The Town on the River
by Mizu Ash
The steam train chugs gently into the small station. Hannah looks out of the window. This seems a nice town. She’s been looking out of the window the whole trip, and the view was nice. Not spectacular, nothing grand, no wild seas or steep cliffs, no, just gently sloping green hills, meadows with cows grazing contentedly, the patchwork of small irregular fields in dark yellow, all sorts of green, reddish-brown. In the sweetness of the shining sun it looked more than it was, Hannah thinks. It looked … new, somehow, fresh. She expected to see the brushstrokes of a painter on it all, not yet dry. It breathed, it glimmered, it shone. A storybook summer’s day.
And now this town. The little station is made of wood, whitewashed, and it is absolutely adorable. Pots with petunias and geraniums are hanging on the walls. The stationmaster walks around importantly. He has a whistle and a red cap. He opens doors, helps people down from the steps. And suddenly Hannah makes a decision: she is going to get off the train too, she is going to visit this little town, she’s going to run and run and run in the hills around this town. The air smells good here, pure and fresh, even over the smells of the steam train. She jumps up and reaches for her small wicker suitcase on the luggage rack above her, but the bearded man sitting opposite her has already got up and taken it. He hands it to her with a smile. She smiles back, suddenly lost for words. The stationmaster opens the door for her, and holds out his hand to help her down the two steps. It is very chivalrous of him, but not really necessary. She’s eighteen and perfectly capable to manage two steps on an old train, thank you very much! But then she looks at him and sees the happiness on his face. If there was ever a little boy who dreamt of growing up to be boss of a train station, this is him. Hannah smiles and takes his hand. He helps her down, and then quickly touches his cap in a salute to her. She nods at him, smiling, she can’t help it.
She turns to the station. Well, where to go to now? It’s one thing to get off the train on a whim; it’s another to know where to go, where to stay in a strange place. What do people speak here, what’s the currency, how can she find a bed for the night? Do people here dislike strangers, will she be able to find anything to eat? Are the hills off limits, when is the next train out of this place? She turns around, suddenly aware of the train behind her. The stationmaster hasn’t blown his whistle yet, she can still get back on. The train is waiting patiently. It looks very inviting right now.
“Hi, hello, oh good, you’re still here, I thought I was late! I ran all the way!”
Hannah feels a hand on her shoulder and turns around, again, in astonishment. She sees a woman much older than her, maybe even thirty. She has wrinkles and everything, but still she looks very nice. Not pretty, exactly, but … happy, that’s the word. She glows, glows like the landscape Hannah saw on the way here. Like there’s sun shining on her, or in her. She’s out of breath from running, and right now she’s trying to catch her breath, hands on her knees and bent over. Of course, when you’re older, you get tired very easily. Hannah doesn’t have that problem at all; running never tires her out. She can outrun the wind. She waits patiently for the older woman’s breath to slow down to normal.
“Well, I think I can talk now. Sorry about that, hon. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Hannah, I’m Hannah.”
“Nice to meet you, Hannah. I’m Liz.”
To the girl’s surprise, Liz takes her hand and gives it a firm handshake, smiling all the while. It seems strangely formal after their meeting on this sunlit platform, but apt, too, and very friendly. They both break into laughter at the same moment.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Liz says. “I’ll show you around. It’s a nice town, and I can show you all the best places.”
“Could you show me a small hostel or something, too? I don’t have a place to stay yet. I mean, I hope there’s no problem with accommodation, because I didn’t make a reservation or anything. I’m not sure I have enough money, either, so a cheap place is all I can afford, really, I should probably check my money first, or …”
She’s getting nervous again; she knows she is, but she can’t help it. She shouldn’t burden a stranger with all her worries. What’s going to happen to her?
“Hannah, Hannah, slow down, it’s all right. I think I know just the place for you. Don’t worry about paying. A friend of mine, well, he used to live there. It’s only a small room, right under the roof, a garret really, but sweet and with a wonderful view of the river. Clean, too. Wooden bed, crisp white sheets, a tiny night table, just enough for a candle and a book, wooden floorboards, a bit creaky, an blue and white rug, a chest of drawers with little flowers painted on it, and that’s it. The stairs to it are a bit steep, and rickety too, I’m afraid, but you’re young, you’ll manage. It’s over an inn, but a quiet one. Old men come there for a little something in the evening, and a game of chess. Sometimes a girl sings there, but they never make it very late. They do simple meals, too; you should eat there sometime.”
Hannah can’t believe her luck. This place sounds wonderful! It couldn’t be nicer, it couldn’t be more what she wanted, if she’d dreamt it up herself. She looks at Liz and knows she can never ever make Liz understand how incredible this is.
