The Bad Between Us
Oindrila Gupta, June 23, 2023
The announcement says there’s been an incident on the line. England is 18 hours into the hottest day of the year and outside the train carriage the June sun is scalding enough to set the air rippling. Inside a collective groan goes up. Beside me, the man whose knee has been pressing tight against mine since he sat next to me two stops ago drops his head to the table. There’s a line of sweat down the back of his blue shirt. A tiny blackhead below his ear lobe. My fingers itch at the thought of squeezing it.
“We will let you know as soon as we can start moving again,” the faceless voice tells us. It is flat. Monotone. Uncaring. “In the meantime, hold tight. It might be a while.”
An incident on the line usually means one thing. From somewhere down in the middle of the carriage a woman says, “selfish bastard,” and there’s a low mumble of agreement. I lay my head against the window and watch as a flock of sheep nibble mindlessly at the grass in the high field that flanks the line. We’re in a spot where phone signal is non-existent. Where the sights are green, golden, and blue – not a blemish in the sky. The lack of cloud cover is almost oppressive.
“Long day at work?” the man beside me asks. His head is propped up by an arm now, cheek mushed like a sponge in his palm. He says it in such a way that I could reply with a nod, a shrug, or actual words, and all of them would be adequate. I go for a sigh and say, “Yes,” like I’m being deflated. “Tiring in this heat.”
It is not the truth. Though the heat is tiring. I lost my job in May and have been pretending to go to work in the city ever since. I’ve kept the same routine that has cocooned me for the past two years, right down to dressing in my worn-out navy suit and packing my rucksack each morning with my work laptop. They didn’t want to let me keep the laptop, but I created enough of a scene as I was escorted from the office that no one could be bothered to wrestle it from me. It only works if I connect it to a VPN. One which I’ve been blocked from.
In an effort to keep up the game I lament to my fiancé about my laptop woes. The unreliability of working from protected files. The need to constantly call IT. It’s easier if I just go to the office. He will be at home now, worn out from his day teaching school children how longshore drift works. The image is so clear of him showered and changed into his tight sport shorts and his white t-shirt that he never gets a mark on. He’ll be making pesto tortellini and sipping on a crisp white wine, something he does every Friday night, his winddown time.
He’s been having an affair with the man who built our kitchen extension. He sees him on Tuesday lunchtimes and Thursdays in the hour and a half space when I pretend to go to the gym but instead sit in a carpark and watch two episodes of Kitchen Nightmares on my phone. We’re both liars. I don’t hate him for it, yet.
A baby begins crying somewhere near the carriage exit, and I imagine the woman who said “selfish bastard” is rolling her eyes as the parent begins cooing a few “hush hushes.” I’ve always envied the freedom children have to just act on their immediate emotions. To fall to bits in a supermarket or sit on the floor during a lengthy walk by a river and refuse to take another step. I could cry now. I could clamber over the table and stand on the copy of the newspaperthe woman across from me is reading and collapse to the floor. But the man next to me offers me a mint. He pushes it from the packet with his thumb.
“Wish I could offer you a beer,” he says. “But this is all I’ve got. Unless you want my sandwich?”
He is the most handsome man I’ve seen in a long time. Strong jaw. Teeth that push at his lips ever so slightly. A tangle of curly black hair. Tan skin.
“What’s in it?”
“Roast chicken. Maybe a soggy tomato.”
I haven’t eaten all day. The heat plays with my stomach and appetite in ways that are only enjoyable on a Greek island where salads can be eaten poolside and followed by a deep, sunburnt sleep on a deck chair. I take the mint and crunch it between my teeth.
An agitated fever has risen. It is not unexpected. In the two hours we’ve been stationary, all the possible windows in the carriage have been opened to little relief. The power has been reduced too, and the air-con that was blowing minimal cold air has been cut off. It feels as though we’re been slowly cooked. Human one pot on a simmer. A handful of people have unbuttoned their shirts to acceptable lengths. One man has taken his t-shirt off entirely and is sitting bare chested, the roundness of his stomach on show. I know it because I stood up to stretch my calves, caught his eye, and sat down again. With little else to do I’ve imagined a life for him in which he’s secretly a circus acrobat and can showcase multiple spins with perfect form despite his size. He’s the main attraction at all the seaside towns. His wife is the ringmaster and kisses him after the act in a display of romance.
