You ever hung over the edge? Over the edge so completely, like you might fall off? He’d woken me up with an illuminate burn. Right inside the retina. Searing out my dreams. Warm dreams of being at home where the air wasn’t sticky and didn’t sting. He hung-on like the waft of dal after the lights went dead. His tiny bones, fingers white, on the edge of my bunk, nails dirty. He was only an outline behind the light, a shadow as my eyes tried to adjust around him. Barely thirteen but in the berth it was impossible to bet. The yellowing light from his smashed-up Nokia licked my eyelids up, exposing the entire sixty centimetres between the pillow and sooty top. I moved to swat him away like the flies, dust particles dancing in the air, and he nodded towards the door. He hissed again, let’s go outside. It’s the only way to travel.
Nothing moved except everything together. The moon was a bowling ball, the rhythm of the tracks jerked up and down as I clambered quietly down and rummaged in my backpack, trying not to wake my Dad. I found my cigarette packet, rolled five times inside my knickers stashed underneath the bras. I could feel him watching me intently.
I shut the berth door behind us and followed him along the pitch black corridor to the light at the end. His body darted and moved across sleeping bodies on the floor of the passage way and I tried to mimic his movements, but he was small like a mouse and I was lanky like a giraffe. We reached the end of the carriage where it connects with the next and snuck outside. He closed the heavy roach-eaten door behind me.
“Are you American?” he asked me, wide-eyed the minute we could talk.
“No, I’m from England.” I lit a cigarette and immediately felt subconscious in my PJs, as the Indian air instantly cooled by the sun sinking low, smacked me around the ankles.
“Yeah.” What was the use of saying any different?
“How old are you?” he asked me, as if this was pre-rehearsed and in the script. “You should smoke?”
“I’m fifteen, nearly sixteen and yes,” I replied, blowing a bit his way.
I was so over Indian boys and men by this point. I sat down with my back against the car outside and blew the grey air against the darkness. There was no door on the train, just a hole in the side and the wind whipped against my face. It was fresh.
“Yes, I’m fifteen, nearly sixteen too,” the boy said, “Can I have?” he nodded towards the cigarette and, although he definitely was not that age, I passed it to him anyway and he took a big drag before passing it back, no cough, no unease.
“I’ve never kissed a white girl before,” he informed me, watching me intently, his pupils in the corners but in no subtle way.
“Ha,” I laughed, “I bet you’ve never kissed an Indian girl before either.”
“Well I’ve kissed an Egyptian girl.” Suddenly his eyes glazed at some private picture show happening inside his brain, “no an Egyptian lady, a woman, she was a princess, no she was a Queen.”
“An Egyptian Queen, huh?”
He nodded his scraggly hair and looked up at the moon. “She was beautiful,” he whispered, as if it was a spell. “Very experienced with her tongue.”
What bullshit, I thought on the inhale, jealous of his imagination and how he seemed to actually feel that part of Egyptian Royalty in his mouth, how he believed himself.
“You travel to Delhi with your father?” he observed me, “You have no husband yet.”
“That is correct,” I agreed.
I was travelling from Cochin to Delhi with Dad because it stopped him buying a Porsche, and it got me away from the girls being slut shamed and puking in the toilets. Dad thought that somehow bringing me here was going to make me forget that I was quickly becoming a woman, revert me back into his childish girl again. Except here I got even more attention that I did back home.
It was a plan devised to keep us both out of trouble, to keep us both busy.
“Who are you travelling with?” I asked the kid.
He was travelling with his grandma, from Cochin to Delhi, to go and stay there with his aunt. His grandmother wouldn’t be around much longer, he informed me, and then they’d burn her on a bunch of sticks by the Ganges and everyone would sit there for days while her flesh peeled back. “Then we’ll push her in,” he mined the sweeping of ashes as light as air into the water. I couldn’t tell if he was taking the piss, gauging my foreigners shock, so I didn’t say anything, just shrugged, acted cool.
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re white like a chicken,” he laughed. “White like the girls on grandma’s TV. Okay, so” he came to the edge, “this is how you do it.”
He faced inwards on the train and held onto the iron pole that was thick running adjacent to the door. He put his toes on the door step but let his heels stick off the edge. He leant back and put all his weight into the back so he was leaning right out and into the night. He took one hand off and winked at me. Then he swapped his hands.
“Train goes so fast,” his words were whipped up in the rushing air so I could barely hear them, “so if you see a tunnel coming you best be quick.” And he pulled himself inside as blackness suddenly covered the outside and the sounds of the track echoed loudly against my ears, my heart beating inside them too, in spite of myself.
We exploded out of the tunnel again and he stood there grinning, “your turn now.”
I wished I had more cigarettes, I wished I had something constructive to do with my hands. “Nah, you’re alright,” I looked at the carriages casting shadows in rhythm across the vertical cuts of trees in the black, recklessly hypnotic.
