Strangers on a Trainbypast_perfect©
It was heart-rending. I had finished my meeting with a prospective customer and commuted back to my hometown trying to work a little on the train, but my attention, like everyone else's, was drawn to the young woman sitting on the other side of the aisle. She was averting her face, trying to look out of the window, but she was crying almost incessantly. On her lap was an open carton box with personal belongings and you did not have to be Sherlock Holmes to conclude that she must have been sacked that day. I felt conflicted by the urge to get up and console her and the notion that it would be weird for a complete stranger to do that.
A nun with steel-framed glasses and a kind, yet austere looking face got up and offered her a handkerchief. She declined and pointed to a full packet in her carton box, but thanked the nun for her kind offer. I couldn't hear what they were saying as they talked in a very low voice and the monotonous clatter of the train drowned all but fragments. The nun had exhausted whatever she wanted to offer as help and consolation and returned to her seat.
The young woman had composed herself somewhat and cleared her nose. I tried not to stare at her, but then she looked in my direction. I could feel her pain and wished I would somehow be able to relay all my sympathy and the knowledge that the pain would inevitably pass, with that one brief glimpse. I could sense the emptiness, her being and self eroded by tears, and wished I could fill it with hope and joy. Maybe some of it came across. She slowly turned her head again and resumed gazing out of the window as the train stopped at a small village.
It was the last stop before I was about to alight and I remember thinking how difficult it was to be confronted with a stranger's sorrow and pain without finding an appropriate gesture to help her in any way. I had flashes of memories of my darkest hours, when I was at her age and much younger. The way the whole world is reduced to that scathing feeling of loss and failure. I glanced at her again, wondering what drama had occurred. Was it really just the loss of her job?
I recalled a day when a company I had worked for had to lay off twenty of my colleagues, including my entire department except for me and a part-timer. How we were standing outside the building, shocked and confused, as it had happened out of the clear blue sky. And in my case feeling guilty, because they chose me to stay on, rather than my other colleagues who would have equally deserved it. People I spent more time with than I did with my friends and cared for deeply ripped out of my life by the mere stroke of a pen, despite our assurances that we would keep in touch.
The train approached my hometown and I had to tear myself out of these musings, to return my papers into the briefcase and get ready to get off. We both got up at the same time and I hurried to open the carriage door and keep it open for her, so that there was at least something I could do for her. As the train slowed down when approaching the station our eyes met again. Her eyes were reddened and swollen and she bit her lower lip several times to suppress her tears. Our ways parted when we headed to opposite exits, but then I turned around as I noticed that I was about to run out of cigarettes.
Right in the middle of the underpass, she just stood there, like a child that had lost its parents in the supermarket, her shoulders slumping, an effigy of intolerable loneliness. Reluctance had overstayed its welcome, so I went right up to her.
"Hey, are you alright?"
Her vacant gaze made me wonder whether she saw me at all. It looked like she had difficulties connecting the images before her eyes to a coherent whole. A hint of recognition crossed her face, she shook her head and burst into tears. I gently took her into my arms and hugged her quietly, as her body shook and quivered in anguish. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed disapproving looks by passer-bys, automatically assigning responsibility for her precarious state to me. I kept repeating "It's okay, it's okay," over and over again, an inadequate mantra of compassion, until she finally calmed down. With the calm self-consciousness returned and reluctantly she withdrew herself from my embrace.
Her voice was but a faint whisper. It was obvious that she was completely lost as to what to do next, so I volunteered what seemed to be the sensible thing to do.
"Would you like to sit down somewhere and relax? Have a cup of coffee maybe and talk – or not talk at all?"
She gingerly moved her head in disapproval.
"No ... not the way I look now ... couldn't stand being amongst people right now ... "
"I understand. But you shouldn't be on your own now either. Do you want me to get you a cab and get you home, or ring someone to pick you up?"
She shook her head emphatically, but there was something in her body language that made clear that she was wishing for other options.
"Look, I live about five minutes walk from here. Would you like to come to my place and have a cup of coffee there?"
