Srijani Ganguly has just finished an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Limerick in Ireland. She has six years of experience as a journalist in India, and BA Geography and MA English degrees as well. Her stories have appeared in Five:2:One, The Ogham Stone, The Roadrunner Review, The Drabble and Didcot Writers till date.
Just A Little Push
The man is very busy, his job is such. But every April, without fail, he takes a few weeks off and hops on board a train. He’s been on the Palace of Wheels in India, the Trans-Siberian railway in Russia, and the original Orient Express when it was still functional. He’s travelled on local and regional ones as well. And he has loved it all—the feeling of being in motion, the gentle swaying of his body as the train chugs along.
Most of the time, he looks outside and admires the world. But there are other days, when he sets his sights within. He could be waiting for a train to arrive, or even boarding one, when the thought comes to him—that he might play a little game with his co-passengers. This year it happens the moment he decides the destination; there’s something about Canterbury that excites him, makes him gleeful.
He’s at London Victoria now, sitting on a bench and reading Waiting for Godot. Another second, and he places the book face down by his side and checks his watch. Ten more minutes to go. People pass him by and he looks at all of them. Some of them glance at him, and recoil immediately. It’s the hair that they notice first. He has long white hair, parted in the middle, that hangs till his shoulders. It’s are too white, almost luminescent. His pitch black jacket and shirt, grey trousers and black shoes cover most of his body, but his hands are still out there in the open. They are elegant, long and thin and practically bones. He wears a golden ring on one of them. It’s slightly loose, and he often takes it off to throw it in the air and catch it in the centre of his palm. He admires its shine for a second and then closes his fingers over it.
He does so now, inadvertently catching the attention of a passerby who makes the mistake of looking at the owner of the ring as well. The unlucky commuter feels a jolt deep within him when he does so, when he looks at the pale face of the man, his blood red lips, aquiline nose, cloudy grey eyes and, since he is smiling, his sharp white teeth.
Rattled, the passerby quickens his gait and accidentally bumps into a woman and her daughter. He apologises, hurriedly, and walks out of the station. And the woman, who wore the brunt of the collision, rights her dress while the girl looks around. It only takes her a few seconds to settle her eyes on the man. She looks at him unafraid, even when he smiles. So he lifts his right hand in the air and gives her a small wave. She doesn’t return the gesture, but she doesn’t cower away either. The next instant, her mother takes her left hand and drags her to the restroom.
The man checks his watch again. Any moment, the train will stumble into the station. He picks up the book and closes it, placing it under his right arm, and walks towards the edge of the platform. He wants to be the first one inside the coach.
He almost is, but someone pushes him when the Southeastern arrives, and he loses his balance for a few seconds. He sighs and steps into the coach, and rejoices in finding that no one is sitting in his favourite seat. It’s the one at the back, it’s always the one at the back.
A few minutes go by and he decides to look at his co-passengers. On his right, across the aisle, is a young soldier. He is wearing his fatigues, and is leaning his head on the seat. His eyes are closed. In front of him, facing the man, sits a middle-aged doctor. He is talking to a nun, a frail old woman, and it seems that they know each other. “Dr. Roy,” she’s asking, sitting in the seat next to him, by the window. “Would you like a biscuit?”
The man smiles to himself, and closes his eyes to begin the game but then a commotion catches his attention. It’s that same little girl from before. She has boarded this coach as well, and now her mother is placing their bags on the luggage carrier above his head. And now they are sitting down right in front of him, the girl by the window and the woman by the aisle. They got in just in time, it seems, for the train starts to move shortly after they sit down. The woman barely notices him and the girl glances at him once, and then looks out the window.
The man has never had a child, but there is something about the little girl, who is barely ten, that makes him protective of her. No, he won’t call it protective. It’s not a paternal feeling that he has for the girl, he is merely curious about the woman she might turn out to be. And so he decides that he’ll come to her last.
He catches her eye again, just as the woman takes out a drawing pad and a set of crayons, and hands it to the girl. “Here,” she says, “why don’t you draw what you see outside?” The woman then smiles at him, or tries to smile. She slightly recoils upon seeing who she’s sitting in front of, but she knows that she can’t shift to another seat or another coach now. She doesn’t want to appear rude.
