Moving in Silence by Lara Hahn

Friday, June 24, 2022
Patrick says goodbye to his best friend, who is heading out to university, and wonders if he is doing the right thing by staying home; by Lara Hahn.

The sun burned relentlessly from a cloudless sky and the smell of heated tar wafted through the air as I climbed the steps to the platform. The station was a brick building with ornamental gables atop the "golden hill", so named after the barley fields that grew there, and which, in fact, was only a mound overlooking the village.

The place was deserted except for Toni, who was sitting on the only bench; his right ankle resting on his left knee, his arms stretched over the backrest in exaggerated confidence. A holdall lay like washed-up wreckage on the floor next to his feet in shiny white Nike trainers. He had his head craned back, giving me an unobstructed view of his face, which was as familiar as the one staring back at me from a mirror. I was convinced that I was already seeing a strangeness that had settled around his features.

As I walked to him, my new trainers squeaked awkwardly with each step, begging for attention. Toni peeled his gaze away from the sky and turned towards me. A smile creased his tanned cheeks, and I knew it would reach his eyes that were currently hidden behind his Ray Bans. "Well, well. Look who finally showed up on this fine day," he said, tilting his head so that the sunglasses slid down to the tip of his nose. "How's it hangin', Paddy boy?"

There was the usual mischievousness in his hazel gaze, but also something else that suddenly made me nervous, and I quickly glanced down at my wristwatch.

"I'm right on time," I said, and sure enough, it was exactly half an hour before his train was scheduled to arrive.

He snorted as he fumbled a pack of Marlboros out of his shorts. "Yeah, that's you. Always reliable." He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply as I sat down next to him. Instead of moving to give me some space, he stayed as he was, with his arm slung over the back of the bench. I felt the connection of our skin where his forearm touched my shoulder.

"Where are your parents?" I reached for the cigarette dangling between his lips and took a drag. Nicotine smoke filled my mouth, increasing the dryness in my throat, and I barely suppressed the need to cough.

"We've already said ciao. Mum would just cry her eyes out and spoil everyone's fun. You know how she is." Toni stopped me with a wave of his hand, as I returned the cigarette. "It's just you and me, pal," he said and sighed like someone with not a care in the world.

For a few heartbeats, we sat in silence as I watched the air swirling over the tracks before I let my eyes wander to the level crossing. The red-and-white striped barrier pole stood upright on its rusty hinges, towering into the sky. Along the road, which was little more than a bumpy cart track, the barley stretched into the distance like a golden carpet. As children, Toni and I had spent many summer days searching the fields for small snakes and playing along the tracks. Our friendship had been marked by challenge and adventure, as we constantly tried to outdo each other with ever more daring ideas - until that night when the last passing train had almost torn me to pieces after Toni had persuaded me to lie down on the tracks. We had let the shock wash over our stupid heads and never talked about it again, while our relationship changed in a subtle but significant way. Our games became less reckless, as the incident had established an unshakeable truth that made any further power tussle pointless: I would have done anything for Toni, and we both knew it.

"I'm so happy to leave this fucking wasteland. You should really think about it, too. Seriously, mate, what are you going to do here without me, anyway?" Toni had a point there, but I wasn't stupid enough to let him know how scared I was that he'd be gone soon. It had been him and me for as long as I could remember. And maybe it was the tragedy of youth to overestimate the importance of relationships, but in that moment I felt a tightness around my throat, as if someone was slowly choking the air out of me.

"You know I want to stay," I mumbled, staring at my feet as I rubbed the soles of my trainers against each other. It wasn't a complete lie. Like most families in this neck of the woods, my parents were farmers, landowners, and it was a given, as the only child, that I would take over the family business. After a stroke had struck down my grandfather at fifty-one, my father had taken over without hesitation, just as I would be expected to do when his body eventually failed him as well. The choice to stay had been taken from me before I could even realise that there was a choice.

Toni took his arm off the backrest. "You always say that, but somehow I don't believe you."

He reached for the collar of his tank top and pulled at the fabric so it danced in little waves on his chest, to cool himself off. As the son of Italian immigrants, Toni had a very different outlook on life, while he and his family were still something of an anomaly in the village. As a teacher and engineer, his parents had neither land of their own nor any ambitions to keep their son to stay, and therefore had let him decide what he wanted to do after finishing school. Toni had applied to universities in all parts of the country, and been accepted at one in the capital. The city was only two hours away by train, but for me could just as easily have been on another planet.

