The engine’s whistle is a moan in the night, punctuating the rhythmic cadence of wheels on iron rails.
The locomotive is an old one, steam and iron, the firebox door leaking orange-red light round the edges. The big headlight above the boiler carves a yellow path through the darkness, but there’s little enough to see. Forests give way to dark, sleeping towns, and then it’s open desert, lifting slowly to hilly terrain and then forest again.
It’s always night where the train travels, and has been night as long as I can recall, since the first moment I found myself on the footplate of the engine, peering through the window as my silent companion shovelled coal from the tender into the firebox. Since that moment, we’ve never stopped, never slackened pace, and only our mournful whistle has punctuated our passage through the endless night.
Behind us drags the train, long carriages rocking side to side as we hurtle through the darkness. When we go round a curve, I can see them, a line of yellow light in the darkness. Each time I look, there seem to be more carriages.
Of course there are more carriages. When I first stood on this footplate, there were only three or four, and now I can’t even count them. But the train seems to travel the faster, the longer it gets; and as long as the train travels, there will only be more.
I’m not the one driving this train. I could try if I wanted, of course; many times, I’ve hauled on the long regulator lever, trying to throttle back, to slow down or stop, but it’s never worked. The train seems to be driving itself, with only my companion feeding the firebox from the stack of fuel in the tender.
I glance at my silent companion, who has turned back to the tender for another shovelful of coal. I’ve never seen him, not really, except as a silhouette. I’ve never touched him, either, except once, early on – and then my hand went through him, as if he were made of shadows. After that I’ve not touched him again.
Most times when I find myself on the train, I stand on the footplate, peering out at the darkness; but sometimes I feel the need to walk back through the train, carriage by carriage. I can do this easily enough if I want; there’s a little door under the tender. I haven’t done it for a while, though, and I don’t know if I should do it again.
If I did, though, I’d walk through the carriages, looking down at the faces, some familiar and some not so familiar. There will be those I’d known for years or all my life, parents, grandparents, cousins and other relatives; and old girlfriends, most of whom I hadn’t even thought of in years, but they will be there, all of them. They might look up at me, but more likely they’ll be talking quietly among themselves, sitting in their little groups. I hope they don’t look up at me – there’s nothing I can do for them. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked to any of them.
Beyond that first carriage are the others, those I haven’t known in nearly as long – colleagues from work, and then old teachers, classmates from long-forgotten schooldays, and the school janitor we called Silly Billy because that’s the name one of the teachers gave him. They, too, mostly know each other, but have long since run out of things to say, and stare dull-eyed out of the windows into the darkness. Once or twice they try to talk to me, but I hurry on.
Further beyond are the other carriages, the ones full of people I can hardly recognise myself. There’s the girl who, I’m pretty certain, sold me an insurance policy, and the old man who once began yelling at me when I tripped over his leg in a bus. I think I can recognise a shop assistant or two, and a policeman who once gave me a traffic ticket and was aggressively rude about it. But the rest are unknown, though, of course, I must have met them somewhere, sometime.
There’s a certain pathos about walking down the length of the train looking down at these faces, wishing I could help them, knowing I can’t. It’s one reason that I feel less and less of a desire to do it – that, and the knowledge that each day the train grows longer, and its load of passengers more numerous, and that I can do nothing about it, at all.
There’s one point in the train at which I always stop and turn back. Only once have I been beyond that carriage, and I never want to do it again. No matter how long the journey lasts, I don’t want to go beyond that point.
I remember very well the one time I went further. The carriage beyond had been just like the others, unknown people gazing blankly at the walls or at each other, numbed beyond resentfulness. Only she hadn’t been numbed.
I remember how she’d stood up from her seat and pointed an accusing finger. “You.”
I’d stopped, amazed that someone had spoken to me, for the first time ever, on the train. “Yes?”
She was short and thin, not pretty, and appeared to be somewhere in her late teens. There was something vaguely familiar about her, though for the moment I couldn’t tell when we’d met, or under what circumstances. Her eyes blazed with anger as she stared into mine.
“Why have you brought me here?”
“I haven’t.” The train had swayed sharply as it turned a curve, and I’d had to grab on to a seat back to keep my balance, which had afforded a moment’s distraction. “I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“No?” Her upper lip had risen scornfully, over small white teeth. “Then, why am I here – do you want to explain?”
“We must have had something to do with each other sometime,” I’d told her. “I just don’t remember...”
“Of course you don’t.” She’d sat down, and pointed at the seat opposite her. “Sit down there. We have to talk.” And such was the power in her voice, in her eyes, that I’d sat without a word.
“You don’t really remember me at all, do you?” she’d asked.
