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Susana Piedade





TWO AND A HALF MINUTES UNTIL THE TRAIN GOES BY



Translated by Jackie Hopkins




Two and a half minutes to go. It doesn’t sound like long, but it’s long enough to tell you everything whilst I wait for the train. A few lines on a scrap of paper would have done the job but I left nothing behind unless it belonged to that house, to that other life which should never have been mine.


Pedro won’t keep still and asks question after question in his tiny little voice. I hold his hand, I hold myself, I tell him there’s not long to go now. At his age everything is a ‘why’. It makes distances and waits seem ever longer, endless even. He didn’t mention you today; perhaps he doesn’t even miss you that much. You never really wanted him; you wanted to give your parents a grandchild, because people said it was about time. You planned to display us like ornaments on a sideboard, but appearances alone don’t make a family.


The last time I was here something awful happened. I didn’t tell you because words between us are few and far between, chosen carefully as I never know when they might become triggers. A woman next to me – she must have been in her early thirties, like me - threw herself in front of the train. People screamed, horrified at the sight of the broken body on the railway tracks. I was the only one who remained silent and still, unable to turn away from the scene.


I was becoming immune to violence.


Other things also occurred to me.


Perhaps that woman had already had her two and a half minutes to reflect on what she was about to do, or perhaps not, who knows? Desperation has an iron grip and sometimes drags us along with it.


Do you know what my first thought was? At least the poor woman can’t have had time to regret it. Then I realised that it could have been me in her place. Perhaps it was me and I’m no longer here.


If I have become desensitised to suffering it’s mostly because of you, my love. I don’t find it hard to call you that; it’s just one of many things I’ve become accustomed to. What bothers me is knowing that the word holds nothing inside, it is hollow like a bad nut and words are too valuable for us to waste or misuse. I don’t have to be a writer to know that.


Writing has always been a demanding companion, it brings both sorrow and joy, and it makes me suffer until the very last word, but it has never let me down. The characters that live in my mind are not merely abstract, paper cut-outs, but people with real lives who I become attached to, who I would recognise if we were to cross paths, and who outlive the end of the story.


When I die, I want people to send books not flowers.


It was precisely in a bookshop that I met you. I was browsing the shelves, basket in hand, drawing closer to the authors I had my eye on when you appeared, blocking my path, torn between two books. I must admit that I have a soft spot for readers; it’s one of my weaknesses. I don’t make a habit of talking to strangers, but the books were so good that I suggested you snapped them both up before they sold out. That literary coincidence led to a coffee date and frequent meetups thereafter. I see now that your interest in books was just as superficial as your interest in family; mountains of books fill your shelves but I never saw you read a single one.


When we got married, the first thing you complained about was the hours I spent at the computer writing and producing the articles which paid the bills. You claimed it was a waste of time working my fingers to the bone for a couple of pence. You said it made more sense for me to just take care of you and the house and it wasn’t long before my work became nothing more than a useless hobby in your eyes. But things got much worse after Pedro was born. I never had a break. You got bored of fatherhood as if it was a game that had lost its thrill. Your parents worked, and you didn’t trust nannies because you said they were either thieves, or incompetent, or both. In my ignorance or due to my goodwill - which is sometimes synonymous with stupidity - I put your mood swings down to you being worn out, to the monotony of routine, to the chores that you unceremoniously pushed onto me. I needed more to realise what was going on. The first insult made me cry immediately; the hormones, frayed nerves and lack of sleep meant I broke down in tears over anything and everything. More insults followed that first one - you went through them all, just because the baby woke you up in the middle of the night, or you couldn’t stand the vomiting and the nappies, or because I stank of milk and sweat, and I only wore knickers that came up to my belly button. One day the baby had colic and I didn’t have time for a shower, a break, I was like a robot rocking him from side to side until he settled down in his crib. Instead of comforting me, you thundered on about the state the house was in, the lack of dinner on the table, and then you struck me with a blow that made me spin like a spinning top against the wall. There I stayed, without realising what was happening, until you grabbed me by the arm and beat me. Pedro had succumbed to the miracle of sleep and I did all I could to not wake him. I let myself be tread upon until I no longer felt the weight of your feet. When you came looking for blame and forgiveness, I locked myself in the bathroom.


I’ve been locked away ever since.


Confined to a house that is big, but too small to avoid you in. Looking out at the world from behind invisible bars, as if a pandemic had taken hold of the planet, spreading misfortune, fear, and insecurity. Imprisoned in my tiny, lonely life, in which each day that went by was identical to the last, and I never knew whether it was Tuesday or Thursday. Only able to count the days by the palm of your hand.


You are the virus, the illness, the cage.


You will soon be the death of me.


You took all you could from me: my self-esteem, people; you even let the books on the shelves waste away as if they could contaminate my mind. When I see them locked away like poison, I feel like smashing those glass doors with my bare fists to free them from your spite. But I made the most of Pedro’s naptimes to write, always in fear of hearing you come home, documents saved under names such as ‘fish recipes’ and ‘ointments for rashes’, the disk hidden in the nappy drawer, as a precaution.


