A conversation on a train


“I’m 200 years old today. It’s my birthday.”

The man who spoke sat in the opposite corner of the compartment. As people do, we sat as far away from each other as space would allow. We were the only two in the compartment and had been travelling for some 20 minutes. In this time we had not even acknowledged each other. As he spoke I looked at him for the first time.

He was small, perhaps no more than 5 feet 3 inches, with sparse, sandy hair. His brown suit was obviously old and well-worn but showed the unmistakable signs of having been carefully looked after. His footwear was similarly well-worn but polished and presentable. With his clean, white starched collar he looked a typical clerk; the type of man who diligently, and unambiguously, works out his life in the services of the same master in some commercial backwater.

His face was unremarkable until you looked into his eyes. They were a very pale grey and seemed to have vast, hidden depths. As I looked I seemed to see in them experience and understanding far beyond normal understanding.

“Yes,” he said, “I calculate I’m 200 years old today.”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling that I had to say something but not quite knowing what.

I looked at him again – more carefully. Apart from his eyes I would have credited him with little more than 40. But those eyes – they seemed to contain so much more than could be accumulated in a mere 40 years.

“Well, you certainly don’t look 200,” I finally managed to get out.

I had come to the conclusion that the man would need humouring, something I felt disinclined to do, so had decided to let the conversation die away as quickly as possible. However, in responding in the way I did, I seemed to have provided him with the necessary stimulus to speak.  His voice sounded tired, like the sound a well-fitting door makes when it slowly drifts shut in a carpeted room. Even so it came clearly to me over the rattle of the train wheels on the track joints.

“Yes, I suppose I don’t. After all, I was only 40 when I stopped aging. That was 160 years ago and for the past 50 of them I have regretted that fateful day. Yes, regretted it but done nothing about it. Now I’m tired and have come to the end.”

Definitely a man to be humoured, I convinced myself, and settled back to be a martyr to someone else’s needs.  The man sat back in the corner with a far-away look drifting into his eyes: as if he really was thinking back over so many years gone by. After a while he went on in his soft, tired voice. A voice that now had a far-away quality about it as well.

“It’s a strange gift, immortality,” he began. “When it first came to me I was overjoyed. So much time was mine. I had time to do anything and everything I wished. At first I rushed about doing all the hurried, urgent things that one does when confronted with unlimited choice. I had unlimited choice and unlimited time as well but I could not grasp the idea and control myself.

“It took me perhaps ten years to really grasp and accept the fact that I was immortal; that I had no need to hurry anything. It gradually dawned on me when I saw my reflection in the looking glass day after day. My features did not change. For 10 years my face had stayed the same. A little tanned from travelling in sunny climes perhaps, but still the same me. It was then that I slowed down. I could watch change take place. For a while inventions fascinated me. I watched them introduced, often with a great to do, come into common usage and then be overtaken by the next invention.

“I watched people. Great men appeared. Their careers and fame grew, blossomed into full glory and, in time, died. Sometimes their fame lived on, but more often it died with them. Countries appeared and developed from previously unknown corners of the world. Some took their place in world affairs; others sank back into the oblivion that had been theirs.

“I watched this ever-changing pageant with an absorbed interest, sure in the knowledge that I would outlast it all – and I have. But now my interest wanes and I grow tired. Old age is not just a physical thing; it is a mental thing as well.”

He lapsed into silence. Despite myself I had been intrigued by his story. Whether the story was true or not was something I could not tell, but he certainly believed it.  As he sat there in silence my curiosity got the better of me.

“How did you come by this immortality?” I asked.

He looked at me, almost as if he hadn’t seen me before. He studied me with eyes now shrewd and all-knowing. For perhaps a minute he studied me, looking critically into my eyes and at my face.

“The face tells the true story of its wearer” he murmured quietly to himself.

“Yes. How does one come by this gift of immortality?” he repeated, louder but still to himself. Almost as if he was asking himself the question. After a pause he looked straight at me; almost through me.

“I was travelling in the East when it came to me. I did a lot of travelling in those days. I had attached myself to a camel train heading eastwards; roughly in the direction I was aiming. For three days we trekked across the desert.

“During that time I talked often with another itinerant traveller who did not belong to the train either. He, in fact, came from the mountainous lands to the north of India but had spent a long time travelling the desert wastes, never settling for long in one place or with one group of people.  He was presently heading back to this mountainous homeland, there, he said, finally to die. He had one last secret to pass to another and then he could rest in peace.”

