The Fri­day Train

The Borneo Post - Good English - - Front Page - by Louise Doughty

I HAD taken my seat on the train a clear five min­utes be­fore de­par­ture. The 17.17 to Wok­ing filled up rapidly but I had, through my own prompt­ness and good or­gan­i­sa­tion, gained a dou­ble seat.

It was a Fri­day night, the fug in the car­riage thick with the body heat and poor odour of des­per­ate com­muters, shak­ing wet macs from their shoul­ders, shov­ing bags on to the over­head shelf, snarling into phones. I acted fast, un­clip­ping the lit­tle table on the empty seat be­side me and plac­ing on it my neatly folded news­pa­per, my minia­ture bot­tle of wine with a plas­tic cup and a box of cheese and crack­ers.

These things are the treats that sig­nify an end-of-the­week com­mute for me. It is very im­por­tant to sig­nal a Fri­day, I al­ways think: and it’s the one day of the week when I re­ally care about hav­ing a lit­tle el­bow room. I placed my brief­case on the empty seat be­side me, which now did a very pass­able im­pres­sion of a full one.

The train had only just jerked free of Water­loo when a slen­der woman in her fifties ap­proached my seat - I had al­ready un­screwed the lid from the minia­ture white wine and poured some - and said, slightly im­pe­ri­ously, “I’m sorry, is any­one sit­ting here?”

I had a strat­egy ready. I al­ways do. I had a strat­egy when I needed to sack half of my depart­ment last month and an­other one pre­pared when I needed to rid my­self of a plump and self-pity­ing first wife two years pre­vi­ously.

I gave a heavy sigh and then said, in tones of ex­quis­ite po­lite­ness, “Oh, I do apol­o­gise, just let me move my be­long­ings.” At which point, I be­gin to make heavy weather of lift­ing the plas­tic cup and pour­ing wine very slowly back into the minia­ture bot­tle.

Most peo­ple take the hint, and so did she. “No, it’s OK...” she said, and con­tin­ued down the car­riage.

As we flashed through Vaux­hall, I set­tled back, lift­ing the plas­tic glass a frac­tion in a toast to my clev­er­ness.

I toasted too soon. I had scarcely low­ered the glass when a man whom I can only de­scribe as a blanc­mange squeezed his way along the gang­way, stop­ping as he drew level with me. I looked up at him, a huge soft moun­tain of a man with flesh spilling from his stom­ach over his hips as if he is wear­ing one - no, more than one - of those chil­dren’s rub­ber rings that pre­vent them from drown­ing.

He looked down at me, heavy-jowled and hu­mour­less, through bot­tle-thick glasses. He didn’t even speak, merely ges­tur­ing at the seat be­side me.

I did the busi­ness with the wine, slowly, re­placed the lid on the plas­tic box, fum­bled with my brief­case for some time as it is rather large to jam be­neath my legs, and the whole time, the soft moun­tain man stared down at me, his breath­ing laboured and harsh through his half-open mouth.

He had the sort of lips my fa­ther would have called “in­side-out lips”. My fa­ther could not abide over­weight peo­ple. Their size told you ev­ery­thing you needed to know about them, he said. I have a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion I may have re­peated that to my first wife.

The vast, soft man eased him­self into the seat with­out apol­ogy. His flesh spilt over the arm­rest be­tween us. I could feel the heat from his pil­low of a thigh. I squeezed my­self close to the win­dow, try­ing not to think that I was be­ing pun­ished for my re­fusal to let the small, slim woman sit down. As if to rub it in, when we pulled in at Clapham Junc­tion, I saw her strid­ing off down the plat­form. I had no doubt that blanc­mange man next to me would be with me all the way to Farn­bor­ough.

It be­gan 10 min­utes later, a crack­ling and screech­ing sound be­neath the train, as if it had run over some planks of wood and the driver was ap­ply­ing the brakes. How quickly it hap­pened, yet how slowly. I glanced across the aisle at the other pas­sen­gers, look­ing at their faces for clues. The cou­ple sit­ting op­po­site looked stricken.

Then I saw that, in front of them, a woman had ex­tended her hand across the aisle to an­other woman. Two strangers were clutch­ing hands. The odd­ness of this is what I con­cen­trated on as the train lifted it­self from the tracks and took flight.

I heard noth­ing then, no screech­ing or scream­ing, just an odd and empty si­lence, a sen­sa­tion of weight­less­ness, a white­ness to the air around me, and for some rea­son I thought of my first wife’s scream as I told her she would lose the house and the blank look on the face of one of the men I sacked and then the fat man thud­ded into my shoul­der, as heavy as a sack of flour, and I was buried be­neath him, and I thought how, if I had al­lowed the thin woman to sit down next to me, I would not now be crushed be­neath a man who has prob­a­bly led a mis­er­able life and is about to die a strange sort of death, twirling in the air in a train car­riage that is be­ing ripped open like a tin of pilchards.

Strangely, there was no fear, and no re­gret, merely the brief thought of some­thing else my fa­ther said: “What goes around, comes around.” I was in that mo­ment rounded off, as it were, per­fected, com­plete.

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