By William Hillier
Mona first arrived in my life on a wet day in October, the first day of my new job. Robert kissed me goodbye. James presented me with a handmade good luck card bedecked with glittering pieces of macaroni, an obligatory addition to my handbag. They departed on the school run, and I on the first daily commute.
The new job was in central London. A corporate position, it was much less creative than my old one at the advertising agency, but it paid much better. Within a year the three of us would be out of our east London flat and into a real home.
At Mile End tube station, I reached the back of the ticket queue at the same time as another young woman. In my high spirits, I gestured for her to go ahead. She mumbled her thanks without looking up and I joined the queue behind her.
The girl’s remarkable honey-drip tresses trailed down her back. Beneath that, a pair of prominent seamed stockings accentuated the cryptic curve of two clean calves. I sighed at the thought of my own soulless black skirt and frumpy, flat shoes.
Absently, my eyes followed the girl’s glamorous seams up inside her tartan skirt. Realising this sinful intrusion, my heart skipped a beat.
Topping up her Oyster card, the girl left. I didn’t think of her again. After all, why should I?
A week into the job, the commute still felt novel. Together, people stood on the platform, waiting for a train to rumble in, whisk us off into the gurgling guts of the city. Sipping a cup of cardboard-flavoured coffee, I watched the empty station fill with fascination. That’s when I noticed her again.
She stood rebellious beside me, one foot over the yellow line, not minding the gap. Stylish shoes, seamed stockings, caramel curls concealing her face, falling distinctively about her shoulders, a twist of catkins on a willow tree. It was definitely her.
Instinctively, discreetly, my eyes darted to her legs. Inspecting other women’s legs is a pastime of mine. My own calves are too thick, knees too knobbly, thighs too fat. I envy and venerate women with slender legs. Today, I wanted to see the girl’s face too, but how do you do that when bound by the unspoken rule? No eye contact on the tube.
Robert had told me not to stare.
“I know what you’re like!” He laughed one morning, pecking me on the cheek. But the playful accusation had stung. He was right, sometimes I stared. But it was out of fascination, not prying perversity.
Boarding the train, the girl melted into the crowd, slipping my mind once more. She may have had captivating calves, curls; but these are not enough to hold a married woman’s attention.
I soon settled into the new job, if settling’s the word. In truth, the company’s shallow concept of creativity and the unvarying monotony of the work had joined forces to wear my interest perilously thin, perilously fast.
Commuting day-to-day, the same tired suits joined me on the journey. Irritable men and women, despondent, dreary, plodding every morning onto grimy trains. My mind revisited fading memories of walks along the canal, ducklings quacking beside me when the weather was fine, a welcome bluster of icy air carrying me along in winter.
Looking glumly around, there stood the girl again, a few feet away. The sudden blur of a face personified her for the first time. A protective shield, her curls cascaded about her face from beneath a jolly mustard coloured beret. My spirit lifted.
By now, the girl’s slender figure was familiar, the way she stood, ankles together, one heel cocked like a fawn uncertain on its feet. Clutching a book in one hand, she rummaged around in her bag with the other. Her Tiffany blue raincoat matched the station tiles.
Determined to see her face, I glanced around. Nobody else seemed to notice her, though I couldn’t understand why. In a sharp, wintery world, her raincoat shone like a slither of summer sky, her hat a sip of sunlight. She was exquisite. Her lips perfectly oval, pulsing pink. Downy hair kissed her cheeks, adorned her earlobes. I coveted it. Her downturned eyes were occupied by their search in her handbag, but her bovine lashes were soft and unsolvable.
The girl found whatever it was she’d been looking for in her bag. But going to grab it, the book slipped from her other hand and hit the tiled floor with a gratifying slap. Sweet perfume filled my nostrils as I stooped to pick it up.
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I was impressed. I’d never read it, of course, but I was impressed. Memories of being forced to read Mrs. Dalloway at school flooded back to me. So impenetrable! The girl had tenacity to read Virginia Woolf by choice. Passing the book back, I said the only three words I would ever speak to her:
“Here you go.”
Smiling in thanks, willowy, tentative, she reclaimed her property and for an instant, our eyes locked.
I tried to let go, to tear myself from her gaze, but those deep, dark eyes froze me. For a split second I waited for her to recognise me, but why would she recognise a woman she had never met?
Holding my eye a moment longer than was comfortable, she smiled shyly and looked away. A compulsion gripped me: Say hello! Introduce yourself! Then Robert appeared in my head, telling me not to stare.
I turned away.
Over the coming weeks, looking out for the girl each morning became a sort of salacious, unspoken game. In the stale safety of the underground, nobody to tell me right from wrong, the truth came freely: I had a crush. Disappointed days passed by. When lucky enough to spy her reading her book, I filled my cup.
