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The Wanderer


Amid the squealing of brakes, the buffeting of carriages and the general din of a stopping train and a busy suburban railway station, it was impossible to hear the crunch of the tiny bones.

The wanderer had been watching the small group of pigeons pecking at some invisible crumbs between the rails. They hopped from one crumb to the next, occasionally indulging in a friendly squabble over a contested crumb. So involved were the pigeons in their pursuit of the lost morsels, they did not notice the oncoming train. As the front of the train reached the pigeons, they flew up as if a small explosion had hurled them in various directions.

The unfortunate bird was just a little too slow. It was caught by the front wheel and the wanderer could not make out any more as the succession of train wheels passed that spot. The train came to a halt and disgorged a brace of commuters before ingesting a replenishing crowd. The guard gave a short blast from his whistle and the train moved off again. It gathered speed until it cleared the station platform, rounded a corner and disappeared from view.

The wanderer’s attention returned to the location of the pigeon’s untimely demise. A smear of blood and feathers stained the otherwise shiny rail. The wanderer craned his neck to see if he could see any whole remnants of the small creature but was disappointed. This unsightly stain was the only silent reminder of the life that had existed there only a few moments previously.

The wanderer watched as the remaining pigeons returned to the scattered crumbs. If they felt any loss or grief at the companion’s death, it was quickly forgotten in the quest for more and larger crumbs. One finger-sized feather, anchored in the drying stain, waved gently in the breeze that swirled between the platforms.

A small child noticed the feather and strained against his mother’s grip. She jerked at his arm impatiently and the child was compelled to follow her lead further along the platform.

The station public address system crackled, “The next train on Platform 1 will be an express train, not stopping at this station.” The announcement had barely died away when the promised train hurtled through the station, across the last resting place of the pigeon. The blurred faces in the windows of the speeding train remained blissfully unaware of their trespass upon the fresh grave.

The train passed and the feather was gone. The bloodied smear was spread a little further and was now harder to make out on the rail. The pigeons settled back to their pecking and hopping.

The public address system coughed into life again: “The next train on Platform 2 will be a city train, stopping at all stations to the city.” This was the train the wanderer was to catch. He looked down the line expectantly but saw no evidence of the approaching train. He settled back into his seat and observed the commuters around him readying themselves to board the train. The wanderer had to merely stand up and get on the train.

As it was early in the day, the wanderer’s fellow travelers were mostly office workers heading to their great glass birdcages in the city. They struggled through peak-hour commuting to their places of employment, propped themselves up at a desk all day, then struggled home. Invariably, they seemed to arrive home too worn to do much other than prop themselves up in front of the television set for a few hours before collapsing into bed. Occasionally, they would stop for a few days and tell themselves how hard they had been working and how they were finally beginning to get ahead—whatever that might mean.

He knew a few of the commuters at the station this morning. He often crossed paths with them in the morning and would occasionally see them around the city. Their faces wore an expression of accumulated haggardness. There had been very few times in their lives when any of them had actually had to exert or strain themselves in any way that they might be able to recall. Rather, they were worn simply by the perpetual grind.

If the wanderer had ever bothered to ask his fellow travelers about their lives, they would have classified themselves for the most part as successful and happy. However, deep within them, if they would have ever admitted it to themselves, they really admired those few who had been amongst them but who had grabbed an opportunity to move on to something different. The nature of this elusive “something different” was yet to be determined.

The public address system came to life again, “The train arriving on Platform 2 will be a city train, stopping at all stations to the city.” Again, a few moments later: “The train on Platform 2 is a city train, stopping at all stations to the city.”

On board the train, the new travelers quickly settled into the routine of train travel. Although there were a number of vacant seats sprinkled across the carriage, most of the new travelers remained standing. Only the boldest, ventured to sit next to an unknown fellow passenger. On the station platform, there had been a few greetings and some conversations. These quickly died away in the confining atmosphere of the train carriage.

The only conversations in the carriage were carried on in hushed tones between friends or work associates. They would pause sporadically to look guiltily about them. A young child capered for a moment before being restrained by his embarrassed parents. She was chastised in a biting whisper for being insufficiently reverent in the uncomfortable silence of the carriage.

Here and there, passengers were reading: electronic devices, trashy novels, glossy magazines and the rare newspaper. A couple of younger office workers were lost in their own world of noise piped directly into their heads. Most of the passengers stared dully ahead. Some gazed out the windows with the same vacant stares. Even though they passed this way twice daily, if asked, they would not be able to relate much of the scenery so often viewed. These were the silent armies; the dead-eyed workforce of the pseudo-professional world.

