2018 Short Story Competition Runner-up

“A&E” by James Beaumont

It’s on the 09:25 to Sheffield that I see her. I have a table seat, my e-reader lying on standby in front of me, earphones in, Elvis on shuffle.

It’s something I’ve never been able to do, just smile at someone. Especially when that someone’s a girl. It’s not that I’m shy, at least not overly – and get me started in a conversation and I can do some serious talking. But that vital thing at the start – eye contact, smile – it’s always eluded me. If I make eye contact with a girl, I have to look away.

But today it’s different. 

I look up and I don’t know whether it’s perfect timing, or if she was already looking my way, but our eyes meet. There’s a small hesitation before I smile – I have to work with what I’ve got, after all – but I manage it. I feel the blood rushing to my face and I’m smiling.

She has blue eyes. And she smiles back. 

Crap, that’s my first thought. This is untraveled territory. I’m in my thirties, by the way, early thirties but still, however you look at it, this shouldn’t be difficult. And anyway, what am I getting so worked up about?

Well, it is Valentine’s Day.

The song I’ve been listening to finishes, and, to be honest, I couldn’t even tell you what song it was. Still my eyes drift over to her, but they flick to the window when she looks my way.

*

He’s kind of good looking, I suppose. Sort of like Jim from The Office. I never really know what I’m supposed to do though. I could smile, but what if he doesn’t smile back? I’d feel like such an idiot. It shouldn’t be this hard when you’re nearing thirty. 

I wonder how old he is. He could be younger than me. Alice is always saying I’ve got a thing for younger men. Total rubbish, of course, I haven’t got a type. Not that I know of.

He’s got nice eyes though. Screw it. I smile, but then, as it happens, so does he.

He looks out of the window, keeps playing with the cable of his MP3 Player as he does. It’s one of those small ones like you might take to the gym. I wonder if he does any sport. He’s dressed for something formal – a job interview? But he could be sporty. He’s got the build for it. I mean, it’s difficult to tell with the jacket but I think he does. 

*

We’re in Sheffield. I get up and have to decide which exit: the one behind her which is a bit closer and so probably the one she’ll take, or the one behind me. To be fair though, there’s a good chance this isn’t even her stop.

I walk past her and keep my head forward, cursing myself for not looking her way.

I want to look around, but I have this image in my head of the smile Mr Bean makes – I’ve always thought my smile looks a bit like that – and of properly creeping her out. 

I glance to the side as if looking out the window and I see she’s standing behind me. My heart is thumping. I know it’s a cliché but it’s exactly how it is. I make sure I’m standing with good posture: girls like tall guys, right?

*

He might be too tall, to be fair. I mean, tall isn’t a problem, but – 

What the hell are you thinking anyway? You’re getting off a train, Eve, not going on a blind date. 

Besides, we’ll be going separate ways here, just you wait. 

*

For a second, I’m thinking about saying, ‘After you,’ as the train doors open. But she’s standing slightly behind me and so it might come across as a bit much. Besides, it’s a bit too old school now that kind of thing, isn’t it?

I step off the train, not sure of where she is. I don’t look around, just walk along the platform to the escalators. There’s a group of vending machines at the end, and the screens announcing departures. I look for my connection. 

I see her then, going up the escalator, and – will she? Yes, she looks back, right at me, and she’s properly creeped out now for sure. 

Anyway, Sheffield’s probably her stop so that’ll be it.

*

God, I hate waiting in stations. I should bring a book in future. It’s bloody cold as well, although at least there’s a waiting room. 

I sit down, fish out my headphones and search for something good on my phone. That’s when I notice him outside. But what’s he doing? Sort of bopping up and down as he walks. 

*

Crap, she’s in the waiting room. Have I been spotted?

You’re gonna look like a proper stalker now. 

