There was no dining car on the train. No – gone, just as those elements of childhood fantasy typically do, instead to be absorbed into some streamlined, externally shiny narrative. Instead I sat about three-quarters of the y back in the central carriage positioned just so I could see through the little glass hatch into first-class. It was positioned at an odd angle, this hatch, so that in order to look through it – as temptation demanded – you were required to crumple and crease, double back on yourself as if a confirmation of your own mediocrity.
Mediocre – like half-warm water or an entirely wasted piece of paper – paper that doesn’t even deserve the exertion of coming to flame. That’s what I thought of – staring at my notepad in front of me on the train desk. An impersonal plastic, used for presenting everything from overpriced food to a person’s realisation of their own focus and tears. A man a few seats away had his face pressed into the table and leaked into the atmosphere with dripping, irregular snores. I could hear another person contending with a cough. Even voices seemed to be fighting themselves as they burst open and then shrivelled like puncture wounds. In my preserved kind of social silence, I could have appeared ‘successful’. I wore a tailored suit jacket and an ironed skirt, made from a material which creased the skin of my stomach back to a kind of flatness..
It was only four o clock and I felt disgustingly, side-creasingly full. It was as if a weight indescribable in content, had slipped down my spine and over my stomach. There was a hovering, hovering to it, which added a kind of nauseating uneasiness – edging on anger, I felt like the act of putting pen to paper, would be a kind of purge. And of nothing fresh either – all stale and seeping, and burnt-down by passionless, plastic eating. 5 days out of 7, 5 days out of 7.
I was recycling the numbers round ad round in my mind when I suddenly noticed another young woman, sitting almost adjacent to me on the other side of the carriage. She wore very little, and what she did seemed to slip in a kind of nude shade into her own skin – a frustrating nakedness. Yet it was not that I was drawn to, but instead, her apparent disconnection from all surrounding, her ear did not cock at the mention of a dirty word, she did not look up when a particularly loud line of feet filtered past. She didn’t even glance through into first class where they were now reading newspapers and feeling the crispness under the air conditioning.
She was sitting in one of the train seats without a table, as if designed to make a rather pleasant exhibition of whatever was in the hands. Cradled over her palms with almost a kind of fondness was a plastic packet, yet I noticed, attempting to focus amid the hubbub, that she was attempting to prise the corner of plastic away with an apparently overworked thumb-nail. The nail working, working, working – in those moments summarising the frustration, the fickleness, the thrown-up human limit of everything felt –
Perhaps I wanted her to stare back, perhaps that was why I kept staring. And yet, her whole body and no apparent movement, apart from the thumb and the rest of the flesh quivering according to the movements of the train. Even the staring provided little solution to where her skin ended and clothes began. Her hair seemed to lock in a kind of electricity, a foamed mass of curls channelling static from the headrest.
Her own occupied silence made me feel more aware of the acuteness of my own – but I could not help watching. I watched her as a scene rather than a singular, yet as part of society, rather than a single spectator. Part of the collective jaw picking off the flesh of the singular. I knew this a more and more eyes seemed to slither towards her, the ambiguity, urging, almost hoping for her to open the plastic. The click, click, click of her nails – such a common sound, almost an irritant.
Even the old man at the end of the carriage seemed to turn to watch her, his face creased in a kind of concentration, as if locking the mask of loose skin into place for a final determined act. The click, click click of her nails was like the directing of some symphony ready to give way at any second. For despite the music players, and laptops, ,my previous stare joining on my watch, even life in episodes – something stuck on one woman’s undivided attention in attempting to open a plastic box.
It had to be opened, it was necessary.
It was a seething slab of meat as the plastic catch on the box collapsed and the finger plunged forth. The sight of the steak in her hand made me think that suddenly the clothes seemed to coat even to the edge of each finger, though this was probably untrue. A human being in a whole stocking, hanging a whole raw steak in front of her face. There were hundreds of pairs of eyes not just watching now, completely unmet by her, but waiting, of course we were all waiting, we knew what she wanted to happen.
We knew we felt the saliva thicken in anticipation by the sides of our teeth.
She bit the steak.
And all around her, we were throwing up words quick to declare how disgusting it was, but it was only noise. And she was only human. Just as we all were.
But she was braver than that.