by Robert Bagnall
The points may have roused him, but it was the jolt as the train came to a halt that shook him awake. He found himself staring at the smeared reflection of an overhead light in the carriage window, filament quivering, the black of night acting like the silvering of a mirror.
He felt his forehead, expecting blood, but his fingers came away clean. His head had been banging against the glass as the train beat out a rhythm. How long had he been asleep?
From the seat opposite, a child stared up at him. They were the only two in the compartment. Eight, perhaps ten years old. Was it a boy or a girl? With that mop of pre-Raphaelite hair, it was hard to tell. What was in those eyes? Hope?
He knew the child had something to do with him but struggled to place what. He wasn’t its father, he knew that or, at least, believed he would know if it had been the case. Had he been asked to look after it? Who by? Its mother? A stranger? For how long? For the duration of the journey, or was she about to return to the compartment having briefly excused herself?
The thought that he could simply ask the child was followed, like a dog after a rat, by a sudden reluctance to do so. He had to appear in control, be the adult. He smiled, and the child smiled back, uncertain, waiting. It jogged no memory.
Outside, in the corridor, a woman’s voice called something about it ‘being that man again’, and ‘how long this time?’. A compartment door banged shut.
“Wait here,” he said to the child and pulled open the sliding compartment door. But, like an obedient dog, the child insisted on following.
The corridor was little more than shoulder width. To his right, curtains were drawn tight across neighboring compartments. To his left, the windows to the outside world revealed nothing, not even a light on the horizon. Stare as he might, he couldn’t see beyond his own reflection staring back at him. He barely recognized himself.
They must be in a tunnel, he reasoned. That would explain the impenetrable blackness. But even as he thought it, he knew it was not true. Tunnels drew out a dread in him, a claustrophobic tenseness. This was more akin to looking out over a void, as if the train were on a bridge and he were staring into space. But, if so, where was that gut-dropping feeling of agoraphobia?
He had a sudden flashback to arguing about a painting of an empty room: whether it was of a room that had just been vacated, or of one about to be occupied. It had somehow mattered. He couldn’t recall which stance he had taken. Or had it been a scene in a play? In some similar way, this was not void, but not enclosure either. He was looking out onto nothing, but a nothing that was something, not merely absence, void, vacuum.
The child looked up in concern as pain passed over his face.
The train lurched into motion again, wood and metal groaning, stirred from their own slumber. As he made his way down the narrow corridor he had to roll with the growing rattle, rocking as the motion dictated.
Through one carriage, then through another. Laughter within one compartment, a raised voice in its neighbor. He glanced behind him. The child was still with him, a pace behind. It carried a teddy bear he hadn’t noticed before, one button eye missing. It seemed to wink at him.
Thomas, it seemed to say.
Thomas. Yes, he had known that all along, that his own name was Thomas.
But even then, it seemed to fit almost but not quite, like a mechanism put in back to front. It meshed, but not seamlessly.
A steward bustled toward him. They each canted their shoulders to allow the other past. The steward smiled, a flickered smile of recognition, and then was gone to restock towels. Thomas could not recall ever seeing the man before. Perhaps he had misread the expression.
After a third carriage, he emerged into the dining car, a curved island of bar in the middle dividing two clusters of formal tables, all white linen and silver service, cutlery lined up like soldiers, from a green ‘L’ of leather banquette hugging a short line of small circular tables.
Two men at the bar turned to Thomas.
“My friend and I were just discussing whether, if you ate yourself, you would double in weight or reduce to nothing.”
“This is a ridiculous question,” his friend, less drunk, muttered.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t think it’s possible,” Thomas said.
“Of course it’s not possible,” the drunk roared. “But what if it were? What then?”
“But it makes no sense.”
“That’s what I said,” the other complained.
“Maurice here would rather discuss inflation and productivity. Pork belly futures. Manganese.”
The barman wiped the marble and rearranged jiggling spirit bottles against the mirrored wall. At the other end of the carriage a single diner ladled soup toward the gap in his beard, studying the newcomers through round rimless glasses. His wiry black hair was receding. Prematurely aged at thirty or a youthful fifty-something, Thomas wondered.
