The air is stale and tinged with the scent of sweat and overly sweet perfume. Every breath into the lungs is damp and warm, unsatisfying. Strangers cram together listening to the squeal of breaks as they curve through the tube tunnel or the overly loud conversation of the few who will talk. Many think of dinner or TV. Or bed.
A man stands at the end of the carriage, faded black shirt and black jeans, hands in pockets, wavy greying hair flopping into his eyes. He stares ahead, lost in thought, and sways with the motion of the carriage. A couple nearby sit side by side, absorbed in conversation about a friend. She regularly tosses her blonde hair, legs crossed and angled towards him, hand on his knee. He leans back, relaxed and smiles into her eyes. Further down the row sits a small asian woman reading the evening paper. She opens it so wide those on either side of her have to lean away. One of them tries to surreptitiously read over her shoulder. He sighs when she turns the page too soon.
At Victoria Station a gaggle of tourists enter, large suitcases awkwardly manouvered into position near the doors, getting in the way. They chatter in swift Spanish punctuated by rambunctious laughter. A sandy haired man nearby, half asleep, frowns slightly as he opens bleary eyes to look, then closes them again.
Finally – through the crowd – pushes a tall middle aged woman who stands near the occupied seats. Her brown hair flows softly around her face in waves and her lips are carefully tinted in a delicate rose pink. Her willowy, hourglass figure is accentuated by a tastefully fitted above the knee skirt and patterned silk blouse. She stands, somewhat uncertainly, on strappy silver Jimmy Choo’s.
Joanna looks down at her heels and attempts to slide her foot further back in them, annoyed at so much toe poking over the end. She hates wearing heels and reserves this pair for special occasions. They give her calves a great shape. The closeness of the people standing nearby makes her feel smothered. Studiously avoiding the gaze of other passengers she stares at the wall. ‘Struggling to concieve? Desperate for a family of your own? We’re here to help. Phone: 070…’ Adverts for IVF, job agencies and travel insurance stare back at her. Having read each of them twice she struggles to find somewhere else to look.
A middle aged man in glasses , eating a snickers bar, flicks his eyes up and down over Joannas body in a way she supposes he thinks is subtle. She nervously tugs at her skirt. Shouldn’t have worn such a short one. His eyes are magnified behind thick glasses. Shifting her gaze from him she discovers magnified eyes everywhere. She doesn’t like standing here, pressed up against strangers, wobbling about on her heels every time the train makes a sudden move. It must be obvious she never wears heels. She must look ridiculous, like a child playing dress ups. Subconsciously she smooths the new silk blouse, bought especially for tonight. She shouldn’t have bought it. It’s too low cut. Joanna tries to avoid the mans gaze. This is ridiculous, they’re just clothes, perfectly acceptible, carefully strategised but not-too-revealing clothes.
What if she’s got the balance wrong? It’s been so long since she’s dressed in any way resembling sexy (which is wasted on her husband). Perhaps in her excitement she’s gone too far. Does she look slutty? Is that why everyone’s looking at her?
Do they know?
The train arrives at Green Park and blessedly a third of the carriage population spills onto the platform. During the chaos Joanna slips, with some relief, onto a seat feeling a little less exposed. For the hundreth time she licks her lips then realises how dry they are. Opening her little black evening bag she rifles through it for peach flavoured lip balm which she applies liberally. Can’t have cracked lips. Nobody wants to kiss dry lips. Dropping the small tube back into the bag she spots the white plastic card and takes it out. No distinguising marks, just a white card with a black metalic stripe. No number, no address but she knows where she’s going. She repeats the number in her head like a mantra 251, 251, 251, worried that she’ll forget and look like a fool. Imagine him waiting while she tries every door without success. With each mental repetition she spins the card between two fingers mumbling to herself, 251, spin, 251, spin, 251… now the blonde girl is staring at her too. What ever happened to NOT looking at people on the subway?
You can learn a lot from someones shoes. Muddy black combat boots, sparkly red heels, mutli-coloured sneakers, striped sandals, white dress shoes with navy blue socks. She looks up. The white shoes belong to Glasses. He’s moved down the row of seats so he’s sitting immediately opposite her. He grins at her as he takes a bite of his snickers bar. She begins flicking the edge of the electronic key with her thumb nail and looks sharply down again. Black dress shoes, combat patterned sneakers, tan heels with a cork sole, red sneakers with odd socks, black ballet flats with black socks. This is NOT a good idea. Oxford Circus. More people enter, squeezing close to her, hands gripping the yellow metal pole right at her eye level. Chipped pink nail polish, age spots, a ring.
Joanna stares at it. Elegant gold with tiny diamonds inset. In need of a good clean. She rubs her own temporarily bare ring finger with her thumb and looks away. The heat is opressive. Sweat is breaking out on her brow and the back of her neck. She can feel a drop slip down between her breasts. Eyes are magnified everywhere, a teen nearby blasts pop music through his headphones, shoes shuffle, Glasses keeps on chewing and grinning, the tourists continue to laugh. She catches the odd phrase, sus zapatos’… ‘provocativo’…’ Are they talking about her? The electronic key is now being spun with great speed, smoothly slipping through her fingers from one corner to the next. Joanna looks around the carriage. ‘In case of emergency’ sign, too many people crammed into the space between the doors, teenager almost falling onto her lap. She stands suddenly and pushes through the crowd not even bothering to appologise as she stumbles into other passengers as the train lurches around another corner at speed. She gets to the door just as it pulls up at Warren Street Station. The doors open and she’s away, marching inelegantly along the platform. She skipps a little as she slips her feet out of the shoes whilst still walking.
Inside the carriage a teenager picks up a rectangle of white plastic from the seat, checks if it’s a credit card and drops it on the floor before sitting down.
This story arose from the stimulus sentence ‘Key on a crowded train’ which was given in a writing group I’ve just joined. It was a challenge to think of a story at first but I really enjoyed getting into the descriptive writing once I got going. First complete short story I’ve written since uni, about four years ago, so a valuable experiment!
Many of the details were things I observed on trains around that time. Unfortunately, the man with the Snickers bar was real and I was the one he kept staring it. Made me quite uncomfortable but excellent for analysing the feeling in order to write about it!