My fiancé is not romantic. He is comfortable and kind and attentive, but he doesn’t see the romance in things. He says the same of me and we agree to disagree and go about our days thinking we are not like one another. I wonder if he is romantic with the builder. Or maybe it’s all carnal. I know about the affair because the builder told me and asked if he should stop. I told him that wasn’t my decision to make. He looked at me as if I were a deep-sea creature.
The sound of the carriage door opens, a thin depress of air. A shout goes up from someone with a gruff accent asking, “Any chance of knowing when we’ll be moving, love?”
The ticket person is sweating from her brow, dots of it large and damp. She’s still in her full black uniform, cooking with the rest of us. She tells the accent that she doesn’t know, and that she’s sorry, and then the handsome man next to me asks if we couldn’t just get off the train.
“How do you mean?” she replies.
“Well,” he turns to face me, and then gestures around to the whole carriage before turning back, “why can’t we just get off the train? There’s nothing around us but fields. We could sit outside and not overheat until we’re ready to leave.”
She pauses, and it’s clear that if she were in our position, she’d ask the same. Instead, she says the tracks are live, that it could be dangerous, and shuffles past the bodies who are lolling in the aisles before he asks her anything else.
“You’d escape this train with me, wouldn’t you?” the handsome man asks. I nod and say, “Of course,” and he says, “Good, because you look strong, and we’ll need that when we try to prize open the doors.” He waits until the ticket person has disappeared into the next carriage before standing and beckoning me to do the same. My legs are sticky in my trousers as I dislodge myself from my seat. Gruff accent returns once more.
“Where are you lads off ta?”
“To escape the train,” handsome man shouts back. He’s pulling his rucksack from the shelf above and slinging it onto his back. The sweat has spread. His entire back is nearly soaked, the cotton of his shirt translucent.
“Grand idea, I’ll join ya.”
We divide ourselves into a team, I grab one side of the electric sliding doors, and handsome man and gruff accent grab the other and pull. It resists until whatever electric mechanism simply gives up and gives way and lungs full of fresh, grassy tinged air and freedom bleeds into the train.
There’s no alarm or siren, and I inhale like I haven’t known air before. I jump out onto the edge of the track and clamber over the fence that separates the line from the field. Sheep scatter at my presence. Half the carriage follows, some kids who’ve stayed quiet now shouting about a mutiny and independence. A teenager jumps and hollers “Viva La Revolution”and lands awkwardly on his ankle, the gravel of the line crunching beneath him. There are three other carriages and people cotton on and join us. Others wave. Handsome man strides with me. The sun is just as oppressive outside, though the heat doesn’t linger like a bad stench like it does in the train.
“Let’s sit at the top of the hill,” he says.
I can’t tell my fiancé I’ve lost my job because then I’ll have to tell him why. It’s not bad. Not really. But because I’ve been so honest, he’ll have to tell me about his affair – the guilt will drive him to it – and I can’t bear to see his face for either. He doesn’t take to surprises well. To things that would upend our equilibrium. Our evenings are filled with hospital dramas and 10:00pm bedtimes and getting irritated when one of us reads with the light on, the lamp glowing yellow in the room like a sick moon.
In the field we are spread like ants, and there is little the ticket person nor the driver can do. They watch on from the open carriage door. Despite the arrival of evening, the sun stifles. Mosquitos flicker.
“Do you think they’ll call the police?” I ask, for something to say.
Handsome man shrugs his heavy shoulders and says he’s not sure what help they would possibly be. He wonders if we have broken a law – is escaping a train because it’s horribly hot an arrestable offence? Neither of us know. We carry on this way, exchanging small talk and questions and anecdotes. He tells me he grew up by the seaside in Whitby and has family who live in a tiny cottage in the town. I tell him I loved visiting there as a child, which I did. I have an abundance of happy memories tied to those shores. Later he tells me he works for a marketing company and enjoys the pay but dislikes the office environment. I ask if he’s a designer, but he says he works in the finance team, checking budgets and making sure clients pay the right money. “It’s very easy to get that stuff wrong,” he says. In that moment I want him to be more interesting. Something profound.
