I wanted to know what he was writing. He was typing quickly with his laptop balanced precariously on his knees. When I sat beside him in the train car he didn’t look up. He was old, really old, but his face still looked young and innocent despite the years. He wore a faded black suit coat over a red sweater and his grey hair parted neatly, tucked behind his ears. The square glasses balanced atop his rounded nose reflected the light of his laptop. Behind them I could see his bright eyes transfixed.
As the train lurched forward I watched his bonelike fingers flit from key to key. His typing was furious but consistent, constant and quick. The words were tapped out with certainty. His fingertips never hovered over a letter for too long and the creases over the backs of his hands wriggled as he moved. His skin was like paper held up to a torch, the type of paper found in old dictionaries. I could see his veins. There was a pause that broke the steady rhythm as he stopped over the letter Y for a second longer than he should have. I turned away and the typing continued, while a deep blush bore its way into my cheeks.
I looked to the window beside him and watched the fields go by, dulled by the stormy sky, with the old man forming the out-of-focus foreground. Not staring, but definitely utilizing my peripheral vision. The tap, tap, tap of the old man’s keyboard, the muted howl of the train, and the slow sway of the tall grass all lulled me back into my seat. The clicks of the keys never faltered, not even as my unfocused eyes started to droop. I could have slept. I could have dozed through the ride, stepped off the train and never thought of the man, his keyboard, or what he was writing, ever again. I could have.
“Hello,” I said.
No answer. His typing didn’t even slow.
“Do you mind if I ask what you’re writing?” I said, before I could regret my decision.
“I don’t think it would be wise for you to know,” he said, his worn voice sounding over the tapping of keys.
Huh? I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t. I just nodded and looked down at the leather seats. I wanted to dig my fingernails into them. I wanted to sink into the leather entirely, or fall past the seat and onto the tracks underneath. I wasn’t even offended, because he wasn’t being harsh. He sounded, what was it, courteous? No, cautionary. Like a parent telling their child not to touch a hot stovetop. But that was it, that was the part of my brain that was telling me I had to see what he was writing. The part that says go on, try it. Touch the stove, search for the words.
The other passengers didn’t notice the typing, which had drilled its way past my ears, and past my skull. In the opposite car there was a frail mother looking down at her napping son in relief. In another, a man in a tight suit occasionally checked his phone, answered a call, and then returned to looking longingly out the window. Across from him an old woman chatted vigorously at a teenage boy beside her, who looked straight on and nodded occasionally. He had an earphone plugged into his opposite ear and a grim look on his face. All of them were in various stages of insanity, and all of them were valuable distractions for a little while. But the keys still clicked in the background.
The glare of the screen was pulling me in, yanking at my retinas, telling me to look at it. I felt crazy—absolutely insane—for wanting so badly to see what was written. The sprawling text, unknown to me, was my fixation. It was like I knew that every second the words were scrolling by, replacing the last, I was missing all of them. I needed to know them, see them, and I was missing them.
I leaned, stretched, propped my head on my hand, even slid towards him. He would angle his laptop away, tilt the screen, move further towards the window, all while typing. He’d smile too, just a small smirk. It made his wrinkles multiply.
I could swear someone was tapping on my skull from the inside. I couldn’t feel it but I could hear it, bouncing off my bones. Every other sound was dulled by it, there was nothing else left to listen to. Watching the other people on the train, alive but silent, made me dizzy. I wasn’t there. I was watching something, and there was a fourth wall in the way. The lined hands of the writer running over the keyboard, pressing keys one at a time, was all I could focus on without spinning out of my seat.
I tried to pick up the words as he typed them. I guessed at the letters, and at the words. I tried with sentences, but when I strung them together they made no sense. I was just projecting my madness onto the keyboard and forming letters out of thin air. He gave me a breathy chuckle and slowed his typing. And I caught it, the smallest glimpse. It started with a C and ended with a quick and flourished tap of G—Crying.
A burst of high-pitched squeals filled the train as the child in the opposite car erupted into tears. His startled mother patted and cooed at him to try and calm his sudden outburst. I looked back at the old man. His mouth twitched into a grin.
The train stopped. As soon as the brakes started clinging to the tracks and the train started to slow I felt a drop. It was my stomach, my head or my heart. Something inside. When everyone started to stand I hesitated. I had to push myself off the seat with my arms because my legs felt too numb. I dawdled towards the exit and looked back. The man remained in his seat, a fixed point, while all the others around him left. The train was at the end of its line.
The burly businessman blocked the writer from view as he carted his suitcase towards me, where I stood in front of the exit. I hopped onto the platform to get out of the way. I forgot.
It was much later, when I received a thick envelope with no return address containing a long manuscript, that I thought back to the train ride. It was held together by a massive clip, and printed in crisp black ink on the cover was my name. I turned to the first page, which began,
‘She is born on April 24th 1986…’
My birth date, although not difficult to come by, looked strange on the page. Following the date in compact little paragraphs were descriptions of my parents. The auburn colour of my mother’s hair plastered to her forehead with sweat, the way my father’s smile contrasted the tears in his eyes when he saw me for the first time. My scrunched up red face as I came roaring into the world. All of it was written as if it were simultaneously happening.
Every time I turned a page I remembered something for the first time. From picking gravel out of my grazed knee a week after I’d learned to ride my bike, to my mother’s warm smiles welcoming me home from school. The summer nights by the sputtering bonfire with long-gone friends, and nights alone in my room. Everything was so right. The pain was there, and so was the afternoon light and the warmth of the fire. I held the story of my life in my hands and it was heavy with accuracies.
I had read partway through my teenage years when I saw a small note sticking out of the mound of paper, just under the halfway point. I skipped ahead. Written on yellowed card in scratchy and unpractised handwriting were the words,
‘From your travel companion. Sorry for being so conspicuous.’
Understanding is a funny thing. Sometimes you get it straight away and sometimes it takes a while, but either way it feels brilliant. Like a shining light. Like the glare of a computer screen. I read the chapter the note was attached to and everything inside me dropped. My stomach, my head, my heart. Everything inside.
‘She is looking at me, fighting with me, trying to decipher what I am typing, trying to take a peek back at her life before it is done.’
I laughed. I laughed through tears, until I felt my stomach back inside me, aching, until the floor had dropped and the room didn’t exist anymore. I closed the manuscript, intent on leaving it to gather dust. I didn’t want to read further. I didn’t want to ruin the ending.