“I am two hundred years old today. It is my birthday.”
The speaker 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 the man 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 which hid vast depths. As I looked, I saw in them experience and understanding far beyond normal understanding.
“Yes,” he said, “I calculate that I’m two hundred years old today.”
“Oh,” I replied, feeling that I had to say something, but not quite sure what.
I studied him again more carefully. Apart from his eyes, I’d have credited him with little more than forty years. But those eyes held so much more than could be accumulated in a mere forty years.
“Well, you certainly don’t look two hundred,” I finally said.
I’d come to the conclusion that the man would need humouring, something I felt disinclined to do, so I’d 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 as it drifts shut in a carpeted room. Even so, it carried over the rattle of the train wheels on the track joints.
“I suppose not. After all, I was only forty when I stopped aging. That was one hundred and sixty years ago and for the past fifty of them I’ve 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 in the corner with a far-away look entering his eyes, as if he really was thinking back over so many years gone by. The only sound came from the wheels on the rails beneath us.