With both arms I pushed open the sliding doors and brushed a woman’s breast with my hand. The touch was gentle and fleeting across her cotton dress. I had been trying to flee the hot and crowded train but what was done was done and there I was right next to her with nowhere to go.
“The trains were like this yesterday” she said.
My frequent and quickly hashed out fantasies about women on the train (she beckons me to disembark, we go to her small terraced house, she turns out the children, she lets me in through the lace curtains into the dim interior and closes the door) came to nothing and I had little to say.
“Yes I know” I replied.
Close fitting shirts, padded brassieres and angry cleavage tend to give me the impression that a women’s chest is firm and plastic, like mannequin’s pair in a window. With the few chances I have had in my life to correct this deception I always found it fascinating to disprove it anew. A daily open palmed grope into a woman’s shirt might go some way to alley this perception, and yet never I suspect with outright success. But anyway, this was quite by accident and I had found myself in a very humdrum conversation on a train that was making a dreadful labour of its journey down the tracks.
“It took me hours to get home yesterday” she continued.
Standing by the open door as the train struggled alongside a road at the pace of a leisurely walk, the afternoon light revealed her soft wrinkles about her eyes and illuminated every strand of her untidy hair. It may have been neat and wavy when she had brushed it in the morning but it had, by this hour, on a warm muggy day, become quite frazzled, as if her whole head might soon return to its curly self. Her pleated dress fit loosely on her bony frame and had three bands of subdued water colours blended into each other as if she had once left it once left it on the line for many rainy days. Her eyes were a diluted aqueous blue.
“I’m just lucky I don’t have young children anymore” she said. “Then they would have to wait for me at the Day Care after school. Do you know that they now charge per hour now to look after the children these days?”
“No I didn’t.” I said.
Before I had parted the doors, I stood behind a girl with long black hair in a flower print dress. She wore flat shoes and her hair dropped to the rump of her backside. As the locomotive alternately jerked into motion and shuddered to a stop, she shifted her weight from one foot to another. I told myself that she was probably quite unattractive, even though I had caught a glimpse of an ample lump of flesh pushing against her bra strap. I dismissed her as probably old and ruined by public transport and other disappointments in life. But then, after I had rushed to the doors, in a fit of frustration, to escape the oven of a carriage, to walk home along the tracks, only to be thwarted by the disarmingly precipitous drop to the ground and the touch of a woman’s breast, I was surprised to find that Pocahontas, now facing me, was indeed pretty and quite young. Just old enough to be an adult. Wayward hairs stuck to the corner of her mouth on her perspiring face. It made her look vulnerable in a breathless kind of way.
“I wish they would tell us what the delay is” said the woman with the soft wrinkles in frustration. “I got home at seven yesterday and yet I was at the station at five.”
I was trapped with the garrulous the water woman and I felt like a fool. It is one thing to make empty chat with a lonely person who has untidy hair but it is quite different to do it in the presence of another for whom you would reserve your most charming and erudite discourse. A bit like being caught reading HELLO magazine by a beautiful girl doing a major in English literature. Or maybe more like being the son of the maid lining up to be a suitor for the bas’ daughter only to be found out to have a girlfriend in the township pregnant with your child. That is how it felt anyway. But then the anxious girl with the brown skin, blinked rapidly with her long eye lashes and spoke.
“I’m claustrophobic” she said with an imploring look.
“I’m sure the train will empty quite a bit at the next station” I said with a saccharine smile.
Before Tobre had returned to Johannesburg after Christmas, we did things like we used to before. We woke up to the radio news and had boiled eggs and toast for breakfast. We rendezvoused on the train after work. We would arrange to meet in the third carriage and made like we were strangers to each other. She read her book and I stood next to her with my headphones on. On the platform we embraced like it was love at first sight.
