leaving Reading

It was wet, and dark. Passengers crowded at the end of the platform, hugging the wall of MDF as though it offered psychological protection from the cold. Julia arrived later than most, pulling her suitcase on wheels behind her, wishing it were a small dog and immediately regretting that: once, she would have wished for a husband. Not any more. Now, she tried to think only of what she did have — her job, her friends, her brother, her flat in Kilburn. She stood among the other passengers and stared down the tracks. She was meeting old friends from school. The first time in twenty-eight years. She hoped desperately they weren’t all married. With kids. She’d been such a success back then. What had gone wrong? She’d dressed to look younger. A man-made leopard-skin coat with three-quarter length sleeves. She liked her wrists, still so slim and translucent. She wore a beret on her head. It was red. Her nails and lips were also coloured scarlet. She’d been to the gym in the afternoon to put some colour in her cheeks too. She felt more optimistic than usual. She felt attractive and less single than she often did. She would have fun. And while she was running through the evening ahead — what she would say, the questions she would ask — her thoughts were interrupted by a tall man with threads of coloured cotton woven together around his wrist and reminding her of Prince Harry. Worldly, she thought. Well-travelled. He was also wearing a beanie. I think they’re called beanies, she said to herself without quite noticing that her concentration had dropped. Have you got a mirror I could borrow? I’ll only be a minute, he said. And then he had to repeat it because Julia wasn’t all there. A mirror? Do you have a mirror I could borrow? His attention made her feel special. He’d chosen her, among all these people. She was the one he’d turned to. Yes, she said too loudly. Yes, of course I do. She unzipped the top of her suitcase and bent over it, thrusting one of her hands deep down inside it, her long fingers searching for her compact like a vet trying to find the legs of an unborn calf in its mother’s womb she thought. The young man stood tall and still. He let his eyes wander to the back of Julia’s head and down her long back in the fake fur. He guessed she was turning fifty. Here it is, said Julia, returning to verticle. Her smile was far too keen for such a short exchange, he thought, and took the mirror from her, avoiding any eye contact. Julia blinked, trying to remember what it meant to bat your eyelids. The man pulled off the lid of his eyeliner pencil between his tidy whitened teeth and began running the kohl around his eyes. Julia wanted to compliment him. He was older than she’d first thought, possibly in his early thirties. Not too young then. And he spoke so nicely. He reminded her of her own brother who’d gone to public school. She was relieved. When he’d first approached she’d worried he might insult her, or want to take advantage of her class and her wealth. But when she heard him speaking, she felt at ease. She wanted to say something before he finished but she couldn’t find the right sentence. I like your hat, she said, it accentuates your jaw line. She looked up to him. But the young man took no notice. He pushed the pencil back into its lid, closed the compact and handed it back to her. He smiled, but said nothing. All set then, said Julia now desperate not to let him go. But again, he said nothing. He turned and began walking down the platform. The train was pulling in now, and the other passengers had also started moving. She tried to pull herself together, tried not to worry that he hadn’t paid her any proper attention. She worried it was proof of her age, proof you’re passed it she muttered, but tried to comfort herself that he was young and driven only by ego. She’d let herself imagine taking him to her bed. She only acknowledged that now he was gone. She began following his path down the platform, hoping he might not go all the way to the end. But she was already overwhelmed with self-loathing, and now she knew she hated him. Men are all the same, she said to herself. They’re all the same. Her thoughts tore at her. She had been in such good spirits earlier; now, she wanted only to return to Kilburn, to run a bath, and to go to bed. She’d been formed by the films about women like her and she was happy to follow the script. The train pulled out. The young man stood by the doors, where he could admire his face in the window. He pulled at his beanie repeatedly, tucking it under his earlobes so that it formed an outline around his face like a nun’s habit. His eyes were beautiful. Dark blue suited him. He turned his head slightly to the left, then to the right, delighting in his youth.