She slept on trains.
Those were fast trains, quiet and efficient. Railway was like a mindless intersection of veins in a staggering body, and trains were this constant stream of blood seeping profusely as if from an open wound. Fascinating mechanism if you cared to think about it. Which Emily did quite often, especially in those first few months after her transfer to the south. When she couldn’t sleep.
Two years ago, more or less. Serene day in late May when she was coming home with the bad news. How would Charlie take it? What could she possibly tell him to stay? She bought two milkshakes and sat on a park bench, thinking how irresponsible it was – to be drinking milkshakes on a day like that. She weighed her options. “Charlie, if I go, I would not be able to make love to you. Once a week, maybe, but more like once a month. Are you okay with that?”
Charlie smoked incessantly. He was anxious, he showed her a few pay slips from the newspaper. She couldn’t quit, not now. He brought up babies. Out of sheer desperation Emily threw a ceramic cup in his direction and it missed narrowly and broke the window. The argument proved to be short-lived. As a way of apology, Emily admitted she went too far and promised she would accept the transfer and how would he feel if she fucked the living daylights out of him that very night. “All right”, said Charlie. It was to be their last time for quite a while.
And then it began. A terrible drag at first: bad smell, bad neighbours, one long monotonous view stretching outside. She had to get used to that. She had to find something to do. Each train journey took forever, which in numerical terms amounted to one hour fifty-five minutes. For some reason, she could not fall asleep and was reduced to reading chunky erotic novels, listening to latest MTV hits, watching comedies on her laptop. None of it worked. And then Martin came into her office, sized up those two monstrous bags under her eyes and asked what the problem was. Then, before she could think of a reply, he offered to drive her to the station. That first time they had sex in a remote parking lot, in the backseat of his car, amid a handsome bunch of red roses, and it felt good. Next morning Emily fell asleep on the train. She had a nightmare. Something complicated, full of layers she could not peel away.
More nightmares followed. A long, endless string of nightmares, pounding like some horrible train. And then Charlie came up with a solution. Of all people – Charlie.
A brief buzz of a text message scalded Emily’s upper lip. Martin. What could he possibly want at 6:15? She glanced at Charlie sleepwalking through the kitchen. Half-naked and even a tiny bit attractive. A slight tinge of shame as Emily typed her curt reply: ‘busy’.
She knew: once you got used to your daily routine, there was nothing so annoying as those minor changes you were not even supposed to notice. But you did, and even a displaced sugar-bowl could make your nerve cells explode violently and spill your guts all over the kitchen table as well as the confused faces of your husbands, sons, daughters. Emily felt this was not a great start to her day. A leery question from Martin (what was it with men and their morning lust?), Charlie pointlessly obstructing her sleepy vision.
Emily grew tense. Charlie had to be in the kitchen for a reason. No pressing deadlines. No concerns about her schedule. Unlike her, Charlie knew nothing about insomnias and bad dreams, which she could often see in that vague, oblivious smile blanking her first thing in the morning. Annoying, but also peaceful. “As you were”, it said. But now he was awake, and judging from the nervous and noisy way he was sipping his tea, he clearly wanted to talk.
“Stop this, Charlie. What is it?”
“I was thinking”.
It wasn’t going to be about their sex life, was it? Just in case, Emily dropped that frown and smiled.
“I was thinking. I know it’s been two years, but things have changed. Everything’s going well in the newspaper, and there’s even talk of me…”
Emily could see where this was going, she had expected it. Well, the simple truth of it was that she was not going to quit now. 18 months ago, maybe, but not now. Babies? No. She wasn’t ready.
“I know how hard it is for you”. Charlie stopped drinking tea for a second and focused on the words. Words didn’t help. “Early mornings like this. Trouble sleeping. Train journeys taking four hours of your life each day. What I mean to say is – you can quit”.
Emily often thought about that: for all his semi-successful life in writing, Charlie was hopelessly monosyllabic whenever he tried to talk to her. He was obvious. She never had to overpower him, she won by default. Now was a good example. He left too many holes for her to slip through.
“Well, but thanks to you”, she faked a sunbeam, “I no longer have trouble sleeping”.
And that was that. Emily checked the phone screen, made a face (one more second lost, and she could be late) and got up from the table. In the hall, Charlie slipped a familiar blue envelope into her coat, then a swift kiss, then she left for the station.