The child tugged on his coattail again. Thomas turned to the barman. “Could you spare a glass of water?” His eyes darted down and to his side.
With a flick of the fingers, the barman indicated the corner of the banquette, to which he brought over a glass of water and a small plate of cheese, pineapple, and nuts. When Thomas protested that he had no means of payment, the barman waved his concerns away. He muttered thanks and the child picked.
The soberer, sensing an audience more engaged than his drunker companion, began a quiet hectoring about supply and demand, the costs of mining minerals, cyclical investments. His mantra was that exploration should be backed when commodity prices dip and others dare not invest, that was the strategy that brought forth bounty when prices rose.
Thomas tried to follow the logic, his mind clouding. As he did so he played with a toothpick from a tortoiseshell jar on the table. Between the pad of thumb and forefinger, he pressed the points in, as if the sharp pain would blank out the drone on investment strategy.
And then the toothpick was gone. He looked at his fingers. It had simply vanished.
He checked the floor, not remembering releasing his hold. It was nowhere to be seen.
“I saw that,” the drunker said. “I saw an illusionist in Paris once, but nothing like that.”
The stream of economic advice had stopped.
“If you do that again I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Make the toothpick disappear into your fingers.”
The barman had stopped wiping glasses.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
But as he said it, he knew it was an unwitting lie. It was not the first time he had made something disappear with his bare hands. How did he know that?
He took another toothpick, wary now. He placed it between thumb and forefinger, its ends pricking into his skin. He closed his eyes and then slowly drew his fingers together. The toothpick did not enter his flesh; it just disappeared. All he felt was a mild pressure at his temples, as though the shadow of a whisky head from the night before.
“Bravo,” the drunk cried, Maurice craning over, frowning. A frothing glass of golden beer was placed on the countertop for him, the barman leaning in, fascinated.
“How do you do it?”
“I have no idea.” Thomas took a mouthful of beer, realizing how long it had been since he had last drunk.
The barman passed him a small bottle, now emptied of absinthe.
“Not that, give him my bar bill,” the drunker said, roaring at his own joke.
At the table, the single diner, who had by now moved onto fish, stared at the knot at the bar, a waiter at his shoulder, a frozen tableau, captured ladling sauce. At the other end of the carriage the child—boy or girl?—chewed on the last piece of pineapple. The cheese had all gone; the nuts were left untouched.
Thomas pressed the empty bottle between his palms. That dull ache formed in his temples and he pulled his hands apart. The bottle was no longer there.
A cheer erupted around him. He glanced around. His audience of three had doubled, tripled, at least. Where had these people come from? How had word got out?
A pocket watch on a chain was held out to him, an arm craned over the person in front.
“No, I cannot.”
The crowd urged him on.
“Really. I have no idea where the things go. I cannot return them.”
But the crowd just took his words to be the mock-flimflam of the conjuror. The half hunter was pressed toward him.
“No. I cannot. I will not be able to give it back to you.”
A jostle at his shoulder, as if the crowd were a single creature dissatisfied with his response, made him consider. What would make them believe him? He had no idea where the toothpicks and bottle had gone to. But the faces leaning in on him all thought they were up his sleeve or back on the bar top, hiding in plain sight. They all expected him to return them from behind a woman’s ear, rounding off a polished performance with well-rehearsed ad libs.
But none of this was scripted, nothing practiced. It was just something he had, this ability, this gift. This curse.
“Alright,” he shouted, louder than intended, the eagerness of the crowd suddenly muted.
He gathered up the watch and chain within his hands, then pressed them together, feeling the smooth sides of the timepiece, the cold of silver and crystal, melt until he was pressing flesh to flesh. And all the time his head buzzed as though in a vice.
He brought his hands away and a cheer went around the circle. But there was a hint of something else, a note of tiredness, boredom even. The crowd could tell he had no other tricks, that there would be no progression to this act. They were losing interest. A few fell away. He let his eyes close, feeling the headache lingering.
“Excellent, excellent,” a voice said next to him.
“I have no idea how you do it.”
