Rush Hour Daydreaming

Submitted into Contest #27 in response to: Write a short story that takes place on a train.... view prompt

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General

The 17.17 train had been cancelled, so the 17.37 was stretched to full capacity. Reg pushed his way through a crowded vestibule at the head of a hoard of boarding commuters and found – against all logic and expectation – an empty seat, one of four clustered around a table.

On any other day, he would rather have stood (surely, he reflected, the designers had no grasp of the British public, if they thought that spending a journey trying to avoid eye contact with strangers was preferable to staring at the back of a seat), but today he couldn’t face the crush around the door. He nabbed the seat before anyone could beat him to the punch.

Once settled, he studied his table neighbours through lowered eyelashes, looking for wildcards. Directly opposite him was a sleeping old dear, her mouth slightly ajar; no problems there. To her right sat a young lad who looked like he should still be in school, clad in a suit several sizes too large for him, with buds screwed into his ears. All good there, too, as Reg couldn’t detect any screeching music.

He cut his eyes to his left and drew breath so sharply he nearly choked on his own spittle. There she sat: the high point of his day, the shining light of his commute. He had only ever snatched glances of her across crowded carriages before. Up close, he could smell her flowery perfume, and see that her mouth was rosebud pink. She must be beautiful when she smiled, but who on earth did that on the rush hour train?

Cheeks burning, body tense, Reg was painfully aware of their proximity. He didn’t dare try to fish his book out of his bag, from where he’d crammed it beneath his seat, lest he accidentally graze his leg against hers. Neither could he stomach the thought of scrolling through his phone for the entire journey, as a good eighty per cent of his fellow passengers were doing.

He settled instead on simply closing his eyes. Not actually sleeping – dear God, no. Not for him the indignity of the public head jerk, the lolling mouth. If he just closed his eyes and assumed a serious expression, he could be mistaken for being deep in contemplation. He could be thinking about an important business deal; deciding where he would take his next holiday; pondering all the great mysteries of the universe. No one would ever expect that in reality –

He was still sitting in the train, but it was transformed beyond recognition. The chairs were velvet, the carpet thick and plush. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, swaying gently with the motion of the carriage. On the table, rather than crumpled sandwich packets, was a crisp white cloth and a fine set of silverware.

Best of all, opposite him sat the beauty of the commuters – Rose, he decided to christen her, after those perfectly pink lips. Dressed in sparkling silver, neckline tantalisingly low while remaining just on the right side of respectable, she threw her head back and laughed. She would draw every eye in the carriage, but they were alone; he had her all to himself.

“Reginald, you are too amusing,” she said, dazzling him with a smile. “I never tire of listening to your anecdotes.”

He spread his hands, eyes downcast, the picture of gentlemanly modesty. “When you travel the world as I do, it’s impossible not to pick up a few interesting stories.”

She sighed, running a finger around the rim of her champagne flute, cheerful expression now turned wistful. “Does it ever get lonely? All those strange places, strange people. I think I’d long for a familiar face after a while.”

“A chap does miss the comforts of home from time to time.” He leaned towards her, his voice low and confidential. “You know, I’ve travelled the globe over and have yet to meet a woman as beautiful as -”

The pungent stench of fish invaded Reg’s nostrils; his eyes snapped open. The old dear in the seat opposite had awoken and unwrapped a salmon sandwich, which judging by look and smell, had been stored next to a radiator since nineteen eighty-three. No one said anything, but there was a sudden ripple of tension through the nearby passengers, and a couple of braver souls shot her disapproving looks. Oblivious, she chewed on contentedly, staring out the window at the passing scenery.

Reg allowed himself a small, barely audible sigh, then closed his eyes again.

“Oh goody!” Rose clapped her hands in delight. “I do so love seafood.”

A waiter had appeared beside their table with a cart bearing two silver domes. He served them with mute efficiency before promptly vanishing, leaving them to enjoy glistening pink salmon, buttered potatoes and green beans.

