As soon as I step into the train station, the smell hits me. It is the smell of people: the smell of youth, of years long lived, of middle-aged ladies fresh from the bath, soap suds still lingering in their hair like braided beads. It is the smell of the man smoking in the corner, head bowed as if in worship, a ritual made from the way he rhythmically taps ashes into his astray. It is as if he is hoping a phoenix would arise from the ashes and allow him to atone for his sins, his head is bowed in regret. In the other corner, there are two giggling girls fawning over a tall, foreign boy, a complete contrast to the earlier man. They are the embodiment of youth and life: flaunting their new purses and high-heels, lipstick in the latest shade smeared on their lips and their cheeks red with rogue. They are smiling and laughing to one another as if enclosed in their own bubble, as if the scrunched-up cans near their feet meant nothing as they only looked up and never, never down. This is what people smell like.
I scan my card on the machine and watch others do the same. Some are in a rush; you can see their sweat glistening on their forehead, strands of hair sticking to the side of their head, clothes only half-buttoned and eyeliner smudged. Some are teenagers with long bangs, wearing their school uniform, the dread evident in their eyes as they trudge towards the train, legs dragging against the ground, they are probably thinking “not again, not today”. I spot an elderly couple conferring in hushed voices, they seem to not know how their train token works. Confusion is laced in the old man’s features and they make his eyes crinkle even more. I wonder if they are headed for grocery shopping? Maybe for a breakfast date? They are dressed nicely, the old woman’s pale-yellow floral dress stiff and starched and the old man’s blue and white striped shirt tucked into expensive-looking jeans. I hope I grow old and have breakfast dates with the one I love as well. It amazes me when I think about it, of how everyone lives their lives simultaneously and I can be scanning my card on the way to work and someone else could be halfway across the world doing the exact same thing. Parallels in the universe interlocking and weaving together a pattern that is life.
They thank me and call me a ‘dear’, the soft lilt of the woman’s voice reminding me of cold winters huddled beside fires with hot chocolate warming my frozen fingers.
The train is full, it is a busy morning. I give the seat I intended to sit on, to the elderly couple I saw a few minutes earlier. They thank me and call me a ‘dear’, the soft lilt of the woman’s voice reminding me of cold winters huddled beside fires with hot chocolate warming my frozen fingers. I wish I could’ve talked to her more, but large, beefy shoulders bustled me from side to side till I ended up far away from her. I stand, my hands grabbing the red railings on the ceiling as I look around me. School students are slumped against the walls and some have their noses in books; ‘How to Get An Easy A’. Some people, like me, are dressed for work and are impatiently tapping their polished shoes against the floor, ‘tap, tap, tap’ goes the sound of their feet. A loud, blaring voice announces arrival time. Murmurs ripple through the train, the sound of feet grows louder and louder, there is someone laughing. It is a Monet painting and everyone’s faces are screaming with colour; the dip of a chin and the droop of an eyelash. Everyone is always shuffling around, moving from side-to-side, nothing is ever still and it makes my head spin. Everything is moving so fast, the world is moving so fast, spinning on its axis round and round and round again.
Another train is approaching in the opposite direction and I watch as it grows closer and closer.
It passes by my train in less than a split second, but in that moment I glimpsed a crying, red-faced baby; a man hardened by work, with calloused palms carrying two 10kg bags of rice on each shoulder; a boy with a dirtied, tattered uniform. Our lives had overlapped in a single second, that for a moment I could feel the weight of responsibility on the working man’s shoulders, the naive, insatiable thirst for milk the baby cried on and on about, and the hardship the student had to bear (is he being bullied? Do people make fun of him?). I wonder all of these things, my hands clutched onto the red railing, sweat dripping down my palm, the collar of my shirt suffocating me, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
The train is coming to a stop and it is time for me to get off. The loud overhead voice starts droning on about safety precautions when exiting a train. Many students head for the door as well, it seems we have the same stop. Long legs, short legs, thin legs, knobby ankles, chubby toes; it is what I see when I look down. The heat radiating from everybody makes the place feel more packed than it is and my collar isn’t the only thing that is suffocating me. It is the people. And everywhere I look, smell, hear, touch and taste: there is people, moving, shifting, drifting, swaying. As the doors open, the people move again and I move with them. It is an orchestrated revolution and we, people, will keep moving, going on with our lives while others do the same. Rotating on the same axis. Life will move on, and I am not the only one living.
By Zaynab Elhawat