By Parson Thru
Find myself sitting opposite a dangerous-looking man, all big bones and wiry sinew. His eyes have a strange grey luminescence about them like a shining alien breed, but are heavily hooded for such a young man. They constantly roll sideways. He has the most amazing assortment of tics and spasms as though on strong anti-psychotics. Not a good way to be. Not a good place to sit. But I have little appetite to move.
I get off the train at the next stop, which happens to be my stop anyway, to wait for my connection home. I walk down the platform and find a place to sit on the end of a bench around a corner, from where I can watch the waiting cluster of commuters with its scattering of pretty shorts and legs. A girl sits at the opposite end of the bench reading. I take out ‘On the Road’ and settle in, listening to the Doors and commuter watching.
After a few minutes someone decides to squeeze into the gap in the middle of the seat – obviously someone without a personal space hang-up. I look up from my book. It’s him. I recognise the striped jumper, the ill-fitting jeans, the dirty white plastic trainers now splayed out in front of him as he leans back in the seat, trainers rocking and rolling to their own music. His head and shoulders jerk involuntarily. It’s him. The words on the pages of my book are too blurred to make out. I keep half an eye on the commuters to maintain an unmoved air and half an eye on my companion. I wonder when he will start the conversation and how I should pitch my reply. I have to reply. Not dismissive but not overly friendly. Not inviting. Nothing memorable.
He holds his large hands halfway out in front of him and stares at the back of them as they tremble. He turns them and stares for a while at his cracked palms. What have those hands done? What might they do? Hard labour, low paid? Girl-friend beaten up? Or complete stranger? Do they write? He suddenly stands up, jerks something on a blue lanyard out of his jeans pocket. I strain to see what it is – see what he might do next and then tense myself for flight without thinking why. I assume that the girl, who has remained in her seat, is doing the same – subtly. Is this about to turn into the big moment for us all? He grabs at the end of the lanyard. It‘s a mobile phone. He slides it open, presses a couple of keys, stares at it for a while then shoves it back in his pocket, striding off back down the platform and around the corner out of sight.
The train arrives. I look up and down at the queue for each carriage door and, though he would be easy to miss in the mêlée of people jostling for position and barging off the train with cases and push-chairs, I can’t see him. Maybe he hasn’t taken a shine to me after all. But he has to be going to our seaside town – it just seems right somehow. It’s where all the crazies seem to go – me included. But there is no sign. I step up onto the train, shuffle slowly and patiently on down the carriage like a gassed Tommy and flop down into two empty seats. Tommies continue to file past. I put down my coat and bag on the floor and wait. No sign.
He has to be on this train somewhere. They hold about 800 people. Why shouldn’t he be on it? It stands to reason. I wait. No sign. The train lurches and moves off, sliding past the emptying platform, left now to scavenging gulls, amorous pigeons and a man with a whistle in his mouth. My man isn’t among them. I settle into the journey, reading and watching the free nightly show of private lives moving past outside the window with gathering speed. I filter out the familiar announcements and keep a weather eye on any comings and goings along the aisle. I consider lifting my bag onto the seat beside me but can’t face joining that breed of mean-spirited Thatcher’s Children who depress me each day by denying a seat to brother and sister travellers using bags, knees and anything else they can shamelessly spread at the side of them. I would rather take my chances.
Each time the train slows and comes to a stop I scan the platform. Maybe he is visiting one of the villages. Probably seeing a mate in the council maisonettes on the far end of the village, or his parents – an unannounced visit for a feed and some cash. I watch. The train moves off. I press my head against the glass to get a glimpse of the people walking down the footbridge. No sign. He must be on here still. He must be going to Linton. He has to be.
The train slows again. Familiar buildings. The guard hopes that we all had a pleasant journey and apologises for something or other, then asks us to make sure we take all our belongings when we leave, as this is the last station stop. He makes it sound like there will never be another. I wait until there is no one else to come past my seat and make for the forward exit, stepping down onto a platform busy with trippers heading back down the line to the city, and tired returning commuters oblivious to the pleasures the trippers are reluctantly leaving. I expect to walk headlong into him in the confusion of the platform, or in the swirls and eddies of the ticket hall. I push through the door and out into the evening sun keeping my eyes skinned.
I make regular checks over my shoulder as I walk from the station into the town, bracing myself for him appearing on my blindside as I tread through the supermarket car park and on through the narrow streets beyond. Once or twice I fancy that I see his grey striped jumper, or catch an involuntary spasm of the shoulder or head among the crowd. I press on, crossing roads without waiting for the traffic signal, still feeling pursued. Somewhere he is out there, and he has latched on to me – taken a shine. What does he want? Does he see something of himself in me? Does he see something of others? Something that he despises? What is it? And what made him suddenly lose interest on the station platform, stand up and stride off into the busy interchange? I keep looking over my shoulder and realise that the Doors have been playing to an empty hall for the last half hour.
Rounding a high stone wall, I come to the entrance of my apartment block. I make one more check over my shoulder and get my keys out ready. I open the main door and walk quickly in, watching the door close behind. I feel a growing sense of relief and open the mailbox. Nothing. Not even a circular. Up the stairs and I fumble the key into the lock and open the door on my loneliness – dark, still and empty. Inviting as an open grave. I lock myself in and check that the door is secure, hanging my heavy jacket on its hook under the fuse-box.
I push open the bathroom door, turn on the light and damn-near shit myself. There in the halogen glare he stands, framed by shining white tiles and neat towels. Staring right at me from the back wall - unmistakably him with his crazy grey eyes and lost look. Even as I watch he begins a spasmodic jerking tic with his head, his shoulder moving involuntarily in asynchronous disharmony. We gaze into each other’s soul – puzzled, weary. I stifle a scream, embarrassed that I might be heard by the neighbours, take a last despairing look at the troubled man in front of me and turn on my heel. Quickly unlocking the door I run down the stairs and out into the dusk. Down on the street I don’t look back but walk and walk and walk to nowhere in particular. Tears of confusion are welling in my eyes and rolling down my cheeks. Fear is building in my heart. I cross the road and head away down the hill. I walk into the night. I look over my shoulder. No sign.