A sudden and harsh jolt woke him from his tenuous sleep state. He felt disoriented, befuddled, and looked around to get his bearings. He was seated at the window seat of a train with no recollection of how he had got there. His mind felt like it was wrapped in multiple layers of swaddling, but he didn’t feel any panic. On the contrary, he felt numb, as if his emotions had been given an injection of Novocain.
Next to him was a young boy who looked to be about 16 or 17, one with a light complexion, unruly black hair and intelligent blue eyes that blazed with clarity. The boy was smiling at him.
“Bad dream?” he asked. “You jerked very sharply when you woke up,” he added to clarify his statement.
“Uh, no. No, I was just lost in thought,” the man lied.
“Yeah, that happens to me sometimes,” the boy aided him in his lie.
“What was the station we just pulled out of?” he now asked the boy. The young man had been busy on his phone, but he looked up and put the phone into the pocket of the light jacket he was wearing.
“I’m not sure,” he said and craned his neck back to see if he could still spot the train platform, “but I think it was Solar Square.” The name meant nothing to the man.
“Yes, it was,” a lady sitting behind the boy said. She was a pretty brunette who looked to be in her early twenties, and she also smiled sweetly at the man. He was slightly perturbed at how amicable these commuters were. In his experience, normal people were never this helpful or pleasant to strangers. He suddenly became suspicious and took another closer look at the rest of the occupants of the carriage.
He made a quick count of seven people: the boy next to him; the lady in the seat behind him; the twenty-something man sitting next to her, leafing through a magazine; an older couple two seats in front of him on the same side of the carriage as he was; and lastly, two black women on the seat furthest from him on the opposite side of the carriage, near the compartment door. He was slightly surprised by how few commuters there were in the carriage, but then he glanced at his watch. It was nearly 8:20 PM, and he supposed he had missed the evening rush.
“Thank you,” the young man said to the brunette, who simply smiled and nodded her head in acknowledgement. The boy turned back to the man and continued, “That means the next stop will be Diamond Trench.”
“Thanks. Seems I’m on the right train then,” the man said, although he had no clue on which line he was and where he was headed to. The boy smiled at him, dug out his phone from his pocket and got lost in cyberspace. The man became aware of something pressing uncomfortably against his thigh. It felt bulky and heavy, but he had no idea what it was. Before he could investigate it, he was distracted by the loud conversation between the older couple in front of him.
“Spherical? Was that the code word?” the gentleman was asking his companion.
“Yes, indeed. Can you believe they chose such a strange word for me to work into the conversation without making her feel that something was up?” the woman asked. “And to make matters worse, I couldn’t even pronounce the word correctly,” she added and laughed at herself.
Obviously amused and curious, the old man asked, “So how did you manage to insert the code without sounding too obvious? And how did you pronounce the word?”
“Badly, on both counts, I’m afraid,” answered the woman.
The man laughed and said, “Do tell.”
“I said, ‘I think I will have the swearical salad with a glass of water.’”
“No, you didn’t!”
“I swear I did, but the girls heard the code and jumped out to yell ‘Surprise!’ So it all worked out in the end,” she concluded.
“You hens are a quirky bunch,” the older man said with a grin, put his arm around the woman and squeezed her shoulder affectionately.
Before the man could try and decipher the Twilight Zone-ish conversation, he became aware of the louder than usual sound of the train’s wheels on the track, and frowned in perplexity. The train had slowed and the clack-clack-clack of the wheels running over the tracks was much more pronounced.
“We’re crossing a set of double tracks on the bridge,” the young boy revealed. He had obviously spotted the man’s confusion and was explaining why the train was moving so slowly and loudly. “Whenever we reach this part of the line, the train has to cross more than one track, and the tracks also go uphill. It causes the train to slow down much more than usual.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. How do you know this though?” the man asked. He adjusted his position slightly to ease the discomfort he was feeling as a result of the object pressing against his thigh.