The moment Pocahontas spoke, I went from feeling a fool to a state of anxiety, for how was I going to talk to both these women at the same time? But also, the moment she spoke was when two new speakers entered the conversation. When a fair woman calls in distress, men are bound to come calling (unless of course you are sat next to your wife, as so many were). Before they had said a thing, I could feel their presence crowding in, even though they had been next to us all the time. They suddenly came to life. After my initial vacuous reply, the first of them weighed in.
“We’ll be at Wynberg station soon. The train will half empty then” he said.
He was dressed smart with a white shirt tucked into a black pair of trousers. He had a briefcase and a receding hair line. The folds of his shirt over his abdomen seemed to betray his flat stomach. The expression on his face suggested that he had a bottomless reservoir of patience to endure the slow progress of the train. Until he spoke, he had been pensive, as if he could see well ordered ledger books in the far distance, and was making some progress mentally putting them to right. His face melted, when he said those words however, into the sort of grin a man uses to endear himself to a woman through her illegitimate children.
“You’ll be fine” a large voice boomed from the second man. “We’ve been letting trains go past us towards town because we’re sharing the one set of tracks. Well should be moving freely again just now.”
This man was so large, he was next to the other four of us all at once. He stood so tall that he didn’t need to raise his hand over his head to hold the rail that ran along the ceiling. Empathy from a being so large for a creature so petite, somehow amplified the sentiment.
And then we slowly pulled into a station but hardly anyone disembarked. Instead, we had pulled alongside a decommissioned train, and its marooned passengers ploughed into ours, like soldiers boarding an enemy ship at sea. Somehow there was space enough and maybe a dozen people slipped into our carriage while others attached themselves to the men hanging out the doors down in third class. All of us a little closer now, Pocahontas sucked her teeth. I felt a fresh rivulet of sweat streak down my back and creep into the crack of my bum.
“You don’t know how us women suffer” said the woman in the water colour dress. “With our faces at your arm pits, it’s terrible.”
“Yes” said the girl, somehow finding strength in the depth of her phobia. “But it is much worse like now, in the afternoon, when everyone is hot.”
All but one of us looked up then, into the giant’s cavernous armpit, to see a large, dark and slowly growing patch of moisture, and we chuckled. The giant too was amused, the way he would if he found children playing housey-house in one of his shoes.
And just like that I felt as if I was part of something, like I belonged among these people. We began to talk quite easily about everything and nothing at all. It didn’t matter now that train continued to stop and start, or that my legs were aching, and the time passed easily and I felt neither foolish nor anxious.
On the morning before my birthday, Tobre took advantage of my good mood and walked me, by the hand, to the main road to visit the second hand furniture shops. Each cupboard, desk or lamp was a possible acquisition, something ornamental, something that with a little thought and imagination could be both functional and sentimental. But after a while I got a funk, and spent the rest of the expedition wondering in Tobre’s tow with a mysterious sense of foreboding. It may have been that these furniture pieces had been discarded for things more chic, or that they were the remnants of broken homes that had disintegrated for a lack of love and money, or it may simply have even been the way the shop owners looked, holding steadfast to a dream of being a sophisticated trader of antiques after all the life they had lived. Either way, the expedition seemed to presage an extended period of misfortune. It felt like I was choosing a pair of shoes among a field of exhumed graves while I pitied the grave diggers for their debased occupation.
When the train did finally pull into Wynberg, a large surge of people poured out of our carriage, and I went with them. Just before I was carried away though, the water woman begged me to stay and ride with them for just one more stop, however slow the journey. Pocahontas and the tax man gave me a beseeching look and even the giant, a fixed object in a torrent of exiting bodies, looked disappointed. I thought about staying. I would walk home from the next station by a new route past her street, that she would show me, and we would fuck clumsily in her tidy house, with all its old furniture, after the maid had knocked off and before the kids got back from school (stop, stop – whose that at the gate? Its ok, its nothing. Now where were we?) Then I let go and lost myself on the streets of Wynberg where children play on the road and housewives gossip over the fence.