A crush. Not a real crush. She's hardly touching me, but it feels like a crush. It's all the people and the busyness and the hurry as we jostle and push our way down anonymous institutional corridors, coloured only by posters for films we will never see and art galleries we will never visit. And then burst onto a platform devoid of trains. All the rush wasted. We stand, nobody talking, nobody seeing, a flock of individuals, bound by and denying a common purpose, defying the overtly loitering suggestion that there are others there. They are other passengers, not fellow passengers. They are not like me. I have to get home/back/out/through/in. They are just passengers. I am above that.
The distant rumble of a train. The doubting until the last moment that it is for you. That rush of air could be from the other/up/down line. And it's coming from the wrong direction. But it comes none the less. The doors open, and people spill out, looking imperiously over the heads of the waiting throng. Who wait. Patiently. Obeying unwritten rules, or maybe heeding the urgings of an unseen subterranean commissar. "Let the passengers off before boarding." "Move right down the train." "Stand clear of the doors."
And then the crush. The more imagined than real but still suffocating crush of people. Each with his/her own preferred place and way to stand. Each trying not to touch or push up against the next; avoiding acknowledgement of one by the other. Trying to keep a bubble of self in the swaying sea of people.
By the crowded door the sudden heave makes two hands grab for the rail.
The slim fingers with pale grey/pink nail varnish make first contact, automatically curling around the cool steel and starting to tense as the arm arrests the unwanted movement of a slim body in unanticipated motion.
The larger, heavier fingers land a moment later. They start to grip, but after a few milliseconds the as yet unconscious brain registers the feel, not of cool smooth metal, but of warm pliant skin. An instant reaction to let go starts to build, but is defeated by the need to support a lurching frame. In the unequal compromise that follows, the hand grips the soft flesh, hard enough to feel the delicate bones beneath, but not hard enough to check the momentum of manly bulk, off balance and losing the fight with gravity. A second hand flies up and grabs the only other support, the female arm, clad in dark green and anchored by the strength of its own slim fingers and by the added friction from the masculine grip forcing and deforming them.
The physical contact filters through her consciousness, signals racing along nerves and between neurons. The central executive, recognising an unexpected and unanticipated situation, but as yet unable to categorise it, struggles to force sense. She goes through, in turn, tactile sensation, pressure, pain, surprise, fear, annoyance. The second assault is registered on her arm, and the cycle starts again. She reaches, a second after the first contact, realisation. Then a brief relapse as the emotions rush around again before settling, with annoyance dominating for another second before understanding and acceptance begin to establish themselves. Her face tries hard to keep up with the changing instructions it receives, but, limited in reaction speed by its physical existence, only manages to portray a confused mess of all the conflicting emotions.
It was all over in a moment. He looks up, his face a mixture of relief at being upright and the embarrassment at the social flaw of having contacted and even hurt the girl. A girl he had been impersonalising and ignoring a moment before. He's burst her bubble. Forced her into the open. Destroyed her cover. He's sorry. Guilty.
She looks up and round, and registers her assailant for the first time. Eyes meet, and the confusion of emotions wells up again. But she smiles, the softness and contrition in his eyes reassuring her and pushing her fear and anger down. The smile washes through him. "She's all right." "I'm forgiven."
The bubbles are burst. Acknowledgement and communication are possible. Unavoidable. "I'm sorry" stumbles and trips past his lips. He takes a breath. "I'm so sorry." Slower, louder, more controlled this time. "Are you all right?".
She smiles again. "I'm fine. Don't worry about it. I've had worse on the tube before."
An uneasy silence returns, deafening against the noise of wind and rumbling wheels. Their eyes break contact. They don't talk again. Each unwilling to violate the other's silence. But they both think. Glances are cast and external appearances assessed and weighed.
"She's quite pretty. I wonder what she does. Smart suit. Expensive. Nice bag. Laptop in it I guess. Travelling to Waterloo. Like me. I suppose. Hasn't come from the city. Married? Can't see her hand. Yes I can. No. Not married. Or no ring anyway. Be nice to have someone to talk to on the trip home. What did she mean "I've had worse on the tube before." Worse what? Men falling off balance and using her for support? Grabbing places less acceptable than hands and arms? Hope her hand is OK. She said it was. She's rubbing it now. Arm felt very strong. Maybe because all her muscles were tensed. Sounded confident and strong. I wonder if she's getting off at Waterloo. See in a moment...."
