Central station welcomed me, like an old friend. I stared at the magnificent arches, its beautifully decorated exterior; the station was probably the only place in the city that I admired, even though there was a multitude of people crammed inside these walls. Everyone inside the station was like me — eager to get as far away from the city as they could.
“One ticket to New Chesham,” I handed over a few notes from my wallet across the counter. I waited as the lady pattered away rapidly at the keyboard, and she handed me my ticket and change:
“Platform Five,” she instructed. “One-One.”
I thanked her and walked away quietly, clasping the ticket in my fingers. The train was due in another twenty minutes. I slowly joined the crowd going up the stairs to the platforms.
I watched the train opposite on Platform Four, as the green metallic surface reflected the still bright evening sun in my eyes. An idea popped to my mind, and I quickly put on the pair of sunglasses that I’d packed in the rucksack. Yes; it did work, as expected. My left-brain screamed Polarization of Light smugly as I recalled an experiment from an old Physics class.
I watched as a young toddler stared agape out of the window, face lit in awe; and saw his mother’s woeful expression as she tried valiantly to bring the kid’s feet off the seat. I couldn’t help but smile; the idea that I was probably about to violate some people’s privacy was completely forgotten.
Then I felt my phone vibrate intently in my pocket. I took it out; a call from Lisa.
“I see you’ve reached Central,” came her voice through the phone.
“Why are you following me, Lisa Hooper?” I tried to sound stern, but couldn’t help but grin.
“I’m not following you,” she replied. “We’re both travelling on the same day. It’s a coincidence.”
I snorted. “Famous Lisa Hooper talking about coincidences? Do I even know you?”
“Yes, and yes, it’s me.”
“So,” I began, trying a different line of conversation. “Where are you headed?”
“–Seriously though, who told you I could never talk about coincidences? I’m no Sherlock Holmes.” As expected, she was not paying the slightest attention. So I repeated my question.
“–Yeah, so that’s settled, isn’t it?” I decided that I’d be better off sitting than in the way of the multitude of commuters. “Wow, Jasmin,” came the voice, as I trudged down the platform. “Are you seriously wearing lilac?” Then the call ended abruptly, leaving me ever so slightly unsettled.
That was very much indeed like Lisa; she rarely stopped talking if she started, and when she did stop finally… but all the same it was generally fun listening to what she had to say. However, different things were on my mind at the time.
She was here somewhere. Wanted to surprise me — and I instantly decided that I should turn the joke on her.
I tried recalling what she had told me during the call. I did hear a few noises in the background, and if she could see me then she should be somewhere near –
I found her. And luckily, I hadn’t been looking directly at her ogling face as I passed a window of the train opposite. Lisa seemed ecstatic, as I’d noted from the edge of my glasses. It seemed as though she’d expected her plan to fail.
Now she’d think that it didn’t fail, after all, I thought to myself as I stepped into her carriage. I removed the sunglasses and walked towards her seat, trying my hardest to keep a straight face.
“I don’t want anything,” she mumbled dismissively, still looking out through her window. She did finally notice me, however, when I took her cue to sit in the seat opposite her.
“Wait — Jasmin?” gasped Lisa. “But your train –”
I realized what was going on far too late. The doors were sliding shut, and there was a sudden tug as I sank lower and lower in dread. I sprinted towards the exit, but it was no use trying to force the doors open. I found myself teetering back to the seat, and slumped into it as Lisa stared agape.
“I don’t believe you just did that,” she said.
I pretended not to hear, looking outside at the train that had just arrived on the Platform opposite, the train that I should’ve been on.
“I can’t believe you just got into a random train, having no idea where it was headed,” continued Lisa, face lit in awe.
I bit back a curse that came to mind and replied thickly: “I bet it doesn’t go where I’m supposed to be going.”
“Not New Chesham, no,” said Lisa as she shook her head, waving her hair behind like a pendulum. “But if it helps, it’s going in the same direction.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means the train stops a few stations before New Chesham, though it goes on the same track. It means that you can come with me to Amberville and then go on the road to your aunt’s.”
“But my ticket –” I began, but was interrupted midway.
“Just because you bought a ticket to a particular place doesn’t mean you can get off the train at any station before, even if it’s a One-One train,” she explained, “You may receive some weird looks, but you’ll be allowed.”
