There’s a guy in the carriage, sitting alone. Opposite him a woman, also alone. In the next compartment of four seats is me. And opposite me across the aisle, two guys who are travelling together. Apart from the five of us, there’s no one else in the carriage.
There’s a bit of joking going on to do with my window which is the only window in the carriage that doesn’t open. The A/C is broken and we’re all sweating. The two guys traveling together try to open my window. They point to the guy sitting alone, who is much bigger than the two of them, and they say, you need him to try, I’m too weak, etc. They have a bit of a laugh. Everyone has a go but the window’s blocked.
The woman’s luggage goes flying on its wheels across the floor of the car and the guy, the alone one, goes to pick it up and is about to put it up on the overhead shelf, but the woman protests. Doesn’t want it overhead, just lay it flat on the floor, leave it down, lay it flat so it doesn’t roll, etc.
The ticket control comes. He does the two guys’ tickets, my ticket, the woman’s ticket, and then gets into a discussion with the alone guy, neither him nor the conductor able to speak much English. It’s clear that he doesn’t have a ticket. The conductor insists he has to pay; the guy doesn’t have any money, etc. The conductor calls another train employee; they both get on the guy that he has to pay, he has to pay, or he has to leave the train. The guy doesn’t move.
I go to Villach, he says.
The conductor says, your bag is getting offloaded at the next station. Takes the guy’s gigantic suitcase off the overhead shelf and pushes it into the hallway between the carriages.
The guy doesn’t move. Says, I go to Villach.
The train stops.
The conductor and the other train employee take his luggage off the train and onto the platform, then come back into the carriage and try to get him to get off the train too. He doesn’t move or protest or anything. Except he says again, I go to Villach.
Throughout this whole exchange with the conductor, he never moves, not as much as turns his head, doesn’t get up or look out the window to see where his bag is.
The conductor guy hits the alarm, says, we’re getting the police.
The woman sitting across from the guy says, go, you have to go.
He says, I go to Villach.
The two guys in the compartment opposite me are now leaning out the window – and taking turns to turn around and say to the guy, they took your luggage off, they really did, your luggage is on the platform.
The guy doesn’t move.
More threats from the conductor as he keeps moving in and out between the carriage and the hallway, getting on and off the train, getting more and more agitated with each return into the carriage; that the guy has to go, that the police are on the way, here any minute now, etc.
The two guys lean out the window and yell to the conductor standing on the platform, put his bag back, we’ll pay.
You want to pay??? Yes, we’ll pay. The conductor comes in.
They pay. The conductor is annoyed that they want to pay. As they do it, standing next to the alone guy, he doesn’t move. Doesn’t look at the scene, doesn’t say anything.
Having paid, the two guys get off the train and onto the platform and they get his suitcase and they bring it back on the train and they lift it up onto the overhead shelf.
The guy doesn’t move.
They go and sit down in their compartment, not acknowledging that they’ve done this, not making anything out of it, just sort of slip back into their seats and slip back into their conversation in German about this or that or the other thing they were talking about before the ticket inspector came along.
The woman says to the guy, thank them, you should thank them.
I’m watching his reflection in the window – he’s sitting still and seemingly unfazed. He is not stirring, not turning, not shuffling in his seat, not fiddling with his things or his hands, not looking around, not digging in his pockets, not doing any of the things which I think I would be doing – if I were him, if this were me, if this had just happened to me. He’s not being grateful and he’s not being humble and he’s not being friendly. He’s not making eye contact and he’s not actively avoiding anyone’s eyes either. He is sitting here, looking straight ahead – as if the things that have happened here moments ago had nothing to do with him, as if it had all passed him by. Sort of macho, his presence; a bit of Antonio Banderas, Desperado era. Except he’s wearing street clothes; a hoodie and cargo pants, a golden necklace. Defiant posture, maybe, though not confrontationally so; just silent unwavering insistence.
We ride, each in our own head. The woman is looking out the window. The two guys chitchat in German.
Twenty minutes later, the alone guy takes a bundled napkin out of his pocket. Walks up to the guys and gestures for them to open their hands, like he wants to give them something. One of the guys puts his palm out and the silent guy empties the contents of his crumpled napkin onto the other guy’s palm. It’s peanuts. He gives a small nod and goes back to his seat.
I’m looking at my own reflection in the window. I say no to eyes wanting to tear up. I look myself straight in the eye, in the reflection, try to lose focus, try not to think about anything.
Silent travel by all for awhile. The two guys occasionally say something to one another in German. Sometimes they share a giggle about something one of them has said.
The train stops and they announce that we will be stopping here for ten minutes. The two guys step out onto the platform to smoke. The woman, the silent guy and I stay in the carriage. No one new gets on. Then out of the blue the woman starts interrogating the guy. Her energy is entitled, bordering on aggressive.
So where do you live? I’m going to Villach. I know that’s where you’re going. But where do you live, where is your house? Italy. Italy? You live in Italy? Yes. You have a house in Italy? Yes. Is it your house or your friends’ house? What’s your citizenship? Papers? Documents? You have some papers?
He says he has an Italian passport. She doesn’t believe him.
I want to say to her to stop harassing him and I want to say to him that he doesn’t have to answer these questions.
But then he gets up, takes something out of his back pocket and hands it to her. It’s a passport and an ID card. He hands both things to her and he leaves the train, goes out and stands next to the guys outside. Doesn’t speak, doesn’t say anything as he approaches them. They stop speaking when he arrives. Offer him a cigarette, which he takes. The three of them smoke in silence.
All the while the woman on the train is leafing through his passport. Page by page, inspecting everything like a forensic scientist. She takes the plastic cover off to examine the embossing on the front. Brings it close to her eyes, peers at it sideways, glides over the coat of arms with her fingers. Then she puts both documents on the guy’s seat, across from her, and continues to look out the window at nothing much there.
The guys come back and she says to the alone guy, parli Italiano?
So she says in English.
You should travel by auto-stop, not by train. With the train they want you to have a ticket and you’ll again have a problem. Go to where people hitchhike, you know. Auto-stop. But not little cars, don’t get into any little cars, only those big ones. Trucks. I understand how it is. When you don’t have money or whatever and you have to get somewhere. So go where the big ones go, trucks. I know people who only travel that way, they go everywhere and they never pay anything. And no one asks them anything. Tickets or documents, nothing. This way you will have problems.
Then she says.
You want chocolate?
The guy waves his head no.
Chips? I also have chips.
We ride for an hour without anyone interacting. At one point the woman gets up to disembark. The alone guy jumps up and rushes to carry her suitcase out onto the platform.
Later in the journey, it’s the three guys and me in the car. The alone guy takes a disposable camera out of his backpack and gestures to the two guys who bought his ticket that he would like to take a photo of them. They bring their heads closely together and both make a peace sign as he takes their photo.
I get off the train at the next stop. There are still four or five stops, and a border crossing, before the train will reach Villach.
Vlatka Horvat is an artist working across a wide range of forms, including sculpture, installation, drawing, performance, photography and writing. Her work in visual art is presented in a variety of contexts – in museums and galleries, in theatre and dance festivals and in public space. Her story House Calls was published in December 2020 by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. Born in what used to be Yugoslavia, she moved to the US as a teenager. After twenty years in the States, she now lives in London, where she works as a Lecturer in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.
www.vlatkahorvat.com | Twitter: @vlatkahorvat