Kat stepped off the platform into the first train she found, leading to her destination. It was all she could do to keep focused. She’d traveled over three thousand miles in the last four days. The trip began with a black roller bag that she’d had to replace with an obnoxious pink one soon after the initial phase of the journey. The first one lost its wheels. It was too heavy to carry with her bad shoulder, and the only available replacement made her feel uncomfortable. It was too bright. All she wanted to do was sit down in the train, but she didn’t want to sit next to the first person off the aisle. The last time she’d done that the businessman turned out to be an evangelist, who wanted to heal her by putting his hand on her injured limb. The religious conversation up to that moment was quite interesting.
This time, Kat picked a woman with short, wispy, gray hair and silver-rimmed glasses. Just for fun, she named her Mildred without asking her real name. She put her obnoxious roller bag on the luggage rack across the aisle. Gripping her laptop bag and Jane Austen hat, she sat down next to Mildred. The woman smiled and said, hello. Kat couldn’t help responding. Her American accent sounded strident and blatantly contrasted with Mildred’s refined English voice. Initially, Kat was more interested in watching her suitcase to make sure no one walked off with it. The contents were hand-crafted and irreplaceable. It was all she could do to keep her eyes open after only sleeping a few hours in the last forty-eight. Falling asleep wasn’t an option. No one would wake her at the transfer station. Finally, she resolved to try to get involved with Mildred’s crossword puzzle even though her past experiences with such things hadn’t been very successful.
“A crossword puzzle,” Kat began. “Is it difficult?”
Here we go, Kat thought. It was time to recite her two-minute monologue.
Mildred engaged. In a blind of an eye, they were successfully working on it together. Kat wasn’t sure why she was doing so well in this situation, but it helped them pass the time. About twenty minutes later, a train whizzed by on a parallel track. She immediately realized she’d hopped on the slow train when she’d paid for the faster version. This point, she brought up with Mildred who had a prompt reply. She said that train, had been broken yesterday, so this one’s better even though it has more stops and takes a little longer. At that point, Mildred didn’t go back to the crossword puzzle but asked about Kat’s journey.
“I came from the States a couple of days ago to see our daughter on the way to the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. The plane flight was an easy hop from Baltimore to Iceland and then to London.”
“Aw, London,” Mildred interrupted. “I used to live there before I moved out of the city seven years ago. I live in a seaside retirement community.” Mildred covered her mouth with her hand for a second. “Sorry, dear, I didn’t mean to switch the subject.”
“It’s all right. After two trains I got to our daughter in time for dinner. That night I received an email with a sales contract to review for our house. My husband said I could wait ‘til morning, but I was too excited to sleep. We’d been waiting almost two years for a nibble which is a long time in our neighborhood.”
“Thank you.” Kat smiled and kept talking. Sometimes she didn’t know when to stop. “Eventually, I went to bed but only got two hours sleep. I felt better after I finished my ‘full English breakfast’ and coffee. I love beans and toast. Not long after, my husband sent me an email saying I could go to the festival, but I’d need to cut my other plans short and come home.”
“Oh, dear, won’t that cost a lot?” Mildred smiled and one of her silver, molars caught Kat’s eye.
“No, I bought a one-way ticket to England from the start. Unbelievably, the airline rate worked out to be the same as a round-trip ticket.”
“That was lucky,” Mildred chimed in with a tone of encouragement.
“Thanks for helping me stay awake. I feel a bit delirious from lack of sleep and I need to transfer onto another train line that’s supposed to take me to the Bath Spa station after this one.
“The spa experience is quite relaxing. If you have time, take a soak.”
“That’s a good idea, but I’m already over scheduled as it is.” Kat rubbed her hands together. “Sorry, I feel like I’m talking too much.”
“That’s all right. Let’s work on the puzzle some more.” Mildred’s eyes clenched together then flicked open. “I have a layover at the next station if you’d like to have some coffee together?”
“Oh, yes, that would be nice.”
Mildred began reading out the crossword clues. “A heavy, horned animal?”
“How many letters?”
She counted with the tip of her pencil. “Ten.”
Kat blurted out, “Rhinoceros.”
Back and forth they bantered over the answers. Kat loved the diversion. As the train pulled into the station, Mildred abruptly stopped their work, folded up the paper, and slid it into her oversized handbag.
Kat collected her cumbersome pink bag from the rack across the aisle and sorted out how to carry it with her purse, hat, and laptop case. They shuffled towards the exit, stepped off the train onto the platform, and hurried into a bricked-in waiting room near the tracks. The coffee in the shop wasn’t strong enough for Kat, but it helped wake her up a bit while they sat on cafe chairs around a small, circular table. Each of them would go on a different train when the time came. The track numbers were not far apart so keeping an eye on the clock and rails was easy. Mildred commented on the towering modern buildings under construction out the waiting-room window. They both agreed the older stone buildings with multiple chimney stacks on top where far more interesting than the glass and steel one’s going up.
After one cup of coffee went down Kat’s throat, she got another. Then Mildred began to talk about barges and how adventurous she’d felt traveling down the English canals in years past. Kat wasn’t sure how Mildred had diverted to canals, but any topic would do to keep her conscious. Five minutes before the trains were due, they said goodbye and exchanged contact information. Whether they saw each other again or not was inconsequential, but she’d always remember Mildred.
