As he emerged from the subway, George shaded his eyes, blinking into the morning sun. At the top of the steps he paused, glancing around the island platform. It was busy and the benches all seemed taken. A little further on he found a space between a middle-aged woman and a gnarled old man. It wasn’t hard to see why the space was free, but George’s head was spinning and he had to sit down. He nodded as the man’s yellowy grey eyes met his for an instant. The man folded his newspaper to make space before hunching his shoulders and continuing to read.
The man grunted. He smelled of cigarettes and dirty linen. His blue donkey-jacket was greased with dark patches and his steel-grey hair was swept back in its own dull grease. George turned and breathed through his mouth. He wondered if he should eat something to steady his stomach. He needed to sort himself out before he got to Portsmouth. Before he got back to Lydia.
A train pulled in and the woman to George’s left got up and boarded. The man stayed where he was, nodding over his paper. As people hurried to and fro George contemplated moving along the bench to the free space but there was an arm-rest to his side and he’d have to get up to change positions. He didn’t want to seem rude or make the old man feel bad. Not that he seemed the type to care much.
As the train pulled out the man coughed, a wet rattling sound. George knew he’d missed his opportunity. Glancing at his watch he saw there were only ten minutes to go. He could endure. George reached inside his bag and pulled out a Coke. The bottle hissed and he held it at arm’s length, the bubbles surging to the top. In his peripheral vision George saw the man turn to look at him, the newspaper falling to his lap.
The bottle settled just in time and George took a drink before recapping the bottle and controlling a burp.
The day ahead held fear and excitement. He was going to dump Lydia. The inevitable had happened the night before. He and Amelia had been dancing around each for months, both literally and metaphorically. He’d expected to feel bad but, despite the hangover, he didn’t. Rather he felt jubilant, which seemed to be smothering any feelings of guilt. At last he would be free, free to be with the girl he loved.
God, it was good to be alive.
But still he felt bad about Lydia. It wasn’t her fault. They should have known a long-distance relationship wouldn’t work. He sighed. Best to think of it like taking a plaster off. Do it quickly. The pain would be over in an instant.
A meaty rotten smell wafted into his nostrils. Jesus, the old boy had farted. George really had to move now. There was a long snorty rattle from the man. He was asleep. It was George’s chance to move.
Just as George was about to get up, he felt the solid weight of the man’s head slump onto his shoulder. The physical contact made him start and shudder. The greasy hair on the suede of his jacket! What should he do now?
The Tannoy announced the next train would not be stopping and that passengers should stand behind the yellow line. George thought of a meme he’d seen of a sign in a station, an old one from the eighties: ‘Passengers should keep away from the edge of the platform to avoid being sucked off’. He almost laughed and then remembered where he was.
As the train approached George shoved the man, hoping to wake him or tip his head to the other side. As the train roared through the station in a blast of exhaust George shoved him again, harder this time. The old man’s head flopped forward and as it did so his newspaper ripped from his hands and whirled away in the backdraft of the passing train, its pages separating and expanding in different directions, stories heading upward and outward, some sucked under the train to the wheels, some skidding and settling on the platform as the maelstrom subsided.
George peered at the man, his chin was on his chest and his skin looked a shade of grey George had never seen on a person before. Noticing the damp patch in the man’s lap George jumped from the bench. The man remained motionless.
George looked up and down the platform. No one seemed to have noticed. He heard his train announced on the Tannoy. The surge of adrenalin made him feel a lot better, washing much of his hangover away. Was he the last person the old man had ever seen? George had never seen a body before. He couldn’t tear his eyes away. The train was approaching. If he didn’t get this one, there was no way he’d get to Portsmouth in time to tell Lydia and then get back again to spend the night with Amelia. He stared down at the man, hearing the doors opening behind him, the blank sound of the automated voice warning him to mind the gap, the movement of departing passengers. The man looked like a puppet with the strings cut. His mouth hung open, grey and dark. Dry. The doors behind began to beep. Wondering if he was on CCTV, George jumped into the carriage, just before the doors closed.