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I stand by the window of our sleeping compartment, ignoring you. The land we pass is mountainous and wild, and I know we’re high up because my ears keep popping.
‘Oh Shane, it’s really sore. Feel it, it’s burning up,’ you say.
I touch the ankle you hurt this morning as we rushed for the train in Sofia. We were late, as usual. When we should have been hailing a taxi to the train station, you were sitting on our bed in the hostel, straightening your hair, applying make-up, taking countless trips to the bathroom. At first, you said it was only a twist, but as the journey has progressed you’ve complained more and more.
‘Well, what do you think?’ you ask.
I’m looking out the window again. ‘About what?’
‘It’s hot, all right,’ I say.
I kneel beside you, your face scrunched up in a way that looks juvenile and lost. Three bunks protrude from the right wall of the compartment, two of which have been prepared with frayed, navy bedclothes. The bottom bunk hasn’t been dressed and seems to be for sitting, but given the problem with your ankle I made you lie down on it and elevated your foot with a pillow.
‘Look, I think it’s only a strained muscle,’ I say. ‘There’s no swelling so it isn’t sprained or anything like that. All it needs is rest. We won’t be in Budapest for about another eighteen hours, so just stay lying down, relax, and you’ll be fine.’
You cringe. ‘But I have to pee.’
‘What? You went back at the hostel. And the train station.’
‘It’s the O’ Connor bladder, Shane. You know what it’s like; you’ve enough experience of it by now.’
I sigh and get you to shuffle to the side of the bunk. As I sit beside you and wrap my arm around your waist, you hook your arm over my shoulder. We stand and hobble into the corridor, as if ready for a three-legged race.
Many of the passengers are in the corridor, admiring the view. Most of the faces we pass are of the fuller, sunburnt Western variety. It’s strange to be among so many of them after the last month; it gives me the brief, uncomfortable feeling that I’m already home.
It seems that everyone stares as we pass. I feel the need to explain, to apologise.
‘No, no, she just hurt her ankle.’
‘Coming through. Sorry.’
The bathroom is a windowless box at the end of the carriage. The only light springs out of the toilet, revealing tiny flies that move in frenzied circles above the bowl. I stare into it. There is no water or drainage system, just the tracks beat by underneath, with an accompanying tuft of dancing green.
I turn to you. ‘Well, on the plus side, your arse might get a bit of a tan if you stick it down far enough.’
Back in our compartment, I sit on the carpeted floor and read, while you lie on your back, frowning at the bunk overhead. You had snapped at me when you came out of the bathroom, when I asked if there had been any luck.
‘Do you think I wouldn’t tell you if there had been?’ you shouted. ‘You’d know anyway, because I’d be dancing, bad ankle or not. It’s been too long already. It’s never been this late before.’
You’re overdoing it with the Neurofen and looking for a fight. So I stay quiet and hide in Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, resolving that my next trip will be to South America.
An hour or two later, you address me again. ‘Do you think it’ll be okay?’
‘Nothing’s swollen,’ I say.
‘I’m not broken then?’
‘Are you angry with me?’
I look across at you, see your flushed cheeks, sweaty forehead. I worry that we’ll have to cut short the rest of our trip, if there really is something wrong with you.
‘No, I’m not angry,’ I say. ‘I’m sorry, I’m just tired.’
You smile and pat the bunk. ‘Come here. Lie down with me.’
I lift myself off the floor and roll in next to you. You curl into me, resting your head on my chest. Your hair smells of coconut from the conditioner you used this morning. By your silence, I know you’re listening to my heartbeat.
‘Nothing’s swollen,’ you say, repeating my mantra. ‘Everything will be fine.’
I stroke your hair and keep my breathing deep and slow so the beat of my heart won’t change and disturb you. Soon you’re asleep. I watch you for a while, then stand and walk into the corridor. The window opposite our compartment is open, so I stick my head out and feel the wind rage around me.
The sun falls towards a hazy, lavender horizon by the time we arrive at the outskirts of Belgrade. I grow excited when I hear that we’ve a two hour stop-off here before continuing onto Budapest. This will probably be the only time in my life that I’ll get to see the city.
I peek in on you. You’re still asleep, curled in my direction, snoring. Your forehead is furrowed and every few seconds you let out a slight whimper. I check your ankle from the doorway. It looks a sullen, aggrieved red and a touch swollen now too. I don’t want to wake you; you need to rest. As I tiptoe through the compartment, I stuff some essentials into my bag – wallet, passport, camera, water – and close the door behind me, determined to get as much exploring done as possible in the next two hours.
The smell of diesel strikes me when I walk out of the station, the four-lane street static with traffic. Car horns blare as if it’s the native language here and everyone wants their say. Ancient taxis are parked in front of the station, some drivers watching for fares, others huddled over a portable radio, listening to a soccer match. One driver motions for me to take his taxi, but I shake my head and begin to walk.
There are plenty of tourist-friendly places – museums, galleries and old, battered churches – but, as I stride past, they are either closing or already closed. Soon all that seem open are half-empty restaurants and near-full bars, the buzzing neon signs over their entrances advertising something in Cyrillic. The inviting smell of food and the prospect of alcohol both tempt me, but I keep walking.
In the fading light, I arrive at a park. It feels good to find somewhere green after all that grey. I follow an old path, cracked in places by the roots of nearby pine trees and white poplars. The leaves of the poplars appear silvery and almost glow in the dimness. The path brings me to a bench. At this viewpoint, it’s possible to see over the city to the horizon. The thick haze I noticed earlier has darkened, the sky above it a fierce reddish-yellow.
I don’t bother to look at my watch. I already know that the two hours are up, that the train has left and that you are probably still sleeping.
I imagine you’ll wake alone and tell yourself I’ve gone to the bathroom. You’ll wait for a while in the compartment before worry makes you rise and limp into the corridor. You’ll hobble around and ask some of the other passengers if they’ve seen me. You’ll check the bathroom, open compartments, other carriages. As you begin to panic, you’ll go to the conductor and demand that he stop the train, screaming into his red, uncomprehending face. Other passengers will try to comfort you, telling you that everything will be okay. They’ll help you to our compartment, where you’ll sit on the bottom bunk and rub at your ankle. It will be while you massage your injured ankle – which feels to you as if it is filling with something – that you realise the truth behind my vanishing act, my cheap magic trick. Your back will straighten and your eyes will wander out the window into the darkening countryside outside Belgrade. In that moment, you’ll understand.
And hate me.