Counting to Train 124

Incredible Journey is an anthology of short stories by South African writers.

Incredible Journey is an anthology of short stories by South African writers.

The judges’ choice of best story went to ‘Train 124’ by Andrew Salomon, from which the edited extract below is taken. 

Neurodevelopmental disorder. Sensory hypersensitivity. These are medical terms and the first includes an eighteen-letter word. Too many.
Words get awkward above ten letters. I have been diagnosed with both of these disorders by mental health professionals. On the screen in front of me – in easy-to-read tabular form – are the results from my latest biannual psychological assessment. The results show no discernible change in impairment from the same assessment twelve months ago. I could have just told them that.

The professional are wrong. I am not impaired. What I have are talents that happen to complicate my life. I close my laptop and pick up my bag. I have a train to catch.

It takes four hundred and sixty four steps from my gate to the spot where I wait for the train: by the yellow metal pole supporting the public announcement system on the platform at Kenilworth Station. This includes the steps down into and up out of the tunnel running under the tracks.

On the way to the station I pass the parking area on the corner of Kenilworth Road and Second Avenue. Stop there for DVDs, Chinese food and tapas. This time of morning there are only seven cars, covered in dew: three white, two silver, one black, one blue (scratched).

There is one person crossing the parking area: a one-legged man. No crutches. He hops instead. The empty trouser leg is pinned up to his waist. He covers about half a metre with each hop. The one-legged man stops and turns his face to me. I’m waiting for it. The middle finger. 

I often get it when I stare, and I stare a lot. I have been told people find this disconcerting but I would rather they be disconcerted than constantly having to force myself not to stare. Not staring is possible but it takes enormous effort and I need to conserve my energy. The hopping man raises his hand. Instead of the middle finger, he waves. He smiles too.

I raise my hand to wave back. Before I can move my hand from side to side or ask him what he does with the extra shoe (what my mental health assessment would term “inappropriate verbal discourse”), the hopping man winks and hops away. Four hops. Pause. Four hops again.

I walk on. The encounter has cost me fifteen or twenty seconds but I have left a safe margin of time to allow for unforeseen events.

Newspaper boards are fixed to six of the trees leading to the station. I have to read each headline. “Tears for slain Reeva” on four boards. “Premier to take Zuma to court” on two. The longest word in either of the headlines is seven letters. Good. Whoever writes these headlines must also be aware that words get cumbersome above ten letters.

Every time I enter the tunnel passing under the tracks I steel myself against the smell of urine, but this is no more than a memory reflex from the first and only time I smelled it. Now all I smell is peppermint. A dab of peppermint oil below each nostril before I go out ensures this. The oil lasts three hours, which will be more than enough time to get to town, receive the positive news from the oncologist, and get back home. Without interruptions it takes me exactly four minutes to reach the station from my house. I walk fast.

At the station I don’t queue to buy a ticket. Even though I use the train no more than twice a week, I have a monthly ticket. It costs more but it means I only need to communicate with the ticket seller twelve times a year. I wait for the 124 train. Arrival time seven thirteen. I check my watch. One minute and thirty-five seconds to go.

I open the front flap of my bag and reach in. It’s not there. I look, but I don’t see my MP3 player with my noise-cancelling earphones.

Those earphones were the most expensive item I have ever bought and it was money well spent. During each train journey I play an eight-minute recording of a mountain stream, set on repeat. My friend Phillip says this is excruciatingly boring. I tell him boring and predictable are not the same. Predictable is good. Surprises are not. With my earphones I hear water flowing over polished stones and nothing else. Nothing. Now I don’t have them. Now of all days I will be a captive audience inside the train carriage.

It was the shirt that threw me off balance. Made me forget. Fridays I wear my navy-blue long-sleeved shirt with the step collar. Always. Every Thursday morning I take my laundry basket with my name on it to the laundry on Second Avenue. I nod at the man and leave. In the afternoon I pick up my laundry basket by the door with my clean clothes wrapped in brown paper.

At the end of the month they email my account and I pay online. When I opened the brown paper package this morning my navy-blue long-sleeved shirt with the step collar wasn’t there. And not only had they lost it, they had done something worse: they’d replaced it with someone else’s shirt. Someone else’s shirt was stuck between my laundered clothes. Touching them. I wanted to complain but that would mean phoning the laundry and talking to someone. I haven’t talked to anyone at the laundry in a year.

I could go back home. Get my MP3 player and earphones. Should go back. I can’t. Going back would mean having to catch the 126 train nine minutes later and that would make me late for my appointment. And driving is not an option. I tried it before. Once.

Can’t be late today. The receptionist from the oncologist’s practice said I should come in as soon as possible. I must get to the city on time to hear the news. The good news. Of course.

Woodstock is the penultimate stop before Cape Town. In my head I run through my prepared conversation with the oncologist’s receptionist. I have extrapolated the conversation based on my previous visit. This is how it will go.

I will enter the reception. She will smile, wish me good morning and ask how I am. I will wish her good morning back, tell her I am fine, inform her of my name and the time of my appointment. She will nod, consult the appointment book in front of her and invite me to take a seat. I will thank her and sit. 

A few minutes later she will tell me that the doctor is ready to see me. That will be the sum total of our interaction. She might also ask if any of my contact details or medical aid particulars have changed but since I will be anticipating this I’ll be able to answer no without faltering. My consultation with the doctor will proceed as follows.

She will say hello and without any wasted time on pleasantries she will open my file and inform me that there is nothing amiss. These were her words before, she told me she is sure there will be nothing amiss. I will thank her and leave and never have to go back to her consulting rooms again. There will be no surprises.

The oncologist’s consulting rooms are on the first floor of a medical centre on Longmarket Street. I get buzzed in. Approaching the receptionist I’m ready for our interaction as I had rehearsed it. She smiles, as I had imagined she would. But she does not say good morning or ask me how I am. Instead she gets up, walks towards and then past me and says this way please.

I don’t move. This is not correct at all. I tell her I’m fine, thank you. She ignores this and opens a door to a consulting room I have not been in before. One desk, two chairs. A potted plant. I walk in and sit down. The receptionist closes the door and I’m left alone for three minutes before the doctor comes in.

She doesn’t shake my hand like she did the previous time. She is carrying a file. Blue with a white label. My name is written on the label. All in capital letters. I wait for her to tell me there is nothing amiss so I can say thank you and get up and leave. She sits and opens my file.

*Incredible Journey, edited by Joanne Hichens, is published by Mercury

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