Monday, 17 Jun 2019

The Railway Friend

imgp2733-version-3Olga Pavlinova Olenich

She is a bird-like creature with the look of a startled sparrow. She hops about on the lower bunk, picking up the scattered bits and pieces of her luggage. “Sorry, sorry,’ she repeats nervously as I wait in the aisle. I reassure her. My friend and I are in no hurry to claim the lower bunks that we have, for once, booked ahead. I suggest that we all sit down and wait until she has finished sorting things out before we think about retiring to our bunks. It is, after all, still early and the night stretches endlessly before us like the railway tracks. I push one of her multicoloured plastic bags away from the window and squeeze myself in. Sophie has cleared herself a spot near the aisle. I can’t see anything in the window except the reflection of the cabin so I begin to examine our fellow traveller more closely. I have never seen a smaller wrist. Chicken bones. Even the multiple folds of her rather sumptuous pink sari do not succeed in fleshing out this diminutive figure. She is full of nervous energy and cannot sit still. Once she has started talking, she can’t seem to stop. Her English is sophisticated, her turn of phrase idiosyncratic and interesting. She is an intelligent woman, certainly no birdbrain. I suspect that those little hands are often turning the pages of some book and that the little wheels in that head whirr away at some alarming speed. She says she is travelling with her family. They are going to a wedding; a favourite niece is getting married. The smile she flashes at the mention of her niece is enough to make us all fall a little in love with the bride. I, too, smile involuntarily and am introduced to a brother who makes himself known from the top bunk where he has spread himself out so that some of his limbs are hanging over our heads. He is a well-nourished fellow with nothing much to say for himself and leaves the talking to his sister.

As the train clatters along, she gives us a potted version of the family history. I don’t take in everything she says. It’s not that I’m not interested in what she is saying but more because of the way she is telling the story. Chirrup. Chirrup. It is hard to keep apace. I am distracted by the tiny wrist, the fragile arm. She must be wearing most of her jewellery to the wedding. The gold bangles climb the thin brown arm almost to the elbow. Now and then another person seeking an introduction interrupts her monologue. It seems that most of the people in the carriage are related. It is going to be a big wedding. Sophie dozes off and our travelling companion turns her full attention on me, her bright black buttons of eyes sparkling mischievously in the shadows of the second-class compartment. We find common ground. She has sons. I have a son. We lament the absence of daughters and speculate on future daughters-in-law. This is, after all, a wedding party. She claps her hands like a child whenever I say something funny and everything I say seems to amuse her. Now and then, when she is particularly delighted, she shouts a translation across the carriage. All sorts of people come by, smiling and giggling and proffering sweets. I’d have thought my witticisms were going a bit flat, given that it was getting late and I was very tired. But no, I continued to be a hit with the wedding party. A kind of opening act. I shake a lot of hands before our new friend decides that enough is enough and the entertainment has got to come to a close. She gives me a knowing wink and shoos everyone away. Chirrup. Chirrup.

Then she puts a small narrow foot on the first rail of the ladder and pulls herself up onto the upper bunk. Even then, she has not quite stopped speaking. “There are many railway friends,” she says, “they meet on trains, they talk, they even tell each other secrets and then they just…” she sighs without finishing the sentence and she turns in the bunk. I cannot see her but I can imagine how little space she has taken up. “We won’t be like that, we’ll be special railway friends.”

“Oh yes,” I say as I feel my eyes closing and the rhythm of the train is beginning to lull me into a fitful sleep, the sleep of someone in a strange place and a hard uncomfortable place. The thought of a special railway friend is the sweetener on the long journey through the night.

In the morning, she is up early, brushing her long dark hair. Her bracelets make a clanking sound. I listen to her admonishing her brother for sleeping too long. Sophie and I sit up, knowing that they will feel uncomfortable disturbing us. They are getting off at the next station. They sit down with us for a minute or two, the brother struggling with sleep but she is brighter and more cheerful than she was last night. The excitement of the wedding is bubbling inside her.  She scribbles down her address on a piece of paper and hands it to me. “Special railway friends,” she says. I manage to find my bag and a grotty card of some sort on which I scrawl my name and address with the pen she has passed to me. It seems the right thing to do, this exchange of addresses. “Now,” she says, fixing me with a penetrating look, “we’ll see who writes first.”

Olga Pavlinova Olenich is an Australian writer whose work appears in local and international publications. Her prose and poems have been broadcast on national radio and have featured in national newspapers.Her memoirs have been included in the collection Best Australian Humorous Writing (Melbourne University Press, 2008) and The Best Travel Writing Volume 11. (Travelers’ Tales Series. Solis House Palo Alto, 2016)  Her poetry is included in several anthologies including Best Australian Poems (Black inc. 2015)