There was an extremely old and fat gentleman standing at the end of Platform Two, in a long grey jacket with baggy sleeves that altogether swallowed his arms. People milled about him, briefcases bumping his knees, but he remained where he was, unmoving, his hands folded gently at his belly. His hands—they were as grey as his jacket, which was the same shade as the pillowy folds of skin that hung from his jowls. He had been squashed together, Sonnie imagined, from several lumps of colourless clay, then had water poured over him so that cheek ran into neck, shoulder into chest, melting at the bottom into his frumpy, clumping shoes.
The onlooker could not help both pitying and being repulsed by him. Sonnie stared at him for a good few minutes, twirling her skirt with indecision, and then approached. The train wouldn’t be here for a while anyway, and the worst the gentleman could do would be to roll on her.
“Good evening, sir,” said Sonnie, with radiant sunset breaking like eggshells over Platform Two into a powdery aurora of gold.
The ancient mountain of a man shuddered as though rousing himself from a state of somnolence that was almost hibernation. He raised his head, and the brim of his felt hat cast a shadow that cut his face in two: watery eyes striped in black like a bandit; saggy cheeks and chin startlingly pale in contrast.
“Hello,” said the old gentleman in a voice like a rusty mattress: wheezing and metallic. “Who are you?”
“I’m Celia Sonderegger,” said Sonnie, which surprised her, for her parents had always warned her not to talk to strangers.
The man shook his ponderous cheeks. “What’s your real name?”
Sonnie tipped her head on one side. “Well—my friends call me Sonnie, I suppose. Who are you?”
“No, but what’s your name?”
“I’m not sure I understand you, Sonnie.”
“What do people call you? What do they say when they see you?”
Weariness thought for a heavy moment. “They usually say, ‘I’m so tired.’”
“Well, I suppose that’s fair enough,” said Sonnie, as she stood next to the fleshy mountain of Weariness and smelled the musty smells of moth-eaten clothes and stale coffee and something else that reminded her of the cheese that Grandma had left in the cupboard one summer’s day and had turned sour. Behind the platform the emerging crickets made furious clicks that filled the bushes with an invisible presence, like a vast and expectant theatre crowd waiting on the other side of the curtain.
Now that she was closer to him, Sonnie could see that the man was not really old in the traditional sense of the word. Normal old people, she thought, looked as though they had had all the flesh sucked out from underneath their skin, leaving them thin and brown and crinkly like greaseproof paper. But this gentleman—this flabby, looming man—looked as though someone had done the exact opposite and stuffed him with fat, all under his skin like a sausage, until he was stretched and rolling with folds of puffiness.
He had several moles on his face which were very unpleasant to look at. There was one on his left earlobe, one on his nose and one on his upper lip that was particularly ugly: hairy and dark with flecks of red. Sonnie had not noticed this before, but he also carried loosely in one hand a shapeless grey bag. His fingers, curled around the handle, were white sausages of dough.
Sonnie felt a little awkward.
“Which way are you headed, little lady?” asked the weary man, not unkindly.
“Home,” said Sonnie, and pointed.
“Ah,” said Weariness. “I’m also taking the train in that direction. Will you sit with me in the carriage, Sonnie, if I may be so bold as to ask? I’ve had a lonely day, and it would cheer me up a good deal to have a bit of company and conversation, especially with one so young and lovely.”
And they did appear an exceedingly odd couple, the pallid hulk and the girl in the strawberry-patterned dress. They climbed onto the last carriage and sat by the window. Weariness put his bag on his lap and folded his soft hands on top of it.
“Why have you had a lonely day?” asked Sonnie. “What do you do?”
“I do many things,” said Weariness. “I walk around the city and see many people. I sit in their cars and talk to them. I sit at their desks while they work. I climb the scaffold with the construction worker; I stay with the check-out girl as she beep-beeps the food. I sit with the executive in his skyscraper office, and with the newspaper man in his roadside stand. I watch the people at the gym, in their meetings, in their toilets and secret places, as they eat and flirt and drink and vomit.”
Sonnie was doubtful. “When people ask my dad what he does, he just says he works in a bank.”
“I can work in a bank,” said Weariness, a little defensively.
“No, you can’t. You need to know how to count coins really fast and make signatures and calculate interestings and stuff.”
“See? I don’t think you can do that.”
“All right, but that’s because I’m not a banker.”
“What are you then?”
He chewed his fat lip. “I’m insomniac’s best friend.”
“I know what insomnia is. My mummy had that for a while after my little sister was born. It made her sad and it sometimes made her cranky with me. Also, it made her muffins burnt.”
“I remember that,” said Weariness.
“You can’t remember that!” Sonnie was annoyed. “You don’t know my mum.”
“I know everyone.”
“No one can know everyone.”
“Well, I do.”
“Do you know…the King?”
“Your country doesn’t have a king.”
“Do you know the prime minister?”
“I know him very well.”
“Do you know my Grandpa?”
“I was with him when he passed away. He died in his sleep.”
