The Commute by Lyndsey Croal

Dana rode the train every day. The same route, the same carriage, the same content expression. The seat she chose each morning was in the perfect spot: the centre of the third carriage, next to a window that offered the best view of the passing mountains as the city faded into a distant memory.  Most importantly, it was at the table that he sat on.

She never spoke to him, of course, but in her imagination, she would often reach out and ask him about his morning or about what he was thinking, though sometimes she entertained herself with guessing. Most of all she just wanted to tell him she was there, but she never quite made that breakthrough. Watching him would have to be enough. Glancing at his ring finger, sporting a gold band he often fidgeted with, she felt reminiscent of a distant past.

On a Friday morning, his phone would ring on cue; ‘Mum’ flashed across the screen, and Dana would listen to the predictable one-sided conversation.

‘Yes. I’ll see you tonight, it’s Friday after all,’ he answered.

‘Yes, the girls are coming, but Eleanor has decided she doesn’t like carrots anymore.’

Dana smiled, agreeing that carrots were the worst vegetable.

‘No, I can’t force her, you know what she’s like.’

‘Yes, she’s stubborn…yes, like her mother…I’m sure next week it will be potatoes but–’ His words broke off and he twisted his wedding ring absent-mindedly.

‘Don’t worry Mum, it’s fine. Really.’

‘Okay, got to go now, almost at my stop.’

The train was still twenty minutes from his work.

‘Okay see you tonight. Bye. Love you too.’

The call ended, and he was left with a vacant expression, gazing beyond the window for the rest of the journey. At his stop, Dana remained on the carriage, anticipating their next crossing with detached excitement.

The months wore on, but still she remained in silent observation. Watching on slyly as he did his sudoku puzzle or shook his head at the cryptic crosswords. Sometimes he mumbled the clues to himself and she wanted to reach out and give him a hint, tell him the answer to an anagram clue. She had always been good at those.

Some days she noticed his eyes were dark and creased. On others, his hair was uncombed, his shirts wrinkled.

The first of December, a Friday morning, she knew he’d been crying. He ignored the usual call from his mother. Instead, he began scrolling through photos, pausing on some images longer than others. His face contorted between smiling vaguely and a pained expression.

He got off at an earlier stop.  She followed him as he walked down the cobbled lane and into an open garden, past a church. His heavy boots crunched in the frosty grass. She lingered at a distance as he knelt by a gravestone. He placed his hand on the cold surface, tracing the lettering slowly. Reaching into his bag, he took out a single orange flower and placed it by the stone. Orange always brightened a dark day.

She shed a tear and for a moment she felt almost close to him. But that wasn’t possible. Not anymore. She pulled herself away from the scene and ambled away, back to the train station. Back to her familiar carriage.

She sat in a different seat this time. It was still just next to her usual table where he sat. Close, but no longer in reach. She’d been watching him for a year after all.

The next Monday, he sat again at his usual spot. He looked hastily around his empty table as if he’d forgotten or lost something, but he just shook himself and continued with his crossword and morning coffee. The confusion of whatever it was that he thought he was missing appeared to slowly fade away.

It was February when someone finally took her now vacant seat. The new passenger, a woman, wasn’t a typical image of beauty, but she had a unique prettiness. And kind eyes. Dana liked her eyes. She looked at the woman’s hand; no ring.

Tenth of February–his eyes caught the woman’s and they exchanged a faint smile. She recognised his expression. It was one she hadn’t seen for a while. And she felt the same tingling as she had done the first time she’d seen it. So long ago.

The next day he was mumbling to himself again. Did he know he was speaking out loud? Probably not.

The other woman chuckled and leaned over, tapping the paper, ‘Illusion.’

He looked up, flustered. ‘What?’

‘Eight letter word for apparition, beginning with I, ending in N. Illusion,’ she repeated.

‘Oh.’ His body tensed. ‘Thanks.’

‘You’re welcome,’ she gave him a broad smile.

Dana wanted to kick him, tell him to stop being so dim, but he merely looked down at his page again and stayed silent for the rest of the journey.

The next day, she talked to him again, unperturbed by his apparent indifference.  ‘Hope.’

He shook his head. ‘Hmm. No, it can’t be, it’s got five letters.’

She snickered. ‘No, not the clue. My name.’

