written by Megan Stephens
edited by Lauren Wood
The train whirs, not quite quietly enough. The sky outside is dark but the birds are singing. It’s the in-between. He shifts uncomfortably, smoothing the creases in his suit. Some might say it’s not worth it, riding this 4am train every day, but the money’s good and he gets let off early. He can always sleep later.
The girl is there again. He doesn’t see her every day, but it’s near enough. In a strange way, his day is better when she’s there, proving that he’s not mad. Or maybe he is, but then at least so is she. Her head is tilted, resting against the window, like usual. Her night-out make-up is slipping down her face: the eyeliner smudged, the lipstick cracked, spots of it missing. She makes no move to fix it. She never does.
She always sits the same way: cross-legged on the train seat, resting one hand on her bare ankles whilst the other holds her outrageous heels– different every night, but they may as well be the same. He’s never seen her wearing shoes, only letting them dangle loosely from between her fingers. He wonders why she always chooses heels, since she obviously never makes it to the end of the night in them.
She leans her head against the cold train window, hoping that this time it might sober her up. She can’t let her eyes close though; like always, she fears that her dizziness coupled with the train’s motion might make her puke. Instead, her eyes drift over to the man, the only other passenger on this madness of a train.
He’s always there, whenever she is, dressed in a pristine suit, looking alert and ready for anything, the exact opposite of how she feels. She wonders why he’s here, like usual, with as much focus as her drunken mind can muster.
‘Why d’you always wear those?’
Her eyes blink sluggishly before refocusing on him. She stays silent a moment, the nonsensical thought playing in the back of her head that he might not be talking to her. But, of course, there is no one else on the train.
‘What?’ she answers. Well that was eloquent.
He shifts in his seat, becoming uncomfortable. She guesses he’s just realised the enormity of what he’s done: speaking to a stranger on the London Underground.
‘Your shoes.’ His hand flutters as if to gesture to them, but then he hesitates. ‘I mean, you always take your heels off, I guess because they hurt, I wouldn’t know, and I just wondered, well, if they’re that bad, why don’t you, I mean, wouldn’t it make more sense to, wear something more, uh, comfortable?’
She pauses. She doesn’t really know how to reply, doesn’t even know if she should. Of course, she’s seen this man many times, every time she’s caught this train in fact, but that doesn’t mean she knows him. She’s thought about him, true, inventing all kinds of reasons for him to ride the 4am, all kinds of lives he might lead. Sometimes she’s even imagined talking to him, telling him her story and hearing his. She never believed it would really happen.
‘I don’t know,’ she answers. ‘I guess I’d never really thought about it like that. I mean, I only take them off after I’ve left, so…’ She shrugs. ‘I guess I just figured no one noticed.’
There’s a challenge in that. She knows it, but she’s waiting to see if he’ll realise. He bites his lip, and she worries she’s made him too uncomfortable. Was it mean? That wasn’t her intention, and she starts to regret her answer, but, after all, he did choose to talk to a complete stranger after 4am. He’s lucky she’s not a maniac.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, dropping his gaze. ‘I suppose it is rather… strange that I’m commenting on it. I didn’t, um, I mean…’ His words trail off into a nervous laugh.
She feels sorry for him, having to deal with her hostility. After all, wherever she is, somewhere halfway between drunk and hung-over, is clearly not where he is. He’s probably just trying to liven up his morning. And any morning which begins at 4am deserves some livening up.
‘I didn’t think it was strange.’ She stops as she recognises how blatant the lie sounds. ‘Well…’ She searches for something honest that will soften her attitude from earlier, something to let him know she’s not angry with him for speaking to her.
‘I just wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.’