“Do you want a hand with that ?” he asked nodding towards the case she’d wheeled up the aisle behind herself. She shook her head.
“It’s alright thanks, I can manage” she muttered as she picked it up and rose on tiptoes to place it on the overhead rack opposite his table. He watched her struggle, his eyes drawn to the small of her back, her jumper lifting as she stretched to reveal a small butterfly tattoo nestled against the curvature of her spine. He averted his eyes as she turned back towards him. “Anyone sitting in these ?” she asked pointing at the seats opposite him. He shook his head and she slid in next to the aisle, diagonally across from him, self consciously pulling at the bottom of her jumper, smoothing it down firmly with her hands as if aware that he’d been watching her. She folded her arms across her chest and stared out of the window. He considered complimenting her on the tattoo but then thought better of it and turned his attention back to his phone.
She gazed out of the window, briefly closing her eyes and enjoying the quiet of the carriage; it was a relief to be away from that snivelling, sniffing woman. Moving seats hadn’t changed the view though, static for the last fifteen minutes since the train had stopped. Hadn’t changed the view save she couldn’t look at it without also seeing her new travelling companion, either directly or in glimpses reflected back in the glass. Slouched, wedged against the corner of his seat and the window, he was tapping something out on his phone, both thumbs flying over the screen. Without staring more openly she could only catch snapshots of him, an impression. Short, sandy, untidy hair. Loosened tie. Turning a pen over and over between his fingers, hovered over an unopened note book. Face set in a frown, puzzled rather than sad.
He glanced up from his phone and looked directly at her. He smiled. She broke eye contact. Green eyes, mouth set in a firm line, long dark hair tied up in a ponytail. As she turned to look out of the window he noticed the line of her jaw, traced it down to her neck, exposed above the open ‘V’ of her jumper. The tannoy broke the silence. “We regret to inform you that we will be unable to move for up to an hour. Engineers are working as fast as possible to clear the other train from the line. Meanwhile, we ask for your patience. The buffet car is open.”
She sighed and looked at her watch before pulling a phone from her pocket. She prodded at it and sighed again.
“Sorry to bother you but I don’t suppose you’ve got a phone charger with you ?”
“Afraid not” he answered. “Looks like we’ve got different phones anyway. If you need to call someone about the delay you can borrow mine if you want.”
“Really ? Thanks, that’d be great. I just need to tell my parents that I’m running late.”
“Travelling home ?”
“Something like that.”
He passed her his phone and she made a brief call, turning her head and cupping her mouth behind her hand. No, you don’t need to pick me up. Really, I’m okay. Please don’t worry about doing anything for dinner, I’ll sort myself out. I’ll get a cab. She slid the phone back across the table, her long fingers ending in quick bitten nails, and sat back in her chair, rubbing her eyes.
“Long day ?” he asked. She nodded but didn’t reply. She’d moved seats looking for somewhere quiet, somewhere to think. In truth she’d spent most of the day thinking, running the same questions through her mind as she’d sat on various trains picking their way back from Paris, across London, and now up to her old family home in Peterborough. The same questions and no answers; just a sense of failure and disappointment. This journey home had never been part of the plan. She looked up at him again.
“I’m sorry. You must think I’m being really rude,” she offered. “It has been a long day. I’m travelling back from Paris.”
“No need to apologise, that sounds pretty tiring,” he said. There was a pause before he added. “I’m Jack by the way. Nice to meet you.”
“Thanks again for the phone, Jack. Nice to meet you too. I’m Kate.” She closed her eyes and leant her head back in the seat. “I am definitely tired.”
Jack continued to chat, just small talk about the delay and how busy it’d been in London earlier, and Kate, despite herself, began to respond. Just nods and demurrals of agreement at first but slowly she was drawn into conversation. He was easy company and she found that she’d missed the sound of her own language, missed conversation where there wasn’t that briefest of gaps between her thoughts and the translation. The fluency fraction. Or “fraction de la fluiditie” as she’d once tried to explain to a group of new, French friends, following a few too many glasses of wine, after the move to Paris. They’d laughed and one of them had poured her another glass. She’d spent the next six months with him.
