The Night Train: Milan Zagorac
Author's photo by: Kristina Barišić.
Asked about how the translation of this story came about, Milan explains: "Immediately upon coming out, my book "Noćni ekspres" met with favorable reception from readers. Among them was Marija Perišić with whom I earlier worked on the translation of my novel "The Devil's Passage". She suggested to translate a couple of selected stories, which I wholeheartedly accepted and there we have it now, the English version of "Noćni ekspres", a tale from the very line between light and darkness, with a touch of noir and a touch of horror, somewhat of an existential drama with the main character slipping ever deeper into insomnia..."
Milan Zagorac was born in 1976 in Rijeka, Croatia, where he maintains a strong presence on the local literary scene. Since graduating from the University of Rijeka with an MA in Croatian language and literature in 2000, he has been pursuing a career in publishing as an editor, journalist, essayist, critic, and more. He is a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction, with ten published books and virtually hundreds of articles under his belt. Since 2005, he and his wife Tamara have been running their own publishing house Studio TiM. "The Devil’s Passage" is Milan’s fourth published novel and the first to see an English translation. An inveterate believer in the power of the written word, Milan regularly publishes his musings on life, art, and politics on his blog, where he is known as Axiomatic Milan.
Marija Perišić was born in 1974 in Rijeka, Croatia, where she currently lives and works. She holds a masters in psychology from the University of Rijeka, and after trying herself out as a clinical psychologist and, somewhat unexpectedly, radio DJ, she has returned to her first love: language and literature. Before turning professional as a translator, she translated and edited short stories and academic papers.
THE NIGHT TRAIN
The first time Marin heard from him, it was an innocuous message, something like “I knew your father.” By itself, it didn’t have to mean anything. Many people had known his father through work.
“Why not?” he thought, accepting the man’s friend request on Facebook. He didn’t pay too much attention to whose requests he accepted. Sure, he drew the line at tedious advertising prostitutes, or whoever it is who lurks behind such profiles, and he blocked the supposed housewives when they’d start spamming him with offers of loans so favorable they practically didn’t need to be paid back. Apart from that, though, what doesn’t one accept on that mother of all networks?
Several days later, the man—Tomo—wrote him again. “Sorry to bother you, but we need to have a little chat.”
Marin wasn’t sure what to say to that. He typed a clumsy “Sure, why not” and sent it from his cell phone. Tomo, for some reason, didn’t take him up on it anytime soon. What with all the other networking friends he never heard from, Marin was well on his way to forgetting him when he received the next message.
“Say hi to your mom.”
“How do you know my mom and dad?” he typed back.
The answer didn’t take long to arrive. “We went to school together. I’m from Duvno. We were together at the student home in Rijeka.”
Marin was somewhat more curious now, so he advised the man to contact his mother himself. That’s what the almighty network is there for, isn’t it? He assumed they knew each other and had more in common than the two of them could ever have. “Heck,” he thought, “I don’t even recognize his name.”
In the following weeks, he completely forgot about Tomo, originally from Duvno, Bosnia-Herzegovina, currently residing in Lucerne, Switzerland, whose profile he’d given a cursory glance. It didn’t look fake like those of loan sharks pretending to be housewives, much less those of the enterprising whores whose profession seemed to thrive online.
In fact, the profile was just what Marin expected of a Tomo from Lucerne—a first generation ex-Yugoslav emigrant, a Gastarbeiter—and that was it. They didn’t have any shared contacts. The only thing connecting them was Tomo’s supposed student friendship with his folks. Odds weren’t good that they’d have much to talk about, but neither did Marin think it would be bad to have someone from his family history reappear.
“Mom,” he said after a few weeks, dropping by at her place, “did you hear from some Tomo on—”
She raised her hand, signaling her unwillingness to discuss the subject. “I’ve no idea who that man is.”
“He says he knows you.”
“No idea. I saw his friending request, but I don’t know him. Could be one of your father’s old drinking buddies.” She picked up her cat—a black, neutered, medium-large male—and Marin was as good as informed that the conversation was over.
He didn’t hear from Tomo in a while. Not until he put a picture of himself and his brother on his Facebook, the two of them fiddling with a car engine at the repair shop. A dumb picture, but that’s the kind people expect you to put online. Post some inanity, collect likes and comments.
“He’s the spitting image of your old man,” Tomo commented.
True, Frenki looked a lot like Dad at approximately the same age.
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Tomo went on in his next message. “I thought it was just you and your sister. She was born in ‘79, and you in ‘75, right?”
“Six,” Marin typed back, taken by surprise. “I was born in ‘76.” His curiosity was definitely piqued. How come his mother didn’t remember someone who knew such details? Judging by Tomo’s unawareness of Frenki, Tomo didn’t know anything about his father after the early 80s, either. Marin was sure there could be only one explanation: “He really knew my parents.”
“Your gramps was nice, too,” Tomo’s next message said. “The one from Komiža. We used to go fishing at his place by Saint Marko’s, your dad and I and your mom’s brother. His name is Božo, right? Božo. He’s in Canada now, isn’t he? Smart man. He left the country in time.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Marin would have begun pulling his hair if he hadn’t just been driving through the afternoon rush-hour on his way home from work. He parked illegally on the bus stop and turned all four turn signals on, one of Rijeka’s orange buses pulling in behind him.