The man can see all these thoughts go through her head and almost interferes then and there, but then he stops himself, tells himself to be patient. First, he thinks, as he looks to his right at the sleeping form of the soldier, he needs to see what this one is up to.
He is inside an old dilapidated house. It’s dark and he can’t hear a single sound, not even distant gunfire. And then he feels a presence behind him. A hand pushes him forward, “Go on,” someone says behind him. It’s Tim. “Go on, we don’t have much time.”
He enters a room where light is filtering in through haphazardly boarded windows. He can see a bed in the middle of the room and a closet on its right, next to the windows. Tim follows him into the room, goes directly to the closet and opens it wide. He begins to throw out every item of clothing he encounters, while he himself closes in on the windows. His hands pull apart a section of the boarded windows, and his eyes try to look out. He can make out more people outside. They are all positioned at different points - one behind a broken pillar, another behind a tree and a third crouched low behind an old car.
“Aha!” says Tim. “Found it!”
There’s a USB drive in his hands. He is about to speak when the world outside erupts in gunfire. They both duck, but it’s too late for Tim. A lone bullet seems to have flown through the gap in the window and lodged itself in his abdomen. He can feel his own lips moving, the words pouring out: “You’ll be alright, Tim. It’s just one bullet, and it can be taken out, we’ll get out of this mess.”
Someone from the outside runs inside then. She’s bleeding from his right arm. It’s Tina. “The bullet went through,” she says, jerking her head towards her own wound. And the two of them carry Tim outside, to a helicopter that seems to be waiting for them. He feels queasy when the helicopter lifts into the air, and wonders how it must feel to Tim, who is bleeding out from his gut. ‘
Tim's breathing is slowing down, coming in gasps of pain, and he is trying to think of something to say, anything that might help. But all he says in the end is, “I know”. He keeps repeating it till it becomes a chant, and by the time the helicopter reaches the camp, the chant has devolved into a long-drawn “No”.
Tim is hardly in there, but still they carry him to the medical tent. The doctor takes one look at the injury and purses his lips. “Will he be fine?” he asks, and the doctor looks him in the eye and lies. “Of course... Why don’t you lie down for a while? I’ll let you know when the surgery’s over.”
It's a new day when he wakes up, the sun is hardly awake and the camp is still sleepy, when he walks into the medical tent. The doctor's sitting on a bed with his face in his hands. Tim is nowhere to be seen.
"Will it get easier?" he asks, startling the doctor.
"No. No, it won't. It's only the beginning, I'm sorry to say."
A month later, it’s a young boy. A local, not more than five, and his arm is completely blown off. A woman is trying to fix him, even though her knowledge of the medical science is limited to basic first aid. She is tying her scarf around the stump protruding out of his elbow, she is crying but her eyes are wide and alert. She is looking at him. “Help me,” she is saying. “Please.” And soon he is picking up the child and running towards the hospital.
He doesn’t ask the doctor anything this time. He’s learned by now, but the woman is new. “How is he?” “Will he survive?” “What do you think?” She keeps asking him. “I don’t know,” he keeps repeating. Because really, what can he say?
And then he’s with her inside the army camp. She’s a journalist. But he thinks she’s much more. There’s something she’s not telling him. But that’s alright, there are a lot of things he’s not telling her. Nothing at all about the boy, for instance.
“You’ve been assigned to me,” she tells him later. “I need to travel to an abandoned village.” And he feels an anchor sinking in his stomach, rooting him into that spot with the realisation that one day she’s going to die right in front of him.
More death followed, some deserved but most of them unannounced and unfair. He's tried to cope with it, he really has but every day has been a struggle. So much so that at one point he thought he wouldn’t even get out of bed. But only a few days after that, he was discharged on medical grounds. People thought he was getting suicidal.
He didn't know if that was the truth. And he didn’t know what he had been doing in Iraq. What any of them had been doing there.
He was out now. But how many more were being sent there, getting stuck there? How many more were going to die?
“You could easily end this,” a voice suddenly speaks inside him just then. “Just go to a bridge, any bridge, and close your eyes when you’re at the edge. Sway a bit, move yourself with the swing of the wind, and let yourself fall into its lap. It will be the most freeing experience of your life. It’ll be so easy.”
