I see her looking at him. I can read on her face exactly what she’s thinking. She watches him hold my hand as we enter the carriage. Observes how he leads me to a seat and allows me to sit before he does. She looks at his hand on my arm. She smiles ever so slightly at the sight of us, a mature couple sitting so close together, still so in love. I see admiration in her eyes. She looks at this handsome, well dressed man and she decides that she respects him.
He leans forward and touches my shirt, lightly and delicately, as if plucking a ball of fluff from my lapel. The shirt’s collar is neatly folded over my expensive cashmere jumper. He looks deep into my eyes, a smile playing at the corner of his weathered lips. He is so handsome, I think. His face has aged in a graceful way. He has a chiselled jaw, somewhat softened and rugged by the years gone by, but still strong. He is greying at the temples and it suits him. My once golden hair has also surrendered to grey. I don’t hide it with dye. My hair is cut short and neat. He says fancy hair would distract from my natural beauty.
He takes my hand in his and squeezes. He looks down at my long fingers, tipped with self-manicured nails in light, natural pink. He likes the colour. He lifts my hand closer to his face, turning it ever so slightly this way and that, examining my nails, so that the varnish shines in the harsh lights of the train. He trails his fingers lightly over my wedding band, then, with a firmer hand, twists it around my finger. The sudden friction of his touch makes me shiver.
He is immaculately dressed. Unlike many wives, I do not buy any garments for him. He has chosen his own style. He likes neat lines, tailored suits and dark navy jeans. Always ironed. He often pairs his trousers and jackets with crisp white shirts, a favourite of his because they will never go out of fashion. A white shirt is a sign of a clean life, he says. They must be the brightest of white. Any sign of dullness or grey and they are discarded swiftly. He shops online with a select number of exclusive brands. Well, he can afford it. He is a successful man.
I glance at the woman. She is gazing out of the window, a look of hope on her face as if somehow the sight of us has rekindled a romantic hope in her. I allow myself a longer look, my husband distracted momentarily by a scuff on his new leather boots. She looks upwards at the stars with the open, expectant face of the young. Under thirty and pretty, she has an engagement ring on her finger. She distractedly twists it around and around as she loses herself in her thoughts. I think back to the day when he slipped my engagement ring on, kneeling at my feet and looking up at me, as if his world was balanced on a pin head. His elation when I said yes had made me laugh out loud, his delight as he took me by the hands and swung me around him. I had pushed all the doubts to the back of my mind, letting myself get caught up in his powerful will.
I see an odd expression cross the girl’s face. She jerks her fingers from the ring, as if the metal is suddenly hot, and places her hand on her chest. The expression passes quickly, like a dark cloud, blown on by a strong wind. I see her shake her head almost imperceptibly, then her shoulders lower and the worry is gone. But I saw it. I saw the cloud and I recognised it.
The sudden urge to warn the girl grips me violently. I want to jump up and scream at her, the loudest I’ve ever screamed. I want to grab her and shake her until she understands.
He touches my shirt because he doesn’t want me on show in any way. Even the small soft hollow at the base of my neck is too much for him to share. He pulls the collar of my shirt together quickly and softly, plucking imaginary thread from my lapel to disguise his actions. As he looks into my eyes he smiles. It’s not a kind smile. It’s a self-satisfied smile, a smile that says, ‘I have you and I’ll never let you go.’ My hair is cut short because he likes it that way. A lady of his choosing comes to our house every three weeks, he watches as she cuts. I smile and I chat with her, like everything is normal which, I suppose, it is. I don’t use hair dye. Whores dye their hair, he says. No curling and preening like a peacock for me. No make-up either. I learnt that the hard way when he scrubbed my face with wire wool. My skin is bare and unblemished apart from the natural lines that come with age.
He holds my hand so that, at all times, he may control me. He leads me to my seat so that he can choose in which direction I face. He will lead me to a window so that he can border me, pin me in. He places his hand gently on my arm. He is careful to be gentle as any pressure would make me wince, he can’t risk that. Underneath my soft jumper there is a red raw scald he gave me two days ago. The hand placed on my wound is a reminder. Behave. I own you.
His clothes are immaculate because I keep them that way. Pressed and ordered in his wardrobe, the way he likes it. I long ago learnt to keep him happy. If I ever forget he quickly reminds me. I lean back my head and shut my eyes. I’m not accustomed to travelling on trains. The pressure of acting correctly becomes so much greater when you are surrounded by strangers. Unknown quantities. Shutting my eyes seems the safest option. There are two other men on this carriage and I can’t risk looking in their direction. If I shut my eyes then I can’t be criticised for looking at the wrong person whilst wearing the wrong expression.
Turning my head to the window and opening my eyes once more, I look out as it begins to rain. The water trickles in rivulets down the pane and my reflection blurs. I can’t see myself. It’s been a long time since I could. I try and focus my eyes on the face in the glass, but it’s too unrecognisable. The shapes of my features are lost and streaked, as if smudged across the glass by an angry hand. As I stare at the blurred lights of the city I wonder if I even exist at all. I’m sure I was beautiful once. I know I was. Because he saw my beauty and he choked it. Surrounded it like rough fingers pinching out the flame of a candle. He took me for himself and he keeps me locked away in a cage without bars.
My thoughts fly apart as pulls my hand and I realise we’ve reached our stop. Eagerly I stand, not wanting to appear slow or questioning. I smile at him as we rise together, treading carefully through the aisle, him ahead, me behind. As he passes the woman I see him look in her direction. She looks up, expectant of a polite smile or nod, but her face freezes. I don’t need to see his face to know why. Sometimes, when his guard is down, his eyes betray what he really is. Formidably sexual, his eyes linger on her pert breasts as he passes. I see her shrink back against the window.