“Neither do I,” he said, reaching for yet another glass of beer that had been put next to him. The foam moved with the train.
He looked up. The chatty man remained unmoved. He wanted something; he could tell.
“You have my pocket watch.”
Thomas took another sip of beer, frowned with confusion.
“As I made plain, I do not know where they go.”
The man half-laughed, uncertain. “It’s a good act, as far as it goes. I’m happy to play along. But it’s over. My watch. Please,” and he held his hand out.
Thomas went back to his beer. “I do not know where it went. I do not know where any of it goes.”
Conversations around them stopped, heads turned. The barman, pleased at the crowd attracted by the magic act, paused mid-brandy pour.
“I tried to tell you. I do not know where any of these objects go.”
“He has my watch,” the man said, addressing everyone and no-one. “The thief has my watch.”
“I do not,” Thomas said, draining the glass. “I do not. And I am not.”
He turned away from the bar, but he was pushed back. A crowd closed around him.
From the banquette, the child watched the scene unfolding, impassive.
“Listen, my friend,” words that meant anything but, “it was a fine performance, but it’s time to return the props.”
There was no use arguing with them. Thomas pushed back, sending the men stumbling. A bar table was upset, a woman left agape at a spillage down her dress. Thomas ran, sending the waiter bringing the solo diner his dessert dancing, scattering food and cutlery. He banged the connecting door open with the palm of his hand, a dogleg into another corridor running the length of the next carriage. Glancing behind, he kept going. He could hear voices, the waiter and mob tangling. He knew he had only bought a few seconds.
He sprinted with the motion of the train, through another door, down another passageway. A woman emerged from a compartment, saw Thomas, ducked back in. He heard a connecting door pushed open behind him, angry voices suddenly unmuffled. As Thomas slammed open the next door, breathing hard, he could tell the woman had emerged from her compartment again, now straight into the path of his pursuers. Behind him profuse apologies were made without stopping; the dogs kept the scent.
Another carriage, this one of sleepers, dockets stuck on windowless doors allocating occupants to accommodation, and then he found himself in the luggage car.
Darkness, mustiness. Packing crates, gnomically stencilled. Stacked luggage, card labels tied to handles with twine. Nets filled with sacks rocking with the motion of the train. Caged chickens clucked, disturbed by the shaft of dim light that had swept over them as Thomas slid open the door.
He pulled at a crate by the door, swinging it so it blocked the way he’d come. Dislodged, another packing box fell, and a stack of suitcases tumbled, blocking his efforts to further reinforce the barricade as much as his pursuers. It made for a pitiful sight. For how long would it hold the mob?
Voices and footsteps, and the door into the luggage car opened a fraction, banging like it was alive as the chasers tried to force an opening. Thomas fell back, further into the gloom, searching for a place to hide, as if that would do anything but delay the inevitable. He wondered about the child, what had become of him. Or her.
Reeling back as the crate gave with each push of the door, Thomas was surprised to find an exit door at the back. He had assumed the luggage car would be the end of the train, but it was not. The door opened onto yet another sleeper car. As he ran down, he could hear voices inside compartments, muffled. Simple domestic conversations, of people whose thoughts were occupied by how they would sleep that night, not whether they would live to see the dawn.
The sleeper car gave way to…
A dining car.
The dining car.
The same dining car.
The same barman, his brow furrowed at the sight of Thomas. The same two inebriates at the bar.
“He asked for ice cream,” the barman said, laying out a chit on the counter. “He said you would pay.”
The child sat impassive in the corner, exactly where Thomas had left him. The nuts remained uneaten.
Thomas didn’t stop, staggering almost. He was tired, dog tired.
“If you ate yourself,” the drunker of the two began.
But Thomas kept going, toward the single diner. It was no longer a bearded, bespectacled man, but a woman with a pinched face and red hair in a green dress, all lace and fringe, dressed as if for the opera. Her costume demanded a large green hat, bedecked with feathers, conspicuous by its absence.
She looked up at him, expectant. He found himself sitting, and not just out of fatigue. As he slumped, her face clouded, as if she had expected him to open the conversation, to carry on from where they had left off.
