The train leaves the station and some passengers shake out their newspapers, whilst others close their eyes in the hope of catching a brief nap, lulled by the gentle rocking of the carriage.
The man opposite kicks me and I look up crossly. He’s sprawled in his seat, legs apart, feet in dusty shoes extending well into my foot space. I move my feet pointedly to one side, glaring at him, but he’s lost in thought. The trousers of his black suit are worn shiny across the thighs, and his belly bulges over the waistband. Dandruff is showered lightly over his shoulders, his shirt collar-points curl up at the edges and his tie is badly stained.
He sighs loudly, causing one of the buttons securing his straining shirt to pop off, and slide into his lap. I try not to look, but my eyes seem to be drawn to the gaping shirt. I see that nestling in the midst of that hairy belly is a protruding belly button. Gross! I’m relieved I’m not sitting next to him, as I suspect he probably smells none too fresh either. The woman sharing his seat, a regular commuter, twists awkwardly sideways, also looking annoyed as his not inconsiderable bulk is hanging over the armrest, encroaching into her personal space. She catches my eye, and we both look away.
I catch sight of the belly button again, which now appears to be winking at me.
The train gather speeds and the man’s head begins to nod, slipping slowly to one side until it threatens to rest on the woman’s shoulder. We exchange horrified glances. She clears her throat loudly, and he briefly regains consciousness shifting his position slightly. I notice, as he drifts back into sleep, that the belly button is smiling at me now. Incongruously, a tear has formed in the outer corner of the man’s eye and rolls slowly down his cheek.
The towns flash by, and I close my eyes. The man in black starts to snore, gently at first, but then rising into an impossible crescendo of noise.
I open my eyes, and sigh loudly, kicking his feet as I change my position. He stirs, the woman grimaces and the belly button smirks. The snoring recommences.
After half an hour or so, he jerks awake, startling us both, and pulls a grubby handkerchief from his pocket. After wiping more tears from his cheeks, he blows his nose loudly, and studiously examines his handkerchief before returning it to his pocket.
Then he stands up and pats his jacket, searching for his ticket. I notice his flies are undone, and can feel my lip curling in distaste. The woman next to him also sees his open flies, and catching my eye, raises her eyebrows momentarily, rolling her eyes. We are united in our disdain for this man, anxious to be rid of him and to regain ownership of our allotted space.
He reaches up to the rack above my head, and the belly button positively leers at me as his shirt is wrenched out of the waistband of his trousers.
He moves down towards the exit doors as the woman and I exchange relieved glances. We are free of him now, but his belly button lingers in my mind, reminding me that this man must once have been a baby, an image that is hard to reconcile with the bulk leaning against the train doors.
At the exit doors he reaches up to scratch his greasy hair, and I fancy the belly button is blowing me a farewell kiss.
As the train rolls into the station, I see a familiar face on the platform, waiting to board the train. It’s Dave, a guy I used to work with, and he bumps into the man in black as he alights from the train. They shake hands enthusiastically exchanging a few words, and then he gives the older man a friendly hug. I’m quite puzzled, wondering how Dave could possibly be acquainted with someone like … well… that.
Entering our carriage, Dave catches sight of me, and waves, hurrying to take the seat the man has vacated. The woman seems relieved that her seat companion is of slighter stature, and she visibly relaxes into her seat.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, Dave says “Shame about that chap in the black suit. Ever such a nice bloke.”
I can tell that the woman is listening. Dave continues.
“Terrible tragedy that, you never quite know what to say, do you?”
“Why, what happened?” Already I am beginning to feel uncomfortable.
Dave hunches forward and drops his voice. The woman leans forward slightly too.
“His wife was an invalid, confined to a wheelchair. Absolutely devoted couple they were, he did everything for her. Then one day when he was out shopping the house caught fire. She smoked heavily, so maybe she fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand. He saw the smoke when he arrived home, rushed into the flames and brought her out, but it was too late.”
“How dreadful,” I said, avoiding the eye of the woman opposite.
“He’s inconsolable. In fact, I think today must have been her funeral,” said Dave. “I expect that’s him just coming back from the cemetery. Fate always seem to deal the cruellest blows to the best of people, have you noticed that?”
“You’re right,” I say, feeling that my reaction is quite inadequate, and desperately searching for something else to say. I can scarcely believe it when I hear myself add “and he seemed such a nice man, as well.”
My cheeks are suddenly aflame. In my mind’s eye, the belly button has assumed an expression of amused indignation.
The woman and I get off at the next stop, but studiously avoid looking at each other as we make our way out of the station. Not a word passes between us.