If I had family, a home to run to in times of distress, arms that opened wide without the need for explanations, it would be different. But all I have left are blackened marble stones where I lay flowers and secrets. My story isn’t pretty, but true stories rarely are. My father wasn’t a bad man, he never hit us or raised his voice, but he gave in to the demons in his head. No one really knows how they get in there, let alone how to get them out. One day, he jumped onto the train tracks and took my brother with him; the only reason I wasn’t there too was because I was in school. My mother made it out the other end of the ordeal more dead than alive, until she gave up, in a hospital bed, where her heart demanded payback. I didn’t get there in time to see her, to warm her hands in mine and tell her that everything was fine, that she could go in peace - which is what we think the dying want to hear but perhaps it’s the only nonsense that occurs to us in the moment. There were never goodbyes, only an emptiness impossible to ease.


Friends drifted away one by one as they sensed the tension at home and never felt welcome. I received them with layers of clothes and makeup which didn’t cover the deep marks, but only in your absence and always with my eye on the door because you were even jealous of the butcher. One time, I was making a cup of tea for two girlfriends when Pedro, who could still barely speak, pulled my jacket, and said:


“Whore”.


Whore, as clear as day.


I stared at him for a few seconds, with the insult and tears caught in my throat.


“Hush now, we don’t say that, son”, I told him off gently, stroking his head. I was embarrassed, I gave the excuse that he must have heard it on TV or out and about somewhere when really we lived trapped in a cocoon. The excuse worked because everyone knows that kids tend to repeat things they shouldn’t.


I was too ashamed to tell them the truth, to hear them say - with the same indignation that I myself felt - that it was ridiculous to stay with you and that I should have gone to the police, even though a lot of these types of complaints fall on deaf ears and when alarm bells are raised someone has already died. Besides, love was still a complete word, and fear and guilt took hold of me.


Meetings dwindled into sporadic phone calls where I listen to what they have to say, and I talk about everything except what matters. The hugs disappeared and perhaps we only miss them when they’re gone. Yours are made of ice or fire, either way they hurt, and I can’t keep hold of Pedro for very long. I live in unprecedented, cold, cutting loneliness, so different from the visceral isolation of writing.


Sometimes we find ourselves in Hell, and we believe we will be there forever.


But no evil is eternal, except death.


When you left for work today, I already had everything ready.


I called a friend, who was taken aback by the time and the very gesture given how unused she was to hearing my voice. I felt like I could have let off a tonne of steam, but a little was enough. I had two suitcases packed and hidden in the guest room, which welcomed only dust and got a bit of fresh air on weekends. I took my purse, my work bag, and I gave Pedro a tight hug, that there was no chance he could escape.


There were two and half minutes to go before the train was due when we got here, but now there are bells ringing, announcements over the loudspeakers, and the thrum of passengers bustling to and fro, amid bags and suitcases, hurried conversations, hugs and kisses, the mechanical workings of their day and it is as if the world, which seemed to me to have stopped like a clock, has suddenly started moving again.


The last time I was here, I jumped onto the tracks. At least I imagined the scene in detail, I watched my own bloody death which didn’t make much of an impression on me.


I was immune.


Pedro looks at me and asks me where we are going.


“We are going away.”


“And does it take a long time to get there?”


“A little while.”


I answer knowing that before long he will ask me the same thing again.


I make my way towards the fast-approaching train. I balance on the edge of the platform, I turn my gaze towards the tracks, I hold Pedro by the hand. And, at that very moment, we disappear. Nobody notices, there is no confusion or commotion, not even a line closure to remove what is left of the broken bodies. There is nothing unusual to see. We sit side by side, holding hands, looking out of the window at what we’ve left behind.


I continue the journey alone, in the refuge of writing where I always have been, my fingers skipping across the computer keys, a pile of books on my desk and a row of bookshelves with no doors. Life without bars passes at its own pace, with so many stories left to tell. This ends here, I made it to the last page, the last word. But I still hear your voice in my head, Pedro’s sobbing in the middle of the night, and I would swear that when I put my hand to my face I feel some sort of pain, even though no marks are visible to the naked eye. Most of them can’t be seen.


***


About a year later, a woman goes into a book shop with her eyes full of darkness and fear. She paces up and down the aisles, her heart exposed, until she finds the book that her friend recommended: Two and a half minutes until the train goes by. She opens it without reading the blurb, which she knows by heart (it’s her life story after all) and she goes straight to the first page. Satisfied with the beginning, she smiles shyly, hugging the book to her chest. She heads to the till and hurries out because it’s time. And, after all, two and a half minutes is quite enough time for what she has to say.




 


Susana Piedade was born in Oporto. She has an MA in Communication Science, and has specialised in marketing and publicity. Her passion for writing began early in her life. Her debut novel, As Histórias Que não Se Contam, was shortlisted for the Prémio Leya in 2015 and published the following year. O Lugar das Coisas Perdidas, launched in July 2020, is her second fiction book.


Jackie Hopkins was born in Llantrisant, Wales, and studied Beginners’ Portuguese and Spanish at Lincoln College, University of Oxford. She studied a module in Advanced Translation as part of her degree and has been involved in translation projects for the Iguaçu National Park (Brazil), and ‘Colegio Santa Ana’ school (Spain). She has lived in Brazil (where she worked in the Iguaçu National Park), and also in Spain, Morocco, and Japan, where she worked as a qualified TEFL teacher. She has a great interest in language learning and is currently focusing on learning Arabic (Moroccan dialect) and Welsh. She hopes to complete a MA in translation studies in the near future.

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