Train Ride

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:


If not now…

If not now…
He was sitting in his chair reading when the doorbell rang. He closed the book; put it on the side table, stood and went into the hall.
Weak late evening sun shone through the stained glass inserts. He brushed his arm against fabric of the over-crowded coats and pulled the door open. “Evening, George,” he said extending his hand. They shook. “Come on in,” he added. “Do you want a cup of tea? Or would you prefer coffee?”
“Coffee would be great, thanks.” They made their way down the hall to the kitchen. He got out two espresso cups and their effete saucers and placed them on the table. They sat on the wooden chairs.
“What’s the news, George?” George seated himself opposite him. “Nothing with me.” He took a sip of the espresso. “We’ve missed you at High Table, you know. Is it true? Are you really going to go ahead with this?” He grinned. “Of course. Quite excited actually. Nearly all packed and everything.” He drained his espresso and put the cup back on the saucer.
“If you say so, old boy. I was just wondering if this was the right time…”
“I think it’s the perfect time. I’ve always wanted to work out there. The position is an enticing one, Providence has more coffee and doughnut shops per head of population than any other city in the US.” He smiled. “Got to be the perfect time.”
George thought for a minute. “But without Sophia, I was just –“
“Sophia’s not here, George. There’s nothing I can do about that now, to misquote Willie Nelson. No, no, Providence, Rhode Island, it is for me, I’m afraid.”
“Well, at least you’ll be able to indulge in your bizarre country music taste over there. I’m still not convinced that you can satisfactorily be a professor of history in a country younger than this cottage.”
He gathered the cups and set about getting out a bottle of iced water from the fridge. “Stuff and nonsense, George. We’ve just been working in this cloistered community too long, that’s all. I’m looking forward to it, I really am. Besides, I can’t help thinking that Professor James Pearce, Chair of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at an Ivy League university has a nice ring to it. Now, do you want a real drink?” George nodded. Pearce went to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine. “Last one we’ll share of these for a while, unless you and Sara want to come out and visit me.”
“I’m not sure that Sara is really a doughnut and coffee shop type of lady, I’m afraid.” He drank. “How long is it going to take you to settle in? Surely you’re giving yourself a long lead in time?”
“Brown have set me up with somewhere in an area called College Hill, which sounds appropriate, if nothing else. But I’m not going straight there anyway. I’m meeting an old friend and taking a trip to Alaska.”
“Alaska? You truly have lost your mind. Since when have you been a mountain man? Do you even own any tools?” James laughed. “None whatsoever; just some welly boots and a pair of gardening gloves. But… Well. Sophia and I had planned the trip and I thought, what the hey. I’ll go anyway… Changed days or not.” They sat in silence for a moment and regarded their glasses. Pearce coughed. “I’m flying to Fairbanks, meeting my friend and then renting a, what do they call it? An “RV”, I believe. Driving up the coast to a charming destination called “Deadhorse”. We shall be fishing in the Arctic Ocean, camping in the woods, avoiding Sarah Palin-alike ‘soccer moms’ and driving back after three weeks to take a flight to Seattle. From there, I will be driving in my own quiet way to arrive in Rhode Island after a lazy 2,500 miles give or take.” James nodded. George reached across the table and wrapped a hand around the wine bottle. He poured a healthy glug. Then he took out his pipe and tobacco and began filling the bowl. “What will you be fishing for?”
“I can’t say I know really. Largemouth bass, I expect.” George puffed at the pipe. He ran a hand through his whitening beard.
“Isn’t the Largemouth bass found only in southern states such as Georgia and Florida?” James grinned at him. “That will teach me to gently mock a don of Marine Biology, won’t it?” George laughed. He pushed the bottle back across the table. James said, “Actually, I have no idea what I’ll be fishing for. Lucinda hasn’t specified what fish are available up there. I think the trip is more important than the destination. Her husband recently died and I think, by the sound of it, she’ll just be grateful for the company.” Now it was James’ turn to re-fill his glass. “Will there be many Pleustonic organisms for me to investigate while I’m freezing to death in the frozen wilds of the north?”
“Shouldn’t have thought so. They don’t many Portugese Man-o-wars up that way.” His pipe had gone out. Pearce bustled off to get an ashtray from the back of the cupboard. George said, “Who’s Lucinda?”
“A college friend of mine and Sophia’s. Was anyway. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
“Is she American?”
“God no. She’s from Basingstoke. An environmental scientist, as far as I know. How she ended up getting stationed in Alaska to track hectograms of animal feed or some other such ghastly project, is just something I shall have to discuss with her during the hours on the road. I’m certain it will be a fascinating tale.” George looked skeptical. “Was Lucinda coming on the trip with you and Sophia?”
“Of course she was, George.”
George busied himself with packing away his pouch and pipe. George coughed, “What’s your first topic of research when you get there?” Pearce brightened. “Ancient History of China 101. Paleolithic carbon dating, the use of fire by homo-erectus and the history of the Xihoudu in Shanxi Province right through both the Yellow River and the Yangtze River valleys in the Neolithic era. Not a bad start to the semester for drunken undergrads and credit seeking miscreant sophomores, I wouldn’t have thought.”
The wine was finished and George rose and pulled on his coat. James got up and placed the glasses on the sink and the bottle in the recycling bin.
“And you’re sure this is the time, James?” Pearce bowed his head and looked at his feet. He straightened and moved the glasses into the sink. “I’m sure. Thank you. Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis, and all that. Now is the perfect time, I think.”
They walked down the hallway to the door. The streetlamps had replaced the sun. At the door, George turned to say something. Instead, he put his hand out. James shook it.
“Take care, George. I’ll see you soon.” George nodded and headed out into the night.
James turned and headed back to his armchair and book.