The heat was relentless
The heat was relentless. The lady across the compartment sighed and turned the last page of the magazine again. It must have been the third time she had read it cover to cover. She put it down and took knitting needles, together with some half completed woollen article, out of her voluminous travel bag. The fat man in the corner cleared his throat and mopped his face and neck with his handkerchief; it did no good: perspiration was immediately beading up across his brow. He pretended not to notice and continued to stare fixedly out of the window.
The smell and noise outside the train seemed to underline the chaos and the anarchy of these foreign parts. But in the first class compartment a stiff English silence reigned. They were strangers; none had been introduced to the other and so, in accordance with custom, they sat in awkward silence. Even the young couple sitting diagonally from the fat man were unable to speak to each other: too shy in the oppressive silence.
It had already been two hours since the train last moved. Despite the shade, the compartment was now uncomfortably hot even for those acclimatised to the local conditions. Suddenly there was a jolt accompanied by the groaning and squealing that only the wheels of a steam train can make. The train lurched forward but then stopped.
This new disappointment mixed with the existing frustration finally tipped him over. The fat man cursed. He cursed the railways and the native railway staff. He cursed in language that was so direct and so offensive that it revealed his innermost prejudices. It was not loud, but in that silence it did not need to be. There was a moment of intense embarrassment and then the lady spoke. She glared at him and in a level tone she simply said,“We do not need that language here.” Laced into those seven words was all the disapproval and disdain the English upper class reserved for those who stepped out of place. For a moment he was shocked at the rebuke, or perhaps shocked that he had said aloud what he only meant to think. But he had done it now, he had crossed the line, he could not retreat. He looked straight back at her and with all the venom he could muster he said,“Shut up you stuck up cow”. As he spoke the train juddered into motion.
“Now steady on”. It was the man from the young couple. Incensed, the fat man stood instinctively. He stepped towards the young man. As he did so the train jolted once again and lurched forward. The fat man lost his balance and putting out his hand he hit the young man’s wife squarely on the nose: she screamed. He recovered himself but before he could utter another word the young man was on his feet pushing him back. The back of the fat man’s head connected with the overhead luggage rack. He cried out in pain and threw his body forward but he lost has balance again and he again fell forward. The lady’s shriek was almost immediately drowned out by another cry of pain from the fat man. He again pulled back but this time his urgency seemed to have dissipated. It was almost as if he were moving in slow motion.
They saw it then. His once cream coloured shirt was rapidly turning crimson. From a central point just below his chest the end of a knitting needle could be seen, still trailing wool in a line back to the lady’s lap.“Good God, You’ve killed him!” she said in her clear voice. She was looking straight at the young man. He was aghast but managed to stammer out a denial.“You killed him,” she repeated.“You deliberately pushed him into me”
“It was you” the voice would have been shrill and nervous but for the nasal tone.“It was you,” the young man’s wife holding a cloth to her nose repeated.“You stabbed him with your knitting needle. I saw you.”
“It’s my word against yours.” Again the haughty tone was clear in her voice.“Do you really think they’ll take your word against mine?”
He grabbed her then. In his rage and fear, in his desperation, he grabbed her. He grabbed her and with a force far beyond that which he had meant, he lifted her from her seat. He was not sure why he had grabbed her or what he meant to do so he just shoved her back. There was a sickening thud as the back of her head connected with the coat hook. She opened her mouth but there was no sound. Her eyes were fixed on him. Then her jaw went slack.
It was several moments before they realised what had happened. Then with more squealing and groaning the train stopped again. Silence once more settled on the compartment as the young couple stared at each other. The heat was relentless.