicated rhythm on his leg. The second seat was next to a woman with short black hair who was reading through a thick stack of slightly crumbled paper, occasionally scribbling a note in the margin. Two options. I would have to make a choice now, and that choice would determine how my conversation would go. And that would again influence my entire life, like a butterfly flapping its wings to change the path of a storm.

In a parallel universe, I sat down beside the man and asked him what he was doing.


“That rhythm you’re tapping.”

“Oh, it’s just a song. I’m trying to find the words.”

“Are you a musician?”

“Yeah, well, I suppose.” He looked a bit sheepish. “Me and some mates, we’ve got a band. We play evenings down at the pub sometimes, you know? Nothing special or anything.”

And from there on it was easy. His name was Adam. I asked him about the pub, the mates, the band, their songs, everything. He told me he had taught himself to play guitar as a teenager but so had two of his mates, and they had both claimed to have sore throats when they realised they needed a singer. I told him he had a nice voice, which made him laugh.

“I sounded like a dying pigeon when I first started singing,” he said.

“I bet the other two still do.”

“More like dying seagulls.”

“Do you have a lot of experience with those? Do birds even make noises when they’re on their deathbed?”

“It’s the name of our band. Dying Seagulls.”

“That’s the worst name for a band I ever heard,” I said, even as I followed them on Spotify. They had eight songs and a dispiritingly low number of monthly listeners. “You should change it to something better.”

“Like what?”

“Literally anything else.”

“Really? If you ask me, Literally Anything Else is an even worse name for a band. It’s like opening a restaurant and calling it I Don’t Know.”

“Exactly, it’s brilliant!”

The Austrian countryside passed by in a blur.

In another parallel universe, I sat down beside the woman. She smiled at me, briefly, and then went back to her papers. They were scientific articles of some sort, with two columns of text and a number of complicated graphs. They were also covered in annotations and big question marks.

“What are you working on?” I asked.

“Hm? Oh, just catching up on my reading. But this stuff, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

I peered at a paragraph. “I understand about half the words. What’s it about?”

“Beetles,” she said. “I study them, for my PhD.”

“Cool,” I said, and I meant it. Beetles are all right, for insects, what with being shiny and colourful and less creepy-crawly than some of their distant relatives. But the fact that someone can dedicate years of their lives to studying them is utterly fascinating.

We introduced ourselves properly, with a handshake and everything. Her name was Beatrice, and she had captured her first beetle at the age of five and loved them ever since. Soon she was showing me photographs and drawing little sketches to demonstrate the subtle differences in beetle anatomy.

“So how many species are there?” I asked at some point.

“No one really knows. Probably about a million.”

“A million? Seriously?”

She nodded. “Especially in the tropics, there can be a dozen different species on a tiny patch of land. It’s extraordinary. But there are some fascinating species here in Europe as well.”

And she told me of beetles that lived high up in the mountains, beetles that lived in the forests, on farms, in gardens, near rivers. Some species were so rare no one had seen them for years. Others were pests, gnawing their way through crops. She moved her hands constantly while talking, making sweeping gestures and sketching figures in the air. I could have sat for hours, just watching her raise her eyebrows for emphasis.

“Sorry!” she said suddenly. “I’ve been rambling.”

“I don’t mind! I should be apologising, really. I’m keeping you from your work.”

She shrugged at the stack of papers in her lap. “Doesn’t matter. These articles were getting frustrating, to be honest. It’s easy to get so caught up in the details. Sometimes I forget why I got into science in the first place.”

“Because beetles are pretty?”

That made her laugh. “Something like that.”

Skip back to the first parallel universe.

Adam and I exchanged numbers before we got off the train in Vienna. He called me that same evening to let me know the date of the next Dying Seagulls concert.

“A concert?” I said “Do I need to bring earplugs? Have you got a gig in a football stadium?”

“Does table football count? And beers are only two euros.”