“What would ‘sassy’ mean to you ?” said Jack, interrupting her thoughts.
“Sassy ?” said Kate. “Depends on the context I guess.”
“Okay” said Jack. “On a dating profile. I keep getting recommended women who are sassy, independent, and smart.” He held up the phone she’d borrowed earlier, open on a web page headed ‘Soul Mates’.
“You sure you can cope with that ?” asked Kate with a smile.
“Exactly ! No, I’m not” laughed Jack. “But sassy could mean all sorts of things. If it means someone who likes some lively banter then I might be alright but if it’s short hand for someone that’s high maintenance, with a biting tongue and a cruel wit then it’s a whole different matter.”
“I’m fairly sure no one who actually wanted a date would describe themselves as a high maintenance cruel wit with a biting tongue on their profile…”
“No, sure, but is that within the bounds of what it could mean ? That’s the question” mused Jack. “Is it a word you think you would use ?”
Kate let her gaze drift to the fields outside but could still see him in the glass, looking at her intently. Turning her head towards the window her own translucent reflection crept into view, mirroring how she felt: indistinct, dislocated, a little blurred round the edges. Sassy might have been a word she’d have used once, confident and sure in who she was, but now not so much. She wasn’t even sure she liked the word anymore. It was like feisty. Why was it only women who were ever sassy or feisty ? As if being lively and bold and confident were so beyond the boundaries of what was expected for a woman that there had to be special words ascribed to it. Spirited. That was another one. Feisty and spirited. Like a fucking horse or something. She turned back to Jack. “No, it’s not a word I think I’d use” she said. “I think it’s something people put because they think other people want to hear it.”
“Like everyone says they’ve got a great sense of humour ?” said Jack.
“Exactly like that” said Kate. “Or like everyone says they like taking long, romantic walks or visiting art galleries or keeping in shape or socializing with a wide circle of friends. It’s all shorthand isn’t it ? Here’s my profile: I am nice, cultured, physically fit and not a social pariah.”
“It’s the profile pictures that get me. Everyone’s a picture of health, permanently smiling, and radiating an air of calm contentment. Where are all the desperate selfies, tear smudged mascara or a dishevelled five day beard because you haven’t left the house for a week after your last relationship ended in the usual bitterness and recrimination ?”
“Oh you should definitely change your picture to one of those” said Kate. “Mascara would be a strong look for you.” Jack laughed and rubbed at the corner of his eye; Kate tilted her head and pulled at the back of her hair. “I particularly like the ones where it’s clearly a photo chopped in half. You know what I mean ?”
Jack nodded. “Where some old flame was in the frame before they were extinguished with a pair of scissors…”
“Can you extinguish something with scissors ?”
“Words were never really my thing” he acknowledged. “Maybe like this…” He flipped open the notepad that sat on the table between them and deftly sketched a fire extinguisher, a pair of scissors cutting through its short hose.
“A bit literal ?” frowned Kate.
“Everyone’s a critic ! How about this then ?” He drew a pair of candles, the first with flame flickering, suggested through a couple of spare, precise lines that almost made the static drawing dance. Beneath it he placed a closed pair of scissors with its handles elongated to look like a heart. The second candle’s wick was snipped, the flame now just a wisp of smoke, and the pair of scissors beneath it were open, heart-like handles pulled apart. Kate smiled, smoothing her hair again with her hand.
“That works. You’re good.”
“Thanks. Like I say, words were never really my thing. Probably why I never seem to get anywhere with this online dating thing.”
“You having trouble writing your profile ?”
“Something like that. Having trouble getting anyone to reply to my profile might be more accurate.”
“Read it to me” said Kate sitting forwards in her chair, resting her elbows on the table, chin in her hands. “Perhaps I can help.”
“It’s not very interesting. It just says: 28 year old man, slim, athletic build WLTM woman 25-35. Enjoys film, books, restaurants, and meeting up with friends.”
“Would love to meet. I thought I should read it as written.”
“You forgot to mention that you’ve got a good sense of humour…”
“Let me finish ! Enjoys film, books, restaurants, and meeting up with friends. Has GSOH and is looking for someone fun and friendly.”
