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  • Writer's pictureLeon de Leeuw

Maria and the railway to love

At the station of Gyushevo, Maria was starting her day with a strong black coffee. She had grown to like the bitter taste on her tongue and there was nobody to be bothered by the coffee breath anyway. It started with just one cup of sweetened coffee a day but now Maria was a full-on caffeine user. During the days monitoring the train schedule and collecting post, she would even pour some liquor into her coffee as well. This only happened on particularly dark afternoons where she couldn’t bear with her own thoughts and decided to drain them. Coffee grew to be her biggest friend, apart from Martin who rode the train to Sofia each Monday and returned on Friday. With dark brown eyes and a wave of hair partly covering his forehead, he was a handsome man with the matching style. He would bring Maria coffee each Monday morning and then board the train.

Maria, who grew to be sturdy and stuck between the armrests of her chair, had little else to do all day but fantasizing about Martin and what she would say if he’d return to Gyushevo. As Maria received the newspaper each morning around five and Martin would leave with the first train at twenty past six, she would read a newspaper beforehand and give him. She’d try to find topics of speech in the newspaper to discuss with Martin, as she had little else going on in her life that would be interesting enough to intrigue a handsome man. She’d think of some funny jokes as well to lighten up Martin’s mood at the crack of dawn, it mostly worked. She’d become obsessed with the thought of whether Martin actually found them funny or was just politely laughing along. She’d wonder whether Martin even liked her or could hardly stomach the thought of her invading his privacy by asking him personal questions.

Maria’s insecurities, she had never been loved by a man, were suppressed as she tried to think about them as little as possible. During the arrival and departing of trains, she could do little else but think, however. Her obsessive thoughts were so suppressed that she started obsessing about minor things going on. She had developed the rather strange habit of checking whether the office door was locked at least ten times before leaving for her breaks. When she walked home to have lunch, halfway there she would at times turn around to see if the station’s door was really locked. It always was. Besides, she had grown very orderly by pairing up items of the same size. Books with books, hard covers and soft covers. It bugged her that if she sorted by hardness of cover, they were not sorted alphabetically. That’s why she would order by cover and then alphabetically, once every few days. Plants in the train station were always watered on time and the green leaves were dusted off each morning and in the afternoon during hot, dusty days. Anywhere Maria was, whether at work or at home, there was no dust to be found. This was at least one benefit of her compulsive actions.

As these habits grew stronger over the years she knew Martin, she had not realized that suppressing her thoughts about him directly caused her insanities. Countless of times, she had counted the number of ceiling tiles even though they were the same number each day. The number of leaves of the plants in the station office changed now and then. She had then switched to counting passengers by the window of trains, writing the numbers down with a pencil that was always perfectly sharpened. Maybe not only Martin led to the woman slowly losing her mind, the strong coffees did little to unnerve her either. Maria, with her blond hair, intimidating eyes and large breasts hanging on her wooden desk, used to be a pretty woman. As a school girl she got much attention of the boys around her but never was she confident enough to continue down the path of love, nothing more than a few kisses. As there was little to no work in Gyushevo apart from a dull job as hers, she filled her days wondering when a passenger would come and they would fall in love at first sight. Many men had passed but they never gave her much attention. Martin did but he seemed to hide so much information about himself. What did he do in Sofia all week? Where would he sleep and did he think about her during the cold nights? She was clueless. As the first afternoon train pulled in, Maria collected the post destined to be for Gyushevo and the passengers got down the train. Gyushevo was the final station, right before the border with Macedonia.

The State Railways had a hard time transporting enough passengers to stay profitable and the Sofia – Gyushevo line was one of the first where the number of trains per day was reduced. There were just four a day where there had been eight in the good years. There was little going on in the sleepy border town and barely enough passengers along the line for it to make sense to have even four trains. Maria knew she would one time lose her job as a station worker, as she highly expected the line to close down entirely in the coming years. She wanted to try to become a station worker in the capital Sofia, she would not spend her days all alone watering plants and observing the dogs laying around the platform on sunny days.

Maria felt angry and slammed the train schedule on a fly that now laid flattened on her desk. She shot it away with her index finger. It would be picked up during her obsessive cleaning later on the day anyway. She kept dreaming about being on the side of Martin, he probably had a stable job and they would be warm and comfortable by each other’s side each night. She would never sleep alone again. She would lose weight and become a city woman.

