Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead


The first train goes from Moka to Shimodate. It leaves at twelve minutes past six in the morning on a Tuesday. Moka station is five minutes’ walk from my house. Moka station is made in the shape of a train: the doors are done like the wheels, the windows in the building like the little windows, the east face is finished with a large metal circle like the snout of a steam engine. The actual steam engine is in an adjoining hangar. It’s the city’s pride and joy. Every Saturday and Sunday, and every holiday, the old steam engine swallows up families and then, black, howling with pride, it rumbles along, taking them on a trip through the countryside with its white smokestack ascending to the insubstantial heavens – to say something of the sky.

I buy my ticket inside the station. Price: ¥530. Then I go out onto the platform to wait for the train, which is really a sort of bus made to go on rails, as in it’s motor-powered and it makes all the same noises as a bus. The only homeless man in the entire city sleeps on this platform, on a bench. He is young and enigmatic. I’ve given him a lot of thought in my spare time. He’s always either sleeping at the station or hanging about at the station, which means our paths cross quite often. The enigmatic homeless man wears a grey puffa jacket, jeans, white trainers and a brightly coloured cap with concentric circles on it. When he sleeps he does so with no protection against the cold other than his clothes. He puts his hood up and his hands in his anorak pockets. His head rests on the bench’s warped metal armrest. I’ve given him a lot of thought: I’ve thought about what could possibly be going on in the head of a young man who sleeps exposed to the elements. Sometimes, in my house, at night, when I go down to the kitchen to smoke cigarettes, among the shadows, I see him step forward and stab me to death. He’s my own personal assassin. It isn’t his fault, but more or less every night I see him emerge from the shadows and chop me up into little pieces.

But it was trains I was wanting to talk about.

The train pulls in at twelve minutes past six. I get on, it’s warm, there are three or four people on-board: always the same people. This is the one and only lesson to be taken from commuter trains: you think they simulate the chaos of life: so many people going who knows where, such an existential floundering how insubstantial (like the sky) human reality is. Wrong: it’s all pre-planned. The whole thing’s corrupt. I always take this train on a Tuesday; these people always take this train on a Tuesday. We always sit in the same places. It’s then so utterly fascinating that I go along with it.

The thing is, inside the train, apart from one deeply ugly schoolgirl, the only interesting thing is looking out of the window, the dawn. Mountains come slowly into view, very jagged against the horizon, and, nearer to hand, the fields and houses, the twisted trees and the streams, all become filled with light, irrigated with clarity, like white liquid reanimating dark material. It is a lovely spectacle, it costs nothing, and it has great dress sense.

We get in to Shimodate. We get off the train. It’s a Moka train, Moka being a train company that operates precisely one line. I come along the platform to some stairs leading to other platforms, property of more complex train companies. I walk up steps, I walk along walkways, I walk down steps, I walk not knowing why and I stop, always, each time I’m here, on the same floor tile on the next platform, the same patch of ground – no forethought, no intention, naturally. And across from me on the other side, always, there’s a girl waiting for a train going in the opposite direction, a schoolgirl, frozen stiff, who’s just looked up at me to check what day it is today, Tuesday, because every Tuesday, without fail, we see one another’s faces over empty tracks, waiting for a train to take us in opposite – and, since this is already what we are – counterpoised directions.

Then, as ever, the two brothers come and stand in front of me. One wears a black secondary school uniform, priestly vestures that look wonderfully bad on him because of how fat, rotund and scruffy he is. His brother always wears a hoody (like the homeless man) and a denim jacket. They start fighting and joking straight away, performing their sketch. They push and kick each other and do their hair as they wait for the train. They’re like a pair of comics, like pairs of comics on TV who, like these two, each dress in their own way, emphasizing the differences between them because, apparently, what’s funny about a pair of comics is if their component parts are antagonistic.

I stop thinking because the train pulls in.

