To the blonde woman with a mischievous smile, wearing a green quilted coat and travelling on the train from Kings Cross to Leeds after work on October 12th. How about a Sunday evening stroll along the Thames?
Duffle coat dreamer
To the hot, dungaree-wearing girl who winked at me this Friday as I got on the train at London Bridge station. I should never have left the platform. Hopefully I haven’t missed my chance.
Guy in the red fleece with the black tote bag
Afro hair, sequin top, jeans queen. You were travelling on the train towards Peterborough on October 11th. Love how you took over the carriage and stood over me. Let me stand you a drink?
Peaky Blinder, blinded by you
Infectious smiles over takeaway coffees. Cheeky winks as the carriages steam up, every breath just increasing the sticky fug; condensation sweating down the window panes. The train lurches along the tracks and so do a hundred hearts. The insistent rhythm seems to be setting off the carnal beat of longing in me. That man with the strong stride, just jumping in as the guard blows his whistle, shaking out his soaking umbrella so the drops fall on my shoe- just my shoe for heaven’s sake! I feel like he’s grasped my hand and whispered how he’d like to take me out dancing, naked in the rain. Then there’s the guy with the cutest dimples who got on at Grove Park, sprang in like a golden retriever with that mop of dancing curls. I grip the paper tight because if I don’t, I may suddenly find myself getting up and running my hands through that bouncing- touch me, touch me! - hair.
The Rush Crush pages in the Metro newspaper aren’t helping one teeny tiny bit; my hormones were sparking anyway and now reading all these lusty letters is just like tossing in the match. I want to burn baby burn, just like all these peaky blinder, duffle coat dreamers. My problem is, I could fill the whole paper, digital version too, with my longings but where do they always end up? Ash.
I’m just about to throw the paper onto the seat and pull my college notes from yesterday’s seminar out of my rucksack, when I nearly have a coronary: dimple guy is walking his luscious locks straight towards the empty seat next to me. Actually, he’s sway walking in time to the rolling train and his hips are at my eye level and I’m getting flashes of Elvis and screaming fans. I literally can’t look away, which is terrible; I mean, how can I keep staring at his crotch! I force my eyes upwards and when he smiles and asks if the seat is free, the inevitable happens.
The scarlet rash, starting somewhere near my frantic heart, creeps its way up my neck. This is no beautiful blossom; no damask demure blush. No, this is ugly and mottled, spreading like rampant red ivy all over my mortified face. I want to put my head in my hands and hide, but that will only draw attention to me all the more. If the train would stop in seconds, I would seriously like to smash the glass and ring the emergency bell: get the hell out of here. But the South-eastern train company isn’t exactly renowned for speed of service, and I can't risk prolonging my embarrassment as all eyes turn my way.
Instead, I hide myself behind my rucksack, hurriedly pulling out my folder of notes. Thankfully it’s A3 size, and when I’ve opened the binder right up it masks my blotchy face from all eyes, sympathetic or cruel. The throb inside me has gone; it’s been swallowed in one hungry mouthful by this predator: humiliation. I wish, wish, wish that Dimple- Man hadn’t sat down; that I could have just longed for him from afar. But then, even more than this, I wish that he had sat down, and we could just talk, and my face wouldn’t do this crazy flame thing, as if it has to show exactly what is firing up inside me.
I stare at my scrawling handwriting. If this is me pretending to learn for college, it’s a complete joke as the notes could be explaining black holes, Baroque art or the Battle of Waterloo for all the sense they make today. My eyes scan and I feel like I’m five again, moving my finger along the line of text, recognising the letters but unable to read any of them. It’s not just the notes which are incomprehensible; it’s my own body, speaking to me with a language I can’t understand, making me feel every bit as illiterate as I did thirteen years ago.
The train shudders to its final stop, Charing Cross, and I wait till everyone has exited before I chance putting down my binder, even though I know Dimple- Man is long gone; he squeezed past my prim tight-pressed knees at London Bridge. He hadn’t said anything, why would he? Probably thought I had some terrible disfigurement, or was a weird introvert. Even if I know this isn’t true and I’m making too much of the whole thing, I need this time to sort myself out.
Ignoring the empty carriage’s silence, which almost seems like a reproof of my idiotic behaviour, I glance instead at my watch; there’s still twenty minutes till class. I pull out my little compact and look hard at the circle of myself. The person staring out has eyes which bore right into me. I wonder if they scour everyone like this, pinning them down until they feel like butterflies, wings fixed helplessly. Perhaps that is why I’ve never had a boyfriend; never even had a proper kiss. I thought it was the rash, but could it be these pin-you down eyes? I snap the compact shut, feeling like I have been folded in two: crushed.