Blue envelope was a romantic connection that was not supposed to be there. Emily knew that. Charlie had to know that too. But there it was again, light blue, carefully folded, in the right pocket of her coat. Emily knew that at some point today she would have to open it and read those five pages densely covered with words. Sometimes she discovered six or seven pages, in which case she would sigh and even skip a few lines. Yet there was an odd thing. Whenever she discovered that the blue envelope contained only four, even three pages of Charlie’s handwriting, she felt disappointed. She felt lost.
There was no particular rule as to when Emily opened the envelopes. Sometimes she opened them straight away, on her way to work. Sometimes she saved them for the return trip, realising how she might need a little peace and quiet after the constant nerve-wreck that was her job. After Martin’s mad lust and tons of paperwork, this was the kind of therapy she needed. Purring to herself with quiet delight.
This morning, she decided to open the envelope as soon as she got on the train and took her seat (near the aisle, next to a fat teenager with a heavy breath, not really what she wanted). 10 pages. Emily checked the number a few times before reading the first line. These letters, she knew, meant as much to him as they did to her. Each one of these letters was something unfulfilled deep within him, finding release. It was a mad idea, completely insane, and they never told anyone. She laughed at first but gradually they both grew into that experience. Newspaper articles stifled his imagination, and this was a chance to do something else. Invent characters, create fiction. And so there he was, toiling away at his writing desk, killing her nightmares with his dreams.
The fact was, outside nighttime Emily had trouble falling asleep. So Charlie wrote dreams for her.
For ten minutes Emily struggled to get past the first line. Anxiety got deeper and more intense, beating against her temples like a bad headache. What was going on? Weren’t these letters supposed to calm her down, create an illusion of sleep? Restless, she looked around and saw people texting and receiving texts, involved in some kind of undercover communication with each other.
To Emily’s horror, the dream was not getting better. For the first time ever, Charlie failed. But why did he fail? What did he do wrong?
And how did it work, exactly? Well, Emily could not fall asleep, nightmares being as far as she could get. Which was were Charlie came in. He wrote stories for her. Fairy-tales full of made-up lands, bizarre plots and extraordinary creatures. Places to get lost. Charlie could do that. God knows he was hopeless at so many things, but that he could do. Fantasy worlds for hyperactive children (well, wasn’t Emily just a hyperactive child?), full of chivalry and lucky escapes. Each fairy-tale consumed her mind, her senses, and she felt her whole body sink deeper and deeper into oblivion. With her eyes still open. It was not like these dreams sent her to sleep. It was like she fell asleep by reading them. After that last line, after the final resolution (so many shades to a happy ending, Charlie was good), Emily woke up. Waking up was a painful process because reality served up rampage. It served up Martin, who was her lover, and Charlie, who was her husband. Reality served up pointless office work, bad weather and a fat teenager with greasy hair and a heavy breath.
Imagination, not flowers in the backseat, once brought them together, attracted them to each other. Imagination, not flowers, kept it alive while they were separated by a hundred miles, him at his desk, her on a fast train falling asleep to some extraordinary dream.
No escape this time. This time Charlie failed. Emily folded the letter and put it back into the blue envelope. She had only managed two pages when it was time to leave the train. People in slow-motion, though not like in a dream. Never like in a dream.
Martin stopped his thrusts but remained on top of her.
“You don’t respond. It’s like you are not even here. Briggs is quiet today”.
Briggs was Martin’s ginger cat who made growling noises every time they were making love. As if a dozen angry mice were pulling him by his whiskers.
“It’s not Briggs, it’s Charlie”.
The name was an orgasm-killer, a sex-slayer. In a matter of seconds Martin’s cock grew limp, he fell down beside Emily and lit a cigarette.
“Tell him you had to stay longer, finish a report. For Christ’s sake, Emily”.
“You don’t understand. It’s a dream”.
Martin offered her a cigarette, Emily declined. Instead, she told him about the blue envelope. Something she was perhaps not supposed to tell anyone, let alone Martin.
“What am I supposed to say to that?” Martin asked.
Two frustrated lovers, half-covered by blankets, sulking at each other, facing a breach.
“This time he wrote about me”.
“How do you mean?”
“Give me that cigarette”, Emily said. “It’s about me. Not some lovely girl with golden locks and freckled cheeks. It’s me. Waking up in the morning, getting on a train, reading a letter. Do you understand? Every last detail. My hair, my shoes, everything”.
