That Train – by Katriona Angel
I dragged myself down the lane, one hand clamped onto a fence. Splinters cut me, every breath stung, but I walked on. My rifle rubbed against my shoulder, its bayonet pointed in sharp defiance upward. I could hardly see for the rain. The message rested in my pocket, heavy with the weight of responsibility. But I walked on.
Black shapes swooped and tumbled across my exhausted vision. I kept rubbing my eyes. Rain splashed into my skull, soothing my hair. The only thing that I could wash myself with now was rain. I held my arms open, the sudden onslaught of the downpour a glorious series of sensations against my skin. I opened my mouth to let the water trickle down my throat. It was bitter, strangely bitter…
I lost all knowledge of where the ground was and put my arms out to steady myself- already I was staggering, falling…
I hit the ground. I lay there, panting, feeling the world pitch and dive around me…
‘Don’t go, Daddy!’ My son, so beautiful with his inelegant smile, reached down and cuddled my head as I carried him on my shoulders through the train station…
‘I’ll be back soon, James.’ I reached up and lifted him back down. The smell of concrete and the noise of crowds ate into the space between us.
He pouted until my wife pulled him back.
Our eyes met. Hers were dry, but I could see the tears there, waiting to emerge when she was alone. I lowered my voice to whisper when she took one tight embrace.
‘You’re strong. Look after him. Stay alive.’ I had wondered if this would push me to tears, but I suffered a dry grief. ‘I’ll send you every bit of money and food that I can.’
I turned to the train. It lay silently in wait, deaf to the hubbub around it, an inescapable black shadow. The other men didn’t seem to see it, didn’t falter in their steps. They just went through the motions.
There was no derailing it now, I thought. No going back once we were in motion.
I had the wild, cowardly idea of throwing myself from this train. If I didn’t, it would just follow its tracks and take us to our destruction…
There was no rain on my skin when I opened my eyes. I lay under a large tree, not as cold as I had been, but not warm, either. The crisp air tasted of the falling evening.
‘You’re awake.’ The voice sounded displeased. A man sat by me, frowning deeply. ‘I thought you were dead.’ I tried to sat up, even as my muscles screamed in indignation.
Can’t you help me?’ I growled, gritting my teeth. He blinked, did nothing. ‘I’m on urgent business.’ The man smiled a stiff, dry smile.
‘No. I can’t help. I won’t.’ He stood, brushed dust from his ill-fitting coat. ‘Not unless you promise me.’ I glared up at him. How long was this going to take?
‘I want you to desert the army.’
The man just watched. I held up my sleeve, gesturing to my uniform. ‘D’you think I’m wearing this for show?’ The man shrugged his shoulders.
‘If I help you, and you kill someone else, I’ve aided in murder.’
I flinched. The face of the young enemy soldier I had injured (no, murdered) swam into my mind.
‘…You’re a conchie,’ I said. ‘An objector.’ I put my hand out, unsure what I was trying to hold onto, but then remembered the official stance on objectors. I looked down. ‘You should be in prison.’
His face twisted. ‘They’ll have to catch me first.’
I stood up, anchoring myself against the tree. ‘Coward. I’m doing this to protect my family, my country, everything I love.’
‘When I saw you in the lane, it didn’t look like you had anyone to protect. You’re all alone.’
‘I’m doing this to protect my family. It’s necessary, entirely necessary, to stand up to evil like this. Then my son will know how to live, who to look up to and my wife can…remember me with pride. You think I don’t want to see them? You think I don’t want to go running back to them? I do! I do, but I can’t. I just have to follow the path, and everything will work out. It will.’ I clenched my fists. ‘It will.’
I looked down. I thought of the conscription notice I had held that last day my fate was in my own hands.
A sob had risen in my throat. I stifled it, ducked my head.
The man stared at me for a long, long time. Then he smiled and turned back his lapel. An army insignia was hidden under the folds of his coat. I flinched back, winded. ‘Well done.’ He stood and assumed a military posture- standing tall, hands folded behind his back. ‘Rumours were your unit was having doubts. I can take the story of today and your moving speech to motivate the others. First class, soldier.’‘But…wait, I-’
He held up the telegram and smiled again. ‘Excellent delivery. After you check in at the field hospital nearby, you’re catching the train back to your unit.’
The train. Always that train.
He clamped a hand on my shoulder, steering me with irrestible force down the lane. I kept my eyes on my boots.
‘Can you promise me my family will live?’
The general looked at me, bewildered. Then his features settled themselves. He opened his mouth, said nothing.
‘Promise me.’ I clasped his arm, twisted. ‘Promise me.’
His mouth twisted over the words. Instead he said, ‘You need a checkup, soldier.’
I thought of the train, doomed to follow its tracks. Its black shadow was hovering in my head every time I shut my eyes.
No. I was that train.
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