This is the first draft of a novel which I have decided to publish on the blog chapter by chapter as a work in progress. Any comments, suggestions, etc will be much appreciated. It will only be up temporarily.
I never sleep on the train. Never. So why am I waking up on the train? The late winter sunlight glints off the cars parked in the station car park. All different colours of metal, except one, a lime green. I close my eyes for a moment and then open them again.
I never sleep on the train.
I read. I read books. I have a two hour commute and I don’t sleep on the train. I don’t nap. I use the time. I use it well.
I must have been sleepy. I must have nodded off.
I blink. I wish I could not be looking at that bright green car.
The car begins to move sideways, along with the car park and the platform and then gardens and then some waste ground strewn with torn plastic sheeting and then some rusty chickens. The backyard of some factory. The shadow of the train runs over the runnels of a ploughed field.
Wait! Wasn’t that my stop?
What’s the matter with me?
My body is still gripped by sleep. Held by a dream. My bag is on the seat in front of me. Another passenger is sat next to it. Their bag is next to me. She is a woman. The other passenger.
She is reading on her tablet. Or playing a game? Watch her fingers. No, she’s reading. She is concentrating. I can see her at a sideways angle like I’m watching a film on my phone but it hasn’t righted itself.
It should do now. But it won’t.
I don’t know where I am any longer. That was my station. The train is following the river. We go under the bridge. I cross that bridge in my car. I should be crossing it. After I’ve picked it up from the station car park. I should be driving home now. But I’m still on the train. I should be crossing the river. But the train carries on. My head thumps the glass gently. I should move. Sit straight.
I can’t speak. My tongue is jammed against my teeth. My jaw is numb.
The ticket inspector announces the next station on the tannoy. The speed of the train slows and the carriage tilts as we pull into the station. It isn’t far from my house. If I got off here, I could phone Roberto at the bar. He’d give me a lift back to the other station to get my car. Some nights I stand in my garden smoking a cigarette and listen to the train pull into the station across the river. I wonder if there is a ghost me listening now, at the bottom of my garden.
Roberto would give me one of those looks. Embarrassing but not too much. The nutty English professor, forgot to get off at his stop. It isn’t that unbelievable. It fits.
I’m losing it.
The train brakes. I see the rabbits that I always see at this station, though I hardly ever go this far up the line. The rabbits are wild and there are many on the banking. They don’t pay any heed to the train. They hop about the long grass broken down by winter. There is the patch of old snow under a row of pines.
The ticket collector glances at me as she makes her way to the train doors. I can hear the hydraulics as the doors open and I feel the rush of cool outside air enter the carriage. The woman with her tablet suddenly realizes that she has reached her stop and jumps up. She grabs her stuff and rushes out. Her head still in the book, perhaps. I have a warm fellow feeling for her. We are both readers. There aren’t many of us left. But I was hoping she might rescue me. I was hoping she might see that look in my eye.
A man from North Africa sits in her place. He smells, there’s no denying it. He looks out of the window and then at me. And smiles. He doesn’t smell bad necessarily. Just different. Different food, different soaps perhaps. I don’t know. Maybe he smells bad. This is neither the time nor the place to talk about racism. I am not racist. His smile is the smile of one weary traveller to another. I must look like I have abandoned all hope. In my suit and tie, my winter overcoat, my brown satchel across from me. My head against the window.
I close my eyes.
We’re moving again and the train is now heading further up the river and into the mountains. Where does the train finish? What’s the end of the line? Belluno? Pieve del Cadore? One of the two.
Panic? The thought hadn’t occurred to me.
The train curves away from the river. The mountains rise around us. An old woman in a cardigan with a knife and a plastic bag stands in a field collecting something. The next station will be Feltre. A medieval town on a hill. I am breathing in the African smell. The man is looking at me. I try to move again. I can’t. The ticket collector stops to collect his ticket. She speaks in Italian and I find I don’t understand. I have been here for years, but still. I hear words as a garbled music. The sense doesn’t come.
The man lifts a finger toward me. Not pointing exactly.
She says a word directly to me. And then repeats it louder. She can see my eye is open and so is surprised I don’t move or reply. She speaks again but the train is coming into the station and she must see to her duties. She is probably worried I am drunk.