“That … that sounds great! That’s just wonderful! Look, I’ll keep it very, very clean, honest, and I’ll help in the inn to pay for the room. I’ll …”
Liz smiles. “Told you, don’t worry about it. You can help in the inn if you feel like it, but don’t if you’re not keen. It’s entirely up to you. Come on, we’ve stood around long enough. Let’s go and see your room, first. That’ll set your mind at ease.”
They walk through the little station with its wooden benches and tiled floor, out into the sunlit street. The cobblestone street is just as nice as the station was: small houses painted in bright but weathered colours, old lampposts, flowerpots everywhere. A few children are running around and shouting happily, probably playing hide and seek or tag. Their happy shouts climb up to the sky, climb up to the sun.
“It must be wonderful to live here,” Hannah says. “I’ve never lived in such a nice place. When I got off the train, I was … I was a bit worried. But now things seem to be working out after all.”
Liz smiles, a smile of dazzling brightness.
“Things have a way of working out here, Hannah. You’ll see.”
She takes off her winter coat. She hates winter. Everything that hurts about her body seems to be worse in winter. Varicose veins, lower back pain, even chapped lips. And your looks don’t improve either, if the cold bites into your face. She takes a long hard look into the small round mirror next to the door. Watery eyes from the cold outside, grey strands in her brown hair, wrinkles. When she started getting wrinkles, years ago, it didn’t seem much of a problem. What’s a few wrinkles among friends? But now there’s lots of them, and her face is starting to sag a bit. She still doesn’t look too bad, but behind the face she sees now, she can see her old age face waiting, lurking. Her mother’s face, bequeathed to her when her mother died. Does it work like that? Do you have to wear the face your mother wore after her stroke, the one she died with?
Here’s another one:
She’s in the closet, trying to find the cardboard box with the Christmas decorations. She finds old letters, old clothes, a tennis racket without the full set of strings, but no Christmas decorations. She does find a metal biscuit box, though, and she can’t for the life of her remember what’s in there. She gets down from the little step and sits on it instead. She opens the box, and finds old pictures, black and white. God, she has’t seen these in years. Her father in the army, her father next to the bus he drove. Her mother with her own parents and her three sisters. Her mother at the fair, smiling and waving at the camera. Then colour pictures of her and her parents, at the beach, or in the garden. Just the three of them, and she so wanted a little brother or sister.
Is this all that is left of her parents’ lives? Is this all there is to living? Looking at these pictures, it all seems so, so, well, futile, doesn’t it? Meaningless, or is that too strong a word? And what about her life? A childhood without ups and downs, parents who were always worried. Rebelling against that stifling influence when she was a teenager, but never breaking away, not completely. Held back by a sense of duty, and love too, she supposes. The sort of love that doesn’t bring much happiness, but what can you do? Marrying a man her mum approved of, and getting a divorce a couple of years later. That her mother definitely hadn’t approved of, but by that time her mother was dying and her father was dead.
Suddenly she’s angry at herself for opening the box, for thinking these thoughts. She pushes the photos back into the box and shoves the box on the shelf as far as it will go. Stuff the Christmas decorations, she’ll pick up some new ones tomorrow. God, and the holidays haven’t even started yet.
Hannah is running, running down the hill as fast as she can, running on bare feet on the soft, soft grass, She’s screaming with delight, with the joy of being alive, of being young in the pure sunshine of a summer’s day. Her sandals held high in her hands above her head, she jumps across stones and gaps, sure-footed, never missing, running, running, shouting at the top of her lungs. Down and down she goes, running, always running, high on the feeling of her body, supple, moving, fast fast fast. Feeling the cotton of her plain white underwear, the swish swish of her short summer’s dress on her body. Running as fast as she can, no holding back, no being careful, just running, running down the hill. The soft grass, the brown earth underneath, the sweet smells of a summer’s day. A few birds fly up, indignant at being disturbed by such a wild girl.
Hannah starts to laugh, can’t stop laughing at the birds, the silly birds; she slows down laughing, falls down on the soft green grass, rolls in it, scoops up some earth and throws it in the air, still laughing, flops over so that she lies on her belly. She shouts to the sky, she can’t hold back for the sheer joy of being alive, of being young and healthy. Her flat belly, her slim legs kicking the air, her hair the colour of corn. She shakes her hair to feel it tickle her ears. It’s the best feeling in the world, running down a hill, no one around, just her, and the earth beneath her feet, and the sky above her head.
She jumps up again, does a cartwheel, and yet another one, trying to make the circle nice and round, nice and round, arms straight, legs straight. This is how it is done, ladies and gentlemen, this is a cartwheel worth watching! She falls down again, sits on her heels, looks around her, sweeps the landscape up in her outstretched arms, shouts with joy and lets herself fall down on the ground again, lying on her back and looking at the little white clouds drifting lazily above her. Now that’s a little piggie, and that’s a flower, well, a lopsided flower anyway, and that little cloud is, well, that’s just a little cloud, isn’t it? That’s just a little cloud going on its way. Go on, little cloud, don’t let anyone stop you, you’re all right, little cloud, go on, go on! She flops over on her belly again, presses her nose to the ground, filling her lungs with the warm smells of the earth.