OK, act cool. This needs a bit of Stevie. I shuffle tracks on my MP3 Player; yeah that’s more like it. Much better. And why not bop up and down a little. Yeah, not a care in the world, me. Walk up one way, then the other. Stretch the legs a bit. If she’s looking, it’ll seem innocent – playful even. Probably makes me look more interesting than just going in there and plopping myself straight down on the seats.

OK, this has gone on for long enough. Time to wrap it up. I’m heading in. 

There’s a bunch of seats on either side and she’s sitting on the left, right in the middle. There are a few other people in there too – an elderly couple to the right by the door, a family at the far end. I think about sitting in the middle across from her, but I end up going for a seat a little closer to the exit, two seats from the elderly couple.

We’re diagonally opposite one another.

I act like I’m in my own world, like I haven’t noticed she’s sitting there and that the eye contact thing hasn’t happened.

*

He’s sat down. I think I saw him checking me out when I was on the escalator, but he seems completely oblivious now. Unless he’s a cunning stalker, of course. 

He looks over and I smile. “Hey, it’s me again,” I say silently. 

*

Eye contact again. I try to say, “Fancy seeing you again,” with facial expression alone, but for someone who’s out of practice in the smile department, it’s asking quite a bit. The line, “Come here often?” goes through my head – corny but corny can be funny. Or maybe, ‘I’m not stalking you by the way.’ Hmm, yeah don’t say that. Also, if I say something, everyone will hear. 

*

I sneak a peek at him. He has nice thick hair. I remember running my hands through hair like that. Mark’s hair. No, don’t think about Mark, Mark was a dick. 

*

I love her messy hair. You can’t really make that a conversation starter though, can you?

‘The train now approaching platform six is –’

*

That’s you, Eve. 11:24 to Oxford. 

*

She’s getting up to go. Does that mean she’s on the Oxford train? Though even if she is, there’s like twelve stops; no chance she’ll get off there. 

I hover in the waiting room a little longer – I really don’t want to look like I’m following her.

*

Shame, he must be waiting for a different train.

*

OK, so we’re going to be on the same train then. I leave the waiting room and stand behind her.

*

OK, he’s standing behind me.

*

She helps an older lady getting off the train with her luggage. I like that. 

*

Where to sit? 

Ok, let’s see. Let’s do an experiment. I’ll miss those empty seats and sit a little further down; there’s two pairs of empty seats up there on the right.

What will he do? 

Ok, here we go.

*

Right, it will be too full on if I sit next to her. I could take those free seats there but – well too late now, you’ve walked past them. OK, the ones in front of her then. Bugger it.

*

He’s heading this way.

*

OK, eye contact again. I manage my second social smile of the day. I try and make it say, “I’m not following you, I promise,” but god knows how it must look. 

Now would be the perfect time to say pretty much anything. I’m putting my backpack into the overhead shelf, and it’s an innocent excuse for looking her way.

At least bloody nod at her.

Too late. I’ve sat down.

Crap.

*

He’s sat down. For a moment then, I was sure he was going to say something.

*

If you wait until the train starts moving, then the moment will be gone, and it really will look creepy. 

*

Definitely should have brought a book.

*

She’s got the window seat, and I’ve got the aisle seat in front. When I turn around, we’re staring right at one another.

*

He turns around. ‘So,’ I say, ‘are you following me?’ 

I have to laugh at the look on his face.

*

I kind of cough, kind of laugh. But it’s fine as it ends in a smile.

*

He has a lovely smile.

*

‘I’m Adam,’ I say to her. 

She laughs. I don’t know what the joke is, but she has a lovely smile. 

*

‘Hi, Adam, I’m—

***

James Beaumont was born in Lincoln, England, and has lived in quite a few different places, including Iceland, Scotland and Japan. He still tends to move about a bit but spends a lot of time these days in the city of Oxford. He enjoys treks through the countryside, cups of tea, stories that take him to other worlds and people that bring him back. He has just finished a master’s degree in psychology at The University of St Andrews and is trying to publish his first novel, The Magic Bookshelf.

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