Elice often daydreams about smashing a plate of English breakfast onto a customer’s face. It happens at the busiest of times at the cafe when tourists are queueing outside for its famous brunch. The constant flow of people forces her into autopilot, in which she operates on half her brain. The other half does whatever it pleases. As she makes her way through the tables, she sees a middle-aged couple sipping their coffee and a group of young women chatting on the terrace. Like a double-exposed film shot, another image overlays in her mind: her hand lifts the flat porcelain plate high up in the air and then swings it down, the poached eggs and avocado toast flying, the plate scattering into grey pieces. Orange and yellow and green explode into the air, pomegranate seeds flying like magenta commas, beetroot hummus bloodying a customer’s white shirt.
The behaviour of the said customer is usually not the trigger of this imaginary attack. In fact, there doesn’t have to be any trigger at all. Elice has been feeling on edge for some time. Weeks ago, she stopped counting how long it had been since things began going downhill. If she’d kept a record, she’d know today marks half a year.
During the first weeks after the breakup, the images of their last fight kept her awake at night. She didn’t show her colleagues the damage it did. Her colleagues aren’t exactly her friends, the university students working part-time or the other young women shuffling several jobs. Elice doesn’t have many people in the city with whom she meets up regularly, no one who would notice the subtle changes in her. When the lack of sleep started affecting her more, she had a fallout with the closest friend she did have. Bad situations make Elice even more reserved than she usually is, and in her five years of living in this city packed with tourists and canals, the breakup was the worst event. “You’re just so unwilling to open up,” she heard her friend’s voice say. As she remembered it, her voice seemed like it was echoing from afar even though they were seated over the tiny table in her tiny kitchen. “You don’t even try to tell me anything.” The truth was that Elice simply didn’t know how to describe the way she felt. She still doesn’t, even after all these months she’s spent looking for words.
Elice isn’t a person who takes unexpected actions or makes changes. Changes are made to her life and she reacts to them. When bad things happen, she paints the bloodiest pictures in her mind without letting her face give them away. The breakup was a huge exception; it is she who made the choice. She had met Lou unexpectedly and they fell into the relationship. It resembled a dance meant for a short piece of music, intense and sweet. As if she was scared of the end, Lou started to record every single thing they did, printing out photographs and writing down minute details of their dates on the back. She needed everything they did together to be meaningful; everything had to count for something. Elice began to feel herself being worn out of meaning. She increasingly felt tired of Lou’s fear of the end, of being so scared together. One morning in October, she woke up to a dark sky still devoid of sunlight and she knew she’d finally had enough. She lay awake rehearsing the closing lines to the relationship until the sun rose.
After the first rough weeks post-breakup, her life slowly came to feel more and more like swimming in muddy water. By now, she is used to not feeling rested after a long night spent lying in bed. Food started to taste like sand. The grey sky of the long winter became a thick, heavy veil that covers her mind. Like compensation for the muted tone of it all, the colourful image of splattering food comes to her when she’s at work. The same thing, every day.
But today, which marks half a year since that day in autumn, she feels an unknown urge. It boils up inside her like overcooking soup. She constantly checks her watch between taking orders and serving pancakes. Holidays are busy at the cafe, and time inches through Good Friday. She finally gets off her seven-hour shift, tosses her apron in the backroom and opens her phone. It is purely by chance that she sees an ad for a travel agency. It is not the guided tour it advertises that catches her attention, but the idea of going away. Before she knows it, she is staring at an email confirming her train ticket: a round trip to the German capital. A two-day trip. She doesn’t know where she’ll stay, and she barely has money for it. But she feels a tug, something inviting.
The next day early in the afternoon, she waits for her train on the platform at Amsterdam Central Station with a little rucksack with a day’s clothes. She feels a light dizziness which reminds her of how she felt the day before school trips when she was a kid. It mixes with the usual heaviness in her mind. The train arrives seven minutes late and she follows a mass of people in front of her onto the coach. She sits in her window seat. None of the other three seats at her table is occupied. The train slides out of the station and begins its journey towards the east. She rests her chin on her hand and looks out of the window.
Erika doesn’t like sharing her seats with strangers. It has been a minor inconvenience throughout the road trip. She paces impatiently on Platform 1 of Amersfoort Station, thinking of how packed the coach will be. The bulletin board announces the train is arriving in one minute. She walks back to the bench, where her friend, Saara, is sitting with their luggage.
As Erika enters the coach, she sees a young woman sitting in the seat facing her own and sighs involuntarily. “What?” Saara asks from behind. “Nothing,” Erika shakes her head without looking back. She lifts her 30-litre rucksack onto the overhead rack and Saara does the same, and they sit next to each other, Erika at the window and Saara in the aisle seat. As soon as she sits down, Erika realises her legs feel heavy. It’s been a long trip.
