“You could’ve bought it from the vending machine, sir. Everyone does that nowadays. I’m afraid I do not have any change with me.”
Milling about the platform of Connolly station, I was replaying, in my mind, the encounter that had happened a few minutes ago at the ticket window. The man was right. I should’ve bought the ticket from the machine; eventually, I had to. But the beauty of doing things the old, humanly way is what keeps me alive. It is somewhat cathartic.
The station was compact but not crammed with people. There wasn’t much of tech, except for the running-status boards and the ticket vending machines. A crisscross aluminum truss holding the semi roof of the platform; a stream of arches designed on the walls on either side of the tracks; everything pointed at the authority’s intention to preserve the old charm. I was leaning against the masonry wall when the train to Belfast arrived.
My seat was in the last coach of the train. Looking out from the huge window covered with droplets, I was expressing my gratitude to the universe for making this happen. I had never been out of California before. At the age of thirty, it was my first foreign trip. I ordered a Guinness.
A few minutes into the journey, a yellow reflection ghostly appeared on the huge glass. I turned around.
“May I sit here, sir?”
A young boy wearing a sun-yellow raincoat and blue denim was standing in front of me.
I straightened up as he took the seat in front of me.
As soon as he sat, he began to rummage through his backpack, nervously glancing at me a couple of times. Maybe the company of a stranger was making him uncomfortable. So I returned to looking out of the window. The view was now blocked by slanted streaks of raindrops and a yellow moving figure. I could see more of the inside than the outside. The boy pulled out something like headphones and plugged them into a device. I didn’t like that. I was disappointed to have lost an opportunity, probably to some K-pop chartbuster, to have my first actual conversation with someone here in Ireland. I let out a long sigh and at the end of it, gave a friendly nod to the boy. Suddenly the headphones were removed. I guess, he wanted to talk as well.
“Hey, you speak English?” I asked just to be sure.
“Yes, I do. I’m Rory.” Later he’d explain that it is spelled R-U-A-R-I.
“I’m Lucas. Nice to meet you, Rory.”
“Are you on a vacation, sir?”
“Yes, it’s my second day here in Ireland. I thought I’ll see the train journey today.”
“Hmm, interesting. Dublin has a lot to offer for the travelers, and you chose to take the train to Belfast the very next day. I guess you didn’t enjoy Dublin’s hospitality.”
He was right. I was looking for something other than what Dublin had to offer.
“It’s not like that. It was a sudden plan,” I said with a shy smile.
“Yeah, right,” he commented sarcastically.
This young chap had decided to lead the conversation in a bold manner.
“And you’re from Ireland, right?”
“Yes,” he replied while fiddling with the zipper of his backpack.
“I am going to see a friend there. We have to work on a school project,” he added.
I was glad he had said “school”. His boldness had led me to think that he was in college. But who’s this bold at this age? I wasn’t. Youngsters can be cocky when they’re traveling along with their friends. Sometimes they’ll even make cheeky comments on fellow travelers. Being part of a group makes them feel more confident, you know. But they tend to be reserved when traveling alone. This boy was different, and I was a good deal amused by him.
“I keep traveling to Belfast. I know this route like the back of my hand.”
“That’s amazing. It’s definitely the other way round for me,” I said.
A stewardess appeared out of nowhere pushing her compact snacks trolley ahead of her. Chocolates, drinks, wafers, and everything else.
“Thank you, Miss.” I grabbed my Guinness.
The boy asked for some tea. Later he’d tell me that you get two complimentary beverages on this train.
The stewardess gently pulled her trolley back to the next coach. This told me that there was no one else in our coach yet. Just a thirty-year-old IT guy and a bold teenager.
“Can I ask you something, sir?
“Are you traveling alone? No girlfriend, wife, or friends?”
“Well, yes. I am traveling solo. You enjoy it sometimes.”
“Hmm… even I don’t have many friends or many girlfriends.” He cackled, then added, “Only this friend that I’m going to meet.”
I averted my eyes away from him while thinking of a nuanced reply. I wasn’t smiling anymore. I felt it was too adult-like stupid of him to judge me like that. But again, he was right. I didn’t have a girlfriend at that time. I haven’t had one since college.
“Then I guess, we have a lot of commonalities, sir” I replied sarcastically.
“Hmm, right. So you’re a loner like me.”
“You can say that” I replied while rubbing my forehead.
“Of course!” He exclaimed as if he’d solved his math problem.
He added, “There’s nothing wrong with being a loner. Much better than staying in a bad company.”
I agreed. What else could I have said. This boy was acting too mature for my liking. Before coming here, I’d read somewhere that Irish people tend to go overboard with their humor when in the company of close friends or loved ones. I was neither his friend nor his loved one. So what did he like or love about me to be so witty?
“You seem like a sound man, sir.”
“Sound as in?”
“I mean you are…cool. You’re a cool man.”
I blushed at the unexpected compliment.
He sighed, then continued.
“Can I let you in on a secret?
I didn’t like his facial expression when he said it. He seemed vulnerable. Desperate. My anxiety declared that I am about to be robbed. Any moment now, he’s going to take a knife out of his backpack and say, “Give me all your money, sir.” My heart began to race. Then, he let me in on his secret.
“I’m running away from home.”
