First Published in FourW 2011
Republished by Black Inc in Best Australian Stories in 2012
Republished in 2012 in Volume 1 of the Collected Stories of Michel Dignand.
Jennifer Essambot sits alone in the carriage. She has worked late, as sometimes happens in her business, so is alert to the possibility of danger. When she started her journey there had been a scattering of other travellers occupying the carriage, but at each station along the way passengers have alighted, until now she is alone.
Realising this, she leaves her seat on the upper level and moves down the stairs to the open area near the doors. There is a pimply youth with his head in a book sitting in a seat in the corner, but it takes Jennifer no more than a brief look to decide she will face no threat from him. There is a bench seat on either side of the carriage, each capable of seating only five passengers. She takes the seat diagonally opposite the pimply youth. His name is Arthur Bartholomew, but of course she is unaware of that.
The train continues through two stations with no passengers joining or alighting. Jennifer is relaxed, but still alert. She opens the book she has been reading and finds her place on the page.
The door leading to the next carriage is suddenly opened loudly as if thrown to the side. Jennifer looks up and watches as a young man enters, followed by another. They leave the door open, and the noise from the wheels on the rails is very loud. The two men stand in the open area before the main doors, holding on to the central column of handrails for support as the train sways from side to side. The pimply youth sitting beside the open door cautiously slides it shut without looking at the two men, and the noise in the carriage returns to its previous level.
The two men in the open area are bending to peer along the lower deck of the carriage. They can see it is empty. One of them steps up to the upper deck and notes that it, too, is empty.
Jennifer is feeling slightly uneasy, a feeling she often gets when travelling late; so far, though, she has never been subjected to any sort of harassment. Jennifer is twenty-four, and believes she can look after herself.
Arthur Bartholomew, though, is a little frightened. He is twenty-two and has been bullied all his life. He is an only child. He lives with his mother, a single parent. They lead quiet, frequently frightened lives.
From the corner of his eye he can see the two men looking towards Jennifer, nudging each other and laughing. Arthur can sense danger here and wishes he was in another carriage.
Jennifer, too, is beginning to sense just a little danger. She has decided that if the two men show no sign of leaving the train at the next station, she will leave herself and take a taxi the rest of the way home. She pretends not to have noticed the men, and continues reading. In fact she hasn’t read a word, her attention being entirely on her safety. She turns a page to give the impression she is reading. She will find her place again later, when she gets home.
The man furthest from her moves around his partner and takes a seat beside Jennifer, his partner breaking into a guffaw. The partner’s name is Peter Onslow, and he would have liked to have the self-confidence to do what Jimmy Parker, his friend, has just done. But he is a follower, not a leader, and he has never successfully approached a girl before. The woman Jimmy is seated next to is a stunner: a brunette with a pony-tail, well-dressed. Peter can’t actually see her face, but he knows she will be a stunner. He wishes she would stand up so that he could see the whole of her.
Jimmy is full of bravado. He has had many women. He is twenty-two years old with lots of experience. He knows how to force a girl into a corner for a snog. He knows how to feel them up, often in public where they don’t want to make a fuss in front of their friends. He stares at Jennifer now, lowering and tilting his head so that she cannot help but see him, his head nearly in her lap. She notices that his hair is a little greasy, and that he has a crop of blackheads around the flare of his nostrils. The standing man sniggers and she knows she is in trouble now.
Arthur knows it too. He watches, frozen, as she sits up and snaps the book closed. Peter has moved closer, crowding her on that side, and Jimmy is still bent, close to her face.
Jennifer has had no training in any form of unarmed combat, but is nevertheless confident that she can handle the situation. She watches a great deal of TV, and has rehearsed the moves she has witnessed so often; the ones that might prove helpful to her, anyway. She knows that ruthless action is the key to success.
With adrenalin pumping, she quickly reassesses the situation. Is she sure she is under threat? Yes.
Could they be just messing around? Yes, but they have gone much too far.
If she does nothing, if she allows them to have their fun, will she remain safe? No.
At that moment Jimmy, the confident one sitting beside her, raises his head and puts his hand on her knee, sliding it under her skirt and along her thigh.
