I catch the train to work most days. It’s quicker and cheaper than driving, and uses less fuel, which serves my environmental conscience well. Occasionally, I even nab a seat and immerse myself in another world.
But not yesterday. Yesterday was grisly. When I made it home alive, I nutted out this little piece.
I rush to the station, dodging passersby and hit the escalator. A young woman, a student perhaps, stands perfectly still on the right hand side, oblivious to the rules. In front of her and to the left, is a man slightly older with thongs on his feet, toenails too long and a rats tail peeking out from beneath his cap. I can’t move, so I wait. At the bottom, I swerve around them both and stride through the ticket gate. Beep and I’m through.
The anonymous voice at the station announces the train will arrive in five minutes. Five minutes to plough through a few pages of my latest read.
A rush of air declares the arrival of the train, the doors hiss open. A hurried few exit and I join the queue to enter. The train is only half full and I find two seats by the window. Perfect. This time of day is so unlike the morning cram, with someone’s elbow in my back or worse, cigarette breath on my neck.
I take a seat and place my laptop bag beside me as the doors ding, close and we pull away.
This is not my train.
Just as I return to my book, I hear a rasping behind me. A sucking of air in between teeth. What is that? I try not to turn, but can’t help myself and turn my head the tiniest of fractions to glimpse a man behind me. I can’t see his whole face, just the blurry edge. Slightly greying with a round face. He either has a breathing problem, or he’s plotting my death. I suspect the latter. He breathes too loudly through his nose, then sucks on his teeth and lips, letting out a ‘Vff’ sound that leaves me imagining Hannibal Lecter. I clutch my book and bag closer, and clench my jaw.
Seconds pass with the breathing escalating, then it gets worse. He cracks his knuckles, places a hand on top of the seat behind me and I can feel him lean forward, watching me.
Tap, tap. I’m here, he says, with his fingers on the top of the seat.
I take it as a warning and inch forward a fraction, holding myself in, even my breath, wanting no part of me, even my exhaled air, to be near him.
I chance a look to my left. An elderly man sits with a straight back, hands loosely clasped in his lap, like waiting at a doctor’s surgery. Behind him a young man with earphones in is curled over, his face planted into a black backpack. At first, I think he’s asleep but then notice the tinny din of music escaping from the tiny contraption in his hand. Is that how he copes? Momentarily, I wish I had headphones too.
Only two more stops.
Him breathing, sucking, leering, and me, staring at the pages, unable to read.
As the train slows, and the brakes screech on the track, I grip my bag and dash to the door. An elderly couple sits in the priority seats, grey slacks, grey hair and wrinkled hands holding on to each other. The lady offers a smile as though enjoying the ride, and I can’t help but smile back. I like to imagine they’ve been on an outing of sorts, with cups of tea and cake. The train, their freedom.
The doors open and I hear the rasp of breath behind me as the man exits too. I quicken my pace, navigating my way through the crowd and across the bitumen until I reach my car, and know I’ll be grateful for the freedom one day too, but not today.