Strangers on a train
The train pulled out of the station. Chris tried to read the book he had brought with him from Ireland. It seemed to be a split narrative, with one threat set in the present day, reading like some kind of weird horror story set in a fictional town in Leitrim. The other strand was set in an American city, probably in the past though it was all a bit non-specific; it also read like it was going to have some weird horror theme, though it was taking its time about having anything explicitly horrific occur. There did not seem any obvious link to the two narratives and the main interest for Chris in the book was wondering whether he would be able to work out a link between them before the author made clear his intentions. Apart from that, neither narrative was particularly engaging and they lacked the qualities that would lead Chris to keep reading, particularly when he was as tired as he was. He put the book back in his bag and let himself doze.
A woman got on the train, wearing a light dress and broad sun hat. She put away a small rucksack and sat at the seat opposite Chris. She caught his eye as she did so. She smiled a greeting. He smiled back sleepily, then looked out the window again as the train pulled away from Bologna. Returning drowsiness overcame him and he began once more to snooze.
Later he half awoke. The train was speeding through countryside now, sunny flat countryside in which crops of an unspecified variety grew in fields interspersed with little house and villages and the occasional copse or small wood. Chris decided that he ought to try and enjoy the view, given that he had chosen to travel to Greece by train as a way of seeing something of Italy. But he was still very tired. His eyes pointed out the window but it was very hard to make them focus on anything. He had the sense of things going by at speed, things he was looking at but not seeing. Maybe if something really fascinating were to appear out there it would jerk him from his torpor.
What actually jerked him from his torpor was the woman opposite saying something to him. He looked over to her and saw her pointing hand out the window, but he had no idea what she had said to him.
"Eh, scusi," he said haltingly. "No habla Italiano."
She looked back at him quizzically and then laughed.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I thought you were German. Like me. I saw a hawk outside and was trying to point it out to you."
Chris looked out the window, his eyes searching for the hawk.
"I don't see it."
"No, it is gone now."
"Oh well, maybe there will be others."
"Perhaps so. I believe they are common in this part of the country."
"Really? I would love to see one. I don't think I've ever seen one before."
"And I would like to see another. Let us keep our eyes peeled."
She smiled at Chris. He smiled back.
"Are you going all the way down south?"
"No," he replied. "I get off at Bari. I'm catching the ferry to Greece."
"Ah, what coincidence! I too am taking the ferry from Bari to Patras."
"That's nice," Chris said. Which it was.
"Yes, I have always wanted to visit Greece and thought it would be an adventure to travel there by train. I thought it would be nice to see Italy too, so I am taking this route rather than going through Romania."
"I looked at going that way but apparently the trains are not running across the Greek border."
"Yes, it is the austerity. Such a pity that my government could not have kept the trains running when they were helping our Greek friends. But it does mean that I have been able to see some of Italy, which I have found very pleasant."
"Were you just in Bologna?"
"Yes, but I liked it. It has many old things to see but is also a modern and exciting city."
"Sounds a bit like Milan."
"Perhaps so. Maybe all places are the same."
"Well no I do not really think so. Bologna feels very different to my own town in Germany."
"Where are you from?"
"Oh yeah, that's where the musicians come from."
"You know, the Musicians of Bremen. Animals who learned to play instruments. It was in some book of stories I read when I was a child. I always wanted to go to Bremen and see the animals."
"You would perhaps be disappointed. We do not have any animals who play musical instruments. Our city has other positive features, but it is not now a centre for musical animals."
"That is a shame. Maybe someone should train up some animals. Could be could for the tourist trade."
"Yes, if this story is as well known as you suggest. Actually yes I have heard it myself. I think it is in the stories of the Grimm brothers."
"I think I read somewhere that Bremen is the only one of the German states that is non-contiguous." He had actually seen it on a map. He was a bit of a nerd about things like this.
"Non-contiguous? I do not know this word."
"Oh, you know, it is divided up into two bits of territory that do not join each other."
"Oh yes, the city and the harbour. I do not think so much about the harbour. But tell me, where are you from? You do not sound English."
"No, I'm from Ireland. Dublin."
"Ah Ireland! I have always wanted to visit your country."
"Good God why?" was all Chris could think to blurt out.
