this one, unfortunately, by me.
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death”
«Marta’s problems started at the age of four,» Lukasz is reading. «But she didn’t develop more serious symptoms until her sixth birthday.»
Early grapes of night roll along just outside the window. Some empty bags of chips lying on the ground, an old lady stomping on them with her foot. Lukasz and Marta are sitting next to each other, on the seats just in front of her.
Giorgos is on the train with them. «What’s this all about?»
Little they seem to care about the hour the train will arrive at the station.
Marta replies without raising her eyes from the screen. «They made me this medical certificate years ago, back home. Don’t take it seriously.»
Lukasz starts laughing, quietly. «Please, this is hilarious. Marta, always having been a talkative child, around five years old appeared to become unquietable. Unquietable?»
Marta takes off one of her headphones, smiling. She looks at Lukas, without interrupting him.
«She began to repeat similar sentences several times before calming down, even when she thought nobody was listening. The moments Marta was quiet through the day got fewer and fewer, but her topics were broad and general. Then, at the age of six, she started talking mostly about a specific subject.»
Giorgos, red on his face, is trying to stifle a laugh.
«What kind of medical papers do you have in your home city?»
Marta claps on her knee in a burst of laughter and the second headphone falls from her ear. «Come on…» she starts, in an attempt to sound serious. But then she just shakes her head, quiet.
«You shouldn’t have shown me, you knew it.» Lukasz smiles.
Giorgos, on the opposite side, can see how the old lady is falling asleep. She can’t understand their language, for sure. It’s just the four of them, in the whole wagon. And while the lights on the train headliner tremble for less than a second, he can’t help thinking about how at some point this will all be over. The train will arrive and they will get down and go home. But he doesn’t say a word.
Lukasz, still holding Marta’s phone, seems to be looking at Giorgos. A few centimeters below the edge of his woolen cap, his eyes are flickering. «But wait,» he says. «Obviously there’s more.»
He looks like he’s going to keep on reading, but he suddenly shuts up. His facial expression changes from one moment to the other.
«What?» Giorgos is asking.
«Marta,» Lukasz sounds too serious to be Lukas. «Is this true?»
Giorgos tries to catch their eyes. «What?» he asks again.
Marta nods and starts the recount of what might have happened when she was seven. The two guys don’t interrupt her anymore. When she stops talking, the wagon is silent: the train is feeble, the night is speechless.
・ Not much can happen in less than this time
Not much can be brought away from this ride.
I’ve been waiting almost all my life
To become someone else.
I was using other people’s words
Until someone understood
Where I got them from. ・
The man opened the door of his office. Posters of cartoon cats were hanging on the wall behind his desk. One of the cats was green. It was climbing a tree but it was probably going to fall before reaching the foliage. The man seemed to not even see it while coming inside the room. He looked tired and pale.
He slowly reached for his armchair, then he sat with an empty look in his eyes. His back relaxed against the seat, he checked the voicemails on the office phone. The window on the side of the desk was small, but the morning gleam came in strongly enough to light his wrinkly fingers, pressing the telephone buttons.
Doctor Gataki, good morning. I am Marta’s mother, I called you to talk about today’s visit. We were supposed to come to your office at 3, but this morning Marta’s teacher… she asked me to go talk with her after the kids’ lunch. Would it be a problem if we arrived, like, half an hour later?
The man exhaled, sinking deeper in his armchair.
He pressed the button again, but there weren’t any other messages.
There was a picture on the corner of his desk, but he was trying to not look at it. Only, sometimes it became too difficult. It’s just a photo, he used to tell himself, I can take it off any moment. But he couldn’t. The photograph was there every morning and the man was starting to hate that office only because of the photograph. Slowly he wasn’t hating only his office anymore.
It’s been six months already, you will forget about it. That’s what he was saying six months before. You will forget about it. After a while, he just gave up.
In the first drawer of his desk there was a pen and a brown block notes.
He took them and wrote some words in Greek, then he closed it.
・The moment I finally managed
To become someone else
Is when I realized
That maybe I should have stopped trying.
Not much can happen in less than three weeks
Not much can be brought away from this ride,
But a lot can change in one night.・
Please Marta, please, mom is saying. I had to tell the doctor that we’re going to be late, but now, please, stop running.
Mom always says please when I’m letting her wait. I don’t want to go today, I told her already.
I don’t like the doctor’s office. It’s sad. I don’t know if the doctor is sad too, but the place is. There are the cats paintings there, and the green cat looks so tired. It’s climbing the tree but it never gets to the top, and this for me is sad. Every week I come into the doctor’s office and the cat is always there. I know that the cat can’t move, but the doctor should replace the painting with one in which the cat is already up there.
It would be nice.
Mom is trying to stop me but she can’t, just like the green cat can’t climb. It’s normal. She follows me from room to room and says Marta stop, you have to go, we’re already late.
I can’t leave home now, I shout. if I do, who is going to take care of Giorgos?
When I tell her about Giorgos, mom freezes every time. I can see how the name alone makes her shiver. I bet it’s because it was the name of dad. Where is Giorgos now, honey? she asks slowly, almost spelling out.
I stop running. In the garden, I say.
What is he doing?
He’s waiting for me.
Mom holds on to the door handle, pale. She stands but she looks weak. Her eyes look so empty. Now that she’s not chasing me it’s not so funny anymore. Come on, she murmurs in a low sweet tone. Go get your shoes now, Marta, doctor Gataki is expecting us. And of course, I do.
Giorgos can wait a little longer.
・ Because I couldn’t stop for Giorgos,
He kindly stopped for me.
The Train held but just Ourselves –
And Lukasz and a Sleeping old Lady. ・
People want you to change, and he knew it. If you can’t change they want you to pretend you did, and he knew that too. To be fair, doctor Gataki knew it better than anyone else. Your relatives start to judge you again, as they were doing before you got married. Your colleagues start thinking there must be something wrong with you. And if you can’t take care of your own crisis, how are you supposed to cure other people’s minds? You can’t. That’s the answer.
You will forget about it, he was almost begging the girl, two hours before. You will forget about this Giorgos.
Every kid has an imaginary friend, he told her soon after. But she had to let it go now, after three years. And stop talking about him all the time.
He was alone again now, in his office, trying not to look at the photograph on the desk. I will be fine, he said to himself once again. He poured another glass and started drinking while typing heavily on his keyboard.
‒ The moments Marta was quiet through the day got fewer and fewer, but her topics were broad and general. Then, at the age of six, she started talking mostly about a specific subject. An imaginary kid, named after her dead father, is who she claims to be seeing around her all the time. She can describe him precisely and recollect memories she thinks she spent with… ‒
As soon as he finished typing, he chugged his whole glass in one shot. He was feeling dizzy and sleepy. He turned around in his armchair and looked at the green cat on the cartoon poster. He kept staring at it but, no matter how long he stared, the cat wasn’t reaching the top of the tree.
・ I’ve been waiting almost all my life,
And I was using other people’s words
Until I understood
I got them from myself. ・
On the cold of the train in a dripping night that could go on forever, Lukasz handed the phone back to Marta. They sat there for a while.
Silent, feeble. Speechless. No one of the three could stop thinking about how sometimes the tree just doesn’t let you climb up. You got to accept it.
Giorgos was the first one to speak. «Do you guys think we should check where we are?»
Marta smiled at Lukasz. He smiled back and hugged her.
Giorgos got up. «I’m going to see if the toilet is free.» he said.
Lukasz didn’t notice. While walking down the wagon, Giorgos couldn’t help but notice that, in the meanwhile, the old lady woke up and left.
all pictures by Abbas Baig.