Have you ever had an almost offensively easy breakup? The kind where the person you've just broken ties with because of blah blah and blah gives you a slight shrug, a "Thanks for everything-especially your honesty," then walks away whistling Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well"? Or has that been you-the low-key dumpee? I've never once taken it on the chin like that, never even thought of trying to. Before Honza I'd only been with similarly emotive types: we could've formed a tribe of some sort, united under a banner that read FOREVER REJECTING YOUR REJECTION. But this . . . this was just ten uncomfortable minutes in a coffee shop. Then it was done, Honza had left, and I was all grateful and relieved that we'd kept it civil. I thought: So that's it, then. It's all over.
I put in my earphones and walked to the tube station with my brain slurping up my bright new beginnings playlist like syrup. The music put me in such a good mood that when the sneaky hand of a pickpocket settled on my backpack I just slapped it away and shook a finger at him instead of grabbing him and hurling him down the escalator.
There were no messages from Honza when I got home. All that remained of the relationship was a set of boxer shorts he'd given me. Tapestry-print days-of-the-week boxers with the crucial information embroidered in crimson thread across the waistband of each pair: Pondělí, Úterý, Středa...He claimed it made him sad that I always seem to think it's Monday. And look-now I knew seven words of Czech! I'd be fluent in no time, he said.
The post-breakup days trooped by. I worked, I volunteered, I watched some shows, read some books, saw some friends, wore my set of tapestry-print underwear in the usual order. Pondělí, no wistful question or maudlin plea, Úterý, no by-the-way-you're-full-of-shit essay, Středa, no saw-this-and-thought-of-you photo, Čvrtek, no offer of a chance to change my mind, Pátek, Sobota, Neděle, no nothing. A cycle repeated for months until the underwear had been washed and worn to rags. Binning that gift set seemed to conclude our conscious uncoupling process (the worst of it is I think I might be only half joking), though it wasn't long before I missed the perfection of fit and invested in more of the same. There were a lot of different language options I could have pursued for my new days-of-the-week underwear, but I sought security, not novelty, so I stuck with the original formula. People may betray you, but the right pair of boxers-never. As for Honza Svoboda, I didn't hear another word from or about him, until. Until-
I haven't even started and I'm already losing my nerve. OK, I'll get on with it, before I change my mind.
Picture it-about four years later, a starry-eyed young couple takes a trip on a sleeper train . . .
Xavier laughs at the idea of thirty-eight being considered young. That's how old we both were at the time, though. And, overall, not so mature in terms of conduct.
Our local train station is typical of a small village transport hub in deepest Kent. It's the first and last stop for the village's two bus routes, and no matter how determined we passengers are to simply pass through, we tarry. The building has a dishevelled magnetism to it, striking the senses as an overgrown cousin of a country barn. A cousin conversant with the infernal. There it is (the workaday infernal), smoking away in the fade of the exterior paint, and there it is again in the gaslit appearance of each window frame, those shadows that shrink behind the sepia glass. You could just about believe that Lucifer's got a few ham hocks strung up in there, and that he visits every now and then to see for himself how far along in the curing process they've come. But in place of hellish hams there's a station cafe that serves UNESCO World Heritage-level cuppas. To round it all off there are two train tracks, where four times a day departing and arriving passengers mingle with the villagers who've come to welcome them or see them off. Two arrivals and two departures every twenty-four hours isn't quite enough for a railway track to seriously devote itself to being what people say it is . . . As per our instructions, we were at the station at half past six on a Saturday morning in spring, and the honeysuckle, butterflies, and other revellers didn't seem too concerned about the comings and goings of the trains. I suppose all the pretty tumbling and fluttering and flapping and whatnot marked them out as ambassadors of the season and secured them right of way.
The train was waiting on the London-bound track, looking more like a seafaring creature than a locomotive. Our companion at the time was a mongoose named Árpád, and he bristled at the sight of it. "See the dragon, see its mane," I whispered to him. Sleek scrolls of silvered metal flickered and twisted their way all along its long, low body. The train bore its name like a diadem, scarlet letters dancing along a ruby red band set just above the window of the driver's cabin. T H E L U C K Y D A Y.
The driver's cabin was empty. Árpád examined the station platform, patting the concrete with his paws as if preparing to launch himself into the air and fall upon his foe.
Xavier told Árpád he was overreacting and yet, from where we stood, it looked as if the wheels had tucked themselves over the rail tracks. See its mane, see its claws . . .
All I said was: "Bling a ling a ling. A tad conspicuous for a tea-smuggling train, isn't it?"
A passerby wearing a high-visibility jacket and a yellow hard hat asked if we were off anywhere nice. I said, "No idea, mate," but Xavier draped an arm around me and informed her that we were off on our non-honeymoon honeymoon. An answer that made this life event of ours a destination in and of itself at the same time as downplaying the fact that we really didn't know if we were going anywhere nice. The wording on our ticket was the vaguest conceivable. Árpád may have been unhappy about that, but we non-honeymoon honeymooners didn't much care.
We strolled the platform more or less in step for a while, Xavier and I, and we indulged in a bit of sentimental murmuring. I barely recall what it was we said to each other-I'm sure it was classic "is this real life"-type commentary-it was the sound of his voice and the sweet sting of his glance that hurt me in ways only he could kiss better. You run the romantic gauntlet for decades without knowing who exactly it is you're giving and taking such a battering in order to reach. You run the gauntlet without knowing whether the person whose favour you seek will even be there once you somehow put that path strewn with sensory confetti and emotional gore behind you. And then, by some stroke of fortune, the gauntlet concludes, the person does exist after all, and you become that perpetually astonished lover from so many of the songs you used to find endlessly disingenuous.
