12/09/14 - Short Story: The Journey To Buxton

     “Is this seat taken?”
     The man was oblivious to my voice for a moment, and then he caught a glimpse of me looming over him in the corner of his eye and his head jerked up.  He tugged one of his headphones from his ear and turned his eyes quizzically up to me.

     “Is this seat taken?” I repeated and he shook his head, replacing the headphone and turning his attention back to his laptop as I deposited my bulky backpack on the overhead shelf and awkwardly slid myself into the empty seat, positioning my handbag safely between my feet.  The train was busier than I’d expected it to be, hence my lack of a reserved seat.  It had taken me nearly a full ten minutes of bumping up and down the aisle of each carriage, searching desperately for a free space.  Trying to take up as little room as possible, I reached down to my bag and pulled out a battered paperback.  I’m not a big fan of train travel but it is very useful for battling through my university reading list.  I opened the book to the corner that I’d folded down and tried to focus my eyes on the text.  At around the halfway point, this one hadn’t exactly captured my imagination yet and I doubted that it would.  Hopefully I wouldn’t need to rely on it for the exam, but that depended on how it compared to the other books on the module.  I sighed, quietly so as not to disturb the man next to me, and attempted to lose myself in the book.
     It didn’t work.  All that the effort of concentration achieved was to make me irritable at my lack of ability to focus.  I sighed softly and laid the book face down on the sticky fold-down table in front of me.  I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, when I was distracted by the sound of a horrified gasp to my right.  Immediately, my eyes flew open.  What was going on?  The gasper had sounded urgent.

     The gasper was sitting across the aisle from me, his eyes fixed in horror at the book in front of me.  I furrowed my brow and quirked an eyebrow at him as he turned his shocked gaze up to meet my confused one.
     “Can I help you?”  My tone was much more aggressive than I’d intended it to be, but I don’t appreciate strangers looking at me as though I’d just defiled his life's work.  Especially strangers with such good hair.
     “I’m sorry, but could I ask you to treat that book with a little more respect?”  His voice was deep and genuinely sounded pained, as his eyes were drawn back to my table.  I blinked at him, speechless.  Was this a joke?  Had an absolute stranger just berated me for the way I was treating a book?  My book, to be more specific?  What business was it of his?  He looked up again and met my blank confused expression with a sheepish little smile.  “I’m sorry, I really am.  It’s not my place to say it, but it just makes me uncomfortable to see…that.”  He gestured to the table. 
     I noticed that his own book was pristine, the spine unbroken and a train ticket peeking out, marking his page.  I could see how mine might pale in comparison, with its tattered cover and dog-eared pages.  I also had a habit of folding the book back on itself until the covers met and I could hold it easily in one hand, which resulted in all kinds of structural damage.  It had never occurred to me before that anyone could find this so offensive, but clearly he did. 
     “Well, I’m sorry, I suppose.”  I didn’t sound sorry in the slightest.  The corner of his mouth quirked upwards and I felt my palms begin to sweat.  There was something swirling inside me, a combination of indignation and – yes, I’ll admit it – attraction.  I had to have a little grudging respect for someone with the sheer gall to so openly judge a complete stranger for such a slight misdemeanour. 
     “Well, as long as you suppose you’re sorry, I guess that’s all I can ask.”  There was a slight hint of mocking to his tone of voice and I narrowed my eyes at him, which made his smile a little wider.  His teeth, I noticed, were very straight and very white but not unnaturally so.  I found myself being oddly intrigued by those teeth.
     “I don’t know what else you expect me to say,” I admitted.  Why I was engaging in this conversation, I couldn’t quite say.  I couldn’t seem to drag myself away.  “There’s not a lot I can do about it now.”  I nodded down to the decrepit paperback which was sitting innocently on the sticky tray table and not realising how much drama it was causing.  “And in my defence, this one was from a charity shop, so some of this was already done when I bought it.”  That was…not strictly true.  It had been second hand and a little bit battered to start with, but the majority of the damage was down to me.  But he didn’t need to know that. 
     His pursed lips told me that he didn’t quite believe me.  The conversation seemed to have reached a stalemate and I decided that it was most definitely his turn to speak if it were to continue, so I turned my head to gaze past the head of the man next to me and out towards the window.
     There’s only so long that you can watch the blur of the world passing by a train window for before everything seems to lose meaning.  The green and brown smudges cease to be trees, your eyes become unfocussed and everything gets a bit distant.  You find your mind wandering away and you don’t notice how far it’s drifted until you’re brought back to the real world with a jolt.  My jolt was the train beginning to slow and the silent businessman next to me giving an exasperated gesture to indicate that he needed to get past.  I scrambled to move, clambering over my handbag and narrowly avoiding knocking myself out on the back of the seat in front of me.  It wasn’t until I was settled into the window seat and relishing the space next to me by stretching my arms out into it, when I noticed him watching me with amusement.  Him.  Because what I needed right now was definitely more judging looks.  This was shaping up to be a very peculiar train journey.  I haughtily turned away from him, making a point of picking up my book and bending the cover back as far as it would go.  I could feel practically feel discomfort radiating from him and most definitely sensed a wince.  I settled myself down with satisfaction and found myself a little more able to invest in the book in order to distract myself from the tension to my right.  It was a struggle but I managed to restrain myself from glancing over to see what he was doing.  I imagined him gently holding his book, carefully clutching both sides to keep the spine pristine…and then I pushed the thought from my head.  I didn’t want to be thinking about him at all.
     The rest of the journey passed uneventfully.  I spent most of it alternating gazing out of the window and trying to focus on the words in front of me.  The effort of not looking to my right was almost unbearable, but I’m proud to say that I managed it.  Finally, the train slowed for a final time and the tinny voice over the tannoy informed the few passengers left onboard that we had reached our destination.  I stretched and was preparing myself for the task of heaving my bag down from the overhead shelf when a little cough above me grabbed my attention and I looked up.  I hadn’t noticed until now how bright blue his eyes were.  His lips formed a tiny half-smile as he slid a slip of paper between the pages of my book, before shouldering his satchel and taking off down the aisle of the train.  It took me a moment before I could bring myself to look at what he’d left me.  It turned out to be a supermarket receipt for two frozen pizzas and a tub of ice cream, with beautiful looping handwriting on the back:
Let’s hope you treat men a little better than you treat books.  If you do, give me a call’, along with his name and number.  A name that I recognised.
     I looked up in time to watch him strolling past the train window without so much as a glance in my direction.  I flipped the book open to the inside of the back cover and sure enough, there he was.  The black and white photograph made him look like the stereotypical brooding writer and didn’t do justice to the sparkle in his eyes and the constant hint of an untold joke lingering on his lips.  I knew that, probably against my better judgement, I would definitely call him.  It would be rude not to, after defiling his life’s work.