I stopped reading to check out who had taken the seat opposite.
She had flowing, brown hair. About my age. But a great deal prettier. Wearing far too much make-up. If I had her face, I wouldn’t be covering it up with a layer of paint; I would be flaunting my natural beauty. I’d be the lead character, strutting around the amphitheatre, milking the applause.
My eyes roved around her gym-membership body, watching as she rummaged through her brown leather, over-sized, shoulder bag.
Finally, she fished out, ‘The Girl on the Train’.
‘Snap,’ I said to myself, ‘Two Girls on the Metro.’
Her copy was far less thumbed than mine. It was clean and tidy, just like her. A bookmark was sticking out, somewhere near the end of the novel. I looked down at my own battered, dog-eared copy and wondered whether The New Girl on the Metro was enjoying the storyline any more than I was. There were just too many coincidences in the plot. A great story should only be allowed one ‘snap’ shout. This book had a whole pack full. And it was far too long-winded. It was a page-filler, rather than a page-turner. If only the girl, who thought she was a witness to a major crime, had stayed on the damn train, it might have made a great short story. In fact, if she had spent her time reading a book, rather than gawping out of the window, we might all have been better off.
I continued to observe her, by peeping over the top of my copy. She flipped open her book and carefully laid the bookmark on her knee. That simple action could well be a life-changer. It was that part in a plot where the intelligent reader realises that a seemingly insignificant action is far more important than it first appears.
The New Girl on the Metro had been using a thoroughly scratched lottery card, to mark her page.
I imagined myself writing the next best selling mystery blockbuster, with sympathetic background effects of tunnels, flashing lights and screeching brakes.
The idea faded, as quickly as it had appeared.
I am not a novelist.
I am an office cleaner, who likes to read.
Despite some serious eye-watering squinting, I couldn’t make out what the result of all the uncovered lottery symbols was.
In reality though, I convinced myself that no one would keep a card, unless it was a winner. The Girl on the Metro was obviously keeping hold of it, until she could find the time to cash it in. Not like me, as I would have rushed back to the newsagent’s and then caught the bus over to mum’s, to pay her back. And clear my rent arrears. And have something left for Mark.
An elderly lady, in a multi-coloured cagoule, blustered in, stage left. She had rudely interrupted my thoughts about a debt-free life. This latest character had far too much uncontrolled hair. The greyness of her face was a contrast to the brightness of her rain gear. I watched, as if seated up at the back of a theatre, as she completely over-acted the task of squeezing onto the seat next to Miss Lottery Winner. Right on cue, she flopped into the seat, while Miss Lottery Winner slid herself nearer to the window. The action was almost seamless. Our three sets of legs manoeuvred themselves into acceptable positions, before calm and normality returned.
The commotion, caused by the latest arrival, had resulted in the lottery card shuffling itself onto the edge of Miss Lottery Winner’s over tight, brown and, clearly expensive, skirt. It slowly danced to the carriage’s rhythm. This now had turned into a real cliff-hanger. I found the fate of the card far more interesting than any murder that may have been going on, out there in the dark. A new story was developing right in front of me. But no hero on a white horse came to save the card from its inevitable tumble to the ground. With one last shimmy, it gave up clinging on to the safety of Miss Lottery Winner’s knee. Gravity carried out its business and sent the card hurtling into the abyss of a litter strewn floor.
While silently closing my book, I allowed myself a glance down to the wet, dirty ground. The card had landed on its side and was now leaning acrobatically against my left trainer. Cautiously, I checked-up on Miss Lottery Winner. It was clear that she was totally oblivious to the downfall of her gambling success. Her book laid flopped open on her lap and her head was gently resting on her manicured left hand. Her forehead was flattened against the window, as if she was trying to identify distant objects out there in the early evening darkness. I danced my feet around a little, discretely reached down and sharply snatched up the ticket. Then, with my eyes securely locked on the side of Miss Lottery Loser’s face, I speedily slipped the card into my glove-packed coat pocket.
I pressed back into my seat and forced my breathing to slow down. It felt as if I was taking a major role in the production of the Murder on the Sunderland Express. All my senses were working over-time. I had to go off script; ad lib. It’s time I left the scene. Tucking my copy of ‘The Girl on the Train’ under my arm, I scrambled out of the seat, carefully avoiding touching the feet of the other cast members. I decided to get off at the next stop and wait for another Metro.
Or, with my new found wealth, call a taxi.
I froze. Someone had tapped me on my hip. This certainly wasn’t in the script.
It was Mrs Multi-Coloured Cagoule. She was looking straight at me. I couldn’t read her expressionless, blank face.
Knowing that she had won my full attention, she nodded in the direction of the space I had just vacated.
‘I think you’re forgetting something, love.’ She broke out into quiet laughter.
There it was, just lying on the seat, as if in the spotlight, like a love letter accidentally left under a bedside lamp.
An unprompted ‘thank-you’ fell out of my mouth.
Nervously, I fixed my eyes back onto Miss Lottery Loser, reached over and snatched up the card. I caught a quick glimpse of my reflection in the window. Anxiety was written across my whole face. Hercule Poirot wouldn’t need any of his great skills to spot who had done it in this case. He wouldn’t have to read between the lines.
Miss Lottery Loser was still staring blankly out into the void.
I smartly moved down the aisle towards the exit doors and, as the Metro slowed down, I realised that I had just played my part in the Great Metro Train Robbery.
I thought about the leading lady I had left behind, who would still be focussed on the gloomy world beyond the windows. Miss Lottery Loser was clearly looking for a crime out there.
Then, it suddenly dawned on me that she might have just seen one in front of her very own eyes. The props could well have played an important role, all carefully selected and deliberately placed. A storyboard she had planned herself. A staged set-up.
My confidence simply evaporated and I became desperate for the Metro to stop.
We juddered to a halt. As soon as the doors sighed open, I barged my way off and hurried down the platform. I stopped next to the set of waste paper bins and looked back at the Metro doors. No one I recognised had followed me onto the platform. Having checked around to see if anyone was hiding in the shadows, I allowed myself the first real investigation of the scratch card.
I lifted my eyes, as a new sound filled the station. The old, rumbling carriages began to move to the next chapter of their journey.
Miss Lottery Loser was still looking out of the window.
She was beaming a beautiful smile. Somehow, I knew she was aimed at me.
I gave her my best smile in return.
If I had owned a clean, white, silk handkerchief, I would have waved it high in the air and held that pose until the credits started to roll, the music had faded and the audience had squeezed stiffly out of their seats.
Originally published: Cross the Tees Book Festival