A Short Story by Amanda Reynolds
The Trouble With You
I watch her, wondering what she’ll decide, the mousy woman in a cheap coat who wanders along the crowded train carriage. There’s a moment’s hesitation as she casts around for an alternative, but there is none, the lurch as we move off deciding her.
The taunts begin at once, an elbow in her way as she apologetically sits down, then a loud collective laugh from the drunken boys who crowd her. I search my bag for a tissue, but the woman’s plight pulls me back from my needless hunt. Her knees are clamped tightly together, as are the curled fingers which grip her bag, her eyes half-closed to the insults. I exchange a weak smile with the man across the aisle who talks soft-voiced into his phone. He lifts an eyebrow to me, our attention caught by a peal of mocking laughter. Next to me a broad shoulder is touching mine. The owner, a long-legged man clad in grey pinstripe, rustles a crisp newspaper across both our laps. He’s reading an article about a cyclist, the photo beside it of a toned man dressed in Lycra. I imagine the pinstripe legs pushing down on pedals, weekends spent navigating country lanes, an antidote to the city. David used to cycle, hours and hours every weekend, all weathers.
The train continues its slow slide out of Paddington, the movement settling its cargo. Earphones inserted, phones studied, books opened. We are all protected, except for her, an insistent line of questioning piercing the rhythmic sound of the train covering the tracks.
‘Oi, love. I asked you a question!’ A boy of maybe seventeen proffers his can of lager. ‘You want some?’
She shakes her head and the other two boys laugh. The be-suited man next to me flamboyantly flicks the pages of his broadsheet as the soft-voiced man calls out to them to leave her alone, a crack in his voice as all eyes swivel in his direction. The tormentors laugh louder, peppering their responses with profanities. The soft-voiced man colours and a murmur of disapproval ripples through the carriage, its focus a woman with a small child, his tiny ears covered with her cupped palms.
Each station we leave is another disappointment, the temporary hope the bullies may find their home in Reading, then Didcot, confounded by their obstinate presence and increasing volume. Every passenger who decants into the chill November night is at once relieved of their obligation, the scene in the lit carriage receding as they fill their lungs with freshly drawn air, sharp and cold. Maybe they looked over as they gathered their belongings, a reproving frown in the direction of the perpetrators, or perhaps they were irritated by the woman’s refusal to move, her head now bowed, eyes closed, although she’s not sleeping, her pose too rigid for that. She appears catatonic, but her unresponsiveness has done little to deter her attackers; a mouse to be tossed in the air again and again, caught on sharp claws. I brace myself against the movement of the train as I get up, a steadying hand to one headrest after another.
The boys notice my approach. ‘Alright, love?’ ‘Whatcha doing?’ ‘Fancy a bit of this do ya?’ They’re holding up cans of beer.
I stumble the last step and they laugh, but it’s a different kind of laughter, less certain. I lift my eyes; dismissing them with firm shake of my head. I’m above them now, this strange group of four.
‘You proud of yourselves?’ I ask. ‘Look what you’ve done to her!’
We all stare at the top of the woman’s head: a neat parting in a cropped style, dark curls at the nape of her neck and behind her ears. I touch her lightly on the shoulder and she’s startled. ‘Would you like to join me?’
The boys’ cat-calls accompany our retreat, but they’re mere parting shots, bravado to save face. I turn back to check on my ward. She’s shorter than me, slight of frame, and when she speaks her voice is quiet, like the man who spoke up for her.
‘Do you mind if I sit next to you?’ She asks, her hand on the back of the seat next to mine. ‘I know there’s plenty of room now, but-’
‘Of course.’ I move my handbag and she lowers herself down, her diminutive frame easily accommodated.
The lads are looking over and I wonder if they’ll follow her, double their efforts and include me in their sport, but they’ve emptied and discarded several cans of beer and are glassy-eyed and lolling. Two of them turn on the third boy and steal his hat, then one of his trainers, throwing it along the aisle towards us. He stands to retrieve it, avoiding our gaze as he crouches to pick up his dirty shoe, fumbling and uncoordinated, a loud belch as he gets up.
My new companion smells of perfume and wool. ‘Thank you for rescuing me.’ Our faces are too close, our arms touching in the confined space, but she holds my gaze.
‘Well, anyone would do the same.’ I turn to the blackness beyond the window; a flash of light as we pass a level crossing, then the deep night, my face reflected.
‘But you did,’ she says, recalling me to our conversation. ‘I should have moved earlier, ridiculous to feel embarrassed.’ She holds out her right hand, chapped fingers pressed together. ‘I’m Ava by the way. I noticed you when I got on the train; you have a very beautiful coat.’
I take her hand and gently squeeze it with the awkwardness created by our proximity, but there’s something else too, something that makes revealing my name less natural and unwanted.
Her eyes shine. ‘That’s a lovely name for the lady with the lovely coat. I’m not keen on mine; Ava, after my mum’s favourite film star. Not that I justify the film-star comparison, although I do have her dark hair. She was very beautiful, Ava Gardner. Married to Frank Sinatra, and lover to Ernest Hemmingway. Or maybe they were just friends?’
I’d thought the question rhetorical, but Ava has paused expectantly, her mouth hanging open for my response. ‘I think Hemingway loved her, but she didn’t love him.’
