It’s been a good day, and the tube is quiet. This last trip into town to collect the flowers is the final step in weeks of planning for Mum’s seventieth. Everything is ready for tonight. I rest the bouquet on my knee. It seems wrong to get pollen on the seat. There are freesias, lilies, and roses, petals thick and woody at the stem, and as thin as skin at the tip. I like the opaque cellophane the florist chose, and Mum will love the sage green ribbon.
‘What’s your name?’ the man says. I hadn’t noticed him before, sitting opposite. He’s sallow looking, with small bones and watery, baggy eyes. I feel my body emerge from an imagined invisibility; a disembodied state achieved through years of sitting alone on the tube. I’m aware of my neck; too long, my father always said. My long legs splay out under me, pressed together at the knees. I would fold in on myself, but that might be conspicuous, so I remain still.
‘I said, what’s your name?’
‘Floss,’ I say.
‘Floss? What sort of a name is that? Like candy floss?’ he spits. ‘Well, I’m going to call you Susie. That alright with you, Susie?’
I keep my eyes down. It’s too late for the fake ‘off then on again’ move, re-entering by another carriage. Two other people: an older man looks sorrowfully out of the blank window, and a young woman, all in black, headphones in, eyes closed, nods along to the music.
‘I feel like you and me, we got a connection,’ he says, and shifts closer in his seat. His eyes are as tough as thorns. My hands tighten on the flowers, and the crackling cellophane makes me jump. I move my finger off the ribbon and see I’ve left a sweaty stain.
The girl with the headphones opens her eyes. She sees him as he is, legs spread, gaze on me. She fixes her eyes on mine. Neither of us looks away. Slowly, she smiles, and my body breathes.
The man follows my stare, resting on her. He shifts his position and crosses a leg over his knee, but he can’t settle. The train is slowing towards a stop, and he gets up and leaves the carriage. The girl and I stand and watch him out of the window, down the platform. The man re-enters the train at a carriage nearer the back.
The girl sits down, puts her headphones in and shuts her eyes again. I straighten the cellophane on the flowers and begin to retie the ribbon.
Georgia is an Alpine Prize shortlisted writer. This year her work has been published in Shooter, the Stroud Short Stories Anthology, and Popshot. She placed third in the Wells International Story prize and is currently working on her first collection and a novel.