Again the man stopped in the telling of his tale. Silence descended on the compartment, broken only by the click-clack of the wheels on the rails.  In a while he took up his story again.

“After the three days we reached an oasis where a number of desert tracks met. The camel train was heading north-east from here: my new found colleague, south. As I was heading nowhere in particular I elected to join him and together we set out, aiming for the mountains of his homeland.  He was a pleasant companion, seeming to have an unending fund of stories of strange parts of the world. His knowledge of the desert seemed limitless, unerringly picking watering places out of the vastness of the wilderness in which we travelled.

“Over the days of travelling we got to know each other very well. One night we had made camp and were sitting beside our small fire before finally settling down for the night. As was usual we were telling stories of our travels and the strange and interesting places we had visited. I remember that my story was of a visit I had made to the Holy Land a few years previously.

“His story went back longer than that – two centuries to be exact. He told me of a meeting with a holy man all those years ago in the land they now call Tibet. There, in the snowy fastness of those mountainous lands, he had spent a winter with a small community of holy men and their families. It appears that he made a very favourable impression on these holy hermits during this time. As the spring came and his departure drew nigh, the head man of the little community called him into his sparse cell.

“There he had told my travelling colleague about the small holy band. Since time immemorial they had lived there – six holy men with their families – untouched by the happenings in the vast world around them; untouched by illness or by old age: immortal.  Their children matured slowly as befitted the children of immortal parents. With no natural death to control their numbers it was important that they did not overpopulate their valley. To avoid this it was laid down in their laws that as a child reached maturity, at 100 years, the oldest of that child’s sex within the community must die.

“That was the problem that now confronted the head man. One of the young men had reached his maturity last summer and now wished to take his place in the community. So the oldest man, the head man, must die. Their law said that he could not leave the valley nor, because of his immortality, could he die in any normal sense of the word. The only way they could end their life was to give their immortality to another living being that was not immortal.

“This they achieved by telling the secret of immortality to one of the animals that lived in the valley. In the telling of the secret the gift of immortality was passed to the other. Having told their secret they aged and died. Provided they told an animal that had not reached breeding age, the balance of nature in the valley was never upset.  The head man, however, had long ago resolved to pass his secret to some other human. During the winter he had decided that their guest, my present companion, should be the receiver of the gift, the first human from outside the valley to become immortal. In the telling of the secret my companion had been given immortality, whether he wanted it or not.

“The head man had then hurried him on his way. The years would now rapidly and irrecoverably catch up with the head man and within hours he would be dead and the young man of the community would take his place.

“My companion had then found himself ushered out of the cell and into the bright spring day. His few belongings had been bundled together and these, together with a quantity of food, awaited him. One of the young men escorted him to the edge of the valley and directed him to a path that eventually led to the desert in which we were travelling.

“When we first met, my companion had been heading back to the valley to return the gift. However, the days we had spent together had changed his mind. His wish now was to pass on the gift to another dweller of the world. In telling me the secret the gift was given again. Like him before me I had had no choice.”

The man grew silent. In the time it had taken him to tell the story he had aged ten years, or so it seemed. After a while he spoke again.

“As I said, at first I was overjoyed. But now I feel old and I am tired and want to rest. I have had enough.”

He stopped speaking just as the train jerked. It was coming into a station, the first stop on the journey. That jerk of the breaks brought me back to reality and I shook myself as a dog does after getting caught in a shower of rain. As the train pulled to a halt the man stood up and reached for my hat and coat from the rack above the seat.

“I believe this is your stop for this journey,” he said as he handed me my things. I automatically stood up and took them. I climbed out of the carriage and for a moment stood on the platform looking back at the story teller. He smiled at me with a tired smile and spoke as he pulled the door closed.

“Take care of the precious gift of immortality. It is yours now, guard it well.”

The train pulled away from the platform and the man was lost to my sight. I stood on the platform and watched the train disappear into the distance. I stood on the station, slowly realising that I was immortal, and my erstwhile travelling companion would soon be no more.

It was in 1854 when I stood on that platform with realisation dawning. Now I too am tired of this ever-changing world and want to rest.  I cannot wait for 2055 to arrive. I cannot bear the burden of immortality for 200 years. Things now move so much more rapidly than they did when I had the conversation in the train. I believe that 150 years is now the limit a soul can take.  I have come to the end so ….. Take care of the gift of immortality for it, now, is yours.

Guard it well.

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