There was once a man who disapproved of me. We caught the same trains to the same places. The 7.32 express into the city; the 6.05 local back again. Twenty minutes in, 30 minutes out. Monday to Friday, ten trips a week, back and forth together. All those shuttled hours and we never spoke to one another, because he disapproved of me. I was certain of it; knew in that wordless way children know which sibling is their parents’ favourite. Disapproval is not so different from love. Both are a form of wanting.
I could never work out exactly what the man wanted from me. My hair longer? My lips less red? Could never work out what part of me itched and roughed at him. Or whether it was really me at all, and not some subterranean twitch of memory. I won’t lie; there was power in it. He was always so put-together, so tucked in—all pinstripe and polish—except for when he looked at me. There was something wild in his reproach, a zoo-animal glint. And so I dressed for him and I laughed for him. I painted my nails and eyes and lips. I shaved my head down to the scalp. For him. For him. I would wait until he boarded the train and then slink past him like a new lover. Brush imaginary lint from his shoulders. Smile too wide. I turned his disapproval into disgust, and his disgust into hatred. And it was just so fucking delicious.
I would conjure his face in the cramped dark of my rented studio flat, in the mean little bed that folded down from the wall. Imagined him imagining me. How he ached to lose his grip on that blossoming fury and push me out onto the tracks. I could almost feel the heels of his hands against my shoulder blades.
I used to write on the train. Character sketches of interesting passengers: a teenage boy who wore a boa over his school uniform and shed feathers down the aisle; an elderly woman with turn the other cheek tattooed on the right side of her face and a crucifix on the left. Research for a book I would never write. A book of stories set on a train that I’d call ‘Transit’, or maybe ‘The Frankston Line’, and every station would have its own story. It was the ripcord that was meant to hoist me out and away from the office and its cruel neon, away from the crushed-ant stink of photocopy toner, and the ceaseless ringing of phones. Whenever I caught my reflection—in train windows or computer screens—I’d practise my pensive dust-jacket face. Glasses on. Glasses off. But my friends had stopped asking how the book was coming together a long time ago.
I started writing about the man. I gave him a soft wife, and a hard heart. I gave him money. I gave him a name. I gave him a home too—a nice one, one of the old Victorian carriage houses you could see from the window of my flat, all frills and pickets. I gave him things to lose.
An opening scene: the man wakes one morning to find his wife in the garden, burying a bird. The bird has mistaken glass for air, and sailed into the kitchen window. His wife is digging a hole with a serving spoon because they pay someone to tend to the garden, and don’t own a shovel. It’s a crayon-coloured thing, the bird; grass-green wings, midnight-blue head, sun-yellow band around its throat.
‘It’s a ringneck parrot,’ his wife tells him.
‘Not any more,’ he laughs, ‘it’s a broke-neck parrot.’
She presses down on the earth as if she is tucking a child into bed. She has no child to tuck. He does not kiss her goodbye, because he does not want to get soil on his suit.
‘I can still feel the sound of it,’ his wife tells him, ‘I can still feel the walls tremble.’
The man knows that when he gets home his wife will want to talk about the bird. Buy a plant to mark its place in their garden. Wonder if there is an abandoned nest somewhere and beg him to search for it. He does not kiss her goodbye, because he disapproves of her.
When the man missed our train home one night, I gave him a mistress. Not me, no, no—some thin and angular thing, ungenerous, all hipbones and elbows. The sour whiff of eating disorder. Mean as his wife was kind, which is why the man wanted her. A cruel mouth, she’d end their first kiss with a bite. I gave her a name too, a name that cracked like grit between your teeth. It suited her.
For the first time since university, since I started at the office, I could see the whole story. I mapped it all out. How the man convinces the sharp-edged girl to sleep with him—pushes her down onto the thin synthetic carpet behind his desk. The static in the air is audible, it sticks her clothes to her, frizzes her hair; their fingertips spark and zap. She barely whimpers, barely moves. It’s intoxicating to him, this ragdoll blankness. He rubs his knees raw on the office floor; he misses his train home once, and then again and again. And each time he is late he sees a woman on the platform (here I am), a woman who looks at him, really looks—and it’s as if she can see, that somehow she knows about his burned knees and his childless wife waiting, wanting. He hates this woman, hates her clear eyes, her shaved head rough as a cat’s tongue, her whore-red mouth.
Each night he goes home to his soft wife, who is slowly hardening. He is running out of excuses. The woman on the platform is quietly watching, waiting. One night she speaks to him: ‘Take care.’
There is something in the woman’s voice—a kind of saccharine cruelty. She knows he has run out of time; she knows that his wife is on the sharp edge of something. That soon his wife will know, or stop pretending not to know. When he gets home the man tells his wife that he is late because a girl on the platform jumped in front of the train. Shaved head, red lips. And his wife is softening, as he knew she would. Comforting him as he describes the noise the girl made as the train hit. He imagines a wet, meaty wallop.
‘Do you remember that bird,’ he asks his wife, ‘that poor broken creature?’ And she does.
Here’s the clever part—it’s like some-thing out of O. Henry. The next day, the man calls it off with the raw-boned mistress, who doesn’t really care at all and he’s on time for his normal train and he’s safe. It seems he’ll keep the things I’ve given him. But as he steps onto the platform, he sees that the girl is there, like some blood-lipped ghost. He stares so long she laughs at him.
‘Shut up!’ the man yells, but she won’t stop. ‘Shut up! Shut up! Shut the fuck up! Shut up you dyke cunt.’
Why won’t she stop laughing? The train is coming and the girl is laughing, and the man can feel a rage pacing and pawing at his ribcage. It would be so easy to push her. Hands to shoulder blades like a new set of wings. He has already seen it, this girl, this train—he knows what it will sound like.
‘Does he push her?’ a blind date asks, because I have become so excited by the idea of my story that I’ve started to tell it like an anecdote.
‘No. He’s about to, but before he can a teenage boy in a feather boa jumps in front of the train. White feathers fucking everywhere—bits of down falling around him and the girl like snow.’
‘That’s fucked up.’
‘You haven’t even heard the end. The man’s late home now, but he can’t tell his wife what’s happened, because he’s already used the excuse and he can’t find the words for another one. He can’t shake the metal scream of the train braking; the heavy sound of the boy under it.’
‘And so now she knows?’
‘Now she knows.’
I was so pleased with it. So many years of back and forth and back and forth and finally, a story. I longed to show the disapproving man, to read each new page to him; to build another life in front of him, the wife, the house, the bird, the ragdoll, the feathers. I wanted him to marvel at the sturdy cleverness of it, like he might marvel at a solid piece of furniture or some venerable oak. I wanted to prove it to him; prove it to all of them.
But I could never work out how to write it. And every morning and every evening I would see in his face that he knew. He knew what I’d tried, failed to do. It wasn’t hatred, it was contempt. I took another job, one close enough to walk. I lost the notebook. Years later, on the other side of the world, a man stepped out in front of my train. He stepped out and under as easy as if it he were stepping into water, and he didn’t make a sound.