When The Door Jams. A short story by Mags

When The Door Jams. Short story by Mags MacKean

Weariness makes her confused – at least that’s how she explains boarding the wrong train.  She is too surprised to feel anything like annoyance. That comes later. For now, she is washed out, spat out, gazing at an unremarkable platform without the promise of anything to comfort her mistake – like a cafe or waiting room – as the train pulls away towards Florence, not Rome as she had assumed, with a cozy hotel she had been too eager to reach.

The station quickly empties of the few disembarking passengers who scuttle away into the car park. Beyond it is an industrial block – sad and abandoned, its cracked windows boarded in places. The parallel tracks stretch on, for destinations south, the other north. The few locked up buildings along the one platform are covered in uninspired graffiti. Tufts of grass have managed to spring through the tarmac. She heads inside, where a woman is serving hot drinks and snacks from behind a counter. A man leans through the shutter and she listens to him, head slumped on bent elbows. He lights a cigarette – puffing away without any concern for the stranger right behind him. Breathing in others’ smoke tends to enrage her – but she’s more bothered by the uncertain wait and journey she faces. Smoking her own cigarettes, just the cheeky one before bed at the end of a day, is very different. A pleasurable guilt.

“Scoozy? Where are we?” A gulf of silence makes her self-conscious, so she adds with her two index fingers pointing downwards, “Here?”

They look at her blankly. A kettle boils and the woman turns around to her kitchen to attend to business. She tries again, which the other woman dismisses with a lazy wave, as she stirs the cup for the man. Willfully unhelpful! It’s often said the Italians are charming, warm. That hasn’t been her impression this visit. Their charm is wafer-thin – all gush and no substance. And few speak English! How did she get here, to this dead-end place – facing a weary wait of going somewhere she didn’t want to visit in any case – the unavoidable last stop before flying on home. A rising stab of irritation wills her to try again. “Rome, which way?” She asks, her voice desperate and impatient.

“Roma?” The man confirms what she had known, pointing down the track the way she had come.                                                                                                                 “What time? Next train?”

The man and woman confer, shake their heads, and gawp at the round clock on the wall. He shows her his watch, and motions circles. Two of them – two whole hours! She checks to make sure. They both nod, certain and indifferent.

She heads out of the shadows towards a bench drowned in sunlight. It’s obvious it’ll be too hot to sit there for long exposed like that – but she has no better idea. To huddle before the entrance shading the other benches would be too depressing. She has no idea where she is – no sign she can see. Perhaps three stops along from where she boarded in Assisi – maybe four. It was all a blur. She had no idea what had made her seek assurance from the man across from her that they were on the Rome train. And she took his enthusiastic nod for a resounding yes, that her simplified english was understood, that she was on her way.

She is too tired to reach for her book. She has no instinct for music either. She wants to sleep – long and hard. She has to wait and doesn’t want the experience of waiting – holding her in the compression of time. Either way, waiting or not, she feels disconnected from life around her, and lonely, very alone, on the dreariest station she’d ever encountered.

So, she sits, the sun baking her – surprising for its low October trajectory. ‘Try being’, she thinks. A dim call from her past. A male voice, soft and compelling, rises up through her foggy mind. Silently, she barks back at it. It’s hard to be something you don’t feel – it’s unnatural. And there’s nothing to do to stop this insufferable waiting, going nowhere, not wanting to be here, or anywhere for that matter!

She locates the memory of a man behind the voice. Who was he? Alec, he had called himself. Their lives had collided, two strangers on a road in New Zealand. She needed a lift and he had stopped, an elderly man, a Maori it turned out – a rare chance, she soon understood their meeting to be, to encounter someone native to the land – whose heritage had been almost obliterated by the imperialist white settlers – ancestors like her own. Generations on, that race memory was an imprint – a scar that itched through the plastering layers of civilisation, playing out no matter how long forgotten those days of pillage and plunder. Alec called that wound he knew he and many of his people carried, “an excuse for drifting.”

They had common ground. As the woman she then was, her mantra might well have been, ‘the remoter the better.’ The grittier the challenge the more her mind slowed, the louder the peace around her and calmness she would then feel. But Alec saw right through the role she’d tried so hard to become, swallowed among the big landscapes and her giddying motion through them. Back then, what, already a decade ago, she had been someone else.The world about her moved fast – a blur of airports, destinations, routes and peaks, group expeditions and solitary long distance hikes.