“GSOH, of course. Well, you sound nice enough” said Kate. “Doesn’t tell me much about you though. Not really about you.”
“You think it’s just stuff that I think other people want to hear ?”
“I don’t know. Is it ?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I guess I’m banking on my photo to look suitably appealing on its own.”
“Is it one with an extinguished old flame ?” asked Kate picking up Jack’s drawings. He looked away and rubbed his hand through his hair, scratched at the back of his head. Kate put the paper back on the table and there was an awkward silence.
“What would yours say then ?” asked Jack eventually.
“My what ?” asked Kate.
“Your dating profile” said Jack. “I’m not saying you need one but if you had one and could strip out all of the clichés and the shorthand and the things we write to show people what we think they want to see then what would yours say ?”
“Ah I don’t know if I want to do that” sighed Kate. She felt like all that was left was cliche. Mid twenties – who was she kidding, nearly late twenties – and moving back in with her parents because the great Parisienne dream had turned into a nightmare. What was left to say ? I had everything I thought I wanted ? It all turned to merde ?
“Come on. A pure blast of truth. You’ll probably never see me again so just use it as an opportunity to say what you always wanted to say.” Kate looked slightly bemused now as Jack cajoled her. “Tell you what. I’ll do mine too. What’s the worst that could happen ? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…”
“Really ?” said Kate in mock exasperation. “Are we going to play doctors’ and nurses’ as well ?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves” said Jack. “I might not like your profile.”
“Just shut up and give me some of that paper” relented Kate. Perhaps it would help to write it down. A different way of thinking it through. “If we’re going to do this then let’s do it properly. Some quiet so I can write something down and then we can share and get it over with.”
They sat in silence for a while writing or staring out of the window, pens poised between teeth, lost in thought. Occasionally one of them would catch the other’s eye and they’d smile, look away and return to the task at hand. Kate’s page filled up quickly, thoughts spilling out from her, whereas Jack doodled and dawdled, scratching out halting sentences before he had finished them. As he put a line through another false start he tossed his pen back onto the table and announced that he was going to get a coffee. Kate shook her head when he asked if she wanted anything.
Jack picked his way up the carriage towards the buffet car, tapping the tops of seats as he passed them until he inadvertently brushed against someone’s head. Muttering an apology he quickened his step and concentrated on the task at hand. She was distracting. In a good way. Why had he suggested this ridiculous let’s reveal our true selves game ? There was a reason his profile description was so ordinary: he was ordinary. Now she was going to find that out: scratch below the surface and discover that there’s only surface. Should have just kept it light and seen what happened.
Jack bought his coffee, returned to his seat and started emptying sugar into his cup. “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to” he said to Kate, noting that she had now filled most of her paper.
“No, I’m ready. No backing out now.” Kate grinned at him and snatched up what she’d written, eager to get going. What the hell. Maybe it would be liberating. Maybe it’d just be a bit of fun to pass the time while they were delayed but, either way, like he’d said, they wouldn’t see each other again so what did it matter ? “Let’s start with this. I have a tattoo. It’s a butterfly in the small of my back. It’ll sound corny but it was supposed to be a reminder to myself that beauty can be transient and fleeting – a reminder to appreciate things whilst they’re here. Not many people get to see it but occasionally, if it’s accidentally on show I catch them looking at it and wonder if they’re just checking out my arse.” She looked pointedly at Jack who had the grace to look sheepish.
“You have a great tattoo” he offered. “And I thought everyone said ass these days anyway ?” Kate raised her eyebrows in mild rebuke before gesturing back at her paper.
“Shall I continue ?”
“Please do” said Jack. “I won’t say another word.”
“Particularly about my very British arse” said Kate. “An ass is a donkey you great…”
“Donkey ?” offered Jack.
