Train Crash Therapy

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic

Life doesn't find a way. It gets in the way.

Submitted: June 15, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 15, 2018



When one person in New York catches the flu, it seems like everyone does. Entire carriages of commuters spluttering their way to work. Robert inspected the railing carefully and wondered how many hands it had taken to create the collage of smudged finger prints; before taking a fresh paper tissue from his pocket to wipe clean his hand from the potential germs on this cold morning.

A mysterious man got on at the next station. It was a while before Robert noticed him, after he moved into his eye line after a few stops. He had some sort of skin condition. It was invisible to other people, no marks or rashes on his arms or neck, but caused him to reach into the back of his shirt and scratch with abandon. The man would jolt around, pause for a few minutes before starting up again, the inconsistency of his movements making others on the train uncomfortable and irritable. While Robert shared their unease, he also felt a degree of sympathy. His own daughter had eczema and would scratch furiously in bed at night.

Otherwise he looked like any other labourer heading to work. Cheap suit, Christmas present tie and receding hairline fleeing from a chunky, featured face. Eventually they made eye contact, he grinned and said “Morning”. Robert made an exaggerated action of turning around to check if a possible companion was behind him, but he knew he was the target of the communication. Robert tried to respond but as he began to talk his voice took on a warbling, haunted quality, and it felt like he was listening to it from outside of his own body.

“Good morning” said Robert.

“I'm Farley” he said.

Robert nodded back and they stood in silence. After a few seconds, Robert realised he was expected to continue this back and forth.

“I'm Robert”.

“Yes, I know. I've seen you before. You work at the same school my daughter used to attend.”

Relieved that Farley wasn't a complete stranger Robert started to relax.

“What was her name...”

The brakes of the train erupted with a high pitched screech before Robert could finish his question. Everyone stumbled to the left as the train swayed. It didn't feel like it was slowing down, and many of those not holding the railing fell to the ground. Farley fell forward towards Robert, who managed to catch him. Sparks were leaping up on either side of the train and many passengers started to scream. A massive smash led to darkness.


Robert couldn't be sure what it was that woke him. Whether it was the discomfort from the rash, or the light streaming through the poorly cut curtains, or the noise two chattering nurses were making in the hallway. But as he started to become aware of being awake again he was scratching himself furiously.

“Are you awake?” called a nurse. Robert didn't bother responding. He pulled down his gown to identify the rash and his fingers were stained. He had drawn blood.

“I need to wash my hands” he said.

The two nurses stood at the end of his bed, unwilling to speak. He waved his hands at them so they could see the blood.

“Yes, of course, but we need to get the Doctor first” said the older nurse.

The younger nurse took this as a sign and dashed out.

“There was a man on the train with me... is he all right?”

“There were a lot of men on the train. Don't worry though. There were very few casualties. Mainly the very elderly who never recovered in hospital. Give me his name and I'll check when you're seeing the Doctor.”

“It was Farley... but I never found out his surname. His daughter attends my school... I think”.

The nurse noted this down and a short while later the Doctor arrived. She was tall and attractive, her hair bounced off her shoulders and looked like it'd been styled recently.

“You've been out for a long time Robert, almost two months. How are you feeling?”

Robert thought about this – two months? What month can he last remember?

“OK, I think. But I have an itchy rash that I can't resist scratching”.

The Doctor signalled for Robert to turn over and lifted his gown. She examined his back.

“Well, I can see the scratch marks, you've broken the skin in a few spots... but it's hard to make out the rash. I'll check again later when you're cleaned up. You're vital signs are good, Robert. How about your legs? Can you wiggle your toes for me?”

After Robert proved that he could, the Doctor assisted him in performing some stretches and checked which ones hurt. The nurse entered.

“Sorry Mr. Carroll, we didn't have anyone by the name Farley. Perhaps he was in a different hospital.”


Robert enters the small bedroom, all pink wallpaper and stencils of cartoon princesses. He sits down on a tiny padded chair, careful to remove a cuddly toy before doing so. He's anxious not to wake her, but equally anxious to see her. Her body seems tiny, rising and falling with gentle breath under her duvet. Perfectly formed, like a half moon draped in purple cotton. He sits for a while and tries to synchronise his breath with hers, but realises that his breath is always a step or two quicker. He stands up and shuffles towards the bed. As he reaches down to place his palm on her back her body retracts towards the mattress, the further he reaches down the more she retracts until the mattress starts to collapse in on itself. Robert overreaches and loses his balance. He falls into the widening pit in the middle of the mattress; his face brushes against her purple duvet as he plummets into the darkness.


Don't scratch. Don't scratch. Don't scratch. Robert kept this mantra drumming in his head as he sat across from the Principal. He clutched his walking stick for support, both physical and emotional.

“Listen, Robert, I mean... it's wonderful to have you back.”

Robert grimaced and nodded in response.

“It's just that we didn't want to overwhelm you. So I decided to keep the substitute teacher on until the end of the school year. It's not like you’re his assistant or anything. But he'll continue with the bulk of the work in terms of planning and prep and you'll collaborate on the lessons. After summer it will be back to normal.”