She looked at me in astonishment.
"Oh ... that's very kind of you ... but I don't want to ... I would spoil your ..."
"Nonsense, don't even think about it. Come on, let's go."
She hesitated, but then accepted my offer and arm. We strolled to my place and I felt it was time to introduce myself to cut through her pensive silence.
"By the way, I'm Gary."
"Yes I know. My name is Sheila. We've met before."
I was somewhat startled by this supposition and realised that until that point I had not really looked at her that much.
"Sheila, ah yes, of course ... "
I recognised her as the younger sister of a childhood friend. He and I had lost touch in my youth, when we were attending different schools, but met again for another brief stretch of time as he threw fancy parties for his high society friends and had learned that I was a DJ with a repertoire and reputation to suit him. The last time I had seen her and him must have been more than fifteen years prior to this day. She had changed considerably from that flat-chested and tomboyish little minx who tried to kiss me and even followed me onto trees when I was trying to escape. I couldn't help smiling at that image flashing before my mind's eye. So she wasn't that young after all, just five or six years younger than me.
"Sorry, I didn't recognise you. You've grown quite a bit since the last time I saw you."
For the first time she managed to smile a little.
"So how's your brother then?"
"He's alright. He moved to America. California, actually."
"Sounds great. So, did he become a movie star in the end?"
"Nah, he went over there to study, fell in love and never came back."
"I see ... here we are."
We had arrived at my place. I ushered her up the stairs and opened my flat door. Prospero, my tomcat, had stood guard at the front door as he always did. He ignored Sheila and brushed around my legs, intimating that he was reasonably chuffed and that it was about time to feed him. I showed her into the living room and excused myself to prepare the coffee. It occurred to me why I hadn't recognised her immediately. Her natural colour of hair had been brown, just a few shades darker than mine, and now she was blonde. When I returned to the living room she absentmindedly rummaged through her little carton box. She found what she was looking for and showed me picture of her brother and what appeared to be his wife and child.
"This is Tamara, and his daughter's name is Sandy."
"Ah, well, lucky guy, it would seem."
"Yes, she is really nice. Shame we don't see each other that much."
She sighed and stared at the little box of memories and links to a life now turned upside down. Prospero returned from the kitchen and started complaining that I hadn't attended to his needs as he had assumed I would.
"Sorry, need to feed the wild animal here. Otherwise, he'd be grumpy and scratchy for the remainder of the day. The coffee should be ready any minute now, too."
"Ah, yeah, ok."
When I returned she was still sitting in exactly the same pose as when I had left her, her face pale and her eyes transfixed on the contents of her past. I left the tray with the coffee and paraphernalia on the table and sat down right next to her. I put my arm around her and tried to give her a reassuring look.
"Weird that we run into each other like that, isn't it? Do you want milk and sugar?"
"Yes ... and no, no milk, just one sugar please."
"I would probably still be standing in the underpass if it wasn't for you."
"You looked lost and miserable. I just couldn't get past you without saying something. I wanted to on the train already, but I thought it'd be weird."
She stirred her coffee slowly and remained silent.
"So, may I ask? What happened?"
"I got fired today."
"Yes, I suspected as much."
I could sense tears welling up again.
"Hey, hey. It's not the end of the world. It might feel like it now, but it sure isn't."
She tried to battle her anguish.
"You don't understand ... it's not just that."
She lost the battle and started sobbing again. I held her closer and stroked her hair. I noticed the scent of a familiar perfume, but couldn't remember its name. Prospero re-entered the room, with an air of contentment as he must have had finished his meal. He jumped on my lap and eyed the distraught stranger with his customary moderate jealousy that turned into purr-fact harmony for him when Sheila started stroking him behind his ears. He had this odd habit of opening his mouth somewhat, which made it look like he was grinning.