“I could fall in love now, I really could,” she sighs happily.
“Ooh, daisies!” She lifts herself up a bit, supporting her weight on her elbows. “A daisy-chain, a daisy-chain,” she sings softly to herself. She picks a daisy, makes a little split in the stem, picks another daisy, slides it through the first one, looks around to find the next perfect daisy, “Ah!”, finds it, and makes a daisy-chain for her hair, for her head, for Hannah.
Later she’ll walk the narrow, winding streets of the town, slowly now, all run out, waving at the mothers hanging wet sheets on the clotheslines between the two sides of the street. She’ll walk on the front next to the broad, slow river, and she’ll squint her eyes to try and see what’s on the other side. She hasn’t been able to do that yet, but she will, she will. She’ll coo to the pigeons on the market square, nod and smile at the old men smoking a pipe on benches, maybe even play a little tag with the children in her street. She’ll pick up a little cheese and bread at the corner shop, and some milk. You don’t need money in this town; wasn’t that the biggest surprise? She’ll go to the inn, and they’ll invite her to sit with them, to have a little talk about the doings of the town.
But tonight she won’t, no, she’ll go upstairs to her room. She’ll sit on the windowsill of her own little room, and have some supper. Nibbling on the thick brown bread, the soft cheese dribbling between her fingers. Licking her fingers and drinking the milk, making sure she gets a milk moustache. Then licking that too. She’ll look out over the gently rippling river, and listen to Gisela’s husky voice sing sad songs about love, downstairs, in the common room. And when the dusk grows too dark to see out any more, she’ll lie on her bed, under the sheets. The blanket’s too hot, she’ll kick that to the bottom of the bed. A candle flickering on her nightstand. She’ll read one of the books Gisela lent her, ‘Her dearest darling’ or maybe ‘Love lost and found’. And after reading the happy ending, she’ll blow out the candle and curl up under the blanket. And she won’t dream any nightmares at all. Just sweet dreams, nice dreams.
But first she’s here, lying on her back in the grass, with a straw in her mouth. She breathes the summer air. Being young is living a promise the world has vowed to keep.
This is a nasty one. It comes often:
She holds her hand in front of her mouth, as if to keep the ‘Oh’ in that wants to escape. The ‘Oh my God’. She’s looking at her pillow. A small moan escapes from her mouth, in spite of the hand. The doctor told her this would happen, but still. She brings her hand to her head, as if she’s going to feel her head. But she doesn’t. She knows what she’s going to feel there. She can see it on the pillow. Isn’t it enough that she is sick as a dog every time? Isn’t it enough she has to take pills, morning, noon, night? She lowers her hand to the pillow, slowly, and touches it. Only then does she start crying, in slow, painful hiccups, with her hand on her pillow, on her hair.
Here’s another one, almost as bad:
She’s home from work, and the television is on. It’s a habit, she switches it on as soon as she gets home these days. Background noise when she’s cooking, company when she’s eating, and back to background noise when she has a book she wants to read. She prefers reading to watching TV, any day.
There’s a film on, but she remembers it was a play first: Cat On a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. She looks up from her Dorothy Sayers detective because it really is a bit loud. She’ll switch to the other channel, maybe they have a nicer programme on. As she reaches for the remote control on the coffee table, one of the characters, a woman, says: “My only point is that life has got to be allowed to continue even after the dream of life is – all – over…”
She grabs the remote and switches to the other channel. They have soccer on. Ashes in her mouth.
“Do you want some apple?” Liz asks. She is sitting on a low wall and peeling a shiny red apple with a pocketknife.
“No, thanks,” Hannah answers. She is sitting on a swing and she doesn’t want to get up, not even for a red apple. Though it does look juicy.
Liz smiles. “And if I bring it to you, lazybones?”
“Yes please!” Hannah stretches her legs and folds them under her, trying to move the swing to and fro. She doesn’t cheat, she doesn’t give herself a running start with her feet on the ground, no, just moving her legs back and forth will have to do it.
Liz smiles again, the apple peels on a small white handkerchief on her lap. Hannah looks at the sky, going up, lots of clouds now, and then at the brown earth under her, going down. A bird is singing somewhere close, using all the notes in his little chest to send his sweet song into the world. A blackbird, maybe, singing of the rain to come.
White are the clouds, brown is the earth, white are the clouds, brown is the earth, going up, going down. She goes higher and higher, light as a spring wind, keeping her legs straight, her toes outstretched to move better, to move quicker. One smooth movement up, one down.