“Is that cheap enough for a starving musician to buy me drink after the show?”

“I’ll have you know I’ve got a perfectly respectable office job! I wear a suit to work and everything.”

“How dull. And here was me thinking you were a true Bohemian. Don’t artists wander the streets at night, living off moonlight and creativity, while they ponder truth and nature and beauty?”

“That was in the nineteenth century. And they all died of tuberculosis.”

I went to their gig, of course. Just to hear his voice again in real life.

Parallel universe number two.

Beatrice was only going to be in Vienna for five days. She was attending a scientific conference: The International Symposium of Something or Other About Beetles or Maybe Insects in General. I can’t remember the exact title. It sounded impressive enough to make me nervous. Beatrice nibbled a fingernail while she explained that this was her first time at a major conference. There would be hundreds of scientists there, all trying to cram their life’s work into a dozen Powerpoint slides. She needed to impress some important professors to ensure the next step in her scientific career.

“Just tell them what you told me,” I said, as we said goodbye on the platform.

I called her two days later, on the morning of her presentation, to wish her luck. And again that afternoon to ask if she had time for a drink. We met in a small cafe just across from the university building where the conference was being held. She stirred three sugar cubes into her coffee and told me about the famous professor who had listened to her talk and asked a couple of questions afterwards.

“Is that bad or good? Generally, I mean.”

“Depends on the question. This was good, she wanted to know more about the new population monitoring system we built. It’s very new, you see, but it’s a lot more precise than the current systems.”

I put my elbows on the table and cupped my chin in my hands as I watched her expressive eyebrows. There was a pitter-patter of rain on the window beside us, soft and distant.

Back in parallel universe number one, I was cheering as Dying Seagulls filled the tiny pub with noise. They were playing Moonlight Racetrack, easily their best song. Their drummer was loud, the two guitarists were fairly decent and the bassist was so subtle I couldn’t really hear him. The floor was sticky with beer and the acoustics were terrible, but Adam’s voice made up for that. He sang with his eyes closed most of the time so I could watch him as much as I liked.

He bought me a beer afterwards and we played table football until the barman shooed us out.

“Can I walk you home?” Adam asked. “The moon will be out. We could ponder truth and nature and beauty.”

“It’ll be a long walk. I live across the river.”

“Perfect. I can try out the lyrics to our next song.”

I was just drunk enough to be warm. I tucked my arm through his and we stepped out onto the moonlit streets.

In parallel universe number two, I had time for one more coffee with Beatrice before her five days were up. This time she drank it black. We talked about mountains and the best places to view sunsets and look for beetles. When I walked her to the station, she mentioned that she was thinking of returning to Austria soon.

“To find this little guy.” She showed me a photo of a blue-grey beetle with black spots.

“That’s adorable. Is it an Austrian beetle?”

“Not specifically. It’s found in forested areas around the Alps. They’re quite rare.”

“Can I come? I’d love to go on a beetle-finding mission.”

The corners of her eyes crinkled and her eyebrows did a complicated dance that was better than any smile.

The two parallel universes stretched away from me as the train set off on its journey to Vienna. Seat A, or seat B? I just had to make a choice. I chewed the inside of my cheek. There was another seat free, I saw now. It was across the table from a woman with a young boy. Crayons and crumbs were scattered across the table. I slid into the seat and took a dogeared paperback out of my bag, opening it on a random page. The words blurred, and the boy turned to his mother and asked her why I was crying.

February 08, 2020 03:36

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1 comment

Suzanne Kiraly
11:20 Feb 13, 2020

I loved this story, Marte. How clever you were in vacillating between the parallel universes which gave the story pace. And the eclectic range of characters made it all the more intriguing. Choices we face and make determine our destiny and this story was a little bit reminiscent of "Sliding Doors" for me. The melancholic ending was a tribute to your deep understanding of human nature and your ability to convey it. It evoked much empathy. Bravo!


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