She looks at the woman sitting in front of her, observing. The woman’s long hair is untied and she has dark circles under her eyes. She is looking outside blankly and doesn’t seem to register that two people just joined her.
Saara pats Erika on the shoulder. “Do you have water? I should’ve refilled mine at the hostel but I forgot.” Trying not to show annoyance, Erika opens her smaller rucksack on her lap and takes out a plastic water bottle. They are both tired from the road, which seems to get in the way of their communication. Good friends can travel together, sure, but at times, anybody can be irritating as a travel companion. Saara insisted they visit a museum in the last hours of their two-day stay in the city, and they missed their train in the morning because of it. They are now on this one instead, which is only a few hours later than the one they planned to take but it still put Erika in a bad mood.
She liked the paintings they saw there, especially the one that captured a moment of a storm swallowing a ship. Though it was a grim image of people drowning if you looked closely enough, the blues and greys were mesmerising. It reminded her of a seascape they saw in a coastal town on one of their previous trips. Saara seemed to be drawn in by the series of sculptures. Overall, not a bad visit. Still, she doesn’t want to admit that she liked it. It’d be validating her friend’s decision she’s already made a fuss about. Erika doesn’t like to think of herself as someone who changes her plans and opinions easily.
Erika can’t mask her emotions in front of Saara, even the most childish kind. Saara is too big-hearted in Erika’s opinion. She feels like she’s taking advantage of it when she finds herself acting petty. But what can she do?
Now they are on a train next to each other with no room in between. Erika sighs again, closes her eyes, and pretends to fall asleep.
Saara fidgets with Erika’s water bottle. She can’t see her friend’s face facing towards the window, but she is probably sleeping. Erika seemed to grow irritable in the last days of their two-week backpacking trip. She must be tired. It’s good that she’s getting some rest on the train, Saara thinks.
Her friend is meticulous and cares about things. She spends her energy on things going well. Saara admires that. It’s the same kind of admiration she felt when she stayed with Erika’s family for Christmas one year. Saara recognised the orderliness and eye for details in the house, in how Erika’s parents kept their home and prepared meals for the holidays. It was different from how Saara grew up, the way she and her easygoing aunt decorated their place messily and freely. When Saara was little, they hung packets of chocolate everywhere as their version of an advent calendar and coloured the walls with paintings they made together. Her aunt is a kind of wanderer, which was why they weren’t spending the holidays together that year. When Saara told this to Erika’s parents, they looked puzzled, as if she had said something too out of the ordinary. Saara was used to the reaction; people usually thought her aunt was at least a little bit odd. They were a family and loved each other nevertheless. It was her aunt who taught her how to speak with paint brushes and singing voice.
Considering their differences, it is strange how well Saara and Erika get along, but they do. They’ve been close since the first day they met at university. For this spring, they planned the trip for their last break at university together. They are about to start a new stage of their life, moving to different cities. Erika seems excited for the changes to come, but Saara secretly wishes that things never changed.
She doesn’t like to imagine that the peace of mind she has found in her friend will disappear once they are apart. The shared flat they live in with two other students is small, but they have collectively made it a place of comfort. Even though the trip has been fun, filled with the sounds of unfamiliar languages and the shapes of new landscapes, she is also glad to be returning. The sense of home has grown every time they come back from a trip. The two friends agree on that every time.
Still playing with the water bottle, tracing its colour and shape on the canvas in her head, Saara thinks of life after this summer. Her plan looks more like a collection of ideas than a concrete path. She has spent her university life in front of canvases and clay in the art studio. What she can do next is never her biggest concern, but now that she is sitting on a train back to the last stretch of her student life, she can’t help thinking that she should be thinking harder about it.
But, no, the steady rhythm of the train is too soothing for deep thought. She looks around vacantly and her gaze lands on the woman sitting across from Erika. This woman also looks pretty exhausted, Saara thinks. For a moment, she tries to picture herself at the woman’s age, who looks a few years older than Saara and Erika. The woman’s dark grey gaze seems fixed on something outside the window. Saara feels surprised at herself, realising that she hasn’t paid attention to the view like she always does. The late afternoon sun is lighting up the pastoral landscape. The train passed the German border some time ago, but the scenery hasn’t changed much: ceaseless, beautiful grass and occasional horses and sheep. The houses seem similar, too, except the windows are maybe smaller and the walls less colourful than in the Netherlands. She traces the outlines of the animals and houses. She notes the contrast between the light green of the grass and the dark green of the trees. She thinks of her notebook in her rucksack above her head. In German and then in English, the driver’s voice announces the next stop.