“Yes, you great donkey” agreed Kate. “Baudet”
“Oh, sorry. It’s donkey in French. I do that sometimes. Must still be half there I guess. So, you really want to carry on with this ?” Kate looked down again at what she’d written out, Jack nodded his assent and so she continued. “I’m pretty smart. I know, I know, I guess no one ‘fesses up to being stupid on one of these profiles but I’m really not. Straight A student. Double first at Cambridge in Modern and Medieval Languages. Pretty smart and yet on my way back home to my parents. I quit my job at the Louvre. The Louvre ! Imagine that, imagine spending three years studying French and a year studying Art History and then getting a job at the Louvre. Well I had that but I quit and now I’ve got no idea what I’m doing, I’ve got nothing to go back home for, and I don’t know what I want to do.” Kate paused, looking again at what she’d been writing for the past twenty minutes. “I didn’t write all that you know.”
“What did you write ?” asked Jack.
“I just wrote ‘pretty smart but pretty stupid’” said Kate.
“I don’t think it’s stupid to be unsure” said Jack. “I think you’re allowed some time to figure it out.”
Kate shrugged and looked back at her paper. “Perhaps. It just seemed easier before I guess.”
Jack tilted his head, listening. “Before ?”
“You know. School. College…”
“Ah I see” said Jack. “Before real life you mean.”
Kate laughed. “Exactly. It was easier. It felt like a series of clearly marked destinations.” She paused, flipped her paper over and drew a circle on the blank page. “Here, your next stop is GCSEs, and here” she sketched a straight line to another circle “A levels and on and on.” She continued the line, idly tracing more circles along its trajectory, until stopping in the middle of the page. “Then what ?”
“Look at all the blank paper” said Jack. “Exciting.”
“It’s terrifying” said Kate. “There’s no lines. No pre determined destinations.”
“I think it’s okay to get a little lost for a while. Explore.” said Jack. “You’re super smart – in two languages – so what if you don’t know what to do with your life ?”
“Oui. Nous ne savons pas ce que nous voulons et pourtant nous sommes responsables de ce que nous sommes – qui est le fait.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it. I think I need to know more though if I’m going to choose your profile by the way. Particularly if I can’t always understand what you’re saying.”
“Who said you’d get the chance to choose ?”
“I thought I was.” Kate flipped her paper back over and started to read again. “So this is me: I think too much and like to make plans, sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to be a little more spontaneous.”
“Swapping pretend dating profiles with a complete stranger on a train seems pretty spontaneous” suggested Jack.
“It’s pretty something” said Kate. “Maybe unhinged would be a better word for it.”
“There’s a fine line between spontaneous and crazy I guess.”
“So it seems. What does yours say anyway ?”
“You’re not finished” protested Jack.
“I’m being spontaneous. Tell me a bit about you and then I’ll finish mine.”
“Okay,” shrugged Jack with a grin. “But be gentle with me, I’m not used to baring my soul like this.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
Jack picked up his paper with a dramatic flourish and made an exaggerated point of clearing his throat. It was all show before he felt ready to tell. He was nervous for the first time since they’d started talking. He began reading what he’d written, some stuff about films he liked, music he listened to, books he’d read, before putting his paper down again.
“You know what ? Like I said earlier words aren’t really my thing. Not written down at least. I could sit here and tell you about these things that I love but they’re all just another mask, aren’t they ? Borrowed identity. Just a different kind of way of telling people what they might want to hear.”
“So tell me about you without that stuff” said Kate. “I really want to know.”
“There’s really not that much to tell. Maybe that’s why I just churned out a list of cool sounding stuff so that you can make a judgement about me based on the things I like, not the things I do or the person I am.” Jack frowned and pressed his palms against his temples, rubbed at his head as if it would smooth out the creases on his brow. “I don’t know why this is so hard. It’s just kind of mundane I guess. I like to draw. No, scratch that, I love to draw. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, since I was a kid. I used to fill up pages and pages of sketches and pictures.” He gestured at the pad in front of him. “Now I carry a note book round but never put anything in it. The odd doodle but nothing that means anything to me anymore.”
“So tell me about that. Why’d you stop ?”
