April 4, 2015


Born in Scotland and lived in Iran and London.

The Woman On The Train

    In a tube within a tube, people sped through the dark, oblivious to the traffic and the weather on the surface.  In the rush hour, if the system was functioning properly, trains followed each other in quick succession, one pulling out of a station as the next pulled in, each packed with passengers, disgorging then embarking, transporting them in swaying, rattling discomfort, to and from work and home.

    At about a quarter to five on a Monday afternoon, a man moved unhurriedly to his forward-facing corner seat by the window in the next to last carriage.  There was never a rush to board at his station at this end of the platform unless trains had been cancelled.  He always sat either in this seat or in its twin across the aisle if one was unoccupied.  With a glass partition behind and a window to one side, it was the least exposed in the carriage and that allowed him to relax.  When it was taken and he had to sit elsewhere or what was worse, had to stand, a sense of irritation would ride along with him for the whole journey and sometimes would persist beyond its end.  After fifteen years, the routine that organised his working day had infiltrated other areas of his life as well.
His work was completed with the day’s output neatly filed and locked away in his cabinet ready to be actioned the next morning.  He had passed yet another eight hours sitting at a desk (his education and his intellect guaranteed him this) with papers, pens, a personal computer and a schedule of tasks to perform.  His job did not stretch him.  All that was required of him was to bear the repetition and, in order to retain his sanity, to make a virtue of it.  Technology had removed the physical toil but he was as tied to the landscape of his office as ever a peasant was to his fields and to the seasons.  His reward, which was not inconsequential, was the knowledge that he could continue to service the large mortgage and sustain a comfortable lifestyle -  two family holidays a year and private schools for his children.
Five days a week for weeks, months, years, this train had taken him to work and brought him home again.  All the emotional twists of his life had taken place outside these eight hours and these viewless journeys.  At some point, unobserved, age had stolen up on him.  The crushing boredom of that routine coalesced into a single, all-encompassing image of his sitting there in that penultimate carriage - a nullity that occupied the central part of each of his days.
    The doors closed, acceleration was swift, the platform was left behind.

His tall, thin angular body fitted awkwardly onto the seat, his briefcase squeezed in against the side of the carriage, his umbrella upright on the floor.  He looked around at the familiar mix of people - workers from offices, workers from building sites, students, school-children, tourists.  Many had newspapers or magazines or books - a barrier against thought.  Sometimes (when the world beyond these metal walls had pressed in too tightly on his own), he too would buy a paper to keep his self at bay during those long, empty minutes of the journey.  This time he did not need such a defence.  He pondered, or rather his mind idled - over faces, reflections, slipping vacantly from one to another, inventing conversations with them, with himself, dramatising, developing situations until the heat and the closeness of the carriage caused his eyelids to drop and he dozed.
    He awoke with a start as the train jolted to a halt.  They were in a tunnel between stations.  Expecting a delay, he was about to close his eyes again when he caught sight of her.  She was sitting diagonally opposite him - with red hair tightly coiled in ringlets which shrouded her head.  Drowsiness left him as he gave her his complete attention and the other occupants faded from view.  She scanned a couple of fashion magazines, skipped pages, put them away.  She took a personal stereo out of her handbag and he was pleased that, when she switched it on, he could not hear it.  Very carefully, she looped the extra wire back into her handbag and listened - eyes open.  She had a calmness (serenity was only for madonnas) and a deliberation about her movements.  She wore nail varnish and red slashes of lipstick which reminded him of his wife and an earlier generation's imperatives.  Her hands stayed clasped in the lap of her black skirt.  The skin of her face was smooth but her demeanour indicated she was no longer a teenager.  Occasionally, their eyes would meet.  He hoped to elicit an opinion from them but waited in vain for that mysterious chemistry to manifest itself.  Her breasts, her legs (those talismanic regions) were hidden but her face, with its wide bow of mouth, and that demeanour excited him provoking, not for the first time, the rueful thought about what might have been.  He got off at his usual station.  She sat on.  Her image faded before the domestic necessities of the evening.

