Returning from watching Les Miserables, I was in an oddly cheery mood, given the subject matter of the musical. I’d seen a visiting friend off home, and was now returning home when she got on.
She was with her friends, and they’d been sitting in front of me in Les Mis. It wouldn’t have mattered, because she was the kind I would have noticed across the theatre. Her hair was almost a cherry blonde, darker perhaps, artificial, a shining beacon that made her unmistakable. The vagaries of connections on the underground meant we made it to the same train, the same carriage, despite my earlier detour.
Perhaps she recognised me, as she sat opposite, for she flashed a small smile my way. Perhaps it was just a brief courtesy when eyes met, for I had my headphones on. I turned the music down a little, eavesdropping on the conversation with her friends, sitting to the side of me, held across the carriage.
From the accents of her and another, I imagined them to be tourists; her accent suggested Chinese, though her command of English was good – perhaps Hong Kong. Settled in the seat, she turned her attention to her shopping. The bags were unique, one suggesting a visit to the milliner, the other a Harrods bag design I’d not seen before, Harrods further enforcing the tourist image.
Out of the Harrods bag emerged a card, a large A4 with an image of a mouse enjoying a cupcake with candles. Blank inside, as she pulled out a pen I assumed hers would be the first message. Her friends nodded and laughed at the image, and I turned up my music as the train pulled out of the station.
My eyes couldn’t help wandering, and they returned to settle on her face. She was intent on the card, hand moving in a way suggesting broader strokes, a drawing in progress. A small smile crept onto her face; for a moment, I returned it unconciously. Then I considered the source of the smile, and quickly looked away, lest my study of her have been the source.
Seconds later, my eyes were drawn back, involuntarily, and the smile was still there. She was genuinely amused by whatever it was she was writing, or drawing. I almost laughed out loud, remembering my own moment earlier that day when suddenly an email struck me as amusing and I couldn’t help but grin.
One station passed after another, and as we moved out of the tourist zone, past the stations with connections to other lines, I began to doubt the tourist assessment. Her concentration on the card continued, face now neutral. The hair style was almost storybook; she had an open face that look naturally inquisitive, somehow, and a smile that reached well past the eyes.
Aaliyah’s Are You Feelin’ Me? comes on my music. My hands move instinctively to the music as my gaze wanders further. A quick scan reveals the smile returned to her face. I park a smile on my face, too.
She looks up, eye contact again established briefly before her eyes flick to her friends and mine search for meaning in the advertising hoardings. I miss their conversation, but she flips the card and I find the previously bank page filled; broad text and small feel-good amusing graphics.
I have to hold back an out-and-out laugh. It’s cute – unbelievably so. I don’t laugh, but I can feel the grin on my face. She is intent on the other page, though; obviously the big card is not for sharing, but for her creativity.
She puts her pen down, a quick review revealing her satisfaction at a job well done. I don’t see the other page as she packs up, and I realise my station is approaching. Just as she leans forward to put it away, she glances up, and I jump at the chance.
“That’s really cute!” I say, pulling down my headphones in anticipation of reply. She smiles broadly, but there is no reply. Her friends are suddenly silent, eyes flicking between her and me. We’re nearly at my station; I smile and nod, grab my cap and stand. And then I realise that she too is standing. I’m not in a tourist area – so she’s not a tourist. Pleasant surprise.
We exit together, up the escalators together. I let her go first, gentlemanly. She only graces me with one more smile, and as we leave on our seperate ways, we are perfect strangers once more.