Over Achilles

Edit, 30th May: Reading this back – or, more accurately, skimming it – four days later, I realised one of the paragraphs was in completely the wrong place. The culprit has been corrected and marked with an asterisk. Apologies. My editing shortcomings have been exposed.

The train was late, although nobody knew why; they stood there in the slanted May morning, looking in one direction, tapping their feet. The platform was busy with all manner of people – office workers, labourers, college students and schoolchildren – colourful in their dress, many still wearing coats that cold early hours by the sea kept buttoned to the neck. There was a straight mile of track before the end of the line and a train could just about be distinguished through a haze in the distance, and above the depot gulls floated and barked at one another. The train pulled into a different platform, and all the passengers made the change, moaning as they passed the railwaymen. It was a beautiful morning, a beautiful morning for walking from one platform to the other. It gave one the opportunity to walk past the flowerbeds someone planted behind the buffer stops. They are good flowerbeds, in rough soil, fragile full-stops at the end of all that dashing steel.

I was looking at the flowerbed and watching the little flowers wobble in the breeze when I raised my eyes to the legs of the lady in front of me. They were white legs from winter and no holidays and they were shapely, balanced on black stilettos across the uneven surface next to where the flowers grow. She did not wear stockings and the sound of her heels could be heard. I leaned my head this way and that, just taking a peculiar interest in her legs. Up the back of them she had tattooed straight lines as if she were wearing stockings. At the bottom of the straight lines, one down each leg, which stopped just at the pinch of the Achilles, was tattooed an ace of spades. The ink was very dark, and she was not young so I supposed she had quite fancied one day tattooing her legs to appear as though she were wearing stockings. She went her way and I mine, and although the tattoos were not quite to my taste, during my traipse towards carriage nine, I thought of this lady with the tattooed legs. From the way she walked I sensed that she was a pleasant lady and kind, the sort who spoilt her nieces and nephews even though they were grown, spoiled them as much as she could. There was broken glass on the ground, what looked to have been a clear bottle; it sparkled and hissed underfoot. I turned to see her again, but she had entered the carriage.

I put my forehead against the window. Outside it was sunny. White heat came in rectangles over my chest and mask, shifting. There were scattered mists over the landscape like paragraphs. There were puddles in the fields and the light reflected off of them into the back of one’s eyes. They reminded me of the broken glass in the train station.

Awaking in the city, it was grey and the sun was hidden behind thick clouds. Winds blew cold. It felt like I was in another country from that I had caught the train in.

My eyelids were twitching. They took it in turns to twitch; in shifts of three hours, one finished and the other would take over. They were communicating in morse code across the bridge of my nose, which was pinched like the tattooed lady’s Achilles. They might have been saying they were tired. That flap of skin, a rule to itself, which flicks and defends at the slightest breeze or spark, was uttering a sentence to me—‘I am tired.’ And I said back to it that I was tired, too. I said that the tiredness would not last forever. ‘But we are so tired. We have talked to each other and we are both so tired. We cannot even see straight.’ My left eyelid twitched back that nothing lasts forever. And I replied that everything ends. And my right eyelid twitched—‘We have hidden you from many views and we are so very tired.’ I stood before the office toilet mirror and watched the conversation play out over both eyes. It was very irritating. I pushed my fingers into my eyes and the eyelids replied unprintable curse words in morse code.

There was a hole in my right shoe, and at lunch I thought I would buy a new pair. Why should the right shoe grow a hole before the left? It must propel me farther. It must be doing all the work. My left leg – although a wonderful pivot – is not pulling its weight, or my own. Inside the bootmakers I was terribly nervous. When the clerk approached me, I could not bring myself to meet his gaze nor remove my headphones. Did they have my size? He returned, then saw my trembling as I undid my laces and tried to put on this new pair. He must have felt embarrassed for me – my fingers hardly gripping the laces – and excused himself to serve another customer. I put both the shoes on and stood up, not knowing what to do, saying to the mirror in front of me—‘They’ll do,’ and put them back in the box. The clerk began to tell me about this brilliant machine they had that would protect the leather in just two short minutes, thus extending their lifespan considerably and maintaining their shine. It sounded spectacular. My eyelids twitched in unison—‘Bet it couldn’t protect something as precious or sensitive as an eyeball.’ And I told them to shut up; I was listening. The machine sounded incredible, magical. Surely every pair of leather shoes should be forced into the machine and improved! He showed me it with extended hands, its thick green metal sides and a fat shiny door that pulled down and could be bolted. It was a modern marvel. ‘How much?’ I asked. ‘Three-ninety-five,’ he said. ‘Forget it,’ I replied—‘just ring them up.’ He told me to have a good day.