“Am I also there?” Martin asked. “Does he know?”
“We’ve been through this many times. You don’t have to worry about Charlie. He doesn’t know”.
“Can I read it?”
“No”, she said. It was the kind of ‘no’ that implied no argument.
“Well”, he said.
Emily lay on her back, looking at the white ceiling of Martin’s apartment. What was Charlie doing now, at that very instant, and when was the last time she asked herself that question? The heavy whiteness of the room made her sick.
“You are insane, both of you” Martin said. “I like that”.
Then, with a quick, snake-like movement, he slipped down along her body. With one quick, snake-like movement, Emily slid from under the blanket and began to get dressed.
There was sour taste in her mouth, and she tried to find a reason to call Charlie. Tell him what she wanted for dinner, ask him about his day. However, they had long passed that stage, and she hated to sound unnatural, desperate, like she was trying too hard. Effort could lead to consequences, and she had no use for them just now. What if her sense of anxiety was irrational (which it probably was), and she would come home to Charlie’s vague, tentative embrace, bland dinner, too tired to love. She would smooth things over with Martin (who was sulky, then angry, then abusive). Martin. Could this really be about Martin?
Emily opened the letter and began reading.
A strange man was calling her, touching her shoulder. “Yes?” said Emily, still unsure about what she was supposed to say. “Your ticket?” She apologised and took out her phone. She waited, but there was no reply. “Your ticket?” Emily got back to the letter. Her dream. “You have to show me your ticket”. The man no longer sounded polite, and it jerked Emily back to reality. She produced the ticket, coldly, as if in a trance.
Charlie knew. He knew more than was physically possible. He knew about this day, too, including Martin’s frustration about not getting what he wanted.
Gruesome, deadly fairy-tale which was like a description of her day, this particular day in late April. Emily felt naked, watched over by someone’s hungry, predatory eyes, but there was no place where she could hide. Somehow, Charlie knew that she would not finish the dream on her way to work, that she would feel this awful urge to read it on her way back. Gruesome, deadly fairy-tale climaxing with an oblique description of a sex scene. But it was not him and her. It was not Charlie and Emily. Because she knew his moves. Knew his foreplay, knew the way his fingers ran across her cold hips in some slow-burning, minimalist passion. This was not it. This was different.
She kept calling him on his mobile phone, feeling apprehensive and repentant, but the line was dead. There was something childish, helplessly infantile about her belief that if Charlie picked it up, everything would get back to normal.
There was no point in trying to follow the plot and so Emily largely skipped the first layer, the surface. Reality was inside, those horrible, bloody, disjointed bits of intestines that you were not even supposed to see. And then, on page nine, Charlie wrote about the train. Technical descriptions filled with details she found both engrossing and indecipherable.
Emily raised her head and studied the time-table. No stations anymore, hers was the last one. Suddenly, she remembered a film she saw with Charlie years ago, in a darkened cinema, about some guy trapped on a train. Each day he had to go through the same ordeal, again and again, ad infinitum. The resolution was always the same: the train crashed. Emily looked out of the window, like some trapped animal caged for slaughter. Indeed, that was the sentence from the dream, word for word. How was this all in Charlie’s letter, written yesterday, the day before yesterday, a million years ago? Question she could not ask herself, never mind answer.
She read on. She told someone to stop the train, but feebly and with no hope. She read on.
Then it grew dark.
Charlie was sitting in the living-room, watching breaking news on TV. Horrific scenes, disturbing images, bloody and indiscriminate, minutes after the tragedy. Ruthless men with cameras, vultures, feeling free, moving closer and closer still. Charlie had to look away a few times. Did they really have to show so much?
His phone was cooling off after those endless unanswered text messages and missed calls. Charlie had expected them, but even still – one or two times he almost gave in and heard her voice. Just to tell her yes, he knew it all, and the dream was a nightmare and the nightmare was what she got. Reality, gruesome, skin-deep, something you could not tinker with. What was it about reality? It was relentless, it despised happy endings.
All dead, they said. All dead.
Then it grew dark.
Charlie got up, replaced the lightbulb, lit a cigarette, picked up the phone and called Emily. Emily said she had just gotten off the train. She sounded exhausted. Eight hours in the office, Charlie knew, could be a drag. He went to the kitchen to warm up their dinner, fearing they might have gone a little too far this time. Thinking Jesus Christ, the kind of imagination that some people have.