I couldn’t remember boarding the train, or why I was on it, but this did not bother me. I felt a strange sense of contentment, a sense of belonging. I was pleased to note that I had dressed well for the trip; I was wearing a smart suit, and the shoes that Sally, my daughter, joked were my ‘going out shoes.’ The carriage was about half full, with a mix of people from the very young to the very old. There were probably more of the older generation like myself on the train, but there was a baby, just a few days old by the looks of it. I hadn’t noticed it asleep in a basket until the train shuddered on the tracks and the jolt woke the baby. It woke up with a loud and piercing cry. He, or she, it was hard to tell as it was dressed all in white, was soon picked up and rocked back to sleep then placed back in its basket again where it now lay, fast asleep, rocked by the motion of the train.
The carriage I found myself in was not modern by any stretch of the imagination, the leather seats were worn from many years of use. My seat was soft and comfortable, like an old glove. The carriage was lined on both sides with large sash windows, most of them open to a make the most of the impressive view as we travelled through the countryside. The toot of the train and the occasional waft of smoke alerted me to the fact that we were on a steam train, a very old train indeed. I hadn’t seen a working steam train in years, the last time I had been on a steam train was back when I was a young girl, just 19 years old travelling from Wyoming to New York City, determined to find fame and fortune. Fortune I found, fame was more elusive, and it became less important as I matured and realised that happiness was the most important thing in life. Looking back on my life I could honestly say I had led a happy life. I met Frank, my late husband, within a week of moving to New York, and together we had built a home full of love and laughter.
Looking out of the window, I tried to place where we could be by looking out for geographic clues and landmarks. We were travelling up a slight incline through thick forest. I did not recognise this particular part of the country, but I guessed that we could be in Oregon or Montana. The air was clean and fresh, not too hot and not too cold, the perfect temperature. At times the thick trunks of the forest trees looked so close that it was tempting to put my hand out to touch them, and I had to remind myself that I was a respectable woman who was in her eighties and not a child. I smiled to myself as I recalled the first train trip my parents had taken my brother and me on. I could still remember what I wore: my beloved Mary Jane patent leather shoes- I could see my reflection in those shoes, the pink dress with the bow at the back, and my braids so tight they pulled. We were dressed in our Sunday best and as such, forbidden to eat anything on the journey even though the tantalising aromas of the dining car wafted our way each time the interconnecting door was opened and the tea lady with her trolley of tempting cakes and sweets kept catching my eye when she passed us. We travelled from St Paul to Chicago to stay with Aunt Nancy while my father had an important meeting in the city. After that trip we had moved to Chicago, my father getting a job there. There was never a reason to take another train trip as a family.
As I sat back in the comfortable seat I tried to remember the last time I ate, but no memory came. I didn’t feel hungry, or thirsty. I resolved to make an appointment with my doctor when I got back home, maybe my memory was starting to go and I’d end up in the newspaper, a nasty looking mugshot and the headlines reading Do You Know This Woman? I could just imagine Sally’s reaction. Aside from finding it hilariously funny, it would be the final proof she was looking for that it was time for me to leave my home and move into a nursing home. Well, I just wasn’t ready, Dr. Knoff would have to find me some pills or brain exercises to do, I wasn’t going down without a fight. When my best friend Pam was put into a nursing home, she went from a vibrant woman who played bridge twice a week to a near vegetable who ate what could best be described as baby food and spent her days staring at the television in less than a year. I was a firm believer that nursing homes were a modern curse on the aged and I wasn’t going down that path.
On this train most people, like myself, seemed to be commuting alone, however, there were a few couples, and some of the extroverts had struck up conversations with others. Never one to make friends with strangers I was happy to sit back, to watch and listen. Opposite me sat an elderly gentleman, he was dressed in a suit as were most of the men in the carriage. Like me, he seemed content to look out of the window or to watch the others in the carriage. A few times I caught his eye and quickly looked away, not wishing to strike up a conversation. Across the aisle sat a young couple. They were holding each other’s hands and carrying on a very intense, but hushed conversation; I strained to hear a snippet of what they were saying, but could not. The woman was unnaturally beautiful, porcelain skin and the greenest eyes I had ever seen, her wavy auburn hair fell in soft curls around her face, she appeared to be agitated. She was dressed in a ruffled green dress, they both looked very smart. I guessed that they were going to a wedding, running a little late no doubt.
Opposite the young couple sat a middle-aged man and an elderly man, judging from their conversation they had been strangers but were chatting amicably now.
“I am, sorry, was a stockbroker,” said the younger of the two.” Awful job in hindsight. I was married to the job, making money was all I cared about. Talk about a rude wake-up call though, heart attack on the trading floor, I’ll be the talk of Wall Street for all of five minutes,” he said with a laugh. “What about yourself?”
“Oh I’ve been retired for nearly twenty years, I used to be a doctor, never married, a bit like yourself, my job was my life and then you realise too late that work is not worth the sacrifice, or the loneliness. If I had my life over, I’d do it very differently.”
“Me too,” agreed his younger companion. It was quite clear to me from the way that he spoke that the younger of the two was probably going to go out and make the same mistakes he was complaining about now all over again. Some people never learn I thought to myself shaking my head.
Frank and I always used to make up stories about the strangers we encountered on our travels. Strangers in a restaurant became more important than the menu on holidays as we wove intricate stories about the lives of people sitting nearby. The best thing that could happen would be to encounter the same people another night so that we could continue on with our narrative about them. It was times like these that I missed Frank the most, and I wished that he was with me now.
I snapped out of my daydream at the sound of raised voices from the seats behind me.
“This isn’t Disneyland,” complained a little boy. “You promised that we were going to Disneyland. When are we going to Disneyland?”
“Shush Ben love, people are staring,” cooed a woman who I assumed was Ben’s mother. “I’m not really sure where we are, darling?”
“Well…the last I remember was driving in the hire car from the airport. We had just got onto the freeway and Ben and Ella were fighting in the back. I remember yelling at the kids to be quiet, then…” spoke a man quietly, as if to himself.
“Oh, yes, now I remember,” interrupted his wife, her voice full of sadness. I wondered what it was they had both recollected to make her so sad.
“Remember what Mummy?” asked a girl. “What do you remember, are we on the way to Disneyland, is this the train to Disneyland?”
I strained to hear the answer, but neither parent replied. I certainly hoped this wasn’t the train to Disneyland. I thought I could hear the sound of someone crying, but it was hard to hear over the little boy calling out ‘Mummy.’ I wished that one of them would answer him to shut him up.
I looked up to see a portly man walking down the aisle towards me. He looked me in the eye and smiled, I looked away, out of the window. I felt the seat compress beside me and glanced over, “Natural causes was it?” asked the man. “For me, it was drowning, bloody embarrassing too as I was a champion swimmer as a teen.”