They sit side by side on the train. To anyone else, they may as well be strangers. He feels her warmth pressing against him and is comforted. He scratches his beard, a sign of nervousness. They should talk, really, but what is left to say? All the accusations, hatred, pain has been vocalised already. Now, only the vacuum of silence remains.
As the train clatters over a bridge, he remembers a time when they had stood on a bridge in Amsterdam. It’s only a picture of her in his brain. She was wearing cargo pants and had a rucksack on her back. She was watching a boat with tourists chug along under her. She laughed. And he remembers how her skin glowed golden in the setting sun. He remembers her in snapshots. In sketches he has made of her. He has thousands of them, doodles, paintings of her form, her shape, her moods. Looking down at the notebook he’s carrying now, she’s there too. An old doodle of her, belly swollen. There’s a series of them, in various degrees of swell. He winces. How could he have picked this sketchbook to accompany him on this journey? Was it deliberate? He quickly turns the page.
He wants to hold her hand, feel the length of each finger and press her nails against his skin. But she doesn’t exist for him anymore. She may be there physically, but she was gone that day. He felt her slip out of his reach, like sand, and disappear. He let her go, he wishes he hadn’t. He should have fought harder. But he’s a mild person. He paints and writes. Sketching is a compulsion, an obsession. His fingers are never still. Look, he’s made an image on the table, with the coffee he accidentally sloshed over when he sat down. It’s a bird taking flight. He shakes his head in exasperation and smiles. He cannot help it.
He rewinds his images to that sunny day in Paris, when she sat in front of the Kiss, meditated before it. That’s us, she finally said. It’s meant to be us. And she kissed him. An Italian tourist was standing next to them. He clapped his hands and shouted bellisimi. They laughed and the image of her teeth, white and sparkling and fresh got ingrained in his mind.
Outside the world is bleak. Drops of rain blur out the scenery. A Payne’s grey sky. A weak wash of burnt umber and Hooker’s green complete the hurried landscape. He looks down at the coffee bird and wipes it off. It should not be captive in this stuffy train, breathless in this vacuum of silence.
She is aware of his presence. She can read through his beard scratching, finger doodling discomfort. She chooses to blot it out, look upon him as a stranger irritating her on the train. Her thoughts do not linger on him for too long. There was a time when all she was consumed by him. He is not worth that luxury anymore.
She stares out of the window, comforted by the blandness of the view. It gives her a chance to think. But all she thinks about is that day. Again and again, it plays in a loop, till she is so exhausted it doesn’t register anymore. The fluorescent lights that blinded her that night. The pain that stretched her body so far that she felt herself tear apart. She knew that she was in this alone. Alone. He was away, unreachable.
She remembered each agonising push. Because she knew at the end there’d be no reward. She was expelling waste. And she pushed and pushed till her heart ripped. She was allowed to hold her baby. A beautiful little girl. Soft downy skin. Eyes screwed shut. So tiny. So fragile. She swore she felt a breath. But the cheek was cold. They took her baby away from her aching arms. And then she was alone. Alone in a ward with mewling babies around her. Fussing mothers. And she was supposed to heal?
She thinks of a newspaper article she had read somewhere. It was about a certain breed of mountain sheep in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan? She doesn’t remember where. But when these sheep are pregnant, their unborn babies are ripped out of the womb and killed. The soft soft skin of these premature lambs are worth millions. It’s a huge trade and fashion houses hunger for them. Persian Lambs, they are called.
She thinks of her baby. If only she could preserve her. Make an undergarment of her soft skin and wear it close to her breast. Always hugging it to her skin. Does she make sense? She only wants the reassuring touch of her baby’s skin, preserved. With her, forever. Maybe she is mad.
She cannot share these thoughts with him. She cannot bear to look into his doe eyes and feel his pain. He wasn’t there, so why is he trying to share her pain? Trying to take away from her what is wholly hers to experience.
Outside the world is bleak. Drops of rain blur out the scenery. She huddles in her corner, her breath condensing on the glass. From the corner of her eye she watches. He wipes the spilt coffee off the table with his hand. His once comforting familiar hands. She sighs and turns away and watches a drop of water trickle down the length of the windowpane.
[First published by The View From Here, 2012]
Susmita Bhattacharya was born in Mumbai. She teaches creative writing at Winchester University and is the lead facilitator of the Mayflower Young Writers project in Southampton. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian), was published in 2015. Her short story collection, Table Manners, was published by Dahlia Publishing in September 2018. @Susmitatweets | susmita-bhattacharya.blogspot.co.uk.