“So, have you thought about my question?” Liz’s voice seems to come from far away.
“Which … question … is … that?” Hannah shouts in the rhythm of the swing. She’s going very high now, and wondering if she can go even higher, right up to the sky.
“Whoa, jungle girl, slow down, will you? The swing will go over the top in a minute and it will keep turning around with you still on it. Or you’ll go sailing through the sky, there’s always that possibility, of course.”
Hannah grins and slows down, dragging the heels of her bare feet through the sand underneath. She stops and looks at Liz.
“Well, where’s that apple you promised me? A girl could die of hunger here, you know.”
Liz puts the handkerchief on the wall, beside her, and goes to Hannah. The girl stretches her hands like a little child, eagerly.
“Here, have the whole apple. I have another one.”
Liz goes back to the low stone wall and starts peeling another apple.
“If I finish eating it before you finish peeling that one, can I have that one too?” Hannah asks, stuffing her mouth full of apple.
Liz laughs. “No, you can’t, I only brought two. And are you sure it’s wise to cram that much apple into your mouth?”
“It’sh the besht way to eat am apple, Lish!” She laughs out loud at her own joke, and sprays the ground in front of her with little bits of mashed apple. That makes her laugh even louder, and she has to keep her hand in front of her mouth to keep the rest of the apple in.
Liz shakes her head, sighing and smiling at the same time. She’s finished peeling the second apple, and starts eating the quarters, nicely, one bite at a time.
“So, did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Think about the question I asked you a few days ago.”
“What question was that again?”
“This town, what strikes you about this town? Have you thought about that?”
Reluctantly Hannah nods.
“So what do you think?”
“I don’t like to think about it, Liz.”
“Never mind that, what do you think?”
There is a note of impatience in Liz’s voice, and Hannah looks up, surprised. Liz is never impatient with her, ever. She thinks, and tries to answer as well as she can.
“I don’t know. I like it here.”
“I … well, I don’t know. The people are friendly, I like my room, everything is free. What else? I feel, I feel at home here, happy, you know? Content. Like, like a puzzle that’s finished. All the pieces come together.”
“Things have a way of working out here.”
“Yes, exactly! That’s it. I go to the hills to run around like I’m crazy. Finding my room, that’s another thing. You live in a house, and it’s really nice, but for me that room is just right. I wouldn’t like to live in your house and have to work in the garden and things. My room, it makes me feel, I don’t know, safe, I guess. Safe, secure. It’s just right for me. I’m happy there.”
A horrible thought strikes her. “Your friend, the one whose room I live in, he’s not coming back, is he? I’d move out, of course, if he was. I mean, it is his room.”
Liz smiles, a bit sadly.
“No, the room is yours for the keeping. It’s your room now, not his.”
Hannah sighs in relief.
“Oh good. I was really frightened there for a moment.”
“Don’t worry, Hannah, I’ve told you that before.”
“But that’s what you mean, isn’t it? What you meant when you asked that question. You don’t have to worry here. I was worried when I got off the train, but it turned out all right. Everything turned out better than I could have hoped for.”
Liz smiles her warmest smile to Hannah, but the girl doesn’t feel pleased at this. She knows where this is going, and she doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like it one little bit.
“But is that your understanding of life?” Liz asks. “Is life like that, things always turning out for the best?”
“No! No, no, no! Life isn’t fair! Life isn’t fair…” Her voice trails off. Hannah is surprised at the vehemence with which she said that. Is that really what she thinks? She doesn’t think like that, does she? She loves her life.
“Hannah, think carefully. The time before you came here, what do you remember about that?”
“I … I came by train. I took the train.”
“Yes, I know that, but before that. Where did you live before you took the train? What did you do, who were your friends?”
Hannah looks at Liz, guardedly. Nope, she doesn’t like where this is going. Not at all.
“Nothing. I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Isn’t that strange?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I haven’t heard anyone in town talk about the time before they came here, and I think they all came on the train. You never speak about your past either. So there.”
Liz doesn’t get angry at the tone of the girl’s voice. She smiles a bit and shakes her head.
“Wouldn’t you like to get off the swing and come sit here, Hannah?”
“No thank you, I’m perfectly comfortable here.”
“Well, anyway, you’re right about the people here. I think everyone came on the train.”
“I’m not sure of anything here. It’s all educated guesswork.”
A thought strikes Hannah, and she looks at Liz, really looks at her.
“Your friend, the one whose room I have, did he have a talk with you like this one?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Do you miss him, Liz?”
Liz looks startled, as if she didn’t expect that question.
“Yes, I suppose so. But I have you now, don’t I?”
Yeah, right, what are friends for if not to make you uncomfortable with questions you don’t want to answer? Liz is her friend, she just said so herself. So why all the questions? And here’s another one.
