The man with the grey hair opens his eyes. Somewhere further up the carriage a child cries, followed by a female voice speaking softly in a language Jessica doesn’t recognise. From behind, there’s the foamy hiss of a can being opened.
“Do you think you’re going to make it?” the younger man with short brown hair asks, his head turned sideways, looking up at the grey-haired man.
“I’m OK. It’s the motion; it makes me feel sick sometimes.”
The grey-haired man’s voice is even and deliberate. He closes his eyes again.
“I used to think you were always tired, before you told me.”
“It’s just the motion.”
Jessica looks back at her newspaper. She tries to read the business pages and wonders if one day the graphs and numbers will be something of importance to her, the way they seem to be for her colleagues. She looks at the cuff of her blouse, pink and creased. She tugs at it, trying to straighten it.
The two men have heavy silver watches, half covered by the fold over cuffs of their shirts. The younger man’s shirt is pink and Jessica thinks of the boy in her Contract Law class at university who used to wear pink polo shirts. He’d been the first man she’d ever seen in pink. Sometimes he’d turn the collar up, so that it brushed against his blonde hair where it curled inwards towards his neck. She used to stare at the back of his neck, as he’d sat in front of her in the tutor’s wooden office, and she would wonder what the boys at her school might’ve made of him and the words they’d have used. She tries to remember his name but can’t be sure if he’d ever spoken to her. She wonders what he’s doing now and if he’s happy. She supposes that he is; she’s learned that people like that always are.
A man and woman and two children sit at the table on the other side of the aisle to Jessica and the two men. The two children wear headphones and watch a laptop screen, leaning forward against the table, their shrunken trainers on the seat. Jessica watches how their eyes widen and mouths open, before being covered by little, fatty hands. She wonders what it could be on the small screen, what could be so enthralling for the children to sit like that in tiny rapture. She looks back down at the newspaper, a wistful envy swelling in her stomach.
The man and woman seem to be maybe five years older than Jessica. She assumes they’re the children’s parents and the children could be four or six. She looks at them and thinks of what they were doing at her age. They both wear fleeces and have multi-coloured rucksacks up on the tables in front of them. She sneers without changing her expression and looks at her handbag, new and expensive, stroking its soft leather. But she feels as if she might cry, so turns to look at the empty fields that pass by the window.
The doors at the end of the carriage open and the ticket inspector appears. A large woman in a sky blue blouse that hangs box-like over her body. She bends forward as she walks down the carriage, as if trying to take up as much space as she can.
“I’m sorry sir. That ticket is not valid on this train. You should have caught the earlier one.” The ticket inspector sounds breathless as she speaks. Jessica wonders if it’s because of tiredness or some kind of illness, or maybe just because of boredom.
“I couldn’t catch that train, because of traffic.”
An old male voice speaks, tired and faint. Jessica scratches the back of her hand and thinks of getting old. Death must be gradual, a slow drift away from the world, starting with missed trains and forgotten appointments, moving more and more out of step with the way of things. She looks at her watch and scratches her hand some more until it turns red.
“Are you looking forward to retirement?”
The grey-haired man’s eyes are open and the younger man speaks. Jessica looks at the younger man. He’s probably in his early forties and his eyes are brown and bright. She imagines that he’s a man who works quickly and is always moving, always impatient. She wonders how he can manage being on the train, stuck to his seat. She looks at his shirt and tries to imagine what his body might be like underneath the pink cotton, underneath his skin. He looks thin but muscular, the kind of body that’s solid and definite in its detail. She wonders if he’s hairy. She works out that the man’s maybe fifteen years older than her and hopes that he isn’t hairy.
“It wasn’t my choice to retire now, not at fifty-nine.” the grey-haired man says, speaking quietly, his eyes looking upwards at the spotlight above his seat, not looking at the younger man.
“But you must be looking forward to it?”
The younger man’s eyes are wide and his voice concerned and urgent, as if trying to convince the grey-haired man, or maybe himself.
“It wasn’t my choice, but we’ll make the most of it. Catherine and I, we always do.”
The younger man doesn’t blink or move his head.
“Nobody wishes they worked longer. Nobody.”
The younger man’s concern confuses Jessica. The way he looks at the grey-haired man seems to be more than professional respect or workplace friendship. There’s something familial about it, but still distant. She wonders if maybe the younger man made the grey-haired man take early retirement, and now he’s trying to lessen his guilt. She thinks the grey-haired man could be the younger man’s father-in-law. She thinks of the daughter the younger man might have married, but can only picture a vague figure in a shapeless white dress. The younger man turns to look at Jessica, his eyes questioning but inviting. She realises she must have been staring and assumes a blank expression, trying to stare through the man, not blushing.
“You’ll have time to do other things. Holidays and paintings.”
“Yes. We’ll make the most of it. We always do.”
The grey haired man’s face seems to have reddened and his voice trails off. He blinks and it looks to Jessica like he might cry. She thinks of the panic she sometimes feels when she wakes up, or when she’s walking down the escalators and onto the tube. The feeling that something’s looming up behind her, getting closer. Something that she dare not turn around to face. She gets out of bed or keeps walking, feeling like she can’t stop. It’s that fear, the not being able to stop, that keeps her going; makes her do all those things she’d rather not do. She wonders if that’s what the grey-haired man’s feeling; like he’s stopped and now he’s just waiting, waiting for whatever it is that’s behind him to catch him.
Somewhere behind her another can opens and a loud, agricultural voice speaks about football. The plastic and metal of the train seem to amplify the voice, so that it rings around Jessica after the words have been spoken.
“That new stadium, that was fifty mill.”
Jessica knows without looking that the man will be fat, his face round and red and his hair shaved.
“They don’t get enough fans though, not for that.”
The voice continues to resonate around the train and Jessica can hear thick fingers ripping open a bag of crisps.
“The owners, they ain’t got a clue.”
The voice is muffled slightly by food. Jessica imagines the words to be scented with cheese and onion and she looks again at the younger man, the way his lower jaw extends beyond his upper jaw and the thin crease in the skin on his neck when he turns his head.
The ticket inspector walks up the carriage. The two children have stopped watching the laptop screen and are talking loudly to their parents about what it is they’ve just seen. The baby cries again, but this time the foreign voice is hard and angry.
“What about restaurants? There are some good ones near you?”
The younger man speaks again.
“There’s a few.”
“Yes, we like the Kings Arms. We go there on Tuesdays, Catherine and I, after dancing.”
Jessica thinks of her own parents and can’t remember having ever seen them dance. She tries to imagine them dancing but can’t. She’s not sure if her father would be able to. He’s always so hesitant, unable to take the lead. She thinks of the last time she danced and remembers it was six weeks ago, when she’d taken ecstasy. Lasers had bounced off her hollow head as she’d danced, feeling a part of something meaningless, but still a part of it. A man with a creased face and hoarse voice had told her to smile, and she had, shrugging her shoulders like a child, but the man had told her that wasn’t enough, that she wasn’t happy. She’d smiled again and the man said she had to stop worrying, had to stop giving a shit what other people said or thought and just do whatever the fuck she wanted to. She’d smiled again and mouthed a thank you and carried on dancing, wriggling free of a sweaty hand that had crept around her waist without her noticing.
“Are you off again?” the younger man asks as the grey-haired man closes his eyes.
“It’s the motion; it makes me feel sick sometimes.”
The train enters a tunnel and the windows turn black. Jessica can see her reflection and watches herself chew her finger nail, worrying that her eyes look frightened. The children have stopped talking and the baby doesn’t cry. The man with the crisps says nothing and only a few quiet voices speak. Everyone seems to be expectant of what might be next, out on the other side.