Clive elbowed his way in and squeezed himself between the sweaty bodies. A crowded carriage in the middle of a heat wave was just what he needed. Behind him a flabby youth wearing headphones swayed in unison with the train. Every so often the youth’s over sized stomach nudged him in the back and he caught the scent of yesterday’s half digested curry as it crept round his collar and towards his nostrils. His own empty stomach heaved in the heat and his mouth tasted sour. He turned his head away to one side, his chin almost grazing the scalp of a young woman reading from a Kindle. Clive’s eyes rested on her parting. It was pale and uneven as if she’d been in a hurry that morning. He glanced downwards. Her bare legs were the colour of liquid honey against the lemon silk of her dress, her ankles moving slightly as she balanced on high heels.
Clive’s stomach rumbled with hunger. Mondays were a bugger. Jo was always so bloody ill-tempered, shouting at the boys, her voice rising hysterically and making the dog whimper and there was never time for breakfast. He’d stayed in bed that morning, holding the pillow over his face with both hands until he heard the thud of the front door shutting. That meant the boys were out of the way. It had been a helluva row last night. Jo had been in a foul mood in the morning and she didn’t let up. Over nothing. All he’d said was, “Bad hair day Dear?”
She’d flown at him. Called him names and belittled him in front of the kids. It had rumbled on all day. Petty bickering and then last night when he tried to make up, she’d turned her back on him.
“What did you say?” He’d tugged at her.
“Nothing,” she’d mumbled. “Go to sleep.”
She’d won again. And then when he came down this morning, she’d cleared the breakfast table and a pile of clothes lay on the floor waiting to go into the washing machine.
“Oh! You’re dressed are you?”
He wasn’t in the mood for round two. “Alright. Alright. I’m going.” If she had to make this journey five days a week, he thought, she’d show a bit more understanding.
The train passed at speed through Clapham Junction not stopping, but then slowed to a halt just beyond Vauxhall. The fat youth raised an eyebrow in resignation and changed the weight on his feet. Clive closed his eyes and let his mind drift. He was in Greece swimming in a blue sea the soft, warm water drifting between his limbs like a caress.
Pain suddenly stabbed through his foot like a knife. The girl in the short lemon dress was grinding her stiletto heel into the toe of his shoe.
“You touched me!” Her voice was loud in the stationary carriage.
Clive tried to move backwards away from her but the youth was immobile. Clive, his face flushed, shook his head. “No. No. It wasn’t me. It was my briefcase. Look.”
The fat youth raised his eyebrows. He lifted one side of his headphone and slowly rotated a finger in his right ear.
“I’m reporting you.” The girl’s eyes were disdainful as the train pulled away
Clive felt moisture cold under his arms. There was no rail to hold on to and it was difficult to keep his balance. He took his hand out of his pocket, the one not holding the briefcase. He didn’t know what to do with it. The train jolted to a halt and Clive stumbled sideways against an elderly woman, his hand brushing against the pleats of a calf length skirt. She started to say something but Clive was already stepping out through the door and hurrying along the platform past the ticket collector at the gate.
It was ten minutes to his office. He walked as fast as he could without running, not wanting to draw attention to himself. As he crossed Westminster Bridge, the breeze from the river chilled the back of his neck. He made straight for the washroom, throwing water over his face and dabbing at his eyes with a paper towel. His heart was thumping and embarrassingly, his shirt tail had loosened and was hanging over his trousers at the back. What if it had it been like that on the train? He tucked his shirt in and combed his hair. His face was staring back at him from the mirror. What a mug shot, he thought, like a poster on a police station wall.
He tried to work as usual but his head ached and he couldn’t concentrate. That girl. He’d seen her before. On the train. Did she get on at his stop? He couldn’t remember. If looks could kill. At lunchtime he decided to go home.
He walked back through Waterloo station, avoiding eye contact with the uniformed staff at the ticket barrier, then hurried along the platform until he found an empty carriage. He waited until the train moved out of the station then put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands, thinking of the girl. What if she had reported him? What about Jo? Perhaps he would have a heart attack, then she’d be sorry. But there were the boys. What about the boys? Supposing they found out at school? Oh Christ, he hadn’t got a handkerchief with him. He rolled down one of his shirtsleeves and lifted his arm, wiping the cotton fabric across his face.
As the train passed the familiar stations, so his headache receded and he relaxed a little. Opening his briefcase, he felt for his house keys. Joanna would be at work and he would have the house to himself. That girl, the one on the train, she wouldn’t say anything, she would have forgotten all about him by now.
He took out a small comb and ran it through his hair, lifting his chin at his reflection in the window. At Guildford on the platform, a woman in a sleeveless summer dress was lifting a child from a buggy. She had her back to him and as she bent over, her skirt rode up, exposing thin white thighs. She turned and caught his eyes as the train moved. She tugged at her hem and he looked away. He wondered if there would be time for a shower before Jo and the boys arrived home.
“Your ticket, sir.”
He jumped and, despite the heat, felt cold as he fumbled for the crumpled piece of cardboard in his shirt pocket.
The station forecourt was empty and the house quiet as he let himself in. The last thing Clive wanted was more confrontation. When she arrived home, Joanna found him peeling the vegetables.
“What’s up?” she said, slipping off her shoes. ”Conscience troubling you?”
Later, everything seemed normal. Sitting at the kitchen table eating shepherds pie with the boys, he started to relax. The girl would have forgotten all about the episode on the train by now. He decided not to tell Joanna. There was no point.
He got up and fetched a bottle of wine from the fridge. “Friends?” He passed her a glass.
“I’ve had a rotten day,” she said. ”It’s the heat. How about you?”
They dawdled at the table, reluctant to move, finishing off the wine. Around nine o’clock, as Clive was wiping the last of the dishe, the doorbell rang. He closed his eyes and stood still, not moving.
He heard Jo’s voice. “You’d better come in.”
The kitchen door opened. She was looking daggers. “Clive, you bastard. You’ve been at it again.”