Rose took a delicate bite from her fork, washed it down with a sip of champagne, then turned her attention back to Reginald. “When I think of all the delicious food you must have sampled, I go quite green with envy. What’s been your favourite meal?”

He smiled back at her, laying his hands on the table so that their fingers were thrillingly close. “Guess,” he said.

She laughed, assuming an expression of mock concentration. “Schnitzel in Berlin?” she ventured.

“Not even close.”

“Oh, foo.” She huffed, puffing up her fringe. “Well, what about paella in Madrid?”

“Tasty, I’ll concede, but still no.”

“Aha!” she said, a triumphant smile breaking over her face. “I have it – oysters in Paris!”

“Another good guess, but I’m afraid you’re still far from the mark.” He eased his hands forward so that their fingertips touched. “No, my dear, my favourite meal is the one we’re having right - ”

A crowd roared. A hundred feet stomped their approval.

“It’s a knockout!”

Reg opened his eyes to glower at the source of the tinny voice. The young lad in his too-large suit was bright red, fumbling frantically to get his headphones back into his phone. Again, there was a general shuffling as the commuters swivelled their heads towards the disturbance. From somewhere behind, there was a loud, “Tut!”.

After no less than four failed attempts, the lad managed to reconnect his headphones. He sat back in his seat, staring at the table with an expression more suited to a naughty pupil waiting outside the headmaster’s office.

Reg managed to find a little bit of sympathy for him. He, at least, hadn’t meant to be a nuisance, and besides which –

There was a crash from the neighbouring carriage, followed by a voice roaring, “Rose!”

The door flew open and in stumbled a man, clearly intoxicated, his clothes dishevelled. His eyes flew to Rose; he staggered towards her.

Quick as a flash, Reginald was on his feet, blocking the brute’s progress. “Now, hold on just a moment,” he ordered in his most commanding voice.

The man turned his bleary gaze to Reginald, and his face twisted. “You,” he snarled. “You’ve taken her away from me!”

“Thomas, please!” cried Rose, on her feet now, hands wringing. “Reginald is blameless.”

The man – Thomas – made as if to lunge for her, and Reginald stepped in front of him again.

“I think you should leave,” he said calmly. “You’re clearly upsetting the lady.”

“What right have you to give me orders?” Thomas spat.

“Every right, when you’re being so ill-mannered.”

Thomas drew his fist back, but Reginald was faster. He cracked the man neatly across the jaw. Thomas crumpled, out cold.

Reginald turned to Rose, whose eyes now sparkled with tears.

“Oh Reginald,” she moaned, “I hope you don’t think too badly of me now.”

“I could never think badly of you.” He pulled a pristine handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her, their fingers touching and lingering for a glorious moment.

“We were engaged briefly,” she explained, dabbing delicately at her eyes. “I couldn’t go through with it, because – well, because…”

“For the same reason, I hope, that in all the places I’ve visited, I’ve never found a woman I wished to marry.” He stepped forwards, placing a questioning hand on her shoulder. “Because you have always been the one for me.”

Brushing his fingers beneath her chin, he tilted her face upwards, and then he was lowering his own face, closer and closer –

Reginald’s head collided with something with a dull thump, and he heard a little yelp of pain. He opened his eyes to see Rose – though not really Rose – holding her shoulder and glaring at him.

“Did I - ?”

“Fall asleep and headbutt me? Yes, you did,” she snapped. “Urg!” She had removed her hand from her shoulder and discovered a dark patch on her pale grey coat where he had clearly unleashed a torrent of dribble during his descent.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry. Let me…” He fumbled in his pocket, and in his panic unleashed a handful of disintegrated tissue. It rained down onto her lap.

“It’s my stop in a minute, just - ” She jerked her head, indicating that he get out of her way. He stood to let her past, still stammering apologies as she squeezed by him, clearly trying to maintain as much distance from him in the cramped space as possible.

He watched as she stomped down the aisle and disappeared from sight, then flopped back into his seat.

“Bollocks,” he said, too loud in the quiet carriage, and a sea of disapproving faces turned in his direction. 

February 04, 2020 21:43

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