It was really happening. We really had found each other, and we really were going away together-not for the first time, but for the first time travelling under a shared surname. This was to take place aboard a train called The Lucky Day. The train was there, and we were there, and so we kept saying things like "This is it," and "Here we go," as if trying to place verbal reins on the momentum of it all.
Each carriage door was sealed with a symbol. A dagger, a bumblebee, a spinning wheel, a harp. Our ticket placed us in Clock Carriage, so we began looking for a clock shape cast in the same dull brass as the others-a tulip, a telescope, a die that had rolled the number two . . .
We couldn't pass up the prospect of an onboard gambling den. The dice seal was pressed, but the door only opened at the third or fourth try; the first attempt was mine, Xavier went next, then Árpád, then me again. The two dots on the face of the dice weren't just adornment-you had to dip your fingers into them and really press. We all bundled into the carriage to have a look, taking our luggage with us so that we could roll it through other carriages as we looked for ours. And we hunched over, heads lowered and shoulders bowed-at least Xavier and I did-once it became fully apparent what an upside-down sort of place we'd entered. All the seats and tables were scattered across the ceiling among the luggage racks, looking very much as if they'd settled there after the train had undertaken a particularly vigorous loop-the-loop. The silence had a thin skin. We heard the rattle and chatter of the station, and a woolly murmur that may have been sleep talk from the train's engine. A normalising mesh of sound. We weren't in the correct carriage, but we weren't disturbing anything. And we in turn would not be disturbed . . . as long as we moved on. If you stuck out your tongue it would dance there, right at the tip: the fizz of conditionality. But Xavier seemed less fazed by this carriage than by something he saw in the next one. I followed his gaze but only saw a row of closed compartments.
Árpád trekked up the wall, did a tabletop dash across the ceiling, subjected us to a somewhat professorial gaze, as if to say, "And that's how exploring is done, kids," then slid to the ground and ambled back out onto the open air. I made to follow him but changed course when I saw Xavier headed for the door that led to the next compartment.
"Árpád went the other way," I said, slipping in between Xavier and the door handle.
"I know, but-"
"You know, but you're already trying to ditch us before we've even left the station?"
"Otto, it's a train, not the Yorkshire moors. We don't have to huddle together like hikers lost in the mists."
Our faces were very close together, but we didn't kiss. We'd moved, apparently of our own accord, into the exact spot where the weight of that crowded ceiling felt least balanced. Long-backed chairs hovered above our skulls, our wheeled luggage skittered across the bare floor, and I didn't know about Xavier, but I didn't dare break our pose. For that was how our bodies were arranged in relation to each other: lovers on the brink of a steamy clinch. I was the coy one, my left hand gripping the sun-warmed windowsill. Xavier's right hand was pressed to the door behind me, his wrist tickling the top of my ear. I could very easily have turned my head and touched my lips to his wrist, but I could see there was no competing with the view over my shoulder. I'd already lost him to the dim net of doors that ran through the centre of the train.
"You can't imagine how I longed for this day," I said. "And it's finally here. The day I officially become less fanciable than a door."
"Hmmm?" Looking down, he moved his hands over me. Slowly, so that I gasped. He said: "I like that sound. Not a sound that doors tend to make." But then he added: "I think I saw her, Otto."
I twisted around and tried to see for myself. The outline of each door fit so neatly into the ones that followed it that my eyesight, not particularly hardworking at the best of times, almost immediately let me down. There might have been someone, that could have been a shape moving around in one of the rectangles further back, but-
"You said 'her' as if I'm meant to know who she is."
"Ava . . . ?"
After a couple of seconds of cold observation while I struggled to look like someone who was in the know, Xavier said: "Come on, Otto. Ava Kapoor. The resident."
"Right, of course. Ava Kapoor. Yeah. You . . . you think you saw her?"
"Well, I definitely saw someone."
"What was she like? Did she seem . . ."
Which words matched my hopes for how Ava Kapoor seemed? Amiable? Tranquil? In possession of all her marbles? I'd read a kind and practical letter of invitation from her, so I don't know why I anticipated an encounter with a Miss Havisham type. I'd like to know what it is that makes that disbelief so rigid. The one concerning women who live by themselves, I mean. Even though I know several, and even though I understand that for five out of seven of the female loners I know, it's truly their choice, the next female loner I meet never benefits from these other friendships I share, because at the moment our paths cross I instantly revert to Oh God, what ails this person??
Xavier said: "What was she like? I don't know. I don't know what you're even asking, Otto. But she held up a sign. Well, a word she'd written on a piece of paper."
He paused. "I think it said HELLO."
"OK . . ."
"But it could also have said HELP."
"It could also . . . have said HELP?"
"If you don't stop echoing me, Otto Montague . . . I mean Shin . . ."
"It's just- Listen, if you had to decide right now what the sign said, which would you lean towards? Did it say HELLO, or did it say HELP?"
Xavier raised his hand to his mouth, dropped it. "HELP. I think. But she didn't seem frantic. She came out of there"-he pointed toward the last compartment in the next carriage-"held up the sign, then . . . I think she shrugged? A 'never mind' sort of shrug. And she switched carriages."
"Was she . . . dressed all in white?"
"What? How does that affect our decision?"
"Our- OK, keep your hair on . . . what decision?"
"What do you think we should do about Ava Kapoor either saying hello or asking for help, Otto? Since I'm banned from acting as an individual."
"Glad you understand the ground rules for this trip . . . Well, we return the greeting, obviously. Or if it was the other thing, then we help."