The next train was so crowded that Kat barely got the last coach seat. Thankfully, she didn’t have to stand but many others did. They crammed into the aisle within inches of her shoulder. The pink suitcase had to go between her legs, the laptop bag between her chest and the seatback of the person in front of her. It was so stuffy that her brain felt foggy. Smells of sweat and something like an old kitchen sponge gone sour filled her nostrils. After a time, the crowd thinned out. Kat moved the laptop to the empty seat next to the window. She pulled a water bottle out of her coat pocket and drank half of the contents. The fog in her head began to clear but not enough—not enough. Four stations later the announcement came; it was time to depart. The train was emptying fast in Bath. The door would close if she didn’t hurry, and then she’d have to travel another stop before returning. Not a preferred way of handling things since she had to meet her friend, Lyn, at a specific time that couldn’t be altered. Kat escaped out the door with her bag as the chimes warned everyone the train was leaving and to stand back. Around a corner she hustled, down the stairs, up the stairs, to another platform and another train. She barely made it through the next chiming door and decided to remain standing.
The train carried on a few more stops before she had to exit again. Breathing a sigh of relief, she found Lyn in a courtyard outside the station. She’d barely said hello when the realization hit her. The panic choked her throat. The laptop bag was gone. She’d forgotten it in the confusion of the crowded train. How would she find it? She didn’t know, not right away. In a short span of time, through two different train companies, she’d bollixed everything up. Traveling alone was risky when exhaustion factored in, but this kind of mishap was absurd. The fatigue from the last days had taken over her mind. She didn’t even realize she’d left it on the seat and it was right in front of her eyes. With Lyn’s calming influence, they formed a plan. Yet, Kat’s heart was pounding on over-drive. They went up to the ‘lost and found’ office at the GWR. The man behind the desk wrote down her information and told her how to contact the other train line. He said that at the end of each run the conductors walk through the trains. They clean up debris and lost items with the hope of returning them to their owners. This prospect didn’t give Kat much hope. She couldn’t imagine that there could be honest passengers who would leave her laptop bag alone rather than taking it for themselves. She hoped and prayed she was wrong since her tickets for the Jane Austen Festival were in the case along with several scrambled passwords for various online accounts. Those were the severest of the problems, the tickets could be replaced. The ticket office could look up her name and sort it out. That would be ideal; no money lost there. Once they got to the flat, she borrowed Lyn’s Tablet and went online with the intent of changing the passwords. She was still in such a panic that she couldn’t remember anything. A couple of gulps of red wine, along with breathing exercises, did the trick. Thinking was never her strong point when she was on edge.
This was the beginning of a long journey for her poor laptop. Lyn said that it would likely appear in a few weeks or not at all. Kat was devastated at the thought of losing such an expensive piece of equipment but also about losing her latest update on her novel. She backed it up frequently but hadn’t done so since the last two thousand words. Rewriting things was never easy for Kat. The festival distracted her but not enough to stop worrying. During the event, no one had reached out from the claim office with any good news about her lost laptop. With grave disappointment, Kat returned to America.
Three weeks later, finally, Kat heard from the train line. The description matched up but there was a hitch. She would have to pick the laptop up herself, or send a messenger, or have it mailed on her behalf for a hefty fee. The bag had made the rounds from Bath in the south of England all the way to London. Someone had turned it in and a conductor found Kat’s business card inside. He didn’t need to access any of the claim reports. He was her hero and soon Lyn was as well. It just so happened that Lyn would be in London the next weekend, could pick up the bag, and hand-carry it to the States in a few weeks’ time. This was most fortuitous.
The day arrived and the bag returned completely intact with the addition of an envelope. On the piece of paper inside, she read about the journey of the traveling laptop. It went like this—
Mein namen es Jurgen. I will speak English because I found papers in your bag in English. German is my native language. I am from Munich. I am traveling on holiday in England. When I found your bag on the train, I was unsure of what to do. It was late at night. I took the bag with me but the lost and found office was closed. I did not want to leave it by the door. I chose to take it to my hotel. I opened the computer and turned it on. I was not surprised to find the password protection but at the same time, I wished it was not there. I wanted to know what the machine would tell me. Not to steal anything or reformat the drive for myself, but for the sake of curiosity. In the bag, I found some pages of a short story and tickets for Jane Austen. I had traveled to places Ernest Hemingway had been all over the world and heard the story of his lost manuscript. I don’t know if you have heard about this. He had gone traveling and left his most current work at home. His wife found the story on his desk. She picked up the pages and carbon copies and put them in a suitcase to take to him. She left the train without the stories in a rush to disembark.
I wonder who you are, but I think I will never know. I traveled around the country carrying your bag. I do not know why I did such a thing. I am not this type of person. Because of the Jane Austen tickets, I thought you might be a woman. I finally found your business card and your name appears to be German. I plan to take the bag to London with me and drop it off where they can get in contact with you. I am sure that is better than doing it myself. I am sorry if I have caused you any trouble. Your bag has gone to the Portobello Hotel in London with its beautiful antique and restored facility. There we (me and your laptop) met my friends for a business meeting. On the way out of town, we stopped at the Hemingway Bar on Victoria Park Road. Since you are a writer, I thought you might appreciate knowing where your laptop traveled. I write suspense books. You write literature. We are very different but maybe not so much.
I leave you both now and hope that you are reunited in time.