To Sadie Jones the stranger sitting across the table on the early train home looks well groomed, not to mention posh. He certainly sounds well-to-do as he mouths a plum-smooth, mellow hello into the smart phone next to his ear.
He reminds Sadie of Roger Moore except he has wispier, redder hair and his jawline is undoubtedly slacker than her favourite actor’s. (Roger Moore’s probably had tons of plastic surgery or at least a face-lift or Botox to counter the dreaded downward slide of middle age.)
Celebrity faces is a game Sadie’s played since she was a kid. Sometimes she has to rack her brains to find a resemblance, but this time, it’s striking how close the match is – right down to the tan and debonair arch of his eyebrow.
Sadie knows it’s rude to stare, let alone listen in to a conversation, but she’s bored with her book, and she’s got a seat on the early train home. She looks at her reflection in the window and runs a finger down the deep crease lines either side of her mouth. Gottle of geer she mimes like one of those ventriloquist’s dummies, and makes a mental note to scrutinise her face in the recently purchased magnifying mirror when she gets home.
Sadie shifts in her seat. It pops, like cardboard flexing, under her weight. Her oversized jumper is drawn unflatteringly tight around the folds of fat at her midriff. She shimmies it down and sits on the ribbed edge so it can’t ride up. The stranger has mirror polished shoes; Sadie taps a finger to her lips. You can always tell a man by his shoes. Jake wears those big padded trainer type things, the laces permanently undone, how he hasn’t tripped up, the Lord only knows. And his jeans are so far down his legs he looks like he’s crapped himself. Sadie tuts and glances up at the stranger still jawing into the phone.
If she had some earphones she’d pop them in. He’s not exactly whispering (but then posh types don’t). They tend to boom with confidence not minding who hears them or their la-di-dah twaddle. Ordinary words sound like a foreign language. Hise, Sadie tries under her breath. Hise. She mutters again smirking as her own terraced back-to-back fades in the glory of a Georgian mansion… Mr Easy-On-The-Eye (Colin Firth) romping down the gravelled driveway to kiss her passionately on the threshold. Sadie nestles her shoulders into the back of the seat, her eyes close, and she sighs deeply.
The door to the carriage shudders open. Heat prickles the back of Sadie’s neck and she rummages in the oversized handbag as the guard stands over her. The ticket pokes out of the top of her book. ‘Silly me,’ she confesses. The ticket collector nods and gives her a tight-lipped smile. A phone case snaps shut and the stranger reaches a perfectly manicured hand into the breast pocket of his navy blue suit. He flicks open a rectangle of black, shiny crocodile skin and flashes it, and a smile at the lady guard.
Sadie stares at the Hollywood teeth and quality of the leather looking for a brand. Two perfect fang-like incisors give him a wolfish, almost carnal look. Did he raise an eyebrow at her? Sadie looks down and picks at a bobble on her skirt. She has a de-fuzzing thing somewhere at home. She delves in her bag for a chocolate bar and tears into the soft chewy heart.
‘Are you going to the end of the line? To Brampton by any chance?’ Sadie jumps and looks up blank. She can feel something stuck to her front teeth. She closes her lips and runs her tongue there before putting her hand up to her mouth.
‘I noticed your scarf – Brampton College isn’t it?’ The stranger asks. ‘I was an old boy there many moons ago.’ He fingers the striped tie, broad knotted, at his neck. ‘The same colours, aren’t they?’
Sadie nods, swallowing the chocolaty saliva that’s collected in her mouth. She’s mildly annoyed she hasn’t savoured the whole bar. ‘The scarf was a present. It’s not a school one, not mine anyway,’ she half-lies, putting her finger over the cigarette burn at the bottom.
The bold stripes draped around Sadie’s neck suddenly feel alien and inappropriate. What right had she to a college scarf? It was second hand, a charity shop find, though she’s not about to admit that to the nosy old toff. The colours had stood out, that and the quality of the wool, although she hadn’t noticed the burn. It was too late by the time she’d got it home and washed it. She would have felt mean taking it back.
‘I like the colours,’ she admits.
‘Yes. Splendid, aren’t they? I was there a long time ago. I’m surprised it’s still there. Nineteen hundred and ten I started – a long time ago now.’ He furrows his brow. ‘I think. ‘ He looks up at the roof of the carriage as if calculating then snaps his head back to Sadie, his blue eyes glint. ‘Best days of your life – school. What?’ Sadie’s mind races to select the right reply.