Maria looked in the mirror above the sink and saw what had become of her, the early morning sun was set just right so she saw the wrinkles slowly appearing around the eyes. “Thin skin or not, I’m getting old”, she mumbled. Two distinct knocks on the door, just like in all these years, meant the paper man was here. With a subtle nod the bald man with a red cap gave her the pile of papers and he left again. It was a Tuesday and Martin would not come today, so she’d have some more days to think of what to do with her life. As she browsed through the Kapital paper, in the adverts section her eye fell on a job vacancy. Her overly large glasses balanced on the tip of her nose as she read it aloud. “Stable cleaning job at Sofia central station, modest salary. Workers from outside the city can sleep in station’s boarding room.” Maria felt a certain twitch in her stomach she had not felt in years. Even though the job was far from her dream of one day becoming a nurse, it was something in the city and promised to be stable. Maybe she wouldn’t even have to wake up so early either. Her obsessive cleaning would sure help, she joked to herself.

It was the first time that she thought of giving up on Martin as well, she wanted to pursue her own luck first. Besides, all men look for someone to spend their lives with. Two days later, on Thursday, Maria had packed her bags and gave a sudden notice. Walter, the station manager, slightly angry and unnerved, could do little to stop Maria. She argued that once the line would close down, she’d be stuck without work and Walter would be the last one to care. “Fair game”, said Walter. He’d have to look for someone else to spend their days at the station office. On Thursday afternoon, Maria got a ticket from her colleague at the station whom wished her good luck. Maria’s plan was to work in Sofia during the week and to return to Gyushevo on the weekends. If the line would close entirely, she’d find a way to take a bus. With one heavy suitcase, she boarded the train. Nobody helped her lift the heavy beast and during the ride she pondered over the thought of how a gentleman such as Martin would have definitely helped her. Even though on the day before her leaving, she told herself to let go of obsessing over this man, she couldn’t. The train slowly chugged through the river canyon on the way to the capital. It was rare for Maria to pursue her dreams, they really had gotten lost in the numbing silence of the job. She even started feeling disembodied from the silence and boredom, even though some days she found it peaceful as well. “Still, no woman wants to grow old alone”, she told herself in the reflecting train window.

She had skipped breakfast and arrived in Sofia with an empty stomach. Again nobody helped her get down the train with her luggage. She directly reported herself to the station manager and felt quite confident now she arrived in the big city. People walking over the platform, well dressed fed, all seemed to have their lives together. “You can start on Monday morning” the moving moustache of the fat station manager seemed to convey. “Get used to your boarding room first and have some rest, you look like crushed by a train”, he jokingly said. “Joke’s on him”, Maria thought. She’d somehow done what she decided, getting her stuff and leaving the sad life she used to have. She threw her suitcase onto the bed in the shady boarding room, took a quick shower and dressed better than she had done in many years. She walked into the center confidently and had a double whiskey at a sunny terrace. “Why haven’t I done anything I love before”, she’d tell herself. Accustomed to being alone, she spent at least two hours at the terrace on one drink. Some more coffee at another place and she’d go back to her room, doing whatever to get through Saturday and Sunday. She felt the wind breeze through her hair and a shiver passed her back. She felt alive and even slightly looked forward to wipe the station’s blinking floors. At least she had chosen it.

It was seven in the morning of the first day of the week. “Martin would come to town”, she thought. She was sure he’d be in Gyushevo with coffee for her right now and her colleagues would tell them she’d left for Sofia. Little time to think about Martin now, as Maria emptied the platform bins and carried the heavy trash bags to the left side of the station building. Everyone on the platforms ignored her while she cleaned out ashtrays and felt worthless. Somehow she felt worse than in Gyushevo. Still, Maria decided to pull herself together. She had chosen and so it had to be. A sudden tap on her shoulder awoke her from the day dream. “Maria, I got you a coffee.” Without having to look around, she knew it could only be one man. She looked him into the eyes and touched his cheek. Even though it had not been love at first sight, a strong spark between them made Maria scream Martin’s name out loud and she hugged him. Half of the coffee was spilled over her green work outfit but she didn’t care. She took the coffee, had a sip with tears in her eyes and dropped her broom. They walked along the platform together as the sun warmed their cheeks.

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