“The Sleeper on the Train”

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A very short short story.

On Tottenham Court Road, a walker walked north to Euston and suddenly spotted something gleaming on the pavement. At first he thought it was a wedding band and the city of London really was paved with gold. But as he stooped to pick it up he saw it was a sleeper, and on even closer inspection that it was not in fact real gold. Nevertheless he pocketed the tiny ring, no bigger in circumference than a five pence piece. Perhaps, he thought, it was a sign, some blingy portent of better things to come.
One hour later, the walker was on a train, waiting for it to take him back up north. Just as the train was about to move, a lady embarked and chose a seat opposite. She was flustered, hot, in a state of panic. She had lots of baggage and the walker, being a gentleman, offered to help.
“Thank you,” she said, “You’re very kind.” And the walker saw that she was beautiful, flushed red and beads of sweat on her brow.
“You only just made it,” he said.
“I did,” she replied, “And I’m bound to have forgotten something. I always seem to leave something behind, everywhere I go because I’m always running late.”
“Better late than never,” he said, then kicked himself for the cliche.
“Quite.”
At last she was organised enough to take her seat opposite the walker, and as the train smoothly pulled away she reached into her handbag and took out a book, which he was delighted to note was one of his, Return to Cocoa Yard by William Aston. Would he say so? he asked himself, Would it be considered self-congratulatory, or even a lie to curry favour? Or what if she said she wasn’t enjoying it, that it was crap? That she’d been given it as a present and was reading it out of duty? And that she’d be leaving it behind, unfinished, when she got off? No, he decided, best keep this to himself. And so he did, but every now and then he couldn’t help glancing across, scrutinising her face for any hint, the merest indication of enjoyment. Was that a smile? Was that furrowed brow because she felt the pain of one of his characters, the man who drove a bus and now was dying. Did one of her own family have Alzheimers? Her father perhaps? Her mother? Once, she caught him glancing at her and he averted his eye, quick as a flash but not quite quick enough.
“Sorry,” he said.
“That’s ok,” she replied, and smiled, and now he couldn’t help it.
“It’s just that it looks interesting.  The book I mean.”
“Yes,” she said, “Very actually.”
“Good I’m glad,” he said, compulsively.
She looked puzzled and he realised his comment must appear rather odd. Should he now qualify, say he was glad because he was the author? But he again decided to resist the temptation.
“I bought it for the journey,” she explained.
“Were you in London on business?” he wanted to know, thinking maybe she was a publisher or literary agent.
“Pleasure,” she said, “I was with a friend in Trafalgar Square and she walked back with me to the station. A long walk but the weather’s nice. And we kept stopping to browse in shops.”
“And in one you bought the book.”
“Waterstones,” she said, and now was his cue to say he was glad because it was his. But suddenly she put the book down, slid back in her seat and closed her eyes. She was tired from the walk, she said, as much to herself as to him. And so his moment was gone.
He watched her sleep, and she slept a long time. He wanted her to wake up, to continue their conversation. Would he “accidentally” wake her by leaving his seat, or coughing, or something? But how could he? How could he wake this beautiful young woman who needed her sleep so badly? What right had he to expect her to even want to keep on talking to him, a complete stranger, even if she did know he was the author of the tale she was reading? And what right had he to feel a twinge of annoyance that she’d chosen sleep over reading his book – he thought she’d said it was good!?
And then, her head tilted towards the window and, still sleeping, she pushed her blonde hair behind her ear, and he saw that it was pierced, but there was no earring in it, just a tiny hole. He’d already noticed the other ear, when she sat down after he helped her put her bags on the luggage rail above, but not until now did he realise it was pierced with a sleeper identical to the one he’d found on Tottenham Court Road, the one that still lay in his jacket. Could it really be hers? Could it really be the one she’d lost? The thing she’d left behind? She’d said she always left something behind.
He reached inside his pocket, found the tiny piece of bling and fished it out, not even knowing yet what he was going to do. Was he going to wake her up and say she’d lost an earring while she slept? That would sound implausible. Would he wait for her to wake up and say he’d found it on the floor? He didn’t know, but he needed to decide because the train was nearing his destination.
Twenty minutes later, the woman suddenly woke as the tannoy announced they were soon to be arriving in Manchester. Blinking into focus, she realised the man opposite had left his seat. She wondered how long she’d slept and, checking her watch, realised it was almost two hours – she was tireder than she thought. It was a pity, she considered, because the man opposite was kind of cute, and very friendly, she would’ve liked to talk more. But she felt better now for sleep and decided to press on with her book. As she opened it, something slid from its pages along with a handwritten note:
I think you might’ve lost this but I didn’t want to wake you.
ps. I’m glad you like my book.
Kind regards,
William Aston

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