Robert thanked the principal and limped back to his classroom. On entering, he realised someone was sitting at his desk with their back to the door. They looked very ‘teacherly’ from behind. Neat hair, short sleeved checked shirt tucked into cheap suit slacks. On hearing Robert, the substitute turned round and smiled. Robert halted and gripped the doorway for support. It was Farley. His hair was different, but it was him. He stood up and strolled across to meet Robert with the arrogant manner of a house cat.

“You're, you’re, you’re... a teacher?” asked Robert

“...yes, of course. You must be Mr. Carroll.” He extended his hand towards Robert and was ignored.

“So, you're alright then?” said Robert.

“I don't follow...”

“After the accident, I mean. I never knew you were a teacher.”

“What accident are you talking about?” After a long pause Farley continued. “Look, I'm Mr. Roman, I know this must all be a bit overwhelming. Why don't you head back to the staff room and we can talk later about today's classes. I have it all covered here”.

A reassuring smile extended across his face. Robert didn't press further. He was desperate to get out of sight and succumb to his itch. Perhaps he'd forgotten? Or maybe Robert had imagined the entire meeting? What could he really remember of it? It'd been months since the actual crash now.


Sitting at the front of the class, ostensibly to monitor the students who might not be following Farley's instructions, Robert is fixated on the back of his co-worker's head. Not so much his head, but the hair on the back of his head. On the train the hair was grown out, and the thinning on top was masked by the beginnings of a comb over. The back and sides needed to be long so to allow ample time for what little was on top to grow and hide the baldness. Today it was neat and tidy, trimmed all-round the sides and round the ears. There were white blotches where Farley must have had a birthmark. Most people think highlights are done professionally so no-one else will notice but she’d had something similar. Her long hair was rarely remarked upon but Robert would see when he helped shampoo it in the bath. His fingers would massage her scalp, and the white parts were like strands of bubbles that never rinsed out.

“Mr. Carroll!”

The entire room, Farley included, stared at Robert. Some of the students looked uneasy. Robert removed his hand from the back of his shirt, glanced around and tried to recall what he'd been asked to do before Farley intervened.

“Can you help Ruth with her vocabulary list, please?”

“Of course. Sorry, Mr Roman. I was day-dreaming.”

Robert hurried over to Ruth’s desk and checked her work. He was aware Farley's eyes were monitoring him as he did so, but anytime he looked up to meet his gaze Farley merely smiled a smile of sympathy and looked away to address another student. However, after the third time...

“What the fuck are you looking at?” Robert bayed across a classroom now stunned into silence.

“Mr. Carroll, please, let's talk after...”

“No. Let's talk now. Let's talk about the accident and you pretending we've never met.”

The sound of the bell, immediately followed by the shuffling of chairs and student chatter in adjacent classrooms, came as welcome relief to everyone but Robert.

“OK class. Please line-up outside and wait for the hall monitor. Thank you.” said Farley.

Robert paced the empty classroom in erratic zig-zags. Farley, stood with arms crossed in front of the white board, waiting for an explanation. Patience is finite however, and he snapped first.

“You keep mentioning this accident. I spoke to the Principal about it. YOU were in the accident, Robert. Not me. I wasn't there that day. I don't even take the train.”

Robert scoffed, but was intrigued, and let him continue.

“I know it must be really difficult. Particularly as the accident came so quickly after what happened to your daughter.”

Robert stopped and glared at the floor. Incensed, he rushed at Farley and threw both hands at his neck. Just like during the train disaster, they were tangled together and fell to the ground. Farley tried to protect himself and covered his face with one hand while holding Robert's right fist in the other. Robert managed to wrest it free and punched Farley on the nose. And once more, for good luck. Farley screamed and blood dripped onto the floor; Robert's knuckles were covered in it. He rolled off him and they lay side by side. He could hear the sound of footsteps rushing down the corridor as he fell into darkness.


“To be perfectly honest, the crash happened at an awkward time for us. For the school, I mean.”

The Principal shifted his weight. The two police officers nodded and took notes, synchronised like well-trained gymnasts.

“So you were planning to fire him?”

“No, no. Nothing that drastic. It's just that, ever since his daughter passed away his work suffered a great deal. We, the faculty, are understanding, up to a point. But parents started to complain and it was all becoming a bit tricky. We planned to put him on compassionate leave for an entire academic year. The crash occurred the day before I was due to tell him actually.”

“Well, fortunately for the faculty, after interviewing Mr. Roman it appears he doesn't want to press charges. I don't think the prosecutor will take it any further. Considering the circumstances.”

“Yes, of course. That's good news. Thank you, thank you, officer.”


The nurse wheeled Robert into the common area and left him next to the bay window at the far side. The sound of families chatting and tea cups clinking against plates murmured in the background. He extended his finger and wrote the name “MYRA” on the condensation on the glass in block capital letters. Realising that he had company, Robert quickly rubbed it away and craned his neck to see who was standing behind him. Farley was hovering over his shoulder. It was cold now, a similar temperature to the day of the crash. Robert was relieved to see Farley's nose was completely healed. That day on the train he seemed so unfamiliar but he was a stranger no longer.

Farley pulled up a chair and said “Let’s talk about her.”



© Copyright 2019 Thom Goddard. All rights reserved.

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