So easy, the soldiers softly says out aloud, catching the doctor’s attention. But before he can begin to wonder what the soldier is dreaming about, the nun faces him and asks, “How are you, Dr. Roy?”.
How is he? He can’t say, he has no idea. And he hates it, absolutely hates it when someone asked him that question. Such an impersonal question masked as polite small-talk. How do you answer such a question? ‘Oh, I’m completely fine. It’s just that I no longer care for myself or my patients. I feel no relief when a patient survives and I feel no remorse when they die. I have no idea what I’m doing with my life, and the smile on your face is annoying me to no end. If I had propofol or any sort of anesthetic with me right now, I would douse my tie in it and smother you to sleep.’
He wouldn't call himself sad, but the fact was that he was unhappy. A simple joy brought no smile to his face, a piece of good news didn't register in his mind. People have started noticing too. Commenting that he looks depressed. Asking him if he's happy. And he tells them that he's fine, that he is fine.
But really, when was the last time he was happy? Truly happy. Was it the day of his son’s wedding? Probably. There is photographic evidence of it, too. Every photo from the wedding has him smiling or laughing, and even in that one picture where his back is to the camera, his arms are gesticulating in the air and the guest in front of him is smiling. But then, a month later, the feeling disappeared. And it was stronger this time. Perhaps it was to do with the realisation that he had nothing to look forward to anymore. Whatever it was, it was back again.
This uneasiness, this feeling that he had no purpose in life had always haunted him. Even when he was helping someone, saving their lives, that feeling stuck to the back of his mind. He couldn’t explain it himself and so he never tried explaining it to someone else. They would think him to be mad. “A doctor who thinks he has no purpose in life?,” they would say and stare at him in disbelief. "But your job is to help people, even save them from death. There is no higher calling in life than that!"
Well, that was bullshit. For a while he entertained the thought of visiting a therapist, of seeking out another medical professional's help. Perhaps they would be able to understand him. But he always stopped himself from doing so. “The patients might find out” was his excuse to chicken out, but deep down he knew the real reason was that he didn’t want to be fixed. A twisted part of him reasoned that having no purpose was perhaps his purpose in life.
And yet, not everything in his life was dreary. There was a place he visited often, when life tried to suffocate him. He'd sit in his chair inside his office, or close his eyes in his bed, and he'd be there.
It would always start with him sitting down in his car, driving out of the garage and never looking at the rear-view mirror. He would drive for hours in a few seconds and reach his destination. There would be no one in the vicinity, only a telephone booth and a small shop 10 km away. He'd have a small house, with one room filled with books and perhaps a few films (that would require a projector too) in the bottom-most shelf.
He'd spend his days outside, in the nature, depending on where he would live, perhaps go out to the river or the forest or the pastures. He'd lie down on the ground, close his eyes, feel the sunlight against his eyelids, feel the warmth, and tip his hat over his face. For hours he would stay like that, and perhaps, seeing him so still, a squirrel would come over and sleep on his chest or a bird would perch on top of his hat.
With dusk he would head back inside, cook some food, and sit inside the library. Maybe he'd watch an old film, forgotten but still loved, or he would read a book. And after finishing dinner, he would yawn, sleepy yet happy, and head towards his bedroom. A soft bed with softer blankets, a familiar pillow, and he would sleep a dreamless sleep.
Would he miss his family? Sure, he would. But nothing in life comes without a little sacrifice. And he'd call them every week, ask about their lives and tell them about his. Would it be a betrayal? In part, yes. It was entirely selfish to leave his family like that, leave his practice and all those patients.
It could never be possible, this fantasy. So he dips into it from time to time, on his lowest of lows, and it brings him peace.
He is standing in the shallows of a river, fishing, when a voice enters his mind. "Make this a reality. Go on a vacation, just you and no one else. Do it. Take a week off, and head to the mountains."
Could he do that? Leave his life behind for a few days? What if-
“Dr. Roy?,” a gentle voice interrupts his thoughts. Oh, the nun. He doesn't know if it's a curse or his good fortune that he came across a patient at the railway station. Most likely, it's the former.