Ava sighs audibly. ‘And yours, where does that name come from?’
‘Well, I think it’s very…’ I feel her shoulder rise and brush mine. ‘You!’
The train stops and the drunken lads alight noisily onto the platform, flicking us V-signs as we move on. Ava turns to me and smiles. ‘That’s a relief.’
‘Yes, it is.’
She swaps to sit facing me. ‘We can talk more easily now.’ She rubs her neck, and her knee glances mine. I try to break contact as subtly as I can, but she notices, pulling in her feet sharply as she asks where I’m travelling to, delighted to hear we are both headed to the same place.
I return her smile, realising it’s the first time I’ve had a proper look at her. Her coat, firmly buttoned, is well worn, and she’s wearing flat scuffed shoes and thick tights which have twisted at the ankle to reveal the underside which is wrinkled and pilled. ‘Do you work in London, Ava?’
‘I’m a cleaner.’ She looks at me for a reaction which I try not to give, but there’s a flicker, something in her expression which I fear reflects mine. ‘That sounds like I scrub the toilets myself, doesn’t it?’
‘No, that’s not what-’
‘I have a company, several employees. I don’t actually bleach the shite off the pans myself!’ She laughs, a shrill sound. ‘Mainly I employ immigrants. They’re hard workers, I’ll give them that, but then they bugger off home without telling me. Don’t even speak English half of them.’
‘Oh, I see. It must be hard for them, I guess.’
She shrugs. ‘Bloody nightmare, but they’re cheap as chips.’
Ava digs in her bag and pulls out a scrap of paper and a biro. She tears the receipt in half and writes her number on one of the pieces, passing them both across to me with the pen. ‘I rely on word-of-mouth. People prefer someone they know. Write your number down on that.’
‘Oh, I’m not sure I need anyone, but thank you.’
‘We could have a coffee sometime. My Graham is a bit stuck at home these days since he’s done his back in, be good to get out, girly-chat.’
She’s waiting for me to reciprocate, leaning forward to watch as I scribble my mobile number on the back of her sandwich shop receipt. She takes the returned scrap of paper and pen and drops them into her bag. ‘Lovely.’ She says. ‘You never know who you’re going to meet, do you?’
‘No.’ I tuck the paper with her mobile number written on it deep into my coat pocket, scrunching my hand around it.
‘I love London, don’t you? Except for all the bloody immigrants. They’re everywhere now, aren’t they? Taking our jobs. That’s what happened to my Graham.’
‘I’m not sure you can blame-’
‘What takes you up to the city?’ She asks, popping a mint into her mouth which she sucks noisily. ‘Want one?’ She holds the tube of sweets out towards me.
‘Oh no, no thanks.’ I lift my hand in protest as she insists.
‘Not a fan?’ She wrinkles her nose in sympathy. ‘They can give you heartburn. You were telling me what you were doing in London.’
‘Oh, nothing really. Just a bit of shopping.’
‘Ooh lovely. What did you buy?’ She glances at my tissue-wrapped silk blouse, resting at my feet in a stiff card bag.
‘Just a top.’ I pick up the bag and tuck it beside me.
‘Very nice.’ She crunches her mint. ‘I like Primark myself, can’t beat it. You got far to go from the station? We could share a taxi if you like? I’m on the estate, the one near Big Tesco. You know the one?’
‘Yes, I do. I’m further out, top of the hill.’
‘Perhaps I’ll call in next time I’m that way. Got a few clients up there. Have to make sure the girls aren’t stealing from them.’
‘I’m sure they wouldn’t.’
‘Are you?’ She laughs, the cracked phlegmy cackle of a smoker.
We stand on the platform, Ava tapping her handbag as she says, ‘Well, I’ve got your number. I’ll text you as soon as I get sorted, arrange that coffee. Can’t wait to see your place. You sure you don’t want to share a taxi, save half the cost?’
‘No, I’m fine thanks. I’ll ring my husband.’
‘Ooh, do you think he could drop me?’ The streetlamp above us reflects the tiredness in her face. I glance at the reddened hands which must surely have seen more than their fair share of bleach.
‘I think he’s booked us dinner in town.’
‘Oh right. Graham will have had his ages ago; I’ll just have a round of toast myself.’
‘Lovely.’ I turn away from her, my phone in my hand.
‘I’ll text you!’ She calls, climbing into a taxi.
I feign interest in my phone until I’m certain the traffic has swallowed her up, then I walk to my car, in the far corner of the station car park. David would have been irritated I gave out my number, offered a lecture about how I always attract losers. I’d have argued back, told him I’m unlikely to ever see her again, and if our paths should accidentally cross I can explain I’ve been busy, or that I mislaid her number, sent it to the dry cleaners in my coat pocket. Would I like to meet up for that coffee? Yes, of course, but not now I’m afraid. Too busy. Yes, it was awful those boys, such bullies.
But they’d sensed something in her I hadn’t. A mouse to be tossed in the air. I pop a mint in my mouth and drive home. Not up the hill to the house David shares with his new family, but fortunately still a world away from the rough estate where Ava lives.
‘The trouble with you,’ David once told me, ‘is you’re a really bad judge of character.’