“Tell me, Hannah, haven’t you had dreams here? Nightmares maybe, or just unpleasant dreams?”
Yes, she has, but she’s not about to describe them. She’d rather forget them, forget about them, never dream them again. She hates the feeling they leave her with in the morning. Like gangrene, they feel, like something rotting in her head. Like life isn’t fair after all, even in this sweet little town on the broad river. Like pain and death and unhappiness are just around the corner, waiting for the moment to pounce, to drag her back to some unluckier life. She just nods to Liz.
“What do you think about those?”
Hannah shrugs. Lately she’s even started dreading going to bed, putting it off till the small hours of the morning.
“Would you be surprised to know everyone in town has those, on and off? Well, the people who haven’t been here long, anyway.”
Now that grabs Hannah’s attention. Everyone has nightmares here? Isn’t that the strangest thing?
“Tell me, Hannah, tell me honestly. What do you think this place is?”
They look at each other, momentarily speechless. This is the important question, isn’t it? Finally Hannah speaks, slowly, reluctantly.
“I still don’t know, Liz. It’s all so confusing. I’ve thought about it a lot, even without you asking that question. I think I know the answer, but the bad dreams don’t seem to fit in.”
“What is it, Hannah, what do you think? Don’t be frightened, just tell me. Come on, tell me.”
Hannah looks Liz straight in the eye and takes a deep breath.
“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
So, that’s it. That’s how you feel when they change the colour of the world from bright to black. I died. You’re now dead, so don’t believe the happiness you feel. Excuse me, that you used to feel. Life is unfair after all, just check your dreams.
“So, is it true? Am I dead?”
Liz looks at her quizzically.
“Look around you. Feel the wind on your skin. You died, yeah, at least I think so, but you’re not dead. You’re here.”
“So what’s here? Is this heaven?”
Liz laughs, suddenly looking younger than her thirty-something.
“Silly, is this your idea of heaven? Any angels around, hello? The little boy we saw in your street, when we came here, he’s a nice little kid, but he doesn’t really qualify as a cherub, does he?”
Hannah smiles, in spite of herself. The kid Liz is talking about is Billy. Just a few days ago she saw him diligently rooting up a few of the plants in the small park across from the inn. Well, quite a lot of plants, actually. She hadn’t stopped him. He’d been having the time of his life.
“Besides, I think Mister Aziz would have to go to a Muslim heaven, to claim his thirty virgins, or what is it in Islam? But he’s too busy laying that beautiful mosaic on the floor of the town hall to pay much attention to any virgins queueing up for him, isn’t he?”
That mosaic is the talk of the town at the moment. With infinite patience the old man is laying out very small mosaic pieces in the most complicated geometrical patterns. Hannah’s been to see it, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.
“And I don’t know what sort of heaven all the other people of the town were supposed to go to when they died, but I don’t think most religions provide you with a sleepy little town on the river for all your afterlife comforts.”
“Well, maybe the religions have got it wrong.”
“Yeah, they might, at that.”
They fall silent. There’s enough to think about here. Hannah is the first to speak again.
“I don’t like this. How are you even sure we died? And if this isn’t heaven, what is it then? And what about the dreams?”
“I think you know, Hannah. It’s obvious enough. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they’re memories of your old life. But why would we have them if we died? It doesn’t make sense! You leave all that behind, don’t you, when you die! Whoever heard of an afterlife where your previous life is one bad nightmare after another! It’s just ridiculous!”
“What sort of life did you have, before?”
Hannah doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t like this.
“It wasn’t happy, was it?”
“No, you can say that.”
“As far as I can work out, that’s true for everyone here. I mean, I haven’t talked to everyone, but it is true for all the people I did talk to.”
“So what does that mean? This is just an afterlife for unhappy people? Nice days, horrible nights, take it or leave it?”
“No, you can stop the nightmares.”
“By talking about them.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Suit yourself. Nobody’s making you.”
“Did you do that?”
“To the friend who lived in my room?”
“Yes, to him, to other people.”
“Do you still have the dreams?”
“Who was he?”
Liz doesn’t answer. She looks away, to the clouds on the horizon which have grown bigger during the time they’ve been talking. And suddenly Hannah is deadly afraid she’s asked the wrong question, afraid Liz will get up and walk away from here, afraid of being left alone. She gets up from the swing and goes to Liz. When she gets there, she’s suddenly shy, tongue-tied. She takes Liz’s hand and holds it in both of hers. She has to hold on to Liz, make sure she doesn’t go away. Liz looks up at her, as if reading her mind, and smiles. It’s a sad smile.
“My friend. His name. His name was Ben. He was a bit older than you, early twenties, something like that. Fair hair, even lighter than yours. Blue eyes, broad mouth, crooked nose. Skinny. You know what he did, here? Like you running in the hills, and Gisela singing, and me and my garden?”
