An overhang of polythene spills from the litter bin, where a white styrofoam cup jams open the push-panel lid. Dregs of coffee and webs of frothed milk further narrate. The struggle to sink it into the bin is evident from the skirt of bin liner below, which wears the contents of what was once inside the cup, now stored instead along each of the sheet’s many creases, weighed down like the branches of a tree in winter, holding onto an excess load of snow. Formidable. More than seems possible. The coffee hangs there like a violence, waiting.
He shouts loudly into a phone, a temper that distorts both voice and face, and starts to mirror in those faces around him, like a pollution spreading through the train. It’s as though each of us has come to assume the role of his interlocutor. And he is aware of each pricked ear and fixed stare, revelling in his own noise. His last words are ‘Make sure you do,’ and then he pulls the phone away from his cheek and looks at the display scornfully – a face that several others almost can’t help but duplicate. He switches the phone to his other hand, wraps his fingers around it and winches his thumb up to the top of the casing to find the button there and push it down with an exaggerated click, an audible ‘snap’ to signal the end of this particular scene. He looks up and his gaze starts to move across his audience and those eyes that were focused on him start to scatter quickly – finding newspapers, fleeing to window views, refocusing, drawn to the yellow baseball cap of the youth next to him — and a palpable tension releases.
To my right, a man coughs, but not to relieve any physical ailment. It is an action to order the throat, in the same way one might re-attend to a tie which does not need setting straight. A mechanism to move from one second to the next, from one space to another, to partition one thought from that thought which must follow: a grammatical necessity.
In front of me, a couple who look alike. Man and woman, both wearing black-rimmed glasses, both with grey, curling hair to the shoulder. Each wearing a fluorescent visibility jacket. Each with a book in hand and a square tupperware lunch box on the table in front of them. Each of them looking up from their books to find themselves the subject of my concentration, unwillingly drawn into the reciprocal darting looks of those familiar strangers they commute with.
My squatting attentions move on again. The bin liner; those shelves of coffee, waiting to fall. Traveling further, back across to the man on the phone, finding him this time from the floor up, not the ceiling down; finding his shoes, then his socks, and then jarring to an abrupt halt. My socks. Unmistakably the same red and grey horizontal stripes, two bands of each colour clearly demarcated there in front of me. My socks.
This daze now shattered; traveling back to the bin liner, that absurd terror resting in its creases. People rise from their seats. The space between where I am seated and the bin comes to be filled. The man in front of me rises and adjusts his glasses – an adjustment identical to that earlier unconscious cough from the man to my right, who is also now up on his feet too. The grey-haired man stoops to kiss the grey-haired woman. I take my gaze down. My socks. The phone rings. The coffee waits. The train slows and stops. More people fill the space. He answers the phone just as the doors open and a cold wind drives inside.
And then it all abruptly stops.