Commute (Part 1 of 6)
Janet didn’t like Mondays.
She didn’t like them one bit.
This was the thought that often paraded insolently at the very forefront of her mind every Monday morning as she stood on the cold, windswept train platform waiting for the 7:29am to arrive. Her home town had only one train station, and it was unmanned and small. This meant that the only protection from the elements provided by the train company was a small metal shelter on each platform. Sometimes Janet was able to squeeze in there, and sometimes she was not. Janet thought that it might make an interesting study on territoriality to observe how jealously some people guarded what they perceived to be “their” bit of space inside the grubby little shelter. It was as if some secret auction had been held when Janet was not there and every last inch of each shelter had been sold to the highest and most zealous bidders. Janet didn’t have time for that kind of petty and silent passive aggressive commuter politics, so more often than not she left them to it and stood out on the platform, reading her latest book.
It was a cold and grey October morning, but mercifully it wasn’t raining, so Janet didn’t have to even think of entering into the realm of the silly little shelter fiefdoms that both amused and irritated her. She quietly read her book, trying not to think too hard about the stack of work left over from last week that would be smugly sitting on her desk when she got into the office. She looked up as the tinny and disingenuous voice of the station tannoy told the assembled commuters that the 7:29am was running five minutes late that morning and that they were sorry for the delay.
Typical, thought Janet.
After five minutes of more reading and occasionally stamping her feet to try and keep the cold out, the train pulled into the tiny, forlorn station. Janet looked with more amused irritation as several people stubbed out their cigarettes within full view of the various notices that reminded commuters that it was an offence to smoke on the platforms. She also observed, as she did on practically every train journey that she took, that many of the people on the platform crowded around the train doors before anyone on the train had managed to get off. There were a lot of things that annoyed Janet about her work commute, and most of them were the other commuters.
Janet waited for the usual dance of people trying to get off the train while others tried to get on at the exact same time to end before boarding the train herself. She found an empty seat next to a window and settled herself in for the monotonous journey into the city. There were four more stops to make on this line before everyone would disgorge at the main city station, making their individual ways to work or wherever, not caring who they hit with their bags or whose feet they trod on. Janet knew that she was not the perfect commuter, no one was, but the fact that she had noticed the various forms of inconsiderate behaviour of the average train passenger meant that she now saw it everywhere, and it drove her up the wall.
Janet continued reading as the train made its ponderous way through the faint morning mist. She reached the end of the chapter and replaced the bookmark to keep her place. Janet still had just under half of her journey left, but she preferred to leave her book at the end of a chapter, she was a bit of a perfectionist like that. She looked around the carriage at the assembled faces, most of them groggy and still waking up. As always, there was the all-too familiar click clack of someone seemingly working feverishly away on their laptop: another annoyance. Janet didn’t doubt that this person was quite probably busy, but she had always felt that you made a certain kind of statement by working on a laptop in a public place. She felt it smacked of trying too hard, and she smiled to herself at the thought that this morning’s laptop user could just as likely be checking their Facebook or playing Minecraft. People often made Janet laugh.
The train rumbled on its way and after a short while the motion of the carriage began to lull Janet into a doze. Her head rested against the window and her eyes closed.
Tap tap tap.
Janet jerked awake with a start. Someone had tapped the window, but as she looked around, receiving some curious glances from the people sitting nearby, she couldn’t see who could have done it. She looked at the man sitting next to her. Had he leant over and tapped the window she would have felt him press against her. She looked at the woman sat opposite her. It was possible that she could have tapped the window, but why? Janet looked out of the window and saw that they were still a good ten minutes away from the final destination, so Janet didn’t need waking up by any of her fellow commuters. Plus, the city station was the end of the line, so there was no chance of Janet missing her stop, and all of the hustle and bustle of people getting off the train would have woken her up.
So who had tapped on the window?
Janet continued to look about her with an air of confusion as she gathered her things and left the train. She made brief eye contact with a few people, but no one made any acknowledging motions or said anything about tapping on the window. Janet wondered on it for a few more minutes as she joined the throng on the platform, but by the time she walked out on to the street and began heading towards her office it had been pushed to the back of her mind. Once she was immersed in her day’s work, it was completely forgotten.
* * *
The following Monday came around, as Mondays always will, and Janet found herself once again standing on the platform waiting for her train. Again Janet had been denied a space in the shelter by the fact that it was already crammed with other commuters by the time she arrived at the station. She wondered to herself if some people got up ridiculously early on purpose just to stake out a bit of space in the hallowed realm that was the platform shelter. A light drizzle was making its insistent presence known, so Janet was too busy holding her umbrella to be able to read, which annoyed her. One of the only things, if not the only thing, that made her work commutes bearable was the fact that she was able to get through the seemingly endless list of books that she had promised herself she would get around to reading one day. Not being able to read of a morning didn’t set the day up well, in Janet’s mind.
The train was on time that morning, a blessing, thought Janet, considering the weather. She boarded the train, found a seat, and took out her book. She wasn’t far from the end of a chapter, so when she reached it she checked to see how long the next chapter was, hoping that she’d be able to read it in the remaining journey time. Unfortunately, the next chapter was a long one, and Janet didn’t want to have to stop reading part way through in case she got to a really good bit. Resigning herself to staring out of the window for the remainder of the journey, Janet stowed her book back in her bag and looked out of the rain-spattered window to the dreary morning beyond. The problem with doing nothing on a train journey, at least for Janet, was that before long she could guarantee that she would fall asleep, and today was no exception. Within minutes of her turning her attention to the window, Janet felt her eyes start to grow heavy. They drooped and closed as the train rocked her to sleep like a babe in arms, her head coming to rest gently against the smooth surface of the window.
