There was a blur of purple. Apparition-like. A winter coat, perhaps. And a splay of mousey brown hair. And that was all he saw. What he heard was a hideous crack, somewhere beneath him, like a sledge hammer striking wood and missing the intended spike.
Andre had been thinking about the instant coffee he wasn’t drinking, still hot in his Thermos, on the kitchen bench, by the kettle. Or had he left it by the chair, beside the closet? Now, he was instinctively engaging the emergency brake. He moved as quickly as his reflexes allowed, though his muscles seemed to temporarily resist the chorus of neurons singing inside his skull. He felt an erratic pulse in his fingertips, his twitching eyelids. He squeezed them shut.
The train pushed (or pulled) whatever fleshy thing was beneath it, fifteen metres maybe, before grinding to a halt. Andre didn’t know if he’d heard the sound, or imagined it: bones crunching. An image of the hulking grey rats that scurried along the dark tracks, building nests in the tunnel’s shadowy enclaves, formed in his mind, and eroded quickly. When he opened his eyes, the tunnel opening in the distance was a black square, remote and foreboding. To his right, outside the small window, a man and woman (friends, lovers, or complete strangers?) were staring down at the front of the train, mouths agape. Eyes stunned, like deer, wise to the presence of human footsteps.
Was its metallic surface blood-stained? Was the body still moving? About a quarter of subway suicide attempts didn’t result in death. Andre had read that in the health and safety manual, when he sat the driver’s exam two years earlier. It made him recall a gory image he’d seen as a teenager, of a guy who lost half his face from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had somehow lived, his skull caved-in like a deflated soccer ball.
He could feel his legs trembling underneath his grey work pants. His stomach somersaulted, morphing into something akin to a hyperventilating lung: expanding, cosmically, contracting. He sat on his chair, tried to collect his thoughts. Another man, further down the platform, was keeled over, vomiting onto the yellow tactile strip. Someone else in black jeans and a bomber jacket raced up the escalator. He didn’t need the hassle. Or maybe he was racing to tell the station clerk.
It was all on tape, thought Andre, and the emergency brake would have triggered a silent alarm. The clean-up crews would already be on their way. Mops and buckets, and blankets. And paramedics, just in case. And police. He took a deep breath. The voice of the train’s guard, Big Phil, crackled through the radio, broke the silence of the driver’s chamber. “What’s the story? Jumper?”
“Yeah,” replied Andre, wondering at the sound of the word, jumper, so nonchalant off his partner’s tongue.
“Are you alright?” It was rhetorical, a function of habit.
His legs were still shaking. The woman on the platform, nearest the front of the train had begun sobbing, and the man beside her, clearly not her lover, had put his arm around her in a tender but formal way. They had both turned away from the scene. The man who had vomited was gone. Andre stood and exited the train.
“There are going to be police here soon, and they’ll need to speak to you,” he told the man and woman, who were now seated on an orange bench. He watched the tears streaking down the woman’s cheeks, glistening under the fluorescent ceiling lights, like frozen canals in the moonlight. Her bloodshot eyes look straight ahead.
There were passengers beginning to get off the train in single file. Andre turned and saw Phil directing traffic with an outstretched arm. There was another station attendant in a fluoro vest on the scene, corralling people toward the exit.
“You killed her.” It was barely a whisper. The young woman was looking up at him now, into his eyes. Her. The word crashed into him..
“Miss,” Andre began speaking but he didn’t quite know what to say. “That woman… she jumped in front of the train.”
The crying woman shook her head, slowly. “No,” she said, “you killed her.” Her voice, more energetic, echoed off the tiled walls. Some of the exiting passengers looked down the platform in their direction.
Andre wanted to explain how there was nothing he could’ve done. He wanted to say it wasn’t his fault. He wanted to yell in her face. But he didn’t do any of those things. He looked at the man beside her. “I need both of you to stay put until the police get here,” he said. And he walked away.
Andre would never learn her name. She would speak to the police and recount what she’d seen. She would admit that a woman had indeed leaped into the path of the westbound train, at roughly 8.27 am, on Sunday December 8th. Later that evening, in the quiet of her uptown apartment where she lived alone, while staring into a half-eaten bowl of microwaved minestrone soup, she would curse herself for the way she acted. She would recall the driver, the fear-like glow she’d seen in the pinpricks of light, constellating his dark eyes, the guilt that seemed to shake his solid body, that raced through the veins of his hands, hanging at his side, fingers clenching into fists. Over the next few days she would make enquiries with the transit service, trying to learn his identity. She would find his picture on Facebook, and an address linked to the name Andre Deschamps. After several weeks of deliberating, she would write him a letter. She would apologise and ask his forgiveness, with a disclaimer that she knew how inconsequential that might seem. But she would say it was important. And she would sign the letter with her real name, in blue ink.
“Fucking jumpers,” Phil muttered, as they waited for the police to take their statements. He said it with an air of superiority. “They don’t give a damn who sees them cark it. If you’re gonna off yourself do it in the privacy of your own home, how about that for being civil? I’ve got no remorse for people like this, who do it in public.” He paused, then said: “You gonna take the time off?”
Andre looked at his partner, expressionless. “What are you talking about?”
“You know, the leave. A couple months with pay if you milk it,” said Phil. “You might have to go see a quack, but that’s no drama.”
Andre hadn’t been thinking about the train, or the woman who jumped, or what he was going to say to the police. Or whether he’d show up for work the next day. His mind had wandered elsewhere.
