by Monim Wains
I looked up across the carriage at the man in the hat, swaying from side to side with the travel of the train. The rolling rumble of the wheels on the tracks screeched beneath the city. There was a breeze through the window, but it was stale. Dust and darkness carried through the air underground. It was as if chimneys had been laid flat and buried deeper and deeper in the earth, lathered in some long-neglected soot, disturbed only by the occasional commuter train.
I looked up across the carriage, curious. Not staring, of course – staring is the height of rudeness in London. It is an unspoken law that one must travel in their own world, bumping into another’s awareness only to apologise for daring to do so. No, you do you, none of my business, I’ve got my own stuff to do. But it was difficult in a carriage, when there was someone just opposite. The hat invited intrigue.
He was asleep! That’s why he bobbled in time with the train, rocking left and right with the rhythm of the tracks. His eyes drooped low with his head, shadowed by the brim. He was probably bald, I guessed. That would make sense at least, with only soft grey wisps behind his ears, and strong, deep lines that carved his face. I wonder if wrinkles can tell you how a person usually looks. As if they freeze your average expression over the decades: crinkled eyes for those who smile, furrowed brows for those who don’t. What was his expression in life?
It looked stressful, as if this momentary nap was a long-needed respite from all that he had lived. His forehead was clawed, lined by some constant tension that must have dogged his days.
And then I noticed, under his jacket, a poppy peeking out of a blue-black blazer. And there, just the corner of something metallic, glinting in the cold dull light of the tube. What could that be? I thought. I wasn’t staring, of course, just looking into the distance past his shoulder at the walls of the tunnel, coated in a black crust of grime and dust. My expression was suitably blank, as it should be. But the glint kept catching my eye. I would blink at it before remembering to look away. What could it be?
I decided to distract myself from my rudeness and pulled out my phone. I don’t know what I wanted to see, just needed something to scroll through. Maybe I’d check the news for the 13th time this afternoon. Back in my bubble. What time was it anyway? 3:04pm, Wednesday 11th – oh, of course!
My bubble burst. I looked up again, definitely staring now. Of course it was. The age, the lines – of course. I hadn’t even noticed the cane in his hand! I wondered, without a choice now, the tension that must have dogged his days. The battles he must have seen and lived through. What dreams he might have been having in this nap. Today would have been so tiring for him, reliving the lives of the friends he must have lost. Maybe happy memories too, of brief moments of some kind of adventure. I wouldn’t know. So much remembered, hidden inside his mind. I was glad that he could rest–
Someone walked between us, looking for a place to sit. ‘Excuse me,’ they said, as I shuffled my legs to make space. I was annoyed at them for a second – not that I said anything, obviously; I just nodded, politely. It broke my thought though, and I could return, back to my phone, mindlessly thumbing through something. That felt almost comfortable, normal. It was what I was used to.
But I couldn’t ignore him so easily now. Not just him, but the whole train. Everyone, even whoever it was who interrupted me. What stories could they have told? What memories did they have from the lives they had lived? All of them, now, just trundling along on the tube.
I almost wanted to ask him. I wanted to reach out, sit down and listen with intent. How many stories he must have had. I had grown up in cities my whole life, perhaps connected to the world in some sense. But he must have seen it, and seen it in a way that I could never see it (and hopefully would never need to see it). My mind raced with images of the images he might have known –
Ding-dong went the bell, announcing my station on the speakers. The carriage slowed, making everyone lean to the side with the tension of the brakes, until they loosed, shuddering to a stop. There was a buzz of motion as I joined the crowd and stood up. More people walked along, blocking my view, but I just caught a glimpse of the hat through the crowd. He woke up for a second, blinking the sleep out of his eyes, before his head drooped back down again.
I turned and stepped off the train, part of the anonymous mass.