Maybe he was. In any case, the furry little creature appreciating her gesture seemed to pull Sheila out of her dark spell. He rolled around on my lap indicating that it was belly-fondle time. Naturally, I knew his favourite spots and while attending to those, Sheila did also continue. Our hands grazed each other lightly several times, and despite sitting so close and me still stroking her hair with my left hand, this was the moment when I really became very much aware that there was a woman next to me. Without thinking I tenderly brushed the top of her hand. Our eyes met. There was a sudden charge of electricity in the air. I decided to defuse the loaded atmosphere, as it was feeling strangely out of place.
"Well, at least he always gets what he wants."
Her smile was still a tad forced and it looked like she was taken aback by what just happened as well.
"Yes, they always do, don't they. Wish I was a cat sometimes."
She shifted her position and straightened her back.
"Uhm, I must look positively ghastly. Is there some place where I can freshen up a little?"
"Oh, sure, straight ahead, second door on the left."
Prospero collapsed to one side to be able to observe Sheila on her way to the bathroom. He then turned his head to me, showing me that this was not sufficient reason to abort my administrations. However, I shoed him off to be able to get to my cigarettes on the other side of the table and have a sip of coffee. The coffee was almost lukewarm, and the packet of cigarettes more than half empty. I noticed that my hand was shaking a little. It must have been close to five o'clock in the afternoon. At this time of the day during autumn, the sun was sending its last golden rays through the upper window panes of my entrance door, bathing the hallway in a spectacular, warm cascade of light. When Sheila re-emerged from the bathroom, she looked like an angel with a halo. It struck me how beautiful she was.
Prospero decided to escort her back to the sofa, hoping that at least she would continue to lavish her attention on him. She gave him a few strokes before sitting down, but then kicked off her shoes and got comfortable on my sofa, pulling her legs towards her. I offered her a cigarette, but she declined and got her own out of her purse instead. The atmosphere became somewhat tense. I wasn't sure how to proceed, as she appeared reasonably collected, but a relapse at any time possible.
"So you dyed your hair? You did have brownish hair originally, didn't you?"
"Yes, ages ago. Why? Don't you like it?"
"Oh, sure do, no, I just recalled earlier that it was different."
She looked at me attentively.
"You haven't changed that much. Your hair is shorter."
"Well, thanks, that's kind of you to say, but it's not only shorter, it's in a constant retreat."
She reached over and slowly traced the outline of my head, when going through my hair. I held my breath, confused by the powerful feelings stirring up so unexpectedly. She froze, as if she became aware all of a sudden what she was doing, and then withdrew her hand.
"That's not that bad."
"Thanks. Well, you have changed a lot actually. The most vivid pictures of you I have in my memory seem to stem from the time, when I was still hanging out with Sam a lot."
"I was ten years old then."
Ten years, so she was five years younger than me.
"I remember you were a hell of a fast runner then."
"Only when little girls were pursuing me to ... hmm, what were you up to then?"
"To kiss you."
"Yeah, kiss me. So it wasn't all just in my imagination."
"Nope, that was very real. I had a crush on you actually."
My laughter wasn't quite as convincing as I wanted it to be. Something strange was happening there. Not only had she regained her composure, all her gestures and movements, what she said and the way she said it, seemed to point in one direction, and one direction only. She was flirting with me.
"Hmm, you were just a little young for me then."
"Of course. And obviously not fast enough."
"Oh, hell, you were a lot faster than most of the guys I knew."
"Most of the time not fast enough."
"He he, most of the time. Sometimes you caught me unawares."
She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray. The silence became somewhat uneasy.
"I bet you are still faster than me."
There it was. That was the bait. If I took it, there'd be only one possible outcome to that. And yet, I did.
"Oh, but I don't think I would run now ... you look ... fantastic."
Hooked. All she needed to do now was pull me in. Knocked out in the first round.
"Thank you ... very much."
With a swift movement she leaned over and kissed me on the lips.
There was the little minx again. Apart from the fact that the little minx had grown into an exceptionally well proportioned and exceedingly seductive woman, the mischievous grin she always had, returned onto her face.
"Told you I wouldn't run."
There was the uneasy silence again, a brief surge of awareness as to what was happening, and how absurd and slightly inappropriate it really was.
