I’m on a train again. It’s the quiet class. There are about 14 or 15 signs around that reinforce that point. I’m not desperate for the quiet, but living in this country is like one long, awkward elevator silence. So I figure I should capitalise on that and subscribe to enforce it. At least it is common knowledge that way. I find a seat that has extra legroom because it is the only one not reserved. It says Priority Seating. I put my bags in the overhead storage. I always travel light. I sit down and contemplate reading.
She sits down, just to my left. Two seats down. Her eyes open are big. Closed, they look like they only just fit under her eyelids. She has braids on either side of her head. It isn’t the classic plait you saw on a school girl. There are many more twists and folds. But I don’t know much about hair. Or fashion. Her shoes were red and her socks were black and her jeans were loose fitting but not baggy. Leather jacket. A silk looking scarf with a flower pattern. And those plaits. And those eyes.
The sky is grey. Of course it is. In the distance, fat clouds line the horizon. They look pregnant. There is a simple beauty to how we perceive things. Just how things that are closer to us moved around more easily when we move, and things further away are more lazy. Things right up in your face are blurry with motion, where things far away look like they are following you. It might be obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.
She opens up a bag of crisps – chips – and looks tentatively inside. I wonder if she knows that they fill them with that much air to protect the crisps – not short change you. Each packet has the exact same number of grams inside. But I guess eyes aren’t used for weighing. She reaches a hand in and the wrapper crackles. She pulls a single chip out and slams her teeth onto it. It is so loud. I have never heard anyone eat crisps so loudly. Her teeth perfectly illustrate why they are called crisps. There is an urgent pace to her chewing. It is more than chewing. It is crushing. There is no natural rhythm to it. No ebb and flow. It is like a clock work crunching.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
And then she is done with one chip. She reaches in again and I think, oh god please no. But that packet crinkles, and it is loud too. She grabs another chip and starts crunching away. It’s almost impressive that she still has all of her fingertips with the ferocity of those teeth. She reminds me why I don’t like horses. I’ve seen how they eat carrots and if they were even a little confused, they could bite your finger right off. Why risk that?
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
And I look over, and her mouth is kind of closed. And I’ll want to do is turn to her and say close your goddamn mouth. But I don’t. And my breathing becomes deliberate. Swallowing; silence. She has no desire to stop. And why should she? She is 3 chips in. She has a whole bag ahead of her. Now, you and I might start getting into that bag at this point. Coating our knuckles in oil, unconsciously grabbing more crisps with each dietary iteration. But not this girl. Crinkle crinkle. One. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
I try to distract myself by looking out the window. I see what looks like half-houses in a field. Awkward little windows. And writing on the side of one that says Nevada Rose. When someone asks me to name something, I either have a name right away – as if I am remembering it – or I force something out which may or may not fit. But in neither of those situations would I ever name something Nevada Rose. Even if it was a little half-house. The train moves. The bushes and hills closer to me move out the way, and the half houses are lazy in the distance. There is a river. Not half houses. Boat homes – or boat cabins – and they are all in a line. Some are quaint and well realised. Others seem a bit put together. Like the person couldn’t afford a house boat, but didn’t want to be left out. Green, with a tinny roof. And aluminium window panes. No Nevada Rose. And then a train comes screaming by in the opposite direction and I get a fright. The wind coming off of it shakes our carriage for a second. And then the half homes are gone. And there is just green and grey.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
This is becoming unreal. I look at her. She looks at me. I look away. Crunch. I wonder if I am on some sort of TV prank show. I am not.
By the time she finishes I have thought about things like:
– How many whole potatoes are in a bag of crisps?
– We must go through a lot of potatoes. How long does it take for a potato to go from being planted to being ready for consumption?
– Could we ever run out of potatoes?
– Would her bag ever run out of crisps?
– If we did run out of potatoes, would they ever be more valuable than gold? Because saffron is.
– Why are we made to feel guilty about recycling? Or cancer research? Surely these are things that can be fixed with enough money? And if they can’t be, why am I asked to donate to them? And if they can, why are they asking me for money? Someone who can barely pay rent?
That last one got away from me, but it was still unanswered. A bit difficult to Google.