‘Maybe? Though I don’t think Wigan Secondary Modern had much to recommend itself. It was pretty grim. I hated every second.’
The stranger throws his head back and closes his eyes, a serene look comes over his face as if he’s about to pray. Sadie heaves her shoulders up and around forcing them down her back. She should be friendlier; he seems muddled.
‘When did you say you left school?’ she asks.
‘Oh, long before the start of the war. Let me see, I was fourteen when I joined the army, went up through the ranks and by the time of the Great War I was in charge of my own regiment. Captain. Third fusiliers. Lost nearly all of my lads. Swore I’d not fight again, but well, you’ll know the history. Beastly Hitler came along and we were at it again for King and country.’ Sadie raises her eyebrows. She wants to take it all in, but she slept so badly last night and she can’t be bothered to do the maths, even so, something doesn’t add up. She frowns and her fingers creep towards the book on the table as the man gets up.
‘Is there anything I can get you from the buffet car?’ he asks.
‘Oh no, no thank you very much – that’s very kind of you. I’m fine, thank you.’ Sadie replies, grabbing up the book. ‘That’s kind,’ She says more softly, folding the front cover back and creasing the first page flat. He whips a crisp note from his wallet flicking it between his fingers, just like her mother used to, in case there are two stuck together.
‘Well, I’ll just get myself a cup of tea – warm myself up.’ He adds. ‘It feels rather chilly in this carriage. Don’t you think?’ Sadie shrugs and looks around for an open window. The heating blasts from the vent beneath the table making the soles of her feet itch in her fake fur boots.
The man shuffles into the aisle, his hands gripping the table tight to steady himself against the swaying motion of the train. He looks pallid and grey. Just standing up seems to have drained him of colour. Maybe he suffers from bad circulation?
The chocolate bar sits on top of her bag and Sadie’s heart give a little leap of joy as she sinks her teeth into the unfinished business. Her legs flop indulgently apart as the sugary sweetness sticks to her teeth. Perhaps she should have asked the old man to get her a cup of tea after all. Too late, he’s back sashaying down the carriageway, a paper bag swinging from his hand, looking greyer than ever. He slumps into the opposite seat. His eyes seem watery and look straight through her. Has she offended him?
She stares out of the window at his reflection and he cups his hands around the corrugated beaker to blow the tea. The train rattles and shakes and the man’s face seems to judder. White steam rises off the tea reminding Sadie of the dragon’s breath game they played as kids blowing streams of cold air into each other’s faces in the playground on a crisp winter’s day. She knits her eyebrows. The man’s eyes seem hollow and dark, and the skin on his hands has turned papery white, stretched taut over a network of lumpy bones. Sadie blinks and shakes her head. A blast of icy air hits her face and forces her to pull the college scarf around her neck. She inhales the boiled wool smell.
Something isn’t right. Maybe he’s having some sort of seizure, a heart attack or a stroke? Her own heart quickens. Should she ask him if he’s all right? It’s as if he’s fading away.
Sadie’s chest tightens. She looks up at the lights in the carriage expecting them to be switched off but they glare white. A wave of heat rises up inside her jumper. She draws her feet beneath her ready to spring up from the seat and run. Beads of sweat are forming on her upper lip. She swipes a hand across her face. It’s clammy. Outside the ghostly blur of a station name speeds past, and is gone. A thwack of air rattles the window and jolts Sadie back in her seat. She looks for the man, but he’s gone.
Sadie gasps and leaps to her feet. She stares at the empty space and then around at the other passengers. She wants to shout. Did you see him? That old man, where did he go? The one that looked like Roger Moore? But their heads are buried in papers or books; blank faces stare through her, as if she is invisible. Slowly, she sinks back down into her seat and creeps a hand towards the tea. It’s warm. She places both her hands on the table and her rings clink on the formica top as she spreads her load to peer at the dented seat where he’s been. Expecting what? A pile of ash? A wallet? A trace of something?
The ticket collector appears at the door. Sadie scrabbles to her feet stumbling down the carriageway, and then stops. What will she say? She’s seen a ghost. What if the old man has gone to the toilet? She blows air up over her lip to cool her burning face. Back in the seat she waits for her heart to slow and the stranger to return, but the tea goes cold and nobody comes.
SL Bett-Hewitt asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work