“My dad used to say something to me,” said Jack. “The only thing you should be worrying about drawing is your pension… and those scribbles won’t give you one of those. That was the sum total of his advice to me. All the time growing up, made me feel it was worthless, wanted me to get a ‘proper job’. I don’t really blame him, you know ? He was just trying to look out for me in the way he thought was best but it just killed that spark in me that made me want to draw. Didn’t seem like there was a reason to do it anymore. You know what the worst of it is ?” Kate shook her head. “The worst of it is that I let it happen, let that part of me go and just stopped. Went to study and became a tax accountant instead. Don’t judge me.”
“Too late for that,” replied Kate gently. “Not about the accountancy thing though. I was a tour guide in an art gallery so I’m not about to starting throwing career choice stones from my ever so glass house.”
“Glass pyramid” smiled Jack. “It’s a big glass pyramid at the Louvre” he added noting Kate’s slightly quizzical look.
“Glass and metal actually. Designed by I M Pei and consisting of 603 rhombus shaped segments and 70 triangular ones… I can tell you anything you want to know about that pyramid. Its history, what it’s for, that ‘Da Vinci Code’ bullshit about it having 666 panes. All this stuff I learned by rote when I was there, churned out to tick-list tourists on a daily basis, but I couldn’t tell you how it made me feel anymore. None of it. The pyramid. The paintings. The sculpture.”
“But you were doing what you loved,” protested Jack. “Not like me.”
“I thought I was” said Kate. “Somewhere along the way I forgot how to see things I think. Forgot why I wanted to be there in the first place. A couple of weeks ago I found myself staring at ‘Diana of Versailles’…”
“Your co-workers had some pretty fancy names…”
“It’s a statue you arse. I love that piece. It’s a depiction of Artemis…” Jack looked blank. “Artemis ? No ? Really ? Looks like I’ve got some serious work to do educating you. She was the Greek goddess of the hunt. The Romans called her Diana and she was originally installed at the palace of Versailles.”
“Hence the name.”
“You’re catching on. In the statue she looks so strong and sure, focused exactly on what she’s doing. All poise and purpose. Pulling an arrow from the quiver on her back. It’s what I’d describe to the tourists as a perfect marriage of form and function. Don’t laugh but I used to stare at pictures of her when I was studying and I found it… I don’t know, I guess I found it inspiring. I wanted more than anything to see her for real and eventually I got to do that every day. But then, the other week, I was staring at her again and it was just a slab. Just cold stone.”
“Maybe she just became too familiar ? Like wallpaper ?”
“I don’t think it’s that. Honestly ? You wanted honest, right ? Some things went sour for me in Paris. No great drama I guess in the scheme of things. A relationship that went wrong and a life that was built on that – his friends, his city, his flat. It all felt like it was falling apart. Somewhere along the way I forgot why I was there. I forgot about myself. Diana didn’t change, I just stopped seeing myself in her anymore.”
“I kind of get that” said Jack. “I stopped seeing myself as someone who drew, forgot about chasing that thing I loved and built my life on all that advice my dad gave me. Made something of myself. But you lose something as well when you follow a track someone else lays down for you.”
The tannoy interrupted them. “We apologise for the delay. The broken-down train has just been moved out of Huntingdon station. Due to the length of time we have been stationary, we will be making an unscheduled stop at Huntingdon. Any passengers wishing to alight there should prepare to do so.”
Jack sat up straight in his seat and leaned forwards.
“Let’s get off the train, go for a drink.”
“Woah there crazy man. What are you talking about ?”
“Come on Kate. Live a little. Do something that wasn’t in the plan.” Jack was laughing now and sank back into his seat. “I’m done with staying on track for a while. I’m going to go and see what Huntingdon has to offer. I know it’s not exactly Paris but it’ll be fun.”
“You’re kidding, right ?”
“No, I’m serious. You and me. I’d love to keep talking to you. It’ll be like.. like…” He tilted his head and looked up at the ceiling, searching for some filed away information. “What was that film where two people got off a train and spent the night walking round some city ?”
“Before Sunrise ?” answered Kate. “Ethan Hawke. Julie Delpy. You know the city was Paris though. I’m not sure it would have been made if they’d decided to grab a drink in Huntingdon.” She shook her head, smiling. “I’m no one’s idea of Julie Delpy either.”
