90. The Waking World

MARGUERITE DURAS IS TRAVELLING by train to a hospital appointment in the capital. The purpose of the appointment is to conduct a biopsy on a growth that has recently appeared on the right side of her neck. She boards the train and locates her seat, only to discover there is already somebody sitting there, a man with a long moustache drinking tea from a thermos. He does not recognise Marguerite Duras. After a prolonged discussion that draws a small crowd of observers, during which both tickets are minutely examined many times over and which finally attracts the attention of the conductor, a consensus emerges that Marguerite has taken the wrong train, or rather that she has taken the right train but in the wrong direction. The conductor tells her to alight at the next station and to take the next train in the opposite direction. The carriage is full and there are no vacant seats. Marguerite Duras is obliged to remain standing in the aisle. A passenger stands to offer her his seat, but she refuses to accept it, presuming that the next station cannot be far. Yet the train continues to hurtle through the countryside without showing the slightest sign of stopping. The landscape is vast and empty and bedazzled by brilliant sunshine, dusted with snow and more or less devoid of signs of human presence. Marguerite Duras is confused. Is she back in Indochina? She cannot be - it's too cold. Her feet ache. Every now and then she raises her hand to her neck and gently fingers the lump there. Finally the train begins to slow, gradually stopping at one of those country stations seemingly unattached to any particular town, although - Marguerite Duras tells herself - in such instances the town to which the station is attached is usually located nearby. This particular station is surrounded on every side by plantations of pine trees. Large, sweeping pine trees grow in straight rows as far as the eye can see. Marguerite Duras alights from the train and steps into the sunshine. Immediately she is accosted by a razor-cold wind. She sees that she is the only passenger to do so. As she stands on the platform in the brilliant sunshine with her suitcase beside her, the train receding in the distance, the sea of green on every side gives her the impression that she is floating, or perhaps that the platform itself is floating, one way or the other. Before long, she begins to feel a curious kind of motion sickness. She is overcome by an irresistible urge to sleep. So strong is her need to sleep, she considers laying out on the ground there and then, but she fears burning her skin in the sun or being frozen cold by the wind, or both. She walks toward what appears to be a waiting room. Inside it, the walls are lined with timetables. The ticket counter is unattended. There is a wooden bench along one of the walls, and she lies down upon it and falls asleep with her head resting on her suitcase. When she wakes up it is dark. Directly in front of her, a young girl is playing with a doll. She seems to be dismembering it. Shortly after, the station master enters the waiting room and asks her what train she is waiting for. He tells her she ought not have alighted at this station, as few trains stop at this station, and no passenger train in the opposite direction is scheduled until Wednesday. What day is it today?, asks Marguerite Duras. Christmas Eve, replies the station master. The little girl who was playing in front of her has gone, leaving the body parts of the dismembered doll scattered on the ground. I'm afraid I am quite lost, says Marguerite Duras. I have gotten myself lost once again, she says. Once again?, the station master asks her. He sits beside her and takes her hand. He reminds her of someone from long ago. Yes, she says, obviously I am dreaming, of that I am quite certain. Raymond Llull speculated that those who die in their sleep have become lost in a labyrinth of dreams. Perhaps this is what is happening to me. A labyrinth of dreams?, repeats the station master. Yes, says Marguerite Duras, dreams within dreams are common enough, but in the labyrinth of dreams the dreamer is plunged into dreams within dreams within dreams, taken to the nth degree. Do you think this is happening to you now?, asks the station master. It's just a hunch, she replies. And are you ready?, he asks. No, she replies, I am only 82. If this is indeed the case, says the station master, you will have to retrace your steps - in the legends, there is always a thread, breadcrumbs, some kind of clue. Why don't you go to the ladies' room and see what you find? He leads her to the entrance of the ladies' room. She enters it and approaches a dusty mirror. She examines her reflection. She is beautiful. She is wearing a locket around her neck. It is engraved with an inscription, only it is in Chinese, and she cannot read Chinese. With some difficulty - the joints in her hands are swollen with arthritis - she opens the locket. Inside it is a photograph of a child - herself as a 15-year-old - standing beside a much older, wealthy Chinese man. She raises the photograph to her nose and recognises his cologne. Overcome with sadness, she returns to the waiting room and lays down on the bench again, hoping that if she falls asleep, she will perhaps wake in her previous dream, where she will lay down and fall asleep and wake in her previous dream, and so on and so forth, each time emerging one degree closer to her destination, the waking world, although, she remembers, she has lost all way of knowing if she is travelling forward or backward.