The walk to Shepherd’s Bush station can put a skip in your step when the sun paints rays across the street. It can make even those tower blocks, standing over the station like hard men glaring at the commuters, look inviting. However, it helps to look up from the pavement. The only problem with that is possible eye contact with strangers. I’ve forgotten how to act around them. And not just strangers. Leave me alone for five minutes with my dad and we’ll have done well to say more words than the number of front teeth we have. And he lost one years ago. He never replaced it. Said he liked the look. His way of saying he hates dentists and the bills they send.
Talking to strangers makes my neck hair salute. My stomach churns at the emotional effort. What if they don’t like me? What if they feel my words waste their time? And if I ever see an old school friend run up to me and say “Kev, do you remember me?” I can only do an excellent hedgehog impression – curling up and rolling away. Best to keep monosyllabic. Then I keep my stomach even, my food down, and their time unwasted.
I get on the tube, feeling like toothpaste eager for a hand to squeeze me out. There’s a quiet from most of the passengers which fails to silence the obnoxious kid at the end of the carriage. I hardly ever get a seat, so now I’m stood in the middle of the carriage, surrounded on all sides. I can’t lean into anything to have the comfort of nobody looking at my back, judging me. I prefer looking at groins to faces. Faces tell me things that groins, rarely, do. At least I think so. That man over there, he’s looking at my hand. What? Does he think I’m holding the handle in an effeminate manner, or something? I hope not. I grip harder, manlier. I relax again, feeling foolish, wondering if the woman seated before me has taken the odd look at my groin. The thought mortifies and excites me, despite her mousy, bookish demeanour. I haven’t been with a woman for years. I’ve forgotten how they feel to touch, or to converse with in any meaningful manner.
The floor fails to hold my attention away from the obscenities coming from the kid. I look over and see he’s about eighteen. His floppy fringe contrasts with the crew-cut that shows the rest of his bone-head, like he’s stepped out of an early-80s SKA band. There’s a variation of “fuck” in every one of his sentences, all aimed at an older woman. She looks like she’s in her forties, but the way she sits, all hunched and bitter, tells him she’s lived a hundred lifetimes.
My stomach tells me emotion is starting to flow. It never starts in my heart – always my stomach. I can’t wait to get to work. I sit in my cubicle and enter data all day. Reams of it. It dampens my soul, which makes me glad. If I let that thing blossom it’ll hothouse some ambition, enough to crush me when I again realise I don’t have the skills to match it.
I try to concentrate on how it’s possible for humans to scurry beneath the earth in metal tubes like mindless worker ants feeding the system, but the kid is really getting on my nerves. The hum of the train prevents me hearing everything, but I can see him pointing at her, and his face doesn’t look like he’s throwing compliments. I find myself staring at them, wondering why the woman sits doing nothing at this boy stood before her, lightly – yet so sharply – tapping her cheeks when he feels she hasn’t responded. Who is he? Who is she?
The man next to me, stood so close I can smell his aftershave barely overpower his halitosis, sees something in me that I barely understand. He’s distracting. His hangdog eyes tell me to keep out of it. A shake of his head tells me there’s nothing I can do.
Why? Why can’t anybody do anything? I’m sick of people like this. I don’t have enough money for taxis, but I’ve started taking them every other day to avoid kids on buses and the tube who know adults shy away from them, and then take a score of liberties. That kid on the number 92 who called that frail old woman a “fucking witch,” asking when she last had a “bit of cock to ride on.” Wow. I watch a lot of gory, violent, and sexual films in my isolation, but that had me blushing at its rudeness, and at the vile spite of the – what? – eleven year old. I did nothing, and neither did anybody else, including the driver, despite the woman shaking in her seat.
Remembering, I shake now. I shake at the man next to me, saying keep out of it, nothing good can come of you getting involved. A young woman, sat reading the free newspaper, has the occasional look over at the pair. She blows her cheeks, but stays schtum and seated.
A bald man, close to the scene, his muscle barely concealed by his Parka coat, stares out the window, seeing only black tunnel. He knows what ought to happen. His body language says so. I wait for him to act. He doesn’t.
A grey-haired businessman, sporting a ‘tache that surely takes all morning to groom, reads a paper with the front page headline “Modern Youth the Most Obnoxious Ever.” Something about the headline’s capitalisation makes me feel it. Its strength has shifted me, without realising, within feet of the pair. I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with the bald man, who still stares at the featureless outside. I don’t know what the kid is saying. I’m no longer listening. I see only body language: foul, spiteful. I think of the old lady I was too much of a coward to help.
