The Intercity Express
by Christina Ferrari
part 1 of 2
“Sitting at a desk in your apartment all day is not healthy, especially for a woman of your...” The doctor stopped speaking when Lucia gave him a sharp look.
“Of what?” Lucia squinted and allowed what she called a tone to enter her voice.
The doctor’s hands crept into his pockets; he looked up at the ceiling then down at the floor. Finally, he pinched his chin with his right hand and said, “A woman who is at a chronological disadvantage.”
Lucia shrugged her shoulders. “How else can I do my job?”
“True,” the doctor said as he sat down. “Being a proofreader is an unavoidably sedentary profession, but you must make an effort to get out, visit your friends and family, walk around the city, fill your lungs with smoggy air and know what it is to be alive.”
Lucia pulled her black cardigan up over her shoulders, fiddled with the buttons and made a deliberate effort to disguise the regret in her voice. “I don’t have any friends; I’ve never been very good with people.”
The doctor shuffled some papers on his desk: “Your records show that you have an aunt still living.”
“Not here; she’s in Como.”
“Perfect! You must visit her, at once. Get out of the city. I insist. What you need is fresh air, lots of it, and exercise.” He looked up at the frail woman before him and added, “In moderation of course.”
Lucia was not convinced. She raised her right hand and rubbed the back of her neck to subdue the dull ache that was always there. “I have to work.”
“Not if I can help it.” The doctor picked up a pen and wrote with a cheeky smirk on his face while reading aloud, “My patient, Lucia Augello, is unwell and will be unfit to work for the next week.” He smiled as he folded the note, “My secretary will post it today.”
Lucia slowly eased herself off the examining table. When her head began to spin, she placed both palms on the table, leaned forward and waited for the dizziness to pass.
A fleeting look of concern passed over the doctor’s face. He picked up the letter, stuffed it into an envelope and said, “Your course of treatment begins with a visit to Lake Como. You must not — and I expect you to follow this advice in the interests of your immediate well-being — at any time over the next week, read anything other than the train timetable. And even then you must refrain from looking for a comma or apostrophe that is out of place.”
“Asking a proofreader not to read is like telling a chicken not to peck; the natural impulses cannot be stopped.”
“You are not a fowl, and reading is a luxury, not an impulse.” He took off his elegant gold rimmed glasses with both hands and carefully placed them on the desk. “This is not just a matter of tired eyes, blurred vision and a sore neck, Lucia. Your life of solitude, it’s not a life at all, is it? You need, in simple words, to get a life.”
The use of such banal clichés normally sent Lucia into a tailspin, but the overused phrase spoken by someone as elegant and articulate as the refined man before her made Lucia chuckle.
He smiled and stood up. “How long has it been since you laughed?”
“Aha,” he said, stabbing his finger upwards into the air like a scientist who had just made an important discovery, “just as I thought!”
“Thank you, doctor.” Lucia picked up her purse and left the room.
The doctor leaned back in his chair, picked up his glasses, carefully set them into place, then called after her, “No reading!”
The next afternoon Lucia boarded the intercity train. She would follow his instructions in an attempt to recover her health and maybe get... a life. The joys of train travel were lost on Lucia. Where others marveled at the invention that would carry them about, she saw a lugubrious monster. The people on the platform reminded her of ants, scurrying up over the steps into its round belly one after the other.
When Lucia reached her assigned compartment, she struggled to slide open a heavy glass door. Inside were two benches positioned to face each other, each covered in worn, fetid-smelling upholstery.
Lucia considered sitting by the window to enjoy the snippets of green countryside which whipped by as the train passed. This eliminated the awkward position she often found herself in when she sat away from the window. When she sat next to the door, she would have to gaze past other passengers to look out, and what irritated her most was the predictable reaction from the other passengers, mundane people who always think they are being looked at.
When Lucia would attempt to snatch a glance at the world hurtling past, those who sat by the window would feel her gaze, turn around and glare. Lucia’s face always began to color with annoyance and embarrassment. She would then continue to look towards the window in defiance, as if to say, “No, I’m not looking at you, I’m merely taking in the view, I am oblivious to your presence, I won’t even look at you after you turn your eyes away.”
When they would give up and turn away, satisfied that they were not the object of her curiosity, Lucia’s eyes would dart over and subject them to surreptitious scrutiny, a suitable punishment for making her feel so uncomfortable.
Occasionally the passengers would spin back to look at Lucia, as if to catch her. At these moments — when her eyes locked with theirs — smug faces shone with triumph. She would imagine them thinking: “Yes, I knew you were really looking at me, pretending to admire the view! Well you have been caught!” Lucia would look down at her shoes and wish she were somewhere else. It was always an uncomfortable situation for all involved.
Lucia looked longingly at the small, grimy window but resolved to sit by the door. It was easier to make a quick exit when she arrived, but most importantly her proximity to the exit meant she could jump up and move out of the carriage if other passengers began to intrude upon her solitude.
The salmon-colored fabric on the benches was dull and there were stains of unknown origin which made her stomach churn. Lucia removed a white linen handkerchief from her purse and wiped down the seat. She spread it out, stretching the linen in an effort to make the square as big as possible, then carefully lowered herself onto the only clean piece of material in the carriage. She sat alone and relished the thought of a solitary journey.
The door slammed open and made a loud thud; a woman came in and sat down. Lucia put her head down, rummaged through her purse and retrieved a book — against doctor’s orders — and pretended to be unaware of the unwelcome addition.
The interloper introduced herself anyway: a Swiss citizen, she had married an Italian and lived in Milan. She was on her way home to Switzerland for a visit with family and needed no encouragement to begin a one-sided conversation.
Just shut up, Lucia thought to herself as the woman opened her purse to drag out pictures of her grandchildren. It was almost a relief when a family of rowdy Italians boarded. An ample-bottomed matron sat down beside Lucia. Two old men sat on the bench opposite and a teenager sat dutifully beside the older woman.
They carried luggage, lots of it, jamming the overstuffed bags into every available space: the overheads, the floor, under the seat. They even had a cat box that contained a chicken.
Lucia winced: She had stumbled into a previously undiscovered level of hell.
The man who carried the chicken looked at her and smiled kindly as he placed the chicken safely on the floor between his feet. Lucia was a woman who was seldom smiled at, she liked it that way. She reassured herself that she would survive this journey.
The door once again rattled open and a large man entered, turning sideways to squeeze into the cabin. He huffed when he saw the crowd and the chicken but did not leave. He stepped over the baggage as the family scrambled to move out of his way, doffed his hat and said “Danke.” He stood with his back to the bench then plunked himself down. The vibration rattled the entire carriage, and the chicken’s box shook, causing the bird to squawk.
The train left the station and headed out through the industrial area, past the grimy apartments that backed onto the train line and out into the open fields. The Swiss woman became increasingly garrulous. Her husband had died years earlier, now she embodied the willingness of the lonely to engage complete strangers in conversation.
The family babbled amongst themselves, their voices a cacophony, hands waved about energetically as they spoke. The German opened a newspaper and imagined thick, solid, soundproof walls surrounding him.
Copyright © 2014 by Christina Ferrari