New Fiction: ‘Short Term Effect’ by Johnny Webster
Short Term Effect
I was exhausted but equally buoyant after a successful presentation in Glasgow. It had been a long day – I had barely slept the night before and had been convinced that I hadn’t slept at all until I recalled dreams that had drifted through during the hours I had spent turning first one way and then the other in such a regular fashion that had I been a sausage I would have been cooked to an all-round even perfection, basted endlessly in my own sweat as it flooded uncontrollably from me to such an extent that I had decided that on my return home I would book an appointment with my GP with a view to tackling my anxiety. Anxiety in itself was nothing new to me, but the copious perspiration at the slightest sign of anything so much as resembling a stressful situation, or even one that required the smallest degree of energy and focus was a recent development and cause for concern.
Between the presentation and my train there had been time for a bite to eat and a couple of well-earned pints. I had consumed nothing but coffee and water – both in large quantities in an attempt to remain alert despite the sleep deprivation, which had left me feeling detached and strangely wired rather than tired, although I knew that wouldn’t last, and to rehydrate myself after the night’s sweat-fest. This was only proving partially successful, however: despite feeling relatively relaxed – I was well-prepared, after all – the water I was imbibing seemed to be flowing straight back out through my pores. Rather than taking the fluids into my system, I felt as though my skin had the retentive properties of a sieve, or perhaps a muslin straining bag used for making wine and preserves.
By the time I boarded my train, the adrenaline production, and consequently the flow of perspiration, had abated. I was tired, but yet still strangely alert. Too tired and disconnected to feel true elation, I felt like I was watching someone else in my shoes walk down the carriage to my reserved seat. Coach D, seat 38, aisle. Forward-facing, at least, even if the window seat was already occupied, meaning that I couldn’t spread out and truly unwind.
The occupant of seat 37 was a girl, blonde, slim, immersed in a crisp-looking copy of Mini Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. Seated directly beside her, I was unable to really take in any other details about her and I certainly wasn’t about to strike up a conversation. You can call me a book snob if you like but chick-lit is, to my mind, the lowest of the low. Burying myself in Tom McCarthy’s C, which I was 175 pages into, I would occasionally glance with my peripheral vision to build the image of my immediate surroundings, something I invariably do, partly to locate myself in time and space and partly because I’m just plain nosey.
She’s on page 45 and is wearing dark blue-grey leggins. The sky is flecked with purple hues as the sun begins to set, illuminating the light, high clouds that scar the flat, pale blue plains like bruises spreading across skin after contact with a hard, heavy object; a baseball bat, a piece of scaffold, perhaps.
I can’t make out her face without being obvious so settle back into the measured narrative of the novel in my hands, which is a large-format first edition paperback copy. I much prefer smaller, pocket-size volumes because I can cram them into my jacket pocket while travelling, but can see to my right that she has small, neat breasts, covered by a copper-coloured cardigan which she is wearing over a white blouse that comes mid-way down her lean thighs. In the window, I can’t see her because my own reflection obstructs my line of vision, but I can see the busty bird in the seat in front of me in her low-cut white vest top and mint-green cardigan as she taps out a text on her smart phone.
I’ve seen all I’m going to from this vantage point, so I return all of my attention to my book, and bung my earphones into my lugs, using the strains of The Stooges’ Funhouse to mask the sound of the conversations of my fellow passengers. The hum of chatter is distracting, but not nearly as bad as snippets of overheard dialogue that offer openings into full-on eavesdrop situations.
My bladder’s beginning to transmit messages to my brain that it needs to be emptied. Electrical impulses course through my body’s information channels and I stumble down the lurching carriage to the toilet and relieve myself with a lengthy and deeply satisfying piss that expels not only a large quantity of the coffee, water and beer but also much of the surplus adrenaline that’s gone past its expiry and beyond its usefulness.
Returning to my seat, I’m better able to clock the girl in seat 37. It’s difficult to determine her age: she could be anywhere between 24 and 36. She’s tanned and had fine lines and despite being age-fixated, I’m hopeless at pinning an age on people. She’s perhaps not as pretty as I might have imagined, or maybe hoped, but not bad-looking by any means. I resume my seat, pick up my book and continue reading.
She’s travelling from Glasgow to Morpeth: I know this because her tickets are face-up on the pull-down ledge that’s hinged onto the back of the seat in front. I wonder if she’ll have to change at Newcastle.
Before long, she begins to gather her belongings and she asks me to excuse her. I stand up and step aside and she brushes past me. She is conspicuous by her lack of scent, or perhaps my own stale sweat smell is drowning it out. She smiles and thanks me, and I fleetingly wonder if she’s perhaps quite attractive after all. Realising that I will never be in a position to resolve this internal debate, I sit down again and pick up my book and the train pulls into Morpeth, an unusual stop on this route.
The stop seems uncommonly long for a small station, and, on realising this, I glance up and lean to my left a little to look down the train. I always do this, although there’s nothing to be achieved in doing so. And then I see her. Her long, blonde locks flow radiantly as she rushes down the aisle of the next carriage ahead and I feel a small tingle of excitement. It seems all too strange and for an instant I wonder if I’ve actually nodded off and am dreaming once more. But no, the door at the end of the carriage opens and she races directly toward me. There’s a minute flutter inside and she arrives beside me. She gives me an embarrassed grimace as she reaches up and tugs her coat from the overhead rack.
‘You got lucky there,’ I say.
Her smile is mixed with relief as she pants a wordless response and then is gone.
Seconds later, the doors close and the train draws away.