The crisps are done and I can feel my heart beating in my ears. There is a woman sat behind me. At first I thought she was Mexican – South American, but specifically Mexican. Her phone rings and I wonder why I bothered to sit in the quiet class. At least there are no screaming children. She answers and she begins rattling of in an Indian language. I’m aware there are several, but I don’t know the difference between them. I turn to look at her again. She has a bandage over her one ear. I wonder if she burnt herself with a straightening iron. Her hair doesn’t look straightened. I wonder if she was holding a puppy that got carried away and bit her. I wonder if her husband is a mean drunk. I wonder if it’s as simple as an infected earring hole. Maybe not for a whole bandage surely? She hangs up the phone and looks out the window. Women must think an awful lot. There is such an inherent pressure on them from society, and then they still have other women to deal with. I have no desire to be a woman, in this life or the possible next. She pulls out a packet of crisps and I squeeze my eyes closed tightly. You have got to be kidding me. This is a joke. Where is the cameraman and the zaney host? I decide to get my headphones and listen to music, all this noise is simply too much. If it is going to be noisey I’d rather it be noise of my choosing.
And then she comes out of nowhere. And the two seats between us become no seats between us and she is right there, looking at me. And I turn to her and say ‘Hello.’
‘Hi. Do you travel often?’
‘I try to, but it gives me melancholy.’
‘My dad had a melancholy deficiency.’
‘Do you mean melatonin?’
‘He was a dick either way.’
And then she is quiet. Looking out the other window. My headphones are still ringing and I can hear them. I pause the music. I don’t know what to say to her. She looks me right in the eyes – her big eyes are light green with flecks of gold – and she sighs.
‘What?’ I ask.
‘It’s just, well, fuck.’
She reaches over to her backpack, looks down the aisle and pulls out a silver hip flask. Her bag is a hikers bag, blue. There is a water bottle on the side and it is very full. Something that looks like a yoga matt is strapped on the other side and I assume it’s a sleeping mat. I don’t like small talk very much. That is to say, I don’t really care where she came from and where she is going. I see hundreds of people every day and never see them ever again. I really don’t care for small talk.
The hipflask glugs a little bit and she closes her eyes and swallows. She looks at me, and her lips are wet. I still don’t say anything. She gives me the hipflask and I take a sip. It’s whiskey. I don’t like whiskey but I’ll drink it. I grimace. She giggles.
‘Why do you cut your hair like that?’ she asks after taking the flask back, screwing the lid on tightly and putting it back in the backpack.
‘I don’t, the hairdresser does.’
‘Yes, but you tell her how to cut your hair.’
‘It was a man last time.’
The truth is that it is half price for back and sides and so the top just got longer and longer. She better not start telling me about why she is sighing and drinking and sitting so close to me on public transport. She doesn’t. I’d rather her start eating chips again.
She pulls out a book from the bag. I don’t see the title but there is a some kind of a Victorian painting on the front of it and I don’t care. She leans her head on me and I feel one of her pigtails press into my shoulder. I know it is uncomfortable for her but she does it anyway. So I sit there and the whiskey is hot in my stomach. I haven’t eaten today. I suck on my bottom lip and there is a hint of booze. She shuffles around and reaches for the bag again. She pulls out a neck pillow that looks like a giraffes neck. She looks and me again and smiles. I blink twice and she proceeds to lie on my shoulder. Again. Her hair doesn’t smell like shampoo or hair product. There is nothing sweet or alluring about it but at least it doesn’t stink. She might be crying, but I can’t be sure. I look out the window again; more grey. The Indian lady behind me hasn’t said a word. At least it is quiet now. Then she quickly sits up and asks:
‘Do you have a girlfriend?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘It doesn’t make a difference because I don’t exist. Yes I’m here and yes you are leaning on me but in a few minutes this train will be done and I’ll be gone and you will never ever see me again.’
People don’t really like me when they first meet me. They say I am arrogant. I don’t mind so much, because I know those are the people I’d rather not know anyway. They confuse confidence, honesty and ironic humour with arrogance. She is quiet for a short while. Then she pipes up and says:
‘Okay, then tell me your short story.’
And I say:
‘I left high school early because I fell in love with a teacher there. She might have loved me back, but I’ll never know. I was broke. I planned a robbery, the cops raided the joint. I ran. I ended up on an island where they do summer camps. A boy shot a dog with a bow and arrow, so I left there too. I heard that my father got ill with stomach cancer so I went to meet him. My whole family came. My brother, who plays tennis, came too. I hadn’t seen him in years. Nor my mother. But she didn’t come. I’m not sure why I said my whole family was there.’
‘Where was your mother?’
I looked behind me quickly. ‘Yes, India. I went with my brother and our other brother to India to find her. We were on a train for many days. We found her in a Christian home that cared for children. She ran away again not long after.’
‘Did you just recite all of Wes Anderson’s films to me?’
‘All but the Fantastic Mr Fox.’
‘You’re an asshole, you know that?’
‘Yes. You eat crisps far too loudly.’
‘I’m gonna get off here.’
And then she was gone and it was quiet and I was okay again.