    On the Thursday of that same week he saw her again.  Her hair was black now - though still in ringlets.  The lipstick was still vivid.  Her eyes seemed brown.  A sliver of white blouse peeped through the parting of her fake fur-trimmed, full-length brown leather coat.  But it suggested nothing.  He mused over her reflection.  Was she married - no ring?  Did she have a man?  Did she want one?  Her glance offered him no clues.  She was just another person going home from work.  He got off as usual: she sat.  After this double coincidence, he began to look for her. On the next occasion, he received confirmation that she got on at a particular station as he glimpsed her walking along the platform as his train blasted into the tunnel.
    And then there was a gap.  She entered his mind instead of his life, flitting through his speculations.  He invested in fantasies about snatched, cosy evenings after sex, of Greek island retreats ending in -os underneath an azure sky where he could revisit hot dreams of youth in a relationship illicit and futureless - an antidote to the iron rhythms that governed his existence, dividing him up into rigid compartments as husband, employee, father and  son and decreeing that he should be moderate and dutiful.  These virtues now retreated, without protest, into the background.
Her absence heightened his infatuation.  He dissembled, to his surprise, easily.  He began to ensure that he left the office exactly on time to match his departure with hers and, if he had a choice between his two seats, he would always take the one closest to her platform - to give chance the best chance.  No more was in his power.  Yet he expected to see her waiting there every journey and felt let down when she was not.  Then a panic seized him - would he ever see her again?  But perhaps she was just sick or on holiday or else she had changed jobs and the city's vastness would never relinquish her.  He would have to learn to be patient and to hope.  
    But she reappeared.  His panic vanished.  He thought he knew what he was doing again.  She was sitting in the rear carriage and he saw her through the glass in the connecting door.  As the train came up for air then stopped at a station, he got out and quickly slipped into her carriage.  He found the only seat left, by the corridor, facing her and a section behind.  Constrained by the atmosphere of his surroundings, he could only exchange glances but, because the distance between them was greater than before, they were held for longer and, after one, he saw her look out of the window with an ironic half-smile.  All he could do was to look and receive without flinching.  Did she know that he had switched carriages?  He wanted her smile to mean that she did.  He felt himself being drawn under her spell and would have to, when the occasion presented itself, dispel his growing tension.
    The next time was the next day and he was to be disappointed.  The train was more crowded than usual.  He had a corridor seat.  He could not see her through the crush on the platform.  Then, she was swept in with a mass of bodies through the centre doors and shuffled along the corridor towards him to make room for even more.  But she was not alone.  She had a girlfriend with her and he heard her voice for the first time.  It was low with a faint hint of London.  There was another surge of bodies as the doors closed and she was forced a few feet further along.  He turned his head and inches from his face, where the coat had been brushed open, was her tight, black-skirted thigh.
           "Would you like a seat?" he found himself croaking.
    Hardly looking, she declined.
    At the next stop, the seat across the aisle from him became vacant and her friend slid into it while she continued standing.  As she leant forward to whisper something confidential she bent her knee and the slit in her calf-length skirt widened and he caught sight of her leg - tanned and shapely.  He averted his gaze abruptly but the image speared his imagination.  He looked around, trying to appear casual, but no one else seemed to have shared his revelation.  At a later stop, she sat down beside her friend.  They continued to chatter and, during the rest of the journey, she never once looked in his direction.
He felt his marriedness hang down around him like a stale-smelling cloak.  Lines were etching themselves into his forehead and his black hair was yielding to white.  It would be many years yet before she would have to confront such erosion.  He slid his right hand over his left as surreptitiously as he could to hide his ring.  He felt a nagging unease about his status.  He had had his passion years ago.  He had made his choice and had never regretted it.  To try and cross the divide of the generations now with neither wealth nor fame nor plastic surgery as an excuse was absurd.  He had all but resigned himself then, as he alighted at the end of his journey and turned to walk up the platform, her eyes raised and caught his through the window.  A gratuitous look.  He was more puzzled than angry as his inner protestations of acceptance of his lot were swept aside.  He would have to speak to her now.
    But again there was a gap.  His winter holidays (booked and paid for) were soon to be upon him but - there she was! - in the rear carriage again.  Not too many stops from his own (in case it all went wrong), he moved into it.  This time she sat in the row of seats along the side of the carriage.  There was a spare one beside her.  As he drew level with it, the train gave a sudden lurch and he fell onto it.  The conversation he had planned disintegrated.  He forgot all his lines and froze.
Would she mind him speaking to her?  It was a lame beginning.  But too much pounding of the heart made clarity of thought impossible.  She removed her earphones as if she was expecting him.  Now, close to, he saw that her eyes were grey.  Where had the illusion come from?
He asked about her place of work.  In the department store near the station she got on.  Yes, she enjoyed it.  Her voice was very low and remained disinterested but polite.  In the cosmetics section - Estee Lauder to be precise.  She started at half past eight and left at five - used to be later.  The train drew closer to his stop.  She had worked there about a year.  The pauses and the banalities continued.  She asked nothing about him.
    What should he do?  He might never see her again!
“Would you like to come for a drink with me - sometime?”
             “No thanks,” he thought she said.  Assumed it.  Stared out of the window opposite at reflections.
    His station!
            “I must get out here.”
            “No problem.”
    The train braked smoothly to a halt.
Awkwardly, imagining her gaze boring into his back, he stepped up onto the platform.  Humiliation pursued him out of the hissing doors.  As he walked along, hunched against the north-east wind, age rose up to chastise him.
It said: you cannot do this anymore.  Time has made you strange here.  To her, if she is kind, you are a curiosity.  Her cruelty would make of you an alien.


Total Pageviews