About the Woman on the Train

About the Woman on the Train

I am the woman who cannot travel backwards on a train.

About the woman on the train Facing in the wrong direction makes me feel sick. Even on a good day. So when the old gentleman with the wild eyebrows asked me to move, all I could do was apologise. He explained that he wanted to sit next to his wife. She was in need of the aisle seat because she had broken her foot, he leaned backwards and gestured towards it as proof. A small bird-like woman was standing just behind him, a pair of grey crutches tucked into her armpits. At the end of one of her skeletal legs a heavy cast of black mesh was anchoring her to the ground. The guilt trip was almost infallible, however after some negotiation he agreed to sit opposite his wife instead. She lowered herself into the seat next to me and I remained where I was. I began to regret this almost immediately.

The gentleman, “Harry, nice to meet you”, was then in a perfect position to talk at me without invitation. I tried not to stare at his ginger-white eyebrows that swayed on their own accord, like sea anemones. Trapped between his sparrow wife, his eyebrows and the window I had absolutely no escape. No escape from the sun and its violent rays, no escape from the smell of tequila, salt and earth coming from my skin, no escape from the thick trickle of shame I could feel seeping between my clammy thighs. I uncrossed and re crossed them. It did not help.

Harry began talking to me about cricket. I pretended to know nothing about the subject. I did not want to talk. I avoided eye contact. I crossed my arms and legs. I turned my body so far toward the window I bruised my shoulder. I rested my fingers across my mouth. I yawned and rubbed my eyes. As it turns out, he was a determined old bastard. I wished I had a book or a magazine to hide behind like the guy across the aisle.

Harry’s wife, he told me, had been a professional player. I made an “ahh” sound, turned to her and smiled. She nodded slowly in reply. Her thin lips began to curve into a smile but then seemed to give up, as though even that was too much physical effort. She did not open her mouth to speak the entire journey.

I wondered how she had broken her foot. Easily I presumed. She was a pencil drawing, prone to smudging.

Mrs Harry reminded me, a little, of my Nan. The same pale delicate creamy skin. The same white candyfloss hair that hovered around her head like a halo. As she handed her crutches to her husband I caught a waft of lavender and antiseptic. I felt my pupils dilate with memory and had an overwhelming urge to crawl into this woman’s lap, lean my head into her bust (my Nans’ had been far superior by comparison) and stroke her soft cheek. I probably would have crushed her to a fine powder if I had.

I squirmed in my seat. The sun was lingering too high for the time of year. It cast an ironic golden glow on the plastic interior of the carriage. It reminded me of childhood photographs from the seventies. The heat, magnified through the dusty windows, mercilessly dragged the filth from my veins where it collected in a putrid sweaty pool on the back of my neck. I could feel it start to trickle down my back. Strand by strand my smart “up-do” was dissolving around my blotchy face. I squinted out the window. It should have been getting dark by now. Nature knew, and wouldn’t forgive.

Harry imparted some remarkably detailed information about why the train was lingering so long at Haywards Heath station. When it did eventually pull away the rocking began to make me feel sleepy.

“You look very smart dear.”

My eyes snapped open and I focused on the old man. His round glowing cheeks, those eyebrows and his crusty white smile. Having grown increasingly more aware of my dishevelled state, I began to suspect that Harry was taking the piss. I touched my hair and another piece traitorously fell.

“Have you been to court dear?”

“No. A funeral.”

Ordinarily I would have thought that would have been that. End of subject. Maybe a polite and meaningless “I’m sorry”, but no. Not on your life. I suddenly felt thirsty. Trying to lubricate my mouth with saliva I realised I still had the taste of Shane on my tongue. I tried not to breathe directly onto Harry and his wife as he asked me question upon question about the funeral.

I am the woman who has to cut a slice from a loaf completely straight. 

Every time.

After Three Bridges there was a little more room. I moved across the aisle so that Mr & Mrs Harry could at last sit together. As I stood I quickly checked the seat. There was no mark left behind me. Thank God.

I then found myself sitting opposite another older man. This one was hiding behind a copy of “New Scientist”. From behind the magazine I caught a glimpse of his shoulder length white hair, his thin framed oval glasses and a shiny pointy forehead that ran up and over the top of his head. I felt confident I was in no danger of forced conversation with this passenger. I was transfixed by the front cover he held in front of me. The half green floating head of a woman stared at me and said, “You are a hologram projected from the edge of the universe”. He meticulously turned each page with long yellow manicured fingernails.

During the reshuffle Harry had removed his beige waterproof jacket and folded it neatly onto the shelf above. He reached for the black and red back-pack between his feet and pulled from it two extra-large faded margarine tubs. They reminded me of the ones my mum used when she made sandwiches for the cricket tea. As a child I had more than once mistaken the luminous yellow fat for vanilla ice cream. When I thought mum wasn’t looking I would stick my finger in and take a big scoop. Wretched disappointment followed as the margarine clung to my teeth in a greasy film. Mum, ignoring me and my greedy mistake, would spread with swift precision, a thin layer that evenly covered each crust free slice for her perfect triangular sandwiches.

Harry passed one of the tubs to his wife. Simultaneously they opened them. The sound of the plastic releasing the air from inside made the scientist guy look up and frown. Paahh.  The glasses, the hair and his overall pointedness made him look like an owl.

“Twit” I said under my breath.

