Monday, 30 July 2012


They sit like badly arranged waxworks.  The father's face appears to have run under heat of some kind, perhaps a long time ago.  The mother, if that's what she is – she looks almost as young as the eldest daughter – stares into space.  Her eyes don't register the advertising posters as they flow past at stations, and there is a hint of silvery drool at the corner of her mouth.  Luggage of all kinds is piled across their laps and around them, blocking the doors and the passage along the carriage.  Children are clustered in amongst the luggage, looking uncomfortable, perhaps embarrassed to be with these people and their unconcern for the other people on the train.  The children are muted, somehow compressed, possible a remnant of the memory of crowding into the carriage, pushing ahead of other people at the station, using the luggage first as a wedge, and then as a ram to secure their places in the carriage.  None of them sit, that is a privilege reserved for their parents.
Announcements are made, and neither parent reacts, even when the children begin to show signs of fear.  They are aware that the stations that are being called are wrong, that this is not the right line, that the train is not heading towards the airport.  Yet none of them speak up, and slowly their heads drop and they begin to stare at the floor, almost as if dreading something that is yet to happen.
The train brakes sharply, a piston-shot sound like a puncture wound in the air.  The carriages snap and jerk, and the luggage is tumbled.  Much of it cannot move far, piled as it with the human buffers of the children to hold it in place, but a single suitcase espies a path to freedom and flings itself forward.  It makes it a few inches, then topples over, the seal at the top cracking and splitting and then the shell bouncing apart like a butterfly hatching from a cocoon.  Things spill out.
Father reacts slowly, as though having to reanimate his flesh from whichever waiting-room of the soul he was sitting in.  He makes a chopping gesture with his hand which is wasted on his children, none of whom move and most of whom don't look up.  His wife continues to stare ahead of her, her eyes vacant, wide, and dark.  He stands up as though having to instruct each muscle on what to do, stiffly, jerkily.  Only when he is standing does he seem to become more human, and when he crosses to the case and bends, it is almost graceful.  He gathers up fallen things, slim objects, small bags as of toiletries, a hairbrush with dark strands of hair attached to it, and pushes them back into the split, mewling case.  He does not attempt to arrange anything, everything is just pushed in with huge, strong hands.  Veins stand out on both his hands and his arms as he works, and there is a faint whistle as though a nostril is blocked.  When the case is refilled he presses it shut, his hands moving inexorably downwards until there is a click, a significant sound that seems to echo around the carriage.  Then he stands again, and brings the case with him, returning it to the spot it sought its freedom from.
The children shudder silently.
"That was your case, Freda," he says, his voice lacking warmth, tone and even cadence.  It is flat, neutral, boring.  No-one responds, and his brow furrows and his eyes narrow.  He repeats himself, the same words again, in the same toneless, tuneless voice.  Still no-one responds, and only then does he look properly at the mother, sitting, staring straight ahead.
"Freda?" he asks, though the rising intonation is barely present.  "Freda, that was your case."  He takes her hand, and she tilts to the side, her eyes rolling up in her head until only the whites show, and her mouth falling open.  Her tongue falls out, and seems to lap against her cheek.  The man in the seat next to her flinches, but manners keep him from pulling away altogether.
Father places two fingers on her wrist, but it is cold already and tells him all he needs to know.
"Your mother is dead, children," he says in that same flat voice.  "Did we remember to pack a coffin?"

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