An Inspector Calls

The train is full, of bodies and of bits. Everyone has just a little more than they can carry comfortably, wedging cases down aisles and catching each other at the hip. Everyone, too, a bit less themselves than usual. Commuting back to London in that bit, that blip, between Christmas and New Years, means leaving people behind. Or going back to empty houses. It means you probably didn’t get a real holiday, when everyone else did. It means you’re a bit pissed off.

The man next to me doesn’t look pissed off, and he doesn’t have any luggage that I can see – just a plastic bag under the seat in front, and a coat over his knees. His table is pulled down, and on it he has a thick book of pages, heavily marked in ink. He is hunched over them, muttering to himself.

I prefer the aisle on a plane, but not on a train. On a train, sitting on an aisle is a licence for people to hit you, with the corner of boardgames that they don’t really want, suitcases stuffed with jumpers that don’t really fit them. I am tucked in tight, but that doesn’t guarantee safety. I always fall asleep on trains, planes, anything moving with that low level of sound and rhythm. I don’t fall asleep neatly, with my chin in my collar, but aggressively, swung about by dreams, mouth open, head jerking, legs and knees unhinging. I’m exactly the person you hit with your case as you bump down the aisle, looking for a seat that isn’t near children. I’d hit myself, if I saw myself, leg sticking out, torso draped like a towel.

So I’m trying to stay awake, even though I’ve eaten enough food to put 10 people to sleep, even though I haven’t been really, properly, safe-to-drive sober since November 11th, even though I haven’t sleep properly in 71 days (not all in a row, but it’s still too many days), even though sleeping would distract me from whatever is happening in my guts (twisted, and stationary, it isn’t good, whatever it is, but that’s what it’s supposed to be like).

You shouldn’t really talk to strangers on public transport, as a general rule. That’s how most murders happen: interaction. Safer by far to put your head in a book and plug in your headphones and wait until you meet someone with whom you have at least 3 mutual friends. Mutual friends prevent murder. Still, there’s not an enormous amount you can do when they speak to you, which is what he does, my seat-sharing mumbler, turning to me and saying, “I really hate this time of year.”

He is handsome, in the way of characters in movies who have been through a bad stretch but will probably come out the other side better off. He hasn’t shaved in a while, and might not have brushed his teeth in a while longer. His eyebrow hairs spiral up his forehead to meet scrubby bits of fringe. Before I lived with a man, I never knew eyebrows could do that, growing and growing like over-watered bush. I never knew some people had to clip them into submission, having spent the last fews years trying to coax life out of brows I ripped out with my fingernails in more stressful times.

The first thing I said to him couldn’t be “You should get your hairdresser to clip your eyebrows next time you go”, so I said, “Me too”, which wasn’t true, which meant our relationship wasn’t off to a good start.

He smiled, more unbrushed teeth. You know when you can tell? The gathering of white around the top of the teeth and into the gums, around the bottom of the bottom teeth, with bits in gaps.

“I’ve been up with my mother. Grumpy cow. And her cat shits everywhere. Just shits!” He laughed.

I laughed. “Gross.”

“Why are you headed back down to London? No more holiday?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Used up all my leave. Should be a quiet week though.”

He picked up the papers on his table and angled them in my direction. “I’m going back for this.”

They read “An Inspector Calls’. “You’re in a play?” I asked. It made sense. He was handsome but unkempt, exactly the right kind of someone to be an actor. It was almost too obvious, like we were in a movie ourselves.  

He nodded. “My first one in years.”

I would have continued the conversation if I’d known anything at all about the play, but all I could guess was that it was probably about a detective and that he was probably the lead. He wouldn’t have told me about it if it was a bit part. So I nodded and said “Congratulations” and then stared out into the aisle.

He was a bit pissed off. You can tell when people are a bit pissed off. He squared his shoulders away from me, and flipped a page with a bit too much vigour, glancing at me twice before sinking back into the script. After a while, he leant forward under the seat, and pulled out a small bottle of white wine, the kind of you buy from M&S for a picnic or a train journey. My mother would have said it was too early for wine, but Christmas means you can drink whenever you want, so I didn’t judge him. I didn’t judge him until he finished it in one gulp and put in back in the brown bag in the same movement as pulling out a second, and finishing that too. A third followed, sipped more slowly.

The smell came only a few minutes after that. Don’t worry, he hadn’t wet himself. It was the smell of someone who had woken up the alcohol in their bloodstream. You know what I mean? When you’ve been drinking the night before, and you decide on a hair-of-the-dog to make you feel better, and almost instantly you’re drunk again, because it’s all still there, sitting there, waiting.

He stopped marking the pages after the fourth bottle. He sunk back into his seat, wriggling down a bit more. Our coats were touching where the seats met.

“Have you ever seen it?”

I knew he was asking about the play, but I said “Seen what?”

“This”, pointing at the script. “Seen it?”

I shook my head.

“Don’t you like plays?”

“I do”. Another lie. “I just haven’t seen that one.” He was looking at me, and I could feel his breath on my nose and cheeks.

“You should,” he said. “You should come see me in it.”

I nodded. Across the aisle, a couple were watching us. They were whispering. I thought they were probably taking bets on whether we knew each other, whether we’d be going to make out in the train toilets. I wanted to show them the bag of bottles.

“It opens in May.”

I nodded again. “Sounds good!”

We were almost in King’s Cross, Kentish Town flashing past. 10 minutes or so, I’d done the journey enough. Other people had taken note of the same and were standing, stretching. I started to button up my coat, and noticed that the small wine bottles, five or six of them, had rolled free from the bag.

I nudged him, pointed. He bent down, but couldn’t get around the tray table to reach the last two, which rolled away from his fingers. The smell was stronger.

I stood up, grabbing my bag from the rack above my head. It was heavy with a bottle of rum, and I thought briefly that I should give it to him.

When I looked back at him, he was watching me, and I thought about the way I’d lifted my arms, and felt uncomfortable.

“I was on TV, you know,” he said.

The train was slowing down, people moving into the aisles, and suddenly I was in the way. “I’ll try to come see you,” I said, suddenly meaning it. “Which theatre is it?” I started moving down the aisle, moved by people, my bag catching on the seat in front.

He was nearly two rows away, sitting silently. “Which theatre?” I asked again.

He didn’t answer, only bent down, and I knew he was feeling for a full one among the empties gathered at his feet, and that there wasn’t one.

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