Once upon a time on a train to Lung-ford
The young couple with backpacks became absorbed by each other like lovers in a play by Shakespeare
Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell
Once upon a time there was a man from the country who was sick. He lived in the hills, near the forestry at the end of a long lane, and he never spoke to other humans apart from the postman and the woman with the small hands at the check-out in the Spar. His companions were animals and birds that lived around the forestry.
So he was nervous going to Dublin for a check-up on his prostate, and he had a long walk from the train to the hospital in the rain. It was very early in the morning, and people pushed against him as they passed by. He tried to avoid eye contact, so he ended up looking at the ground and at women’s shoes and boots and high heels.
Occasionally he raised his head to see the traffic lights when he was crossing a street, and sometimes he admired the supermarket signs, the shop windows full of electrical equipment and the vast amount of magazines on sale at some street corners. Sometimes he would trail the person in front of him until he or she turned into a bus shelter or a coffee shop or the door of a pharmacy.
The world can’t be all that bad, he thought, if there are so many women on the streets.
And the women were everywhere. He saw their faces as they stood to talk to each other, as they squinted on bikes in the rain.
He even gawked in the windows of cafes, where they were sitting in a wonderful variety of hats, and with umbrellas on the empty seats beside them.
Still half asleep
He was elated and he wasn’t even at the hospital yet. And they all looked like they were still half asleep and dreaming of other things. Maybe they’re thinking about some cat they forgot to feed, he thought, or some lover they had an argument with over breakfast or some child they were worried about far away.
And then he got to the hospital and he waited in the queue, listening to conversations all around him, which he considered was better than any radio. And when his turn came, the nurse showed him into a small room, where there was a cylinder on the floor with a tube sticking out of it, and she told him to pee into the tube.
After that she brought him to the consultant farther up the corridor, who was sitting behind his desk in an office, rubbing his glasses with his handkerchief.
The consultant said that nothing in this life is perfect, but that things were looking good.
The train home
On his way home, he was first on the train at Connolly. He sat alone in the compartment until a young couple with backpacks arrived.
“Eez dis the train to Lung-ford?” she asked in broken English.
He said it was.
“And eez not first class?”
He assured her it wasn’t.
She seemed relieved and sat a few seats away with her boyfriend, an athletic man with bare arms and a black ponytail.
They put their luggage on the rack above them, and relaxed. They forgot they were on a train. They became absorbed by each other like lovers in a play by Shakespeare.
She put chocolate in her boyfriend’s mouth, three times, slowly, teasing, picking it off the silver wrapper on the table and raising it between her thumb and forefinger. He had to move his head forward for it, opening his lips and showing his perfect white teeth as she dropped it on his extended tongue.
On the third occasion he licked her small finger, which had become smudged with the warm chocolate, and for a moment the old man feared the ponytailed boy might bite her entire hand off.
But he didn’t. He just gave the finger a little suck. When they got off at Longford, the old man turned to me, because we had both been watching the play.
“And you know she looked as innocent as a nun,” he said to me, “when she came on first.”
“I’d say he’s a beast,” I suggested. “But sure sometimes that’s what a woman wants: dolphins, seals, stallions and men with ponytails.”
“I suppose,” the old man said, staring at me.
He gazed out the window and told me all about his day. And when he got to the end I asked him was he finished with the consultant.
“Ah no,” he said, “I might have to go up again in a couple of months.”
And he didn’t look at all unhappy.