On Tottenham Court Road a traveller walked north to Euston and spotted something gleaming on the pavement. At first he thought it might be valuable and the city of London really was paved with gold. But as he stooped to pick it up he saw it was a sleeper, and on even closer inspection that it was not in fact real gold. So he pocketed the tiny ring, no bigger in circumference or more valuable than a five pence piece, and thought nevertheless it could be a sign, some blingy portent of better things to come.
One hour later he was on a train waiting for it to take him back to where he wanted to be. Just as the train was about to move, a woman embarked and chose a seat opposite. She was hot, flustered, in a state of panic. She had lots of baggage and the traveller, being a gentleman, offered assistance.
“Thank you,” she said with beaded brow, “you’re very kind.” And the traveller saw that she was beautiful.
“You only just made it,” he said.
“Yea,” she replied, “And I’m bound to have forgotten something. I always seem to leave something behind because I’m always running late.”
“Better late than never,” he said, then kicked himself for such a hackneyed gambit, though she didn’t seem to mind.
At last she was organised enough to take her seat, and as the train smoothly pulled away she reached into her handbag and took out a book, which he was delighted to note was one of his – Return to Cocoa Yard by Malc Bickerstaffe. Would he say so? he asked himself. Would it be considered self-congratulatory, or even a lie designed to curry favour? Or what if she said the back cover was too far from the front? That like chewing gum it started well then lost its flavour and went on forever? And she’d be leaving it behind like a ragged Metro for someone else to thumb? It had happened to him once when he asked his wife what she thought of his latest work.
“So what do you think?” he’d asked, eagerly.
“In a word,” she’d said, “Shit.”
“Thanks,” he’d said.
“No problem,” she’d replied, “By the way I want a divorce.”
No, he’d learned to keep these things to himself, which he did now, but every so often he couldn’t help glancing across, scrutinising the woman’s face for the merest tic of enjoyment. Was that a smile? Was that furrowed brow because she felt the pain of Alan, the protagonist who drove a bus and now was terminally ill? Was one of her family terminally ill? Her father perhaps? Her mother? Once, she caught him glancing up and he averted his eye but not quite quick enough.
“Sorry,” he said.
“That’s ok,” she replied and smiled invitingly.
“It’s just it looks interesting. The book.”
“Good,” he said, compulsively.
She looked puzzled and he realised his comment must appear rather odd. Should he now qualify, say he was glad because he was the author?
“Got it for the journey,” she explained.
“Were you in London on business?” he wanted to know, thinking maybe she was a publisher or literary agent.
“Visiting a friend,” she said, “She walked back with me to the station. A long walk but the tube makes her feel grubby and the weather’s nice. And we kept stopping to browse in shops.”
“And in one you bought the book.”
“Waterstones,” she said, and this would’ve been his cue to say he was glad because it was his, and how proud he was that the fruits of his imagination had made it to such an esteemed market. But suddenly she put the book down, slid back in her seat and closed her eyes. Ready to nod off, she said, as much to herself as to him. And so his moment was gone.
He watched her sleep and she slept a long time, rocking occasionally to the rhythm of the rails. He wanted her to wake up, to continue their conversation. Would he “accidentally” wake her by leaving his seat or coughing or something? But how could he? How could he wake this beautiful woman who needed her sleep? What right had he to expect her to even want to go on talking to him, a complete stranger, even if she had known he was the author of the tale she was reading? And what right had he to feel a twinge of irritation that she’d chosen sleep over the thing she said was interesting and very actually?
And then, her head tilted towards the window and, still sleeping, she pushed her blonde hair behind her ear, and he saw that it was pierced but there was no earring in it, just a tiny hole. He’d already noticed the other ear when she sat down after he helped put her bags on the luggage rail above, but not till now did he realise it had a sleeper identical to the one he’d picked up on Tottenham Court Road, the one that still lay in his jacket. Could it really be hers? Could it really be the one she’d lost? The thing she’d left behind? There was a story in this.
He reached inside his pocket, found the tiny piece of bling and fished it out with his little finger, not even knowing yet what he was going to do. Was he going to wake her and say she’d lost it while she slept? That would sound implausible. Would he wait for her to wake and say he’d found it on the floor? He didn’t know but needed to decide because the train was nearing where he wanted to be which happened on this occasion to be Manchester.
Twenty minutes later, the woman suddenly woke. Blinking into focus, she realised the man opposite had left his seat. She wondered how long she’d slept and, checking her phone, realised it was almost two hours – I was tireder than I thought, she thought. Pity, because the guy opposite was kind of cute, very friendly, a gentleman to whom she would’ve liked to talk more. She smiled to herself, picturing herself phoning her friend to say she’d arrived home safely and had been talking to an interesting man on the train, like she was Celia Johnson or something. She knew her friend would ask if she got his number and she’d say no. Yea pity. Still, she felt better now for sleep and decided to press on with her book. As she opened it, something slid from its pages along with a handwritten note:
I think you might’ve lost this but I didn’t want to wake you.
Ps. I’m glad you like my book, even if it did make you nod off!
Author’s note: this came about when I was invited to give a talk at a corporate function. During an interval, someone I know found an earring on the floor. “Could be a story in that,” he said, and so I accepted the challenge.