It was raining when I reached the station, and a knotted crowd occupied every inch of dry space underneath the platform shelter. No umbrella to hand and not quite soaked through, I opted to remain on the stairs–where there was at least an awning that shielded me from the growing deluge–and amuse myself with a book. It was a curious tale about the grazing habits of short-haired sheep, which makes it sound altogether dull, though this was far from the case. It was in fact a most engrossing affair, and the rain had stopped and so thrown open the invisible walls of the platform shelter before I again looked up from its pages.
The willingness of strangers to mingle at close-quarters is indirectly proportional to the size of their refuge and directly proportional to the discomfort of remaining outside and at the mercy of the elements. No sooner had the clouds parted (and sooner still, I’d wager, if there had been a period of intermittent sprinkling between downpour and drought), the new-found companions dislodged crook from shoulder and scattered onto the slick, grey cobblestones of the waiting platform. A meek smile or an awkward shrug was all that was left of their shared experience, but as their train pulled in to receive them, there was a brief huddle once more as man, woman, and child jockeyed for primacy in the great race to find an empty seat that was soon to begin.
And their train it was, in point of fact, for mine was yet to arrive on the opposite track. A few paces away stood the superior, if now forlorn platform shelter, which, in addition to its roof, was also outfitted with three glass walls. The wind had picked up again, if not the rain, and without a thought I abandoned the faithful stairwell for my new sanctuary, thankfully quite unaware of any potential jealousy or haughtiness on the part of one or the other that my action may have engendered. So unencumbered was I by such musings that I had just lifted the book to my nose to find my place on the page when a man running up to the newly-filled train caught my attention.
He had the air of a gentleman about him, despite his present gait and lack of a hat, and was dressed in a long wool coat, dark trousers, and tapered leather shoes. He pulled once at the doors, to no effect, and then, although the carriage was already moving, and he must have noticed this, he pulled at the doors once more. They remained firmly shut, as all proper doors must under the circumstances, and I found myself nodding to them as they rolled past. “That’s the way, doors!” I might have said, but in fact I remained silent, for who in their right mind would address a pair of doors on a moving train, or any pair of doors, truth be told.
The strange man had moved further down the platform by the time I returned my attention to him, but I soon forgot him entirely because my own train was quick to arrive afterward, and I boarded immediately and settled myself in for the ride. I was beginning to lose myself in my book once more, the sheep having wandered down to a stream to drink, when a movement to my left drew my attention, and I spied the same man who had missed his train sitting across the aisle.
What nonsense! The train on which we both sat was preparing to whisk us in the opposite direction of the one whose locked doors he had so unceremoniously jostled. What could possibly be his aim in boarding this one? I was not about to allow his absurdity to put me off my reading, and yet try though I might to disengage from his aberrant behavior, I found myself continuing to turn the question over in my mind and fell to observing the man in hopes of finding some clue as to whether he had noticed his mistake.
This was not an altogether unpleasant activity as he was a most interesting looking fellow. His face was two-parts street tough and one-part polished university professor, this cooling of his features perhaps owing itself to the neatly trimmed beard that drew some attention from the bulging cheekbones, pronounced eyes, and sharply sloping nose. His was a lean face, a hungry face. It was of the kind that looked alert and rested, though one might distinguish within it a haggard quality from which it had recently recovered, like that of a werewolf on the morning after a long-waning moon. Unfortunately for my endeavors at divination, it was also an inscrutable face, offering no indication of what worlds might toil within the skull beneath it.
After a time I finally resigned myself to ignorance, but unable to return to my book for comfort, I instead directed my attention to the evergrey terrain beyond my window. As we shuffled past the rain-bedraggled landscape, I watched the sculptures of masons and carpenters give over to a world of living wood and stone, trees and meadows settling in earnestly as if I were witness to some weary reclamation carried out in reverse.
A quick look, and no more, I allowed myself at the man across the aisle. He was seated, as before, with his left knee covering the right, his face a perfect image of calm as he stared out of his own window. I turned away from this portrait but found my thoughts consumed by it, by the calm. My eyes had found the emerging forests, but my mind no longer felt my own. Inexplicably, I began to wonder the strangest things, such as what names the trees might give themselves. Upon crossing a bridge and seeing the water rush below, I asked myself what a river truly was. It could not be the raging torrent, I reasoned, for this was always moving, never there for long. The riverbed itself, by contrast, was something that wasn’t, not an object in its own right. Was that, then, what a river was? An absence of land, of a particular girth, filled with running water? The river as something permanent, I began to suspect, existed only in our minds.