Sonnie stared at him incredulously. “How can you know that? Who told you?”
“I know many things,” said Weariness, looking out the train window. “I know that you, Celia Sonderegger, have dreams of being an acrobat and an elephant trainer. You’ve wanted to be a supermarket girl, a bus driver, a lift operator, a saxophone player, a photographer, a nurse, a singer, a spy, a sculptor and an architect. You take an average of twenty-nine minutes to fall asleep every night, and yet you doze off without fail thirteen minutes into any meeting. You want to have three children and one husband and live in a house with a big messy living room and a big messy bedroom, with great windows full of light that let in a view of the mountains or perhaps the beach.”
Sonnie watched the trees flicker by. “Four children,” she murmured. “I wanted four.”
The train rattled and went over a rise—coming down was a moment of weightlessness. They roared through a dark tunnel before Weariness spoke again.
“It’s all in your dreams, you know. Who you are, and what you want. That’s how I know.”
His words fell into Sonnie’s ears like slow, heavy pieces of lead. Her mind was thick with no meaning. She tried to formulate a response.
“Why are you coming home with me today?” she asked, and her tone had acquired an unfriendly edge.
“Ah, that’s the rub,” said Weariness. “It’s not just today that I’m coming home with you, you see. I’ve been following you for a long time.”
Sonnie shook her head hard. “No. I’ve never seen you before.”
“I don’t always look the same.”
She tried not to be frightened. “I’m very careful. I usually never talk to strangers.”
“I don’t talk to you. I just stay with you.”
“Look in the window, Sonnie.”
Sonnie looked. The darkness was gathering. The sunset had run away over the horizon. There were only a few orange ribbons left in the sky, the end of the bride’s trail. She saw the bushes creeping up to the railway tracks, a long line of black bushes writhing with the motion of the speeding train.
“I see…shadows and trees.”
“I said look in the window, not look out of the window.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“You’re not looking hard enough,” Weariness sang softly.
Sonnie frowned and stared. She saw a flash of gathered light in the reflective surface of the glass: an image of her mother, a woman of perhaps forty, the beginnings of wrinkles, a puffiness around the eyes, lines at the mouth, in the skin of the neck, a downward tug to the mouth.
“I see my mother,” said Sonnie at last.
Weariness smiled a secret smile.
They whooshed through several stations, and then Sonnie announced, “I’m sleepy.”
“You can sleep,” said Weariness. “I shan’t leave.”
Sonnie put her head against the cold glass, but she couldn’t remember if she fell asleep or not. When she looked at the man across from her again, she did not recognise him. He seemed to have quietly changed shape while they sat and talked. He was no longer flabby and floundering in his own massiveness. He was grey and drawn. He was a grey, sombre gentleman swimming in his gigantic grey coat, almost swallowed up by clothes that were three sizes too large for him. It was as though he had deflated during the journey—or something had come out of him and gone somewhere else in the meantime.
“Weariness?” she said uncertainly.
“Still here, Celia,” said the grey gentleman, not unkindly.
He stood up.
Celia looked around, confused.
“It’s your stop, Celia.”
“Oh,” she said, blinking. She picked up her briefcase and buttoned the top button of her trench before scurrying off the train, her heels making quick clacking noises on the asphalt. She didn’t look to check if Weariness followed her, but she could sense his continued presence.
Her car was parked two blocks away from the station. She joined the throng of commuters pushing out the gates. The fog of cigarette smoke and engine oil followed her from the station, clinging to her clothes with persistent fingers. She walked at a brisk pace, with her head down, collar turned up against the autumn wind.
There was a dog tied to a pole next to the sidewalk. It was a black, brutish thing, and it barked and snapped viciously at the empty air. Celia wondered who its owner was, and if he was ever coming back.
She reached her car and slipped inside, shivered in her thin strawberry-patterned dress, and kept the heater running on the drive home. She caught the reflection of her eyes in the rear-view mirror—that always startled her, the sudden flash of irises, almost as electric as holding the gaze of a stranger or an uncertain lover. Her eyes were her mother’s. She looked like her mother.
Home was a double-storeyed brick building in the suburbs with scraggly hedges and toys in the front garden: two tricycles leaning against the porch, a beach ball hidden in a bush, the broken leg of a plastic horse sticking out of the walnut tree. Celia parked in the car port, collected the letters and went inside. She could smell bolognaise sauce at once, wonderfully familiar, and it brought a rush of tears to her eyes and a rush of affection for Dominic. She put her head into the dining room and saw Ryan and Leah at the table, drawing. Two children, she thought, and had the sudden feeling that she was halfway there.
Celia went into the kitchen, and sure enough, Dominic was stirring a pot of something on the stove that looked like raw mince and tomato paste mashed together in a bucket. Celia’s heart swelled and she put her nose on the back of his neck.
He was a bit grumpy, but he touched gently the bags under her eyes. “Tired?”
Celia hesitated. “No,” she said. “Not really. I think I left Weariness behind.”