“Tomasz,” she said, and he realized why the name he had remembered for himself had felt such an ill fit. “Each time, you remember less.”
“I don’t understand. What’s happening? What is this place?”
She laughed coquettishly, from behind her hand, as if he had said something suggestive.
“I wonder, will there come a time you forget your gift? Will you ever get so enmeshed you don’t even think to try?”
“Who are you?”
“You’ve forgotten your little Liesl, so soon?”
He shook his head in confusion.
“Now, we don’t have much time,” she said, suddenly business-like, as the waiter took her soup bowl. She rummaged in her bag and brought out a small cubic wooden box, intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, each side no longer than the length of an index finger.
“It has to disappear.”
“It cannot be found. Anywhere. It will mean our downfall.”
“Our downfall, Tomasz. You have to trust me.”
“I don’t even know you.”
“You’ve known me your entire life.”
“The barman needs paying,” he said, suddenly sure this was the child’s mother. “The youngster asked for ice cream.”
“The box, Tomasz. The box. I cannot hold them off for much longer.”
He hesitated. In frustration, she waved a banknote toward the bar. It was a beautiful box, the product of hundreds of hours of craftsmanship. Why on earth did this woman, this Liesl he had known his whole life but never laid eyes on before, need it to be gone?
“We don’t have much time, Tomasz. I need you to do this.”
He placed a starched white napkin over the box. He had a sudden flashback to a snowdrift in the steppes, throwing snowballs with a flame-haired girl, defiant, proud of her red tresses. Was this his life? He couldn’t get it to fit in with anything, a jigsaw piece slipped in amongst another puzzle.
There was a commotion in the corridor, Liesl’s eyes flicking up: hurry.
Déjà vu, a flashback of a flashback, and he knew with a near-religious conviction this was the woman with whom he argued over the painting of the empty room. But still he had no idea when or where it was or what it meant.
Liesl’s eyes flashed with a promise of anger to come if he disappointed her.
He pressed down on the white linen, feeling as if he were pressing on his own temples. It seemed to matter, matter like nothing else in the world mattered. There was a give, a softening, hard wood giving way to flesh. His eyes closed. His head screamed, he felt his eyeballs pressured, nausea rising, bile in his mouth.
And then the mob was standing over him at the table’s end as he choked and wept, fighting back the urge to retch. Even as his vision swam, he could hear them, feel them.
A hand picked up the napkin, passed it to him to tidy himself up. The place opposite him was empty, no woman with red hair in a green dress. Tomasz was the only one to notice there had been nothing under the napkin.
He looked up at the man who had handed it to him. It was the solo diner in the dining car, the previous dining car—no, this dining car—earlier. He stood impassive, looming down on Tomasz. The others crowded at his shoulders, stilled like an angry pack of dogs by the presence of authority.
Even out of uniform Tomasz did not need to be told what this man was.
“You need to come with me. I need to ask you some questions. But first, there is the matter of a pocket watch on a silver chain.”
“I do not have it.”
“But you had it.”
“They asked me to make it disappear.”
“Where did it go.”
“I do not know. I tried to tell them.”
The knot of people, heads bobbing over the policeman’s shoulder, began to bray, a noise cut short by a terse call for silence. “You better come with me before they tear you apart.”
Tomasz was hustled ahead of the detective as the train started up again with a jolt, the linkages straining audibly as they took up the slack, tons of inert locomotive and rolling stock turning inertia to momentum. When had they stopped? For how long? Tomasz had no recollection.
They exited the dining car, still going against the direction of travel, forever trying to get to the back of the train, until the detective pulled open a door to a vacant compartment. They sat facing each other, the detective studying Tomasz’s face, Tomasz wondering what he saw there.
“You know what it is I’m talking about.”
“A pocket watch with a silver chain.”
“No, not the pocket watch, dammit. Something else, something much more valuable. Irreplaceable.”
“Don’t you people normally start by asking me who I am.”
He smiled, his eyes more than his mouth. “Oh, we know who you are.”
Tomasz’s face clouded. “Maybe you’re wrong.”
The detective considered this for a moment before moving on. “I don’t think so.”