Prospero to the rescue. Where was the stupid cat when you needed it? He had settled on the large armchair and appeared only marginally interested in what was going on. Maybe he was still sulking. My imploring look didn't rouse him. He seemed to think that this was my business. And, of course, he was right.
"So, you're living on your own ... how come?"
"Hmm, what makes you think that?"
"One toothbrush, toilet seat up ... need I go on?"
She had always been bright and quick. That obviously hadn't changed either. Nowhere to run.
"Uhm, I've had a couple of long-term relationships, but they didn't work out."
"Nothing much. And you?"
"Nothing. As of today."
So that was it. It wasn't just work, she had been put out in the rain on two accounts.
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
Her voice sounded flat and brittle when she continued.
"He was married. And my boss. His wife found out. She gave him a choice. He chose her. And her company of course."
She looked vulnerable and helpless again. Yet I hesitated to get closer to her. It didn't feel right.
"Oh Sheila, I'm so sorry ... no wonder you're that bummed out."
"It's like ... everything that was good and meaningful in my life ... gone ... vanished."
Her voice started trembling. I was still unable to move. The situation obtained its own dynamic. I could almost see the two of us sitting there from the outside, every single move predetermined, everything decided. And nowhere to run.
She came closer and there was no other choice than taking her into my arms. But how different it felt then. It wasn't just her loss and needs that became apparent. She had struck a chord in me. And I was resounding, every second that I felt her body next to me, I noticed what I had been missing. How much I had been missing it.
Her head rested on my chest. She tilted it upwards and looked straight into my eyes. I wanted to say something befitting the situation, but apart from clearing my throat, I was incapable of any such feat. Time lost its meaning. As if in slow motion, our heads got closer and closer until our lips met in a tender, tentative kiss. That broke the seal. All that had been locked up tight and safe was set free in one split second. I was submerged with feelings long forgotten and entirely new altogether. One single, lonely tear ran down her cheek, before my lips intercepted it. The last drop of salt before unimaginable sweetness.
We kissed again, our lips lightly pressed together, suspending us in this perfect moment in time, where nothing else existed but this. I suppose we both had the same incredulous look on our face, could not believe what was happening; a forgotten dream of ineffable longing connected our souls.
It was almost dark in the room, only Prospero's eyes eerily reflected the light from a window opposite to mine. I don't know how long it had been that we just sat there, locked in a ritual of diffusing each other's existence, without speaking or even moving. I started shivering a little, as I had forgotten to turn on the heating when we got in. She moved to the side when she anticipated what I wanted to do for us. I got up, switched on the heating and lit some candles. For a moment I considered putting on some music, but I was too dazed to feel able to make a good choice. Sheila watched my every move, quietly, motionless but with an expression of peace and restored faith in the fairness of life. I closed the curtains and returned to the all so familiar stranger that had affected me in so many different ways in the course of but a few hours. My perceptions were enhanced to an almost painful degree. When I embraced her again, all that was on my mind was her. The question of right and wrong had retreated into meaninglessness. All there was left was her, and me, just us.
Our bodies started the slow dance of exploring each other. Her face relaxed completely when I very lightly touched her with my fingertips, tracing up and downward her neck, along her face, then searching and finding her hands. Our hands engaged in a continuous play of caressing, clasping, releasing and energising, while we gingerly rubbed our faces and covered each other with myriads of tender kisses. Our hands engaged our arms, extending the warm tingling sensation in ever widening circles. Our lips locked in an unhurried but gradually more passionate kiss, our tongues traversing alternately into each other's inner softness. Our hands parted and continued their journey in deliciously slow movements, to meet again, clasp, raise each others arms and let them succumb to gravity. We broke our lock and just looked at each other in wonderment.
Quietly we started to undress each other. There was no superfluous or abrupt motion, everything was in a completely natural flow that seemed to have established itself. I unclasped her bra while she took off my shirt. My hands travelled from her hips upwards, only slightly brushed her beautiful breasts and traced her shoulders. She mirrored my motions in perfect harmony. She moved a little closer to me and her hardened nipples occasionally touched my bare chest as we resumed kissing.