He smiles and then feigns a yawn before he answers, “Sorry, I'm really tired. Do you mind if I take a nap?”
The doctor really does look really tired. And she wonders if he’s having trouble sleeping. She has that too. Especially now that she is nearing the end of her life. All her regrets and the piled-up guilt come to her at night.
The one incident that keeps coming back to her is half a dream and half a memory. There isn’t anyone else here. Just the waves and the sand. It’s a very old memory, of her as a child. After a while she begins to walk towards the sea. A shape begins to come into focus in front of her and she starts to run, or tries to, in the water. It’s another girl, close to her age, and she is drowning. She has no idea how to swim.
But then she slows down. She can easily reach out and help out the drowning girl, but she doesn’t. She stands in their in the waves and watches her swallow water and struggle to breathe. ‘Hel-l,’ the girl tries to say. ‘Nanc-,’ she attempts. ‘Pleassssse!’ But she doesn't move.
She can’t explain it later. She can’t explain it even now. What stopped her then. And then what made her, at the last moment, run towards the shore shouting and asking for help. The girl thanks her profusely at the hospital. “You saved my life, Nancy,” she says. “Thank you.” But all she can do is nod and smile, too afraid to open her mouth and allow the truth to drop out.
The truth was that it wasn’t the first time she had done something like this. Another time, it was her own brother, and she had just stood and waited for him to fall from his horse. Then it was her cousin, who she had pushed out on the road to see if a car would hit her. No car came along, so she was lucky. But it proved, all these incidents proves, that there was something wrong with her. There was a desire deep in her to see others suffer.
And on that day, on the beach, she could feel that urge the strongest. She wanted to stand and see another person die. But she overcame that desire, she was lucky. Luckier even than the drowning girl.
That very day, before she went to the hospital, she made a visit to her local church and decided what must be done. She couldn’t share her thoughts with anyone, they wouldn’t understand, so she had to take into her own hands, to correct her course.
She looks at her hands now. Old and wrinkled, but certainly not bloody. That’s a consolation at least. The dreams are something she’ll just have to live with, however much of a life is left in her.
It's not like she hasn't atoned for her mistakes. She has helped several people, receiving no thanks in return many times. Often she has walked for miles to provide assistance to a church in ruins, old and dying. She has stayed back at such places, worked with them for months to strengthen the foundation. These things have surely made up for her past. Surely.
But then why does she keep dreaming of the drowning?
At first she used the memory to propel herself herself, to do better and be better. But as her life went on and she withered into an old woman, she wondered if it was less of a lesson and more of a punishment. Was she being tortured for having entertained sinful thoughts?
Even when awake she was afraid. She never once ventured out into the sea, never once since that day. It didn't matter if she was far away from home, if she saw the sea, she trembled and ventured into the depths of the land, far away from the shores. She told everyone she was seasick, she was afraid of the waves, the sand burned her soles, but never the truth: "I'm afraid of who I was when I last went to a beach."
What if she hadn't done anything?, she thinks. What if she had just stood there, watching a life disappear into the waves. How would her life have turned out? Would she have continued to passively watch on as death took its share from the Earth? Would she have ended up in this life anyway?
She doesn't know, and that scares her. She thinks of praying to the Lord, yet again, and ask for his guidance. And then a miracle! Finally! Finally, she hears His voice. For the first time.
“Go to the sea,” he tells her. “What you seek, you shall find by the shores of memory.”
Tears begin to form in her eyes, unbidden, and she excuses herself. She gets up from her seat and walks towards the washroom. On the way, she meets the eye of the woman sitting with her daughter, and she sees pain reflected in her eyes, too.
The poor old nun, she thinks. What ails her? Is it a priest? Must be a priest. A pedophile. Oh she hates them, all of them. Men. They just can’t leave people alone.
She has been on edge the entire morning. First, someone bumped into her at the station, then she narrowly missed boarding the train, and now there was a soldier in the coach with her. And she was 100 percent sure he had been hired by her husband to follow her.
A month ago, she had realised that someone was tailing her in Bath. She went to the supermarket, he was there. In the cafe, he was sitting in the corner. When she got out of her local bank a few days ago, she spotted him near the corner. The next day, she placed a small knife in her bag and went outside to run some errands. Her daughter, as was the routine, stayed with her parents.