“No,” I’d confessed. “Not really. But you look...familiar.”
“I should,” she’d replied. “But then I’m probably not important enough – even though I’m the reason why you are where you are. You know, professionally speaking.” She turned up her wrists to me, showing the insides. “See these?”
I stared at the welts on the insides of her wrists, and the years rolled away, the train disappearing around me, and once again I was in that dank little room, the smell of blood and fear in my nostrils, and the past was as if it had not rolled away – the past was now.
They had brought in the girl, her arms lashed behind her back with ropes, already battered with the beating they’d given her. “Maoist bitch,” one of the police commandoes had said, giving her a hard push in the back so she fell face-down on the floor. “Caught her in a sweep through a village. See what you can get out of her before we finish her off.”
I’d picked her up and dropped her into a chair. Despite her ropes and the beating she’d got, there was wiry strength in her underfed frame, and she’d twisted and fought me, kicking and trying to bite. It had taken three of us to get her tied down in the chair, and then the interrogation had begun.
“I’ll make it easy on you,” I’d said, as I’d said a hundred times before and since to a hundred others. “Tell me whatever you know, and answer all the questions, and I’ll make sure they don’t kill you. A year or two in prison, and they’ll let you out. If you don’t answer, though...” I’d left the rest of it unspoken.
My mind refused to remember just what had happened after that, though I recall the end of it, the slight figure slumped in the chair, head hanging, while blood dripped onto her lap. We’d interrogated her for hours, but she hadn’t broken. I’d almost respected her for that.
“I didn’t have a choice,” I’d said to her, back on the train now. “You were the enemy, and it was a war.”
“I was only a village girl,” she’d replied. “I kept telling you, but you wouldn’t believe me. The more I told you, the more you beat me.”
“You confessed,” I’d reminded her, though we both knew this was not exactly the truth. We knew what she should have said, so we’d made up a confession. That’s all the people at the top needed, a confession. “If you’d just told us all that at the outset, we wouldn’t have had to beat you. But you didn’t say a word.”
“You killed me,” she’d interrupted, holding her wrists up to me. “There’s more damage, much worse, inside. I didn’t survive the night.”
“I didn’t know that,” I’d responded, stricken. I’d assumed the police had shot her afterwards and claimed she’d been killed in a firefight, like they always did with prisoners. “But there’s nothing I could have done...”
She’d made a noise halfway between a sob and a laugh. “Just listen to yourself. You were the innocent, were you? But it worked out for you all right, didn’t it? You got your confession, and the promotion you were angling for.”
I hadn’t said anything. The train’s whistle had moaned, sobbing into the black night.
“I could’ve had a life, you know,” she’d responded with quiet intensity. “But, instead, I’m stuck on this train. I’m not even alive any longer, but I’m stuck on this train. Your train.”
“It’s not of my choice that you’re here. It’s nothing of my doing that any of us are here.”
“Yes...none of your doing. But here we all are. And the longer you live, the longer this train gets, and the longer your load of prisoners. How does it feel, being jailer of a lifetime of people you’ve met? Powerful?”
I hadn’t answered.
“Somewhere,” she’d said, “there must be other trains, mustn’t there? Trains running through the night, just like this one, only there are other jailers, like maybe that man over there, and you’re a prisoner on that train, an unimportant little prisoner. How does that make you feel?”
“Not exactly happy,” I’d told her honestly, and tried to rise. “But since I can’t do anything about it...”
“Wait,” she’d snapped. “But there’s no train which belongs to me, you know. There’s no such train, and there never will be. And you know why.”
I’d turned then, and run back through the swaying carriages, listening to her voice chasing me. “Because you killed me,” she’d shouted. “You killed me before I ever had a life.”
Now I stand on the footplate and stare out at the night, knowing that I can’t ever go back into the train again, but that won’t stop them gathering, back there in the carriages, in their multitudes. I think about the other trains that must be rushing through the night too, where I’m a passenger sitting in a carriage, with nothing to say and nobody to talk to. I think about them and I wish I could give myself a voice, and perhaps then I could speak.
Beside me, my silent companion pulls open the firebox flap and shovels in coal from the tender. With each shovelful of coal the amount in the tender falls, but it’s still far from empty. I wish it would fall to empty, because then the train would stop. But until it does, it will keep getting longer, and filled with more reluctant prisoners. And I, their jailer, am the most complete prisoner of all.
I think about the girl, and how I wish I could set her free. And I know I never can, as long as the train rushes on.
High above, a meteor arches through the darkness, a little train of fiery light, and I watch it until it snuffs itself out.
Another low moan of the whistle, and the train rumbles through the night.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012