He was standing in an art gallery in London, looking at a painting of a black square. Sarah was behind him, on tiptoes, chin resting on his shoulder, auburn hair tickling his cheek. They were both lost in its unfulfilling depth. The painting was mounted higher on the wall than one might have expected, above his eye line, and he was six-foot-three. It was by an artist named Malevich, who had been born in Poland, but had lived in Moscow during the Russian Revolution. He was more interested in the history then the art , so these details stood out. The painting was an oddity in a gallery otherwise teeming with colour. He knew there was a deeper meaning in its simplicity that he had failed to grasp. Sarah had spoken to him about it afterwards, as they walked along the Thames. It was about rejecting aesthetics and striving to create a utopian social order where the spiritual essence of art or creative thought was embodied in every lived pursuit. You didn’t need to depict anything, she had said. You just needed to feel artistic passion burning within. He had always marveled at her intellect, her ability to deconstruct an artwork or a film, and grow some kind of coherent meaning from the rubble. Since becoming a driver, Andre had recalled that painting often, speculating on meanings they hadn’t discussed. The black square, he believed, was a tunnel, a wound in the the earth, a shortcut to someplace else. It was both a means to an end, and an end itself. A painful void. Andre thought about her blue eyes, how they scanned across his face, trying to read each subtle movement, and decode his thoughts. It had been unnerving in the beginning of their relationship, how spot-on she was at guessing his mood. He remembered the softness of her skin under his hands, counting the freckles on her back while she slept, tracing lines between them, as if planning a trip between capital cities on a map. He remembered the way she smelled coming out of the shower, in the evenings. And her smile when they used to say goodbye. He wondered where she was now.
After the police took his statement, Andre was instructed to report to the company headquarters. He climbed to street level. The cold air bit refreshingly at his skin and the smell of exhaust from the idling buses seemed somehow cleaner than the stale, dusty air underground. He hailed a taxi, but asked the driver to take him to the lake. He was tired of answering questions. He needed to be outside.
There was a woman running along the waterfront, beany pulled tight over her ears, clouds of white breath escaping from chapped lips. A man in a down jacket had set up a tripod on the dark sand, and seemed to be taking photos of the distant skyline. A trio of grey and white seagulls, with crimson beaks, inched silently closer to his backpack, resting against a log. They turned their heads sideways between tentative steps, gauging his awareness to their creeping, feathered bodies.
Andre walked along the boardwalk path, which seemed familiar underfoot. He had come to the lakeshore as a boy to watch the fireworks and the airshows in summer. There were large crowds then, a sort of carnival atmosphere, people lying on blankets through the warm evenings, which seemed to go on forever. Now, it was quiet. He could hear the cars speeding along the freeway, and the water colliding against the concrete break wall.
Andre wondered about the woman who had jumped: what her name was, what had happened in her life up until that point, and how her family would feel, after they learned the news. He felt an urge to talk to someone, about suffering, and why some people can endure it and others let go, about how the urge to simply keep on surviving can be sucked from your bones like marrow.
Malevich had survived through part of Stalin’s murderous reign long enough to die on his own bed, of natural causes. This was a rarity for someone of such eminence, in a political environment where people simply ceased to exist, erased entirely from the social conscience. From history. But his survival had meant forsaking his artistic ideals, reverting back to conventional forms, depicting farmers and peasants hard at work in golden fields, doing his part - reluctantly or not - to fuel the collectivist propaganda machine. It was the cruel irony of his career. Andre had thought a stable job might be the lynchpin that could keep whatever it was he and Sarah had, fixed in place. But it had done the opposite. She was too intelligent, too free, and too alive. And things had crumbled, irreparably. There were four versions of the black square, produced at different times. But the first - the original - had been painted to conceal a more colourful, complex composition underneath, she had told him, that autumn day in London. Andre wondered what had caused the artist’s change of heart. Why had he abandoned colour, and opted for darkness? Perhaps the square was nothing more than a window, facing out into uncertainty. And he was staring through its tinted surface with untrained eyes.
It was dark when Andre got back to his apartment. He found his Thermos by the kettle and he tipped its contents into the kitchen sink. The dark liquid, splashing inside the steel basin, staining its surface, made him think of blood.
He wondered how many nights would pass before that purple coat and the sound would be nothing but a forgotten episode. A disposable memory, buried deep in the recesses of his mind. Or drained away, altogether.
Andre stepped onto his balcony. He turned his gaze skyward, away from the lights and the noise down below. There was a region in space he’d learned about in school called the Lockman Hole, a kind of anomaly in the night sky. Most of space was awash with gaseous clouds, obscuring our view of the cosmos. But through the relatively clear Lockman Hole, astronomers could gaze at thousands of faraway galaxies, spying some of the most distant objects in the universe.
Andre marvelled at the vastness of it all, and the spectacular clarity of one tiny region, a perfect window.
Andre would not take the leave offered to him by the transit company. But he would not return to work there, either. He would give notice, terminate his lease, and he would buy a one-way plane ticket. His first destination was Hanoi. He had a friend there, teaching English. There were caves there, too, deep in the earth, beneath the limestone mountains on the border with Laos. Accessible only with guides.
He’d read about them in a copy of National Geographic, at the doctor’s office. He wanted to venture into their depths, their darkness.
Shortly after his departure, a letter would be deposited in the mailbox of the apartment where he used to reside. It would come in a plain white envelope, with no return address, and it would sit there for three weeks, wedged between unpaid phone bills, bank statements and pizza delivery vouchers.
The mailbox, overflowing, would eventually be cleared out by the building superintendent, its contents discarded.
Andre would never learn the name of the sender. But he would not forget the woman on the platform or her accusatory words. He would not forget the icy tears streaking down her brown cheeks. And he would wonder, for months afterward, as he kept his body moving, across borders and through new cities, whether she too had dreams about that day.