"Now is the time to do what we want. We're fucking free, mate. Wouldn't you like to see something other than fields, dirt, and old people?"

"You know how it is. With my family and all..." I let my voice trail off as I looked down at the red and brown sprinkled roofs of the houses that, from up here, reminded me of wild growing mushroom heads.

Toni began bobbing his leg. "Is this also about Sarah?"

I shrugged. The thing with Sarah had started a few months ago, on the very bench where Toni and I were now sitting. Golden Hill Station was the usual hang-out spot, where the village youth drank, smoked and did all the things we didn't want our parents to catch wind of. I probably would never have kissed Sarah if I hadn't seen Toni sticking his tongue down the throat of the younger sister of a boy on our football team. Cheap vodka and jealousy had coursed through my veins, making me more or less blindly grope the first person next to me. Since then, Sarah and I have been a couple, and being with her was like rowing on a lake; unexciting, but pleasant nonetheless. Above all, I was grateful that she didn't trigger these complicated feelings I didn't know how to respond to.

"Good for you," Toni said, which sounded like a rebuff, before he, very manly, bumped his shoulder against mine.

I slid in my seat. "But I'll crash on your sofa as often as I can."

"Sure thing. I just hope my new roommate isn't a complete twat. He's studying law." Toni pushed up his Ray Bans like a nerd would his reading glasses, and we both laughed. He pulled two new Marlboros out of the pack as I caught myself staring at him; my eyes trailed a tiny bead of sweat that had escaped his hairline and was slowly creeping down his temple. He handed me a cigarette, and I took it, just to keep my hands busy.

Toni didn't blow out the smoke, but let it pour out of his nostrils and mouth like a dragon. "Kind of strange to live with someone you don't know," he said.

"Yeah, I guess so..."

Crickets chirped in the unmown grass that framed the tracks; a sound I suddenly found melancholy. Next to me, Toni flicked away his almost untouched cigarette and pulled off his sunglasses. For a few seconds, he silently turned them between his fingers.

His voice was soft as he said to his shoes, "It would be nice if we lived together," and then he looked up and stared me straight in the face. There was no longer a connection between our bodies, but he felt closer than before. Heat flooded through me that had nothing to do with the hot summer day. I swallowed the words that formed on my tongue, shaking my head instead.

"What are you scared of, Patrick? No one would question it if we lived together."

"I'm not scared."

"Bullshit," Toni said quietly. "It would be a thing between me and you. No one needs to know what's going on."

I shook my head, more vehemently than before.

The air around us buzzed, and in the distance, a screeching of metal announced the incoming train. I jumped up from the bench and wiped my sweaty palms on my shorts. "Your train is coming," I said, pointing my finger in the direction like an idiot. As I glanced back at Toni, he was again twirling his Ray Bans between his fingers before calmly placing them back on his nose. He stood up and picked his holdall from the floor. His back was to the train, which was creeping into the station like a jaded iron snake.

"You're such a pussy," Toni said.

"You're a pussy."

The corners of his mouth twitched, then we both grinned at each other. The train came to a stop, and the doors opened, but no one got off.

"Will I see you on my birthday?"

"Sure thing," I said.

"Good." Toni hoisted his bag over his shoulder. "See you in a month then, Paddy boy."

There was no hug, no handshake. Toni simply turned around, and I watched as the doors closed behind him before the train slowly started moving again. Without thinking, I marched a few steps beside the train and peered through the windows, but I couldn't catch another glimpse of him. The train picked up speed. I stopped and watched until there was no more sight or sound of it.

The sun burned relentlessly from the sky and the smell of heated metal and machine oil mingled in the air as I descended the steps from the platform. It was hard for me to breathe.

5 comments:

  1. no goodbye like an awkward goodbye...feel esp bad for Paddy. No escape.

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  2. A relationship crystallized brilliantly by seemingly mundane details. Great dialogue, compelling and evocative.

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  3. What we see here is the tantalising tip of an iceberg - a great way to structure a short story (cf. The Calm by Raymond Carver, for one). Nicely done, Lara Hahn

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  4. Laura, I believe with this tender love story you suggest that less is more. The dialogue begs the question of how deep their evolving relationship really is. And with that you prove that less is more. bill

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  5. A taut, evocatively written story. Great snapshot of youthful relationships coming to diverve.

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