“So no fines,” I commented, as I made my bravest attempt in a while to relax.
I tried diverting my mind to the train’s gradual ascent uphill, away from the city. But Lisa wouldn’t let me forget my mistake (“Little Miss Perfect got on to the wong twain,” she crooned faking an awful lisp), no, she wouldn’t let me forget for a long while.
Then again, if she hadn’t told me this, I’d have become a nervous wreck by now. All in all, it was wonderful having someone like her as a travelling companion.
“Look here,” she said suddenly, and a cool palm gently turned my head towards the window. “We’re barely five minutes off Central and the city already looks so far away.”
It was true; I remembered something that my dad had once told me.
The city of Factora is a crater, an abnormal mess in serene and enticing nature. Back then, I hadn’t a clue what ‘serene’ and ‘enticing’ meant; now it brought some painfully cherished memories.
“So, Amberville,” I began, remembering what Lisa had said some time back. “Tell me about it.”
“Hmm?” What d’you want to know?” came her voice as she nibbled absent-mindedly into a sandwich. “It’s pretty boring, really.”
“I doubt that if it’s coming from you.”
Silence. So I took a second approach.
“How far is it from New Chesham?” I asked her.
“Twenty miles — Jasmin, look it’s a fox!” Lisa’s eyes were glued to the window. “Twenty-five if you don’t want to trek.”
“There’s a trekking route?” I questioned, my interest growing.
“When there are hills about, there most definitely is a route to trek, don’t you think?”
I showed her the map. The map which was my guide to Pheonix Town. I asked her if she could mark it.
“The map’s too small,” she complained. “It’s a bit around — here –” she pointed out of the map, towards East.”But what’s this here?”
Lisa was pointing at the mark that denoted Phoenix Town. “I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “And well, I hope to find out.”
“Ooh, sounds interesting,” she started suddenly, sitting up straight at looking at something behind me. Her turquoise eyes were sparkling.
“What’s going on –”
“Hush now,” she whispered, as she got out of her seat. I felt her hand on my thigh for an instant, and then she was gone. I quickly switched sides to her seat and watched the scene that unfolded in front of my eyes.
A man had entered our carriage; even for someone like me, he seemed a bit too jittery. I saw his frail body shiver incessantly, as he walked down the aisle. I watched everything with a renewed sense of dread.
The man had noticed Lisa now — and he seemed almost terrified for an instant. He scuttled on, but Lisa, as though she hadn’t seen him yet, crashed into the man’s thin frame. I observed Lisa’s hand go swiftly into the man’s pocket, and quickly pulled out a rectangular piece of paper — a ticket – from inside.
Lisa spun around and turned to face the man; it was unclear who looked more terrified at this point — but Lisa was a good actor, as I knew from past experiences.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” she said, with a panicky voice; I saw her hand go into her pocket. “I didn’t see you, I’m so very sorry.”
There seemed to be a fair dance going on at the aisle, but in the end, they separated, returning to their separate ways. The poor man looked as though all the colour had drained from his face.
As the door behind slammed shut, I beckoned to Lisa as she made her way back to the seat; I quickly returned to my seat as she reached. She looked as though she was about to pop any moment now.
“What do you think?”
“What did you do?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“Exchanged tickets,” replied Lisa, shrugging. “And left a note too,” she added, as I arched my eyebrows.
“Goes something like ‘I know you stole a ticket, you d–’.”
“Well, that’s a bit hypocritical, if you may since you were the one who stole his — oh.” I faltered at Lisa’s angry glance.
There was a long awkward silence that met this. Finally, I said: “Okay, what didn’t I see?”
“You didn’t see that he was really careless, probably since it was his first time,” explained Lisa. “That’s why I exchanged the tickets, instead of just pocketing his.”
“Well, which one did you give him?”
“A ticket all the way to New Chesham,” replied Lisa, grinning as she handed me a ticket.
“When did you –?”
We spent the remaining time playing cards as the day slowly died into the night. The first drops of rain splattered on our window — it was almost a vertical flood by the time we reached the station, about three hours later.
“Welcome to Amberville,” said Lisa, brandishing an umbrella as we walked out of the station together. “Or should I say; you’re welcome to spend the night at our place tonight.”
“You live here?” I asked, trying not to show my surprise.