The boy started to squeak, “You are a mouse, no? Like mickey.”
I rolled my eyes, “Shut up.”
“I take the mickey out of you,” he said, as if rehearsed, then beaming smugly, waited for a reaction which I kept locked inside my mouth. “You are a scared cat,” he prodded.
“Well make up your stupid mind,” I suddenly bit, “What am I, a cat or a mouse?”
“Like Tom and Jerry,” his grin was infuriating.
“How the fuck do you know so much?”
He shrugged, “I watch the TV. My grandma has a TV.”
“What happens to the TV when your grandma gets pushed in the Ganges though?” I didn’t mean it to come out as abruptly as it did, now hanging in the air between us and something flickered across his face with the shadows before being buried behind his eyes again.
“I expect I will get the TV,” he nodded earnestly. “I will take the TV to my aunt’s house.” But now he didn’t sound sure, his voice wavered, he was barely thirteen, probably more like ten or eleven, chewing his lip, wild against the rushing air like a stray leaf.
“Did you ever know someone who died?” He asked, after a moment and in a much softer tone, face turned up to the moon.
Cotton balls scratched my throat at the question but my answer came out smooth, “My mom.” It came out like someone else had said it, felt like someone else’s dialogue.
“Was she a good person?” he asked without a beat.
“My aunt says that people who are good can be kings and princesses and people who are bad can be snails.”
“Your aunts an idiot.”
He went silent then, I seemed to have shut him up. Brain matter ran up the sides of his skull as I watched, oblivious to me now, invested in some internal fight he was having with himself. The dirty joining compartment rattled, jerked and jolted rhythmically, the carriages chattering as they bumbled along occasionally knocking each other, shoving shoulders, never enough space, no personal space, as the sound of quiet, so unheard here, grew louder and more forceful until I had to speak.
“Okay, fine. I’ll do it,” I said as if he’d been silently twisting my arm. “Do you promise I won’t die? I don’t fancy being a snail.” At my grimace, he relaxed.
“You wouldn’t be a snail,” he told me, “You are too beautiful. Maybe a butterfly.” The balls on this kid.
I took hold of the metal bar and started to edge myself slowly around. You ever hung over the edge? Over the edge so completely, like you might fall off?
“Just don’t be stupid,” he told me, moving next to me, “and always, always watch out for tunnels.”
Now I was facing inward with my feet on the ledge, my hands white around the cold mental handle on the outside of the train.
I put the pressure on my toes, leant my weight back, pulled with my arms, held on with my fingers. The air immediately took inside my hair, waltzing with it, swirling it up and behind me, air inside my PJs too, pulling them back and a rush up inside my heart and throat and eyes.
“Look up,” he urged and I saw the stars burning little holes in the black blanket above us, I’d never seen stars look like that before. “Maybe your mom is up there,” and I almost choked, almost let go, almost fell.
I was as young as him, I was back playing with my mom, painting my face with make up for the very first time, the cold air licking up my eyelids like mascara, my heart beating in time with the tracks, her favourite electro CD. When we used to play together, when life was play. I was back there and I didn’t see the blackness of the tunnel edge, close as the train squeezed its body inside the rocks.
Luckily though the boy was watching. He reached out and pulled me by the shoulders, with all his strength for the scrawny pup he was, he heaved me back just before I was splashed in colour across the walls. We collapsed on the floor, I was breathing fast.
“Crazy girl,” he said shaking his head, “Crazy white chicken. You play chicken? You win, crazy girl.”
I was lying on my back, breathing deeply with a crazy girl smile across my lips. He looked at me bent across his skinny legs, his expression fogging over, a face that told me at once I was going to be some English princess in a story he told on the banks of the Ganges to his bony little mates as the sun set and the Indian haze rolled in like romance across the water.
“You know I’ve never-”
“Yes, you told me,” and in another moment of crazy girl madness I bent down to give him a tiny peck on the cheek. He moved his head so our lips touched for the briefest of moments, soft and light, he smelt of spices, like Chai, and I felt the warmth of his skin even though we didn’t touch.
He kept his eyes closed as I awkwardly pushed him off me and got to my feet. His hands rested down on his stomach like he was the happiest fat man after an all you can eat, his grin like a cat with all the cream on his lips.
“Goodnight my Queen,” he whispered into the night as the wind took his words up to the moon, up among the pin pricks of burning gas, up out of the atmosphere and out of our minds.
I climbed back past the sleeping bodies and into the berth. As I was settling in between the tiny crack between my bed and the top Dad shifted below, “Soph?” he grunted out into the darkness. “You okay?”
“Yeah Dad, I’m fine,” I pulled the blankets up to my chin. You ever hung over the edge? Over the edge of an Indian train, a bullet through the night, wind in your hair, danger and love racing in your heart?
“Hey Dad,” I whispered into the blackness. He grunted. “Thanks for bringing me here, on this trip.” I meant it.