Night Train to Athens

The London Magazine - - NEWS - John Kin­sella

He was nine­teen and she was twenty and they’d ‘met’ ten min­utes ear­lier, seated op­po­site each other on the Pa­tras-Athens train which was tak­ing pas­sen­gers such as them­selves just off the Brin­disi ferry. If they’d seen each other on the boat, they hadn’t re­alised it — it had been a rough pas­sage from Italy and peo­ple were ei­ther vom­it­ing over the side, en­sconced in a self-in­duced dark­ness be­low, or putting on a sto­ical face and shut­ting ev­ery­thing out of their pe­riph­eral vi­sion. It was a full and sickly train wherein every rock on the rails brought back the hor­ror of the cross­ing. It wasn’t due to get into Athens un­til 11.30pm, and though it was April and the days longer, few looked at the scenery.

He had not been sea sick, but had been un­der the weather with booze. He was booze-sick though wak­ing up and try­ing to take in the weird light clasp­ing stunted trees and vaguely fa­mil­iar ge­ol­ogy. Where in Aus­tralia did it re­mind him of — some­where, he was sure?

She was Amer­i­can and her jacket said so. A col­lege girl — Pomona. He’d no­ticed it straight away, lug­ging his back­pack down the aisle be­hind her, and then, see­ing that seat­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties were nar­row­ing rapidly, swing­ing the back­pack up onto the rack above the seat she’d just walked past. He then slot­ted him­self into the seat and stared out the win­dow try­ing not to at­tract at­ten­tion, to not of­fer a warm eye to any­one. He was not par­tic­u­larly so­cia­ble. As Ge­orge Thoro­good sang, I drink alone...

But she’d turned around to see what the noise was as the back­pack was launched up­wards, and one of its straps had gen­tly caught her arm, and she looked at him slide into the seat and sized up the seat op­po­site and thought, or just about thought, be­cause the de­ci­sion was quicker than thought, too fast for full pro­cess­ing, that this boy looks safe and marginally in­ter­est­ing but not too in­ter­est­ing, mild but not an­o­dyne. And so she swung her own

pack up, even more skil­fully than he, not be­ing ‘un­der the weather’ in any way, and took a seat.

And as the train filled, they both stared out the win­dow at the plat­form and all that in­formed it, and nei­ther stud­ied the other. They hoped that the seats be­side them would be taken to di­lute the in­ten­sity, but they weren’t. There ex­uded some­thing be­tween them that kept everyone else away, for every other seat was filled. She imag­ined that the other pas­sen­gers could see some­thing in the boy op­po­site that she couldn’t — some­thing off­putting, if not threat­en­ing. With­out look­ing over at him, as the train pulled out of the sta­tion, she re­con­fig­ured the glimpse of his face she’d had, she re­con­sti­tuted him against the win­dow, against the scenery be­hind, slip­ping like dam­aged film.

She saw him as a poor fit with the rest of the world, a scruff who was barely con­scious of the way he looked to oth­ers, but still a bit con­scious, just a bit, and this bit was piv­otal. He was dark and sullen and skinny. Very skinny, she thought, be­neath that army sur­plus jacket with its ‘No Nukes in Fre­man­tle’ patch across the sleeve fac­ing the aisle. He hadn’t re­moved his jacket and she knew he wouldn’t.

He broke first and stared longer than was po­lite be­fore re­turn­ing to the blank of his win­dow. This first en­counter with Greece, a coun­try he’d ob­sessed over for years. The coun­try of the Spar­tans and the Athe­ni­ans, and Thucy­dides. The train would cross the Corinth Canal! He was look­ing for an­swers but hadn’t fully for­mu­lated the ques­tions and he knew this was ap­pro­pri­ate. A cliché he was okay with. He just wanted to be there. Back to the roots of West­ern op­pres­sion, he sud­denly said aloud — it had es­caped.

What? she asked, sur­prised but keen.

Sorry? he half asked, with a touch of sar­casm, at­tempt­ing to mask his own em­bar­rass­ment.

