I can’t help watching them. The young couple sitting opposite me, travelling backwards on blue seats. They brush the tips of their fingers, upper arms, knees through jeans beneath the grey, plastic table. They speak with intensity, staring at each other’s lips moving.
He’s French and she looks Spanish, she replies with an accent. She has sleek dark hair; she throws her head back to laugh. His blond hair is cut to his shoulders and he wears a grey cable cord sweater. He breathes into the curl of her ear, littered with multiple piercings. They look like students.
The landscape of endless flat, green fields and the leaden, Spring sky blurs through the window. I sit with a hardback book open on the table and my hand laid across it. A cup of lukewarm tea in a paper cup from the buffet car. My head leans against the window and I watch their infatuation through thick-rimmed black glasses. If they notice me, which they probably don’t, they’ll dismiss me as a middle-aged woman, in a brown woollen cardigan and blond hair pulled into a high bun. If they bothered to look at the book, they’d see that it’s an obscure author and they might think I’m a teacher of some sort. But I doubt that they see me, they aren’t bothered about anyone else on the train. All they hear is their blood pounding in their ears and smell the warmth of the other’s skin; the shape of his upper lip and her tongue glistening. The desire to suck each other dry.
The Eurostar has changed little in the last 18 years, since I travelled back and forth regularly. The vibrant blue, checked material on the seats is flattened in the middle and lighter where the shifting sun has been on it. It is a little frayed in the corners but the grey metal bin still protrudes from beneath the window, too small to fit much in. The particular salty smell of flaccid, heated sandwiches from the buffet and the sliding whoosh of the doors that separate each compartment are the same. There is still a sense of anticipation on the train to Paris, the romance of it, the long-celebrated possibility of adventure.
They are kissing now; it’s been nearly two hours since the train departed from St Pancras. They pull and suck at each other’s lips. His are thin and quite hard, hers are fuller and I see the glint of a piercing on her tongue that slides like an aquatic beast between his lips. They keep their hands separate, clammy on their laps. Perhaps fearful that if they allow their hands to join in, they’ll rip at their clothes, buttons will fly across the seats and hems will tear. I’m smiling as I turn and notice the old man on the seat over the aisle, bald and still in his dark blue coat, staring at me staring at them. I turn away.
I look down at my book without seeing the words. My children are at school and my daily routines are getting further and further away. I turn to the window and watch an old oak tree standing bare in a field, black branches outstretched, awaiting an embrace. And I remember my French lover from all those years before. I remember one particular Eurostar journey with him. It was early Summer and we’d both been in London and were returning to the Paris apartment together. We’d been days apart. I remember him striding over to the queue where I stood waiting to slide my boarding card into the machine. He had a black ruck sack slung over his shoulder and wore a white shirt and jeans. His hair was mostly black and so dense that water couldn’t penetrate it. My legs buckled, as though a wave preceded him and crashed against me. And he pushed along the queue and wrapped his arm around my middle and forced his hand into the waist of my trousers, holding my hip, protection or ownership, I’m not sure. We stayed conjoined like that all the way to the train.
I had short, messy hair then, I wore low slung jeans and tight vests. Black eyeliner and tortoiseshell glasses. We sat on two seats behind a table on a crowded train like this one. We spoke at once; I was transfixed by the movement of his mouth. Our finger tips brushed as I turned back to my book or him to his computer, open on laps. I remember studying his hand in mine as though it were a map to memorise, as though treasure lay beneath every crease. Legs crossed, then open. Legs leaning against the other, the pressure of flesh beneath denim made my blood rise like the tide. The train trundled on towards France. I was aroused by his proximity as the carriage locked down and we sped down into the tunnel under the channel. The lights overhead changed to a fluorescent brightness and people felt compelled to stay in their seats. His pupils were swollen black in his blue eyes; the stubble on his chin brushed against my cheek. He whispered, “open your trousers and hold your book up.”
I push my glasses up my nose and turn away from the landscape that I wasn’t watching. This part of France changes little, it’s intensely farmed and flat. I fold the page of my book and leave it shut on the grey table. There is a picture of a broken farmhouse on the front. The couple have reigned themselves in and settled into a conversation about a new film they will see. Their hands are clasped, the only hint at their desperation to unpick and open the other one. They slip between French and stilted Spanish. I notice that he’s got a diamond stud in his nose.
