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The sheer stupidity and ridiculousness of the situation made the man shrink. It was as if his shoulders lowered and narrowed by a few inches as he sat hunched over on the shaking train. The metallic tube shuddered and careered loosely on the tracks, jolting and uprearing the passengers in their seats momentarily before regularly grinding to a hostile stop, as though sliding on ungreased friction.
In the man’s hands was the small plate that had stuck perfectly inside a bowl. He could not shift the plate out from the bowl no matter what he tried as the ceramic on ceramic made it impossible to gain any traction to slide it out, nor could he get his fingernails underneath the imperceptible gap between plate and bowl. He was starting to sweat and redden through the physical strain combined with the emotional frustration of having been bettered by a pair of inanimate objects and a generally ludicrous situation, the hunch in his back resembling that of a hand labourer in a field. The man shifted his bloodshot eyes up and about the train carriage and saw that of his few fellow passengers nobody was looking at him. He thought about what was now hidden forever inside the bowl.
The train sped on and continued to shake and clatter, and in sections of the track it would shriek in a pitch that a barn owl might have mistaken for a mate in some dew covered green forest.
As the train ground to a deafening and obnoxious stop again the doors split open in a violent thud. A few of the commuters disembarked but nobody got on the train. The man was still occupied with his plate and bowl and he lifted it up to his ear and shook it to hear the rattle of the contents inside whose distance from him was excruciating and frankly unacceptable. Without looking up from his occupied hands he heard from his rear a woman speaking loudly on the phone in another language. The voice came closer to him and passed and he looked up to see the young woman smiling broadly at nothing as she spoke. She did not sit down immediately and the train began to move off again as she swayed and balanced on the train like a surfer without breaking her speech before jumping into a seat opposite him.
He looked at her with hesitation, being sure not to catch her eye. She was tanned with quartz blue eyes and dyed blonde, perfectly straight hair. The animation with which he had been trying to dislodge the plate had subsided, and he merely fondled it in his hands like it were now a childish toy. He looked up again and she was still grinning, baring all of her teeth as she spoke in her language that sounded like a strange concoction of Romantic and Slavic tongues. She still did not seem to look at the man or notice him despite their now being the only two people in that part of the carriage. The man rubbed the plate and traced the inside of the bowl with his finger in reflection. He looked up again. She was off the phone as they were in a tunnel, and she appeared to be looking at him. He couldn’t be sure as he had immediately averted his eyes. When he looked up again it appeared that she still was looking at him…or was she looking out of the window behind him? Through the fog of excitement and nerves he couldn’t be certain of anything. He looked down at his hands again and thought to himself that she might well have been. It did not occur to him to say anything to her.
The train track ascended noticeably and they soared along a tall viaduct built in vaulted arches of faded red brick that afforded an aerial view of the suburbs: telephone wires webbed over terraces, pastoral vistas of empty and immaculately groomed parks, and cars that appeared as small metallic cubes streaming through the roads as though coasting on ice. They approached the next station and the offensive shriek of the train burning against the well-worn tracks began to diminish as it came to a shudder of a halt. He looked up again out of the corner of his eye and saw that the woman had stood up and was awkwardly attempting to handle the various objects in her hands as she went to depart the train – her bags, an empty crushed plastic water bottle, her phone and something else. She was almost out of the door when an unpleasant feeling rose from his stomach up into his chest. He was not sure what this was or what it meant. He only knew he did not like it at all and that it was related to the woman departing, though he did not have much time to process this.
He looked back down at the pathetic bowl in resignation, but saw a yellow and black figure hovering in the corner of his eye: she had not yet left. Instead he saw her with one foot out of the train before swerving back inside the carriage as she realised suddenly that it was not her station. As she came back into the carriage and sat down in her seat again, they looked at each other for the first time and she smiled at him in recognition. Before he could note his surprise words began leaving her mouth: ‘I thought it was my station, but it’s not!’ she said in a heavy accent and laughed before she had finished her sentence.
‘Oh right, really,’ he nodded and laughed with her.
‘I’m so tired,’ she said and shook her head, all the while still smiling broadly. ‘I got on the train, but I didn’t realise I was going in the wrong direction. I live in Broken Oak, the next station, not this one!’ She said and laughed again.
The train continued its transit through the suburbs of the city as the concrete and brick towers became fewer. The greenery of the trees and overgrown weeds and bracken came to dominate the scenery framed by the scratched and wobbling windows of the carriage, the sun now a weak orange ball of haze that had lost its heat and luminosity and shone low in the sky like a puddle.
‘Where are you from?’ he blurted out, in surprise that this was the first thing he wanted to know about her.
‘Romanian,’ she said with an enthusiastic roll of the r.
She continued to speak about her journey and some other things that the man did not fully digest. He was more concerned with the fact that he was, at this moment, speaking to this stranger that was merely a few minutes ago as far from him in familiarity as anyone on the other side of the world.
‘Why are you so tired?’
‘Well, I wake up at 5am and my job is very far, so I lose two hours in the evening as well.’
‘That’s a long day for you then!’ he said.
She smiled and nodded.
The train began to slow and he connected the decrease in speed with the proximity of the next station and a vague sense of panic filled him up. She began to once again pack up her things. He stood up and realised he was still clutching the bowl in his hands.
‘Well…’ he smiled as they both acknowledged their conversation had come to an end with the nearing halt of the train. She probably doesn’t like you that much, he thought. Does she?
As they were getting off of the train he did not know whether to say anything: whether to continue the conversation or to say ‘goodbye and have a good evening’, or to walk off without a word. It occurred to him that the rapport that they had built in the brief minutes between stations may have been entirely in his imagination, or have meant more to him than her, and that she was probably a friendly person who liked to talk to strangers on the train, and that that kind of thing is most likely the norm in Romania and nothing of significance, and that this cultural difference was the primary or sole reason for their entire conversation, and that it was not in fact because she found him attractive and wanted to bear his children.
He began to approach the stairs to the street level of the station as the train continued its drone on to the end of the line. The woman walked behind him as they went along the platform and during this minute period of time he had resigned himself to the fact that he would not have her. Instead, all that he would have was this stupid plate stuck inexplicably inside this stupid bowl, with the contents lodged inside. As he approached the stairs he saw her walk by. A warm smile emerged across her face as she did so and she said goodbye to him. He did not say anything in response, but instead only smiled at her the best smile he had smiled in his life. And she knows that, he thought to himself. She knows that smile isn’t just for anyone. The woman walked slowly up the stairs with what appeared to be an expression of happy reflection. He stood motionless for a moment and looked up at her.
The man glanced down once again to the covered bowl in his hands and smiled.
An old Jamaican lady with thick glasses and a beanie hat hobbled past him on the stairs before shrieking as she heard a loud smash of something breaking on the floor behind her.