The second train takes people from Shimodate to Oyama. It goes at eleven minutes to seven. It’s a long train full of: students, female office workers, women who don’t appear to be office workers (wearing miniskirts), plus me, looking nothing like a female office worker or a student or women in miniskirts, or at least not very often. I usually sit. I usually look at miniskirts. I usually look at students. You can tell the students because they’re always on their mobile phones. If they’re with anyone, they look at their phones much more than if they’re on their own. The girls have handbag-like purses with long handles, and they’ve always hung lots of small cuddly toys, all different sizes, from the handles. Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend, Minnie, is much favoured and carried by the girls on the handles of their bags. Some have already begun looking in their mirrors. These they’ve got inside their bags, square, lidded, and they take them out to look at their faces and they look at their faces for a long time. The girls begin looking at their faces in the square, lidded mirrors, and thereafter never cease until the moment they die, from something, at ninety years of age, somewhere.

Twice on the train I’ve caught the eye of two deaf boys, students. One had ears set very wide apart on his head and the other one didn’t. He had normal ears. They spoke sign language and played Nintendo. That’s all there is to say about the deaf boys.

The train gets to its destination at eleven minutes past seven in the morning. We get off in a stampede and create chaos. Oyama station is enormous, complex, very ingenious. It has a Becks inside, which is my favourite restaurant for breakfast, but I don’t have time for breakfast so I run for my third train, which is a completely pornographic train.

Pornographic, I say. We’re talking about a twelve-car train full to the brim with fifteen year olds. There’s simply no way to avoid becoming amorous when you’ve got this many just-out-of-bed fifteen year olds sticking the tips of their umbrellas through your foot. One does one’s best to avoid committing any kind of crime, ravishing and pawing the youth of this beautiful country, its very future, but it isn’t easy. Among other things. I also don’t particularly want to.

There isn’t much to say about this train, except that my sight continues to be assaulted by whole expanses of toned, perfect thighs. The train travels in a straight line but seems to gyrate frenziedly, spiralling towards the most exquisite of infernos.

The train gets to Ashikaga when it feels like it, and it always feel like it at twelve minutes past eight in the morning. I have to exit the station and the ticket man asks to see my ticket. I haven’t got one, because I didn’t buy one, and I lie about this so I can pay less than the actual cost of my journey. The train system in this country is so perfect that theft’s even allowed for.

I come out of the station to go to another station, a twenty-minute walk away. The students who got off as well go into a parking area just for bikes and off they pedal to their desks. I walk along a boulevard lined with closed topless bars, pretty dreary. Then I cross a bridge over which people wearing big scarves and jackets come in their droves; they obviously haven’t avoided the flu that’s been going around. An unwell bridge, then – very pretty, but unwell.

At the city’s number 2 station I go into a Lawson and buy one of the cans of hot coffee. I juggle it for a while to de-ice my hands before buying the final ticket for my outward journey: ¥190. I go up the escalators to the platform and, as I shall always do until the day I die, I drink the can gazing at the hills across from the platform. There’s a cemetery on one of the hillsides, stepped, photogenic; dead people with the sun warming them from head to toe. Or something.

The fourth train of my outward journey comes quite soon. It’s a modern train and there aren’t many characters on it. Really, this train is barely worth writing even a couple of lines about. This, yes: there’s always someone who leaves their empty can of coffee on the floor and the can then spends the rest of the morning rolling around between people’s feet, until someone picks it up, I suppose, or until it gets worn out and simply vanishes.

(I spend five or so hours throwing children in the air. My favourite thing in the world is getting a five year old under the arms and launching them into orbit above my head, seeing how they plummet at 9.8 happy smiles per second, how they come back down to earth and get jostled by their little friends who want to go next. I spend five hours throwing children in the air. Other people call it a language-teaching job.)

Returning is always sad; try as you might, it’s very very sad. To go is always to go somewhere; returning, you return to nowhere. That’s the way it is.

The first train of the return leg, fifth on the global rail network count, goes at two minutes past five in the afternoon. And with a character for me to write about, thank Jesus. The character is a kid with some kind of impairment. He makes me laugh. He always wears the same clothes: grey jumper, black combat trousers, boots and a black rucksack with two cycling reflectors dangling from the straps. And he spends the whole time jogging on the spot like a boxer or a middle-distance runner. Fifteen minutes he spends bouncing up and down without going anywhere, or going somewhere, but he’s the only one who knows where. Then the train comes and he always goes down to the middle of the carriage, not holding onto any of the handles and not sitting down even if there are empty seats. The train sets off and he, surfing on the floor, is happier than malaria.