When she spotted him near the cafe, she walked over to him and slapped him hard. There were people all around her, and some even turned their heads in their direction. “Stop following me!,” she told him, gritting her teeth. She took out her knife then, and placed its pointed end into his stomach. “Do you understand?,” she asked him. He nodded and then stepped away from her.
When her adrenaline wore off, she found herself shaking in the cafe. A waitress came over and asked her if she was okay and placed a cup of green tea in front of her. She thanked the waitress, drank the tea and went home.
The first thing she did when her father opened the door was hug him tight, and then she looked for her daughter. She was out in the balcony. She picked her up from the chair, held her in her arms and cried. She cried for minutes. And her parents came over to watch from the doorway. "Are you alright?" they asked her, and she tried to tell them, through her tears and her daughter's hair, that no, she wasn't. And that the time had come for her to leave.
She had taken the decision in the cafe, trembling over her tea, that she had to go elsewhere. Anywhere. Just to be rid of her husband. She traveled to London first, hoping to lose whoever was following in the large crowds. On her second day in the city, she walked over to the train station with her daughter without any specific destination in mind. Canterbury stuck out to her so she bought two tickets. She hoped that she would be safe from her husband’s eyes here. But it looked like she was wrong.
She hadn’t noticed the soldier at first. But had slowly realised there was something off about him. His body language was all wrong. Even though he kept his eyes closed, and appeared to be sleeping, she can't help but wonder if it is just an act. What if he is waiting for her guard to be down?
She glances at her daughter then, to check if she was alright, and sees that she is busy drawing in a notebook. Her thoughts go back to the soldier. She wonders how she could stop him. Would the man and the nun try to stop her? Would the creepy man in front of her catch her hand and pull her away from the soldier, stopping her from harming him? Would the soldier himself defend himself? He probably would. Of course, he would. And he was a soldier. He was trained for a violent confrontation!
But then again, it's not like she is unprepared. She still has that knife from before; she didn’t feel safe if she didn’t travel without it anymore. She places her hand inside her purse and grips the knife’s handle, imagining the many ways she could stab the man in a hurry. His neck would be the most damaging, for sure. If she cut him well, sliced open his carotid artery, he would be dead within minutes. If that wasn’t possible, then she would aim for his thigh or his stomach—those would be the most vulnerable, she reasoned. But could she kill someone? Did she have it in her?
“Yes, you do,” a voice tells her. “Go with your instincts. You must do everything required to keep your child and yourself safe.”
Won’t they take me away from her? If I kill someone?
“Go to the King’s Bridge tomorrow. All will become clear to you there.”
She looks at her daughter again, and this time she looks back. She has his eyes. It scares her a little sometimes, to see that cold dark stare reflected in someone so pure. But she pushes those thoughts to the back of her mind. I hope you never have to go through this again. I hope you have a good life, she wishes, carding her hand through her soft hair.
Red or blue? What colour should the man’s hair be?
If the shirt is green, will blue hair go with it?
Oh, but where’s the blue crayon? Did I lose it somewhere? I'll make Mum buy me another set of crayons when the train stops. I hope she doesn't start crying. She does that a lot these days. Maybe she misses Dad. She does take his name a lot, when she is talking to Grandma and Grandpa. Maybe she really misses him. Like I miss him.
Maybe this drawing will remind Mum of him. But where's the blue crayon? Fine, hair’s gonna be red then. But will the shirt be green? Will that go with the blue?
“Try yellow,” comes a voice out of nowhere. “It’ll look good.”
She tries, dragging the yellow crayon across the paper, and is delighted. The voice was right!
The man is not always this successful. But he tries, to push people towards their deepest desires. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. And he knows what he does isn’t morally right; many times his guidance leads to death. But all he is doing, truly, is helping people move towards their destiny. Just a little push.
He likes to think of himself as the engine that leads these people towards their destination. Each station, each stop, a subtraction and addition of friends, ideas and decisions. Some trains are practically empty, and they hardly stop in their rush. But those sort are boring. Then there are ones that are bustling with energy and even a bit of chaos. Those are the best, those are the ones he loves the most.