“I don’t know where the watch went.”
And then he was in Tomasz’s face, red, bawling he didn’t care about the pocket watch, that the pocket watch wasn’t his concern, that he could keep the watch for all he cared.
It was over in an instant. The detective sat back, the tempest passed, let the flush retreat from his cheeks, blew on a handkerchief and composed himself. “A box. An inlaid box. I trust I do not need to explain to you who it belongs to, and the power it holds.”
“I’d like a glass of water.”
“A glass of water. Please. It will help me to talk.”
The detective frowned, studying the window. Tomasz knew why: he was assessing whether it could be opened, what Tomasz could break it with, working out whether this was a trap. The detective sniffed. “I’d like to be reasonable, be reasonable with me…”
“I had the box now get me a glass of water I won’t say anything else until you get me a glass of water.”
Silence. Just the tak-ata-kar tak-ata-kar of the train, the gentle rocking back and forth. Tomasz thought of himself on a rocking horse. There was a red-haired girl in the room, her face turned away from him.
“I’ll get you a glass of water,” the detective said, all benevolence. And with that he produced a set of handcuffs, ornate and thick.
• • •
Tomasz had to work fast.
Twisting his wrists, kneeling on the floor between the seats, he wrapped his fingers over the steel between the bracelets. Clenching, tensing, he willed the metal absent, to where he knew not. It felt like a red-hot nail being driven into his skull, but with a sudden release his hands came free, and he flicked the lock on the door.
He spun round, searching for his next step.
Hands placed against the window, broken handcuff chains hanging loose, he willed a hole to be bored in the glass, swiftly realizing he was just acting, making the faces and noises that went along with the pain he felt when deploying his gift, his curse. Without fingers on the other side of the glass, he could strain every sinew in is body for all the good it would do.
The door rattled as the detective tried to open it, rattled again, harder. The lock would only hold for so long. “Open the door, Weiss.”
Tomasz knew his name wasn’t, had never been Weiss. If only he knew what it was.
There was but one thing left for him to do. He screwed himself up in a ball, shut his eyes, pulled his knees up tight, inched his interlocked fingers along his feet until they cupped the toe-end of his shoes.
If you ate yourself, would you weigh twice as much or nothing at all?
He had to try.
Like the toothpick, the pocket watch, the box. He had to do the same to himself. He had to will himself gone.
He pulled at his feet and felt a strange give, a slackening of his arms and, simultaneously, a pressure against his temples through his skull, a swooning nausea, like the onset of a poisoning. He could not open his eyes, feared what would happen if he tried, feared the white lightning that filled his vision would prove real, feared blood was already seeping from his sockets. He felt he would black out at any moment. But he kept pressing, kept gripping, not sure whether he was whimpering or howling.
Keep going. Keep holding on. Keep pressing tight. Tight. Ever tighter.
His mind was in a place it’d never been, molten with pain, quicksilver bursts arcing. He wanted it to stop, he wanted so much for it to stop.
Not even sure he could let go if he wanted to.
He was caught in a storm, a mental cyclone, hanging on, compressing himself ever smaller, pushing, pushing himself somewhere, like he was forcing himself, his very being, into an impossibly small space, through an improbably narrow opening, until he could feel his hands coming up to meet his face, his hands racing ahead chasing his flesh away, until his fingers met, meshed, pushed each other before them. Until…
• • •
The points may have roused him, but it was the jolt as the train came to a halt that shook him awake. He found himself staring at the smeared reflection of the overhead light in the carriage window, filament quivering, the black of night acting like the silvering of a mirror.
On the seat next to him were two toothpicks, a glass bottle that had once held absinthe and a silver half hunter.
He felt his forehead, expecting blood, but his fingers came away clean. His head had been banging against the glass as the train beat out a rhythm. How long had he been asleep?
From the seat opposite a pair of children stared up at him. Eight, perhaps ten years old. Twins? Were they boys or girls? One of each? With those mops of hair, like something out of a pre-Raphaelite portrait, it was hard to tell. What was in those eyes? Hope?
Copyright © 2022 by Robert Bagnall