In pitch darkness I woke to the alarm on my cell phone at exactly the same time I did every weekday morning. I switched it off before it had hardly gotten through its first ring so that Megumi could go back to sleep, she didn’t need to be up for another hour. I lay in bed for two more minutes staring at the ceiling I couldn’t see and fighting the urge to go back to sleep, I then reset the alarm for the next day. I got up, urinated, shaved, showered. I dressed in the suit which I’d laid out the night before. All this the same as I did every morning.
I drank the same tea, the leaves of which were already in the pot, also prepared the night before. I rinsed the pot out afterwards and refilled the kettle. Then I kissed my wife goodbye and walked out the front door, waiting, as always, until I heard her lock it from the inside. On the street I turned and waved to my wife at the upstairs window as I walked towards the station. Like always I waved twice, once before I reached the electricity pole on the corner and then once more when I was a step beyond it. Every day. Every morning. Everything single thing was exactly the same.
I loathed the routine and I loathed myself for keeping it. I hated the fact that I was too afraid to even leave the tiniest detail, like choosing a neck tie, to chance. I relied on the routine. I was too afraid not to. I was comforted by the fact that when I woke up I knew exactly what was going to happen at the start of my day and that everything was ready for me, nothing would be out of place, nothing would, nothing could, nothing ever did, go wrong and make me late. I was comforted by the knowledge that for at least the first part of every day I didn’t need to think or make decisions about a single thing.
It was a four minute walk to the station though I always allowed ten, ‘just in case’ I told myself and never asked ‘just in case what?’. What was going to happen to me in those few minutes between my front door and the station; a terrorist attack? A tsunami? An approach by a mysterious and beautiful woman?
The train, which I also detested, especially on winter mornings like that one when it was full of coughers, sneezers and sniffers, was also a kind of miserable comfort to me. I boarded the train from the same point on the platform I always did. I took exactly the same train every single day at the exact same time. I could recognise some of the drivers and conductors and could even predict their duty rosters. Looking around me in the carriage I recognised almost every other passenger; every morning I saw the same people getting on and off at the same stops, sitting in the same place, sleeping or reading like they always did. I wondered if they also laid out their suits and prepared their tea the night before.
Some of my fellow passengers were so familiar I thought of them as friends I’d never spoken to. We would see each other every day. We had been seeing each other every day for years and years, some of them worked at my company. Each day we shared an identical experience, and yet we’d never spoken, never even acknowledged each other’s existence as if we were completely alone, as if each of us were the single passenger with the whole train to ourselves.
To some I gave nicknames. That morning I happened to be sitting next to ‘Cochise’, named so because he was a well built man who wore his hair in a long ponytail that I thought made him look like an American Indian. Sometimes I’d think of the train we took as the ‘Cochise Express’. Cochise always boarded the train at the same point on the platform as me though he always arrived on the platform before I did. When I stood next to him as we waited he would slowly turn his body away as if snubbing me for some unknown transgression.
Two stops later ‘Mr. Kajita boarded. Of course I had no idea of his real name but he looked like a science teacher I’d had in high school, they had the same kind of beard. Then the ‘Honey Twins’, two attractive young women who were friends and were always together although I’m sure they weren’t sisters at all. ‘The Empress of Mikage’, another young woman whose name was self-explanatory, she was so regally stunning I felt like offering her my seat if she didn’t have one as if she were royalty.
‘Hop-a-Long’ always boarded at the same station as me but would get off earlier. I’d often see her on the return journey home as well. The small, middle-aged woman was named so as she walked with a limp. Hop-a-Long had a kind face, in her youth she would have been quite a cutie and unlike the other passengers she occasionally made eye contact with me and once or twice even smiled. I wondered if I’d met her somewhere before, did she live in our neighbourhood or go to the same supermarket?
I wondered how she got her limp, whether she was born with it and how it must have affected her childhood, not being able to take part in sports and games. Hop-a-Long never sat down on the train even when there were seats available, did sitting for long periods cause her pain? She also always dressed warmly, even when the weather didn’t require a jacket or scarf she’d be wearing one, in fact her clothing was like a barometer, if it wasn’t a cold day but if Hop-a-Long was dressed for one the following day would be cooler, as if she felt the chill coming in advance.
I liked seeing Cochise, Hop-a-Long, Mr. Kajita and the other familiar passengers every day. I’d notice and miss them if for some reason they weren’t in their usual places and I’d wonder if they were sick or on vacation. There was only one regular who would spoil my morning, ‘The Grappler’.
I cringed when I saw The Grappler walk onto the platform. He was a portly man in his late forties. He had thick greying hair that always looked like he had it hacked rather than cut, the style was like a school boy whose parents would drag him off to the $5 barber shop every month to have his hair hacked off in three minutes flat. In the station he pounded down the platform, short and puffing, rotund with self-importance. Just the sight of him made me shudder.
