The old man must have taken the seat opposite Sandy while she was fiddling with her mp3 player. She looked up to find him watching her. His eyes were benevolent, bright marbles beneath the canopies of his eyebrows. White-haired he was and sported a thick but tidy moustache. Dapper in his black suit and patent shoes; Sandy looked him up and down. It was the bowler hat that really set him apart. Sandy didn’t believe she had ever seen one before, not in real life. The old films Nan was always watching were full of them: businessmen in bowler hats bustling to work in the City, like penguins in a nature documentary. Umbrellas tightly rolled. Newspapers sharply folded and tucked under a wing.
The old man smirked, enjoying her scrutiny. Sandy blushed. The luxuriant moustache twitched in a smile. Awkwardly, Sandy returned it and looked away.
“Good morning,” the man said, his hands folded on the handle of his umbrella. Sandy nodded, “Morning.” She cast her eyes to her lap, wishing she had something to read, wishing she had accepted the free magazine from the lad in the hi-viz tabard at the station instead of hurrying past, jaw set and eyes averted.
At least I’d have a barrier, an excuse not to look at the old git.
Thankfully, the old git didn’t attempt to engage her in further conversation. Sandy put her elbow on the narrow sill and rested her cheek on her palm and watched the countryside scurrying by.
The sky was grey and growing darker. Raindrops clung to the glass like a beaded mesh. I’m going to get drenched, Sandy realised, as the rain darted in earnest, volley after volley of arrows.
Her mind wandered. She imagined the fields before they were fields. As common land tended by bedraggled peasants, bent double in the rain. As the sites of bloody, muddy battles where broad blades clanged against armour and men and horses screamed in agony. As ancient woodland where fur-swaddled hunters stalked deer and rabbits.
The train jerked to a halt, the doors chirruping like crickets.
Sandy jerked upright, her palm slick with drool. Dozed off, she realised… and the old man still watching…
“End of the line,” he smiled. His voice was as warm as whisky.
Sandy blinked. Feeling exposed, she pulled her coat around her and gathered the handles of her bag in her fist. She gave a curt nod and stood.
“Wait, my dear!” the old man said, quiet but insistent. “You will be drenched. You’ll catch your death. Here.”
He offered his umbrella, tightly wound like an upholstered walking stick.
“I couldn’t –” Sandy floundered. “But thank you.”
He placed the handle in her hand and suddenly he was on his feet and springing along the aisle. He cast off his bowler hat and his hair, once arctic white, was chestnut brown. He waved energetically from the platform, laughing and blowing kisses. The moustache was gone; it had no place on a young man’s face.
Confused and suddenly breathless, Sandy lowered herself back into her seat, her joints creaking and protesting. Her hands on the umbrella were pale, almost translucent, spotted with brown and corded with blue.
The train vibrated and shuddered, beginning the return journey. Sandy turned from the window, reluctant to catch sight of her own reflection.
At least I haven’t got to wear a bowler hat, she mused. She sat back, hands folded on the handle of the umbrella and waited for some bright, young thing to get on board. Someone foolish enough to come out on a day like this without a brolly.
The sky was brightening and the rain was easing off.
I could be in for a long wait, she supposed.