Over the miles they swapped stories. He was living with regret – his best years over, yearning to express his passion for natural medicines and lore. He had always wanted to guide visitors and educate them about the secret booty of the land where he’d grown up.

“So why don’t you?” She had asked.

“I will. I’m not far off seventy, but I really must, one of these days.”

“What has been stopping you?”

“Fear,” he answered, his eyes fixed on the road ahead.

They said nothing after that. Black valleys, coursing rivers, bracken evoking Scotland where she’d been brought up. Alec was going to drop her off at the foot of the Routeburn. In summer, it would be overrun with ‘trampers’, the Kiwis called them. Her venture was less typical though – deliberately planned outside the half of the year with a likelihood of fair weather.

Snow had been forecast in the coming days. The area, which still promised a remote wonderland for summer visitors, would be all the wilder – unlikely to attract anyone but her. That’s why she was going – pulled as a magnet into the solitude she loved, where she could breathe – feeling her ribcage break open, freeing that heart of hers which thrived with escape – a fledgling with little wings.

Ever since that first time she had seen one, struggling up and up – its virgin flight – its mother chirping it on to brave its first unnatural encounter with gravity, she had identified with the little bird. Their courage in learning to fly was epic – their chubby breasts propelled by little wings. She had the chance to witness this – taking shade beneath a stunted olive tree in Greece.

It was late afternoon, the heat thick and sultry. She noticed her breathing was strained, as she watched the fledgling struggle against gravity. So much effort to fly! Flapping too fast! Slow down, she urged, as the bird’s mother hopped from branch to branch, feigning indifference, her back turned. But she hadn’t been fooled – every particle of that mother was bound to her baby bird. The chirping got more frantic as she distanced herself from one perch to the next, along the garden wall, further and further from the fledgling, who jumped up and down on the same spot, before another attempt to reach her, and another return to solid safety.

That first flight was like the first route – the footsteps she loved to make through pristine snow – like the pioneers before her, and their first steps, making tracks through places unknown and dangerous for being outside known borders. But living for discovery’s own sake was something else entirely. It was a burden – an onus to fulfil. And where did it ever lead her? Events never gave her lasting satisfaction – and that’s why she’d seek out another dare, another edge over which to scramble, hang – to be held by or dropped. That was the tension when she felt most alive. She was that fledgling knowing it must jump – again.

“You know – it’s taken me a while to get here.” Alec sighed, obviously distracted, as his truck continued along the road. Narrow and straight, it was like a zip opening up the lush forest tundra.

“Get where?” She managed, pulling her focus out of her thoughts onto the variety of greens whizzing by, as damp and fertile as rainforest.

“Here, to this point.”

“Which point?”

“Where I know what I want – truly want. My dream is a real one – not the sort of crash and burn kind.” His arm was tanned and smooth, almost hair-free. It was trailing out the open window – and she wondered if he was feeling the force of their speed, all that nature hurtling by – his other hand nudging the wheel this way and that.

There had been a relaxed familiarity between them right from the start, a surprising rapport for strangers. A crude blue anchor was nestled in the folds of his forearm, which she only then noticed – and the tattooed initials L.O.V.E. peeped out from beneath his t-shirt on his bicep. Alec would have been very attractive – even ten years back, she calculated. If she was the same woman then, and he was younger, would she fancy him? Would the lift become something else entirely? His body was still lean and strong. He was also articulate, for a man who had ‘drifted’, as he called it, through most of his life – wasting partners and chances. He’d given up drink – and meat, he said. That had made the biggest difference to his outlook and prospects.

“Really? How so?” She’d asked.

He gave a vague answer – something about seeing the world more clearly, thinking more deliberately. She could feel his solid presence, despite the broad-sweep vagaries of his life he’d shared with her. Even in the silence, when they weren’t speaking, she could feel his vitality. He had something to share with her, this Alec, narrowing the miles between her and the wilderness of the Routeburn.

And gazing at the tracks and sleepers two continents away, she becomes aware how strangely dreamlike everything looks around her: the shimmering heat waves, the concrete bareness, the impersonal platform. She is feeling a similar nudge to face her pain. What has she ever really been travelling towards?

She pictures Alec getting back into his seat, after helping her settle the pack on her back, adjusting its straps. The engine began revving – the firm hug of friendship still felt between them – easy and warm. “Do you mind if I say something?”

“Why are you asking that now?” She laughed. “It hasn’t stopped you so far!”

