Back when I was at University, I spent a year living in Exeter, England. I know I went to lectures and wrote papers and did the typical student stuff you have to do while taking classes, but the things that stand out to me are the experiences I had outside of University.
I think the one that stands out the most happened on a trip to visit a flatmate and her family over Christmas break. Caroline (another flatmate) and I were coming back to England after a lovely visit, and were both exhausted. We were in a private compartment on the train (I felt very Alfred Hitchcock/40’s movie) settling in for a long ride back. Then, suddenly, the door opens and a slightly breathless man steps inside. His dark hair was ruffled like he’s just been running, and his gaunt face shiny with sweat. He wasn’t much older than we were, but his eyes were deep and brown, and full of sadness.
He immediately started chatting away, and my friend pretended to fall asleep, leaving me to talk to the guy. (Thanks, Caroline!)
As he talked, I discovered that he was a refugee from Bosnia and had left his family in the war-ravaged country to escape being pulled into the war several years before. He was very talkative (I don’t think he let me say more than three or four words) and the conversation was a bit awkward, since you never know how much to believe from a stranger on a train. But when he told me of his sister, who’d been raped and beaten by a soldier. And of his mother, who’d been devastated by the attack, I could hear the truth in his voice.
And then he looked at me with his sad brown eyes and said. “When you’re published. You must write my sister’s story. People must know what has gone on in my country.”
I think I must have gaped at him for a full minute. I’d never said a word about being a writer, or even an English major for that matter. (I’d barely said anything at all!)
And then one of the conductors came into our compartment to check tickets. Big surprise, our visitor was a stowaway, and they hauled him out of the train and threw him off at the next stop. I never saw the man again, never even knew his name. But his words have stayed with me for 12 years.
When I’m published, I will write his sister’s story.
photo credit: Matthew Black