Manhattan, New York City September 20, 2011

This is an entry received as part of The Great Victorian Write Off. The following piece received the 1st place award in the competition. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Victorian Press.

“Tick, tick, tick…” the sound of every passing second was made known throughout the train station. The noise was loud and piercing, reminding everyone that each second idle was a second wasted. Brushing away the tears from the corner of his eyes gruffly, Guy attempted to still his breathing once again, focusing on the ticking sound of the clock. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists, his fingernails digging into his skin, willing the memories to stop tormenting him.

Unfortunately, at that moment, a memory surfaced of him and his grandmother, sitting on the exact same bench at the exact same train station. He was only a small child, but he vividly remembered the whole conversation as clear as day. Recalling his grandmother talking about how things were like fifty years ago, he let out a small sigh. He remembered her sparkling eyes and wistful smile as she recounted the tales of her past, of the train breakdowns and train delays, and the six-minute intervals between every train. “I remember… I was stuck in the train cabin for one whole hour! That’s three hundred and sixty seconds wasted! Imagine how people now would have reacted to this…” her voice trailed off. The both of them started giggling at the thought of hundreds of people crammed into a single train, huffing about every second wasted that could have been spent on doing other productive activities. “Society is so fixated on time now,” his grandmother had continued, the smile vanishing from her face. He had nodded solemnly for the sake of agreeing, not understanding the full gravity of her words.

Well, he certainly understood her now. Looking up to watch the throngs of people moving around the train station with purpose, he felt like an alien in his own country. The train doors slid shut with a ‘klonk’ right in front of a mother and her child. “Look, thanks to you demanding to eat breakfast, we’ve missed our usual train! What’s wrong with our usual breakfast substitute pills? Eating real food is such a waste of time!” the lady yelled at her child, furiously jabbing at her watch. The child started sobbing, only to be berated by her mother again as her mother snatched the half-eaten granola bar out of her hands, replacing it with a cylindrical tablet.

‘Yet another reason to die,’ Guy thought to himself, replaying the scenario in which he would leap in front of an oncoming train. In the process of cleaning up, the trains would be delayed for fifteen minutes or so, however long they took to clean his body up. If they were even more efficient today, maybe ten minutes, but the child would still have plenty of time to finish her granola bar. Grandma was gone anyway, he truly had nothing else to live for, he reminded himself. Her dying words echoed in his brain again, giving him no respite from the dull ache in his chest. “Back then, we were so afraid of robots taking over our world, but now, we have become what we once feared.”  He heard her frail voice mutter over and over again in his mind.

“Mind if I sit?” The aroma of freshly ground coffee wafted into Guy’s nostrils as he turned to face the commuter sitting beside him on the bench. “You look a little down, what’s up?” He was interrupted by a loud chime reverberating through the station; the next train had arrived. “Your train’s here.” Guy answered curtly, turning away from him to watch the mother and child duo rushing through the open train doors with the rest of the commuters. To his surprise, the man on his left remained sitting. “I’m in no rush. Let me help. Time is not as important as another human being,” the man spoke earnestly, putting his arm around Guy.

“Well, you’re the only one in this society who thinks so,” Guy laughed bitterly, before continuing, “Time is of the essence, time and tide wait for no man…” Following his snide remark was a long silence, disturbed only by the ticking of the station clock and the tapping of nails on smartphones by the rest of the commuters. The lack of social interaction among the other commuters made Guy even more miserable, as he stared longingly at the train tracks. In a hushed voice, his new acquaintance whispered “look”, and Guy followed his pointed finger to a pair of twins embracing each other tightly as their mother looked on lovingly. “And here,” his acquaintance nodded towards the direction of the clock where a cluster of working adults were standing, the tallest one offering round a bag of dried fruit and nuts to the strangers around her as they waited for the next train. Guy scanned the train station in disbelief, noticing the pockets of people interacting with each other and the small acts of kindness carried out right before his eyes. These were truly gems in a sea of grey faces. “Finally, your lips are starting to tilt upwards. I was beginning to think of lame jokes to elicit some emotional response from you,” his acquaintance said, before draining the coffee swiftly in one gulp.

“Thank you,” Guy dredged up a wobbly smile. “Have a nice day ahead! Spread the love,” his acquaintance winked, before disappearing into the train. Guy stood up, a new light flashing in his eyes as he strode through the train station with a sense of purpose. Along the way out, he passed a group of students nervously flicking through thick textbooks, then paused and went back to wish them luck for their examinations. He stayed to watch their faces light up one by one before making his way down the staircase that led to the exit. An elderly man clutched the railing at the side with white-knuckled hands as he climbed down the stairs slowly, while crowds of people brushed past him. The only attention he was getting from the crowd was glares directed at him for slowing everyone down; no one bothered to render him any assistance. This time, without hesitation, he raced over to the elderly man to support his other arm, enabling him to conquer the stairs with lesser effort and preventing him from accidentally tumbling down the stairs. The wrinkly smile and the quiet “thank you” was sufficient for Guy to feel the joy swelling up in his heart as he walked on home.

As he walked, Guy thought deeply about the ideals he had built his life around and for the first time in his life, Guy disagreed with Grandma. “We have not become robots, not at all. We’ve just been looking at the wrong people,” Guy quietly told himself. ‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough.’ A poem he had learned back in school suddenly re-entered his mind. Guy repeated the poem with assurance, before peering across the street, strengthened with resolve.

Written by:
Sarah Lim Su-En, 19A14

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