The sixth train is the fourth of the outward journey, but going back. It has the same passengers as earlier, only they’re more tired, as is logical and necessary. I’m tired too and can’t be bothered with ravishing students. I look at them, that much I do, and they get their phones out and mess about on them and then they look in their little mirrors until death comes to take them. Since by now it’s dark outside we can see one another in the mirror-like windows. Returning, everything’s double.

The seventh train goes two minutes after the sixth train gets in to Oyama. It goes at exactly two minutes past seven in the evening. I don’t pay; I never pay; I enter into the train network system with a ticket to travel one stop, and travel twelve. The seventh train is the agony of gonorrhoea now, an epilogue on the chryselephantine journey of boredom. OK, OK: I just want to get back now, I’m dying to get back.

But no. When the seventh train gets into Shimodate, I spend half an hour waiting for the eighth train, the sole train of the toy train company, Moka, a company whose platform connects directly with the largest company’s platform, which is why you can go through into another commercial jurisdiction without having to validate your ticket as you’re supposed to in the previous jurisdiction. And this is what I do. During the half an hour I smoke and drink canned coffee or cans of chocolate milk, depending on what taste I have in my mouth. If I have a coffee taste in my mouth, I drink chocolate milk; if I have a chocolate taste in my mouth, I drink coffee. Really the whole thing is just a way of getting rid of the train taste in my mouth.




The eighth train comes; it has one single carriage with two banks of opposite-facing seats, very long, with silky green upholstery. We all sit until both sides are full and then we’re stuck looking at the passenger across from us. A lot of them I recognize, either because they always take this return train with me or, even in some cases, because they took the first train in the morning with me, thirteen incredible hours ago.

At the last moment, an explosive plastic woman always gets on. On this occasion it’s a woman in her thirties with a miniskirt, no stockings, fuck me boots, no watch, a furry handbag, no hat, a mobile phone, no earrings, bleached hair, no chaperone, make-up-smeared face, no eyelids.

No eyelids. After glancing at her thighs, my eyes come to rest on her face and I realize that her ophidian aspect comes from the fact she doesn’t have any eyelids. Or from the fact she doesn’t use them. I see something a bit like a scar on the left side of her right eye. Her tense face must have passed beneath the knife of a Chicago plastic surgeon. I don’t like her face, except the mouth – she chose well. A small mouth, wide lips, gummy, tremendously fellatrice.

So: I set myself to count to infinity looking non-stop at her eyes. I count: one, two, three, four, ten, twenty, thirty, and this woman just doesn’t blink. I, obviously, because I’m a human being, blink. Paranoia: is this woman blinking in the same instant as me, is that why I never see her do it? Solution: I’m not going to blink either, just you wait. And I go back to counting: one, fourteen, seven, twenty, twelve, twenty, eight, one, forty two, forty three, forty nine, fifty (cheat!), sixty, sixty one and POW, she blinks. But only a tiny bit, super fast. I almost missed it. Plus she blinked down-to-up, like a snake. Plus: just before she blinked, her pupils flew upwards, almost vanishing into her brain, like a micro-orgasm. I catch her blinking again and it’s the same. The micro-orgasm of a snake.

One thing’s for certain: I’m frightened.

We get to Moka. It’s five minutes past eight in the evening. At eight minutes past eight I get back to my house. I smoke. I drink coffee. I don’t put the TV on because I don’t have a TV. I don’t go on the Internet because I don’t have Internet. I turn on my computer and I open the file with my novel in. It’s about being gifted. I read the last word I wrote and go from there.

When I get tired of writing my novel about being gifted I go down to the kitchen and have another coffee. Amongst the shadows, I catch the scent of my assassin, the enigmatic homeless person who in the time I was taking eight trains has come into my house and who’s going to stab me to his heart’s content.

I go back to writing in a pool of blood.

Five Things Right Now: Jenny Offill