‘Hope?’

‘This is where you tell me yours.’

He shifted in his seat and stared blankly. ‘Ermm…Jamie. It’s Jamie.’

‘Nice to meet you ‘Erm…Jamie,’ she reached out to shake his hand, their grip lingering for a few seconds longer than normal. As their gaze met, there was a spark in his eyes, a sort of intrigue, mixed with a hint of trepidation. Dana watched on as if it were a movie scene. Hope. She was funny too. That was important. This could work.

Hope continued to chime in to Jamie’s daily crossword, eventually moving to sit next to him, armed with her own ballpoint pen. Soon they were finishing the puzzles in record time, long before the end of their daily commute. For the rest of the journey they would chat occasionally, commenting on the weather or their surroundings, or about passing commuters as they walked through the carriage.

Jamie’s creases under his eyes began to fade and Dana noticed he started to dress slightly better. His beard was now neatly trimmed each day, his tie perfectly knotted. She could swear he had whitened his teeth, though the thought made her laugh.

One Friday, Jamie boarded the train and positioned himself in his usual spot. He fidgeted, scrunching up his paper in his hands, looking between the seats, glaring at anyone who might have considered taking the empty spot by his side. Hope boarded at her stop and he quickly waved her over. She sat with a smile.

She eyed his crunched-up paper. ‘Did you not want to do the crossword today?’

He looked down and blushed. ‘Oh. I didn’t mean…I…guess I must have been distracted.’

‘By anything in particular?’ she probed, a twinkle in her hazel eyes.

‘Well I wanted to ask you something actually, if you know, if you…’ His words tapered off.

Dana shifted closer to them. For goodness sake Jamie, don’t chicken out now.

‘If I?’ Hope said, extending the last syllable.

‘Well it’s Friday,’ he said.

‘It is.’ Hope wasn’t making it easy for him, though her little look of mischief made Dana optimistic.

‘On Fridays my mum has the girls and I usually go around too, but I thought that maybe you’d like to do something instead. I mean if you want to?’

‘Are you finally asking me out?’ she smirked.

‘Finally? Well, yes, I suppose.’ He lifted his arm and rubbed the back of his neck between his shoulder. He took a deep breath and spoke the next words as if he was running out of air. ‘Would you like to go out somewhere for food. Or a drink or you know we don’t need to if you have other plans I know it’s a bit last minute…’

Hope leaned over and placed her hand on his other fist which remained gripped around the paper. ‘I’d love to do something, yes.’

‘Oh!’ He looked genuinely surprised. ‘Well. Great. I’ll see you tonight then,’ and he stood up abruptly ready to get off at his stop.

‘Jamie?’

‘Yes?’ he turned around, out of breath, his free hand tapping subconsciously on his leg.

She quickly flattened the crossword puzzle page and wrote her number and address strategically within the blank spaces. ‘You’ll need this. Pick me up at seven?’

Jamie took the page with a broad smile and nodded, before rushing off on to his platform.

Hope, grinning, pulled out her phone. Dana leaned in next to her shoulder to see her typing a message to a friend: ‘He FINALLY asked me. We’re going out tonight!’.

Content, Dana stood and walked down to another carriage. The light grew gradually as she stood by the exit. With a final glimpse back at the excited face of Hope, she stepped off on to the platform knowing she would never step on to the train again. Instead, she walked and walked. She knew now that Jamie could be happy without her, and so too, in time, would the girls.

Her kind and loving husband, her beautiful and bright daughters. They may have lost their wife and mother too soon, but that didn’t mean that life couldn’t go on for them.

She was ready to move on to her next journey, knowing one day she would see them again, and maybe even meet the other woman that had helped them find happiness. She was ready now. It was her time.

Jamie rode the train every day. The same route, the same carriage, the same content expression. The seat he chose each morning was in the perfect spot: the centre of the third carriage, next to a window that offered the best view of the passing mountains as the city faded into a distant memory.  Most importantly, it was at the table that she sat on. Hope.


Lyndsey regularly blogs on current affairs and is an aspiring creative writer. She currently lives in Edinburgh, working for an environmental charity in public affairs. She enjoys speculative fiction in particular and is currently working on her first novel while writing short stories in her spare time. She is on twitter here.

 

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