“Do me a favour, will you? Give yourself a chance to slow, a chance to breathe. All this doing! Here and there – everywhere.” He paused, searching for the right words – his tone quiet and serious.

She didn’t respond, but allowed the silence to settle between them, hearing it beneath the chug-chug-chug of the diesel engine. “Look – ” he went on. “You have to know who you are first – to know what to do next!”  He looked away and neither rushed to fill the quietness that followed, both thoughtful.

The start of the trail was twenty or so yards in front of the truck, thick bush and trees draped back to reveal the path, stage curtains to the whiff of drama ahead. Nothing else was parked up. The trees were bare and the sky almost clear of clouds. A mellow late-afternoon light washed over the damp foliage a soft gold. It would be a chilly night in her tent.

Mile upon mile of trudge and joyless labour, carrying her winter gear, her stove, pot, fuel and food, her bedding, extra layers, torch and just the odd book, her only non-negotiable luxuries, his words had whistled round her brain, as she began to ask the unanswerable: ‘What am I doing here?’

Now, she reflects, on a nameless dreary platform – between destinations – she is at another junction. No Alec needed to point it out! Life has a sense of humour, even when she has lost hers: waiting for a train in an unknown place, a ‘nowhere’, a stalled phase within time – her past and future arrested. This is opportunity – only she feels limp and bored – unable to meet the surprise in it.

A swollen bladder drags her back to her immediate needs. She’s thirsty too. This is Europe long after summer – and still so hot! Beads of sweat on her chest resemble plastic pimples – her white cotton shirt clings to her. There is no one about to pinch her backpack propped by the bench. She has never suffered from that kind of fear anyway, of losing material possessions. She heads back into the entrance, as unwelcoming as it had been, emptied of the one other visitor.

The woman in the café is chewing gum, arms folded, gazing at a small TV with a costume drama blaring out, all frills and ringlets, lascivious looks and pouting reposts. The same level of interaction between them – lost stranger and bored member of rail staff: ‘toilett-ee?’ she asks, eyebrows raised. A thumb points to the wall behind the cafe. She steps into the car park, out into the glare, spotting a female symbol in triangular dress and a suited man with a stick: no confusion between the sexes risked in this place.

She’d prefer to pee outside – more her style – but heads through the graffiti-spattered door. A stench of urine overpowers her and she holds her breath. A tap trickles. No light switch. The toilet is too far away to hold the door open and do her business. So with no further thought, she lets the door shut behind her, and makes the three or four steps in the dark to relieve herself, with just the faint outline of the sink next to her, lit by a small rectangle of glass above it.

For a long moment, she enjoys her bladder emptying, feeling lighter all the while, the sound of her projectile pee hitting the water square on, she judges. She’s squatting, her thighs naturally strong, a posture requiring no effort. Done. She jangles up and down, knowing there is no toilet paper – and reaches for the chain. Her hands smear against the greasy tiles. There has to be a flush somewhere. She doesn’t bother to find it – and leans over the sink. How lovely to feel the water on her clammy hands – she splashes some on her face. It feels good after hours of grimy travel – so fresh and pristine. She takes off her shirt and splashes more water over her body, beneath her armpits, and more on her face. She swills some in her mouth and spits it out. On the spot she sways to drip the excess water off her, before putting her shirt back on, to head back out, into the fresh air.

Grabbing the handle, she pulls at the door. It doesn’t move. Nothing happens, only an ominous click. She tries again. Nothing. She kicks it with her foot. Nothing. It’s locked. She’s alone in the dark – that’s her first realisation.

She kicks again, and pulls – hearing the door shudder in its hinge. “Hey!” She shouts – surprised at how loud and shrill her voice sounds – how panicky it has become – just seconds after she was relishing the cool water on her skin. Again and again, she hollers – shrieking, her voice beginning to sore. Someone has to hear her! She pictures the lifeless woman with the kettle on – muted by the television drama. Even if she heard the muffled cries, she was surely too dense to imagine a trapped woman behind them.

Trapped! Suddenly, waiting for a train seems perfect – the scene that had so frustrated her minutes before! The platform, her backpack, picturing herself sitting on the bench, dreaming in the sun, with blissful nothing to do, nowhere to go, dimly aware of a train at some point arriving, taking care of her, ferrying her on to the destination where a bed was waiting, the affirming stimuli of shops and restaurants, the hub of life in one of the most flamboyant cities in earth – the buzz, romance and business colliding, history and technology side-by-side; only waiting, the joy of waiting, and the certainty that at some point a train would come – her train – it would stop and pick her up, her life waiting for her to merge with it again, somewhere beyond the tracks – at the end of them – as inevitable as a revolving door beckoning her to the welcome inside, to reunite with the future that only she could claim.