"Ooch. My finger aches a bit. Hope it's OK. Not his fault. Genuine accident. He couldn't have faked that face. Crestfallen, guilty look. Wonder what he does. About my age I suppose. Middle ranking professional type. Fit. Firm grip! Pity about his balance. Not interested in me. Perfect opportunity to chat. Lost. I couldn't. Not now. Too embarrassing. For him. Never mind. Lots more fish in the sea. If only I could catch one. Where are we? Embankment. Waterloo 2 minutes. Should get the 1746. Home by half seven for once. Quiet evening at home. Wonder where he is going. Be nice to have someone to talk to on the trip home."
"She didn't get off there then. Must be Waterloo. What's the time? Should make the 46. Won't see Mike then. He'll be another half an hour yet. Could give him a ring. Wait and have a beer. Naah. Get off home. Cool glass of wine. Or three. Take-away on the way home maybe. Quiet night. Need it after today."
They meet their Waterloo. The doors open and she steps out ahead of him and without a backward glance drives into the surge on the platform. He looks her way, but she is gone.
"Damn. Could have smiled a goodbye to him. Liked him. Hope he doesn't feel too bad. Forgotten it already I expect. Never mind. Can't see him. Should be quite close."
He goes through his daily panic as he tries to find his tube ticket, and finds it in his shirt pocket. Carried along by the crowd, all trying to outdo the other, he boards the escalator. He sees her on the other escalator, high above him. She looks round, looking, but she doesn't look his way. For an insane moment he feels like waving, but embarrassment quickly stifles ambition, and he just looks up at her, hoping her eyes will fall his way. They don't.
[To be continued?]
He spots her again a couple of times as they snake their way towards the surface, but loses her. The hustle and bustle compete for her place in his concentration, and she slides to the edge of his mindview. As every other evening he feels a jealous pang as he sees people diverting from the main flow to go into the Eurostar terminal. Lucky buggers. Paris. Warm nights sat in cafes, watching people drift by. Soaking up life, ambience and pastis in equal measure.
"What's the time? When does it leave? Where are my tickets? God I wish I didn't have to go to Paris tonight. Of all nights. A long planned evening, anticipated and eagerly awaited. But no, it's Paris. Again. And I hate going at this time of night. By the time I get there I'll be knackered. And alone. I hope she didn't take it too badly. She didn't sound too happy on the phone. She is used to me being thrown to the corners of the earth at short notice, but it isn't often that she comes up to town to meet me after work. At least I've got my favourite hotel this time. But still..."
He crosses the upward rush of people, untidily brushing into a woman in dark green coat, her case catching his shin. He swears, hesitates, stumbles, but then swoops almost gracefully forward, regaining his balance and poise as he enters the Eurostar complex. She turns to see if he is OK, but he does never knows it, and is gone.
"My day for contact with strange men. In all the wrong ways. Sorry. He didn't even look back. Wish I was going to Paris. Like him. Or even with him. Or Brussels. Or anywhere. Rather than Croydon. Just for a night. Or two. Or for ever."
The open boulevards and squares of Paris rolled around her mind, and the smells and freedoms of time and space made her smile inside. But as she emerged blinking onto the concourse at Waterloo, the dark wash of a lonely evening ahead seeped into her, as it often did, clouding the Parisian skies. She was getting better at things, and she usually managed to fill her days with work and tell herself that she was doing fine and that life was on the up. And she would analyse it to death and conclude every time that it could never have lasted and if it had it would have got worse and not better. And she had told herself that a quiet evening in would be just what she wanted. And it was. But still...