“You know them, too!” he typed.
“‘Course I do. I told you we went to school together. We were best buds. I got away in time, too, to Switzerland.” After a brief pause, Tomo wrote, “The best country in the world, they say. Still ain’t home.”
For the first time, Marin felt perturbed by all the information. “He knows everyone,” he thought, “and Mom claims she doesn’t know him.”
“Sure there’d be pictures. I lived at your gramps’ place when your mom worked, where was it, Sisak or Petrinja or somewhere around.”
“Ogulin,” Marin typed briefly. “She worked in Ogulin from ‘77 to ‘79.”
He didn’t write anything more, and Tomo stopped messaging him as well. Marin proceeded home, took two Valium, and fell asleep. He only woke up in the evening, so jumbled that he wasn’t sure if he was awake, half-awake, or in a different place altogether. He was drained from work. Always behind schedule, always buried in more tasks. Before he’d even finish a project, his firm would saddle him with another, and he’d carry it all home. “They like it fine when a single guy works three shifts a day,” he thought. “Who gives a damn if I can manage or not?” In less than a week, he was going on a business trip to Germany, and he didn’t even know yet what he was supposed to do there. The message from his boss, who’d wriggled out of going by sending him instead, said only to show up at the fair at the specified time. “You’ll meet the guys from sales there. They’ll be traveling three days earlier. You’ll just need to go over the specs.”
Marin decided to unplug himself from all his networks. He took a shower and drove to the apartment his mom shared with her neutered black tomcat.
She let him in with her pet in her arms. “I thought he’d be better behaved after they snipped him, but no. My blood sugar,” she added, “has been off the charts for the past few weeks.”
“Oh?” Marin was used to her offhand attitude to her diabetes. “How high?”
“Between twelve and nineteen, and that’s with the pills. God knows what’s causing it. I must be anxious about something, but I’m afraid to take anything for that.”
“I guess you’ll need to see a doctor.”
“I know. I thought the cat would make it better, but he didn’t.”
Marin was at a loss. Cats, diabetes—what reasonable connection could there be? She seemed untroubled by the lack of it.
“Listen, Mom, this man has been asking me a lot of questions. And he seems to know a lot.”
“I told you I don’t know him. I can’t recognize him from the pictures. He’s an old man now. Besides, I don’t know everyone your father hung out with. He was always a bit”—she paused here—“mysterious.”
“Do you have any more pictures?”
Marin knew she did. She had to.
His mom pushed the cat off her knees. He landed on his soft paws on the parquet floor, disappearing soundlessly behind the corner.
“There you go.” She rummaged through a chest of drawers and pulled out a shoe box from the bottom drawer. “Look for yourself. You’ll know some of them.”
“Right. I know Marinko. Blago as well. And that’s Mario, Dad, and Roberto.” He named everyone in one of the photographs. “Gone. All of them.”
“Yes. Your dad was the last. Everyone on that picture is gone. Roberto died in a traffic accident. Mario—”
“Mario was in a plane accident. I remember that.” Marin turned the photograph over. On the back was an inscription in his father’s hand. Slave to Science. He couldn’t see the point of it other than adolescent conceit. No doubt it was meant to suggest immense scholarly efforts. He wasn’t sure why someone would call studying slavery, but this only confirmed his original opinion: student sarcasm and showing off.
“You can see for yourself that this guy of yours isn’t in any of them,” his mom said. “We were in these large study groups—”
“But Mom, he knew about me and Sis and Ogulin—”
“Doesn’t matter. I just told you we had large—”
“He said he lived in Grandpa’s apartment and went fishing with him and Dad and Uncle Božo, and—”
His mom gave him a sideways look. “I don’t know what to tell you, Marin. Your dad was always . . .”
Marin knew what was coming: “mysterious.” But that wasn’t an answer. He wanted to know why he couldn’t learn anything about someone who claimed to know not only his father but also his mother, uncle, and their entire departed crowd.
“Marin, I don’t know. Look at more pictures if you want, and if I get a chance, I’ll ask Božo if he remembers him.”
Marin went through more pictures of several late engineers and one late surgeon, but he truly found no one, absolutely no one, of Tomo’s description.
“I couldn’t find you in the photographs,” he typed already while driving home.
“Oh, I’m there,” Tomo typed back. “You’ll find me in your folks’ wedding pictures as well. I’m the small one, the smallest of the bunch, the one with the baby face.”
Marin had had enough of the farce. He unfriended the man unceremoniously and blocked him from visiting his profile. Immediately, he felt like he’d gotten a huge weight off his shoulders.
“Slave to stupidity,” he told himself.
He didn’t bother himself with the incident further. Somehow, though only a brief time had passed and though maybe he’d cut off the man mid-explanation, he felt like he’d freed himself of an unnecessary burden, an unscratchable itch, an unpleasant companion no one wants by one’s side. Even if the man knew something about his family, nipping the connection in the bud seemed like the best thing to do.
