I clambered onto the train just as the whistle blew. Caught my breath watching the platform slide away.
Just divorced, leaving it all behind, I heaved a gusty sigh of relief, flipped the ticket over and leaning towards the conductor swaying towards me, asked the way to my overnight lodgings.
Lumping my bags onto the day bed, I covertly glanced over at my travelling companion. She looked up and caught me peeking. I smiled shyly, trying out a whispered greeting. It was returned with a warm smile and an emphatic nod. An elderly lady by my standards, compact and confidently friendly and maybe only in her late thirties but I knew her not and felt awkwardly shy. She was reading so I tidied my bags into closets and having jigged a book out my overnight bag, settled deep into a corner on my bed to read for a while too.
The rattling of the compartment's sliding door brought me back into the world. Dinner had been announced.
I looked up enquiringly and she said she would follow later. Relieved, I weaved my way to the dining coach and landed up seated at a table with three guys. Young and robust with life, laughing, talking, totally overwhelming. They gradually managed to drag me into their diversified conversations and talk eventually began to flow like the wine. They were going on to Durban, I was disembarking in Pietermaritzburg. They were in the army on leave, I was divorced, returning to my parents. Their parents weren't expecting them, my daughter was.
Now just turning one, she would be there at the station with my parents, waiting for me to arrive. I could barely wait.
For her protection and granted permission by the courts, I had asked my parents if they would care for her during that last month while I cut the last strings. They had dropped everything and with their hearts in their throats, had driven the whole way overnight to collect her. It was sad to see them leave.
And I was glad to go.
Soon, soon we would be together and I relaxed, warmed by the thought and rosy with wine.
A mixed celebration.
I woke feeling very uncomfortable. My world was swaying in the dark. Nauseous, I tried to move my hand to steady myself, to brace myself. The clacking of the wheels filtered in and I remembered I was travelling home, on the train. I couldn't, my wrist was caught fast. Suddenly those realising moments of seeing, feeling and experiencing came rushing in, so stark, so clear, oh boy, starkly crystal clear. Faint light staggered the edges. A male hand gripping my wrist, pinned; lying on my side cinched close to a hot sweaty body heaving behind me, grunting hot against my hair, groin pounding buttocks, his dick grinding deep inside me, my lax body not only swayed by the train's motion. Horrified, I began to struggle, twisting, clambering and kicking, heart thudding, breath rasping, my throat so constricted I couldn't even scream. I broke his hold on me, and thrashing violently in shock, shoved him back. He fell, startled and alarmed, cursing to the floor. Grabbing a blanket close by, I realised that I was still clothed, that only my skirts had been lifted, my panties tugged out the way. I couldn't feel my shoes. Throwing the blanket aside, I vaulted off the high wall-bed to the floor, my back against the door. I tugged my clothes to rights and looked up, back at three vacationing army guys.
The one on the floor was pulling himself up, his mouth yammering his disgust, his eyes dark with anger. Another, balanced against the edge of the opposite bed, swaying rhythmically, was buttoning himself back into his trousers, smirking. The last, sitting on the edge of the bed at the fold up flap of a table, stared mortified back at me, hands clenched white-knuckled before him, his eyes wells of shame.
My mind spinning, not knowing what I had done, what had happened, nauseous and ashamed, I turned and fled, first scrabbling at the chain-bolt then slamming the sliding door against its stop-cushion to rebound, separating me from them with a glass rattling judder, the chain-lock chinking hollowly.
I staggered down the aisle, unbalanced and fetching up sharply against each walling, heading for the bathroom at the end. Reaching it, knocking, no hasty reply, I pulled, the ball latch clicked, the door opened outwards and I fell inside.
Barricaded in and prostrate in my shame, the horror of not understanding, trying to vomit it all out, I stayed for quite a while in there, a 2x5 foot permanently lit sanctuary. Toilet bowl, steel corner basin and a faintly spotted mirror, pale green window sashes swinging haphazardly.
Cold water gushing, I frantically scrubbed at myself, hot tears lava on my soul, scorching. A haggard dark-eyed wispy pale reflection shimmered in the mirror, wine-stained thoughts tumbled. What had I done? I couldn't remember. All memories of how it came about, where I went wrong, lay cemented at the bottom in a river of wine. I searched beneath the dulled surface frantically, dredging and draining, but only scooped up handfuls of silt. I collapsed against the cold image, numbed sober, the white condensed vapour an illusion of life. Icy droplets sprushed and splattered against my front.