The African man leans close to me and says something in another language. French I think. I don’t understand it. I wonder if I understand English. Do I understand myself?
As the train enters the station, a lot of people are moving ready to alight. There is a queue. Some of the passengers have overheard the exchange and sense something is not right. They are glancing at me. A young woman speaks with the African man. He shrugs and speaks to her. The words are all garbled and wrong.
I am very tired. I would like to be lying flat on my back. I would like to be drifting towards sleep.
I wonder if I’m dying.
I wonder if this is it.
I’m surprised at how indifferent I am to that thought. I think yes. Maybe that is it. That would explain a lot. The sun is behind the mountain Tomatico and the station and half the town is cast into a purplish shadow. People are now shuffling past us and off the train. There is a short pause and then people begin to shuffle on the train. They put their bags in the overhead racks and then settle in their seats. A fat man unfolds his newspaper. An old woman goes through her handbag. Looking for something. She finds a packet of mints. These people don’t know about me. On of them wants to sit where my satchel is, but the African man waves them away. The ticket collector is beside me. I feel her breathing on my face before I see her. She might have been there for some time. I had closed my eyes. The train is not moving. People are beginning to look around them, seeking the origin of the delay. There are often delays on this line so there is weary acceptance, rather than irritation.
The ticket collector and the young woman and the African man is shrugging. He waves a hand at me as he finishes his point.
It is funny. Now none of them are actually trying to communicate with me. The young woman waves a hand in front of my face. Clicks her fingers. She must be a doctor, or a medical student.
The ticket collector is on her mobile phone. The passengers are now looking towards me with expressions of sympathy and concern. They are kind people and they fear for me. Something terrible had befallen me that puts their lateness into perspective.
I can close my eyes.
When I open them again, it is darker outside. Did I sleep? I can feel that it is warm. I feel comfortable. There is no pain. I imagine my kitchen. I always make a coffee when I get home. A coffee helps me do those tasks I need to do before I can relax for the evening. I tidy away the breakfast things that I left that morning. I go out and chop the wood that I need for the evening’s fire and bring the basket in. I clean the hearth and take the ash bucket out. I tidy up. Close the shutters, now that it’s getting dark. I put on dinner. And only then do I take my shoes off and put my slippers on.
But I’m not there. I wonder how soon I can get back home. How much time is this – whatever this is? – going to take?
A voice is addressing me directly. It is an older man. In his fifties, He is wearing a green hospital tunic and an overcoat with high visibility stripes down the sleeves and across his chest. Someone has opened a window. His colleague is shining a light in my eyes and for the first time someone is beginning to move me. My forehead peels from the glass of the window.
They are checking my heart and my pulse. They are undoing buttons of my shirt. They are lifting me. The two men are talking. Ambulance men. They are ambulance men. The passengers are curious but now I can see the ceiling of the train. I can’t see much else. The man has rough skin on his hands. I feel the touch of fingers on my skin. There is a sharp pain on my arm. I assume some needle has been used. Something is attached with a tape. Straps are tightened across my chest, my waist, my thighs, my ankles.
The ceiling above me begins to move. I am on a stretcher.
I can close my eyes and let them do it.
The stretcher is wheeled. The ceiling slips. These trains are strange things. The ceiling is curved. There are blue curtains in the windows. There is a rush of cold air and the stretcher is being lifted by the two men. My body moves as they struggle to get me down the stairs and onto the platform. They are calling instructions to each other. The night is around me. I can see the orange sodium light of a street light and near by the white lights of the platform lights.
There is a mountain over there. I have been to the top of the mountain. I have walked there with my rucksack, through winter forests, crunching in the snow. Through the trees and up the steep hill towards the summit. There is a huge crucifix at the top of the mountain and the land falls away and then I was surprised to look down and see the town in the valley.
I sat and ate my sandwiches. I drank my coffee from a flask. And, as a rebellion against the healthiness of what I was doing, I smoked a cigarette. I enjoyed that cigarette, breathing the smoke deep into my lungs.
