Tonight’s prompt comes from the idea behind Paula Hawkins’ Girl on the Train. What I hope to show with the story is the variety of stories that you can develop from the prompt of someone regularly commuting on a train and regularly seeing people that she or he develops a story about, and eventually becomes involved with.
The Old Man on the Subway: The Old Lady by the Tree
The old man rode the subway every day. He would ride the subway from western limit to the eastern limit and then back to the Kipling Station again. Then, he would go to a coffee shop up the hill from the subway, slowly spend his time there, read a paper all the way through, and repeat the process.
There was more to it than that. He was a retired teacher, leaving the only job he had ever had once he had turned 65. He lived alone except for his plants, he had been a high school biology teacher, and he had specialized in botany at university. His pension gave him all the money he needed. But he needed to do something with his mind.
When he got on the subway, he brought with him a pad of paper and several pens. You never knew when one would run out, just like when he had written exams in school, and when his students had written tests in his classroom. He wrote furiously when he was on the parts of the subway line that was above ground, making notes on the state of the trees and other plants that he regularly looked at along the way. He knew them like he did his plants at home, like he had once known his students. There was little that he missed in the yearly cycles of the plants of his subway trip.
When he sat in the coffee shop, he would review and edit his notes. On his second trip, he would try to capture what he had missed on the first time around. This made his notes especially thorough.
But that was not all that he saw. There were people that he noticed as well, not just the people he regularly saw on the subway. He was very strict about when he boarded the trains on both of his rounds, and also on the place where he boarded them, so he would often see the same people, day in and out. But he spoke to none of them.
There were, however, homes that he looked into on his ride. Near where there were growing the only two western cedars on the ride was a couple that he would see every day, at least once a day. They were always seen in a multi-windowed room that looked out into a river valley, as well as south in the direction of the subway. They were always eating or drinking something, and dressed like they had put all the thought they could muster in what they were wearing.
In another, smaller room, there was an old woman, well at least a woman around his own age, he didn’t like to call such women old. She sat motionless beside a plant, a small tree. He hadn’t noticed her for a while, just the tree as it was an arbutus. It was a tree he greatly admired. It was Canada’s only broad-leafed evergreen. It’s flaking red bark, and edible red berry were unique in the country. The Salish of British Columbia, in whose territory it lived, looked upon it as a sacred tree. In their story of the origin of the world, it had protected their ancestors by providing a sea anchor during the flood, a safe haven to tie their canoes to as the waters swirled all around them.
It was only about the fourth time he made notes on the tree that he noticed that the woman was there. Afterwards, he noticed her there every time. After several months, he looked forward to that part of his journey. He didn’t know why he liked seeing her there. Perhaps it was because she sat so close to the tree, as if the two were one. They became one in his mind, both of them friends that he had never actually met. Although he was socially quite shy, he wanted to wave to them, but never did. He did look at them intently, like he was trying to tell them that he was glad to see them.
They drew so much of his intention that he stopped writing about the plants in that small area. Instead, he made very detailed notes in his notebook about the arbutus tree. Had he been totally honest with himself, he would also admit that he made just as detailed notes about the woman, what she was wearing, whether she was smiling, how much he thought that she was looking his way, and even whether he believed that she was looking at him. He wouldn’t write such reflections down, but he remembered them completely just the same, and they would come back to him at night, when he lay on his back in bed.
Then there was the night of the great storm, rain and wind such as he had never seen since he was a child and Hurricane Hazel had hit Toronto. He had to forego his travelling, the weather was so bad. The first day, the subway system was even shut down.
When the storm had finally ended, the sun shone again, and he and his fellow commuters could get back to their regular routines, he was anxious to make his trips, and see what damage the storm had made to the plants he knew so well. As he went along his way, he saw trees had fallen, plants had been crushed. A lot had changed.
Then he approached the valley by the house of the couple, the old woman and the arbutus tree. There was devastation there for sure. When he looked at the house, he was horrified. The large room where the couple sat every day, had been crushed by a fallen tree. He could not even see the room that had held the old woman and the arbutus.
He stopped his note-taking, a rare occurrence. The subway then went deep into the tunnel, deep into darkness. And then the lights went out and the subway train stopped. Before he even had time to wonder how long this delay would take in the work of his writing, the lights went back on and the train started rolling again. His neck had tensed up with his concern for the delay, so he turned his head slowly, first one way and then the next. Then he saw it. To his right, directly in front of the empty space on the rest of his seat there it was. The arbutus tree was there. It was almost as if he knew that it would be there. He did know that he would take it back to his house, and have a place to come home to wherever he travelled, or even if he travelled no more.