A moving tale of an old man who thinks he may be on a train…
Dedicated to my friend, Raja, whose name I took for this character ( though there is little similarity save that they are both Srilankan). I sent him this story to read. He died before I found out if he’d read it. I think he would have liked it. He was a wise old man who loved art, music and culture.
I sometimes describe my style as ‘The Twilight zone with heart’. This is a good example of that concept.
And so was the Monkey
“How could my mouth be a tunnel for trains, if my nose was a chimney pot – a chimney pot in the middle of my face?” Little Raja’s mother had not only said that his nose was a chimney, but that he had roof tiles on his head and that his feet were the foundations on which he was built and that his eyes were windows, each ear was a letterbox for all the messages of the world, his heart was a fire to keep the house warm and he was the house; although his mouth was sometimes a train tunnel at meal times and the spoon was the train – a big steam train with huge metal wheels she said…’Chug, chug, chug,’ she also said that it could be a flute and if he was careful, he could charm birds with it and make the elephants laugh.
Raja is a Sinhalese word and Sinhalese was the language of her and of him and of many in Sri Lanka. Raja is Sinhalese for ‘king’ and she told him he was king of his house.
When thoughts of her came to him, he could smell her hair, and feel the softness of her fingers on his face and hear her voice and see her smile and he could smell Sri Lanka again – the tea growing in the plantations, the sea breeze…and he also could see the mountains and the temples….
“Is…oh…ah,” said the old man that Raja had since become. He was pleased with this statement. Although it made no sense outside of his head, inside, it was a deduction and deductions were things he had long since forgotten how to make; and this deduction: it meant, ‘so, it seems I am on a train’ and it had been the train that made him think of her – his train tunnel mouth waiting for her delicate hands to feed him…
This thing he found himself in now, so many years later: it had windows, and it was moving…How he had got there he had no idea, but for him to have any idea…well, it was a miracle and if he could remember ten minutes ago as well as he remembered seventy years, he would know why he was on a train; and how he got there…and where he was going…
And it had to be a train because there were other people on it – either reading or looking lost, or found, but all in their own world as people often are on trains. He remembered that – remembered it from years ago.
As a boy, he had travelled from Sri Lanka to Great Britain with his father. There were cars and buses; and trains and boats…he remembered all that, and he wished that he did not. He always wished that he did not, until he could no longer make wishes.
He could cope with his ‘house’ becoming old – when the roof tiles started to fall leaving him bald, when the windows misted up and he had to wears glasses…It was the monkey that was the problem.
Outside, fields rolled past – fields and hills and trees. There were very few buildings. Everything seemed very bright. He wasn’t used to such brightness.
“Aren’t you…?” he said, and then he was overcome with an instant sense of wonder: He was arranging words…into what was very nearly a sentence. Where was the monkey?
The monkey came to his house he knew not how long ago. They called it ‘dementia’ and he called it ‘the monkey’. They said he was in ‘the early stages of dementia’ and he said, a baby monkey had moved into his nice house.
When, several seconds ago, he had said, “Aren’t you…?” he had said it because he had seen a woman standing in a field who he had thought to be not in a field, but sitting next to him on the train and so he looked at the seat where he thought her to be and found it to be empty. She wasn’t there. The monkey was though – he thought: the monkey must have made him see her in one place or the other or both…
It was okay for the house to be falling down around him. If the porch light flickered or the television stopped working, you could always meditate or make up stories or do crosswords – nothing too strenuous for feet that wanted no longer to be foundations, nor for a heart whose fire was now but small embers. He could cope with the house falling down around him yes, but when the monkey came to the house, it stole things – snatched thoughts – took memories…
“And again!” he said, and two things again played on him: firstly that he had managed to speak again. It was easy, as though the monkey – who now never let him be – was forgetting his job of snatching everything from him. He had snatched everything from Raja but his memories of long, long ago, and he-who his mother had once said was the king of his house – had seemed not like the king any more, for his letterboxes were sealed by the monkey, and it had broken his flute. Nothing got in or out….
Secondly, he had seen another person from the train in another field – a girl. The train was long past the girl now, but he could still see her in his mind. He remembered her. She was smiling, walking to a friend he thought – from the excited manner with which they walked to one another…. So, the monkey was letting him remember but also making him see things? Some improvement was better than none, he thought; and he was pleased too that he had such a thought, for his mind had been free of such things as thoughts for the longest time. But…she had also been on the train. She had been wearing red trousers and he had thought how bright they were…but she was not on the train now? Yet it had not stopped, nor even slowed for someone to jump without breaking all their bones!
The monkey often planted things in him. Hardest for him was when it told him how to feel – to feel empty or sad, or confused. You can live in a derelict house if you can still count your blessings, but when you cannot count nor choose what you will think…He would have hated the monkey…but he had forgotten what a monkey was. Only others knew he had dementia by that time. He had come to know very little at all.
If it wasn’t a train, then why are all these people sitting around, looking out of the windows, reading…it had windows – not just holes in the walls – because if there was no glass, then the wind would be blowing very badly…another deduction, another thought process….another….
The man who he could now see, running up a very steep hill toward a small dog – which was running down the hill with his tail wagging toward the man, had also been sitting in the same train carriage. He remembered the man’s chin. It was a small chin that looked almost like it was just a slope from his big bottom lip to the base of his neck…and now he could see this chin, on this man hundreds of feet away through his old misted window eyes, while travelling at speed on a train! This man too should be on the train….but there was no dog – never a dog with him on the train!