I am moving. There is a woman shouting and I stop. The strip of lights above me stops. The ticket collector from the train comes with my brown satchel. The ambulance men don’t know what to do with it so they balance it on my chest as if I am merely a shelf for my things. They don’t ask me. They talk to me but not expecting answers like you might talk to a cat. The ticket collector leans close so that I can see her face. She is biting her lip and looks worried. Upset. She puts her hand on my face and strokes it very softly.
She is kind. And she wishes she could do more.
They were all wonderful, I would like to congratulate them. The African man, the reader with her tablet, the ticket collector, the young doctor. She goes and I hear the train engine roar into life. I can’t see the train but I see the shadow slide past me and the lights are now falling on me as the ambulance men move me across the tracks to platform one and then through the doors which passengers are holding back for me and them.
They go through the ticket office. I use it rarely. Only when I am due to go down to Bologna or Rome. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve used it. The photo booth I’ve used. There is a machine for making your own business cards next to it. I have stood waiting for my photographs and read the instructions on how to design and print your own business cards but I have yet to do something like that.
The yellow light is high on the ceiling in a intricate cast metal cage, something from a medieval castle. There are fly specks surrounding it. They push me through the big double doors. The ambulance with blue lights flashing is parked in the taxi rank, only half pulled in. It seems careless. Other cars are backed up unable to get by. One of the ambulance men waves at the cars, indicating they’ll be gone. An old man comes over to talk to them, remonstrate about something but the ambulance man carelessly dismisses him. I wish I could save lives. I feel guilty that other people choose careers where they do this. They save lives, they come and pick us up when we break and they help us out. I didn’t do anything useful or worthwhile. I just did what ws easy. And now I can no longer do even that. If this is it, then I think the time has come to admit, it has been a waste. Really. I started out good and hopeful. Clever and funny.
But something went wrong. Somewhere along the way. There was disappointment and cowardice. And now they are putting me in the ambulance. They are adjusting the stretcher so that the wheels retract or something. They slot me into the back of the ambulance and I am comforted by the smell of the hospital as if it was the smell of freshly laundered clothes. As if it were home.
One of the ambulance men stays with me. He secures the stretcher. And he checks that everything is all right. He begins to place sticky things on my chest. He talks to me but the speech I can hear makes no sense to me at all. I just hear it as noise. He is trying to talk to me. His eyebrows go up and he cocks his head. He must be asking me to respond in someway. Perhaps by blinking or something.
He is younger than the driver. Now the ambulance beings to move. I move on the stretcher. I can see the other young man moving. Steadying himself with a hand against the ceiling. He calls through to the cab of the driver and then he picks up a radio and begins to talk into it, presumably to the hospital. Describing what they are bringing them.
I close my eyes.
There is no need for me to worry. I am in good hands.
I would be home now. The wood would be in, the fire lit, the shutters closed and barred. I’d have smoked a cigarette and some food would be cooking on the stove. The television would be on with the volume turned down and I might leaf through the Corriere della Sera. Or I might have my book open. It is by Solzhenitzyn. The Gulag Archipelago. I’ve only just begun it. A guest, a friend left it for me to read in the Summer. I’ve only just got round to it now.
There is a hill. I can feel we are going up the steep hill. Then we will go round the round about near the supermarket, turn back towards town and then down another hill, past the fire brigade building with its tower, the field where they have the horse race – the Palio – in the summer and we are almost there. The siren is on. I notice. So there is urgency. Something must be happening. A mask is put over my face and I am breathing something pure. The air is almost tasty.
The ambulance man is unlacing my shoes and pulling them off. This upsets me but I don’t know why.
The ambulance stops and the doors fly open there is a doctor already beginning his examination. I am pulled and prodded. The stretcher is unslotted from the ambulance and I am rolling into the Pronto Soccorso I recognise the words. I wonder if I’ll be able to understand Italian now. It took me a long time to learn Italian. I can’t simply have forgotten it. Instructions are being given above me. There are now two nurses and the ambulance men and the doctor. They are all talking and we are moving. Drugs are being ordered and prepared. The lights of the corridor rush b y above me. I feel like my mouth is dry and my head is suddenly very hot. The pain from my arm where they put the needle in is beginning to bother me again. I felt very comfortable on the train. I think back to the people on the train with great affection.