The journey so far had been about green and dark green tree covers, long chains of identical auburn painted buildings, and occasional “Howeyehs” from spires that probably capped church towers. Ireland is old, mostly. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I prefer things old and slow; keeps me from going into my anxiety trance. The train was now crossing a bridge over the Broadmeadow River. I’d enjoyed doing things at my pace for the last two days but now, this boy’s presence was stirring me. When he let me in on his secret, I wasn’t shocked.
“Okay, and where do you want to run away to?”
“To my maternal aunt in Belfast.”
“Okay. Would you like to share what you are going to do there?”
“So, she’s the headmistress of a senior-secondary school there. I’ll finish my schooling and then look for a job.”
I was glad he didn’t say, “I’ll see once I get there.”
“Sounds sensible, but do you trust your aunt to support you in this?”
“Yes, completely. We’ve been in touch for years through a public telephone. For the last four years, we’ve been planning this through.”
“For four years?”
“Hmm, that’s a long time, buddy.”
Rory’s face looked different now. He was probably having a flashback of what made him run away from home. I sensed an unstable household, but I didn’t want to talk to him like a counselor. I wanted to talk like his sound uncle who’s seen a lot of troubles in life and wouldn’t ask him to go back home. Usually, someone would think of escaping a situation only when all the other ways of coping or reconciling differences have failed. It was a relief to know that he had a plan for this. If I was to run away from home, I would’ve properly planned it too. You wouldn’t want to add sleeping on the streets, or worse, being kidnapped to your sufferings.
We were about to part ways in less than an hour. I wanted to know more about his past. I was curious to know if our stories would match. So, I let him in on my secret.
“I have always wanted to run away from home. My mother is very controlling, or rather dominating. And then there’s my uncle who’s just like her. Dad’s not there, passed away about four years ago.”
Now my face was doing something strange.
“Oh… so that’s why you didn’t seem shocked when I told you about my secret. We have similar stories, I guess.”
“But how did your mother allow you to come on this trip?”
“She didn’t exactly. I lied, told her that this is an important work trip. She made a whole lot of fuss about not taking her along.”
“Oh, okay. That’s wise.”
“Yeah. We all have our own dealing mechanisms.“
“Hmm, so where do you work?”
“I work as a software engineer in California, US.
We sat in silence for about two minutes before I realized that time was running out.
“So, do you want to share anything else, as to why you want to move away from home? It’s completely sensible if you don’t want to. At the end of the day, I’m just a stranger to you.”
He chuckled, “The American says this after knowing about my escape.”
I smiled back.
“No, seriously. That makes sense if you don’t want—” I said, gesturing to him that I understood.
“No, It’s okay. I want to share.”
I nodded; staring at the floor while he framed his sentences.
“So my dad is no craic. He’s beaten me almost every other night since my mother passed away. He has never cared about me. I could starve myself to death and he’d never know. I’d be silently weeping against the pillow in my room when yer man would come in and say, ‘Boy, stop the lights. You can cry here all night, but the truth is that you’re too difficult to take care of. You speak too badly with me. You never do what I tell you to do. How can you be loved if you’re like this?’ And I’ll believe him. The next day, I would wake up early, clean up the house, make breakfast for him. But he was never happy with me. He’d send me to private schools, then wouldn’t pay the fees, and I would be thrown out of school. Then he’d send me to another private school but never to a state-funded one because there I can finish my schooling without worrying about the money, and I guess, he never wanted me to study.”
“That’s very unhealthy,” I said.
He added, “My mother died when I was eight. Since she was from London, my grandparents couldn’t come and see me that often. Not that my dad would’ve let them come close to me. On some days I would curse my mother for leaving me alone with him. But then I’d recall how he was the same with her. She could never answer back. It’s compulsory to study till you’re sixteen here in Ireland. That’s why I waited out all these years.”
“You’ve seen too much, buddy. No one deserves to go through all this. It’s unfair. I’m sorry for your experiences,” I said.
“Hmm, yeah. I have.”
I didn’t feel like asking him any more questions. We’d reached Portadown. Belfast was next. A tall man boarded the coach. He was wearing a grey flat cap and a brown overcoat. He was carrying an umbrella with him. He struggled to retract his umbrella as he walked past us and settled on the seat behind me. The three of us sat in silence while he caught his breath.
My heart wanted to keep Rory. I wanted to run away with him.
“Now you’re feeling sad for me, right? And you want to do something for me.”
“I do feel sad for your unusual experiences. Can I help you in any way?” I asked him.
The stewardess reappeared. This time her trolley was full of used glasses and cups and crumpled wrappers. When she left, Rory came closer to me and said, “I’ll tell you how you can help me.”
I thought he’d ask me for money. Maybe he’d told me a sob story hoping that I would buy it. But his statement was accompanied by his usual cocky smile; he wasn’t making this up. He had been in pain for long, and now he was choosing to move away from it. We arrived in Belfast.
I’d walked for almost an hour before I reached a park. I’d crossed so much of Belfast, but I’d noticed nothing on the way. My mind was occupied elsewhere. I was regretful, trying to draw parallels between our lives, between mine and Rory’s. At the station, while we were parting ways, Rory had hugged me and whispered into my ears, “You’re a kind man, sir. Too kind.”
And yes, then he had said, “Regarding that thing about doing something for me, here it is. I request you to run away too, sir.”
I checked my phone. No one had messaged me to ask if I’d reached Ireland.