The lyric in her earphones loped along to its melody: She’s a woman on a train…
Roya was thinking, I like this song. The Fixx lay down a cool rhythm track on there. I wonder, whatever happened to the band?
The doors opened and closed: siiishh—shhlungk! It was awfully late; she knew she should have left the publisher’s premises hours ago. All the blah-blah with her editor hadn’t gotten her one inch closer to wrapping the last chapter of Streets of Baghdad. And now she was alone on the tube and mildly irritated because that conversation had only confirmed her reputation for belaboured endings. Oh hell—I missed it! Someone got on at that stop. She chastised herself for failing to be alert at that hour.
But the stranger with the formidable jaw line wasn’t projecting threat or negative vibes. She wondered, whether she needed to be afraid… just because it was late. London is a safe city. The tube is safe…isn’t it?
The stranger caught her eye and nodded discreetly, barely. He adjusted the backpack on his shoulder.
Roya’s thoughts drifted back to the book and the passionate youth who had befriended her over a year ago. They were a tightly knit collective of diverse races and cultures, and the history of persecution suffered by their spiritual forerunners throughout the middle east had inspired her to initiate the Streets project, an historical novel set in the 1860s. Mamanjoon had suggested she get in touch with the youth in this community, since restrictions imposed on their Faith at home did not exist outside Islam’s sphere of influence, and her parents’ sympathies, though guarded, had made an impression on her.
She remembered she was not alone in the carriage. She thought about her stop and which exit she could take without having to walk past the stranger. She was not really concerned about the situation when all the lights went out.
Silence, but for wheels on rails and the rumble of the carriage. The train did not slow at all, as if catapulting through total darkness in an empty train after midnight were an entirely normal occurrence. She wondered what her stranger was thinking; he wasn’t saying anything.
Just as she started spinning ideas how she might work this encounter into her book’s ending, the stranger cleared his throat.
“I saw you in Notting Hill last week at Pete Sheppard’s reading and book launch.”
Roya’s thoughts were racing—the accent, he’s Persian. She wondered if he would recognise her origins despite the British lilt in her English. Still, what he had just said seemed harmless enough not to be a pick-up line.
“Yeah, I was there, but I didn’t see you,” she ventured cautiously.
“Most likely, I arrived late and kind of hid myself between the book shelves,” he responded with a hint of self-effacement in his voice.
“You’re a book lover, then?” Roya hoping she might get something useful out of this chap.
“I came with a friend; he’s a fan. I’m a foreign correspondent for the BBC, working mostly out of Afghanistan,” he said.
“Oh, you’re a journalist?”
“Yeah, and photographer.”
Roya was thinking, damn lights! Am I gonna have to get off in the dark? Where’s the flipping door?
As if in response to her thoughts, the train began braking. Disoriented by the unusual sequence of events, she was uncertain whether this stop was going to be hers.
For heaven’s sake, the PA announcing stops is down, too!
At this point she was not sure she cared or wanted to get off: fear of the unknown, perhaps akin to the fear experienced by the persecuted exiles facing the next stage of their banishment in Streets of Baghdad. There was an exhilarating magnetism in that terrible uncertainty, charged with possibilities she might yet explore.
As the train pulled in, the station lights mercifully on, she could see the stranger had not moved closer, still seated on the bench in the same place where he had adjusted his backpack. His body language was neutral, leaning forward, elbows on knees, no threat, no advance—siiishh!
In an instant she decided. I’m in the dark anyway, this train, my novel, why not a conversation with a stranger? Why not move into real-life uncertainty, and possibly birth a riveting conclusion for Streets? Should I speak Farsi?
She remained seated—shhlungk!—holding herself, and her eyes on Mr. Mysterious as the train pulled out of the station. In the last second of fading light, she noticed something: was it a harmless smile or a leer that walked across his face? A wave of fear washed over her as they proceeded into darkness.
Again her thoughts raced back in time to Baghdad. On the fateful day of departure from the city whose inhabitants she had learned to admire. What had my exiles seen in the faces of well wishers and foes, the Ottoman officials, whose duty it was to expedite their beloved’s banishment to remote reaches of the empire?
Roya’s thoughts circled conceptions of time as she contemplated the calamities that could befall exiles during a three-month journey to Constantinople, where their Beloved would suffer further indignities under edict of a sovereign who had colluded with her country’s government to destroy this nascent movement. What were three months under those circumstances? For that matter, what were a few minutes to the next stop on this railroad, speeding through darkness, only a hundred and forty years after Baghdad? Questions beyond these she would not invite into consciousness.
“You are Moslem,” the stranger said flatly.
“Where do you get that idea?” Roya focused on keeping a quaver out of her voice.
“Just a hunch. I overheard you talking to someone at the book launch. Your knowledge of traditions was evident in that conversation.”
Moslem, yes, she wasn’t about to lie. On the other hand she didn’t want to give him rope to hang her with. “Part of my research… uhh, for the book I’m writing.” Apart from geography, where was this person coming from?
“Aahh, you’re a writer, an independent woman.” The sarcasm in his tone was obvious.
Why did she have to come this distance only to collide head-on with old prejudices, whose public vigour had been resurrected with the revolution? She began to appreciate more, the dimensions of the parental plan to banish ‘homeland’ from their daughter’s coming of age, beginning with a western education. The air was now too charged to initiate conversation.
“Are your parents aware, Roya, that you’ve fallen in with a band of Iranian infidels and their misinformed western sympathisers, whom they’d managed to dupe?”
Oh please, he knows my name! He knows my friends!
“If for no other reason than the fact you’re living in London, the city which harbours the blasphemer of the Holy Quran, still at large under fatwa of death, it would be advisable for you and your parents’ well-being, if you would observe hijab, at least by donning purdah.”
Oh God in heaven, he even knows about my parents! At this point, the darkness had become suffocating as her mind slipped sideways.
Just breathe, Roya, just breathe, she repeated in her head, trying to calm herself. The train went into a curve. Faint light was visible in the tunnel.
The next stop!
Would she make it through the doors without breaking into a run, wondering if her exiles had run when they suspected they would be taken into custody, tortured, perhaps even executed without indictment or trial?
The stranger had not moved.
Her mind focused on the opening doors away from the stranger, she stood and exited briskly.
As the doors were closing, she looked back into the carriage at her laptop and manuscript satchel on the bench where she had left them behind.
Not the end of the world, she thought. Soft copies are with the publisher.
As the train began to pull out, the stranger stood and faced her on the opposite side of the closed doors, his mouth silently forming the words, “We know where you live.”
The train plunged into darkness as Roya turned to leave the station.
Don Stevenson is an American poet, writer, graphic designer, artist, and a member of the Windhoek Writers Club. With his family he made a home in Namibia in 1981. His children’s illustrated book, The Wonderlamp, was published in that year. Ancestors and Other Visitors, an anthology of poetry and drawings, was published in 2018.