I could smell him. The bitter taste of Old Spice was so strong you could taste it, the way you feel Novocain on your tongue.
He stalked onto the train, paused for a moment, then tilted his head as if listening to a whisper. Specks of dandruff clung to the neckline of his grey pin-stripped suit like litter clings to the grass around a roadside picnic.
The suit, probably off the peg at Next, was half a size too big across the shoulders. He wore it because he had to, it was testament, proclaiming to the world, “I’m one of you”.
He knew he wasn’t.
The suit was a mask, a polyester effigy, of the man he wanted you to see. He cringed at the squeal of metal chafing metal, as unseen mechanisms forced the carriage doors shut.
He took a breath and tasted the humidity, savoured it as if sampling wine, and not the sweat of thirty souls.
Beneath our feet the motors started to whir like the engines of a nineteen forties spaceship. Then the train started to move. In three long steps he was past a family and he was in his spot, the zone reserved for wheelchair users.
He perched on the spring-loaded seat, head pushed forward by the curve of the train, then tugged at the collar of his shirt, stretched pale skin taut over angular features. For a blink I thought of a vulture, perched on a branch, waiting for some pitiful creature to die.
He checked the knot of his tie, made sure it was straight. Then dragged his thumb along the underside of the material, to the tip, and tugged gently. Held out for all to see, it looked like a bib splattered with offal.
The choice to wear it was easy. Suits need a shirt and tie. Offered to him, wrapped in cellophane, paired with the pale pink shirt, the tie made sense. Out of the packet, here in the world, the swirling pattern clashed awkwardly with the vertical lines of his suit.
The train hit a curve. Its wheels caught the track, and jerked, forcing him to adjust his footing. His shoes hid their age under a thick layer of polish. He had tortured the leather with his heavy hand, scrubbed grease into the skin, until their toes had collapsed. If he’d taken the time to stuff them with paper, he could’ve restored their shape, given them back their youth. Instead he wore them deformed. Who cares if they looked like a snake with an under-bite?
The train jerked again. The man steadied himself. The lights above his head flooded thinning hair with neon. His hair had been tinted. He’d done it himself, mistakenly washed the formula out too soon, and left his hair with a metallic undertone. Was he trying to hide his age? Was it an attempt to disguise his appearance? The train clattered over points, and started to brake. He grabbed the handrail with his right hand. Inertia brought the bags in his left to heel.
The cardboard Nespresso bag swung, rubbing itself against a decade old laptop case. The heavy cardboard stock of the bag was creased. Scuffed edges exposed the white paper beneath the coffee coloured print. It had seen more than one outing, been used a number of times. My guess, the choice to carry a bag of premium coffee, worked like the suit, testament, there to tell the world, “I’m better than you”.
The nylon case told a different story, a tale of stoic utility. The case was a relic of the personal computing revolution. Made in the days when television screens were made in four by three. An aspect ratio that came with weight. His case was robust, designed to take the strain.
The wheels let out a banshee squeal, as brakes clamped hard, slowing the train to a stop. My eyes traced the shape of the case, noticed a teardrop of blood leak from the seam. The viscous blob landed on his shoe, rolled over the leather like the bead of sweat rolling down my brow.
I looked up. The man was staring right at me, his dark eyes daring me to do something. I glanced down. Another drop of blood hit the floor. The carriage doors opened. He took a step. The family of tourists got up. I took my chance, jumped off the train, and weaved my way along the platform, as passengers swapped places.
With the exit in sight, I glanced back, expecting to see the man pushing past the family. Instead I saw him, still on the train, watching me. The doors started to shut. He took a step back, and let them close. I stood there, soaked in equal measure of fear and relief.
The motors started to whir. The train started to move. The carriages rolled past, one after another, zum, zum, zum. Then I caught a glimpse, him back in his spot, standing in the zone reserved for wheelchair users.
I stood there soaked in adrenalin, questions twisting my gut into knots. What was in the case? Was it blood dripping from the seam? Did he chase after me? Then the train was gone. I stood there, unable to move. I wanted to. Was this real? I knew I had to. Did it happen? Help me. Had I made it all up?
The family of tourists chattered past, snapping me back to the day. Suddenly I was scared to be alone. I followed them off the platform, up the escalator, though the barrier, and onto the busy street.
I never saw the man again. I never want to. I never travel that line. I always take another route across town.
And, whenever I get the smell of Old Spice, I make a dash for the nearest exit.