"I am very fond of the Irish writers and the Irish music."
"Mmmm, the Kelly Family?"
She laughed. "Oh no! I mean more alternative music. I like the bands the Jimmy Cake and United Bible Studies. Do you know them?"
"Why yes. My sister's boyfriend's sister plays with the United Bible Studies. Dublin is a very small town."
"Well that's just how it is."
They lapsed into silence for a bit. Chris tried to think of something that could keep the conversation going but before he could come up with anything the German woman spoke.
"I'm Lotte, by the way."
She held out her hand. Chris shook it.
"I'm Chris. Pleased to meet you."
"You are travelling to Greece on holidays?"
"Yes. Well, not entirely."
"No. I mean I have always wanted to go to Greece but I am not going there entirely for fun."
"You have business there?"
"Well business… in a way. Oh look, I won't beat around the bush. It's my wife. She moved there with work. I stayed in Dublin with mine. We were going to keep it going long distance. Then she sent me an e-mail saying she had met someone else and that it was all over between us."
It felt strange unburdening himself like this to a complete stranger, yet it was also easier than talking to someone from home that he knew well.
"Oh dear!" said Lotte.
"Yes, it's not great. I'm going out to see if we can sort something out and stay together. But I don't have much hope."
"Oh no, this is so sad."
"It is, but I don't know, maybe Deirdre's right - maybe we just don't belong together. But whatever, I'm heading out to see her, even though I don't know if there is any point trying to get back together. I'm not sure I even want to but I feel like I have to try."
"Does she know you are coming?"
"No. I'll ring her when I'm in Athens. I think taking her by surprise would be best."
"Well, maybe not, but I bet if I were to ring her now and let her know I was on my way she would get the fuck out of town."
"You are not going to just arrive on her doorstep when you arrive in Athens?"
"No, god, that would be crazy. I'll ring her. If she doesn't want to meet me she doesn't have to. I'll have made the effort either way."
"Oh it is so sad you travelling all the way to try and save your marriage. And so romantic! I am sure your wife will want to stay with you."
"You don't know Deirdre. I'm not so sure."
He was glum now and avoided eye contact. Lotte fidgeted, not sure what to say and grappling with the difficulties of a second language. Chris decided to change the subject.
"And you? You are going to Greece on holidays?"
"Oh yes. I have always wanted to go there. And now I am doing so."
"You're going to the islands?"
"Not the islands, no. I go first to Athens and then to the Peloponnese. I want to see ancient sites more than the islands."
"You're travelling on your own?"
"Why yes. Do you see anyone with me?" She smiled.
"No, I mean, you're not meeting anyone in Greece?"
"No, no. I have no husband there I am trying to stop leaving me. Oh sorry, that was not nice."
"No, you're fine. But you don't worry about travelling around on your own?"
"Well, no, it's just…" He trailed off.
"It is always men who worry about women travelling alone. But I am an adult. I can look after myself."
"Yes, sorry, of course." Chris did not want to come across as one of those men who thinks women should never be let out unaccompanied.
"Of course," said Lotte, "I wonder as to how things will be for me, a German woman, in a country where there is some hostility to the policies of my government. But I hope people will see me as different from Angela Merkel."
"I don't think anyone will mix you up."
"I like to travel on my own," continued Lotte. "I like to travel with people too, but I am comfortable with my own company."
"I've not really travelled on my own much. Anywhere I've been was with my wife. I always thought I would be miserable and lonely travelling on my own."
"How funny. But how you have you found your journey through Europe on your own?"
"It has been quite exciting. I kept meeting interesting people."
Chris reflected that some of these people had proved a bit too interesting, but he felt that it would not be wise to fill Lotte in on his adventures with the memory stick.
"That is the always the way. Though I find when travelling as a single woman, as well as the interesting people I also meet the sleazy ones."
Chris wondered which he was.
"But I can handle them," Lotte continued.
Chris nodded his head as though he was absorbing a profound comment.
"Ah look!" said Lotte, pointing out the window. "Hawk!"
And indeed it was, a majestic bird of prey gliding over the flat countryside, looking for all the world like it was the monarch of all it surveyed. Chris and Lotte met each other's eyes and smiled.
The story continues