The train is heading south and I stand between carriages. My hand rests on the open window and darkness rushes past. Trees are rigid against the moonlit sky. Smoky clouds are ghost like. A man on the floor gawps into a glowing screen, the blue glare illuminates his oily face.
Passengers are crammed in seats. Legs stick out into the aisle and bag straps dangle from overhead shelves. A dark haired girl walks down the aisle. She passes me, quiet with wary eyes. Her T-shirt ends at the belly button, clinging onto her small waist. Baggy tracksuit bottoms are filled by a round bum. I wonder if she is wearing them to accentuate her bum or to hide it. I conclude that she probably just likes the tracksuit bottoms. She ducks into the toilet and the door slams with the shuddering of the train.
My legs are apart, knees bent. The train rocks and wobbles, loose under my feet. The toilet door is firmly shut. I plan to smile as she walks back. I picture her squeezing a smile back and walking on. I beef out the plan with the idea of saying hello whilst smiling. Picturing this, it goes well, a nice little scene.
The grey door remains shut and unmoving. It seems firmly closed compared to other doors. Perhaps because of the way it fits so tight to the frame. Pressing hands deep inside pockets, I stretch my arms and run the scene again. This time it doesn’t seem fluid. The idea of waiting outside the toilet puts me off. My smile is forced, unnatural and the scene is jarred. I create another one, her queuing at the café and me behind her. Nobody listening in. Me asking where she’s from. This one seems good.
The grey door pops open as if barged from inside. With head down, she turns and closes it. It slams with the jolting of the train . She walks straight up to me and asks which way the café is. Her face is long and gaunt. Black hair hangs past her shoulders. Smiling, I point and say it’s up that way. I press my eyes into hers and she presses hers back. They are deep black globes. She thanks me and smiles. I watch her track suited bum swing down the carriage. The material has tiny cotton balls clinging to it from over washing.
The train gallops through the night. It sways as if barely connected to the tracks. On the floor, the man’s laptop is propped on his knees. He presses his face into the glow of the screen, headphones trail from each ear. No sound comes from him; no sound reaches him from outside his glowing world.
I give it a minute. Tail-ending her to the café would be too full-on. When I see her head bobbing down the next carriage, I pursue. Striding down the walkway, I grip the tops of seats with long, swimming motions. Passengers glance up and back down. I cover a few carriages until at the end of one, people stand static with shoulders sloped.
There is no movement so I turn and wait between carriages. Pushing the window down, I breathe in cool, black air. I peer down the carriage.
She walks back up the aisle with a paper cup. Her presence surprises me. I knew she needed to get back to her seat but somehow didn’t expect her to pass.
‘You made it,’ I say as she gets close. She looks up as if she didn’t know I was talking to her.
‘Oh, Yeah. Took me like an hour to get back though,’ she eases away from me.
‘Well I’m about to experience that myself,’ I force a tight smile onto my face and can’t think of much else to charm her with. She smiles and walks on.
Heading back down the train, I look into the faces. All seats are taken. Families sit at tables with gaping crisp packets and squashed juice bottles. Men stare into the windows, cans standing at arms-length. They watch objects dragged into the distance, lights swept away and forgotten.
Every black-haired head I pass, I check the legs for the tracksuit. I spot her. On the fold out table in front of her is a thick book, open with sentences highlighted green. I pass by and return to my seat.
A man is in the seat beside mine. A rim of grey hair circles his shiny, bald head. In front of him is a can of Carlsberg on a folded napkin. He gets up to let me in and I clamber into my seat.
Looking straight ahead, he says from the side of his mouth, ‘there’s been a few competitors after your seat.’
‘We’ve been fighting them off for you,’ chirps a northern woman from the seat in front. Immediately, I picture her to be fat with short blonde hair.
‘They can get pretty vicious,’ I say.
They both chuckle cheerily and I hope they will not talk further. The man picks up the can and tips it to his lips. He places it back carefully in the middle of the square napkin. His arm moves slightly. He is getting ready to talk. I turn my head and stare at the window. His reflection is clear in the metallic blackness. He’s a funny looking man. Small, monk like.
I pick up my own reflection and imagine what people see when they meet me. It must be different for them. They can’t see what I see. The familiarity of my face must have warped the image I see. A train passes on the adjacent tracks and my face is gone. A blur of yellow light races past. The trains are sucked towards each other and I feel the release as the last carriage whips by.
A few sentences into my book, I flop it down and let thoughts rush to my head. I decide to stand between carriages again. Firstly, I prefer this area. Limbs can move and cold air can be breathed. Secondly, the girl may walk past again and I can try to engage her in a longer conversation. I shift my body to get up and the monk stands unhurriedly. He smiles stiffly as I step into the aisle.
The carriages are hot and fetid. Passengers sprawl. Red faces talk loudly over cans balanced on tables. The last hours of the journey drain away.
I stand between the clattering carriages. She is alone, languid in her seat. Her skin is dark and I wonder where she is from. This will be my next question.
The metal connecting the carriages is covered by folding rubber. As we round corners it shrinks and grows like a wheezing accordion. I rest my back against it and feel it folding in and out. Down the carriage, a child lifts strands of dark hair, giggles and lets the hair fall. I can’t make out if it is the girl’s hair or not. A child could add to the complications. Squinting, I see the hair belongs to a woman in the seat behind her.
A stream of passengers enter and exit from the carriages. The doors hiss and slide behind them. Like the blind, they wobble their way to the toilet.
Entering London, the buildings tower over the train. They stare down with power, yellow eyes dotted all over. The passengers have begun to shuffle from stupors. Children are wrapped in jackets. Bags are lifted from racks and flabby midriffs flashed.
The station ceiling is high and echoey, the lights dazzling. The train looks slim for the amount of people spilling out of it. They drift down the platform, loud on their release. I face the flow of passengers and wait. The air is cold, fragments of passing conversations rush to me. I wonder if she has left through the other end of the carriage. She can’t have, she was too close to this one. People brush past me and I feel stupid standing against the rushing crowd. I begin to hope she has left through the other door.
Then I see her stepping through the crowd, hair long, body shorter than it appeared on the train. I nudge her and she looks delighted to see me. We walk down the platform and I hover over her, hands dug in my pockets. My questions stumble over hers, we talk about people being friendlier up north. Each sentence peters out into nothing. She tells me she lives in Euston and we part at the tube entrance.
She stands there looking at me, wheelie bag in one hand. I ask for her number.
She says, ‘No’ and keeps looking at me, then says, ‘I’m not…’ and walks off dragging her wheelie bag.
Photo of Azuga Station in Romania by Rupert Wolfe Murray