The rowdiness of the orange and yellow women who had got on at Doncaster with their cans and their inflatables and their noise spread down the length of the train and into Jen’s compartment. Ordinarily, she’d have tried to block out the ruckus. Now, she needed it to take her mind off the tannoy.
Jen shuffled through the pages of her Moleskine. She thought of writing down a few choice words to describe the carriage ahead. Yellow hair above vacant stares. Purple painted nails. Cans of forest fruits flavoured cider. Cold shoulder tops. Her pen lid remained where it was.
Why did they have to be on this train?
The Tory boy in the seat opposite had been periodically giving her the eye ever since the last announcement. The list of destinations, the obligatory reminder of the hot and cold snacks available in the buffet bar, and then the declaration to anyone on board who cared to listen that Jen Dickens was not at all who she said she was, and it was about time she stopped trying to get away with it.
There was a crease of concern on Tory boy’s waxy, well-fed balloon-face. But he couldn’t help looking like a plum rolled in dung. He couldn’t help the little boy haircut. In a certain light, there was almost something charming about him. And he’d made an effort. The suit was new, even if it did look like he’d left the hanger in.
“You going too, then?” Tory boy asked. His helium voice went well with his balloon countenance.
Jen blinked at him. “Sorry?”
“The conference,” Tory boy said, after a pause that would have led others to have changed seats, changed trains, gone back home to retreat under their duvets.
Jen looked down at the pack on the table in front of her. “Ah,” she said.
“Me, too,” Tory boy said.
Jen kicked her satchel further under the table. The announcement cut across the stomach drop and instant depression.
“…calling at all stations to…”
And there was that look of something like concern from Tory boy again.
“…a selection of hot and cold drinks…”
The blondies up front whooped as at least one of their inflatables sprung a leak.
Jen toyed with the empty miniature red wine bottle.
“…and, for the benefit of the would-be Apprentice contestant in First Class, just a reminder that Jen Dickens is a fraud.”
“Are you alright?”
Jen rubbed her eyes. “Alright? Oh, yeah, fine. Fine. Bit of a headache, you know. Stress, probably.”
Now, why had she gone and said that? He’d remember that.
There they were, up front, in their vomit-slicked high heels, leaving nothing to the imagination, and not just when it came to their outfits, either. They didn’t care about being called out. They wanted to be. Why wasn’t Tory boy interested in them?
“Can I get you some water? Paracetamol?”
Jen’s brain sloshed from side to side as she shook her head. “No, no, no. That’s fine. That’s alright. That’s kind of you.”
Except, maybe it wasn’t. He had the itinerary. Jen could see he’d circled the 2pm talk in the main hall, so that meant she wouldn’t escape him. He’d remember the journey. He’d talk to the other delegates.
“It’s not so bad,” Tory boy said. He’d be appalled to hear the sobriquet. He was just eager. His keenness came from not knowing his potential. From not having proved it over and over.
This would be his first conference. It was Jen’s fifth.
Up ahead, the conductor came through into party-party carriage. His face froze. He put on the blokey smile. He started up the banter. The women didn’t remove his trousers. Not even trying, Jen thought.
“Oh, no, you can learn a lot from these things. Really valuable. Insightful, even.”
The conductor was letting one of the blondies examine his ticket machine. That joke practically wrote itself.
“Are they?” Jen said.
“You get some interesting people talking at these things. Like a TED, you know?”
“So, who are you going for, then?”
“I…” The conductor was almost through the crowd of women. There was lipstick smeared on his collar. “Did they say the buffet bar was open?”
Tory boy shook his head.
“I could murder a Diet Coke,” Jen said.
This he did understand. “Ah, right, I’m going up there myself.”
The conductor would examine her ticket and he’d know. He’d have to say something about where she’d got on and where she was going and the mismatch. If she and Tory boy were going to end up in the same session, it was best he didn’t hear.
“That’s great, thank you,” Jen said. She reached around in the pockets of her trying too hard jacket for the change she wasn’t entirely sure she was going to find in there. Tory boy took it, saying nothing about the wine breath. He headed off back down the train, jostling round the conductor, broadcasting puppy-like bonhomie to the women as if he didn’t appreciate the dangers.
Jen took the opportunity. She leaned over to check his biro-scrawled itinerary.
She changed seat before he returned.
From the toilet at the end of the carriage, Jen told the conductor, when he came to call, that everything was quite alright.
He said something about checking her ticket when he came back down the train. And she thanked him for that.
She waited for the announcement to play again before they got in to King’s Cross.
She waited to hear what it had to say about her right to her ticket, her seat, her compartment, even though that never changed. Like the “selection of hot and cold snacks”, it was always the same Jen Dickens on offer. The Jen Dickens who’d wait for the carriage of pissed-up women to decant themselves from the train before she risked leaving her uric-scented bolt-hole. In case, perhaps, anyone thought she belonged with them.
In case she did.
Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including a 2018 play about Groucho Marx. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, the Blake-Jones Review, Bitchin’ Kitsch, the Cabinet of Heed, the Potato Soup Journal, and the Trouvaille Review.