September 2015 – close shave – The Stare by James Williams

The Stare

by James Williams

It was Friday the third of June, and the hottest day of the year so far. Having spent a long work training day in London, catching my train back to Cambridge had been a close shave and I found myself sitting cross legged and uncomfortably hot on the floor of a vestibule between two coaches of the train. The windows in the doors were pushed all the way down, and the hot sticky air of outer North East London billowed in. The throb of the train’s hot diesel engine was reflected back into the windows in varying volumes and tones, as an endless grey display of shabby buildings and overhead cables raced past the window against the hazy summer sky.

There was a girl sitting opposite me. She gazed deep into the screen of her smartphone, occasionally brushing her dark hair away from her face against the breeze. She was attractive, I thought, but she looked miserable. I spent a few moments wondering whether this was how she looked always.

I could see the speech bubbles of a conversation on the screen of her phone. I stared, trying to form the shapes into words, but I couldn’t read them. There was nothing else left in the vestibule for me to look at though, and as I continued she must have felt the heat of my gaze and she looked up, catching my eye. She looked on for a moment as I glanced away blankly, but I could feel her eyes on me and I turned back. “Can I help you?” she said.

“Sorry?” I replied innocently, as if waking from a dream.

“You were staring.”

“Oh, well I was, just sort of zoning out …this train, you know, it’s so… hot and the… noise!

She wasn’t buying my hopelessly ill-conceived cover story. To complete the picture of guilt I had painted, I followed my clumsy reply with a nervous laugh, drawing the embarrassment of the situation to a tense peak. She looked at me through narrowed eyes for a brief moment before looking back down at her phone.

“Thank God for that” I thought to myself, judging that I had diffused the situation, and I turned my attention back to the overhead cables with relief. A few moments later I heard something else.

“Hmm.”

I looked down; she was still focused on her phone. Had she just said ‘hmm’? Was it directed at me?

Trying to make sense of the situation, I reasoned that she must have been thinking aloud to herself, and I quickly looked away lest she caught me looking for a second time. A moment later she spoke again: “Do you have a fun weekend planned then, Gary Maxwell?!”

I felt shock spread across my face when I realised that she knew my name. She had spoken in a tone inflected with sarcasm, as though to imply that it would somehow be wrong for me to have fun. She was looking directly at me, and I paused anxiously before I replied “do I… do I know you?!”

“Huh, well I should bloody well think so” she said, turning to look up at the window. My mind was now engaged in a frantic race to remember her. I felt myself beginning to smile inanely as the silence became increasingly uncomfortable. Gently shaking my head, I stumbled into a sentence that I had no idea how I would finish: “I, erm… I don’t think…“

“Really?!” she interjected, “well that’s just you all over isn’t it, Gary?! You don’t think!” Her last three words were laced with venom. There was no doubt left to cling on to; I was going to be told off. I must have upset this girl quite badly at some point, but how?!

I began to suspect the worst: I must have forgotten her because I’d been horribly drunk when we met. I must have upset her in some moment of drunken indiscretion that my conscious mind had censored from my memory. My heart pounded. My palms were sweating. In desperation, I blurted out an apology: “I’m really sorry!” I said earnestly, holding my upturned hands out in front of me, “I… really can’t place you, how do we know each other?!”

Saying nothing, her serious expression turned to a broad smile and she began to laugh, tilting her head back as a breeze blew in from the window, buffeting her hair. I began to smile a little too, though I didn’t know why and I suspected my relief might be short lived.

She began her reply: “I was sitting on the floor of this train today, and this guy was staring at my phone, quite rude actually…”

As she spoke she was interrupted by a loud, distorted announcement that the train was now pulling in at Broxbourne. When she heard it she stood up, still smiling as she picked up her things. A queue of other passengers was already forming behind her ready to alight, and as soon as the announcement ended I implored her again as I looked up, “OK, I said I’m sorry about that but seriously, how do you know me?!”

As she stepped through the door of the coach and on to the platform, she shouted over her shoulder: “You might want to take off your lanyard!”

And with that she disappeared, laughing as she went. She didn’t always look miserable.

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