in Prose

A feeling of alienation

Things only seem to happen to me on the train home.

Today the train was bad. Not because it was packed – it was – and not because it was hot – it was – but because there was some malaise in the air. It festered overhead and underfoot, a sort of ultraviolet smell that had everyone on edge.

It put me on edge. It made me notice unpleasant things about people, like the woman who opened a packet of crisps in the corner. They’d been in a pocket, or left next to a radiator, or my sense of smell was heightened, but the second she opened them the too-rich umami stench flooded the carriage.

She crunched. She smacked her lips, and a thin film of grease glistened on the upper. She ate the bag at a ferocious rate and then, when she’d finished, sucked her fingers. Every digit was inserted, cleaned thoroughly, and removed with a popping sound.

And then when she finished, she inserted a newly cleaned finger into her mouth. She rooted around as though buried treasure had been hidden underneath her tongue until finally, upon removing it, we saw that she had found a morsel of crisp. It had been softened by saliva, crushed and moulded by teeth, and then – by a questing tongue – been forced into a gap.

She examined it critically. I couldn’t help but do the same, feeling the way I did when on a jaunt around a gallery I came across a critic examining one of the pieces of art. You have to stop. You have to consider the piece with the same weight and careful consideration with which the critic evaluates it.

And then, in a single movement, it went back in. She resigned that little fleck of potato to the fate it thought it had escaped.

Consider, I thought greenly, the number of surfaces this woman has touched. Even getting on this train she touched poles, seats, handles – every single thing a breeding ground for bacteria.

I looked out the window. We’d slowed to a stop outside my station, and to add to the surreal nature of the journey the automated announcement kept repeating the same thing:

“We will shortly be arriving at Waterloo East.”

“We will shortly be arriving at Waterloo East.”

“The next station is Waterloo East.”

as if this really were a dream and everything was moving backwards.

On the flat roof of a house I could see a cat. The cat was lying still, as cats sometimes do, but I felt within me a rising panic as the cat continued to not move. The cat, of course, could not feel the weight of my gaze on him – in fact, he probably felt nothing more than the sun’s gentle warmth on him.

But he was entirely black, and he was very still, except when the wind moved his fur.

And his eyes were closed.

And my panic grew worse as the train moved, because even though I was in a steel carriage, separated by glass and space and an intimidating looking barbed-wire fence I felt suddenly the need to go and make sure that the cat was not dead.

And now, moving, I couldn’t. As if I could before!

I looked around the carriage. Nobody else felt this panic. I suspect, if they saw the cat, that they thought it was just napping.

But he was so very still, and so very black, and so very like my cat –

I don’t really expect you to understand. You could try. You could make a facsimile of your hand from wax, and put it on the table, where your hand should be. And then you can stare at it until you start to forget that it is not your hand.

And then a friend, or a trusted colleague, or a licensed priest can drive a blade down into that wax facsimile that now seems almost to be your hand, drive it all the way through, pinning it to the wood of the table –

and when you’ve clambered up from your chair and recovered from the shock, you’ll understand what I mean.

On the way home I walked past a stack of Sun newspapers and glanced at the front page.

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Like I said. Weird day.

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