“What is it that you do, then?” He’s pulled his chicken sandwich from his bag but has left it wrapped in its tin foil. I’ve rolled my trousers up to my knees. The grass beneath me tickles my skin.
“I write copy.”
He hums and says it sounds fun, which it has never been, since it isn’t the job I used to have. I lay back and he follows and sets an arm over his eyes to block the beat of the sun. I delude myself for some time about handsome man and the life we might have. A spaniel and a house with a sea view. Evenings eating salads in the back garden and me falling into his thick, sturdy chest. I think back to my first date with my fiancé. The things I asked him and all the answers he gave. The small stuff that means nothing and everything. How his favourite cheese is feta – the right answer. How he likes to sleep on cool bedsheets. That he doesn’t feel like a person until he’s showered in the morning. My fiancé is calmer around water. Perhaps it is us who need to live by the coast.
The sky is starting to pale as the evening wears on. Half an hour ticks by and my phone is still void of signal. I’ve been stuck on trains before, the longest being nearly six hours. It felt like 16 by the time my feet touched the platform. There’s minimal activity back on the carriages. A calm has spread. Next to me the handsome man is soaking up the light. The sweat on him has started to dry in the reprieve of the heat. He and I both smell stale.
“It’s not fun,” I say.
“Writing copy. It’s not fun.”
“Because it’s not my job. I lied.”
I watch as gruff accent begins to wander back to the train. Perhaps he has left something on board.
“I worked as a contract sales manager and embezzled £20,000 from one of our clients. They thought they were paying the company, and they were in a way. I transferred some of the money over. Kept some for myself. I got fired – obviously – and have paid some of it back out of the money I’ve saved for our mortgage. I’ve been pretending to go to work because I don’t want to tell my fiancé. He doesn’t check our accounts because he trusts me.”
Handsome man is silent.
“He’s been having an affair with the builder who did our extension. He hasn’t told me about it yet. Maybe we’re even,” I add. I’m not sure I’ve convinced myself, let alone him.
“There seems to be a lot of bad between you,” handsome man says. It hurts more than I’d care to admit.
“Can I ask you something odd?”
“What’s your favourite cheese.”
He shrugs and says, “the red one,” and the day comes collapsing down around me.
The incident on the line is cleared just before 9:00pm. The train driver and the ticket person, who is still clad head to toe in her black uniform and now appears frazzled and heavy limbed, step out of the front carriage and call up into field. I smile tightly as handsome man looks my way. He’s said nothing since my revelation.
“What’s your name?” I ask as we trudge down the field. I feel baked and crisp.
“No. I lied.”
As we reach civilisation – a mere 20 minutes away – my phone will again find signal. Handsome man will decide to stand rather than sit beside me, and tiredness will blanket us passengers. My fiancé will have left me three missed calls and later he will come and pick me up from the station with a bottle of icy water in his hands. Handsome man will be long gone by this point. I won’t tell my fiancé what I’ve done, and he won’t tell me about the affair. Instead, he’ll run me a bath despite the lingering heat and make me a Martini and tomorrow morning we will rise again and pretend to be something other than what we are.
You may also like
Eyes of the Beholden
Unspoken desires linger in the shadows of a teacher's life, revealed through art
Bessie's odyssey through stormy nights, lost love, and secret graveyards unfolds with haunting beauty in "Lost" by Sandra Dennis.
Amidst a flood, a woman grapples with the past, and confronts the consequences in this haunting narrative of resilience.
Book Review: White Nights by Urszula Honek
The debut short story from Polish writer Urszula Honek, White Nights, is akin to reading an account of a haunted place – one that is beautiful and devastating in equal
Beyond the Surface: The Multifaceted Lives of ‘American Fiction’
In essence, "American Fiction" and the experiences it draws from remind us that we are indeed more than the sum of our parts.
Beyond the Surface: The Multifaceted Lives of ‘American Fiction’
The narrative of “American Fiction” unfolds with a dual focus: it not only scrutinizes the unique pressures faced by Black creatives but also delves into the intricate and sometimes tense…
Uncle Bobby’s Funeral
Reluctant family faces the eccentricities of Uncle Bobby's funeral in swampy Chipley.
We Die for What We Believe
Amid a concealed gizzard surgery program, May's call for transparency sparks a tragic collision of beliefs, extraterrestrial revelations, and irreversible consequences.