Janet sat bolt upright, instantly awake. She caught eyes with a man sitting opposite her, who smiled.
‘You alright, love?’ he asked, genially.
‘Did you hear that?’ asked Janet, looking between the man and the window with a worried look in her eye.
‘Hear what?’ The man looked confused.
‘That noise. It sounded like…like something hit the train window.’
‘I think I’d have noticed something like that,’ said the man, chuckling slightly. ‘Bad dream, was it?’
‘No…maybe…I’m not sure.’ Janet really wasn’t sure. Had she dreamt it? It felt so real. She could still feel the part of her head where the impact on the window had happened. Like somebody had thrown something at the train and it had hit the window exactly where her head had been resting.
‘You sure you’re alright?’ pressed the man, now looking a little concerned. ‘You seem a bit shaken.’
‘Hmm? Oh, I just…got startled, I suppose,’ said Janet, wanting to end the conversation. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Fair enough.’ The man went back to reading his newspaper, but Janet noticed him shoot her the occasional glance. The concerned look had not left his eyes. Janet looked out of the window and tried to see what could have caused the bump on the window that she felt. Her hand reached up to the point on her forehead where the window had banged into it. That can’t have been a dream, she thought to herself, as her other hand touched the spot on the window where the impact had been. She recoiled in shock as her fingers came into contact with the glass. It was cold. Much colder than the weather that morning should make a window. With a frown, Janet moved her finger to another spot on the window and felt her chest tingle with adrenaline as the temperature of the glass rose from practically freezing to merely cold. Whatever had hit the window had been very cold.
Janet sat back in her seat and bit her lip nervously. She was starting to get a little worried. The bump on the glass was hard enough to wake her up and have her still feel the force of the impact on her head moments later, but no one else on the train seemed to have noticed a thing. It was just like…
Janet stiffened as the memory of the tapping on the train window the week before came back to her. She started to wring her hands the way she always did when she was scared. Her thoughts came to her in a confused tangle and the rising panic crept ominously up her spine. Was someone trying to mess with her? Janet looked about the train carriage and saw only the regular mass of commuters, all of them engaged in their own business; none of them paying Janet any attention. Janet looked again at the window and tried to calm herself down. You’re being silly, she thought to herself. It was probably some local kids messing about near the train tracks. Janet had read news stories of stupid kids throwing stones at trains and other such idiotic behaviour, but that didn’t explain why no one else but her seemed to have noticed that anything had struck the train.
Janet didn’t forget what had happened on the train as she walked to the office this time. She was so lost in thought that she kept bumping into people. As soon as she arrived at work, Janet went on the Internet to check the local news site to see if anything had been reported concerning vandalism on the trains that day. There was nothing. She looked on the train provider’s site to see if they had reported anything, but again nothing. Janet was finding it hard to concentrate at work that morning, and it was not going unnoticed.
‘Are you okay?’ asked a co-worker of Janet’s during the morning coffee break.
‘Hmm?’ Janet had been absentmindedly stirring her coffee and hadn’t noticed the woman approach her.
‘I said are you okay?’
‘Oh, yes. Kathryn, hi. I’m fine,’ said Janet. ‘Just a little distracted.’
‘I’ll say,’ said Kathryn with a smile. ‘I think you’ve been stirring that cup for five minutes, at least.’ Janet returned the smile but it felt false. No matter what she did she couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened on the train that morning.
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Sure,’ said Kathryn.
‘Have you heard about any vandalism on the local train lines today?’
‘No, why?’ Kathryn looked a little confused.
‘On my train this morning. It felt like something…hit the train.’
‘Did the train stop?’ asked Kathryn.
‘Then it wasn’t a person.’ Kathryn laughed and Janet tried to join in. The laughter felt hollow and empty.
‘It’s strange though,’ said Janet, almost to herself.
‘No one else seemed to notice that it happened. And it was a big thump, like someone kicked a football at the train or something.’
‘And no one else said anything?’
Janet shook her head as she took a sip of her coffee.
‘Maybe you dreamt it. Did you nod off on the train? Happens to me all the time.’
‘I did fall asleep, I think,’ said Janet, uncertainly.
‘There you go then,’ said Kathryn, confidently. ‘It was just a bad dream, that’s all.’
‘I suppose,’ said Janet, but she wasn’t convinced. She kept thinking of the tapping from last week and the big thump from this week. She thought about how she seemed to be the only person who noticed that both things had happened, if they had happened at all. She also thought about how unsettlingly cold the patch of glass had been where the impact had happened. Her head had been resting on the glass as she dozed, so the glass should have been warm. It hadn’t even had been that cold of a morning. It was cold, yes, but there hadn’t been any frost on the ground and they hadn’t had any snow that year yet. The thoughts kept swirling around in Janet’s mind again and again. She kept checking the news sites and the train company sites for any word of any suspicious goings-on near or on the trains, but every day there was nothing. The more Janet thought about it the more frightened she became.
- December 2014