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Monday, 2 April 2012

The collateral damage

 This is an entry for a competition, which was to write up to 2,000 inspired by the image below.

The collateral damage.

The man on the train can’t know how he’s making you feel, but that doesn’t stop you being afraid. You tell yourself he’s just another passenger; it’s coincidence, but he’s making you uncomfortable. He’s making you uncomfortable by sitting there, by wearing a green t-shirt, by eating and licking his fingers. He does it every time he puts food in his mouth, and it’s starting to annoy you.
            You could move, now the train is emptier, but its very emptiness makes it harder for you to move because your action will be obvious. When you sat down he was one of many, now alone it feels like he’s sitting opposite you. As the other passengers left, you had the illusion he was moving closer, like when the train next to yours pulls out but you feel you’re moving. Now it’s just you and him it seems every time you look up he’s staring at you. You hope this is an illusion too.
            It’s because you’re on edge, it’s because of what happened, it’s nothing to do with him; this is all you. This is what you’ve got to face, not what happened but its legacy. Once you’d have barely given him a second look, weeks ago you’d have read the free paper, written in your notebook or played with your phone, scarcely seeing him. You’d have sauntered from the station, hands in pockets, relaxed, walking without thinking, walking like a boy. You’d have wandered home as twilight gathered behind you like the folds of a cloak, without glancing left or right.

Or behind.

            Now your lover must wait at the station for you. Condemned to a compassionate curfew, you’re only allowed out under licence. You must apply for permission to walk home, transmitting a security code first. Text when you’re at the station, text as you get on the train, text three stops before home.

            ‘I am on the train. I am ok. I am three stops from home.’

            Your lover doesn’t mind waiting at the station. Your lover wants to show he’s on your side, your lover who would do anything in the world to make you feel safe. It’s not that you don’t want him to meet you, to care about you; it’s his guilt you can’t stand. His guilt that he can meet you at the station, but not on the night it happened, never on the night it happened.

            It’s as if your lover watched you catch the wrong train and waved and shouted but it was too late, it took you somewhere he can’t follow.

You know it’s stupid, you’ve said so over and over again; there was nothing he could do, it was just one of those things, but it’s no good. You can see how much your lover has been hurt and sometimes that hurt seems bigger than your own.

            The man on the train watches you send the message. You could have told your lover that there’s a man on the train making you feel uncomfortable, but what good would it do? The train is taking you home; your lover is waiting on the platform waiting and worrying, why make it worse?
            This is what you’ve started to do. You haven’t started to feel confident; you’ve started hiding your anxiety. You’re not sure if it’s you who doesn’t want to make love since it happened, or them. Sometimes you’d really like to make love. You’d like to feel innocent hands on your body and lie in a mess of communal bedclothes and talk and laugh in space you’ve made warm and soft together. But you’re frightened that you’ll make love and you won’t be alone, it won’t be the two of you. All the time you’ll be wondering if he is wondering how you feel, if you’re okay, each simple gesture loaded with a meaning it’s too small to carry. You’re frightened it might be your lover who’s made uncomfortable by touching you.
            So for now, it’s safer to lie on either side of the bed, both of you watching and pretending you aren’t, both of you waiting for the other to find the courage for simple intimacy; the courage to be lovers again.

            One stop to go, the man on the train looks at you. Suddenly you’re angry, not with him; no, you are angry with him, you’re angry with all of them. You’re angry at the police officer that listened sympathetically; angry that you could see the effort he made to be sensitive, angry that the effort needed to be made.  You’re angry at sharing your bed with your lover’s guilt and self-indulgent shame, and furious that you’re angry with him at all. You’re angry at the book of faces you thumbed through, each looking at you with the same dead eyed stare. You’re angry that there was a book, that there needs to be a book; angry that there were pages and pages of dead eyed stares and none of them belonged to the man that made you sit in that busy, bright, impersonal office and look for him.

            You’re angry because as you looked at the faces in the book, you realized you were looking for every one you’ve ever known and wondering what you would do if you saw them there.

            You’re angry because the only time you saw his stare was when you closed your eyes.
You’re angry that he has made everyone guilty.

            You look back at the man on the train. You’re sure your heart will explode from your chest with the audacity of your gaze. You’re sure your skin is burning, singing like a canary. You want to scream ‘look at me then, go on, look at me!’
He doesn’t flinch; he just licks his fingers and smiles at you. You feel hot tears stab the back of your eyes because it is a smile, a smile from a stranger acknowledging your existence. It’s only a smile, though it makes you swell and beat and fear, makes your palms tingle and your feet sweat, because what happened has denied you even the casual intimacy of a smile.


You won’t let it. This is a war you never asked to be part of, but now you are you refuse to be its victim.

You meet the gaze of the man on the train and you smile.

You smile.

The train enters your station, the name on the sign like the winning post sliding into view. You gather up your free paper, your hand is shaking as you hold onto the back of the seat. You press the door release button and read what is written there.

Open doors close.

You read, and you look back at the man on the train. He’s not looking at you; he’s forgotten you already.

Open doors close, even the ones you don’t choose to open.

You step onto the platform and your lover smiles at you, relieved. You embrace, and when your lover moves to let go you don’t let him. You hold onto him and make him hold you, and press your mouth to his as if you needed him to breath, as if he needed you to breath. As if you’re home from the war at last.

            ‘Are you all right?’ he asks as he touches your face, stroking the flush from your skin.
            ‘Yes,’ you kiss him again. ‘I’ll be fine.’

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