Saturday 25 June 2016

A stranger’s hand by Christine Tennent

The woman moves inexorably towards me, podgy flesh bursting through the buttons of her shiny, flowery blouse. I hear her whinnying laugh, her over-loud apologies as she struggles down the carriage with her suitcase, knocking into people. I shuffle my handbag half across the empty seat next to mine. Please walk on by.
She sinks down, her case pressing against my legs, scraping at my tights.
‘Whoops, sorry, don’t give you much room, do they?’ she wheezes.
I turn away from her scarlet lips and swinging earrings, her cloying lavender smell, and lean my forehead against the window. The face staring back is a featureless ghost. My black clothes blend into the darkness outside as the train rattles through the night. 
I’m gasping for breath. It feels as though disembodied hands have wrapped themselves round my throat and are tightening their grip. Tears and snot dribble down the window. I pull a wad of sodden tissues out of my pocket, struggling to swallow back the sobs. Can you drown in your own tears?
‘Can I help, duck?’ she whispers in my ear, quiet enough for me to ignore.
We were so sorry to hear about Richard. Our thoughts are with you. Cards thud through the letterbox. How are you coping?  Are you ok? Solicitous faces repeat the same words over and over, until I want to scream and pummel them senseless. I’ll never be ok again.

I catch the glint of metal out of the comer of my eye. She’s holding out a silver flask.
‘Would you like some? A snifter of brandy, does you the power of good sometimes.’ She half smiles through lipstick smeared teeth.
Leave me alone, you stupid cow. I manage to shake my head, imagining the metal against my mouth, the taste of the waxy slick left by her sticky, red lips. I almost laugh out loud, except the sobs are scorching my throat. I turn away.
I hope she’s given up on me.
She takes a gulping swig from her flask. ‘I lost my son two years ago,’ she says. ‘A stupid, senseless accident. I thought the emptiness would never go away.’
Her reflection in the window hovers near mine as she leans towards me. I can see her lips moving, her blouse gaping open, revealing dips and hollows between squidgy breasts which hang over my face like two huge, pinkish-white marshmallows. If she comes any closer they’ll smother me.
I almost tell her to piss off. How can this woman understand my pain?
‘You know what,’ she continues, ‘when everything seemed utterly hopeless, a stranger on a bus did this.’
She puts out her hand and grasps mine, snot-shredded tissues and all. Her chunky rings dig into my fingers, her nails are oval splodges of blood against my pale skin. She hangs on tightly, her warm, plump thumb stroking my thin hand, backwards and forwards.
She holds on until my tears and snot dry on the window. Until we reach our destination.

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