“Twoo” said Harry as he winked at me. I think.

In the margarine tubs were fluffy white doorstep sandwiches filled with chunks of chicken. Left overs probably. Harry took large bites leaving bits of meat, lettuce and tomato hanging from his mouth as he kept talking. Mrs Harry nibbled in anaemic invisible bites. I wondered which of them had made the sandwiches. I wondered if she would eat all of hers.  I realised I was very hungry. Harry’s voice became part of the clanging and the clanking of the train.

I am the woman in the bath who uses her fingernails to scrape lines of dead skin from the grey tidemark.

My nail polish was chipped. The dark almost black red that I had worn for the funeral came off in satisfying strips. I found dirt under my nails. Dirt that must have been gathered from in-between the headstones as I had grabbed for Shane’s hair and clothes, anything to steady myself. I thought I had washed it all out.

I looked over at Harry and his wife. He is still talking to me, even from across the aisle and between great gulps of sandwich, something about the village where he grew up. As I watched them both, I wondered if they still have sex.  Old people sex.  Wrinkles and sagging skin. Bones on bones. Do they close their eyes and imagine each other as their younger selves?  Do they know they smell like old people? Or did they always smell this way and so, when I am old, the next generation or the generation after that will think I smell of old people. Whereas actually I smell of Dolce and Gabanna Blue and I wash my hair with L’Oreal, but those smells will become the smells of old people in the future. Of decay and inevitable death. I rubbed my eyes to erase my chain of thought. I looked back at my nails and as I picked out more dirt I wondered if his DNA was in there too.

I am the woman who religiously sends cards for every Christmas, birthday and anniversary.

Even to people who never send me one.

I stopped picking at my nails and looked out the window again.  I thought about the last card I wrote. How difficult it had been to say the right thing. How my pen had hovered over the fresh surface. How a deep resentment had risen in me and chosen that moment to break through my surface. I ended up scribbling “deepest sympathies” and had stared at the words until they lost meaning.

Katie had never sent me a card. Not in nearly 20 years of friendship. It got to me

every year. Would it have killed her to send a card? To make an effort? Just once?

No. The car accident had killed her.

The train sped up. The increasing vibrations reminded me of my just-missed-out-on and therefore faked-by-necessity orgasm in between the gravestones of Olive Bullman, who had died in 1983, beloved Mother, Sister and Wife; and Frank Monrow who simply rests in peace and had been since 1957.

I am the woman who shagged her friend’s husband.

In a graveyard

At the funeral of their mutual best friend

I could feel the hold ups digging into my dimpled thighs. They itched. I was having a reaction to the adhesive. Vicious garters of welts lurked underneath. I had worn them because I thought it was “very Katie”. The kind of thing she would have worn to my funeral had I been the one hit by the arsehole in the BMW instead.

I could say I blame it on the tequila or emotions or whatever. I had always kind of fancied Shane. So had Katie. He was really drunk.  Maybe I took advantage of him. One minute we were looking for some mental old Great Aunt’s glasses, near to where the old girl had fallen over, the next thing we were kissing. He ran his hand up my skirt, found the top of the hold ups…and that was that really.

I had left fairly quickly afterwards.

Regret and embarrassment churned my stomach as the train rocked and Harry kept on. I didn’t feel hungry any more. I knew I’d have a dried crusty white patch on the inside of my dress. I knew Jenny would never suspect. Why would Shane with his lovely brown hair and big green eyes be interested in flabby little me? But he was, if only for that moment.

The train pulled into my stop and I jumped from my seat. I wanted to go home and wash it all off me. I grabbed my bag from the parcel shelf and hurriedly said goodbye to Mr & Mrs Harry. The scientist guy held the magazine closer to his face.

I stood in front of the carriage doors willing them to open.

When they did the smell of my own stale sex hit me. I escaped the train onto the platform. I could breathe again. The sun had finally relented and a chill hit my arms. I pulled my jacket out of my bag and began to awkwardly put my arms through the sleeves. The train gathered its huff and puff, emitted a final loud exhale as the doors shut and it began to pull away. I thought I heard a banging so looked back at the carriage. It was Mrs Harry. She had got up, pressed her thin body against the glass door of the train and was smacking at it with one of her crutches. Her face was contorted with rage as she inaudibly screamed one word over and over.

“Whore” she spat with her silent mouth, “whore.” Then I saw Harry’s large body lunge at her. Something between shock and shame ripped through me as the train chugged away, and I heard it again


I stared after it. On the platform the sun disappeared and quickly left me alone in the sharp blue-grey dusk.

About Louisa Penny

I am a London born writer living in Brighton. I began writing for theatre in 2000 co-founding Pigeon Theatre Company, Manchester, writing and developing original scripts. I then worked in television production for a number of years before taking a career break to raise my family. I now fit copy-writing in between single-motherhood of my two amazing girls, slaving away at my first novel, (for which I was awarded a bursary from The Literary Consultancy in 2015) and trying to craft the perfect short story.

I am a London born writer living in Brighton. I began writing for theatre in 2000 co-founding Pigeon Theatre Company, Manchester, writing and developing original scripts. I then worked in television production for a number of years before taking a career break to raise my family. I now fit copy-writing in between single-motherhood of my two amazing girls, slaving away at my first novel, (for which I was awarded a bursary from The Literary Consultancy in 2015) and trying to craft the perfect short story.


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