I soon grew troubled by this line of inquiry and sought the comfort of the rational world. Here was this man across from me, the ideal opportunity for the application of logic. I could speak to him, I decided–looking away lest he return my gaze. I could certainly do that, and I could ask him what he meant by taking this train. Was it not possible, after all, that he was confused? Perhaps I would even be helping him by engaging him in conversation. This course would benefit us both, providing me with a solution to my questions and him with a speedier end to his wasted time! And in my mind, I suddenly knew precisely how the words would fall.
“Excuse me,” I ventured, catching his attention.
The man unfolded himself and turned toward me with a smile.
“Yes?” he offered.
“My apologies,” I began, “but are you not the same gentleman who was attempting to board the train to Maidenhead?”
A frown broke onto the other’s face.
“I’m not sure,” he answered, which was in itself so preposterous a response that I was tempted to abandon my investigations then and there. I pressed on, however.
“I’m certain I saw you trying to board that train just a few minutes ago,” I continued, “but it was already departing.”
At this my interlocuter nodded and smiled.
“Yes,” he confirmed, nodding slightly, “I was trying to board that train.”
His head turned slightly away from me then, as though he suspected that this would end our volley.
“And yet here you are now on this one,” I persisted, not about to lose my quarry so easily.
“Yes, here I am!” he beamed, and once more he seemed satisfied that this was a sufficient explanation for his behavior.
I paused, believing that soon he would have to offer something more, but nothing further came.
“But this train is going in the opposite direction,” I informed him. “The first stop is not for another half an hour or so.”
“Alright,” he nodded curtly, though his smile indicated that this was not meant to be hostile. Nevertheless, I was near exasperation.
“You’re going quite out of your way, sir,” I insisted.
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” he countered. The man’s thickness was positively intolerable!
“But weren’t you trying to get to Maidenhead?” I demanded, my voice carrying more of my frustration than I am wont to reveal.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” the strange traveler said, his smile widening as he leaned slightly in my direction. “It was never my intention to go to Maidenhead.” He nodded again, with his tongue in his cheek. “Or to go to any other place in particular,” he added. “Where is this train going, by the way?”
“To Oakton,” I replied, dumbfounded, “by way of Stanchion Lake. That is, it continues on some ways past Oakton, but…”
“Ah, excellent. Choices! But I believe I shall ride it to the end just the same.”
My indignation was making way for curiosity, but not entirely, and it was a struggle to keep my tone from registering this.
“I’m not sure I follow you,” I admitted. “You don’t want to go to Oakton, either?”
“No, not in the least,” he assured me. “Or rather, I wasn’t intending to go there.” I believe he descried the mystery that was forming within me, for he soon continued. “You see, I arrived at the station today with the object in mind of boarding the very next train, wherever it was going.”
“Is that so?” I asked, suddenly less amused.
“Yes,” he smiled. “I’m on an adventure of sorts!”
I frowned inside myself, having only then begun to suspect that I was conversing with a full-grown child. I must have frowned outside myself a bit as well, for the gentleman’s smile grew weaker, and he nodded kindly before looking off to the side for a moment.
The mystery was solved. No more riddle left to unwind. I could have left things alone and had done with it, resolving that the fellow across the aisle was some sort of lunatic, if an apparently harmless one. After all, who would choose to do such a thing? What madness must possess such a person to make him board a train at random on a flight of fancy? And one with the peculiar stricture that it be the very next train? Best would be to make an end of it and put the man out of mind. His quest, however, rang hollow for me, and that tenacious part of my brain that moments before had been wondering about trees and rivers refused to move on. Within a few moments, I hit upon it.
“But this wasn’t the next train, after all,” I challenged, calling him out of whatever reverie he had found with a slight jolt.
“This train,” I said. “It wasn’t the next train leaving the station.” It was the stranger’s turn not to follow, and so I led him further. “You said that your object was to board the next departing train, but you didn’t. The next departing train was the one to Maidenhead. The one you missed.”
The man cocked his head to one side, contemplative.
“So this really is the wrong train for you,” I summarized, “however you choose to look at it.”
It was not intended as a spiteful comment, by no means an attempt to put him in his place. In all honesty, I found myself somehow saddened at my realization. The man was soon grinning again, however inexplicably, and I knew that I had crossed a turning point and would not be able to rest until I understood precisely what was motivating this odyssey. He spoke before I had the opportunity to do so.
“You know, you’re right about that,” he admitted. “This isn’t the next train at all.”
“Then why are you smiling?” I asked.
“Because the spirit of the adventure doesn’t require following the rules to the letter.”
