I’m waiting for the train to Kings Cross. Music in my ears, eyes on a book. Double senses stifled. I hardly notice the woman who sits down beside me until I smell smoke. The clogged odour overpowers me. I resist the temptation to turn and inhale deeply. The woman wriggles into her chair, nudging me with her elbow. ‘Sorry!’ She leans forward as though about to caress my arm, then stops herself. A gesture of intimacy snuffed out before flowering. I give her a furtive glance. She has a layer of thick foundation on her face, clinging to tiny hairs on her skin. The make-up has hardened in between her wrinkles. Her lips are dry and brown like cracked earth. Her nostrils are shaped like kidney beans. Startled by her knock, I shrink back into myself.
I’m now on the alert, my hand rests nervously on my book. I twist my body away from her, the hood on my coat a cotton shield. Am I really that rude? I can hardly believe my snobbery. But there is something painful in looking at her. The bitten plait of hair, grey strands shooting through it. Her long grey overcoat reveals nothing. Or is it something more? Something about the way she looks down at her mobile phone, and then back up to me. The vulnerability of her watery yellow eyes remind me of the inside of a tomato. Her need for my attention sort of disgusts me. She is baiting the moment. She wants to talk.
I have a chance to leave. To get up and walk along the platform, to detach myself from this unsettling woman and wait for my train in contented silence. But I don’t move. I’m too distracted to read. I know if I tried the words would just swim around in that stubborn way they have sometimes. I can’t listen to music now. We have acknowledged each other’s presence and it’s too late. What if she tries to talk to me?
‘What’s a harness?’
I twist back around.
‘A harness- what is it, lovey?’
When I hear her voice I think of gravel. Is this some sort of sexual reference? Is this what sick people do when they forget their book? I look at her.
‘Sorry…I don’t know what you mean.’
Her hands are trembling as she moves them closer to me.
‘Here. Look at this.’
It’s a text message. From the dreary screen of her beaten Nokia 3310, I can make out the words: ‘You are extremely powerful and able to live your life the way you want to. You just need to harness the power within you.’
‘He’s changed my life he has.’
She takes a deep breath, overcome with pride. Whoever ‘he’ is, I can sense her tenderness towards him.
I shake myself out of a trance. I can’t look into her eyes, so instead I focus on her kidney bean nostrils. They’re so small. They have a sort of beauty to them. I find myself wondering what my nostrils look like. Do people look at mine too? Maybe that’s what life is, now - endless encounters with people and our mutual contemplation on each other’s variously shaped nostrils.
I want to say, ‘this is star sign bullshit’, but instead I say, ‘A harness… it’s something that draws something in. Something that traps.’
I watch, as this piece of information sweeps across the woman’s face. ‘Oh of course! Of course, that’s what it means! Oh I can be a silly cow sometimes, lovey. But he really has changed me for the better.’
I give the best smile I could, training my eyes not to look her up and down.
The woman looks down at her porridge coloured coat. I see a faint redness in her cheeks.
‘Not right now, at this moment, of course. But in the long run, when I get home, I mean, things will change.’
‘That’s good.’ I’m embarrassed by her embarrassment, and wish the train would come and relieve us of the responsibility of talking.
The woman trails off, and the overbearingly polite voice of familiar anonymity floods the station: ‘First Capital Connect to London Kings Cross. Calling at London Kings Cross only.’
I can be by myself again.
‘At last…’ I say in mock exasperation. I rise from the chair but the woman shows no signs of moving. I approach the train, press the ‘open door’ button, and take one last look behind me. She’s still there. Something guilty in me claws its way out. Was I too cold?
‘Aren’t you getting this train?’
The woman’s eyes are glazed and dreamy. She makes the same half-affectionate, half-dismissive gesture with her hand.
‘Oh no lovey, I just wanted to chat really.’