“I’ve been travelling this route for years now, so I’ve become used to all the sounds, stops and sights,” he replied with another one of his open smiles.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you out so late, and on your own?” the man suddenly found himself asking the boy. He was immediately horrified that he had done so, for it was unnatural for him to engage strangers in conversations, aside from asking for directions or the time; and practically unheard of for him to ask personal questions of anyone. Before he could apologise though, the boy responded.
“Went to visit my dad. He’s in hospital for another operation, but hopefully this will be the last one for a while,” the teenager said in as offhanded a manner as possible, but he couldn’t disguise the heartache in his voice. The man intuited that there lurked a depth of sorrow behind the boy’s words, and once again he was moved to act uncharacteristically.
“I’m very sorry to hear that. What op is he in for?”
“He has a brain tumour,” the teenager stated simply. The man felt devastated for the young man, and his heart lurched in sympathy in his chest. “It’s the second procedure, but we will be okay,” he added. The man was rendered speechless and felt too afraid to say anything, but then unbidden words were released from him.
“Often, when we claim to be okay, we are actually broken, we feel defeated and we are petrified. We just tell others we are fine to make ourselves believe that everything will work out. And in some mysterious way, things usually do develop for the best,” he ended.
“I agree,” interrupted the man in the seat behind them. He patted the boy casually on his shoulder and continued, “You’re a strong guy. All of us know that, and you know you can count on every single one of us,” he said inexplicably. The rest of the carriage occupants all mysteriously nodded nearly imperceptibly in agreement.
The man was dumbfounded at this show of camaraderie, until the realization that these passengers must all be regulars on this line dawned on him. They had all apparently become quite familiar to each other because of their daily commute, and as if to verify this assumption of his, one of the women sitting close to the door shouted back at the boy.
“Hun, you have a family right here, don’t you forget. You can call on any of us at any time, baby,” she said.
“Sweetie, you just hang in there and don’t you dare lose hope. We are all watchin’ out for you ’cause we’re your very own guardian angels,” the other woman added just as the train pulled into a station.
“This is us,” she said as both got up, gave a quick wave of their hands to the passengers and left the train.
“They are cleaners at my school,” the boy explained as he looked at the disembarking women.
The man turned to the boy to see unshed tears pooled in his oh-too-wise eyes. Then that amazing smile returned to his face and the grief evaporated. For the first time, the man returned his smile.
“Is this what you meant by having travelled this line for many years? You go to hospital a lot?” he asked the teenager.
“Yeah,” the boy admitted and shrugged, “but it isn’t a problem. I’ve become so used to it that it has ceased to be an issue. When mom died four years ago, it was just me and dad, and we knew we had to look out for each other,” he confided without artifice.
“But you gained us, didn’t you, dear?” asked the old lady in the seat ahead. She smiled beautifully at the boy, who responded in kind.
“My adopted grandparents,” the teenager revealed delightedly. Just then his phone whistled, indicating that he had received a text message. “Excuse me,” he said politely before reading the message.
The man surreptitiously put his hand into his trouser pocket to investigate what the object was that he was carrying. He froze when he touched cold, hard metal.
Then his mind opened in a thunderous burst of recollection. He was mercilessly and unforgivingly assailed by suppressed memories, by adamant denials and irrefutable evidence. And one name emerged from the tumultuous cascade of forgotten truths; a name that burned like a fiery banner scribed across dark heavens. The name evoked such potent passions that he felt a beastly rage roiling within his soul, within his very essence.
It was the name of the woman he loved, the one he had sacrificed nearly everything for … and with the release of her name, the truth of her betrayal emerged like the spectre of all his worst misgivings. His hand clenched the gun in his pocket as if it were a life raft he was firmly grasping, and an icy kernel of denial slowly melted and turned into a rock hard fact. He finally understood why he was in such a daze and so bewildered.
“It’s my dad. He just messaged me to say he loves me,” the teenager spoke suddenly, unceremoniously dragging the man from his vertiginous torment and making him reel inwardly, as if he had suddenly been pushed off the top of a building.