Now instead of raising her spirits, Paris's ghosts stood behind her and glared, teasing her from the Eurostar terminal that she was retreating from. The vista of Eiffel's ironwork mocked her over her shoulder as she wandered to platform 12, where her train was waiting to take her back to her quiet evening. The high roof of the atrium seemed to close in on her as she went, her world shrinking from the imagined endless expanse of a Paris evening, first down to reality and then continuing to contract around her, reducing her world to a tunnel that went from here to a small one bedroomed flat in south London, surrounded by but cut off from homes full of life, alone and desolate in a social desert teeming with people.
As usual the train was filling fast, and she weighed up the option of grabbing a seat, and having a mass of people hovering over her, forced to stand too close to her by the crowds, or standing and getting tired, but at least able to gain a little space. As she pondered, the last seat in sight was taken by a woman looking far too smartly dressed to be travelling in this mess, her satin and silk contrasting with the worn red and grey seat covers and the grey rush of evening commuters. So she stood, swaying and jerking with the movement of the train, pushed and shoved at every stop as people got on and off, and invaded her space. She began to wish that someone would slip and grab her hand and arm. And his time she would talk to him, wouldn't let him escape so easily. The journey home was only twenty five minutes, but the sky was dark, the people unheeding, her legs aching, her head low.
He took a seat and unfolded the paper, trying not to stick his elbows into fellow travellers. His customary evening challenge began. How much of the Times crossword could he get done before he got to East Croydon? He had never finished it. Not in twenty minutes. But he loved trying. This was the intellectual highlight of his day. The chance to block out the rather unpleasant crowded train and immerse himself in words and ideas and half remembered connections, a challenge to him from the compiler, a gauntlet being taken up simultaneously hundreds of times, all across the country. The compiler's role was partly functional, and partly entertaining. The functional part was to fit the requisite words into today's symmetrical black and white map. But that was easy. A computer could do that. The compiler's real role was to entertain, to conjure up clues that would nearly defeat the reader, but not quite. To throw in jokes and puns that would make his readers smile, or even chortle, as they pitted their wits against the printed text. Number in a hospital. Broken orchestra pulling a wagon. These were old friends, occasionally resurfacing, like an unexpected but welcome face in the crowd. Friends known only to a small crowd of enthusiasts, buffs, aficionados, fans, devotees, fanatics, thesaurians.
"Bastard! BASTARD!! BAAASTAAARRRDDD!!!! Tonight. Of all nights. Paris. I should have gone with him. Couldn't. No passport. Hope he has a terrible time. And that the train is late. And it rains. And the hotel is overbooked. No, that won't happen. Juliet will have sorted that for him. Hotel booking. Eurostar ticket. List of phone numbers. Programme for tomorrow. Briefing pack. Contract notes. Juliet will have sorted it all. Efficient Juliet. Juliet the angel. Juliet the saviour. Attractive Juliet. Gorgeous bosomy slim good looking long legged well dressed friendly smiling short skirted Juliet. Always there when he needs her. Meeting his every need. Bastard."
The train slows, complains twice at the points, and heels as it pushes slowly round the curve into East Croydon. Then it stops, still leaning slightly. She leans in sympathy against the glass in the corridor, letting her body ease against the cold window, and looks out at the uninspiring scene of dirty victorian engineering triumph, greying under the darkening February evening sky. She sees oily concrete sleepers, fluorescent but cheerless graffiti on walls stained black by years of smoke, rubbish shifting slightly in the cold breeze. Dark cold metal rails, just reflecting the dim glow of the lights in the carriage.
A plane passes high overhead, heading for Heathrow, full of tired businessmen who will get home later and claim to have had an awful trip. Some of them will be telling the truth, knackered after hard work, long meetings and an inexorable flight in the cheap seats. Some will be lying to try to assuage their guilt at having enjoyed a week away while their faithful wives have coped alone with the children, long evenings in front of the television and quiet lonely nights. Some will be lying to cover up torrid affairs with secretaries. Some will be wishing they had the chance. Or even a secretary. Some will return tired, but happy to be back in the bosom of their family and their spouse. Some wives will welcome them in, some will barely glance up. Some will scowl at his being two hours late. At least one, with well practiced smile, will ask if her husband had a good time, confident that all traces of the previous night have been erased, and that he will suspect nothing.
Turning her head she looked again into the goldfish bowl of the first class compartment