The warmth of black fur against her spine and under her fingertips goes. Now, wetness on the back of one upturned hand and the cold of hard tile under the other. Soothing candle glow dissipates and she opens her eyelids to squint at white and shine. She has been spat out, starfished on the disabled cubicle floor. Turning her head, her bony skull bumps beneath taut hair and she peers down the tilted row of toilet bowls. No feet. No one ever finds her when she wakes up. She leans up on sharp elbows then pushes herself to a crouching position. Toilet paper sticks to the butt of one palm and she shakes it off. Her bag rests on the cistern where she left it and she stands, looping one arm under the leather handles. Black fuzziness swallows her vision from the edges and she rests against the MDF wall until sight returns and her head comes back to join her body. The floor is solid and flat again.
This had been a good one. She is glad she found it.
She pulls the stiff lock back and totters out, stopping by the metal trough sinks and automatic taps to wash her hands with blue gel. From the stark mirror, pink cheeks and pinker eyes gaze at her between frizzy blond strands. She half-dries her hands under the whizzing airjet and tries to press her hair back to its middle-part. Wet splotches make a dot-to-dot pattern on her white blouse and she buttons her blazer closed across it. Back to the world.
Peeking out into the empty lobby she can exhale in a quick puff. A final few triangles of brown bread and clumps of egg mayonnaise are strewn across trays on the buffet table and empty plastic cups are scattered around, uncollected. A hoover drones around some corner and she scurries in the direction of the memorised exit.
“Miss Lewis? Miss Lewis!”
Static electricity creeps across her shoulders. A peach-faced woman with a perfect bob jogs to her in high heels carrying a plastic folder pregnant with papers.
“Your next training pack, Miss Lewis.”
She swivels around.
She looks at the folder before taking it, hugging it awkwardly under one moist polyester armpit.
“And your ID badge. Need that back.”
Perfect bob reaches spindly arms forward and lifts the lanyard over Miss Lewis’s neck. Miss Lewis squirms out from under the trespass like an indignant cat who doesn’t want to be petted, almost dropping the heavy folder.
“And did you fill out your evaluation—”
Perfect bob’s voice vanishes in the suction of the revolving glass door and Miss Lewis emerges into a breeze and the summer smell of baked concrete and warm grass. It mixes with sea salt in her mind and as she marches across the car park she remembers a caravan with the windows and door open. Her brother sits across from her counting a wooden yellow playing piece along squares on a board. She looks at the clock beside open-handed Jesus and knows Mum will announce dinner in five minutes and that Dad will suggest a chippie. The padded couches are covered in thin, moss-coloured corduroy and she can still feel its friction beneath her palms and behind her bare knees.
Whistling beeps bring her back and a green silhouette beckons her to cross the road with eight other people. She wobbles and watches them go ahead, brushing past her elbows, before she tails them, a waiting car growling at her when the green figure has turned an impatient red.
The eight people have become eight hundred at the station entrance like bees swarming back to their hive, sick and bragging with pollen in briefcases. Miss Lewis hears the sticky buzzing of footsteps and echoing voices in her head and pulls sunglasses from her blazer pocket, pressing them onto the bridge of her nose, dulling the sound with black tint. Her ticket is waiting in the right-hand inner pocket where she secreted it this morning for collection. She approaches the barrier, feeding the orange ticket to the slit-mouth of the machine. It holds it in its teeth and growls at her. She yanks at it and the machine grips on before coughing out the ticket again, chewed and frayed. She is aware of every atom in the body of the waiting woman behind her who huffs steam in her ear before barging off to another barrier.
A man in a dark blue uniform and neon orange vest jacket is at her shoulder holding out a hand towards the half-eaten ticket. Miss Lewis offers it to him without looking at his face and he beckons her toward him with a chubby finger and dirty nail, stepping to an adjacent gateway where he performs a swift security pass manoeuvre. A new barrier slides open and she scuttles through.