“But you’ll always know that you missed the next train,” I chided him. “How can you know that your adventure didn’t leave you behind?”
“On the contrary,” he laughed, “it did!”
I balked at this, but he was already speaking again.
“Or one did, I should say. The adventure of ‘the next train’ left without me, but I caught a different train with a different adventure. And I can always try again to catch the next train tomorrow, or the next day.” He paused for a moment, then said, “And if you think about it, there is always a next train. Any train can be that next train!”
His voice had taken on volume as he talked, and in spite of myself, I grew excited. The man’s passion was truly infectious.
“Fine, then,” I conceded, “I’ll allow that you make a fair point. But what is it that you plan on doing once you get to this adventure?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well,” I hesitated, not certain that I understood myself what I meant or why I was even interested in continuing this game, “your adventure is waiting for you at the last stop, correct? What do you think it will be like? What are you going to do once you get there?”
“My friend,” he exclaimed, the unexpected intimacy of the word resounding in my ears, “this is the adventure!”
I nodded, but it was a nod of uncertainty and quickly interpreted as such by my fellow traveler, who did not fail to elaborate.
“This ride on the train, meeting and talking with you, seeing whatever is at the end of the journey…this is all part of it!”
My confusion did not yet know an end.
“Then once you reach the end, and the train stops…”
“I shall have a look at where I am, take a turn through the town square or past the local churchyard or along the edge of the wood, whatever I may find there, and then board the next train back to where I started.”
Fascinating. That a man could be so intrigued by something so banal had never before occurred to me. I wished him well, for my part, I truly did, but I failed even then to see the gain in such a journey.
“And that’s all,” I pressed. “Nothing more. You won’t, say, have a nice dinner there at least, or take in a show?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what awaits me there,” he shook his head. “There might be an old city, there might be nothing be grass, and I suppose my activities are somewhat dependent upon the local amenities, but not knowing what to expect is part of–”
“The adventure,” I supplied.
“Quite so…” his voice trailed off.
I sighed, not wanting to have hurt this man’s feelings but nevertheless still genuinely at a loss.
“But don’t you have employment of some kind?” I asked. “Responsibilities?”
“Surely,” he said, “Sometimes I do. Oftentimes, in fact. But then there are times when I require something for myself. So, I find an adventure. What do you do?”
On a level deeper than my conscious mind regularly penetrates, this question terrified me, but that was hardly something that I could admit to a strange man on a wild adventure aboard a train to points unknown. Again, this man seemed somehow to understand what vexed me concerning this. He leaned forward and halfway across the aisle.
“Why don’t you come with me?” he proposed.
“Where?” I sputtered, knowing full well the answer.
“Wherever we end up!” he laughed.
“But I have–”
“Responsibilities?” he supplied.
“Employment of some kind?”
The man nodded solemnly, finishing with another smile.
“Then take care of all of that,” he said.
The strange gentleman sat back again with a final, friendly nod, and contemplated the scenery once more. And for a moment, I was certain that I would go with him. After a brief assessment of the day’s agenda, I decided that there truly was not much that could not be done the following day, perhaps with greater efficiency after a break from the norm. I smiled to myself then, imagining what it would be like to simply ride the train on past my stop, taking it to the last station, a town whose name I only knew because it was the destination of my train. An adventure, even a small one, might be just the thing, I thought. So many books, so little actual experience! What could it hurt, really? What was I afraid of in the end? The time had come to carve out a day for adventure!
I turned away from my window, resolving once and for all to address this strange gentleman, sitting all twisted in his seat and yet somehow so calm, but the train was slowing, and he was rising. He scratched at his oddly slanted nose as he stepped out into the aisle, and my eyes followed him as he walked past me to the door of the train and stepped out. We had arrived at Stanchion Lake, the first stop since we had boarded. The stranger had never even looked at me. Why should he have done? Who was I to him? Simply another man on his way to work, just as he was, and our imagined intimacy was wholly of my own making.
As the man hurried toward the footbridge that led to the other platforms, it suddenly occurred to me that Stanchion Lake Station was a transfer point to Maidenhead. That was my mystery solved, then. There had been no need to talk to the stranger at all. My train was already moving again, and now there were only fifteen minutes more to Oakton. I wondered briefly if I might continue, take the train farther and allow the day to lead me as it would, but that was ridiculous. Frivolous banality, if such a thing could be said to exist. Nothing more, in the end, than the imagined folly of a stranger, a man who was himself doing nothing more than finding the most expedient means of reaching his own destination after arriving too late for his train.