Trying to memorise her timetable was pointless. Unlike her beauty, it was irreverent, unpredictable. One morning she materialised at 7:29am on the far end of the platform. For two weeks, I arrived early just to catch her again, but she never came.
Other times, chest leaping, I found her sitting opposite me on the train, having somehow escaped my roving eyes. Legs tangled in haste, nose buried in a protective tome, her honey-drip hair bounced along with the juddering of the carriage. She never once looked up.
Often, I contrived a reason to speak to her, but the mere idea of it set my heart pounding, screwed my lips tight shut. While she was always perfectly turned out, I felt shame at my tired appearance.
Watching her was all I could do.
A factor in the girl’s perfection was her own unawareness of it. The assiduous attention to her appearance rose not from conceit, nor narcissism, but insecurity. Evidence for this ornamented itself in her habits–she often tapped the heel of one shoe nervously upon the other, or knotted an unthinking curl around an impeccably lacquered little finger.
As she read, delicate brows furrowed, rolled like ocean waves, pink lips silently mouthing the words, all at once mechanical, self-conscious.
What most convinced me of the girl’s fragility though was the gravity iced in her cheeks, the deep unshifting weight in her eyes. Everything suggested she was uncomfortable in her skin, flawless though it was. Belonging to that generation of young women who must exceed themselves to stand out, her suffering was familiar to me. Oh, to sweep her insecurities aside, touch her hand, promise her everything would be OK. I wanted to tell her she was hypnotic, only she couldn’t see it.
During a wet winter, dormant flowers sated their thirst on an abundance of rainwater. When spring came, they burst in earnest. To my delight, so did the girl, wearing summer dresses that at last revealed the sensual extent of her flesh.
As for me, the rumples in my wretched suit had hardened into furrows. The job had done the same to my brow. Yet, with each passing day, the commute grew more enthralling. Nevertheless, while my hope was that the new season would bring a fresh spring to the girl’s step, what flourished was not her joy, but her listlessness.
She stopped bringing books to read.
Gone were Woolf and Plath. Instead, she took to staring at her feet, the endless stream of sweat and dirt accumulating in the train’s grubby grooves. Her hands no longer twiddled curls, but sat aimlessly in her lap. Sometimes, the soft hair on her cheeks betrayed the matted hallmark of tears.
Worse, the girl’s routine became predictable, unexciting, her erratic spontaneity altogether gone. Standing on the platform each morning, awaiting the train, she stared blankly into the tunnel, lost in thought. What she sought there I don’t know.
By now, any notion I was harbouring a mere crush had long since disappeared. I told myself that if she asked me, I would run away with her in an instant.
She wouldn’t ask, of course. It was a fantasy. Nevertheless, some days it brushed the curtain of reality with such daring insistence it became almost uncomfortable to bear.
Take that sunny morning in April.
The girl arrived wearing a daffodil-patterned halter neck dress, lace escaping the bodice, her hair piled atop her head, a crown of silk. Wisps spilled down the back of her slender white neck. Seeing her in that dress flooded me with a fresh desire to embrace her, to hold her hand, to kiss her lips, to run away.
But as ever, something stopped me. Perhaps it was her silence, which was the kind designed to deter attention, not encourage it. Or perhaps all she needed was a friendly smile. Yes. Summon some damned bravery! Smile at her today.
Heart fluttering, skin quivering, I made my way slowly towards her. She had nothing with her that day. No book. No handbag. Just my girl. And as the advancing train rattled through the tunnel, she glided forward to greet it. The last thing I saw was the girl’s dainty foot rising from the platform edge… Then I turned away.
Behind me, a confusion of screeching brakes.
A wet thud.
I didn’t turn back.
I didn’t need to.
The train continued up the tracks almost as if nothing had happened. A minor blip in its routine. Creaking, moaning, the carriage drew to a stop beside me. Turning towards the exit, I left and didn’t look back.
Robert couldn’t have been more supportive about the whole thing. “How awfully lonely that woman must have been,” he said, glancing over my shoulder at the paper the next day. “You poor thing to witness that.”
But I hadn’t witnessed it.
Robert kissed me on the back of the head and went to the kitchen to peel potatoes for dinner.
Clutching the paper, I re-read the tiny headline: Woman Dies on Central Line. A grainy black and white photograph peered out at me, hair looking wrong. Too straight. Perfectly straight. She must have curled it religiously every morning. I didn’t know that.
Looking at that restrained, gracious girl and her violin-string hair—the girl who had been such a distraction to me, the stranger I had almost loved—a remnant of her isolation touched me. If only I could have called out to her, maybe she would have turned to meet my gaze. But all I did was turn away.
Then again, there’s no use feeling sorry for myself. There’s nothing I could have done, not really. I didn’t even know her name. And at the end of the day, what more can you do for a stranger in that situation, besides not stare?