Mio stands at the door of the train and waves at her parents standing on the platform of Hannover Central Station. The door shuts and she walks to her seat, the last remaining one. The three other seats around the table are occupied by two young girls sitting next to each other, and another young woman who is sitting next to Mio’s seat. The younger passengers are probably students and the other looks to be in her mid-twenties, she guesses as she shoves her travelling bag onto the rack.
Now that she looks back, her Easter holidays seem to have passed quickly — even though she spent some of the hours wondering how long she would have to bear the dullness of her childhood home. Holidays are like that. There is a relief in seeing her parents’ faces, but staying there is a reminder that it is no longer her space. Not after more than ten years of living by herself in the capital.
Opening her laptop in her seat, she thinks of her parents. “Mum and Dad looked older than the last time I was there,” she thinks every time she visits them, especially since she turned thirty. Her mother’s eyesight is worse every holiday and her father now takes multiple medications.
They love their children. She used to overlook it but has learnt to see it in what they do. They come to see her off even though she is a grown-up daughter who does not live so far away. But they would never say it out loud. She doesn’t know how to say it back to them either. It is a different kind of communication than what she has with other people. They grew up on different food, she tells herself. She isn’t sure if her parents also think that way.
Since her youngest brother finished school, she has been looking for ways to tell her parents that it is not their fault their children didn’t turn out to be doctors or lawyers. All of the siblings have jobs of sorts but nothing their parents could brag to the relatives about. There is a perpetual sense of resignation in the air, which she can smell at family dinners.
Her thoughts pause her hands on the keyboard. She notices a plastic bottle on the table, probably belonging to the young girl sitting across from her. Mio can’t stop herself from reading the label on the bottle. It’s written in multiple languages, the first of which is Dutch. The sequence of the alphabet is so unfamiliar to her that it almost seems funny. She deals with countless words in multiple languages daily, editing other people’s writing. Dictionaries and thesauruses are her companions. Head in the clouds made of words, her friends make fun of her. So far, that hasn’t stopped her from enjoying it or finding her encounters with unknown languages enchanting. She sometimes thinks it’s ironic, the way she goes out of her way to get into languages that are further and further away from the geographical area where she, genetically speaking, comes from. English or German, her job centres around languages she doesn’t speak with her parents. She can’t write in Japanese, either. Maybe, she thinks, that is one of the reasons why there is a translucent curtain between herself and her parents.
On the first day of the holiday, she saw one of the books she had edited on her father’s desk. There is no way he bought it to read it for fun. He doesn’t read much in German, and as far as Mio knows, he and literary criticism do not live in the same world. Finding it on his desk filled Mio’s heart with a feeling that she could not name. She ended up not saying anything to him about it.
In the corner of her eyes, she sees the girl sitting across from her take out a notebook from her luggage above and lay it flat on the table. There is a beautiful half-finished drawing of a statue, an angel with her hands high up in the air. The girl pulls out a pencil from the chest pocket of her denim shirt. She looks outside through the window over the shoulder of her sleeping friend, and then starts running the pencil on the page. A windmill takes shape within seconds next to the statue. Mio admires the confidence with which the girl moves her hand.
Mio throws her gaze outside. The weather has been good all day, and she and her parents took a walk before coming to the station. Now the train runs past a forest, and the setting sun appears in its full round shape, its ray bright against her screen-tired eyes.
At the sight of the tangerine sun, the girl with the sketchbook pokes her friend in the shoulder, waking her up. “Erika, look,” the girl whispers. The girl called Erika voices a little annoyed protest, but then looks out the window and cries out quietly in admiration. The two stare at the world in orange, nodding their head in unison as the train sways a little sideways. Erika turns back to mouth a small “Thank you” to the girl with the sketchbook. Thank you for what, Mio can’t tell. But she smiles at the sight, and looks out the window again.
Elice is pulled back from her sleep by voices somewhere near. She doesn’t know how long it has been since she dozed off. She opens her eyes and the first thing she sees is the colour of fire. Sunset, enormous and round right above the hills.
She hasn’t seen such a big sunset in a long time. She doesn’t remember the last time she properly saw the shade of the sky and had any thoughts about it. The only colours she remembers are those of the plates she carried and the coffees she served, and she almost laughs at this realisation.
She glances at the passengers around her. She notices that all three women are also gazing out, absorbed by the fiery hills. Their faces are lit up in orange, and she wonders if her face is bright in the same colour, too. In this moment, Elice feels like the four women are alone on the train, looking at the world on fire together. She looks back at the sun, now slowly setting behind the hills.
Miyu Sasaki is a third-year student from Japan studying Literature and Rhetoric at BCB.