A Short Story by Millie Walton
I close my eyes and smell the stale wind rushing down the tunnel, brushing against my cheeks, lifting my hair. I press my back into the wall, experiencing the cool of the concrete and the closed heat of the tube simultaneously. There are times, like these, when I feel wholly present, when I know who I am completely.
It’s unusually quiet. Lottie calls it the sweet spot. When you somehow stumble into the lag between the last flow of people and the next, and the moment seems to stretch like the sky.
Flip-flopped feet slapping the ground. I’d say four or five pairs from the way the sound echoes. It’s hard to say how far away because the tunnels wind back and forwards, under and over.
A bitter drip slides down the back of my throat. Licked fingers fumbling under the table, rubbed across gums, sideways glances. Lottie biting down on her lower lip, in that way which sometimes makes me nervous depending on who we’re with and her mood that day. She likes to be that person. The one who flashes an old baggy in front of my face, and says, Look what I found, even though she knew it was there. She licks a finger, dips and rubs it across her gums before passing it under the table.
Go on, her eyes press and so I do. She stands up and claps her palms together. Fuck-it, I’m getting Hendricks. One for you too.
I sit picking my nails and watch her being watched.
The ice cube clinks dully against the crystal tumbler, as she lifts her glass, shooting a look at the guys over her shoulder. I know that she knows. It’s a game. She drinks it for them, slowly wetting her lips.
Should I get a bob cut? Would it make my face look fat? Like a moon, I say, my hands cupping my cheeks.
There’s a rush and the light behind my eyelids changes. The train is coming and there are more feet, new pairs, running from within the concrete. I have this insane thought that they’re coming for me, but of course, they’re not.
I’d like to be that person too. I can be.
I say it again, Moon. Face. Tucking my hair into the collar of my t-shirt, sucking in my cheeks, mirroring the way she drinks in case they are watching me too.
I stand, swaying and smooth the back of my skirt with one hand. It has a habit of getting caught up. Would it be so bad? Yes, and no, yes, and no.
A pair of black Doc Martens line up next to me. The same ones are in one of my virtual baskets somewhere, have been for weeks. I still can’t decide: black or red, leather or vegan. This pair is well-worn, creased around the midsection, with untied, trailing laces, which look as if they might have once belonged to a different pair. In general, docs look better dirty than new. Ella buried hers before she wore them. I’ve heard the best way is to fold them repeatedly with your hands, that you really need to put your full weight into it to get the good, deep indents.
The train stops. The doors jump open, thin light spills like watery milk. The boots step in first and I follow. She sits opposite me, or I sit opposite her. It feels like a dance. I look up and we both smile. I see her teeth for a second and then she closes her lips. Her mouth is long and straight. Her hair’s the brightest shade of red I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of something specific. Sun-burnt skin. A neon light. A place, a bar or a club. Another person’s hair cut out from a magazine and stuck onto this woman’s head. She looks not much older than me. A couple of years, five at most. She sees me looking and I find myself blushing. I blush too easily, a permanent red sheen, like a farmer who’s spent his days briskly walking through the wind. I look away as if something’s caught my attention down the carriage. The doors close on a man who steps back, arms folded. He looks away, already waiting for the next. The train starts to move and I feel nostalgic for no reason.
I try to picture the world above us, the streets that I walked along six, eight, ten minutes ago. The street I imagine is generic. I am not an imaginative person, I’ve come to realise this. It is London from tourist shop posters, red double deckers, glossy curved black cabs, men in top hats holding the doors open to hotels and rain that’s neat, shiny and clean, falling in perfectly formed droplets that are made of air, not water.
