The Railway by Shanna L

This story was inspired by the Edouard Manet painting The Railway. It hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Here is the Wikipedia link if you want to look at it:


The attic was filled with boxes and trunks, odds and ends of my family’s life. The sun shining through the windows only served to illuminate the dust particles floating around the room that coated my clothes and face. The dust made my eyes water and I pressed the edge of my handkerchief to the corners of my eyes. Through the tears I looked down at the trunk in front of me, hoping that this would be the one. I drug my handkerchief through the layer of dust on the lid and wiped off the hinge. My nose twitched as I opened the trunk and peered inside.

I sighed as I saw that the trunk was empty and not filled with the baby clothes that I was looking for. Clothes that my mother said were up in the attic, but somehow had evaded me and the five trunks that I had already looked in. I grumbled to myself and made to close the lid when something in the far corner caught my eye. In the pale beige of the trunk’s interior, it was easy to make out a dark object stuffed in the corner. Reaching in, I carefully grabbed hold of the object, not quite knowing what it was. I turned it over in my hands and realized that I was holding a hat, a hat I hadn’t seen in 10 years.

The hat was floppy in my hands, the velvet ribbon faded despite being hidden in the trunk for so long. The colored flowers adorning the hat were perched precariously on the top, their threads holding them to the ribbon having been rotted away long ago. I slowly raised the hat to my nose, breathing in the scent that still clung to it. It smelled like dirt, like the Paris air, and like soot.

For a moment I imagined the girl who used to wear this hat. I could picture her so vividly, as if she were sitting right next to me. Her long, brown hair that was usually worn pulled back. Her dark eyes that she thought made her look mysterious. The gold earrings she wore that she pretended were a gift from an old suitor, but I knew she had stolen them from a previous employer. Her name was Sarah. She was one of my governesses when I was younger and I had hated her.

By the time I was eight I had a succession of governesses. It’s not that my parents couldn’t be bothered to look after me, but they were important people and were busy during the day. My father was a high-ranking member of the government and worked hard. My mother was the head of many charities and organizations. While I rarely saw them during the daytime, my parents always made time for me at night. They felt bad about leaving me on my own, so they always hired a girl to be my governess. They would tell me it was because they wanted someone who could act not so much like a teacher, but like an older sister to me. Unfortunately my father’s job made us move a lot, which necessitated the need for a new governess with each move. I had had many governesses but Sarah was different.

The room around me started to fade as I began to remember the last time I saw Sarah wear the pretty hat I was holding. Images of that day came back to me, along with the noises of the city and the smell of train soot. I could hear the hum of the people of Paris rushing to and fro intermingled with the sounds of trains blaring their horns.

Summertime in Paris was hot. Having just gotten over a lengthy summer cold, I was restless and eager to leave my stifling sickroom and house. My parents had already left for the day, after assuring themselves that I was no longer ill. Walking downstairs, I peeked my head around the corner of the door and looked into the breakfast room. I saw Sarah preening and fixing her hair in the mirror, smoothing down the flyaways. She took her finger, licked it, wiped it over her right eyebrow, and licked it again and did the same to the other brow. She pinched her cheeks and smiled at their rosy blush. Her eyes darted to the side and met my wide-eyed stare in the mirror. I gasped and whirled, hiding behind the door. Spying me in her reflection she turned around.

“I can see your nightgown Cora,” she said. I looked down and yanked my nightgown from where it had trailed on the floor. “I see you’re feeling better. Is there something that you want to do today?”

I was tired of being inside the house. “Can we go for a walk down by the train station?” I asked.  I loved going to the train station and watching the people all dressed up going on trips to far off places. I could sit for hours, my imagination filled with stories of their journeys.

Sarah sighed. “Yes, we can go by the train station. Let’s get you dressed.”

She hustled me back up the stairs and into my room. I hummed to myself as I stepped into my dress and turned my head to watch as Sarah tied the sash into a bow. I watched her as she brushed my hair and tied another bow, this time in my hair ribbon. I was excited to see the trains, but I was not excited to go with Sarah. I hated going anywhere with Sarah. All she would ever do was talk about all the young men she would see. She never paid any attention to me when we were out in public. More than once I had been forgotten about while she chattered on with some man she met on the street.

I waited while she pulled on her coat and anchored her hat, both hand-me-downs given to her by my mother when they had gone out of fashion. I knew Sarah liked to wear them because she thought they made her look like a respectable lady. “You’re going to be hot,” I told her.

Sarah looked at me and raised her eyebrow. “When you’re older, you’ll realize that ladies don’t always have a choice in what we wear.”

“But you’re not a lady, you’re a governess.”

“I am too a lady,” Sarah sneered. She grabbed her basket off of the floor and marched to the front door. “We should leave.

“Wait!” I cried. “We can’t leave Apollo home by himself!” Apollo was the new puppy that I had just received. He seemed to sleep a lot but I think that he was just getting used to my family and learning his way around the house. I hoped that when he got older he would want to run and play more. But for now, I would take him with me wherever I went so that he would learn who I was.

Sarah sighed. “Get Apollo and I will carry him in the basket.”

The air was warm as we walked to the station. Horses, carts and carriages filled the streets and I could smell the bread baking a street away. I skipped as we got closer to the train station and I could see the white steam from the engines as it floated away to the clouds.

“Hurry!” I yelled to Sarah as we reached the fence that surrounded the station. I could see the passengers walking along the platforms as the conductor hollered for them to board. I looked for someone who had a story and saw a lady wearing a black dress and veil, standing off to the side. I closed my eyes and imagined that she was going to meet her husband who she hasn’t seen in 10 years because he had been captured by pirates. He left to go to India, to seek out the riches there, when his boat was attacked. She waited, frantic with worry, for a letter from him. I imagined her pale and in mourning, as she sat in a dark room and declared that she would never love anyone except her husband. And then one day, she received a letter in the post that said her husband was coming home so now she boards the train that will take her to the ports so she can be reunited with her husband.

I stared as the train rolled out of the station, its wheels chugging on the tracks, as my new imagined friends went on their way. I grabbed hold of the irons bars of the fence and leaned back, swinging from side to side.  I giggled as the sky seemed to tilt and move.

“Cora,” said Sarah.  “Stop that and act like a lady.  Your hands are getting dirty.”  I turned to look at her and saw that her head was down.  I stuck my tongue out at her.

“What are you doing?” I sing-songed.

“I’m reading.”

“No you’re not,” I sang.

“Yes I am,” replied Sarah, turning the page of her book.

“No you’re not, the book is upside down.”

Sarah froze and then her face flushed. She said quietly, “I knew that.” She closed the book and put it back in the basket. Her hand went to the top of Apollo’s head, as she pet the puppy lying in her lap.

I giggled again and turned back to the trains. I knew that Sarah didn’t know how to read. Besides, the book was right side up anyway. It was one of the reasons I didn’t like Sarah. I knew she lied to my mother and father and told them that she could read. My mom told me that I wasn’t supposed to tell lies, but I thought that if Sarah could lie about reading, then I could lie about which way the book was facing. I giggled to myself again.

Sarah cleared her throat, smoothed her hair, and tightened her hat pin. “Come Cora,” she said. “It’s time to go.”



About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on June 4, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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