“What?” he asked inanely as he attempted to gather his scattered thoughts.
“My dad?” the boy repeated and gestured to his phone. “He sent me a WhatsApp to say he loves me. Mom used to teach me one word many times so I wouldn’t forget it or its meaning. She used to tell me that it perfectly described her love for me and my dad. She taught me that no matter what trials come our way, as long as we remember that specific quality of our love, nothing can overwhelm us, break us, dishearten us, or separate us. She said that such love is the purest form of it, and it will eternally grant us abundant resilience and fortitude. Now Dad and I use the word whenever we go through major difficult times,” he ended.
The man was still slightly caught up in his own gradually fading contemplations, but he had sense enough to have registered what the teenager had said. “What word?” he now enquired, his curiosity once again piqued.
As the young man was about to reply, the train slowed as it pulled into the next station. The boy got up hurriedly.
“This is my stop. Nice chatting to you. I hope you feel better soon,” he unexpectedly said, as if he had somehow detected the man’s inner struggle and uneasy soul. He moved off towards the opening carriage doors.
“Wait!” the man nearly shouted. The boy had reached the doors now and stopped to look back at the man. “What’s the word?” the man asked in desperation.
The boy disembarked and came over to the window where the man was seated. He was smiling as he held up his phone, its back facing the intrigued man. One word had been printed and stuck on the back casing of the cell phone. Just then the train started to move off, and the enigmatic young boy waved at the man as he continued to the platform exit. The man quickly Googled the word.
“He’s a wonderful kid,” said the lady in the seat behind the man. “It’s so tragic how he lost his mom, but we admire him for the way he cares for his sick dad,” she continued.
“And the most amazing thing about him is he’s never unfriendly, moody, frustrated or despondent. He’s always smiling, polite and helpful,” added the man sitting next to her.
“Don’t be surprised that he spoke to you so easily,” the woman explained. “He’s just a natural people’s person.”
“Yeah, he’s the reason we in this carriage forged such a familial bond,” the old man in front suddenly added. “He’s such a young boy, but he carries in his breast the heart of a wise old man,” he stated.
The man smiled at all of them, unsure of what to say and being an introvert by nature, he said nothing at all. The passengers didn’t seem to mind his reticence though.
He decided to get off at the next stop, and when the train reached it, he was profoundly affected by the name of the station. “Destiny,” the sign board proclaimed.
As the man stepped onto the platform, he experienced a dizzying moment of such clarity that he nearly dropped to his knees. He went over to a platform bench and hurriedly sat down.
A tidal wave of shame at the cowardice the gun in his pocket represented caused him to wince inwardly. The thought of what he had planned to do with the weapon drew an involuntarily moan of agony or angst from him.
He had always been an impulsive man, and often lived to regret the decisions he made in the heat of the moment. Upon discovering her betrayal of him, he had impetuously gone for the most extreme solution, which would have solved nothing at all. Except cause the world’s population statistics to drop by one.
He replayed in his turbulent mind the boy’s explanation of the powerful word his mother had taught him. And he unfathomably divined something about the nature of love, something that had hitherto escaped him.
Love is eternal, no matter if it lessens or not to some degree or another in a partner. The love they had had for each other when they were in love would never fade or become false. He had been appallingly deceived, but that did in no way negate what they had felt so profoundly for each other in the past. If he had gone through with his craven act, he would have lost out on what it means to love without any conditions, stipulations, expectations or restrictions.
“Amaranthine,” he softly said to himself, “the undying quality of love.”
Yes, he would use that magical word to bolster his courage and help him face the next day, and the day after that, and the one thereafter. He would rebuild his shattered life one cumbersome day after another, and not submit to despair that promised to wait for him around every turn in the road.
Her love for him might be dead, but his was eternal. And he would love again, no matter the cost or the consequences.
He looked up at the ticket booth on the opposite platform and walked over to the notice board next to it. He searched the map until he found the right train line that would take him home.
by Hidayat Adams