Slowly it dawned on me, another sobering thought. I couldn't stay in there. It was a bathroom and others may need to use it. I should return to my compartment and seek respite. I quailed at the thought , but resolve firm, dried off as best I could with tidy-wipes and opened the door.
He was standing right outside, my shoes in his hand.
His soulful eyes sought mine.
I spun back, my mind one step ahead and the ball-latch click click-clicked as my shaking hands pulled it closed behind me. I rammed the bolt home, sank to my haunches and, with my arms hugging all of me tight, rocked back and forth; whimperings my synchronised lullaby, the wheels clack-clacking, a barrelling heartbeat in the night.
He knocked on the door. I froze, gave up breathing.
'I'm sorry. So sorry. And I don't know how to make it right.'
A scream began to form deep within me; I could feel the steady vibration as it welled, readying to seek release. But only 'Leave me be!' clawed its way out.
'No! Please listen to me! I tried to stop them but they just laughed. They said you wouldn't know!'
I shuddered, blood cold coursing through my veins, the heat of the scream near reaching steam.
He carried on talking, frightened, urgently. Telling me how the other two had led me there, feeding me more wine, my falling asleep, waking and wanting to leave. How they convinced me to sleep on the highest bunk, how I would be safe there. How they removed my shoes, helped me settle down, covering me with a blanket. His voice now louder then softer, I could hear his feet pacing.
And how they took advantage of me. He wept, bitter tears for both himself and me.
He was trapped, cramped with fear. One of them had offered that he join them down to Durban and having no money, nowhere else to go, he had agreed. What was supposed to be a break, a holiday, had turned into hell. He had not touched me; he had argued and fought to protect me. But he hadn't won. They had taken turns, standing watch over him, threateningly.
He wanted to tell someone, he wanted to shout rape, he wanted to damage them as they had damaged me. But couldn't. He was scared, petrified.
He had family in Durban and they would look after him, see him safely back.
'I'm going to report them when we get there.'
And all the while he talked and I listened to his words, I felt for him more than I felt for myself. The scream settled to lie queasily dormant on the edge of my stomach. Air whistled through my nose. It hadn't been me doing drunkenly, it had been done to drunken me. I bowed my head, half relieved. Yet as worthless as I felt, he was more helpless than me. I could hear his wordless begging to be made safe. Closing my eyes, I resignedly made my choice.
I rose and left the bathroom; took my shoes offered me.
'Go on to Durban, get there safely. Do as you say you will and walk away. Hope and pray you never meet them again. I won't tell anyone.'
I awoke as the sliding door rattled in its rail, the conductor's gruff voice letting me know we would be arriving at quarter to 6. My companion raised her head, smiled, wished me well and dropping the covers, fell fast asleep again.
I sat for while looking at the warm huddle pooled in the soft light opposite me, letting small bits of the night back in as they lined up straight waiting entry. Lots of shocks, heaps of horrors. I closed my eyes and saw him blinking in surprise as I turned to walk by.
She had been awake, reading, when I let myself in. Having noted my distress but seeing my hurried reluctance, she had lain quietly watching as I slipped between the covers into bed. She turned the light off shortly after, her book closing with a soothing thud.
I packed my things together and whispered a gentle goodbye. I stopped to look down the aisle. Empty now, grey dawn murking dark shadows, night's wild banshees silenced in the light.
I had flipped every solution to my dilemma I could think of over and over, turmoil running riot, but had discarded each one. How could I tell the authorities when I couldn't remember their names? I didn't even know where in Durban they were headed, never mind from where they came. I couldn't stop the train now – too late and not fair. I had said I wouldn't, so I couldn't. And who would believe me anyhow, if he denied it too?
Still focused on the problem, my forehead against the glass, I stood waiting, watching potted plants and lamp posts slow by.
The jerking halt brought me back and I looked up out through the dusty pane. There they were; my parents all abeam with joy, alight from within; my daughter raised high in my father's arms, laughing; all of them waving happily.
How could I tell them this?
We hugged and greeted; laughed and hugged again. I held her in my arms; she pressed her face to mine, her small warm hands cupped against my cheeks, her sweet breath feathering my ear.
Why should I ruin these precious moments? Tears welled and I let them flow; let them fall mistakenly. Decidedly stepped forward, left it all behind.
I turned to look back once.
He stood, hand pressed against the lightening glass and as the train picked up speed, I watched as sunlit reflections hacked him and the night into still frames; grainy and flickering.