Hannah shakes her head, sorry she asked this question, and glad too, at the same time. There is love in Liz’s voice, and longing.
“He talked to people. All day, he talked to people. Everyone in town knew him. He talked to all of them.”
“So where did he go?”
“He took the train.”
“Back to where he came from?”
“No, silly! That’s not possible. He went on, further down the line.”
Liz shrugs. “Because that’s the place to go to, when you leave here.”
And suddenly, Hannah doesn’t want to know any more. Enough riddles, enough secrets for one day. She sits next to Liz, and puts her head on the older woman’s shoulder. Liz puts an arm around her shoulder. But still, there is one thing Hannah would really like to know. It’s just, can you ask something like that? Well, Liz can’t see her face now, can she? It’s easier to ask something like that when you don’t have to look people in the eye, isn’t it?
“Er, you and Ben? Did you, I mean, were you, er, together? You don’t have to answer that, of course, it’s just, I wonder …”
Liz suddenly giggles, and that sounds so young. Hannah sits up and looks at Liz.
“My, Hannah, are you asking what I think you’re asking?”
“No, no, I mean, forget it, it was a stupid …”
“Are you asking if we slept together?”
“No! No, no, no! Oh please, no! Look, forget it, Liz, honest I didn’t …”
“Well, yes, we did, as a matter of fact. Why do you think I have such a nice double bed in my bedroom? Just because you’ve died doesn’t mean your sex-life has to suffer, now does it? What do you think Ann Marie does with those cute boys she picks up on a regular basis? Play scrabble? Well, maybe afterwards, or in between, but …”
“Oh Liz, stop! Look, sorry I asked. Oh, I don’t know what to say now. Oh, forgive me. I didn’t mean to pry. I didn’t …”
Liz, laughing, takes Hannah’s chin in one of her hands. She turns the girl’s head towards her, but Hannah is still looking down, mortified. One minute you’re having a serious conversation about life and death, and the next minute you’re talking about sex. Sex!
“Hey, you, look at me.”
Unwillingly Hannah looks up into Liz’s laughing eyes.
“Sex is a part of life, and in case you’re wondering, life is what this place is about, even if we died. Who knows, you might meet someone nice to take to your little garret. I’ve told you before, don’t worry. Remember? Things have a way of working out here.”
Liz looks up at the sky, which has grown decidedly dark during the conversation. Big clouds have now completely covered the sky, and raindrops are starting to fall. Big, slow raindrops, leaving circles where they spatter on the stones.
“Except, that is, for the weather. I don’t believe this! I have laundry hanging in the garden! Come on, run, run, my clothes are going to get wet!”
And that’s what they do. They run, heads down in the futile hope of keeping their hair dry. But the rain doesn’t let up, no, which is a good thing, because sometimes running in the rain is just what you need.
What about this one?
In time she does talk to Liz about the dreams, of course. There’s not much else she can do. Walking along the riverfront, looking out over the river to avoid Liz’s eyes. Sitting in the common room of the inn, Hannah with a mug of hot chocolate, Liz with a glass of wine. In the orchard, picking apples and pears. She thought she’d cry when she started talking, but she doesn’t. She sounds angry most of the time. Life isn’t fair, she says that a lot. Liz doesn’t say much, and that’s a relief.
Another thing that’s changed: she doesn’t go running so much any more. She goes swimming, now, in the river. She’s found the perfect spot to jump in the water, from a big rock she has to climb to. She opens her eyes as soon as she’s underwater, and then in the clear water she can see all the bubbles following her to the surface, breaking when she breathes. It’s a bit of a walk to get to the rock, it’s really out of town. She likes that.
And then one day she finds herself sitting on a metal bucket in Liz’s garden. Liz is picking beans. Hannah has just finished her last story. Liz looks at her.
“What do you mean, no?”
“No, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You don’t even know what I want to talk about.”
“Yes, I do.”
“So what is it then?”
“Well, you’re just being stubborn.”
“I’ll be going anyway.”
“Look, I have my ticket.”
Hannah looks up at her, at Liz, standing there with her apron and a smudge on her cheek, the stiff white ticket in her hand, and she feels so lost, so lonely. Not here, not now. Not Liz. Suddenly she feels like crying. All those stories she’s told Liz, and not a tear. And now she feels as if she’s going to weep, to cry until the town will drown, and she with it. She swallows.
“When are you, are you going?”
“I don’t know, dear one. After talking to you, I guess.”
“Well, that’s settled then. We won’t talk about it and you won’t leave. Easy.”
“No! I’m going for a walk! No, no, no!”
Hannah gets up so suddenly the bucket falls down with a loud clang. She storms to the low wooden gate that leads to the street and pulls it open. Liz runs after her, snatches at her summer dress.