“I bet you are. Back when you used to think you were Diana of whatsit…”
“Diana of Versailles. Form and function. Poise and purpose. I bet you are. Anyway I’m no Ethan Hawke” conceded Jack. “But you know what ? That’s not the point. It doesn’t matter where it is or who we’re not. It matters who we are. Who we might be. And you don’t get to find that out by spending your life sitting on a train with a fixed destination. Sometimes you need to get off and change the journey.”
“You’re pretty pleased with that metaphor, aren’t you ?”
“Not bad for someone who’s not good with words” said Jack.
Kate shook her head again, still smiling at him despite herself. She pushed up from the table and made an excuse, told him that she needed to use the ladies. In truth she needed a moment to draw breath. Jack’s offer had caught her by surprise; she was flattered and excited. There was an honesty about him that she was drawn to but which scared her. It had only been a couple of months since things with Francois had imploded, a terse exchange on the Metro at Invalides after she’d found the messages on his phone and it was all done. Broken at Invalides. The irony hadn’t escaped her. Their first date after that night they’d met he’d taken her to Sacre Coeur in the evening and they’d stood on the steps looking down over the city. It had been just how she’d imagined it, just how she’d assumed it would go when she moved to Paris, and it had all been a lie.
She slipped into the cubicle at the end of the carriage and closed the door. The seat was down and she sat on it resting her head in her hands, elbows on knees and began to cry. From laughter in the city of lights to sobbing in a train toilet in the space of six wasted months. Kate tore off a piece of tissue and dabbed her eyes, watched as her tears soaked into the paper. At least she hadn’t bothered with mascara today so she wouldn’t end up looking like one of those imagined profile pictures that Jack had been talking about earlier. What was it he’d said ? Smudged and disheveled ? That felt about right. Her thoughts strayed back to him and she smiled sadly. Why did she have to meet him now ? Before she’d had time to work out what she wanted. Now that she’d walked away from what she’d spent years thinking she wanted; everything she’d worked for and planned. She needed to think. Needed a new plan.
Jack stood up and shuffled out to the aisle as the train slowed on its approach to Huntingdon. He pushed his phone into the pocket of his jeans and leant back over the table to pick up his sketch book. Kate watched him.
“It was really good to meet you” said Jack extending his hand slightly awkwardly. “Are you sure you don’t want that walk round Huntingdon ? Or a drink ?” Kate took his hand, met his firm grip with her own and shook her head gently.
“I’m sorry Jack. I just don’t think I can right now. Plan was to get back home and you know I do like a plan…” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged apologetically. “It was lovely to meet you too though. Really, it was.”
“By the way, that thing you said earlier, in French ? I liked hearing you speak like that. What did it mean ?”
“Oh that. It meant ‘we do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are – that is the fact’” answered Kate. “It’s Sartre. Told you I think too much.”
“Deep,” grinned Jack. “Listen, for what it’s worth, I think that what you are is working out just fine. Don’t worry so much about what you want. Try some stuff, see what happens. Like I said, good to meet you Kate.” He smiled at her, turned and made his way up the carriage to the doors. The train slowed, edging up the platform, and Kate pulled her eyes away from his retreating back and down at the table. He’d left his profile behind, a single piece of paper covered in his small, spidery handwriting. Kate picked it up with a rueful smile, turning it over in her hands. On the back was a drawing. In deft, firm pen strokes Jack had sketched her face, she was smiling and a shower of butterflies surrounded her head. Underneath it he’d written ‘don’t leave reminders to yourself where you can’t see them, life is fleeting, don’t forget’.
The tannoy crackled again. “This is Huntingdon. Will passengers leaving the train here please make sure they have all their belongings with them.”
Jack had taken a couple of strides away from the train when he heard a bang behind him and the hiss of the automatic door opening again. He looked back over his shoulder and saw that someone must have wedged their bag into the gap as the door had been closing.
“You didn’t get the butterflies right” said Kate as she stepped down onto the platform.
“Well I didn’t get to look at it for very long” replied Jack, hurrying to help with her bag.
“Don’t get any ideas mister. Let’s just start with that drink.”