Have you ever had an almost offensively easy breakup? The kind where the person you’ve just broken ties with because of blah blah and blah gives you a slight shrug, a “Thanks for everything-especially your honesty,” then walks away whistling Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well”? Or has that been you-the low-key dumpee? I’ve never once taken it on the chin like that, never even thought of trying to. Before Honza I’d only been with similarly emotive types: we could’ve formed a tribe of some sort, united under a banner that read FOREVER REJECTING YOUR REJECTION. But this . . . this was just ten uncomfortable minutes in a coffee shop. Then it was done, Honza had left, and I was all grateful and relieved that we’d kept it civil. I thought: So that’s it, then. It’s all over.
I put in my earphones and walked to the tube station with my brain slurping up my bright new beginnings playlist like syrup. The music put me in such a good mood that when the sneaky hand of a pickpocket settled on my backpack I just slapped it away and shook a finger at him instead of grabbing him and hurling him down the escalator.
There were no messages from Honza when I got home. All that remained of the relationship was a set of boxer shorts he’d given me. Tapestry-print days-of-the-week boxers with the crucial information embroidered in crimson thread across the waistband of each pair: Pondělí, Úterý, Středa…He claimed it made him sad that I always seem to think it’s Monday. And look-now I knew seven words of Czech! I’d be fluent in no time, he said.
The post-breakup days trooped by. I worked, I volunteered, I watched some shows, read some books, saw some friends, wore my set of tapestry-print underwear in the usual order. Pondělí, no wistful question or maudlin plea, Úterý, no by-the-way-you’re-full-of-shit essay, Středa, no saw-this-and-thought-of-you photo, Čvrtek, no offer of a chance to change my mind, Pátek, Sobota, Neděle, no nothing. A cycle repeated for months until the underwear had been washed and worn to rags. Binning that gift set seemed to conclude our conscious uncoupling process (the worst of it is I think I might be only half joking), though it wasn’t long before I missed the perfection of fit and invested in more of the same. There were a lot of different language options I could have pursued for my new days-of-the-week underwear, but I sought security, not novelty, so I stuck with the original formula. People may betray you, but the right pair of boxers-never. As for Honza Svoboda, I didn’t hear another word from or about him, until. Until-
I haven’t even started and I’m already losing my nerve. OK, I’ll get on with it, before I change my mind.
Picture it-about four years later, a starry-eyed young couple takes a trip on a sleeper train . . .
Xavier laughs at the idea of thirty-eight being considered young. That’s how old we both were at the time, though. And, overall, not so mature in terms of conduct.
Our local train station is typical of a small village transport hub in deepest Kent. It’s the first and last stop for the village’s two bus routes, and no matter how determined we passengers are to simply pass through, we tarry. The building has a dishevelled magnetism to it, striking the senses as an overgrown cousin of a country barn. A cousin conversant with the infernal. There it is (the workaday infernal), smoking away in the fade of the exterior paint, and there it is again in the gaslit appearance of each window frame, those shadows that shrink behind the sepia glass. You could just about believe that Lucifer’s got a few ham hocks strung up in there, and that he visits every now and then to see for himself how far along in the curing process they’ve come. But in place of hellish hams there’s a station cafe that serves UNESCO World Heritage-level cuppas. To round it all off there are two train tracks, where four times a day departing and arriving passengers mingle with the villagers who’ve come to welcome them or see them off. Two arrivals and two departures every twenty-four hours isn’t quite enough for a railway track to seriously devote itself to being what people say it is . . . As per our instructions, we were at the station at half past six on a Saturday morning in spring, and the honeysuckle, butterflies, and other revellers didn’t seem too concerned about the comings and goings of the trains. I suppose all the pretty tumbling and fluttering and flapping and whatnot marked them out as ambassadors of the season and secured them right of way.
The train was waiting on the London-bound track, looking more like a seafaring creature than a locomotive. Our companion at the time was a mongoose named Árpád, and he bristled at the sight of it. “See the dragon, see its mane,” I whispered to him. Sleek scrolls of silvered metal flickered and twisted their way all along its long, low body. The train bore its name like a diadem, scarlet letters dancing along a ruby red band set just above the window of the driver’s cabin. T H E L U C K Y D A Y.
The driver’s cabin was empty. Árpád examined the station platform, patting the concrete with his paws as if preparing to launch himself into the air and fall upon his foe.
Xavier told Árpád he was overreacting and yet, from where we stood, it looked as if the wheels had tucked themselves over the rail tracks. See its mane, see its claws . . .
All I said was: “Bling a ling a ling. A tad conspicuous for a tea-smuggling train, isn’t it?”