“Shut your foul mouth,” I say, the last word almost stalling like a beat-up car.
I feel everybody in the carriage sway. Or maybe that’s me, making everyone else look like they shifted from confrontation. Now I’m here I can barely believe I had the guts to step into this potential nightmare. The kid has acne scars between which I could draw constellations. His savage eyes take my attention from them. The London cold has not hidden the kid’s gym-built torso beneath his layers of clothing. I hope now that my under-worked tongue can solve this woman’s problem through negotiation, but “Shut your foul mouth” is hardly going to conciliate.
The kid stares at me, so angry. His body turns to follow his gaze. Confrontation beckons. I think of my flat. It’s usually cold, and I never decorated it to any kind of warmth. It feels enticing now, but I cannot back down. How my life plays out from this moment depends on how this situation ends. I feel judgment behind me. From the corner of my eye I note a grey-haired old woman’s satisfaction, her eyes sparkling a “go on, son.” I absorb her spirit. I take strength from the grip in which she holds that umbrella.
“Stay out of my face, you fucking cunt,” the boy says.
The hum of the train fades in awe of that ringing in my ears.
“Leave the woman alone,” I say. I want the words to come out with a deeper timbre, for authority. My voice is so reedy. I barely use it.
I expected another C-word. I get a fist to my nose instead, sending me down. I search my face, making sure my conk remains its focal point. The kid kneels into my soft stomach as his knuckle crashes into my left cheek. I reach out, trying to push him off. It’s like pushing a granite statue. I flail for something to defend myself. My hand brushes an object, like it has been thrust into my hand. The umbrella. The old woman gave me her umbrella. It has a sharp point. I use my left arm to bar his next punch, feeling like it splinters from the impact. My right hand thrusts, the sharp end of the umbrella poking something soft. A primal scream assaults the carriage and I’m free. I stand, eager, fury strengthening every floppy muscle.
The kid is on the floor, holding his face, red stuff between his fingers. I kick him hard in the side. His face must really hurt because he hardly shifts.
I smash the umbrella down on his forearm, the one connected to the hand holding his eye. He flinches, but most of the pain clearly remains in his eye. His mouth is wide open. I can see fillings and this morning’s breakfast between some of his teeth. I think he had a bacon sandwich. Might have had some lettuce, too.
I lower the toes on my right foot, lock the ankle, and step in to kick his balls as if I’m shooting a free-kick from the edge of the penalty area. His screech is worse than the last, and his arm pulls away from his face to soothe what’s left between his legs. But I’m just warming up.
His eye is a pulpy mess, dripping all over the floor. I start to feel a little sorry for the person who will have to clean it all up. I hope the rail franchise provides them with rubber gloves. I clench my right fist, raise it high, looking for a fresh spot to purple. My fist starts its descent …
Not quickly enough … a fist from my right, hard enough to rattle what’s inside my skull, sends me sprawling to the left. I squeeze my eyes like that could purge the pain, and look up to see a fist, at the end of an arm belonging to the woman I’d saved from this shithead’s harangue, land on my already pulped nose. My neck snaps back, my head saved from smashing to the floor by the cushioned seat behind me.
“What … ?”
“You leave my boyfriend alone, you shit.”
A kick takes the wind out of any reply I might have made.
“Only me can hit him. You stay out our fuckin’ business … Cunt.”
I wince as the train stops at I-don’t-know-what station. The jolt shakes my aching head. Security guards pile on and take hold of me and the one-eyed lunatic I thought I’d saved this woman from, pulling each of us to our feet, probably ready for frog-marching to the nearest cell. The halitosis-aftershave man heads for the exit, as does every commuter in this carriage, an “I told you to keep out of it” in every shake of his head as he looks at the result.
I don’t care. I wipe the back of my hand across my face and look at the blood smear, seeing life. Bloody hell, this donkey-faeces-for-brains had somebody to love him. Sure, she reeked of desperation, but she had enough passion for his behind to lash out at my attack.
I smile at the mousy woman who might have inspected my groin. I keep my smile despite her turning her cheek from me. I smile at the security guards holding each of my arms as they lead me from the train, up the escalator, to the waiting police vehicle. I smile at commuters in expensive business suits, looking me up and down, catching my eye, and then pretending to look at their expensive wrist watches. I smile at the sun as I’m forced up the long stairwell and start thinking how to live my life properly. I’ll start by decorating my flat warm enough for company.
Jason Beech coaches the beautiful game in New Jersey for money and glory, then wears out his fingerprints bashing out stories for the same. Minus the money.You can find his work at Amazon, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and soon at Plots with Guns and Spanking Pulp Press.