She knew this, but con­tin­ued; to kick­start a con­ver­sa­tion be­cause she was

lonely and bored and sick of trav­el­ling, es­pe­cially since her col­lege friends had dumped her for act­ing ‘weird’ and hang­ing out with some ‘reds’ in Italy who quickly left her be­hind once their ‘leader’ had man­aged to sleep with her... You said some­thing?

He fid­geted and shuf­fled and said into his hand, Sorry, I was think­ing aloud.

Oh, she said, straight away know­ing he was rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced with girls, and was un­easy about his mas­culin­ity and the im­pres­sion he might or might not make, though he wasn’t fully aware of this... Oh, sorry. You’re go­ing all the way to Athens?

Yes. Yes, I am. And you?

Yes. And then she let the rock­ing of the train and the fad­ing light and the strange­ness of the un­fa­mil­iar with its even stranger sil­hou­ettes, in­vest the si­lence with fore­bod­ing and po­ten­tial and noth­ing­ness. She thought, I am the more ex­pe­ri­enced here, and I need to take con­trol.

But then he started to talk, and spoke in a stream, di­rect­ing the speech at his re­flec­tion which was in­ten­si­fy­ing in the hazy glass of the win­dow, its sil­very foil re­ply to his mov­ing lips, a thin growth of stub­ble par­o­dy­ing their move­ment. He said, I started drink­ing when I was fif­teen but I don’t think it’s cool. I don’t like drink­ing, but drink. I guess that’s a warn­ing sign. I went to a coun­try school and the other stu­dents would steal and dam­age my books, scrib­bling over the pages of The Sym­po­sium. At univer­sity I stud­ied an­cient his­tory in first year and ar­chae­ol­ogy in sec­ond but left at the end of last year be­cause it’s all a load of shit. I want to go to the Acrop­o­lis and meld into the col­umns, I want to go to Myce­nae and be­come part of the Lion’s Gate, I want to climb Mount Olym­pus and I want to con­sult with the or­a­cle at Del­phi. I don’t want to go home, even when my money is gone. I earned my money driv­ing grain trucks dur­ing har­vest. My fa­ther was a truck driver and he taught me to drive and I got my HC class li­cense when I was eigh­teen — that’s so I could drive a semi — and then my fa­ther goes and fuck­ing dies in a smash out near Bal­lado­nia at three in the

morn­ing. I hate the state, I hate so­ci­ety. I am a ni­hilist. So that’s that. End of con­ver­sa­tion.

She felt old lis­ten­ing to this and al­most wanted to mother him, but she was care­ful. She paused just long enough not to pro­voke him, sens­ing his anx­i­ety and in­tense re­gret at his own dis­play of im­ma­tu­rity. This sub­sti­tutes for sex­ual con­fi­dence, she knew. She paused, and then said, At the risk of sound­ing like a talk­ing head re­ply­ing to an­other talk­ing head, I think you’re right to hate the state and so­ci­ety. I hate my col­lege to start with though my par­ents have given their lives to send me there and the col­lege does all it can to sell it­self as more that a rite de pas­sage. It of­fers to im­prove the soul, to make a bet­ter Amer­ica. I hate that Amer­i­cans like me use Europe to con­firm their white­ness, to fill in the gaps of their elu­sive her­itage. The West is rot­ting and here I am con­firm­ing it for my­self while hav­ing a good time. A good time — I can say that with the venom of a Me­dusa.