Raja himself once had a dog, in Sri Lanka. It barked at him with its tail wagging so much as he left with his father. Neither he nor the dog knew then that he was never coming back, that the journey to Great Britain was happening.
“Your mother will meet us later,” His father said. He was angry. Raja learned that he should not ask about mother. “You’re lucky I am taking you with me!” He would say. This became, “You are lucky I brought you with me – shut your mouth, ungrateful bastard!” and slowly something inside little Raja made him stop asking.
Now, Raja, inspired by his new found ability to think again, decided he would make a careful note of everyone on the train. Either the monkey was playing games, or he was remembering properly, and if he was remembering properly then…then people were disappearing off the train and re appearing in the landscape…in an instant….”Oh dear…”No, he was going to do what he had decided to do….
‘Ydijnika’. This is what his mother called him when he was determined. It is Sinhalese for ‘furious elephant’ and sometimes little Raja would be very wilful…
So, he stood and holding very tight on anything he could so as not to fall, he walked the train and he began memorising everyone on the train. There was the man with the black beard and waistcoat…. “it is yellow as mustard,” there was the girl with hair like a spaniel, there was the fat man, the short woman with the glasses and the knitting in, “a hat like a sleeping cat…”and the more he walked through the carriages the more he remembered – the more faces and sizes and shapes…. Sometimes they would suddenly vanish and he would look out of the windows and there they would be, wandering around looking lost, or found, or meeting somebody…The girl with spaniel hair simply laid on her back in the grass and looked up at the sky, the fat man picked handfuls of flowers and through them into the air; a raggedy looking old man ran faster than old men could surely run – to a cottage where he was met by an old lady. Raja could just make out their embrace as the train sped away from them….
“Perhaps the monkey is bored with leaving me empty…perhaps he prefers that I go mad…” Raja began doubting himself, his furious elephant’s bottom landed back on the seat and he covered his face with his hands…. “Better to have no thoughts, than these,” he said. But he was having thoughts – he was having strange thoughts and he was having lost yet familiar memories.
He remembered delivering papers in east London – his breath a mist that flew past him as his cycled and his feet only just reaching the peddles; he remembered the young and beautiful face of his wife, the face of his wife the woman, then the lined and worried face of his wife older, standing by his bedside just days ago, looking at sad old Raja who somehow didn’t seem to be looking back….
He now looked through his fingers at this ‘train’ and asked himself if he was not still in that bed – the house now crumbling, ready for demolition, monkey rampaging through, snatching one thing and planting another, then another….
Almost everyone seemed to be reading….reading, or staring out of the windows, looking lost…or found….
“You can’t disembark until you have read the book sir.”
“The book sir?” Was this man – a ticket inspector, a railway guard? He looked like…well, anybody – no uniform to speak of…he had, Raja supposed, a smile he could trust. What was the monkey doing to him? Should he just sit still, just…wait for all this to pass? Raja could still not remember how he ‘got on the train’, still had no idea why, or where it was going. Perhaps there were people looking for him…
He slumped back in his seat and his eyes fell upon the young lady sitting opposite him. She was very pretty, with such kind eyes, yet sad they were as if some great weight had fallen upon her. She too was reading….next to her was a man in a suit. He had shaved his head so that his baldness was less obvious, Raja thought. Raja liked the man’s tie, it was silk and bright red with splashes of a blue so vivid…it reminded Raja of a peacocks, tail. The man was reading too. What was that book? The girl with the kind eyes was reading it too….
”Are you all reading the same book?”
She smiled, nodded and pointed to Raja’s lap. There was a book upon it – one that had not been there before and this would have given him great cause for concern – he would have started to blame that monkey again – to suspect even more that he was being played with by that hairy little creature, had he not been distracted, had the man opposite him not vanished, had he not reappeared outside, on a bicycle, with a woman cycling by his side. They were laughing. Laughing!
Raja showed his face to the girl opposite – he wanted her to see it. Wanted someone to connect with him, even if it was an imaginary girl with imagined kind eyes…just someone to show his astonished face to…and she smiled, almost laughed at him, but, as it was kindly, and subdued it did the urge he had begun to feel, to jump up and shout out, ‘what is going on?’ he made do with fiddling with his cuffs and shuffling in his seat.
She pointed again at the book.
“Oh well,” Raja said and he picked the book up and began to read.
The girl with the kind eyes, she was a slower reader than Raja. Perhaps she was in less of a fluster. Perhaps she was not being pursued by monkeys and had never perhaps been a ‘furious elephant’ kind of person, but Raja, he read and he read and he read, and then he vanished.
It was only seconds, before the girl with the kind eyes finished her book and as she lifted her head and became aware that the old dark skinned man opposite her had gone, so she looked to the window and she laughed, for in the distance she saw the old man in a field, with his nose in the air and his arms outstretched as if he wanted to give the entire world a hug, for his nose was filled with the scent of tea and of palms and the girl with the kind eyes began to cry as she laughed and as she had caught sight of a lady, a dark skinned young lady wrapped in a blue and turquoise Sari. She was running to the old man, who as he approached her, began to smell the scent of his mother’s hair, then it was the softness of her fingers upon his face that he felt, and though the train was now far from the scene, the girl with the kind eyes, saw through her tears, what could almost have been an Indian temple…she almost thought she saw elephants…and peacocks….
The girl with the kind eyes, then closed her book, placed it on the seat next to her, and she vanished.
And the book? The book was called, “a guide for the newly deceased’.
Raja, he was dead, and so was the monkey.