PLATFORM #8 (4)

This incredible story is by one of the finest short story writers of our time, Ruskin Bond. The version here was adapted for English Language Learners. The original was published under the title, “The Woman on Platform 8”.  (Reading level 4.)    

Photo courtesy Ashik Salim, Unsplash!

IT was my second year at boarding school, and I was sitting on platform no. 8 at Ambala station waiting for the northern bound train. I think I was about twelve at the time. My parents con- sidered me old enough to travel alone. I had arrived by bus at Ambala early in the evening. Now there was a wait until midnight before my train arrived. Most of the time I had been pacing up and down the platform, browsing at the bookstall, or feeding broken biscuits to stray dogs. Trains came and went. The platform would be quiet for awhile and then, when a train arrived it, there would be a burst of activity. As the carriage doors opened, a wave of people would sweep down upon the nervous little ticket-collector at the gate. Every time this happened I would be caught in the rush and swept outside the station. Now tired of roaming about the platform, I sat down on my suitcase and gazed dismally across the railway tracks.

Trolleys rolled past me and the cries of vendors filled the air. There were men who sold curds and lemon, the sweetmeat-seller, the newspaper boy.  But I had lost interest in all that.  Now I just stared across the railway tracks, feeling bored and a little lonely.

“Are you all alone, my son?” asked a soft voice close behind me.

I looked up and saw a woman standing near me. She was leaning over. Her face was pale and her eyes, dark and kind. She wore no jewels and was dressed very simply in a white sari.

“Yes, I am going to school,” I said, and stood up respectfully. She seemed poor, but there was a dignity about her that commanded respect.

“I have been watching you for some time,” she said.  “Didn’t your parents come to see you off?”

“I don’t live here and I had to change trains,” I answered. “Anyway, I can  travel alone.”

“I am sure you can,” she said.  I liked her for saying that and I also liked her for the simplicity of her dress and for her deep, soft voice and the serenity of her face.

“Tell me, what is your name?” she asked.

“Arun,” I said.

“And how long do you have to wait for your train?”

“About an hour, I think. It comes at twelve o'clock.”

“Then come with me and have something to eat,” she said, smiling gently.

I was going to refuse out of shyness and suspicion, but she took me by the hand and then I felt it would be silly to pull my hand away. She told a porter to look after my suitcase and then she led me down the platform. Her hand was gentle. She held mine neither too firmly nor too lightly. I looked up at her again. She was not young, but she was not old. 

She took me into the station dining room and ordered tea, samosas, and jalebies.  At once I began to relax and take a new interest in this kind woman. The strange encounter had little effect on my appetite. I was a hungry school boy and I ate as much as I could in as polite a manner as possible. She took pleasure in watching me eat. I think the food strengthened the bond between us and cemented our friendship, for under the influence of the tea and sweets I began to talk quite freely.  I told her about my school, my friends, my likes and dislikes. She questioned me quietly from time to time, but preferred listening.  She drew me out very well and I had soon forgotten that we were strangers. But she did not ask me about my family or where I lived—and I did not ask her where she lived. I accepted her for what she had been to me: a quiet, kind and gentle woman who gave sweets to a lonely boy on a railway platform.

After about half-an-hour we left the dining-room and began walking back along the platform. A train was coming up beside platform No.8.  As it approached, a boy jumped off the platform and ran across the tracks, taking a short cut to the next platform. He was at a safe distance from the train and there was no danger unless he had fallen. But as he leapt across the tracks, the woman gripped my arm. Her fingers dug into my flesh, and my face filled with pain. I looked up at her. Her face was filled with pain and fear, and then sadness swept over her eyes. She watched the boy until he disappeared in the crowd and only then she relaxed her hold on my arm. She smiled at me and took my hand again, but her fingers trembled against mine.

“He was all right,” I said, feeling that she needed reassurance.

She smiled gratefully at me and pressed my hand. We walked together in silence until we reached the place where I had left my suitcase.  To my delight, one of my school friends, Satish, a boy about my age, had turned up with his mother.

“Hello, Arun!” he called. “The train’s coming in late, as usual. Did you know we have a new Headmaster this year?”

We shook hands and then he turned to his mother and said, “This is Arun, Mother. He is one of my friends, and the best footballer in the class.”

“I am glad to know that,” replied his mother.  She was a large, imposing woman who wore spectacles. She looked at the woman who held my hand and said, “And I suppose you’re Arun’s mother?”

I opened my mouth to make some explanation, but before I could say anything the woman replied, “Yes I am Arun’s mother.”

I was unable to speak a word I was so shocked. I looked quickly up at the woman, but she did not appear to be at all embarrassed and was smiling at Satish’s mother.

Satish’s mother said, “It’s such a nuisance having to wait for the train in the middle of the night. But you can’t let children wait here alone. Anything can happen to a boy at a big station like this!  There are so many suspicious characters hanging about. These days one has to be very careful of strangers.”

“Arun can travel alone,” said the woman beside me. I was grateful to her for saying that. I had already forgiven her for lying and, besides, I had taken a dislike to Satish’s mother.

“Well, be very careful, Arun,” said Satish’s mother looking sternly at me through her glasses. “Be very careful when your mother is not with you and never talk to strangers!”

I looked from Satish’s mother to the woman who had given me tea and sweets, and then back at Satish’s mother.  “I like strangers,” I said.

Satish’s mother was not used to being contradicted by small boys and so she looked angrily at me and said, “There you are, you see! If you don’t watch over them all the time, they’ll walk straight into trouble.” Then she turned to me and, wagging her fat little finger at me, said, “Always listen to what your mother tells you. And never, never talk to strangers!”

I glared resentfully at her and moved closer to the woman who had befriended me. Satish was standing behind his mother, grinning at me in approval of my honesty. Just then, the station bell rang out and people began hustling about.

“Here it comes,” shouted Satish as the train whistle sounded and the front lights played over the rails.

The train moved slowly into the station, the engine hissing and sending out waves of steam. As it came to a stop, Satish jumped on the footboard of a lighted compartment and shouted, “Come on, Arun, this one’s empty!”  I picked up my suitcase and made a dash for the open door.

We placed ourselves at the open windows while the two women stood on the platform talking up to us. Satish’s mother did most of the talking. “Don’t jump on and off moving trains, as you did just now,” she said. “And don’t stick your head out of the windows!  Don’t eat any rubbish on the way.” She handed Satish a bag of fruit and a big box of chocolates and told him to share the food with me. Then she stood back from the window to watch how “my mother” behaved.

By now I really didn’t like Satish’s mother at all. She obviously thought that I and “my mother” came from a very poor family.  Because of that, I did not intend giving the other woman away. I let her take my hand in hers, but I could think of nothing to say. I was conscious of Satish’s mother staring at us with hard, unkind eyes, and I found myself hating her. The guard walked up the platform, blowing his whistle as the train got ready to leave. I looked straight into the eyes of the woman who held my hand. She smiled in a gentle under- standing way. I leaned out of the window then and put my lips to her cheek and kissed her. The train jolted forward and she drew her hand away.

“Goodbye, Mother!” said Satish, as the train began to move slowly out of the station. Satish and his mother waved to each other.

“Good-bye,” I said to the other woman, “Goodbye, Mother . . .” 

I didn’t wave or shout, but sat still in front of the window, gazing at the woman on the plat- form. Satish’s mother was talking to her but she didn’t appear to be listening. She was looking at me as the train took me away. She stood there on the busy platform, a pale sweet woman in white.  I watched her until she was lost in the milling crowd.

 ©InterestEng. July 2013  §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff or used with permission.  §  To contact us:  go.gently.on@gmail.com