I take a sip of weak, lukewarm tea and look down at my hands on the table. How they’ve aged, the skin wrinkling a little at the edges and gathering at my knuckles. My nails are painted red and manicured. I know that another twenty years will pass and I’ll travel to Paris and look at my hands on the grey table and be amazed by the liver spots there, the pooling of skin, the fingers beginning to curl like claws. Perhaps I will have forgotten my French lover. I doubt it.
I remember the ache in my belly when he told me to open my trousers. I remember putting my small table down from the back of the seat in front and resting my book on it. I remember looking over at the man and woman across the aisle to make sure they weren’t watching; she was eating crisps and he wrote on his computer. The two men in suits at the table in front were engaged in a conversation about the structure of management and building teams. The woman behind slept. No one walked along the carriage. I opened the buttons of my jeans and picked up my book.
He kissed me, my lover. Once. Like a promise. To tell me that he was going to slide his hand down the skin of my stomach and slip his fingers into my pants and slowly and gently let his fingers go down over my dark pubic hair and find the place between my legs, the slit in me that was wet and swollen for him. He was going to do this on the public train. And he was going to make me come and I had to be quiet. He knew my body well by then. We’d spent the previous six months mapping each other out, piece by piece. Exploring the other at every given moment.
I feel my neck flushing and my hand reaches up to touch it. No one knows what I’m thinking about. I’m a woman in her 40s now, a respectable woman with children. The train vibrates beneath me as it speeds along and my heart is beating a bit faster. The couple are silent, looking at their phones and smiling at one another occasionally. The bald man in his coat over the aisle has gone back to his kindle. And I remember the feeling of my lover’s right hand edge down inside my pants. Just the tips of his fingers at first as he explored me, using his forefinger and middle finger. There was little room for his hand to move in my jeans so it was a subtle movement, a slight left to right over the mound of me, getting harder. Wetter. His head was turned away as he scanned the carriage and I found myself pressing my upper back against the blue seat and tipping my hips forward, opening my legs a little.
“Read,” he whispered.
I stared down at my book, my hand pressed across two pages of words; as he edged his hand further down and inserted two fingers inside me. He had to lean forward a little towards the seat in front to curl his hand round and I wanted to moan but I didn’t. And with fingers wet with me he leant back and started to play me again, his two fingers moving across me between my lips and I found my hips edging back and forth to help intensify the pleasure that spread like fire and skimmed across my skin in all directions. I thought for a moment that it should stop, this elicit, inappropriate act as I was beginning to lose my sense of where I was and his head was turned away from me as though musing into the train. I feared that I might cry out. My hand held the book open as my head leant back and I closed my eyes. The clacking and rush of the train in the tunnel under the sea drowned out my breathing that hitched and rolled.
The world in front of me and the edge of the grey table and the shape of the book was loosening and the train tilted and I felt my body becoming taut and stretched like a bow. I gazed blindly out of the window at the blur of coloured cables snaking along the concrete wall and the emergency exits flashing past green and white. And I knew I was soon lost. But then he stopped. I blinked. My heart was racing and every part of my body was alive with sensation. I turned and saw a middle-aged man with cropped grey hair in a casual brown blazer lurching down the carriage towards us. Holding one side and then the other. Trying to find the toilet, perhaps. I drew my breath in and pushed my book down. The man didn’t glance at us as he staggered past, letting himself out of the double doors at the back of the carriage with a whoosh.
My French lover’s face was pink, his lips hard and pressed together. He was aroused and it intensified the pounding between my legs. I realised that I wanted him to carry on more than anything, that I would beg him in snatched whispers. He turned to make sure the man had gone and began to move his fingers again, watching my face out of the corner of his eye as he pleasured me. I couldn’t help but arch my back and move my hips against him and the carriage began to recede again and the train was loud as it swept along beneath the sea. And no one saw me being swept along with pleasure. As my body rushed towards its climax. Until I couldn’t stop, the sensation exploded inside me and folded over myself and he slowed down his fingers as my body clenched over and over. I closed my mouth hard so I couldn’t make a sound and my right hand pushed against the grey plastic of the seat in front and my leg straightened. He eased his hand from my pants and looked around to make sure no one had seen us. I leant my head against the cold window and closed my eyes.
There is an announcement in French and then English to say that we are nearly at Gare du Nord. The young couple are talking again in whispers. They start to gather their things, with steady excitement. Soon they can be alone. And as they stand up, the young man looks at me and smiles politely, as one might to a friend’s aunt, and then they clamber out of their seats and go to queue by the door.