It’s unusual to get a table seat to yourself at rush hour. Maybe this is the good omen I’ve been seeking since I got up this morning.
This particular day has been so long coming I expected to be more prepared. But I found myself stalling as I got ready to leave. Mouthwash completed a few extra circuits of my teeth. A series of lipsticks took their turn. Earrings came and went. As I looked in the mirror one last time, I was caught between the desperate need to look perfect and become invisible.
I could just not show up.
It is a choice.
Even now I’m on the train I could get off again and return safely home, nothing changed.
I edge into the worn seat and arrange my newspaper, coffee and croissant on the table in front. My handbag containing the letter lies against my thigh like a curled cat. It’s not often you get an actual letter now. The world communicates in pixels, ephemera etched in steam on a window and as oblivious to privacy. However, its message couldn’t be more solid or personal.
The last passengers tuck themselves into vacant slots, working hard to remain alone. Belongings occupy neighbouring seats, papers lie scattered over whole tables, and gazes lock onto devices or the view out window.
The door alarm announces departure. It’s too late to disembark so I twist the plastic lid off my coffee cup and a plume of steam smears my vision. I trace and retrace the first paragraph of the front-page story on my newspaper, but the words won’t take.
A telephone call followed the letter. It was a stilted conversation, so much to say that words could never articulate.
The train slips from the clutches of the city and begins unzipping the arable countryside beyond. Outside the window, the weather reflects my uncertainty: it may snow yet there’s a glimmer of sunshine struggling through the slated sky. My chest churns.
I return to my newspaper, but the pages resolutely refuse to give up their message, and I resign myself to eating and thinking. Immediately I regret my choice of breakfast as small puffs of powdered sugar and pastry flakes erupt with first bite, spattering my carefully selected outfit. I dust off the worst and pull the paper half off the table as a napkin.
The refreshments trolley battles past and I look up and shake my head, chewing hard on the gooey mess. Even a swill of coffee cannot compensate for the dryness of my mouth and I abandon breakfast.
Just thinking it is, then.
It was literally a lifetime ago.
I look round the carriage as I sip my coffee. Most of my fellow travellers seem to be working, bound in suits and pecking at keyboards. There is one old couple bent in towards each other, sharing occasional quiet words. Their day’s provisions are divided between her oversized carpet bag and a well-used plastic bag on his lap. They look like they wouldn’t remember a solitary life, but I wonder how many secrets each keeps from the other.
I turn to the word puzzles hoping that, if my fragmented thoughts can’t cope with full sentences, they can tolerate single clues. The crossword is cryptic and my brain refuses to twist accordingly. Fifteen minutes later, I have managed to fill only two sets of boxes with train-rattled letters.
I put my pen down and turn back to the window. The overcast sky has transformed the glass into a dull mirror and I study my reflection. My hair is shorter now, a neat bob replacing the unruly length of my youth. The opaqueness of the dirty glass flatters the lines I know are there, but the eyes meeting mine look tired. I tilt my chin up slightly and turn my head left then right, pushing at the loose fold of my jaw-line.
The letter pulls me back again. My thoughts are a moon trapped in its orbit. I concede defeat and reach into my handbag. The worn gum of the flap gives easily, and I pull out the stiff cream paper, disturbing the paper-clipped photograph on the top left-hand corner. I shift it back into place with my thumb. Resting my coffee cup like a comforter against my lower lip, I stare once more at the words and picture.
At the beginning, barely a minute went by when I didn’t think about it. Then it was several times an hour. Then just a few times a day, then a week. The amnesia of survival is a powerful force.
Now it is fresh again.
I return the letter to its sleeve and push it back into my bag. Others in the carriage are starting to pack away possessions, reach for jackets, and I realise we are almost at our destination. The final stage of this journey has passed quickly.
The gravel voice of the tannoy confirms the final stop and again the heat surges in my chest. There is a tremor in my hands as I pull on my coat and wind my scarf around my throat. My fingers scrabble for the straps of my handbag as adrenaline scrambles the circuits of my nerves.
All other sound is muffled by the crescendo of my pulse as I wait for the carriage to open. A final electronic beep and the doors pull apart. It could be the opening of the cargo doors on a plane as I free fall, without parachute, onto the station platform.
Through the turnstiles, I scan the crowds under the clock. And then I see him. The same face as the one in the photograph, a younger version of the one I watched in the muddied glass of the window. He looks in my direction and I raise my hand to give a hesitant wave. For the second time in my life, I look into the eyes of my son.
Hybrid writer-scientist, Sheila Scott likes turning idle thoughts into short narratives and illustrative doodles. Her work has been published in Edwin Morgan 100 Anthology, Postbox, Cabinet of Heed, Causeway, Ellipsis Zine, ELJ, Flashback Fiction, Bangor Literary Journal, Poetic Republic, and Morton Writing Competition. Her intermittently hyperactive Twitter account is @MAHenry20.