An announcement crackles over the loudspeaker: Please do not board this train. It is preparing to depart to the siding for cleaning.
I feel like I’ve been taken to the cleaners already and certainly don’t fancy being trapped in the carriage while it’s hosed down, so I make my way reluctantly to the exit, swipe my oyster card and I’m out on the Strand. Red double- decker buses trundle by pursued by black cabs; bicycles weave in and out and pedestrians, late for the office, chance crossing the road on a green light, causing a fanfare of angry beeping. London is like the blast of air when the non-stop train speeds by; I feel like I am on the platform as it rushes past and breathe in deeply, sucking up the energy that is my city. Yes, there’s probably god knows how many micro pollutants, but I need each and every lungful to help clear my brain fog.
With new purpose, I shoulder my bag and head to my faculty: The Arts and Humanities department at King’s College London where I’m a first-year student. The rain must have stopped while I was brooding in the carriage, but the pavement is still slick and gleams like polished glass. I glide along in my worn-down sneakers, faster than the traffic inching by beside me. I could be pushing off with my skates and I can hardly believe it when I pass Somerset House, that they are in fact already setting up the outside rink.
I love skating. For me it really is the highlight of the whole winter season, especially as night falls and couples glide hand in hand, cold lips pressing into warm kisses and the fairy lights sparkle like every Christmas wish soon to come true.
My eyes must glaze over, lost in the old romance, as when I snap to- suddenly remembering class starts in ten minutes- the construction guy closest to me, who had been carrying some sort of metal board, has propped it against the wall as if he needs both hands free to give me a very definite wink. Rain from the plank has slicked his arms, highlighting every muscle, and I can’t help think how my hand would just slide along, if I touched him. He opens his mouth to speak and I feel the poison ivy burst on my neck again. I can’t do more than squeak as I flee, half-running along the final 100 metres, and burst into the department just as Hannah arrives and our bags collide.
“Whoa, Baby!" All my fellow students call me that. They think it’s a shriek, casting me as naïve Jennifer Grey to the throbbing, thrusting Patrick Swayze. “What all the rush? You look like you’re running from a chainsaw wielding maniac.” She peers in closer. “What’s that on your neck?”
I reach for the lame excuse I always go for:
“Allergic reaction.” I state, firmly as I can. “Must have been something in my bagel.”
“No,” she croons with concern through a billow of scarves and perfume, “what are you allergic to? Nuts? Dairy?”
I would love to see her reaction if I said men, that their scent and flesh is sending my body more nuts than any trace of pecan, brazil or walnut could ever manage. But then the Baby name from Fresher’s Week would more than stick; they’d probably set me up with a stripper-gram at the next social, just to see me turn lobster.
“Yeah, both of them!” I laugh to cover the lie and realise immediately what a dumb thing it is I’ve said. I mean, what am I going to eat in future at the canteen?
She takes my arm in hers, draped in a diaphanous dress which makes her look like a walking William Morris print, and leads me through the doors towards our seminar room.
“When did it start, this allergy? And why didn’t you ever say? It must be awful, reading every label ten times.” She gushes on, excited by the dramatic possibilities of this new bit of knowledge.
“Oh, and do you have to carry one of those thingummies…to jab yourself. What’s it called? An Epi pen.”
A perverse part of me suddenly wants to get that spade and dig the hole into a dirty great pit. I mean, what the heck, I could tell her I’m allergic to everything from cod to candy and at least enjoy her expression, even if it does mean I’ll be living on air every time I dine at College. I’m about to flipping well do it, when Professor Pemberley opens the door we’ve been dawdling outside of.
“Come on Jane, Hannah, work to do today- you two gossips. You haven’t forgotten the Press Night is tomorrow? Get a move on.”
Of course we haven’t forgotten the Press Night at the National Gallery. Pemberley has been droning on and on and about it ever since we started the course two weeks ago. How it is a massive honour for us freshers, still wet behind the ears, to serve the drinks at this preview for the exhibition on Manet & Eva Gonzalès. But it’s hard to get excited about standing around looking simply decorative, handing out flutes of champagne, for one painting where- what a surprise- the famous male artist is perving at his attractive female pupil.
It is how it is. I won’t be able to change it, so I begin to think instead of all the guests who will attend. If they’ll be any young artists milling around with the hacks. The guy from the ice-rink with his wet arms slips into my mind as warm and thrilling as a glass of deep red claret. I leave the other students jostling for starring roles and ease myself into the picture a little deeper.
“So, Jane, I can put you down for handing out drinks on arrival. Yes?”