The Grappler fussed about looking at his watch or mobile phone, checking it as if he had a hundred urgent messages waiting for him though I suspected he rarely had any. As if he was showing off, he stood right on the edge of the platform over the safety line causing the train driver to sound a warning as he approached. Most grating of all was the ridiculously long duffle coat The Grappler wore. In it he pranced up and down the platform flapping the tails seemingly in an attempt to impress.
I called him The Grappler due to the way he always fought to get a seat. The Grappler waited for the doors of the carriage to open like a racehorse in the gates. He pushed his way on, not waiting for the other passengers to alight, and scanned the carriage for a seat. For him it was not just any seat. He only sat in the middle of the carriage, never in the first row. Sometimes he’d sit in a different position but then dive across the aisle if another better seat became free.
The Grappler was not only a self-obsessed moron, he was also a creep. On the train and in his hard-won seat he pulled a thick volume of adult manga comics from his bag. The Grappler seemed to have a new one every day, and while the comics themselves were relatively inoffensive the first five or six pages of the great chunks of recycled newsprint paper were glossy leaves adorned with explicit photos of naked, or nearly so, young nymphs. Pale skinned, demure little princesses flaunted their ample breasts and smooth rounded little bottoms as they gazed with sexual haughtiness at the camera. They were the sort of girls who haunt the impossible dreams of teenage boys.
Lots of men read the comics, I had myself on occasions though I’d always binned them at the station and never taken them home. However, other men, unlike The Grappler, were considerate and discreet enough to view the girls in their erotic little poses when they had a private moment or at least when they knew no one was looking over their shoulder. The Grappler had no such sense. The Grappler stared at the photos regardless of who was seated next to him or standing behind him, whether it was a woman or a school pupil. He gave each maiden a long, slow appraisal as if she was an expensive exotic melon on a market fruit stall, turning and tilting the photo to enhance the view.
I wondered if he did all this deliberately to make it look as though he was a virile young male still hungry for the flesh of youthful women when in fact I doubted whether the soft-porn snapshots even gave him a twinge of an erection. When was the last time the little midget got it up? When was the last time he had had sex?
The Grappler never once sat next to me, not even when there had been an empty seat next to me in the middle of the carriage. It was as if The Grappler was fully aware of the silent war raging between himself and me the whole time, perhaps he even had a nickname for me too. I wondered what it might be.
I turned away and looked out the window of the train as it sped along the coast. I fantasized, as I often did, about killing The Grappler, pushing him off the platform as the train approached. I pictured myself doing it. I laughed at how surprisingly easy it would be to take the life of a human, one I hated and to whom I had no conventional connection. I laughed at how much I’d enjoy it.
I would push him onto the tracks as the train approached one morning. Only I wouldn’t push him off when the train was almost upon him, I’d do it earlier when there would still be time for the little man to climb back onto the platform. I wouldn’t let him of course, I’d keep pushing him back with my foot. The Grappler would be huffing and puffing in fear as the train got closer and closer, panicking and waving his arms around inside his stupid duffle coat. But it would be no use, the train would hit him and pull him under like a metallic rip-tide, dragging him along the rails, tearing his chubby little body apart and mixing it with the shredded pages of his final comic book.
“Attention passengers!” The station master would announce, “I regret to inform you that the 7.16 train bound for Himeji will be delayed due to an accident in the station, a passenger has fallen onto the tracks and been killed.” The waiting passengers would turn pale and gasp in horror at the thought of what had happened, the women holding their hands to their mouths in shock.
“While I am aware that under normal circumstances this would be shocking news, it is also my pleasure to inform you that the passenger killed was none other than ‘The Grappler’, I am sure you are familiar with this man.” A mummer of excited surprise rippled through the station.
“Yes, as you know The Grappler has been casting an annoying dark shadow over our morning commute for several years now with his ridiculous duffle coat and comics, to say nothing of the way he impolitely fights for a seat. Therefore it is also my further pleasure to offer my heartfelt thanks, in which I’m sure you will all want to join me, to Eiji Hashimoto, the man who has kindly done what we have all wanted to do and pushed The Grappler in front of the train. Thank you for your attention, please enjoy your day!”
A round of spontaneous applause breaks out through the station. People pass word that I’m the man behind the end of The Grappler and the other passengers crowd around me to shake my hand in congratulations and appreciation. “Well done! Good for you! It’s about time someone did that!”
“The next station is Arai!” the conductor announced, “We will soon arrive at Arai!” I took my bag from between my feet and made my way to the doors with almost everyone else in the carriage, the others perhaps wondered why I was smiling. The Grappler nervously looked around to see if a better seat was about to become available.