People-watching

by Aki Schilz

The footwear is the first thing I notice. We’re caught in a between-seasons uncertainty, with rain-shower weekends blocking in stuffy Mondays-through-Thursdays filled with relentless sunshine. We’re British, so we complain, and press buttons on tinny, inefficient fans perched on stacks of paper at our desks, and exchange conspiratorial looks with fellow commuters on the way in and the way out, shaking our heads and raising our eyebrows skyward, as if remonstrating (politely of course) the gods that might have lumped us with this terrible heat. Not been this way since 1976, I hear one man grumble. The woman next to him nods, though she can’t be old enough to have been born in ’76, let alone remember it. The old man doesn’t seem to mind. Quite unseasonable, despite it being August. This is England, after all. Office attire is messy: shirts unbuttoned, dresses a little too informal, hovering somewhere between picnic ready and work appropriate, the emphasis in ‘smart-casual’ on casual, the casual balanced by the odd blazer or cardigan thrown over a hooked elbow, or knotted around a waist. A woman sashays past in a burgundy jersey dress. Two Nigerian women wear matching floral prints. The men push their cuffs up over their forearms, and the women pull their hair away from flushed necks and foreheads into Shoreditch top knots. The illusion of casual.

But as I said, it’s the footwear I notice first. Neon straps. Studded pumps. Gladiator sandals. Jellies of the kind I’ve not seen since I was young enough to play in sandpits. Open-toe heels, the ones that all the girls seem to be wearing on Tumblr, fresh off the shelves at Zara. I spot a sticker on a sole, but can’t read the price. Flip-flops make awkward pairings with smart dresses pulled hastily from hangers in the pre-commute morning chill that looks, from the brightness of the sky, like maybe it’ll clear and perhaps it will be worth taking a pair of flip-flops along, just in case? Just for the commute. Only the heels, of course, never make it out of the bag. I can see them poking out of Mulberries and fake Prada bags across the carriage. The unwieldy, chunky, office heels whose sole purpose seems to be to adorn the feet of women during the brief but sartorially glorious walk between their desks and the water cooler. The flip-flops, and the trainers, are slipped right back on the minute the trip is over, or it’s time to go home. And so here we are, in suits and ties and heat-crumpled shirts. And flip-flops. The unlikely Havaiana commuters, stuck miles from any real sand, and now moving deeper Underground and further from the sun, but into a new kind of heat, a more intimate brand of clammy that makes us shift slowly in the seats which we’re suddenly aware have no armrests to separate us from our neighbours, whose proximity is not welcome in this heat, this bloody heat. So we sit awkwardly, too hot and too close, and rustle the Evening Standard (I count twelve copies in my immediate vicinity) and clear our throats as if we had something to say. Except no one speaks. Of course, no one speaks.

We move through a tunnel, the clatter of the train smoothing out into a subterranean hum that sounds almost futuristic. And all at once the windows are transformed into mirrors. The reactions to this are varied. The man at the doors, standing in his indigo jeans, pointed high polish shoes and crisp white shirt, tilts his face immediately toward his own reflection. He’s clearly proud to be the owner of his narrow jaw and angled cheekbones, but seems to have neglected to notice that his stance makes him look as though he’s been experiencing uncomfortable bowel movements, and his bow-leggedness is a product of necessity, rather than vanity. He continues to preen and make suggestive faces at himself (and briefly, unsuccessfully, at a pretty Polish girl who boards at King’s Cross), until his reflection almost makes him miss his stop. He trips over his pointy shoes alighting at Great Portland Street. The kindly looking professor in his moss green suit, aquiline nose quivering as though he’d smelled something distasteful, avoids his reflection when the seat opposite him is vacated, and his gaunt face stares back at him through the gloom. He becomes momentarily flustered, and smooths the pages of his Independent repeatedly on his lap, fluttering his fingers over his knees. His trouser legs have ridden up, exposing a soft profusion of leg hair as white as the stubble he has allowed to grow on his face, but has not permitted to look unruly. His skin is pinked from the heat. The young black man and the young Indian girl exchange flirtatious glances. He slides further into his seat, pushing his hands into his jeans pockets and ignoring the young white man beside him half attempting to cluck his disapproval at having someone else’s elbows pushed into his sides, but getting his tongue stuck in his throat and instead letting out a dry cough that sounds almost like a sneeze. The Indian girl is batting her mascara-ed eyelashes, and I notice a faded Henna pattern trailing like blossom across the backs of her hands. A teenager with sunglasses placed like Mickey Mouse ears over his oversized headphones lopes on at Baker Street, swiping at his fringe with his arm and blinking nervously. An elderly lady with a single pearl at her throat and poppies splashed across her thin cotton shirt moves falteringly through the throng. A short, overweight woman with small black eyes and neatly pencilled eyebrows gets out of her seat for her. The young men either side of the women pretend not to notice. Of these, the man on the left is flicking through photographs on his iPad. Landscape after landscape. Press and flick. Slide a finger to move to a different country. Another landscape. Another. And another. Intermittently, he attempts to connect to a wif-fi network. Press. No connection. Press. No connection.

The newspapers rustle, like birds settling and unsettling. A burst of laughter, and a voice talking quickly in another language as the doors open and close. A woman holds a blue plastic cylinder as if it were a cello; tenderly. One hand resting at its neck, the other cradling it to her hip. She has a sad face, and dark hair pulled into a low, neat ponytail. The Asian man who got on at the last stop stands, discards his Evening Standard, presses a meaty thumb into the cleft of his chin, then walks purposefully to the side of the carriage and pushes his palm into the ‘open door’ button, even though we’re still between stations. An old couple hold hands and search together through a zebra-printed plastic bag she holds in her lap, as if they’d put something in it at the beginning of the journey, and were now wondering where it had gone, or what it had been. We are suddenly overground, and the young black man slides a phone from his pocket to take a call, never letting his gaze slip from the Indian girl, who is now curling a strand of hair slowly around a finger. She has acrylic nails and on the nail of the fourth finger, a single diamante sticker. The man to my right hasn’t noticed any of this. He’s fallen asleep, and his head bobs near my shoulder as if not quite attached to his neck, which is now bent at an improbable angle, like a flower stem that’s been ruptured but whose green skin doesn’t betray the tear. I’m not sure whether to guide his face to the space between my neck and my collarbone, or to nudge him awake, or to let him sit right where he is, his neck cranked and his head bobbing and his whole body leaning and in danger of falling forward or sideways and jolting himself awake. I wonder if I should wake him, in case he’s missed his stop. But we arrive at Paddington, and I haven’t the time to think as I stand and slip out of the doors before they slide shut again.

BakerSt

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