This is a short story I wrote for use in my Higher School Certificate recently. Despite being something I had to write, I connected with it, and it really suited my writing style.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as well
The 7:31 flashed past, leaving behind it a thick trail of dark, acrid smoke that curls down my throat, choking me. She sat quietly, bucolic, undisturbed by the wicked cloud, unaffected by the piercing screech of iron biting iron as the wheels rumbled along; the scream which echoed in my ears. She was unruffled, well seasoned. This was what she knew.
There she sat, in late spring, 1921, in the early, rising darkness, just as she had many times before. I’d seen her most nights those last two weeks, every time I went down. For some reason she fascinated me. Just as she watched the trains, I secretly watched her scene. Watched the trains go rattling through, the people inside; talking, reading, laughing, sleeping. Watched as the stoker, coated in grime, moist with his sweat, and the dirt and dusk baked, stand straight from his task. A nod passes back and forth. The cracked, rough finger of a blackened hand reaches up, tips his worn, sweaty cap. And his great metal beast charged onward, swallowed in night. Every night. It was a nod of acceptance. It said “this is who we are, the way things go”, nothing more. It didn’t need to.
And as that train streaks onward, the windows rattling in the now brisk evening air, she would stand. The watcher walks away from the station. The trains haven’t stopped here in years, our town had only a loading station during the war. She has a slow walk, and a fragile gait, yet careful not pained. It isn’t the hobble of the elderly, cursing their body, their life, their past, their injuries and luxuries. No, this was a way for her to revel in the serenity of night. To know how small she really is, know the majesty of the universe. A walk of stasis; what she sees is there for anyone to see. But only the watcher looks, only she marvels at the brevity, and yet the infinity.
Each night she would stop, rest, and gaze over the garden of one of the houses. Always the same one. I wonder if she knew who lived there. I guess it doesn’t matter. I always wondered why that garden. It wasn’t bright or colourful, large or exotic, cultured or well-kept. No dazzling arrays of petunias, daffodils. Merely…simple, natural. The paragon of the humble garden. Have you heard them say you must stop to smell the roses? Just from watching I learnt that you don’t have to smell the roses. Smell the soil, the grass, whatever is there to smell. See things for what they are. She saw things as truth would; his pearlesque, lucid eyes drinking in twilight.
I knew she hadn’t much time left, not the time that I had, or those with still more. This saddened me, but I came to see things as she did. The passage of time, the way of nature, was an admirable thing. I found her docile existence ..inspiring. There seemed to be an air that she radiated, the affable air of simple, heartfelt kindness. I imagine an ambient acceptance, an aura, a wash of warmth, unseen but certainly felt. Does anyone else feels this?
I never saw her home. I can picture it clearly though. Simple, with dim lighting, brown carpet and lino. Perhaps a small upper level flat. A corduroy armchair, a small panel heater. And a woman, sitting, cup of tea in hand, watching over the town as it drifted to dreams. Not searching. Guarding. She’d hear the rustle of the trees, the last of the few motorcars in our small town cease their spluttering, settle into silence. Horses braying in their slumber. And she would look at the stars, as I had seen her do one dark night. The stars, far above, as she looks upward, savouring the twilight. The stars…stop. Suspended in time…Hanging in their places, winking down in some amiable celestial joke. She is the watcher, the only one to see that all is well. I feel safe, comforted,.
Yet why do I speak of the way an old lady I knew may have surveyed the dusky repose from her window. Maybe you don’t see this as I do. I learnt, in those few weeks, from a woman whose name I never knew, that we don’t have to understand, or agree. We just have to recognise, to acknowledge, to accept. And all is well.
I know little of her past. A country child, a nurse in the war, she arrived in our town, our sleepy town still living in the turn of the century. I can’t remember, as hard as I try, when she arrived. I just can’t picture the place without her; shuffling around, doing what she had to do. She always just seemed to fit, she belonged in the image of our town. I say a sleepy town, but this may de misleading. We aren’t modern, or large. Yet life goes on as it does everywhere else. We follow the world at our own lazy pace. And amidst the easygoing bustle of life, she watches. She almost became like an old ornament on the mantelpiece, that one that everyone knows, yet about which no-one remembers much. Who put it there? What colour is it again? How large? She was just a presence in town, part of our lives, although nobody really knew it.
I wonder how many others knew that she watched the trains. Did people in her homes see her walk quietly past? Did they notice me, as I watched her turn away from the street where I stood?People must have thought she watched the trains, a banal undertaking, as life had nothing left to offer. Yet I think I understand what she saw. When the stoker brings his great iron stallion through she sees not a machine, not a pile of flywheels and turbines. She sees lives.
It caught me off my guard when she directed her gaze at me, out of earshot, unobtrusively watching as she did. She beckoned me over, and in a quiet, raspy voice, weak yet determined, told me her secrets. “I’ve seen you here many times. Do you see as I do?.” The air fills with noise as the train thunders past. The customary nod. The tip of the cap. “I see hopes and dreams, love and despair. I see people that will be famous, lives almost over, tragedy and beauty; all going somewhere, or with nowhere to go. All perception, connection, identity. They mean nothing. But they are so small in grandeur of existence, eternity. But that is the true miracle of life. Every minuscule life, each capable of emotion, of pain,each with a past and many futures. Treasure them. Treasure them as I do, as that stoker does also. Accept their brevity and yet their infinity.”
I knew that I saw like her, like the one who stoked the furnace. One of those who watch.. Who imagine. Who accept.
Soon after, she passed away. I never heard of a funeral, or where she was buried. But since that evening, I have remained like her; a watcher. I have sat, and watched the lives fly fast, trailing off into their, tiny, brilliant futures. I see the plants and the stars, witnesses in silence to the world, to time, to existence. The train rattles past, and I accept those hopes and dreams, the hardship, the tragedy, the joy that I see, without ever knowing who owns which. A nod. A tip of the cap. The stoker rides on, grime clinging to his sweaty face as he bends over the furnace. This is who we are. The ways things go. Our place in the world. Watching
I wonder if anyone will stand separated, and see me as I saw she who came before me. If another will puzzle, and then understand. If someone else will be a watcher. One of those who see the world, see lives, the passage of time. We who watch, as the world watches on.