At this stage she wanted to risk say­ing, Look at me, you won’t turn to stone, but she thought, even re­alised, he prob­a­bly would. Or would re­act with a de­luded hero’s over-the-top ac­tion which could lead to some kind of phys­i­cal or psy­chic dam­age to ei­ther one or both of them. So she added, So here we are, head­ing to Athens. And then she got up, arched back to reach into her back­pack, and pulled out a cou­ple of red ap­ples. He al­lowed him­self to watch her, load­ing his pe­riph­eral vi­sion as her sky-blue top rode up and re­vealed a con­cave stom­ach con­tort­ing into some­thing ideal then re­shap­ing it­self into some­thing too en­tic­ing for him to con­tem­plate. He mildly sali­vated then felt that guilt that ruled his life and made him a de­cent per­son de­spite his ni­hilism, that made him safe for girls to be around but also an ob­ject of gen­tle ridicule af­ter a girl had brushed up against him then gone on to friends to talk about what a strange and un­sat­is­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it had been, they thought, he thought, sort of. She placed one of the ap­ples in her mouth, punc­tured and gripped it with her teeth, and passed him the other, which he took, care­fully, to avoid her fin­gers with their short, chewed nails and no adorn­ment.

She slipped back into her seat, flicked her shoul­der-length hair from across

her left eye back into place, and munched with plea­sure. He tried to do the same, but nib­bled and felt nau­seous. Why was he eat­ing this ap­ple? This poi­soned ap­ple? Back into the mir­ror of him­self, com­plete dark­ness out­side show­ing him a Greece that was al­most half the truth. Dark­ness is myth, he told him­self, and con­tin­ued nib­bling, know­ing she watched him openly now.

It was a long, slow jour­ney, but they grad­u­ally deleted the time, or at least fell into myth­i­cal time such as they might both ex­pect when faced with ma­te­rial re­al­i­ties nei­ther was able to cope with. They talked of rad­i­cal ac­tion, they talked of their lack of friends, they talked of nine­teenth-cen­tury Euro­pean pol­i­tics, they talked of By­ron and Greek na­tion­al­ism, and they talked of the Gen­er­als and fas­cism. They talked, in bits, with si­lences, to the dark­ness, with she look­ing at him more than he at her, but with him hav­ing but­ter­flies in the stom­ach that were well be­yond booze or sea­sick­ness but were erupt­ing from an­tic­i­pa­tion and fear. Anx­i­ety gnawed at him and he knew he could do no bet­ter than he was do­ing now, be­guil­ing and re­pel­lent in his con­ver­sa­tion. This was his trick, it’s what he knew how to do, and it left him un­sat­is­fied and fright­en­ingly lonely, and ma­rooned and an­gry and, maybe, in a way he wasn’t sure of or couldn’t iden­tify, dan­ger­ous.

She en­joyed their con­ver­sa­tion more than she had any­thing else dur­ing her time ‘on the Con­ti­nent’. She en­joyed it so much she didn’t want to share it with any­one else. Nor­mally, she’d con­fide in some­one, any­one, even if they didn’t like her, but she knew she’d keep the dy­nam­ics of this jour­ney to her­self. She mapped it as she went. She thought, There’s some­thing to learn here that will be use­ful for me, will help me get away from the shit I’ve en­trenched my­self in. A mid­dle-class white Amer­i­can fem­i­nist who serves sis­ters of my choos­ing whilst be­ing in the service of the patriarchy. She ac­tu­ally thought pre­cisely this; it’s not words into her mouth, or her mind, it’s what she lit­er­ally thought. The words are still there, writ­ten into the mem­ory cells. She was young, very young, and he was even younger. Things can hap­pen like this — it’s easy to judge from a dis­tance, the vast gulf of ex­pe­ri­ence that alien­ates the mo­ment and makes those mem­o­ries some­thing else. Try­ing to make sense of it from afar.

And so they ar­rived in Athens, hav­ing barely no­ticed the pas­sen­gers leav­ing or board­ing at var­i­ous stops on the way, the ‘colour’ of the ‘lo­cal’ as in­flected through each shift in ge­og­ra­phy and cul­tur­al­ity from sta­tion to sta­tion, the in­ter­weav­ing of iden­ti­ties to make or be forced into na­tion. They missed the loss of light, the ar­rival of an over­whelm­ing moon­less dark­ness. Maybe they half-no­ticed, and would think it over later, decades later, but barely then, wrapped up in them­selves be­ing wrapped up in each other but with dif­fer­ent if equally press­ing anx­i­eties.