Approaching the train she already sees a face in every window. Some stare at phone screens as she walks alongside the carriages while others eye her dully. Every glance heats her skin. At the last open set of doors she glides in and scans the carriage. People fill every seat and a man carrying a satchel jumps on board behind her, giving her a jolt that sends her scarpering along the aisle. She stops in the middle before she reaches the next standing passenger and grabs hold of the bar overhead, feeling the invisible sweat of everyone else who has held it before her. More bodies pile in from either end and they are pressed together like garlic in a crusher, their smell pungent. The oven-air cooks and one woman hopelessly slides a sliver of window open a few centimetres.
The train rumbles to life and Miss Lewis inhales. Doors seal them in. With a judder everyone tips against everyone else and the carriage rolls into a black tunnel whilst electric lights illuminate the heads and limbs and jackets and bags and phones and sandwich packets and coffee cups in all directions. When she looks to faces, eyes flit away, pair after pair. She tilts her head back towards garish advertisements above and knows that eyes have returned to her. A girl with matte skin and bleached, uniform teeth says something in a speech bubble with a pixelated beach behind her. Red letters on a white poster tell her why she needs life insurance right now. Praying hands with robed sleeves are underlined with something about the Qur’an.
The train whooshes out of the tunnel into flooding sunlight. A bang as crisps are popped open then giggles and tuts. She glances at a woman with dark eyeliner and a black suit whose look lingers for too long before she can be bothered to turn her gaze away. Miss Lewis bends her head to the dirty carpet under her own scuffed black shoes and notices how wet her eyelashes are. She rubs them with a thumb and drops her plastic folder. The man in front bends to pick it up at the same time as her and they bash shoulders before he laughs and says, “Oops”.
She stands upright again and looks at his ginger hair and the purple pinstripes on the back of his shirt collar and grips the folder with both hands now, the straps of her back digging into the crook of her elbow. Somewhere a driver must press a break as the carriage shudders and everyone compresses again. A body pushes into her back but stays there as the train zooms on. She doesn’t turn around but knows it is a man. She feels hot breath on her neck and his invasive proddings. A muffled voice through a speaker announces the next stop and two teenage girls at a table shriek with laughter at something on a phone screen, harried between hands with mammoth nails glued on.
Miss Lewis dislodges herself from the magnetted man and flattens herself, cutting through the standing passengers like a secret note passed under a door. She stands with her nose an inch from the Open button until the train cracks to a stop and the world slides open. She breathes again and walks onto the platform, straight towards the stairs. Passing a bin, she deposits the folder with a neat thump.
The others around her disperse to taxis and hugging arms and pavements while Miss Lewis glides toward a bridge that crosses a river. She doesn’t reach the steps though. She climbs over a low metal railing and descends the steep, overgrown bank, following the river away from the bridge and the station and the noises of engines. Her handbag has fallen from her elbow and she grips its straps in one hand as her legs scythe through the long grass, her hunched shoulders melting and her jaw unclenching. The warmth and wet breeze fill her nostrils again and her brother passes something to her in a closed fist.
Maybe ice creams after dinner.
There it is. She’s used this one before. Under covering arms of a hawthorn tree the grass is clearer. So she stares at the ground. And the earth and stones shift and dissolve. The hole forms: a perfect pit carving itself into the earth like a giant’s marble has been kept here. Faint yellow light invites her deep inside. She drops her bag and shuffles the blazer off, folding it and laying it down. Shoes slipped off next and she gives a final look over her shoulder. The bridge is a speck from here and only a church steeple is spotted in the safe distance. She’ll get back on a train later; a quieter one that will take her home. She faces the river, feeling gravel tickle under her tight-covered toes. She smiles and falls backwards.
Like floating in water, the hole cradles her down with invisible seaweed arms. She sees the tree leaves blur and glow and fade. The blue sky becomes a faraway pinprick in a dark cloth overhead and she curls in on herself. A dice rolls in the candle glow and she feels corduroy rub against her cheek. She’ll stay awhile in this one. No one ever finds her.
Matthew Keeley is a writer and teacher from Central Scotland and his debut novel was published by Black Rose Writing in April 2019. He has also had short speculative fiction published by Centum Press, Medusa’s Laugh Press, Mother’s Milk Books and Havok magazine. Additionally, he won the National Trust Scotland Morton Writing Competition in July 2019 for a Scots short story.