The train station was pretty much empty except for the odd passenger and ten to fifteen homeless guys lying on the benches. By the looks of them, she guessed a mix of local, African and Eastern European, the latter two most likely asylum seekers.
Like in Hong Kong, it was a harsh existence.
Every time it looked like they’d fallen asleep, the security guards would come along and hit them on the legs, telling them something in Italian, probably to stop sleeping on the benches, but it could’ve been something much worse.
Joanna pulled her pillow jacket tight and looked at the train timetable on the wall outside.
Her Italian was about as good as her Farsi, but she could recognise the word Ljubljana and the numbers indicating time, and she could guess that the column on the left was departures and the column on the right was arrivals because that’s the way it was in most places, so by deduction, the next train to Ljubljana was at five past eleven.
The next, next train was the day after, which was also okay, but it was eight thirty now and Sila would probably talk all night about that stupid spine story so what was the point in waiting?
She could go back, get her stuff and be back here within an hour.
Actually, yes, why not?
One hour and three minutes later, she was back, with the rucksack pulling down her shoulders and as she walked to the entrance of the station, a very tall guy in an Arsenal bubble jacket emerged from behind a pillar and said something in Italian.
She shrugged and said ‘I don’t know’, prompting the guy to quickly switch to broken English, telling her that her bag looked heavy and if she wanted a break, he could carry for her.
‘It’s not heavy.’
‘No, looks heavy. I carry for you.’
The man nodded with a smile and straightened, stretching his arms up to the Vicenzan night sky, then slouched back down again, telling Joanna she could carry the bag, it was okay, but the entrance in front of her was no good and the good entrance was round the side of the station.
‘This is the entrance,’ said Joanna, pointing at the huge doorless space beyond the façade arches.
‘No, no good. You go there, they talk with you and try to take your money. No security there now. This way is better, go direct to trains. This way, come with me, I show you.’
The guy started walking to the side of the station, which was visible from where they were. Joanna shifted a few steps to the side and looked at a small passage with no lights and no people. Even the pavement was hard to see.
‘Come, come with me, I take you.’
The man tried to take her arm, but she shrugged him off and told him that she was going inside the no good entrance.
‘No, there is no good, no security. This way is better, come on.’
‘I’ll see for myself.’
‘You see, it is too late. This way is better, come.’
The man said something loud in a language she didn’t understand, something that didn’t sound Italian, and then drifted off into the dark passage all by himself.
Joanna continued through the church-like arches and into the station, sitting down on an empty bench. She looked around and saw a mix of locals and foreigners seated on different benches, all of them men, some looking at the café still open in the corner, others looking straight ahead at nothing.
She looked at the station clock. There was still about an hour and a half to go.
The Slovene folktale book was an option, but not a great one. She’d read it cover to cover seven times, there was nothing in there she hadn’t analysed a thousand times before.
Though at least it gave some information, unlike that Slovene nut. At least it was trying.
Can’t remember. Can’t remember. Can’t remember. Yeah, that’s why you’ve got a scar on your neck. What was his problem? Why not just say?
She’d let him get taken, mauled, it wasn’t a lie, but there was no malice behind it. There was no malice behind any of them, even though they’d all deserved it. They were all perverts or racists, or both. Except maybe the Kenyan guy. He was okay. But this one, she’d tried to be nice to him, she’d said sorry, she’d gone to all those fucking cabinets and not said a single bad thing when, as usual, they were empty. Not anything she would call bad. Even though, at its core, core level, the idea of dark professors hiding in cabinets was…
‘… … … … … … … …’ she muttered in Cantonese.
Her mission may have been weird, but it wasn’t insane. There were books on the subject, other people who’d seen the creature. It had a basis, an undeniable basis, in some form of reality, even if she’d never seen an actual Krsnik herself.
And this new one…a village with missing men…in winter…not even that many missing men…in a village where the snow got up to five feet deep
where people could freeze to death
where people had
throughout all recorded history
frozen to death
after walking the wrong way and getting lost and
he’d figured it was connected to cabinets and
his childish dark professor of light and
it was just
‘… … … … … …’
She looked at the clock again and then at the café with two customers and decided she needed a coffee.
Italian coffee was legendarily small and overrated so she picked the image from the menu that had the biggest cup and sat down next to the window.
A few minutes later, one of the asylum seeker types came in, an African, and talked to the woman behind the counter. She shook her head. He put some coins on the counter, but she still shook her head. He looked around the café, saw Joanna and walked over to her, hesitated for a few seconds then folded his hands together in a praying gesture.
His first words were what sounded like Italian, followed by English when he clocked her blank expression.
Joanna opened up her wallet and gave him 20 Euros in two ten notes. It took him a moment to process before he shook his head in two swipes, said, ‘I think only need ten,’ then walked off with both.
He returned to the counter and ordered again, but the woman still wasn’t interested. They had a brief conversation, with the woman pointing towards the clock on the wall.
The man paused for a long time, staring at the woman, then turned and walked out of the cafe. Joanna watched him sit on the bench outside, watched his lips as he seemed to mutter to himself then picked up her book and stared at the words on page seventy something.
