The stench of Lynx from the man next to me is mildly more appealing than the stale, sweaty smell that it is trying to conceal. As if the temperature and proximity of the other sardines in this carriage weren’t enough to make me want to throw up my breakfast; this guy is about to tip me over the edge. This summer is sticky and stifling; this day is heavy with heat.
I nudge Davey and make an exaggerated facial expression. He nods and smiles, puts his hand on mine. At least we have seats, even though that means my eyes are directly in line with the exposed, toned midriff of a teenage girl, standing in front of me. She’s not much younger than I. She’s wearing headphones that are umbilically attached to the iPhone she’s swiping away at as she sways. I’m sure she’s going to topple onto us as we judder along the track, or screech into one of the stations where more people try to cram aboard.
“Hey,” Davey says.
He taps me, trying to get my attention. I realise he’s been speaking whilst I’ve been staring at the kid. Maybe she’s two or three years younger than I am. Even I can’t tell these days. I’m losing touch. I’m not one of that crowd. Never have been. It’s Davey and me, against the world. Through thick and thin, and this.
Davey taps at me again, his voice tense, insistent.
“Where do you think he’s going?”
I nod towards a man, his face buried in a map, a bulky backpack hanging from his shoulders.
“You weren’t listening to me, were you?”
I hmm, and say, “distracted.”
So many people going about their business. All oblivious, strangers passing each other by. I expect that no one else noticed the boy sitting on his mother’s lap, tugging at her until she reached into her bag and pulled out a painted wooden car. No one paid any attention to the look that she gave him as he grinned and pointed and shared a private moment with her in this public place. The look that passed between them. I suppose it was love. A kind of love that I don’t know about.
“I said, ‘it’s not too far now’.”
He repeats himself. He is so patient with me. I make that single syllable hmming noise again, acknowledging what he says but not really committing to a response. I don’t know what he wants me to say.
“Sarah. If you’re not sure…”
Davey starts that sentence and I try to reach my hand up, quickly, to put a finger on his lips, to cut it off.
“Ssh,” I say, finding the sound before my stupid, slow finger can get to his mouth.
He grabs my hand and holds it.
“It’s not too late,” he says.
What does that even mean?
The train pulls away again, and there’s a little more room to breathe. Bare-bellied girl flops into the seat opposite, opening a gap, an empty space in front of us. It’s like a barrier has been lifted, but instead of feeling extricated, I feel exposed. I nuzzle into Davey’s shoulder, almost instinctively.
The boy with the car is enjoying the freedom of movement. He’s kicking his legs and swinging his tiny vehicle through imaginary sky streets. His mother has an arm around his waist, keeping him securely in place, without restricting his ability to play. She has the balance exactly right. She knows just what to do. They are a unit, a perfect unit. I look away.
Lynx Man is reading a book, and I want to sneak a peek at what it is, but I can’t see the cover. I try to glance down, to pick up some of the content, and see if I can work out the context. It’s not English. I have no hope. The corners of the pages are well thumbed. Maybe he bought it second hand. Maybe he’s read this same book a dozen times already and he’s just enjoying it again. Stick with what you know, go with what you like, don’t take risks. Make difficult decisions. Don’t change your mind. I can’t keep looking. The smell is nauseating. It’s the smell. I tell myself it’s the smell.
I want to ask Davey what he thinks about the book, the boy, the tattoo the girl has on her calf. I want to ask him if we are doing the right thing.
I rest my head back down onto his shoulder, and he instinctively wraps an arm around me, bringing me in. Here, on a train, in a city, surrounded by strangers, we are as close as two people can be. He strokes my hair, gently, softly, the way I like it. I try to relax into his embrace, but it’s as though there is something sticking into me. I am the Princess and I am the Pea. Beneath my soft exterior is a tiny lump. The bump that stops me from settling, that stops me from sleeping.
The kid catches a look at Davey and I, and he waves his car at me. He smiles, a little shy grin, and when I smile back he tucks his face into his mother’s chest.
“Don’t,” Davey says. “Stop thinking.”
He’s reading my mind, like I was trying to read Lynx Man’s book. He knows that there’s a swirling storm inside my head, but my thoughts might as well be a foreign language to him. I could never make him understand. He might feel some of the things that I do, but he can’t know what it is like for me. There’s no way to translate between my heart and his.
This train will keep moving, and we will reach our destination. The bare-bellied girl. The man and his book. The mother, the child. The man carrying his backpack. The cargo getting in everyone’s way. The Princess. The Pea. My tiny passenger. We will reach our destination.