TRAVELLERS

by Ken Jones
His identity
dangling
from a rack

Only half an hour to the frontier. Small towns fly past, held for seconds then gone forever. Empty platforms brightly lit, the name boards plastered with snow.
 
Our compartment is yanked open. Cold and menace flood in. Black leather greatcoats, with snow on the shoulder straps. And our eyes drawn to the pistol holsters. Their faces are impassive; emotionally correct beneath their peaked caps. Finally they salute, and wish us bon voyage. The train clanks across the high girder bridge. A different flag, a different sense of humour, and a different kind of toilet paper. The officials here are raffish and dangerously unpredictable. They squint at my unfamiliar passport, and, worse still, they squint at me. I hold my breath.

Frontier Guard
the merciful click
of his self-inking stamp

General relief; the journey now begins in earnest.
 
Time out of life. We have each paid to spend seven hours (and 600 kilometres) in the company of strangers. I take stock of my fellow travellers.

Cradling his arms
he stares intently
at the speeding darkness
Settling her stuffed gorilla
she teeters
               on the edge
Deep into the bag
he abandons the search
for the last cherry tomato

Rocked and soothed by the clickety-click we each kill our time in our own way. Whether in the pools of subdued light or the patches of darkness, we manage to be somewhere else, in dreams, novels, reverie.
 
Outside the compartment, tobacco, spirits and scent, the delicate blend varies, with a whiff of urine at the end of each corridor. The coaches are joined by those concertina leather walk-throughs, with their shifting foot plates. A howling moment of exhilaration between each coach.
 
At the end of the last corridor I find a sign.


A large i
hangs in the air
awaiting the question

The card is suspended next to a compartment in which The Controller is snoring away. A wise old man carrying a fat book under his arm. His loose-leaf timetables for half of Europe contain several lifetimes' imaginative travel. What might a voyager discover, without even having to leave home ?
 
Now the train slows and squeals to a halt. Ignoring the warning in four languages I open the corridor window. Faint smell of snow and diesel. To left and right, the steel carriages lie curved along an embankment, shining in the moonlight. The orange locomotive is muttering something quietly to itself. A white world of birch woods and little fields.
 
In the soft light somebody has sidled up. A woman with greying hair and a well-lived, intelligent face. She produces a little tin box, taps it with a varnished finger nail, and takes out two of those brown, loosely packed cigarettes they have here. She smells faintly of nicotine and musk. We stare out together, and then, silently, she smiles and sights her eye along a slender yellow-stained finger:

Alone
in his frosty field
the white stallion

She and I have no common language to bring us together other than this moment - the moon, the horse, and a tinkling stream below. She kisses her hand, rests it briefly on my lapel, and slips away.

In the stream
the fallen moon
broken shards of light

Next morning, in the bustle of the terminus, I catch a glimpse of her again. And of the handcuffs, as she is led away.

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