Short Story - "Behind the Glass"

Behind the Glass

Sunday evening. I'm finally home after two long boredom-filled hours of train travel. Normally I don't mind the train. When I am not reading some battered second-hand paperback or one of the many free newspapers that litter trains like autumn leaves, I usually occupy myself with the very agreeable pastime of observing other travellers.

Sitting back and observing the wide variety of people sharing your coach can be a fascinating experience. The way one person is completely absorbed in his book and another closes his eyes and immediately dozes off. How some just sit and stare into nothingness while others are engaged in a lively conversation, either among themselves or with someone on the other end of the proverbial phone line. And especially how people react when the train pulls in at their destination: are they seemingly surprised that the train is actually stopping, jump up and hurry off to the exit? Or do they sit patiently until the train has stopped, then get up and casually walk off stage?

Observing people in the train is fun. Even more so when it is dark outside. Then you are silently accompanied by a mysterious train traveling parallel to your own, in the reflection of the windows. Its occupants seem to be living, not merely in a parallel train, but in a parallel universe. A universe where the light is pale and the people are suspended in mid-air, but in every other way a mirror image of our own. Its inhabitants however are almost unaware of your observing gaze and only seldom do two pairs of eyes meet in the mirroring glass. Then, like a feeling of déja vu, the two parallel universes seem to collide for a brief moment, the gazes are quickly averted and each returns to their respective universe.

This mirrored world behind the glass can normally provide hours of viewing pleasure, but not today. Today my mind is too restless and by closing my eyes for the duration of the trip and slipping away into dreamless slumber with the sounds from my music player shielding me from my surroundings, the roles reverse and the observer becomes the observed.

That is how I arrive in Delft, retrieve my bike from among the hundreds of similar rusty and rickety specimens and cycle home. Restless and tired but with a long evening still ahead of me and half-hearted plans to get some homework done.

“Write an essay about a location of choice,” the assignment reads “and describe it in detail.”

I decide to give it a go.

I pour myself a drink, grab a notebook, find my favourite fountain pen and nestle myself on the dark brown couch. No inspiration. Another drink. My eyes wander across the room desperately in search of inspiration. Left. Right. Left: bed, comfy chair, a computer screen standing on a stack of Yellow Pages. Right: bookshelves filled with cheap, discoloured paperbacks; more bookshelves, but filled with books bearing titles such as “Mechanics of materials” and “Engineering Dynamics”. Quickly my eyes move on: an old gramophone player covered under several magazines, functioning as a coffee table. Suddenly my eyes zero in on two bright red rectangles leaning against the sky blue wall: photo frames.

Bordered by a brushed aluminium frame and protected by a sheet of glass, the red rectangles function as the background for several pictures from recent summer holidays. As my eyes move over the lush green photographs of various locations in Ireland and Scotland, my mind is swept away to the Isle of Skye, to the hamlet of Ord where we had pitched our tents for the night.

We had been cross-country hiking all day and in true Scottish fashion the weather had been very changeable, forcing us to change into our waterproofs one moment and sweating us out of them the next. Not surprisingly the running gag that day had been: “If you don't like the weather, come back in five minutes!”

The hike had been very strenuous as the terrain was rough and paths few and far between. We had crossed long stretches of bog, waded through streams, scrambled over rocks and had been presented with the most awesome scenery along the way. Especially stunning had been the view of a valley earlier that day; we were walking along the hilltops when, after we topped a small ridge, the valley suddenly pounced upon us. A small lake at the bottom lay glittering in the sun, bordered by a small woodland stretching up the opposite side of the valley. A narrow stream meandered through patches of green on the valley floor and just before it met up with the lake, ruins of old croft houses were visible. In the distance, looking along the length of the valley and across the bay, the hills of the Black Cuillins were visible through a hazy mist. It was spectacular.

That had been earlier on the day and by the time we arrived in Ord, the sun was already low in the sky, and we started looking for a place to sleep for the night. Ord consists of nothing more than a small number of houses around a small inlet and it was near this inlet that we found a small cliff with a level patch of grass, big enough to hold our three tents.

One of the pictures in the frame captures this scene delightfully well: three tents placed in a semi-circle, overlooking a small inlet with on the opposite shore a white cottage perched on some small cliffs and a narrow road leading up to more houses higher up the hill. Along with the evening light, the hills in the distance fade away.

More pictures are in those frames. Each of a different location and each with a different story behind it. Those locations are special and I could sit and dream away for hours more in those small rectangular universes behind the glass, but I'm content. My restless mind has settled down for tonight and I head over to my computer to start on my essay while I still enjoy the refreshed memories of Scotland.