Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Girl on the Train

For over two years, I commuted into Central London at the same time every morning. I may not have been in the same job, exactly, but since my working pattern was pretty steady, I commuted. Up at half past seven, walk to the station and get the train at eleven minutes past eight.

Was the plan. The reality seemed more like "up at seven-forty-five, run like you're being chased by zombies, jump through the doors as they start to close at 08:10:59 and collapse onto the floor clutching your chest as your lungs threaten to burst". By the time I exited that job, I had defaulted back to "fuck it" and got the train at twenty minutes past eight instead. The likelihood was that everyone would be waiting outside for the admin staff to turn up with the key anyway, so what was the point?

Whichever train I got, she would be on it too. She stood on the platform at the same point every morning (I tended to move around) - the carriage that stopped there was the best one to get on to necessitate the speediest transfer to the Underground - and boarded in her own way. She had a gentle, unassuming gait, wore smart casual clothes, and from what I can remember, she was very short, and very thin.

And she had bright red hair.

That was the most striking thing about her appearance. Her hair was the kind of red that stands out against any backdrop. When raining, it was damp. When warm, it hung loose. When cold, it was tied back into a neat ponytail. But, whatever it was, it was red. Even when she wore a hood, you could tell.

It was a couple of months before I started to notice her - well, you couldn't miss her, but I mean really notice her. Attractive though she was, that wasn't what fascinated me about her. She was just totally inscrutable - and that, not her red hair or well-shaped body or pretty eyes, but that - was why I started getting on the same carriage as her every morning.

As I say, she was inscrutable: sitting on the train with a completely neutral expression, one that suggested so much yet delivered so little. There were tired, alert, worried and miserable people on the train every morning - being a mainline station in the commuter belt, there were those expressions that carried a weary sense of having acquiesced to this life of frustration and repetition due to necessity, rather than want - but hers was a blank canvas. No change, no acknowledgement of anything going on around her. No betrayal of whatever thoughts were beating behind the creaseless skin of her forehead.

It fascinated and frustrated me in equal measure. Who was she? Why was I so intrigued? For the first few weeks, I thought that I had a crush - not unusual for me, she's hot, it's the early morning; it'll pass. But, no, the feelings never faded. Every morning I wondered about her; ever morning, she gave nothing away, Glod forbid I ever actually tried to talk to her, but then I often had the odd feeling that I was the only person who could actually see her.

A few months pass before I got the strange feeling that she had started to notice me. Occasional quick glances over the top of my copy of the Metro (she never read it) often showed her looking directly in my direction, with the same featureless expression. Disembarking to change onto the Underground, the grace with which she carried herself would falter if I walked past her. And then, in an odd reversal of what happened at first, she would board the Underground train after me, seemingly making a point to get on the same carriage. Seized though I was, at points, to make some sort of salutation - even a catch of the eye and a nod - I never did.

But I sat. And I looked. And I wondered.

Eventually I took a sabbatical from London and went to work in Somerset for a while. I came back, having been told in my absence that my job was uncertain. And, on my first morning journey to the station, I suddenly thought of her. I hadn't seen her for over a month. She'd be in the same place at the same time, and I could go back to trying to puzzle her out every morning. That, and admire her hair.

Only she wasn't there.

Or there the next day.

In fact, now that I think about it, I never saw her again. I looked - every morning - for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. Everything else - from the staff to the people to the earnest woman working in the coffee shop - was completely unchanged. But there was a space where she used to stand. A space unfilled.

Leaving yet another mystery to be solved.

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