I snap back to the round table and the allocation of roles, hands on my neck, just in case the guilty smudge starts to show.
“Yes, Professor Pemberley, that’s fine.”
The rest of the time is taken up with boring logistics for the evening and I’m glad when it finally draws to a close. I make my excuses not to join the others for lunch on campus, and head back down the Strand, walking extra fast past Somerset House, not even chancing a glance to see if my morning fantasy is still at work.
Heading out of the smoke so early in the day, the train is nearly empty except for some of the silver-haired brigade. A few hours in the throb of London is enough for them; back to the suburbs for the comforts of afternoon tea and a snooze on the sofa and today, I can’t say I blame them. In fact, when I get home, that is exactly what I do, except I sleep the clock round and only wake when daylight glints through my lounge window.
The 17.42 service to Charing Cross is delayed by four minutes. It would be when the October wind is playing havoc with my long hair and I’ve less than an hour to get to the National Gallery for this blasted waitressing gig. I should have worn the beret but I couldn’t face the prospect of looking like every other wannabe artist. I pull a Metro newspaper from the stand and leaf through to the Rush Crush pages. The wind shakes the sheets and I’m trembling just as much as I read one entry:
To the mysterious girl with the long green scarf and piercing blue eyes. You were on the 8.28 stopping service from Hastings to Charing X. I felt you staring at me from across the carriage. I sat down next to you but you were lost in your college notes. I wish you’d lose yourself in me…
Guy in the leather coat with the smitten look
The memory pulses with new life. Dimple- Man! Could it be Dimple- Man who came and sat by me? It sounds like it. That bit about the college notes; and that was my train! But mysterious girl? Piercing blue eyes? Mine are grey, but hey- from a distance they might look blue! It could be me...the decider is the leather jacket. But no matter how much I rake up the memory, it won’t yield the vital clue. As the train pulls into the station and I board, I realise sadly I just hadn’t looked; I’d spent too much time staring at his crotch…
I go onto the Metro website and click to the right page. There it is, my entry in digital form for the whole world to read. My heart is racing, I will do it! I will contact Dimple- Man, or rather leather coat guy with the smitten look, and set up a date- somewhere really dark where my rash will be hidden by the black enveloping folds of night! But, however many times I hit the blasted tab, the page just won’t load. Chelsfield comes and goes, no joy. We’re racing, for once, into Grove Park and the page changes and the spiral of doom, the loading icon, sucks me in. South-eastern have done themselves proud; what a service today: four minutes behind schedule but they’ve made up every one of them, rocketing me up to central London bang on time. The only thing still bloody delayed: The Metro Rush Crush page. I exit the train, tugging at my scarf turned noose. My evil phone is consigned to the bottom of my bag along with my hopes.
Rain has started pattering the pavement and I keep my head bowed as I stride up to the National. I’ve only got my thoughts on clearing security and getting this prosecco shenanigans out of the way as quickly as possible, so when someone cuts in front of me at the revolving door, I walk straight into their soft brown leather jacket.
We both blunder out of the door back into the rain, awkward apologies jostling against each other. Then, at the same moment, our eyes lock and my mouth opens, literally, like one of those cheesy movie moments. His wide smile forms the cutest dimples I’ve ever seen and those bouncing luscious locks are shimmering with each rain drop.
“You are, aren’t you? You’re the girl on the train: mysterious girl!”
And somehow, hearing his mention of the Rush Crush entry, I can find the words, even as I feel the rash begin to prick below my scarf.
“Yes, and you’re leather coat guy! Although in my head you’re Dimple-Man…”
I trail off, feeling the rash snake higher.
“I knew you’d be an Arts student.” His voice is more refreshing than the rain, now streaming down, drenching us both. “Are you here for the event?”
He gestures to the poster advertising the private viewing for the Press.
“Well sort of. I’m at King’s College and they’ve roped us in to hand out drinks. It’s only because we’re gullible Freshers that we couldn’t get out of it!”
He laughs and it’s deep, like a roll of thunder, pounding right through me.
“You know what, Gullible Fresher could be on my name tag too, except I’m down as the student reporter for Imperial College’s rag. I thought I’d nip in quick, pen my 300 words, and get the hell home; foul weather, Friday night and all that, but now…”
His gaze is more loaded than any flirty wink and the rash just bursts up my neck; I can’t stop it.
That deep laugh bowls me over once more.
“Oh yes!” He says punching the air. “The lady in red wants to go dancing with me.”
I’ve never thought of my ugly rash like that, but as he takes my hand and pulls me off into the London night, I’m happy for the first time that my crush is obvious for all, but especially gorgeous Dimple-Man, to see.