The woman is standing directly over me, her hands clasping the bar whilst her body absorbs the sway of a bend. It feels odd to be so close to someone when the carriage is nearly empty but even without the crowds, there’s always a sense of being squeezed on the tube. There’s a gap roughly the length of my forearm from her belly button to my knee. I can see blonde hair in her armpits. Who dyes their hair red? I decide she is an artist, or a dancer. I follow the line up to her face, her chin is tilted as she reads not the tube map, but the ad beside it. I know it from the blue. I’ve seen the same one, huge against a station wall. Green Park or Victoria. Her eyes slide down to mine. I feel myself flush again. It’s worse when I’ve been drinking.
It’s terrible isn’t it, she says.
I wait for a moment to check who she’s speaking too, and then say, Yes. It is. Terrible.
She pushes back and lets go of the bar. She’s not beautiful in the conventional sense. Her features give the impression of being cluttered together, too small for her face, but there’s something sensual about her. I can imagine people finding her attractive. She arches her chest forwards as if releasing a tightness and I realise, as she rolls her shoulders and sits, that I’m doing the same thing. I clasp my hands into my lap.
The tunnel becomes platform and the train stops. Three men climb in, speaking loudly over their shoulders to one another. First one, then the others notice the woman standing in front of me. I follow their eyes and see that the dark circles of her nipples are clearly visible through the fabric of her dress.
She drops into the seat opposite me, slips her feet out of her boots and kicks them high into the air. A slither of black lace appears as the fabric flutters over her knees. The train lurches and I start to feel sick.
Did I flash you? she says.
I didn’t see anything. I rest my forehead in my hands, elbows pressing into my thighs.
Are you alright?
I nod and swivel myself to look through my handbag for my headphones, then remember that I left them at work. I find chewing gum and drag a piece up through the wrapper and into my mouth with my teeth.
The red head’s familiar, one of the guys says. Isn’t she though? From TV? I look back at her. Perhaps that’s it.
You famous? he calls and even though he’s not addressing me I turn towards him.
Nope, the woman says.
The train’s stopped. Through the pane of glass, the concrete looks almost like earth. I feel as if it’s pressing inwards, squeezing. My chest aches. I have to remind myself to breathe.
There’s a sharp whine and a distant voice apologises for the delay, we’re being held at a signal. The woman stretches an arm across the backs of the seats. I can feel sweat drawing up between my breasts. I tap my thumb and index fingers together. How many stations have we passed? I taste bitter again.
Coke or horse tranquilizer, Lottie says shrugging, what difference does it make?
I check my bag for my bottle which isn’t there, I know this already. I stand, and grip the rail with one palm. My eyes won’t focus. Somewhere between Pimlico and Vauxhall. I could get the bus.
Are you alright? a voice says, very far away or very close. A hand touches my arm, drawing me down into a seat and at the same time, the train jolts forwards and starts to move. I’m sitting beside her somehow. Her hand on my arm. I pull it back and rub the place she touched, half unconscious of the movement. She sees me do it.
Have we met somewhere before? No. I don’t think so.
It’s just you seem familiar. Have we worked together maybe?
I think that’s unlikely. She crosses her legs and stares forwards.
Through friends or something then? My mouth feels dry and the words catch in my throat. She shakes her head.
The train stops and moves. I miss the name. Pimlico, she says.
You’re from London?
No. She bends to scratch her ankle, and her arm brushes my leg. I notice there are a few mosquito bites down her calf. I used to live here in a tiny flat share, so small I had to get dressed sitting on my bed. I moved to Margate last year and now I can see the sea from my window.
That sounds nice.
You should come.
I laugh. Because I don’t know who you are.
I’m Grace. Now you’re supposed to say your name.
That’s a nice name.
Yours is nice too.
You’re just saying that because I said it.
I’m not. I really think it is nice.
This is my stop.
She jumps up, grabbing her shoes with one hand. The platform rushes against the glass. She turns, and the doors slide closed behind her. I watch her waving at me through the window as we rush past: her hair obscenely bright against the tunnel wall and then, she’s gone.
Millie Walton is a London-based art and fiction writer, and a graduate of the MFA at the University of East Anglia. This story has been adapted from her debut novel in progress.