The train car was stuffy and dimly lit, with the fading light of day peeking in through the windows. The conductor moved, achingly slow through the narrow walkway, stopping to turn at each pair of seats. He was a thin, stiff man with dead, fish eyes that rolled towards the passengers with barely concealed malice. He was dusty and dry, extending his skeletal hands to each person in turn, aluminum hole puncher in hand.
A plump woman with a fox fur hat sniffed and handed him her ticket delicately, making sure none of her pudgy fingers came in contact with his hands. Her body was stuffed full and seemed constrained by the armrests. Her wide, red mouth was stretched in disapproval. The conductor restrained his sneer and turned to the next row.
It was a young couple, each of them clutching the other’s hand tightly and gazing into the other’s eyes.
They didn’t seem to hear him. The conductor pinched his narrow nose and tried again. One of the archaic lights above buzzed and flickered on as the sun retreated beyond the horizon.
The couple looked startled at the bite in his tone and the man shakily tried to hand him both tickets, but his grip faltered and they lightly fluttered to the floor. The young man flinched as the conductor’s poisonous glare landed on him. His lean form slowly stooped to retrieve the tickets, punch them, and shove them back toward the couple. Next row.
And a double take. It was a little girl, pale, blonde, blue eyed, and very much alone.
The conductor blinked slowly as the girl stared up at him, craning her neck to make eye contact with him.
“You have a long nose.” She proclaimed. Someone in the front snickered and the conductor sent a pointed glare toward everyone in the general vicinity.
“It would seem so.” He sneered. The girl didn’t seem phased.
“Mama has my ticket.” The girl swung her legs, her little black shoes hanging off the toes of her stocking clad feet, “She’s in the dining car.”
The conductor sighed lengthily and looked toward one of the female attendants who stood at the back of the car. She hurried over, her brown hair in disarray around her flushed face and short heels clicking on the floor.
“Retrieve the girl’s mother.” The conductor glanced down toward the blonde hair, “…your name?”
“Marianne!” She chirped, grinning and exposing a missing front tooth. His black eyes focused on the attendant once more and she squeaked an affirmative, practically running out the back car door.
The conductor leaned stiffly against the side of the row and pinched his nose once more, massaging it gently, trying to alleviate the perpetual headache he’d had ever since he’d taken the job fifteen years ago.
“What’s your name, sir?” The conductor’s eyes moved toward the girl, Marianne, and he felt his thin mouth pull into a grimace.
“Gray.” He responded tightly. More titters from the rows in front caused his scowl to deepen.
“Mr. Gray,” Marianne traced the pattern on the fabric of her seat, “Why don’t you smile?”
“Because.” He intoned, “I am not particularly happy to be here.”
Marianne’s eyes locked onto the conductor’s and he shifted uncomfortably. She looked back towards the floor and continued.
“Mama doesn’t smile ‘cause Georgie’s gone away.” The conductor didn’t ask who Georgie was. He stared at the slumped form of the girl for a moment before turning his attention to the other rows.
The large woman with the fox hat was turned fully around in her seat, her beady eyes narrowed on the girl, purple dress hiked up so she could sit on her knees and peer over the headrest.
“Ma’am.” Mr. Gray strode over to the woman and loomed over her. Her eyes nearly rolled back in her head. “Please sit properly in your seat. You’re disturbing the other passengers.” The portly business man beside her looked ruffled and was leaning as close to the window as possible.
“Someone,” She squawked, “should be tending to that child! Where is her mother? The dining car, the dining car I say!” Her pudgy hands flapped indignantly.
“It is none of your concern.” Mr. Gray responded, dark eyes glowing murderously, “The situation is being handled.” The plump woman cowered in her seat, but kept grumbling under her breath. The conductor cast his eyes around the car. No one met them.
The back door to the car slammed open and the harried attendant ducked through, pulling a stumbling woman behind her. She was of average height and build, clutching her bag close to her and swaying on her feet as if the train was already in motion.
“I found her.” The female attendant bowed shortly and escaped into another car while the girl’s mother wobbled over to her daughter.
“Marianne, baby, Marianne!” She cooed, “Mama’s here!” Gray watched her fall into the seat beside her daughter and giggle to herself. Marianne patted her mother’s hand she smiled loosely in response.
Gray knew it would end up like this. He could smell the tension rising, the shoulders stiffening up like boards in the front rows and harsh whispers being passed from one disapproving frown to the next. His gaze zeroed in on the pudgy one with the fox fur. She was puffed up and indignant, and he could see her thoughts buzzing around in her head like hornets.
“She’s drunk!” The woman shrieked suddenly, her voice tinny and metallic. The car became very silent, full of bodies that dared not breathe. “I’ll not have it, I’ll not have it!” She continued, “This is supposed to be a respectable line and I’ll not have this-th-this—” she couldn’t find a word and so her lips sputtered helplessly, her red mouth left to soldier on alone without her mind to help it along. Gray stared at her and watched her fidget.
“Well, are you going to do anything about her?”A weasely woman with a great deal of makeup layered on her face piped up from Row Four, the window seat. “It’s completely inappropriate for the mother of a young child to become-” She cut off, looking for a more elegant term for ‘become very drunk’. The man next to her nodded in agreement and the began to buzz with angry voices. He heard a hissy male voice behind him ‘Damn alcoholic.’ Marianne curled into her seat and squeezed her mother’s hand.
Gray turned sharply to the slumped form of Marianne’s mother, the expectant eyes of the passengers on his narrow back, and in a firm voice—
The woman looked up dazedly and nodded, murmuring and digging around her large bag for a tense few minutes before presenting two tickets. The conductor punched them and handed them back.
“Was that it?” Came a shocked voice.
“I would suggest,” The conductor drawled, “You take your seats. The train will be departing shortly.” There was rustling as the passengers faced forward with hardly concealed frustration.
A tug on the leg of his ironed trousers caused him to look back down at the distressed Marianne.
“Thank you.” She whispered. Gray crouched down until his eyes were level his.
“Take good care of her,” He said, “She’s going to miss Georgie for a long while yet.”
“I miss him too.” Marianne mumbled, “He was so small. I liked to play with his little hands. But then he got sick.” A snore emanated from the girl’s mother.
Gray gave her a pat on the head before heading to the front car feeling the scratchy eyes of disapproving passengers on his narrow figure as he walked. He entered the employee car, sitting stiffly down next to the female attendant who had found Marianne’s mother.
“You were very impressive.” She said tentatively, twisting her navy blue cap in her hands, “I thought for sure there would be a riot.” Gray’s dark eyes slid over to the young woman and she looked straight ahead, back ramrod straight.
“You were peeping.” He stated. She nodded without looking at him.
Gray focused his eyes on the planks of wood lining the opposite wall of the employee car.
“I have worked this train for fifteen years.” He said slowly, “Everyone is the same. They assume an entire life in a split second.” The attendant gave him a lost look and there was a long semi-silence, where they only breathed and listened to the wind claw against the walls of the train.
“That woman― she was going on and on about her ‘baby Georgie’…” she said weakly, “Is he-?”
“There would be no point to the expense of a funeral car for such a small coffin. He’s in the back. With the luggage.”
The conductor got up and strode over to the window and watched the blackness of the night, only interrupted by the flickering of the station lamps.
“With the luggage.” Gray repeated and he heard the choke of a sob from behind him. He watched as one of the rusty red lamps flickered off and did not come back on.