by Lucy Cuthew
Chloe watches as track after track flicks in then out of view through the hole in the grubby floor: the most mesmerising toilet in India. She resists the urge to reach through and touch the speeding ground and instead turns to hover over the small opening. She struggles to keep her balance as the train takes a corner. She strains and wees. A woman once had a baby on one of these toilets, she thinks, noting that here was another thing which made her think of that particular part of life which she’d always thought of as some distant future. This adventure wasn’t finished yet, she thought. The future could wait a bit longer.
What she didn’t realise was that the future has a way of happening, one way or another. Afterall, the future is only ever the very next moment.
No more than that.
She pulls the toilet door click-closed behind her and pin-balls along the skinny corridor to find Eddie. He’s sitting at an open door, feet on the outside steps, the vastness of India beyond him, the wind ruffling his brown hair. He could still surprise her. She squeezes in beside him and they sit in the doorway with their legs hanging free into the dusty yellow sunset. They get chai from the wallah. Spicy-sweet steam rises into their faces chaotically as the turbulence dances around them.
They look towards the far away mountains, glowing and unreal on the horizon. In the fields beyond, women dig in the heavy earth, no more than silhouettes against the sun-setting sky; the colourful fabric of their saris merely imagined in the fading light. Chloe and Eddie watch the figures lifting shining patties of wet mud and laying them down in a pattern too mysterious to fathom from afar. They notice that the women’s forms are one of two shapes, for here and there they see the shadow of tiny legs dangling from a bump on a back.
Chloe turns to face Eddie, her long red hair pirouetting her face in the wild air. He wiggles his head through the curtain of curls and they swap a sweet and sticky kiss. He traces his finger over the familiar freckles across her nose, she the stubble of his chin. They shuffle closer to watch the creation of the mud constellations. She leans her head on his and blows at the cloying milk, watching the steam as it’s whipped away by the whoosh of the carriages.
They stay there for a long time, feeling the freedom of their dangling legs, until a broad chested man, with arms so hairy you can’t see the skin, stops and tells them it is dangerous.
“I would not let my children do this,” he says, nodding at their bare legs and the open door. “Many people die like this, you know.”
After he’s gone their stubborn legs dangle still, but the freedom has been taken. The sun has gone down anyway; the seed of night has been sown.
Eventually hunger makes them admit what is gone and they go to the dining car. They face each other across a fixed table, their skin sticking to the cracked leather seats, their knees touching. The waiter brings them cold beers. Eddie shuffles. Chloe deals. Their sweaty hands slap a game of snap on the Formica table as they laugh in bursts at near misses and downright obliviousness.
When the food comes they swipe the cards aside. They watch as mothers show young children how to dip their hot oily bread into the warm yellow dahl, and they copy. They order more drinks and sink giddily into the hard seats, their legs lacing beneath the table.
Outside the train, the land is dark. Inside, benches turn to beds. In the growing silence he looks down and reads the condensation-wet label of the brown glass bottle.
“It’s non-alcoholic!” he says.
Then they grow giddy with irony and peel their legs away to teeter to bed.
As they lurch along aisles scattered with sleeping bodies, they see a baby, peaceful and tiny curled up between flat-out parents. The love-drunk pair exchange the briefest glance, but in that moment the future casts its line and catches them with a hook so richly baited that a whole lifetime passes between two footsteps. He holds her hand a little tighter and they seesaw-shuffle towards the back of the train where their made beds are waiting.
The Night Train continues this Sunday, 26th June.
Lucy Cuthew | @lucycuthew
Lucy Cuthew is an editor and author of children’s books. She was shortlisted for the prestigious Booktrust Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for her acheivements as a young woman in publishing. Her picture books have been nominated for several awards. She is currently writing a young adult novel called Horrible Love Story. Her first short story, ‘The Waiting Room’, was published in January. She works from a studio in Cardiff.