Heloise and Abelard in the train
Writer: Derek Kok
Published: Fri, 10 Feb 2012
“In these deep solitudes and awful cells,
Where heav’nly-pensive contemplation dwells,
And ever-musing melancholy reigns.”
Eloisa to Abelard - Alexander Pope.
The train beeped monotonously as it pulled up in front of them.
‘Finally’, they muttered under their breaths.
The doors slid open.
Eyes glazed and bodies limp after yet another monotonous 9-to-5 routine, they trudged into the train’s cavity.
Footsteps like a programmed code, legs with minds of their own; they moved their bodies into the train as though in synchrony with the Pied Piper-like beeps.
The doors slid shut.
He was one of them.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he took his seat. A plump makcik in floral baju kurung stood in front of him. But today was not her day. Today, the seat belonged to him and him alone. He very well deserved the grubby corner seat; isn’t it a human right for the newly unemployed to have a seat in a train?
He suddenly remembered he had a convenient shield against the makcik’s stare. With his thumb, he rubbed the dog-eared cover of the book he was carrying all the while. ‘The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope’, it read.
He flipped open the wrinkled cover.
She gave it to him for his 20th birthday.
To my best friend,
May we experience the love of Abelard and Eloisa,
but never suffer their fate.
A brown envelope surreptitiously peeked out between the chafed pages. He turned to the page that the envelope bookmarked.
‘Eloisa to Abelard.’ Alexander Pope’s poem which was inspired by the tragic affair between the 12th-century philosopher Pierre Abelard and his student, Heloise. After Abelard was brutally castrated by her family, Heloise entered a monastery; unwillingly taking a nun’s vow of silence upon Abelard’s insistence.
His eyes fell on the stanza before him.
Thou know’st how guiltless first I met thy flame,
When Love approach’d me under Friendship’s name;
My fancy form’d thee of angelic kind,
Some emanation of th’ all-beauteous Mind.
They were best friends since high school. To strangers, friends and family – they were the perfect couple. To him, she was the love of his life. To her, he was her best friend. At least, that was what he thought.
“What do you look for in a woman?”
Her voice rose above the raucous din at the neighbourhood kopitiam.
He chuckled as he pinched off a piece of his char siu pao.
“Someone who would drive me around. The whole world knows I can’t drive. There are only so many places the the LRT can go.”
She paused. “Isn’t that what I do already? Drive you around?”
He choked on his pao.
“Stesen berikutnya, Sultan Ismail.”
The pre-recorded announcement snapped him out of his reverie. The makcik, now seated across him, shot him a piercing stare.
Running his fingers through his greasy hair, he returned to his book to avoid her gaze.
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.
A spotless mind. How he wanted that. He wanted to forget her. But every day, that thin paperback rests in his hand as he makes the daily trip to work and home.
O write it not, my hand — the name appears
Already written — wash it out, my tears!
His fingers toyed with the brown envelope as he read on. He never told her of his feelings for her. The letter in the envelope was to change that.
It has been eight years since he wrote that letter; that envelope still nestled between the pages of Alexander Pope’s Ovidian epistle. Like Heloise – unable to express love due to an unwilling vow of silence, but a vow that was taken nonetheless.
But the truth is, he is afraid.
“Best friends”. He would rather hide behind the safe confines of the term than to risk rejection.
He sighed and stared forward. The train window framed an urban portrayal of van Gogh’s Willows at Sunset. As though god himself took a paintbrush and stirred the skies, clouds were strewn across the horizon. Tinted with faint streaks of sunlight, they retreated further into the horizon as the sun slowly crept to its earthly slumber.
Beautiful, he whispered.
He sighed and closed his eyes.
The shrill of a B minor chord pierced the static silence of the train. Unannounced, the sound of piano keys burst into a familiar string of notes.
He opened his eyes, startled. Her hands were in his. Sheathed in white satin gloves, they were a departure from their usual smoothness that he was accustomed to.
He glanced upwards. Her hair was pinned up in a bun; a white veil extended down to her fingertips, partially covering her head.
White pearls framed her neckline, otherwise left bare by the strapless sheath dress she was wearing. Lace overlays lined the gown’s bodice, her dress flowing out into a cathedral-length train which swept across the aisle of their church chapel.
“Beautiful”, he whispered as he stared unbelievingly at her.
A familiar voice could be heard singing the opening verse of Gungor’s Beautiful Things, the soft trill of the violin framing the plucking of guitar strings. It was their favourite song.
His heart jumped a beat.
“Could this be”, he asked himself, “our wedding?”
“Thank you so much for coming. You know how much it means to Peter and I.”
That familiar lilt of her voice put a wedge in his train of thought.
His arms stayed tight to his sides as she threw hers around him in an awkward embrace. Numb, he stared forward at the cross nailed on the wall. She withdrew her arms from him, turning to a tuxedo-clad man who placed his hands on her waist; smiles etched on their faces.
It was her dream wedding but it wasn’t his. She was not his bride. He wasn’t her groom.
“You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of the dust / You make beautiful things out of us”, that familiar voice sang.
* * *
The swaying of the train woke him up.
Small beads of sweat bubbled on his palms. He wiped his hands against the polyester fabric of his black slacks; squinting his eyes to adjust to the glare of the train’s interior lights.
“Stesen berikutnya, Pandan Jaya.”
His stop was a good three stations away.
His attention shifted down to the brown envelope in his hands. Clasping it with his left hand, he smoothed the folds and creases on the envelope with his right. He took a deep breath.
The train beeped monotonously as it came to a momentary halt. The train doors slid open.
People trudged in and out of the train’s cavity. Footsteps like a programmed code, legs with minds of their own; they moved their bodies as though in synchrony with the Pied Piper-like beeps.
He was not one of them.
There was something subtly different in his gait as he stepped out of the train; ‘The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope’ in one hand, a brown envelope in the other.
“Come, Abelard! for what hast thou to dread?
The torch of Venus burns not for the dead.
Nature stands check’d; Religion disapproves;
Ev’n thou art cold — yet Eloisa loves.”
The train doors slid shut.
Note: Derek is a leap-year baby who is currently reading law. He is single but not available because his mum thinks that he’s too young to date. Follow his frivolous, inane and meaningless tweets at @derekqiren.”.