*Although people were beginning to return to their offices, London was still quiet. I miss her, the way she was, and the way I was. Walking with the new shoes under my arm, paperbag grazing the pavement, I made the most of my remaining lunchbreak. It was still a grey day, the rain coming down in brief flashes. The drops caught my shoulders and undefined cheekbones. My eyelids twitched to each other—‘We should be back in the office. It’s dry there.’ ‘I just caught a raindrop.’ ‘Disgusting. Haven’t you heard of acid rain?’ Down London Wall I remembered a hot summer’s day I had walked along the embankment and then caught a cab back to my flat, the memories of which were as faded as the soles of my old shoes. The cab passed down London Wall and I stared out, as always, and I remember the radio station playing, the heat in the car, the open windows, the smell of concrete and humidity, perspiration about my body, perspiration about the city, everything swollen and pulsing in yellow. It was all so long ago. My father had said to me the night before—‘Aren’t you excited?’ He was brushing breadcrumbs into the sink—‘By all this new job stuff?’ I told him—‘Not really. It’s like going on holiday; I won’t be excited until I get there.’ My left eyelid twitched—‘He never get excited about anything,’ but my father did not hear, otherwise he would agree.

When I sat in the shade of the train home, I woke in the sunshine returning to the town where my parents live. There was a lady next to me who was filling out a crossword. She paused with the pen tilted, then she thrust her coffee cup into the bin and straightened the paper over her thigh, sighing. My eyelids twitched—‘That wasn’t enough sleep. We aren’t even at W—m.’ The scent of the newspaper, folded untidily, puffed out from between the ruffled pages. I could just about see that she had filled the crossword considerably but was struggling with the final few squares. Depending on how the paper balanced on her knee, the pen’s imprint could be made out. It was my desire that she should stay on until the end of the line, but she did not; at the stop before, arising, straightening her dress, sliding the newspaper with its incomplete crossword into the bin.

As soon as I step off the train in my hometown, I look down the length of it, all twelve carriages, and see whether anybody has alighted before me, but they never do. No, I am the quickest at opening the door! so eager to get out. I burst onto that platform with all the sass I can muster, and I take a deep breath of the fresh air that is so virgin having rolled off the sea not five minutes ago. It fills my lungs. It is truly one of my favourite feelings. I look forward to exiting the canopy of the station and removing my mask, obediently.

Weary, my eyes downcast, once again, I saw the woman with the lines and ace of spades tattoos. She was right in front of me, and for a moment I was starstruck as though she were a celebrity. It was a strange kinship that we should take the same train out of town and then return on the same. How different had our days been? We had so much in common. Did she ever notice or think of me? She may think I was a pleasant young man. If she caught me looking at her legs, she would understand that I was no pervert. She might even smile at me and wonder how similar our days had been, as we came together and departed, over and over; how many days had this happened before without me realising? And it appeared that she, too, was joyous at having returned. In her stilettos, she walked quick and differently in the evening than she did in the morning.

Everyone made a mad rush for the single gate that permitted us off the platform.

She stepped through, the lady with the tattoos. Right next to the gate, on the other side, before anyone else, stood a man, and she went to him. He smiled and she smiled. She put her arms about his shoulders and he around her waist and they kissed on the lips. They kissed smiles together. You have seen smiles kissed together before. Perhaps you are even lucky enough to have kissed your smile together with another. They kissed their smiles together and then they held hands and walked off, out of the station.

Since then, I have seen them again. It was not a novelty; it is what they do. Every evening, he walks to the train station, stands at the gate, waits for her, she rushes towards him and they embrace, and then they walk home together, hand in hand. Yes, I watch them: I watch her tap down the platform, watch them kiss, watch them walk off together; that is what I do when I watch what they do. Then I walk out from underneath the canopy of the train station and I remove my mask. I perform all sorts of silly facial expressions, feeling my skin stretch and breathe. I sigh and regard the taxi rank, then light a cigarette and inhale deeply. The road is long and straight. It looks magnificent on an evening in May.