“Hannah, come on now.”
“No! Leave me alone! No, no …” Her voice trails off and suddenly she’s crying, crying her eyes out, crying for her dreams, for her life, for her mum and dad and their sorry little lives, for Liz and Ben and all the others. Liz is holding her, tightly, and there they stand, at the gate, both of them crying now.
Later they sit in Liz’s kitchen. Liz has put the kettle on for tea.
“Oh hon, I’m sorry about all this.”
“This is the way it is, you know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah. I don’t like it, though. I don’t.”
“It’s not about liking. It’s about fair.”
“This isn’t fair! Ben having to leave, and you missing him, and you having to leave, and me …”
“It is fair. Maybe it’s not what you like, but it is fair.”
“Well, it isn’t! If you like someone and they have to go!”
“It is, Hannah. Life is not paradise, it’s not all good stuff. It’s the good and the bad, all rolled into one.”
“Well, why did we come here for then? We might as well have died when we died, without coming here. It would have been a lot simpler, a lot.”
“Yeah, maybe. But we’d have missed out on a lot of things too.”
“But why can’t it stay like this?”
“Well, that’s not life, is it? Do you think the other people, the ones who stayed on the train, were never sad? That they never lost anyone they loved?”
“So we should have stayed on the train. Why did we get off here and they didn’t, anyway?”
“I don’t know, hon. I think it is because life was too sad for us, too bad. This town evens it out, brings it in balance.”
“And then you die anyway.”
They are silent again. One question still hangs between them. Liz pours the tea, and puts some home-cooked biscuits on the table. With ginger, the ones that Hannah likes so much. But she doesn’t take one. She closes her eyes for a moment and then, still with her eyes shut, pushes the words out, says what they are both thinking about.
“And then what?”
“I don’t know, Hannah.”
“What happens at the end of the line, Liz? Please, you have to tell me.”
“I told you, I don’t know. And you know I don’t know.”
“But it’s important! Do we disappear into thin air? Is there another town down the line, a real heaven? What, do you have to change trains according to your faith – if you believe in reincarnation please remain seated, the train is turning back?”
“Don’t be silly, Hannah.”
“But I … I … Look, I can’t just let you go like that, can I? Imagine there’s nothing at the end of the line…”
“Then there’s nothing at the end of the line, Hannah. We had a good life, here. A fair life. This is life.”
And Hannah doesn’t have the strength any more to be angry, to argue. One of Liz’s hands is lying on the table, and she puts her head on the table, her cheek on that hand. She feels how Liz strokes her hair with her other hand. She closes her eyes, but that doesn’t fool the tears.
This one is a bit nicer:
“You are so mean! I don’t even like you!” She storms up the stairs to the attic. She slams the door behind her and sits on the old armchair. The springs come out, a bit, but if you’re careful, you hardly even feel them. She hears the kids of the neighbourhood shout and laugh. Oh, she’s so angry she could spit! Her mum is so mean! She’s the only kid around here who’s not allowed to play in the street, because of the cars. And there’s hardly any cars here anyway. No one else’s parents make them stay home all the time. And her mum says she’s can’t stand the heat, but she can stand the heat too. She can! She’s only fainted once.
Wait till she’s grown, she’ll move out of here and live by herself and go out whenever she wants, even when the thermometer goes all the way up.
The sound of the playing children is gone. They’re probably playing in the next street, where the pavements are broader. They’re all idiots anyway. She’s taken two apples out of the kitchen, without asking. So there. She goes to the cardboard box with old books and takes one. No, that one is no good, she’s read it already. What’s the title of that other one? “Her heart’s secret door”, that sounds good! The lady on the front has fainted, maybe from the heat. Fortunately that man could catch her when she fell. Oh my, her dress has fallen open a bit! It’s much nicer to be here and read a book than play with those idiots anyway. And she has two apples. She sinks her teeth into the first one and turns the first page.
And she does go to see Liz off, too, although she doesn’t want to. The inevitable has a way of catching up with you in the end, she’s learning that. It’s not something she particularly wanted to learn.
Liz seems nervous, and so do the other people waiting here for the train to arrive. It’s odd, when Hannah arrived in the town, so many months ago, she didn’t notice the people waiting to board the train. And now they’re all she can see: the black woman with the baby, the teenage boy, the man with the guitar. And Liz.
There’s the train, and as the train chugs into the station and then stops, Hannah has a good look at the people in the train. It comes as no surprise that she can tell who’s going to get off here: they look more … what’s the word? Restless, that’s it. As if they would fidget with something small, or wring their hands, if they were talking to you.
“Well, this is it then,” Liz says. Her voice sounds hoarse. She pulls at the strap of her leather shoulder bag, as if to make sure it’s still there. She hugs Hannah, and Hannah hugs her back, fiercely. She bites her lower lip to stop it quivering. They let go, and try to smile at each other.