“I don’t need more crap on my mind,” he reminded himself.
The manner of his trip to Germany had changed. Instead of the plane, he was supposed to take a train because German airport personnel had announced a strike.
“Figures,” he thought, not looking forward to a twenty-hour train-ride, especially in his state. He was exhausted. He hadn’t been on a vacation in ages, to say nothing of how stressed he was. He needed rest, but his deadlines were drawing progressively closer together, and he couldn’t even catch up on his sleep.
“I just called to wish you a nice trip,” his mom said several hours before his night train departed. (“Sadly, not for Lisbon,” he thought.) “And yes, Božo doesn’t remember anything about this Tomo guy of yours. He knew all of them, but he doesn’t remember him.”
Finally, early in the evening, Marin was alone in a compartment of a train bound for Germany. “This,” he thought, “will be a tour de force in a whole new manner of speaking.” Twenty hours till he reached his destination, then a long shower and a night at the hotel, and in the morning, he’d have to go to the fair and hopefully find out what he was supposed to accomplish there. His return train would depart from the Hauptbahnhof the same afternoon at 6:17, but first, he’d have to take several lines of U- and S-Bahn to get there. Once he caught it, he could start patting himself on the back.
“Yeah,” he thought, “I’ll have to change trains again, but that’ll be child’s play after everything.”
The ride got slowly underway. He sat in the sparsely heated compartment all alone. He’d have thought he was alone in the entire train if it hadn’t been for Croatian and Slovenian customs officers. The conductor was hiding out of sight, probably tucked somewhere warm, praying to be left in peace. Marin followed the signs for Ljubljana, Jesenice, and Villach, then seemed to fall asleep, only to wake up suddenly somewhere in the darkness of Austria or Germany. He was still alone in the compartment, and the train was stopped at some insignificant station or maybe a crossing. He couldn’t discern the vague shapes he saw through the window. He couldn’t even tell which country it was. It was the dead of night, and they were in some unlit desolation far from human dwellings.
His cell phone buzzed. “Any free seats in your compartment?”
“Tomo?” Marin twitched.
He barely turned around, and already Tomo stood in the compartment door.
“I’m catching the night train from Vienna to Zürich, in Salzburg.” Tomo began to settle down. “You’re headed to Germany, huh? You must know the one about the blue-eyed master from Germany. Your dad liked poetry.”
Marin was getting seized by an acute panic attack. He wasn’t in the mood for literary allusions, nor was he managing to think on his feet. Yes, this was Tomo. The Tomo. He felt terribly shaky, almost paralyzed, even if he had no logical reason to fear the man. At worst, he needed to apologize for blocking him online, but that was hardly a mortal offense.
“I wish you’d listened to me,” Tomo said. “You should have put me in contact with your mom. It’s only polite to follow the rules.” He pulled out a pile of photographs from his jacket pocket, same as the ones Marin had looked at his mom’s.
“I told you I was there.” He pointed at the photograph Marin’s dad had marked with Slave to Science. Marin could see him clearly now—a small man with almost childlike features standing in the back row with his arms around the shoulders of the two who’d died first, Roberto and Mario.
“See,” Tomo said calmly. “They’re all dead now.”
Marin said nothing. His eyes darted from the man’s small features to his funny, rumpled suit, from his worn-out shoes to the black-and-white photograph in his hand.
“Funny thing is, I really wanted to talk to your mom.” Tomo waved his hand casually, seeming determined to introduce some levity to the situation. “Margareta, right? She was named after your gran. Still, one can make an exception once in a while. You’ll understand everything soon. This conversation is very important.”
Marin felt increasingly upset. He’d swallowed his pills quickly and openly, not even bothering with secrecy, but they weren’t kicking in. Quite the contrary. His body seemed glued to the seat, yet he felt an indescribable fear come over him. He remembered his shrink telling him that the pills sometimes had a “paradoxical effect.” Clearly, he was just experiencing it.
For a while longer, he saw the small figure in front of him showing him the photograph of a group of dead men.
Then there was a loud thud, and the railway car seemed to lurch off the rails in slow motion. Marin felt bags and suitcases rain down on him. His laptop flew out the window. He couldn’t tell a bag from a branch, a seat from a projectile, up from down.
He lurched ahead together with everything else, hitting his head forcefully on the ceiling. It seemed to him he broke his neck. A stream of warmth rushed through his mouth. Throughout the ordeal, he saw Tomo sitting calmly in his seat, then his vision went dark for good.
The train arrived in Salzburg on time, at 4:01 a.m. exactly, waiting at the central station for the additional cars from Budapest to be coupled before it could proceed to Germany.
Marin was still in his seat, his eyes and mouth wide open. Two little streams of blood dried under his nose. The medics couldn’t do anything for him. They established the passenger had died during the ride, and the cause of death would be determined through investigation.
Tomo had a coffee from the coffee machine before boarding the train for Zürich. He had a long night ahead of him. Good thing he’d booked a spot on the sleeping car.
(Translated by Marija Perišić)