Her confused eyes seek mine and our eyes meet. She sees me. I watch her face as she finally sees me. She looks into my soul and I see her eyes flash as it hits her. In an instant, she realises what he is. He continues towards the doors, unknowing of or unaffected by her reaction, pulling his possession behind him. I look desperately back at the woman, and with that glance I try and speak a thousand words. They are the words that I wish I’d spoken to myself long ago. As we leave the train I feel sorry. Not for me but for her. I hope, with what little will I have left, that she does not befall my fate. She sits forward in her seat as we pass her window. She reaches out her hand and touches the glass as the train pulls away, anguish slashed across her face. But I am gone. I have been gone for a long time.
As Sally stepped off of the train and onto the platform she pulled her coat close around her throat. Walking towards the stairs, she tried to make sense of what had happened in the carriage. Well, nothing had actually happened. Nevertheless, she felt suddenly that she was approaching a precipice. Something had shifted inside her. The older couple on the train had seemed so perfect. She had seen them and been full of hope. How wonderful, she had thought, that they were still in love after so many years. But something had started to nag at her, sitting there in the carriage. She had felt extremely uneasy as they left the train, and the old man had particularly disturbed her. Was he really leering at her? Surely she must have read that wrong. But then she remembered looking into the woman’s eyes and feeling like she had been punched in the chest.
The pain she had felt coming from that gaze had shocked her. Her hands were still shaking now, as she tried to grip the cold metal handrail of the stairwell. As she climbed the stairs, Sally’s troubled thoughts were disturbed by her phone vibrating in her pocket. She inwardly sighed as she pulled out her phone. Another text from Phil.
‘Where are you?’
Glaring up at her like a luminous pointing finger, it was the fifteenth text she had received that evening. She had been at a drinks party after work, an evening that had been planned well in advance, as Phil didn’t like last minute changes to their plans. Breathing heavily as she reached the top of the stairs, she slid her phone back into her pocket. It was only a five minute walk back to the flat, she could talk to him when she got home. Glad that the rain had stopped, if only momentarily, she walked quickly out of the station and towards the road.
Touching her engagement ring again, she softened slightly and smiled. He just really loves me, she thought, walking across the zebra crossing outside the station. She bent her head against the wind as her hair whipped around her face. I’m lucky to have a man who is so passionate, she said to herself, reaching the other side of the road. But the nagging doubts wouldn’t go away. Sitting on the train, she had shaken away the memory of Phil in one of his jealous rages. But they only happen when he drinks, she reminded herself. As she turned up her street, she bent forward to walk up the steep hill towards her flat. Uninvited, the woman’s face appeared in her mind. She felt again the surge of hopelessness that had rushed from her. Like a tight hand closing around her throat, the pain etched on the woman’s face had made it difficult to breathe. The woman was beautiful, but her haunted expression kept flashing like a dazzling lighthouse before Sally’s eyes.
As she was approaching the flat, her pocket buzzed with another text. For goodness sake, Sally thought. She pulled out her phone, for what seemed like the millionth time that evening, and stared in disbelief at the screen.
‘I’m coming to find you.’
All at once, Sally felt scared. She looked up towards the flat and saw the hall light come on. She saw Phil’s tall shadow approach the door, his arm reaching for the handle as panic gripped her. Something close to animal instinct made her duck quickly behind some bins in her neighbour’s front garden. She stood there cowering, her eyes darting behind her then back to the flat. She tried to calm her breathing. Hunched over behind the large green bin, she suddenly felt quite ridiculous. She watched Phil as he strode purposefully towards the car. Feeling increasingly silly and not quite knowing what had come over her, she stepped out from behind the bin and raised her arm up to wave to Phil. Just as she was about to call out, Phil kicked viciously at a plant pot that sat at the base of their porch. The noise of the pot exploding against their wall made Sally jump. Her hand flew to her mouth and she froze.
‘Fucking bitch.’ The hate filled words floated in the air between them.
She stood absolutely still as the car started and Phil drove away, revving the engine loudly. Once the car was out of sight Sally realised she had been holding her breath. She let out a loud, low moan as she released the air from her lungs. Dropping her arms to her sides, she stood motionless as the image of Phil’s enraged face filled her mind. The large black cloud above her suddenly released its burden with full force and the cold rain fell heavily onto her face and hair. She felt its cold fingers on her scalp as freezing drops began to run under her collar, down towards her pounding heart. Ice cold tendrils seeped down her back as all the times she had doubted her relationship with Phil seeped across her mind. Phil smashing a glass in a rage. Phil bloodying his fists on a wall. Phil raising his fist …
She saw now that her conscious mind, the one that feared being alone for the rest of her life, had trodden on her doubts and stamped them to the very bottom of her stomach.
But now they were free.
They choked their way up her throat and made her gasp. They slapped her in the face and her cheeks stung in shame at the fool she had been. She turned her eyes skywards as the large droplets of water burst on her face and mingled with her tears. Through her wet lashes, Sally looked at the foreboding cloud above her, its dark form obscuring the moon. At just that moment the cloud was lit from behind and its edges appeared to glow bright. The cloud started to roll through the sky as her future with Phil rolled out before eyes in stark, bleak scenes.
The cloud was swept on by the wind and the moon shone down on Sally undiluted. The pale light shone on her wet hair as she turned away from her flat and began to run.
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