People get off the train, others get on. Life and death without a word.
Liz strokes her hair one more time and then goes to the train. Suddenly Hannah wants to say something, anything, to weave words into a net to keep her friend here.
Liz turns around.
“Who were you before. I never asked. Before here. Were you …”
Liz looks at her, a bit strangely.
“Eleven, I was only eleven when I died. I died in a fire.”
Liz seems gone already. No word can keep her here. Hannah can’t understand this answer, she can’t do anything with it, about it. And she can’t ask any more questions, because Liz has got on the train. An old man on the train says something to Liz that Hannah can’t understand. Liz answers, and the man takes her bag to put it on the luggage rack. Liz lets him. Hannah wants to hear what Liz heard, what Liz answered. The train hasn’t gone yet, but Liz has.
The stationmaster blows his whistle. The train is about to leave, and Liz didn’t even say goodbye to her.
Liz turns, comes to the window. Two hands in front of her mouth. Then she takes her hands away from her mouth and slowly raises one hand. She’s saying goodbye. Hannah raises a hand, too, as if she can only mirror what Liz is doing. They look at each other, not smiling, concentrated, as if this fierce locking of eyes is the only thing that stands between this moment and forgetting for good.
The train is leaving, slowly, and Hannah starts walking along, to see Liz for as long as she can. Liz is waving now, and so is Hannah. She’s shouting, too, hoping Liz can hear her.
“Liz, goodbye, goodbye!” She is running now, and she keeps waving at Liz, and Liz keeps waving at her, until the train chuffs around the bend and they can’t see each other any more. Liz is gone.
Liz is gone.
Hannah stands at the end of the platform, looking in the direction of the train. There’s nothing to see, but she keeps staring in that direction.
After a while she turns around and walks down the platform. She steps into the station, and it slowly dawns on her she doesn’t know where to go now. For the first time since she got to the town, she doesn’t want to go anywhere. She wouldn’t know where to go, what to do. She doesn’t want to go anywhere, see anyone. Slowly she sits down on one of the benches, looking down at the tiles. Her hands are in her lap. She can’t seem to keep them still. Liz is gone. Liz is gone. She can’t talk to her any more. She won’t see her again. Liz is gone, and that’s it.
There’s no one left at the station now. So no one sees the girl sitting there, hunched over, shaking. Crickets chirping outside.
This is the last one.
She is eighteen and in love with life. She stands on top of a hill near her grandfather’s farm. She shakes her head to feel the swirl of her hair around her ears. It’s just been cut. Boy, did she have a tough time convincing her mum! Her mum thought it was such a shame to cut her nice long hair, fair as corn. But she’s so glad it’s finally cut. She feels, well, less like a kid now. Like a grown woman, really. She feels like life is a river and she’s about to jump in! Life is going to give her things, show her wonders, make her feel what it is to be alive. Life is, life is, …well, this is life, isn’t it? She takes off her sandals and holds them in her hands. Mum’s warned her about running here, she shouldn’t really. If she falls it will take ages for anyone to find her. Well, tough, that’s what she says. She’s not going to fall, so there. She’s going to run and run and run and run and …
As you can see, it is also the best one.
Do you believe this tale? Do you believe life is fair? You should.
If we go back to the town in time, we might see a girl running in the streets. Her hair’s grown since we last saw her, but it’s still fair as corn. She’s running because she’s heard the sound of the steam train. She’s heard that sound lots of times, at least once a day and often more, and she’s never paid much attention to it, but now all of a sudden she wants to be there when the train pulls in. And so she runs, she runs as fast as she can.
We might see the girl looking at the people getting off the train. A man gets off, carrying a small black canvas suitcase. He has glasses, curly black hair, and he’s quite old, maybe in his forties. Lots of wrinkles. She goes to the man. He is struggling with his suitcase. It seems to have opened of its own free will, and the girl smiles as he tries to stop all his belongings from falling out. There seem to be more belongings there than one poor old battered suitcase can be expected to hold.
She goes to him and says something. He starts and knocks his suitcase over, spilling everything in it now. She helps him collect his belongings, and puts them back in his suitcase, easily, with room to spare. They start talking to each other.
She must have said something funny, because the man smiles. He has a nice smile. He looks even older when he smiles, because his whole face wrinkles, but it is a nice smile anyway. Sweet, real.
And he starts shaking her hand vigourously. The girl shakes his hand firmly and then gently takes hers back.
She takes his suitcase, probably for safety reasons, and they walk through the little station. She gives him a sidelong glance.
They step into the sunshine, and the sun sees them go, walking into town, walking into life, walking into a fate that’s fair on everyone, on everyone under the sun.
© 2002 by Mizu Ash. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org