Yes, she was anx­ious now. They were step­ping off the train at 12.15am — late — into the half-light of the plat­form, and a fad­ing bus­tle. And then with their back­packs to the front of the sta­tion and the street, streets, and a cou­ple of taxis and a lan­guage nei­ther could un­der­stand. She walked as close to him as she dared. She was tall, but he was taller. We look like a cou­ple, she thought.

One of the taxi driv­ers made an in­ap­pro­pri­ate sug­ges­tion with his hands to­wards her and the boy seemed to barely no­tice. She had not said to him, or ad­mit­ted to her­self be­cause it went against her pol­i­tics of the lo­cal, of not be­ing the im­pe­ri­al­ist Amer­i­can, that she’d been warned ‘Greek men are worse than Ital­ian men and you can’t travel there as a young fe­male alone’. This warn­ing had made her want to travel to Greece more than any­thing, but then, she had at­tached her­self to this boy, to this strange weird un­usual pre­dictable-un­pre­dictable boy from a ru­ral Aus­tralia she had no idea about what­so­ever but equated to com­ing out of Kansas. And here they were, a cou­ple on the edge of a dark­en­ing street, in Athens, af­ter mid­night, and alone­ness was out there.

Do you speak any Greek? she asked.

A few words — I did a lit­tle An­cient Greek but that’s dif­fer­ent from Mod­ern Greek but I might have enough to get around.

I don’t have any, but I have some French. She added the French bit to re­as­sure her­self, re­ally.

He was star­ing into the dark­ness. She ven­tured, Do you have some­where to stay?

He tripped over his words and the but­ter­flies that had abated in the stream of talk — of bull­shit — came back, and saliva filled his mouth and he wanted a drink (he’d for­got­ten, how had he for­got­ten?), There’s a place I’ve been told about by a rel­a­tive, a two star place that’s clean and cheap down near the Plaka... I thought I might go there. I have a map in my guide­book.

She wanted to ask if he’d like to share a room, but stood still with her hands locked to­gether in front of her as he took out his guide­book and stud­ied the map in the poor light. The taxi driver touched her shoul­der then her ass. Fuck off! she said and the driver laughed and backed off and went to smoke with his mate as they made lewd mo­tions and the whole time the boy just kept his eyes on the map. Well, he said sud­denly, I’ve got to go... was nice meet­ing you. I hope they’ll let me in this late.

She was con­fused. She touched his arm, the NO NUKES patch bumpy be­neath her fin­gers. She hadn’t chewed her nails for hours but with­drew her hand and started chew­ing, speak­ing through nails and skin, I hope so, too.

And hitch­ing his back­pack with a shrug, as it was weigh­ing heavy, he turned to her and no­ticed her back­pack was also weigh­ing heavy and reached be­hind tak­ing some of the weight tem­po­rar­ily. You’ll need to ad­just your shoul­der straps or it will bug­ger your shoul­ders bad. It was cold, and her jacket was open and her thin blue top was twisted and out of kil­ter — the sky blue had be­come deepsea blue un­der the street­lights, in the night­light. He tried not to no­tice her breasts be­neath, prom­i­nent be­tween the shoul­der straps of her pack, and felt ag­i­tated that it made his groin elec­tric. He sup­pressed the feel­ing. He was learn­ing to do this. Thanks, she said, I think it’s right now. Well, seeya, he said, as light as he could muster and turned away and started walk­ing into the dark­ness.

She watched him; she looked back and saw the taxi driv­ers watch­ing, and she fol­lowed the boy at a dis­tance, their laugh­ter in her ears. He rounded

a cor­ner and she rounded it a short way be­hind him. His pace quick­ened and he didn’t look back. The taxi driv­ers couldn’t see her now. She stopped dead still and in the dark­ness dap­pled with smudged lights from houses and the odd street light on the other side of the road, she watched his sil­hou­ette be­come part of heroic Athens, myth­i­cal Greece. She felt the pol­lu­tion of the West all around her, buzzing elec­tric in the above­ground af­ter­life, the Hades of the sur­face.

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