‘Krsnik will often toy with its victim before delivering the fatal blow. In the case of Calo Slavetic, a farmer from a town near Maribor, he was even allowed to return home to tell his story, before disappearing three nights later, never to be heard from again.’
Joanna stopped reading and watched an Italian man enter the café, joke with the woman and receive a midget mug of fresh coffee.
Going back to her book, she got through a few more lines then put it face down on the table and went to the counter, pointing to the same picture on the menu as before.
The waitress looked at her table and the cup already there then took the money and poured the coffee.
When she was done, Joanna pointed to a muffin and paid for that too.
She took the coffee and the muffin back to her table and then went outside to the African man sitting on the bench. It took two attempts to get his attention as he seemed to be in some kind of trance, and when he did come round, he spoke Italian.
‘I bought you a coffee and muffin.’ She pointed at her table in the café but he was still confused, so she tried again. ‘Coffee for you.’
She didn’t say anymore, she just walked back into the café and sat back down, picking up the book and resuming where she’d left off.
The man followed, sitting down opposite her, looking over at the waitress, seeing her muttering something in Italian then turning back to the coffee.
He reached inside his pocket and pulled out the ten euro note, placing it on the table. ‘I forget to give this.’
‘You can keep it.’
The man looked at the note then pushed it closer towards her. ‘Please, you take it.’
Joanna shrugged and took it back.
The man drank some of the coffee and closed his eyes for about thirty seconds. When he opened them again, he said, ‘this is the second coffee I have in this place.’
‘I am here for almost two weeks, every night. First night, there is a different woman staff. She has no problem. This one…’ He trailed off into slurred French.
‘Is the coffee good?’
He put the cup to his nose, sniffed then put it back on the table. ‘No.’
Joanna nodded and went back to her book. The man looked at the cover and thought about asking what kind of monster it was she was reading about, but then he thought, she looks really focused, maybe she doesn’t wanna talk about it.
Five minutes passed.
The man got tired of looking out of the window and asked Joanna what she was reading about.
‘It is a Slovene monster…’
‘The next country?’
‘Slovenia. I hear it is a good place. My friend tells me, it is better than here, but I don’t know. It seems small, so I think, can the economy really be good? I don’t know.’
‘It is okay.’
‘Is the economy good?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Yes. White, Slovene.’
‘Most of them, not all. I saw some Indians, some black. Maybe they were Slovene. I’m not sure.’
The man nodded and drank more coffee. ‘Your bag looks heavy. You travel alone to here?’
‘I see some Chinese here before, but they always walk in the big group. Sometimes, a girl or boy alone, like you, but most times, no.’
Joanna looked at him, at the pupils in his eyes, until the man clearly felt uncomfortable and looked out the window. He wasn’t a huge guy, average height, a bit scrawny, and he wasn’t like the one who tried to get her to follow him down the dark part of the station. There was a chance he’d try something at some point, all men did eventually, but all she had to do was get him on the train and up to the castle and then it wouldn’t matter.
Unless the Krsnik was still absent…
‘Sorry, I am not a bad guy. I only ask what I think, no bad intention…intention…oui, I think maybe the same in English…I say it wrong, I don’t know…intention, no?’
‘Good, because you buy a coffee for me, this food too. I don’t want to make you scared.’
The man leaned back in the chair and played with something on his finger. ‘It is hard. I don’t know how to say. This is not my country. I have a wife, she is at home. I have a daughter, at home. I don’t know what they do now. It is hard here. I don’t know how to say…it is like a puzzle, all this city, this country…difficult to get out.’
‘You said you’ve only been here two weeks…’
‘No. Here, yes. Other places, no.’
Joanna looked at the thing he was pulling up and down his finger and saw a ring. Was that there earlier? She couldn’t remember.
‘So you don’t know where your family are now?’
‘I know where are they, this is okay, but I don’t know what they do. I can guess, I send e-mail sometimes to them, if I have money, but today, what they do at 9am, 1pm, 5pm, I don’t know.’
‘Why don’t you go back to them?’
‘You can sell the ring and go back. It must be worth enough for the flight or boat or…’
‘It’s just a ring.’
‘No. I don’t sell.’ He came back to the table and ate more of the muffin. ‘Maybe it is good to talk the different topic.’
Joanna looked at her own ring and nodded then went back to her book on Slovene monsters.
The man tried to think of other things to talk about, but it was hard when he was doing all the work and didn’t even know English that well. Was she Chinese? Did she want to talk about Chinese things? It was impossible to know. She was reading a book right in front of him, maybe she didn’t want to talk at all and all the things they’d just said was out of politeness. Or maybe she was worried he was going to make a move on her?
He left the muffin and drank more of the coffee he didn’t even like. While drinking, he looked over at the waitress. She had her eyes pinned on him like a hawk, a hawk that really didn’t like men from the Ivory Coast.
Would a hawk like that ever do anything?