Most of the young professionals, who were still on the way up and retained some of the youthful enthusiasm, had caught an earlier train. Only a couple of this ilk were aboard this train. These had probably worked later than usual the previous night and so felt that they could justify a little normality this morning. They talked loudly to each other about how much work they had done and how much they still had to do—“completely snowed under.” They were only planning to take the train for a few more months until the inevitable promotion meant that they would have their own car parks in the city so they could drive, cursing the rush hour traffic as they went.

The wanderer wedged himself next to the door and leaned his weight against a hand rail. He avoided talking to any of his fellow passenger and watched the successive suburbs and stations march past the train windows.

At each station, the composition of the group of passengers was changed as one group of individuals left the train and was replaced by an approximately equal number of travelers. The whole group could be gradually changed without notice except by the keen observer. The entry and exiting of some of the louder or more attractive was generally noticed. However, in a carriage of similarly dressed and subdued commuters, these were the exception.

Passengers were only noticed, in their boarding or leaving, if one or other of the existing or continuing passengers were required to make way for the movement of that particular passenger. Even then, the making way was merely a source of temporary annoyance. Amusement by fellow passengers usually took the form of a dark appreciation of that passenger’s predicament and was expressed in a transient smile.

The most effective way to be remembered with the carriage population was to be as annoying as one possibly could be. In this way, ones departure from the train would be greeted with a lingering sense of relief. The most obvious avenue for such annoyance in the oppressive silence—amid the clatter of the train itself and the low murmur of people moving, shuffling papers and coughing—was in the making of unwarranted noise.

Two friends involved in a conversation reaching beyond the acceptable low mutterings or whispers would be met with frowns and their exit from the train would allow the surrounding passengers to breathe a little easier. Quite simply, although they would strain eagerly to hear any continuing conversation, it embarrassed the surrounding passengers to be forced to overhear anything beyond vague greetings as their eagerness was required to be masked by a façade of disinterested annoyance.

The wanderer remained in his position. At some stations he was forced to step back from the door to allow a large group of boarding passengers to pass through to the interior of the carriage. After such movement, he returned to his vantage point, watching through the glass panels of the doors.

There were eleven stations from the wanderer’s station to the city and the train was tightly packed as they pulled into the city station. The doors were released at the moment the train came to a complete halt and a surge of commuters swept out the doors. The station was at its busiest. The public address system was barking out information with the efficiency of a well-trained sheep dog, separating the passengers into the respective areas: “The train on Platform 8…”; “The train on Platform 3…”; “The next train to arrive on Platform 7…”; “Please stay back from the train until the train has stopped…”; “The train on Platform 5…” A whistle was heard from a guard and another train moved off.

Anxious commuters scurried in all directions. A scattering of passengers waited on the seats provided but, at this time of day, one did not have to wait long for a train to anywhere. The wave of passengers from the wanderer’s train cut a path through the surging crowd toward the station exit. The wanderer was carried along to the stairs down to the tunnel that served as a conduit to direct the successive waves of commuters from their trains to the outlet into the rest of the city.

A lone gentleman struggled against the tide to make his way up to the platform from which the wanderer and his fellow travels had come. The wanderer paused to allow him to pass but was swept along by the morning crowd. They all had jobs to get to.

At the bottom of these stairs was a display of three advertising posters. Behind glass covers, they almost sparkled as their fresh newness caught the morning light. One of the posters suggested the services of a suburban funeral parlour. Its message and stark black and white lettering provided a contrast to the hurrying life passing before it. In their flight to their places of employment, the messages of the posters, if noticed at all, were quickly forgotten and thoughts as unpleasant as those offered by this particular poster were dismissed.

The certainty with which the unnecessary funeral ad was ignored was displayed by the crowd’s unchecked progress. Each person clung obstinately to their belief in their own immortality. They were too busy to concern themselves with such things. For some inexplicable reason, the train was six minutes late and now they had to really hurry.

The second poster proclaimed that a new action blockbuster movie was coming soon to a cinema near them. A number of the crowd noted the name of the movie and thought that they might like to see it. The third poster advertised the railway authority. The wanderer smiled to himself. He pondered how much encouragement the members of this crowd actually needed to use the rail authority’s services as they cascaded down the stairs from the rail authority’s train, readying their rail authority tickets for inspection and looking forward to when they would pass by this way again on their way home that evening.

The mass proceeded along the tunnel and in turn presented their tickets or rail passes to the gate attendant or machine. The wanderer waved his ticket at the attendant and was out of the station. He paused and watched his fellow passengers as they disbursed themselves across the city, disappearing like a flock of startled pigeons—as if an explosion had hurled them in their various directions. The wanderer, left alone for a moment, looked about him, then wandered across the street toward the city centre.

This continues our monthly feature, Stories with Nathan Brown. Previous works include: “Arrival,” The Regular,”  “The Veteran,” and “The Dead Book.” See all of them here

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