Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

The Unguarded Language of the Last Train

Mark Sinclair

When I take this train at night I sit by the window and use the reflection to study men. I see the man to my right, in the glass on my left. The men are reversed, so that if I chance a look across the aisle their image jars slightly: the watch on the right wrist, not the left, the parting on the o-ther side of the head. Still, the window suits a woman like me. I pretend to watch the lights outside, the four-squares of house windows, the dotted links of orange and white.

When I look at the glass, this is the order it goes: there are the marks and scratches on the pane, then there is the side of my face within the glass, there is the man further on in the reflection, then there are the lights beyond. My eyes shift in focus from near to far.

Somewhere in the middle range, within the pane, is my fellow passenger. He wears a shirt and loosened tie, smart trousers. A jacket hangs on the hook by the window, a briefcase is placed between his legs on the carriage floor. He is like most of them who take this train. Occupied in thought, taking stock of the day, uninterested in the free newspapers on the seats in front of him. His hands are set down on his thighs, his legs divided at forty-five degrees. He is, I suppose, early to mid-thirties, and likely off at one of the next stops nearer to town. I stay on to the second-to-last station on the line.

I watch the glass. He hasn’t seen me. Or, if he has, he has no interest in me at all. I know I am plain and go largely unnoticed. If we were to talk he would note that I speak quietly, that my hair is cut short and manageable, my large coat done up to the top. Crow – my surname – is common-or-garden also. You think of the big black bird: un-exotic, glimpsed out of windows. Hopping along the grass on the side of the road.

‘You OK?’ He has answered his phone. I can see his face has changed from the blank expression of before. ‘We’ve been sat on the tracks again,’ he says. ‘Didn’t move for ages.’ This is a lie. He shifts. ‘I know, I’m sorry but I’m almost there. OK. I’ll pick some up,’ he says. I keep my head turned to the black window. 

You find out lots of things about these men. I don’t use the glass for all of it. If I am near enough I can get part of a name, some initials, a job title from an opened envelope, or half a phone conversation. I imagine the person who called is a young woman, waiting in a flat. She is cooking. He probably sent a text before. He rises slightly and digs for change in his pockets. What has he forgotten to get? Is it too late for the shops?

The men use words and phrases that I hear only on these trains: pre-sales, tasking, incentive cultures. I imagine other men on other trains, rolling shirtsleeves up while mobiles are shouldered against their ears. Then there are the jokes that come rolling out in large voices, the unguarded language of the last train, not fit for the daytime passengers.

The carriage tilts left and we are unloosened again, pulling at the slack of rail underneath. In the movement the man flips the locks of his briefcase and bends in to retrieve some papers and closes the top. He studies the white paper as I continue to read him in the glass. This is not new, this watching. I have done it since I began to use the trains at night. The last one to leave is usually quiet and it is rare that there are more than one or two others in my carriage. I tend to board late, too, so that I can work out the best position for observations. These trains also serve the drunks returning home from town, or, when emptier still, offer a safe environment for the vandals to set about their work. The ticket inspector never comes. There are few announcements. 

On the glass, just below eye level, there is a list of names. I have seen boys with pen knives dragging their fists against the panes but I always pretend to look outside. Under the names are more letters in a different hand, heavier scratches that look like another language. The glass carries these messages back and forth, just as it takes my own reflection up and down these pitch-dark lines. Sometimes I think I should scrawl questions into the pane. Who are you? Are you looking in or out?

The train is slowing into one of the unlit stations. The man stands quickly and squints through my window for the platform sign. In the glass, I can see his eyes flick right-left, right-left as they catch the outlines of darkened shapes. There is a bang, a shudder as the train finally stops and the doors to our carriage open. The bright lights of the carriage have turned the windows into mirrors: everything inside is reflected back in on itself. He looks and looks to see through the blackness of the glass. But I must be the only thing there is to see, framed by reflected seats and newspapers. The doors close. Yes. He sees me now. We meet in the glass eventually.