She is in her worst nightmare – powerless, abandoned, no one at hand to free her – to open the door on her imprisonment. It is dark. No sound from outside. No inspiration for what next. Her shoulders heave, a throttled wail escapes from her, wounded and fearful.

A checklist of resources runs through her mind – mobile phone – tucked away in a side compartment of her backpack. Money: on her as well as her passport. Ultimately useful – but of no mechanical assistance given the scenario she faces. Train: at least a good hour away – plenty of time for someone to hear her, to get help. Water: no dehydration risk. Toilet – available whenever she needs it. Next: what if no one hears her? Starvation takes weeks to happen. Her frank assessment is reassuring: she is in no physical danger. The station is in a commuting suburb, she reckons – there is no obvious residential centre nearby, only the likely hub of industrial work. People passing through at the beginning and end of day. People who would need the toilet. Who would hear her. Raise the alarm. Bludgeon open the door.

She understands it’s necessary to keep her mind busy with practicalities, to file them away as positives. Calmness lies that way – level-headedness. If she stops, and allows herself to collapse into deeper disorder, then a rising, sickening panic erupts from her stomach. It is a whoosh of speed, a momentum impossible to break, the dark beating down on her, its suffocating menace.

She loses it – engulfed by panic this time – imagining her nails as claws tearing at the thick glass above the sink, too high for her to reach. How she wants to smash it, rage at it, bite it, scream and explode – rip out the fabric of this horror hole, brick by brick.

How sweet the life going on outside – its irrepressible persistence, the cheer and warmth, of contact, however fleeting, with the big human family. And the woman in the kitchen – how colourful and vital she now seems – how charming her blank tart nature – her dullness alluring – seen now in the bleak black of the piss-stained toilet, where she was trapped!

How creative the graffiti now seems to her – that someone, some people, had the impulse to make their marks on the world about them – breaking up the nullity of each day – a reminder they are part of this human jamboree, they too are existing. Isn’t her impulse to roam, to see the world afresh the same impulse as theirs – to imprint the blank page of each day.

“Help!” She screams, wails – her heart filling with the repressed rage of the cage of birds that had made her almost physically sick. An old lover had pointed them out to her, marvelling at their beauty, in a hideous museum of nouveau riche complacency – the home of his wealthy friends, flush with cluttering objets d’arts, paintings, art deco pin ball machines – expensive tat stuffing the walls – dripping with an eagerness to point to the world their success – that their life amounted to THIS! And those birds – why were they there – trapped – their voices muted – wings clipped – able to hop and dart among the swings and their phoney freedom – how she hated that wicker-bowed cage – dreaming and scheming that long night whether to rise, tip-toe down the grand spiral staircase and free them.

Only she lacked the courage – she knew she’d be spotted – caught out – how could blaming a nocturnal thief be believed for the escape of their prized collection of ‘birds of paradise’? She would have had to scheme to cover her tracks – the plan getting ever more complex – making off with pricey modern art trophies, to frame a picture of a break-in. One lie is a deck of cards – like the routes and schemes that made her life seem so merrily exciting, so brave, daring and varied.

She is stuck in a toilet. Her fevered mind pierces the dark to the world outside – the other side of this door – where she longs to join in. Be part of it. Be the life she so desperately wants to feel, to express. Oh shit, fuck, fuck, bloody fuck – let me out of here!

Her voice is enfeebled, but its echo loud. She gives up. Silence. Drip, drip, drip of the tap and its broken washer – a toilet – unspent rage – a sweet helplessness, tears, heaving sobs. She remembers the ants running around the candle her last night in Assisi. Not even a day ago. They were drawn to its flame, on the floor of her room – veering towards the light, then marching away again. Back and forth. Arrested she’d been, watching them – knowing, even when everything was bright and well, that she was just like one of those ants. They were mirroring her own circles, reaching out for the sun – her family of ants!

Time stretches on around her – an unending monotony of thoughts mapping a distant landscape, conjuring illusive worlds, as alienating as they are empty. And Alec, surely he sits somewhere among them, as she – like an ant – goes round and round, avoiding the guttering candle’s glare of her mind in the vast space around her.