The Intercity Express
by Christina Ferrari
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Being confined in such a small space with so many people made Lucia sick. Her head felt it just might explode. The idea was not repugnant; in fact she thought that if a person could, by the force of will, spontaneously combust, this would be the perfect time. She breathed in to make herself as small as possible, to draw her body away from the fleshy thigh pressed so maddeningly up against her, to dissolve into the seat, to be invisible. The train moved forward. This won’t last forever, Lucia thought.
The locomotive hit heavy fog near the town of Monza. The train creaked to a halt for what seemed like an eternity. Trapped in the malodorous box, Lucia felt suffocated. A squealing sound erupted. There was a jolt and then, finally, movement, and the train was off.
Lucia looked past those seated in the cabin and out through the window into the dense fog. She saw a shadow, blacker than black, dart past. She quickly looked at the others, but no one gaped out of the window or turned to their fellows to say, “Did you see that?”
Lucia did not have much chance to ponder this strange occurrence, the Swiss woman resumed her chatter and the Italians argued over who was the rightful owner of the chicken. “I bought it, so it is mine,” said the older-looking man.
“Yes, but you bought it with the money I gave you,” replied the matron in a stentorian voice, her arms crossed rigidly against her chest.
“And who gave you that money in the first place?” the one who had smiled at Lucia asked. Beaten, the other two went quiet. “The chicken is mine,” he looked over to Lucia and winked.
The German lowered his newspaper and glared at the family. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up, all of you!” he yelled.
The matron had been stabbing at the air with her finger in the direction of the man who had smiled, her mouth was open to speak, but now she sat frozen, like a statue who had come to life and expressed great surprise, only to be immediately refrozen.
“None of you will have the chicken. I will throw it out of the window if you all don’t be quiet.”
The stern-faced woman lowered her finger, folded her hands neatly upon her lap and studied the German. The brothers clenched their fists, and sat on the edge of their seats, ready to pounce should he speak again. The teenage boy beamed at the stranger next to him but resisted, just, the urge to reach over and pat him on the back.
The scene hung in the air like a photograph for a moment, until the woman, now fully returned to her senses, reached past the boy at her side and delivered a hard slap to the back of the German’s head.
He wanted to react but, at the sight of the sour expression on her face, he knew he was beaten. He lifted the newspaper and hid behind it once more. The woman huffed: her job was done.
The boy, wishing he could be brave enough to speak to his aunt and uncles like that, surreptitiously flashed an admiring grin in the direction of the German. The brothers were each relieved that it was the stranger on the receiving end of the meaty hand, not them. They unclenched their fists, leaned back into their seats and nodded at each other.
“Even though he is dead, he is never far away.” The Swiss woman resumed her conversation.
“How nice,” Lucia replied weakly but politely, for she lacked the courage of the German. She too cast him an admiring glance which he caught when he sneaked a look at her before zipping back behind the security of his paper fortress.
Lucia felt a pair of eyes needling her. The matron examined the small, bird-like woman whose subversion had been noted. Lucia closed her eyes and begged, Please let this end.
The train slowed down when it reached Como. Houses and apartment buildings stood close to the station. Through a nebulous haze Lucia could see lights flicker on and off like stars being born and dying in the night sky.
Through windows she could see into the illuminated rooms. Ordinary people read, watched television, prepared dinner. Each vignette caused her to experience a deep sense of longing for the feeling of comfort one can only get from being in one’s own home.
A cheery, middle-aged woman wearing a fluffy pink dressing gown stood on a balcony and watered a container of red geraniums, which cascaded over the side. Lucia imagined she could smell the scent, penetrating the iron walls of her prison on wheels. She wanted to change places with the lady in the bathrobe, who would retire to her own bed tonight and fall asleep with her cat licking her chin. Instead Lucia sat in the mechanical beast surrounded by odd people and a chicken.
People in the passageway began to make a racket. Someone picked up their bags and called out over the heads of the others filling the narrow hall, “Hey, Michelino, stop standing around like an idiot. We’re here, get your bag.”
“May I assist you?” an older man said to a young woman who struggled to lift her heavy case.
“Oh, yes, please.” She gratefully accepted his offer then fluttered her eyelashes as his reward. Lucia hoped that a man would be so generous when it was her turn to disembark. Perhaps the smiling man with the chicken would be so kind. She looked over at him, but he was arguing with his brother and paying no attention to Lucia.
She looked over at the German who was pretending to read the sports pages but was really fuming, imagining all the clever things he should have said to the matron and that he would say next time, if only she dared to try it again! He wouldn’t help her. As always, Lucia would be left to manage on her own.
The train didn’t stop as it passed the station. People stood on the platform in groups talking wildly. Lucia saw her aunt standing alone, sobbing. A screaming woman was dragged across the platform by two men in Railway uniforms.
Lucia scoffed aloud, “The train is just late, why all the hysterics?”
A loud ringing sound pierced the air, as the station speaker choked and gagged then came to life. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the stationmaster announced. “Intercity 590 from Milan...” There was a pause as the speaker screeched again.
The people standing on the platform went silent. The lady stopped screaming. and Lucia’s aunt looked up at the metal apparatus as though it were a flesh and blood man talking to her personally. The train kept moving, slowly. Lucia stood up. “I want to get off,” she shouted.
“Sit down and be quiet,” the German growled as he emerged from behind his newspaper. “Let me hear what he has to say.”
With a sullen face Lucia flopped back onto seat.
“There appear to be no survivors.”
A woman ran towards the edge of the platform as if she was going to jump off, but she tripped over a piece of luggage and lay prostrate on the ground.
Lucia watched as her aunt stood with her head hanging low. The train continued moving, the platform became nothing more than a murky blur in the foggy night.
“What does this mean?” The Swiss woman stood and grabbed Lucia by the shoulders. “Was there an accident? When was that? When we stopped in the fog, but he is mistaken, we didn’t have any accident.” Her vicious grip began to hurt.
Lucia pushed her away, and the woman stumbled backwards and fell onto the seat. She stared at Lucia open-mouthed but didn’t try to stand up again. The Italian family resumed arguing. The German jumped up, stepped haphazardly over the bags, tripped and fell with a thump into the door. He huffed as he tried to pull the door open but it was stuck. “Conductor, conductor!” he yelled as he banged his fists against the glass. People who stood outside the cabin pounded on the same door wanting to get in, but it remained steadfast.
No one quite understood what was going on. The chicken had gone quiet. The brothers jumped up and examined the fowl. She was dead.
“How did that happen?” Lucia screamed. No one could answer. The teenage boy had sat quietly through this tumult; now he opened his mouth to speak. “She was injured.” They all turned to look at him. “When we crashed into the other train.”
At that instant the travelers noticed what they hadn’t noticed before, there was a gash on the bird’s head from which blood trickled down and dirtied her soft, white feathers. The German pounded the door more ferociously, but it wouldn’t open.
Lucia grabbed chunks of her hair and let out a deep, guttural scream. This journey, it had become clear, was never going to end.
Copyright © 2014 by Christina Ferrari