When the place was empty, the lights out, would she…
He knew it was coming and tried to quickly think of prosaic things like making toast and Bamba Bakary on La Première, but it was too strong, the picture in his head of his own body, naked, pinned down on the counter with the waitress riding him down onto the floor, the men watching, impotent, then the reverse, the hawk up against the coffee machine, him behind, fucking her while she said again and again, coffee machine’s broken, coffee machine’s broken, and
this wasn’t him, it was anger, it was his ID
it was this station
it was the waitress
He put down the coffee and looked at the Chinese girl’s rucksack. Rucksacks carry things. Rucksacks are functional. Rucksacks have zips and you can open them and put things inside like textbooks and water bottles. Rucksacks could be carried on one shoulder or both. Rucksack, rucksack, rucksack, rucksack.
It seemed to work. The hawk and the coffee machine faded and the still life café set returned. To calcify things, he remembered a line from Moussa la taximan, ‘you can’t blame people for what they think, only what they do.’ It wasn’t his favourite film, but for some reason that line had always stuck.
‘You’re sweating…’ Joanna said, glancing up from her book.
The man wiped his head and said sorry, he didn’t really know why. He looked at her rucksack again. ‘You go on the train tonight?’
‘The train in Slovenia?’
‘The train comes late here many times. Maybe it comes, maybe no. You know someone in this place…Slovenia?’
The man drank the last part of his coffee then focused on the muffin again. He went through it fast and when he was done he stood up and said his name was Patrice.
‘Joanna. This is not a Chinese name, I think.’
‘My Chinese name is difficult to pronounce.’
‘You mean difficult to say?’
‘C’est vrai, I understand this. Some people, they call me Patrick before.’
‘Patrice is quite easy to say.’
‘I think so.’ Patrice looked at his empty plate and the bench outside. ‘Thank you for the coffee, Joanna, and this…I don’t know how to call it in English…’
‘Muffin?’ He smiled. ‘It is the same for French. Most the same, maybe there is more the ‘E’ sound for French, but I think most the same. You know some French?’
Patrice laughed. ‘Muffeen. It is a strange place to start, but okay.’
‘Pas mal, very good, but I think you do not need. You know English very well.’
‘Victim of routine. I’ve been speaking it for almost nine months straight.’
‘Nine months? You speak in England or…’
‘Many countries. Slovenia, Germany, Denmark…’
‘But you are from China, no?’
‘Hong Kong. I never go there before.’ He looked at the empty plate again. ‘How you say in Chinese…this?’
‘Yes, how to say?’
‘No, we say muffin. It’s the same.’
‘Is the same…why?’
‘Or you can say dan go zai.’
‘Dan go zai.’
‘This is also muffin?’
‘Cake or muffin. You can say either, people would understand.’
He nodded without repeating muffin, said, ‘thank you again, I go now,’ then walked out and sat back down on the bench he’d been zombified on earlier.
Joanna stayed where she was, sipping coffee occasionally, saying the phrase drink coffee in her own language so it wouldn’t sound strange to her.
She continued re-reading the book on Krsnik until the time the train was supposed to arrive, then got up, loaded the rucksack onto her shoulders and took the two cups back to the counter.
The waitress said something to her in Italian as she left, and Joanna turned and said, ‘you can close now’. It was unclear if the waitress understood; her face was bitter, but it’d been that way for the last hour and a half, so Joanna ignored the further Italian that spewed out after her and headed to the platform.
It was cold outside, but not cold enough to make her doubt what she was doing.
She’d taken a break for too long, but this was fate, this was a test of their relationship, and if you doubted fate then you may as well head to the nearest water tower and jump.
Planting herself near the edge of the platform, she de-planted almost immediately and walked in small lines to keep some warmth.
It was already eleven seventeen, but this was Italy, trains were often late, so she’d heard.
But that was other trains, and this was her train and
by eleven twenty-three she realised the train information wasn’t even on the board anymore and
went to the only other guy on the platform, asking him softly what was going on, and he replied, train cancelled, train not coming, finish, and when she asked why, the only words he could say was, ‘dead man on track,’ which was quite weird as most people who couldn’t speak English wouldn’t have known the word track, but for some reason – constant travel, train fandom, throw momma from the train – he knew it and that’s why the train wasn’t coming, because some guy had decided that tonight was the night to give in and get in the way of her mission and
when she asked the platform guy if the trains would run the next day, he shook his head and said, summer maybe, not now.
‘Maybe one day, two days, to fix, then train go again.’
She breathed out, said okay and left the station, following an elderly couple down the main street for a few hundred metres before detaching and turning left onto the road with all the beautiful buildings
most showing small cracks and chipped stone and
For a woman on her own, the walk back to the hostel should’ve been the equivalent of walking through Compton at three in the morning with a Kid Rock t-shirt on but she’d been to Compton before with Yute Long and they’d met a guy with a guitar on his back, not stereotypes with guns, so she wasn’t surprised when it turned out that the streets of Vicenza were empty and all the buildings were closed.
Wherever the bars were in this city they
weren’t near the city centre.
When she got back to the hostel, the man diagonally tilting his head at his phone behind the desk looked surprised, asking her where she’d been, but she just smiled and went up to the room and
sat on the bunk below Sila, who was still reading the same book as earlier, and the only thing he bothered to say to her was, ‘if you’re not gonna fuck off then you’re paying for the room tomorrow night.’
And Joanna said back, ‘if you say so.’