He sat down, leaned back against the wall, and closed his eyes. His train wasn’t due for another eight minutes. Two trains, then his. Someone, a man at the end of the platform, was shouting about how he hadn’t said something, “…you’re wrong, I didn’t say that, that’s not the way it happened”. A voice poised at the edge of anger, but for the moment it was okay, and, if checked, its ambitions wouldn’t spill over into aggression. And then a woman’s voice, much quieter but audible even from here; not the words, just the mood. The two voices lifted themselves out of the general hubbub on the platform, and were clearly connected in the same dialogue. He couldn’t figure this out. Anyway, the woman: her voice was low, and calm, tired, resigned, perhaps. She was maintaining a dignified distance from the man’s rantings. Then the man again, modified slightly: “Okay, okay. Okay. But I didn’t say it like that. Not quite like that.” Just voices, no faces; but he imagined the man to be upper middle-class, highly-educated, trying to compensate for a life of being ignored, or regarded as bland. A middle child, perhaps.
Underground, warm, concentrated: he liked it down here, at this time of night, going home, surrounded by drunks with their potential to behave against the grain. He found it reassuring, in a tilted way, that these bubbles of change existed, outside prescribed routines. And further reason for contentment: Tomorrow was his day off. It was late now, and he was hungry. At home, he’d eat some bread and fruit, then stay up late, watching television, drinking coffee, reading, feeling the space in his flat. He’d stay up all night, if he wanted to. He could sleep tomorrow afternoon, should he feel the need. But then the day after tomorrow, he had to be back at work, and he felt the nag of the familiar resentment of not having more than one day off in a row.
A woman’s heels approached, then slowed nearby. A shadow passed over his eyelids. She sat next to him. There was room for a neighbour, so he made no adjustments to the position of his body. There was an internal stiffening, though. He opened his eyes, and without turning his head, he took her in, using his peripheral vision. Well-dressed, but slightly ragged; out-and-about in town since finishing work. He knew the story. It was played out thousands of ways, every night. A suggestion from someone, for drinks after work. Just a couple, but then it never was. The bottle of wine, shared, was only two glasses each; then another bottle, and then, without realising it, a bottle each, and somehow the conversation became more real and affecting.
He closed his eyes again. He heard her rummaging in her bag. She found something. The crinkling of foil, a wrapper, textural differences. Then nothing.
“Would you like a piece of chocolate?” she said. He turned to look at her. She’d been watching him. Was she very drunk? It was hard to tell. Loosened by wine, certainly – he could detect the smell of cheap white on her breath. She was made brave now, on the way home, by the earlier compliments and urgings and affirmations of others. Wine, compliments, problems, sharing. Chocolate now, and a forward move.
She looked as if she were disappointed in him. But he was allowed to say no to chocolate. It wasn’t anything personal. “I don’t like chocolate,” he said.
She placed a rough square into her mouth. He smiled – no hard feelings.
Eyes closed again. He could hear her savouring her mouthful. Clogging, sucking, clagging: her mouth opening, then closing, and then a licking of the lips. Delicate sounds magnified by the lack of visual distractions. The foil crinkling again. Another piece of chocolate. He could smell it. One train came then went. He heard new voices, of discharged passengers, arriving in the city, and going where, at this time? He sensed movement around him, but kept his eyes closed. There were more people crowding onto the platform. He peeped at the indicator. One more train, then his.
He heard her wrap the chocolate in its foil. A careful eater, precise. A person who enjoys food, and takes her time with it. He liked that, and immediately began to construct her in a sexual role, of one who savours the different flavours of various men, enjoying them, and becoming a connoisseur. He became unusually aroused by this idea, and its logical conclusion, that she might want to taste him. He’d been thwarted tonight, in his search for a casual companion. He’d visited three bars, and in each, had seen perfect men, and beautiful boys; but he’d had to find fault with them, for if there were no fault then he’d be tortured to know that these men existed, out of his reach. So he’d picked up on things like a voice that wasn’t quite genuine enough, or a way of walking that was just a bit too cocky and swaggery; on one, shorter legs than his eye had expected, affected the proportions of the whole body; on another, he was repelled by a lack of attention to a vital item of personal hygiene: fingernails with a crooked edge and an accumulation of grime in the half-moons.
In the second place, a rather tumbledown venue near to the Freemasons Hall, he’d stood at the bar, and exchanged glances with a boy whose desire was large on his face. But he had orange flakes of wax crusting just inside his ears, and this had been a turn-off. Suddenly, everything about the boy became dirty and clouded: his pint glass, smeared with fingerprints; his hair, greasy and lank; his jeans, and the unflattering cut around the bum. And yet, from the initial perceptual distance, the boy had possessed all the qualities which were attractive. The waxy crusts had been the decider. The boy wasn’t a player. And yet, he’d been the only possibility all night.
In the other men, the ones he really wanted, the faults were more tenuous. Slighter. But they had to be put in place: This was how he coped with the constant onslaught of the unattainable.
A train rumbled onto the platform. He felt something on the back of his hand. A square of chocolate had been placed there. The woman stood. “Coming?” she said, cocking her head to the opening doors. People were crammed inside the train.
He shook his head. She didn’t shrug, or ask again. She got on, and stood in a tight space near to the door. He looked away. He didn’t want to see her face. He felt as if he’d done something wrong, handled something in a less-than-elegant manner, and he didn’t want it confirmed in her expression. He heard the doors slide shut. The train pulled away.
He picked the melting square off his hand. His fingertips began to weld to it. There were no bins on the platform. So he ate it. It had a creamy, soothing texture, and its flavour reminded him of times past and present: all the memories were of intervals, the times when chocolate is enjoyed, and the moments just after them. At school: the lessons after break, and the smell of chocolate, and vinegary crisps, on fingers, pencils and childish breath. At work: morning tea, afternoon tea, chocolate, biscuits, and coffee. He savoured it, as she had, and though he was no expert, he could tell that it was milky and cheap. Nevertheless, it was delicious, and he licked the inside of his mouth and wished that he had some more.
© Barry Lee Thompson and ‘Stories, by Barry Lee Thompson’, 2013.