Monday, February 15, 2010

fiction - Perchance to Dream

Even in the deluxe car, one could feel the train's mighty iron innards churning. Each car was a link in its steam-shot intestine, helping push all what sat and slept within to their final destinations. Mine could literally be described as a toilet - nothing but low houses and narrow dirt roads with fresh hoof tracks in them. The sleek black steam hansoms hadn't reached us yet.
I flashed my ticket in front of the porter's face and his hole punch hand stamped it while his cold porcelain eyes stood on end in their deep sockets. I took the ticket back and stumbled through the aisle, afforded little by the boxy compartments. It was hard to get footing and my legs bumped and brushed against heavy wooden doors and prominent brass knobs, and my coat snagged itself in radially symmetrical gears.

Pressing on regardless, I found my compartment - 6A, shared, light refreshment service - and knocked. The gears twisted and spun as the door pulled away and I walked into the misty gaze of someone I'd never met. It immediately occurred to me that my trouser leg had bunched up at the top of my sock. I pushed it down with my foot.

She kept a large hat under her seat, though the bouquet crown bulged out and shed petals between her feet. Her gown's blouse bagged out, but fitted neatly at the waist. Her gloves were lace. She made a point of holding her hands under the light to show them off. She had pickpocket's fingers. I felt qualified to judge.

Her companion kept a tidy mustache that bowed out under his nose. His shoulders were narrow, pinched back under his topcoat. The contrast was dizzying. He looked like the kind of man with either a very high or very deep voice. Had I heard it, I'd have more to report. But he was slumped on the lady's pillowy shoulder when I stepped into the compartment.

Her eyes leaped up to meet me, and a smile dreamt across her gossamer face.

And here I thought my saucepot husband would be my only company! Come, sit. She patted the chair as if I were a dog and this were not an unfamiliar experience for her. I briefly pictured her sitting in bed, begging her husband to roll over while he played dead. I did as told, and took her hand when offered it, and got a tea biscuit from the arrangement on their table for my efforts. She kept smiling and scratched behind her ear, but not mine. She tucked an errant lock of auburn hair behind it, and I considered finding a hayloft and climbing into it with her.

Forgive my appearance - I look beastly in this rag - but I've just come from the theatre.

I dismissed her self-consciousness and returned her smile at last. Now I knew why they were so well-dressed. I joked that her husband must have enjoyed the show.

Oh, you! Of course he did. So much so that he overcelebrated at the reception. Edward loves watching me perform. She touched Edward's hand with hers, then clasped her hands together again, lacing her fingers. I conjure a flirtatious response to what she just said, but decide to crack a window and let it scatter to the winds. The windows on this car have box screens around them to keep out most of the coal dust, if not the cold. If we'd removed the screen, the view would have been about the same, given the hour.

Actress or singer, I asked.

Both. I'm in a production of "Perchance to Dream."  She handed me a programme creased down the middle. The cover was a crudely rendered etching of a man being pulled away from a scepter-bearing ghost. I looked for her name among the Key Players and found it, with her unsolicited help. Lucia Sudwife.

It's a stage name. I believed her, but doubted her taste.

I'm an actor, too. I told her I was a chemist. She thought that was fascinating, and asked me what specific field. I fumbled out something about clinical trials on the effects of opium. Immigrants, you know. Have to get the stuff under control or they'll jelly themselves in their tenements. Her smile suggested that she could have done better.

She agreed. Oh! Beastly business, opium. She nudged her drowsy husband. Not that drink is any better. Sleep over there, damn you! She shrugged him off with such force that I thought he would fall from his seat, but all he did was swoon back over the aisleside armrest. I'm sorry for him. He'll open a closed bottle and close an open bar. She laughed. It was sudden, like glass shattering on rocks.

The server came around and I took tea and brandy, which it dispensed straight away through brass taps in its hollow chest, and another cake from the tray. Mrs. Sudwife joined me, and as her face moved into the light I still couldn't see it. I knew it was there, and had projected memories of past faces onto hers to make conversation easier. But her features waxed and waned into a hypnagogic blur and all I can compare it to now is sound, a scream muffled by cheesecloth. Her husband was the opposite. His face was hard and round, like the knot in a tree.

She saw me squinting and tapped my hand with hers, laughing that broken glass laugh as the train rolled under us, through grooves in burnt glass mountains that melted into the sky. Another porter, this one made of tin, came by to caution us as we approached a bridge. His lantern eyes burned across the room and into the coal-blackened window before sweeping away as he left to warn the next compartment. The train rattled on the bridge and upset the tea service. A rag loosened from Mr. Sudwife's pocket. Not a handkerchief or a napkin. A rag. I know what rags look like.

I looked into Mrs. Sudwife's eyes again. They yawned open, straining lids that unhinged themselves like crushed velvet jaws. I watched Mr. Sudwife in them, stepping into the men's necessary during intermission and then into a circle of other fellows, one of whom held aloft a phial. Producing the rag, he shook the contents of the phial into it and passed it around. Each man pressed it to his face, their heads flaring red and purple. None of them held flowers, nor were their hands swollen from clapping.

Men in my neighborhood wore rags and would have poured that phial over milk, stirring it with silver spoons so spirits wouldn't curdle it before they could choke it down.

A knock on the door reset everything. I was leaning back in my seat, and Mrs. Sudwife in hers. A short porter in red vest and white gloves splitting over lead hands let us know that the train was approaching her station. She thanked him with an opaque little smile and collected her hat, and a leather bag behind it. Gather yourself, Edward, I'll be waiting for you at the exit. She kissed his cheek and stepped out.

Her head pops back in after a moment. Isn't travel the strangest thing? More laughter and a tease of gunpowder eyes and she was gone. Edward was still there, lurching with every movement of the train. His fine Roman nose was a galaxy of broken capillaries. I tapped his arm, then shook it, telling him that he needed to disembark. He did, after a fashion, toppling facefirst onto the thin gold-specked carpet as the train skidded to a stop. There was a hole in the back of his head, and a soupy red trickle down the back of his neck disappearing under his collar.

The porters, and later the police, were alerted by my screaming.

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