The 17:15 had one seat left. Tattered, and coloured in the paint factory explosion beloved of rail company liveries, it was tucked against the wall with an embarrassed air.
Tinny music leaked from cheap headphones seeping from behind her; an old woman tutted. A mother could be heard explaining why the train hadn’t moved. Two men in expensive suits spoke in incongruous accents about West Ham’s defeat.
Her shoes were off, balancing on the hardened edge of the seat. The must rose through her tights and she took off her glasses and massaged her temples in a clichéd pose.
She looked at the window. The smear of forehead grease, the nicks and scratches of countless tree branch scrapes and dashes. There was mould around the loosening putty of the frame and a creeping fog of condensation between the two glass sheets in need of replacement.
She scrabbled through the detritus of her bag for a book and she clutched at the bag as it nearly slipped, threatening to scatter tampons, lipstick, pocket book and purse onto the floor.
She heard the automatic door and began shuffling her feel, trying to tuck them back into her slip-ons.
He was tall. Tall, like he had to duck to move through the door, tall.
He raised an eyebrow of permission.
She opened her book at the same moment as the bells pinged. There was the three ring blast of closing doors and the train began to chug out of the station. She was self conscious now. He had wonderful eyes. She opened the chubby novel and shifted in her seat. She chanced a glance up from her page and saw this he was reading his newspaper, casually folded in on itself.
‘If it’s the Daily Mail, I’m giving up on men once and for all and visiting Sapphic island, that’s all there is to it’ she thought.
The newspaper was a curve ball. She had hoped for The Guardian – at best – at worst The Independent, if one really must take a newspaper fashioned in a dolls house. Obviously no one took The Times now it only came in comic size. But the International Herald Tribune was a surprising selection. American? Possibly.
The train ambled on. The motion not soothing enough for sleep, nor uncomfortable enough for complaint. She looked out the window. Darkness had drawn in whilst she’d been indulging her taste for amateur media analysis and now she was back to the harshness of her reflection, backlit by the firefly strength bulbs of the carriage.
She knew that he was watching her. Is it an animalistic, danger signal left over from prehistory that makes us sense being watched? Whatever, he was watching her so it would pay to check that her nose was clean and that her blouse hadn’t unwittingly fallen open.
She shuffled her eyes to the left and met his eyes in the reflection. They glistened even in the smudged reflection of the South Central service window. She risked a look directly across at him. He still held her gaze. Smiled.
It was a good smile. Well judged. Not sleazy or louche nor honed and practiced to the point of confidence. His teeth were white enough to be attractive without speaking of masses of expensive cosmetic dental treatments and evenly spaced enough to be right, but not so regulation as to speak of teenage anguish and slurred sibilance.
She held his eye for a flirtatious fraction too long and went back to her book. When next she peeked up, he was sunk in his crossword. Yet she knew he was looking up too. A mating dance of apprentice peacocks. She wanted to fan herself like Elizabeth Bennett and be witty and coy, yet seductive at the same time. But wit, coyness and Jane Austen never feature highly on public transport so she, once again, returned to the novel.
As the adenoidal voice of the announcer gibbered the imminent arrival of the train into South Ruislip, she realized with horror that he was preparing to get up. He was fishing for his battered briefcase and pedantically clipped the lid back onto his fountain pen.
He caught her eye, stood and ducked as he moved through the panting of the automated door to wait for egress. Continuing on to West Ruislip, and the end of the line, she went back to her novel. From across the carriage, she watched the tall man bob his head as he walked briskly along the platform.
Idly, she reached across for the orphaned Herald Tribune which lay lazily folded on his still warm seat. She wondered how well he’d got on with the crossword. She frowned. He wasn’t as methodical as she’d have liked. Words were in the boxes but no clues had been scored through to denote completion. Very ill disciplined.
In the boxes, block capitals spaced evenly between horizontal and vertical, were the words:
“YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL. I SHALL NEVER FORGET YOU”