The doctor and the nurses here are very good. We are wheeled into an elevator. A button is pressed. There is a patient in the elevator as well. He is wearing a burgundy gown and holding a newly bought comic book. There is a cowboy on the cover and I read the word ‘Tex’. He glances around at the doctor and nurses. He glances down at me, half fearful, half envious. The elevator ascends. It takes no time and then the doors open and we are on the move again. We are in a kind of lobby. I see an open space of ceiling. I see the strip light and the ceiling tiles. There is a coke machine in the corner. An old woman sits with an enormous potted plant in her lap.
There is another man on a bed being wheeled in the opposite direction but without the urgency of my doctor and nurses. We are entering a room. A nurse comes in with some authority. I can hear her plastic crocs squeaking on the tiles of the floor. The ambulance man, the young one, leans over me and says something by way of farewell. How do you say good luck in Italian? If I know that then I can match it to what he says and begin to learn Italian again. But he is already gone. You say in the mouth of the wolf. Now I remember but what is that in Italian?
In Boca Lupo?
I am lifted from the stretcher to the bed and then I am stripped naked. There is a technique to this. It is done briskly and without any emotion. My socks are pulled off and then put on a chair then , my trousers, my underpants, my coat is pulled off, then my jumper which proves too difficult and so they cut it off. Although it is now ruined they fold it and put it on the chair along with the rest of my clothes. My shirt is unbuttoned and pulled off. My vest. I am totally naked. I want to smile. To show that I understand this has to be done. That I am alright with that. I wonder at the state of my underwear. Did I have an accident? Were they clean enough? Did these people make judgements on their patients? Did they indulge in humour at the expense of the patients? Which leads me think of my penis, curled up there, what do they think of that? Does it matter?
Does anything matter any more?
They are folding me into a gown. They are positioning me on the bed and they are attaching tubes to me. One is going to go down my throat. It is uncomfortable and I want to struggle. I concentrate on the ceiling and the feeling of the nurse’s breath on my eye as she leans forward to do it. I can feel her breast on my arm.
I wonder if she has already fallen in love with me.
Something is happening to my body. The temperature is changing and my mind is feeling strange. My numbness is becoming overwhelming. The doctor is filling out a clipboard which he then replaces at the bottom of my bed. One of the nurses is going through my wallet. There is another nurse standing watching her do it. They take out my identity card and look at the picture. To be absolutely sure they hold the card up and compare it with me.
I have a beard now and in the picture I don’t have a beard so this is causing them to double check. The older ambulance man comes back into the room with my brown satchel. He speaks and the nurses wave him to put it on the chair with my clothes. He dawdles curious. He even waves at me. But then with no further reason to be there he turns and walks away.
The urgency is now over. A machine beside me has been turned on and the sensors attached to my skin and it is now following my blood pressure and heart rate. At least I assume. I’m using my knowledge of hospital and medicine that I’ve got from television programmes and films. I’ve never been in a hospital bed before. I’ve been to hospitals, but never had to lie down in a bed like this.
It is a first. I try to think of this cheerfully. As if it is an adventure.
The nurses are talking softly to each other about other things. I am no longer the centre of attention. The doctor does another cursory check, but he has already decided what has happened. He tries to get me to respond. He uses an implement to prick me. I can see him, but I can’t feel anything. I’m glad I can’t feel anything. Because I don’t want to feel pain. He speaks loudly and directly to me. But he is going through the motions. There is no conviction in it. He is not trying very hard. He understands what has happened to me but he has no way of communicating this as I seem to not be responding in any way.
He says something to the nurses, giving them their instructions on how I am to be treated I suppose and then he leaves. The nurses put my things in the wardrobe and they pull the covers carefully over me.
I am lying on my back. One of them looks into my eyes.
I try to communicate something, project some human thought or emotion. But nothing is coming to me. Nothing is going to them.
As they leave the room they turn the main light out. There is a light from the monitor of the machine and there is a small light over the mirror by the sink. And there is the street light orange from outside the window that comes into the room in a bar code of slats.
I close my eyes and go to sleep.