Sometimes she remembers it vividly. Sometimes she thinks she imagined it. Sometimes she forgets it entirely for years, and then suddenly it will pop into her mind, so trivial, and yet she will be astonished at its strength, the loss still there as if it happened only minutes ago. She will be eight years old again and actually have trouble catching her breath as her eyes blink away tears.
She is on a train with her parents, somewhere in the Canadian Maritimes. She likes to read on the train, walk up and down the aisles from car to car, fourteen or fifteen of them. The cars are all different. Some are sleepers, some first class and others second class, although she finds it hard to tell the difference. Some cars have suites and some have roomettes, clever tiny rooms with a sink and toilet that magically pull out and then disappear so that you can’t tell they’re still there. Some are coach, which is how she and her parents are traveling. She often walks through the dining car when it's between meals and the chairs are up on the tables so the floor can be cleaned. Sometimes the waiters are irritable. “Go back to your seat, you’re getting in our way when we’re trying to work,” one snaps at her. But usually they're friendly. One waiter has a nickname for her. “Well, if it isn’t the mighty midget traveler back again,” he says each time he sees her.
On the other side of the dining car are the first class cars, where as a coach passenger she’s not permitted. First class passengers only, a sign says, but she dares it anyway. She’s curious about first class. She wants to travel that way when she’s grown up. Some passengers frown when she walks through, but mostly they don’t seem to see her. They’re lost in thought, staring out the windows the way grownups do. Today she’s been running through the cars, although judiciously not in first class. “I’ve told you again and again not to run like that,” her mother says. “I don’t want any more complaints or we’ll get thrown off the train.”
When she gets back to their seats, she's sleepy and can’t keep her eyes open. Unusually for her, on this midsummer day, she takes a nap, just like her parents do. They’re sitting together facing her. Her mother, distracted, looks out the window, and her father looks up from his magazine and smiles as she curls up on the seat. She dreams about pirates and she has to fly to get away.
The late afternoon sun is in her eyes when she wakes up, and the train has stopped. She sees empty fields on one side and factories and parking lots on the other side. The car is half filled with people just like it was before she went to sleep. Everything's the same. An old woman several seats down is asleep and gently snoring. A man and a woman she noticed before are still playing cards.
Everything's the same, but she’s alone. Her parents aren’t across from her anymore. They must be walking up and down the cars, she thinks, although she’s never seen them do that. They mostly look out the windows, or browse through a newspaper or a magazine. “A train’s a good place to just sit and relax,” her father says.
Perhaps ten or even fifteen minutes go by, but they don't come back. Suddenly she knows for sure. She sits up straight in alarm. They've left her behind. She's been warned before and now it's finally happened. They're tired of her reading all the time instead of cleaning her room. She doesn't help her mother enough when she’s trying to make dinner. She should never have run through the cars or gone into the first class section. “I don’t want a daughter like you. If you don’t behave yourself, I’m just going to send you back,” her mother said a week ago.
Suddenly the train jerks backward, then there’s a grinding noise and it starts to move forward and pick up speed. It is taking her away and she will never see her parents again. She is alone in the middle of a strange country. Her eyes dart back and forth in panic. She jumps up and almost runs into the aisle but there’s nowhere to go.
She looks out the window in shock as buildings and woods and farms and houses start rushing by, faster and faster.
But only a few minutes later the train slows to pull into a station. The door opens and her parents walk in. She is crying hard by this time, unable to stop, her tears streaming. They explain. The train had come to the station and people were allowed off, but then it had to back up and pull onto a siding while an express used the track. Her parents took advantage of the stop. She hears the words as she tries to wipe her face with the back of her hand, but all she really understands is that they’ve returned. Her father hugs her, patting her back awkwardly.
“Of course we didn’t leave you. How could you even think such a thing,” her mother scolds “You were sleeping like an angel and we didn't want to wake you up,” her father says. She gulps through her tears, and says she’s sorry, and they tell her not to be silly. But over the years she will never quite regain her trust.
That time there was a reprieve. When she is much older and when she often travels first class, when she is married with children of her own, there won't be. When her husband leaves after what she thought was a happy marriage, she won’t even be surprised.
published 7 September 2011