Just then a train engine whistle was heard, and everyone was set in motion, stirred by an invisible tide.
The train arrived, slowing down with a misty squeal of its brakes and separating the two platforms of the station with its metal body. From the windows emerged heads of every shape - some with caps and hats, others bare - and dozens and dozens of hands rested on the sills. When the station chief raised the red flag and the conductor opened the door, the passengers jumbled together, with their voices and their things, as fathers directed the positioning inside the narrow cars, and mothers pulled on their children so as not to lose them in the crowd. Briefly, the effort of the everyday replaced the nervous calm of a few minutes earlier with the sweat of the necessary. Five minutes later two whistles were heard, a green light lit, and the train coughed and thrust itself forward, gaining momentum. It seemed about to stall as it started up, but finally grabbed hold of the inertia of the forward march, leaving the denuded and silent train platforms behind in a cloud of smoke.
Isabel didn't get on that train. It wasn't the one she was waiting for. Mother and son remained on the deserted platform holding hands, their condensed breathing coming from blue lips, beneath the azure daylight behind the dense, white clouds. Isabel's gaze traveled behind that train's last car, disappearing into the whiteness.
"Ma'am, are you not feeling well?"
The man's voice sounded very near. Isabel gave a start. Although the man had moved slightly away from her face, she could tell from his breath that he had a cavity or bad gums. It was the station chief.
"I'm waiting for the twelve o'clock train," answered Isabel with a voice that seemed like it wanted to hide somewhere.
The man looked up above the brim of his cap and checked the time on an oval clock that hung on the wall.
"That's the train to Portugal. It won't arrive for more than an hour and a half," he informed her, somewhat perplexed.
She began to fear the man's curiosity, that man whose hands she couldn't see but which she imagined had stained fingers and greasy nails.
"Yes, I know. But I like it here."
The station chief looked at Andrés with a blank expression. He wondered what a woman with a young boy was doing there, waiting for a train that wasn't due for quite some time. He concluded that she must be one more of the crazy ladies the war had unearthed. She must have her story, like everyone else, but he wasn't in the mood to hear it. Yet it is always easier to console a woman with lovely legs.
"If you'd like a coffee," he said, this time using the purr of a large cat, "there, in my office, I can offer you a nice dark roast, none of that chicory they serve in the cafeteria."
Isabel declined the invitation. The station chief headed off, but she had the sensation that he came back a couple of times to observe her. Feigning a tranquillity she was far from truly feeling, she picked up her small travel bag.
"Let's go inside. You'll get cold," she said to her son.
At least inside the terminal her lungs didn't hurt when she breathed. They looked for a place to sit down. She placed her hat on the bench and lit an English cigarette, fit it into her cigarette holder, and inhaled the rather sweet smoke. Her son was captivated as he watched her smoke. Never again would he see another woman smoke so elegantly.
Isabel opened her suitcase and took out one of her notebooks with lacquered covers. From out of its pages fell the slip of paper where Master Marcelo had written down the address of his house in Lisbon.
She wasn't planning on hiding out there for very long, just long enough to get passage on a cargo ship that could take her and Andrés to England. She felt sorry for the poor teacher. She knew that if Guillermo or Publio discovered that Marcelo had helped her flee, he would be in for a rough time. In a certain sense she felt guilty: she hadn't told him the whole truth, only enough to convince him, which, on the other hand, hadn't been hard to do. Lying was a necessary shortcut at that point. She had always known that Marcelo was in love with her, and it hadn't been difficult to get his help, even though she'd made it clear that her feelings didn't go beyond good friendship.
Copyright © 2011 by Víctor del Árbol. Translation Copyright © 2012 by Mara Faye Lethem
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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