Mrs Murchison met the man from Vienna on a train.
She was leaving the city where she had spent the day at her granddaughter’s fourth birthday party, and the train had just pulled away from the station. She hadn’t said anything to her daughter, but she wasn’t comfortable on trains. It wasn’t a physical thing – the jolting motion she rather liked – it was the sense of being trapped there, hurtling along at a terrific speed, but held still, at the mercy of anything that came along. And to be on a foreign train, too. She and Arthur had driven everywhere, never relied on public transport, and she would always help by map-reading, or unwrapping Murray mints, but now that he was dead, she had no one to take the lead.
She left her compartment and walked out into the corridor for fresh air and almost bumped into the little man. He started back, away from the outer door which had just slammed shut, and was clutching a small, battered suitcase to his chest. They span, their shoulders leaning away from each other, and he fell back through the open door of her compartment, and into her seat.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mrs Murchison said, her hand fluttering in front of her, not sure whether to grasp his arm and help him up. He was wearing a raincoat, rather worn, frayed at the cuffs, with something bright underneath.
The man didn’t respond immediately. He appeared to be listening to something inside his chest as he held the suitcase there.
“No matter,” he said, “No matter. All is fine.” His body loosened and he placed the suitcase on the seat next to him. “All is fine,” he repeated. “Please. Sit down.”
Mrs Murchison was a little disconcerted. She had wanted to look out at the Danube and see where the river widened.
“It widens and it deepens,” said the man, “and then it is mud.”
Mrs Murchison was even more disconcerted that the odd little man seemed to have read her mind. She looked out of the window and saw the light on the water. It was like any other water but something made her want to savor it. She looked back at the man and saw the fine crust of dirt behind his ear, saw the sprigs of curly hair sprouting out above his neat, stripy socks, his pasty face, somehow familiar and then felt something like a blow to the chest. The man hadn’t moved but as she started at him she began to feel a sort of horror envelop her.
The man, with his chin nearly on his chest, peered up at her through thick eyelashes.
“I heard it from Kerry,” he said with a smirk playing across his mouth, now thin-lipped but once outlined with a thick clown red. “the last time I saw her.”
The train rocked from side to side and Mrs Murchison grabbed at one of the leather straps swinging from the carriage roof. “What did you say? You know my daughter…?” She could see now that it wasn’t dirt down his neck, but hastily removed face-paint. And then she recognized him.
The man flipped himself off the seat and knelt on the floor of the train, in front of the suitcase. He opened the lid of the case and took out a purple plastic trumpet, a handful of paper crowns stained dark red, and a wooden mallet, the sort used for tenderizing meat.
Mrs Murchison made a whimpering sound and tried to run for the door but the man was up on his feet in front of her. She stepped left and he stepped right. She stepped back and he followed as she turned. She felt her nails tearing as she ripped at the window latch and as the train entered the tunnel, just before the darkness came down, she saw the reflection of his wide laugh.
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