Jennifer lifts her bag from beside her and puts it in her lap, opening it and dropping her book into it. Without pausing she feels for the hard drive, an almost-new two-terabyte device in a steel case, and folds it in her fist, her thumb wrapped around one end of it, the other end protruding rather like a heavy dagger. Smoothly she lifts the hard drive from the bag and with all her strength smashes it sideways into Jimmy’s face, aiming for the bridge of his nose. She feels great satisfaction at the crumpling sensation in her fist, knowing that it will not be the sturdy case of the hard drive that is crumpling.
Without a pause Jennifer rises and performs a lightning-fast fouetté, the ballet movement adopted by street fighters and kick-boxers to bring the foot crashing into the faces of opponents. Jennifer, as we know, knows nothing about fighting; but she has taken five years of ballet lessons during her teens, only to discover that she has grown too tall to become a successful dancer.
Peter, who has registered almost nothing of all this, just a flashing of arms and legs, takes the toe of Jennifer’s boot in his throat. The boot is of brown leather with a moderate heel, well made in a new factory in China where the Italian foreman is always lecturing the boot-makers about quality and pride in workmanship, even if most of the workers are women from small rural villages. Jennifer has lifted her leg as high as her short Lycra skirt allows, and while she aims at his head, hoping to hit beside the ear with the solid side of the boot, it is the flattened point of the boot that catches Peter behind his Adam’s apple. With a roar of pain Peter falls to the ground clutching his throat, rolling under the seats.
Arthur is standing, horrified, at the end of the carriage, his eyes wide in fear, his body slightly bent as though preparing to flee, his book still in his hand, his satchel hanging behind him. He wants to scream but something prevents him from doing so, maybe an element of empathy with Peter, who is having great difficulty breathing, his trachea swelling dangerously.
Jimmy is bleeding copiously, his shirt front soaked by the blood running over his chin despite his efforts to stem the flow by pressing both hands to his shattered face. He will never again be able to view himself as the laughing, handsome boy his mother has always told him he is.
He will have breathing problems for the rest of his life, and in fact a great deal of surgery will be necessary before he can breathe through his nose at all. He lies on his side on the seat Jennifer has so recently vacated, making a terrible mess of the upholstery. Ultimately the only solution at the carriage maintenance workshop will be to cut the blood-stained area from the seat and patch in a new section. This is a common solution to an everyday problem in the depot.
Jennifer takes a brief look around her. Her foot has been badly twisted by the angle at which the boot struck, and her ankle is already developing a swelling that will make removal of the boot a bit of a problem later that night. She hopes the hard drive is not too badly damaged, but consoles herself with the knowledge that it is quite new and contains only ten days of back-ups, which she has duplicated on her work computer anyway. On the whole, she is pleased with herself. She retrieves her bag from under Jimmy’s head, a little cross that he has bled on the lower corner of it, then moves towards Arthur and the door to the next carriage. He steps back as she passes close to him, and she slides the door wide to leave the carriage. She turns to slide the door closed behind her, but Arthur isn’t staying there alone with those two thugs. He hurries after her, and only then is the sliding door closed behind them. Arthur looks for some sort of lock, but there is none.
Jennifer walks calmly through the next two carriages, both empty. The train is slowing, she realises, and will soon arrive at the next station. She stops at the end of the next carriage, holding the column of handrails for support. Arthur stops beside her, feeling a sort of team spirit with this fearless girl. She looks at him, looks at him properly for the first time. ‘You okay?’ she asks. He is the colour of snow on a mountainside.
‘Yes. Yes,’ he stammers. He looks down. ‘I wanted to help, but you had finished it before I was even on my feet.’
Jennifer isn’t really sure what to say. ‘It sort of all happened in a flash,’ she tells him. ‘I didn’t have time to think.’
They stand silently as the train enters the lighted station, slowing as the brakes are applied noisily, their bodies brushing each other as the deceleration drags their hips sideways. The big doors open with a hiss of compressed air, and they step off together, turning right along the platform. They are the only ones leaving the train. What will they do if the two thugs get off too? Arthur doesn’t know, but he is glad she is with him. He decides he will join a kickboxing class.
As the train starts to move they stop, turning to watch the carriages moving away. They can see Jimmy still lying on the seat, but there is no sign of Peter. They each assume that he is still on the ground. Jennifer turns to Arthur. He is taller than she is by fifteen centimetres or so, and he looks down on her face. As Peter thought, she really is stunning. ‘Do you think we should call someone? D’you think they’re badly hurt?’
Arthur is surprised that she is asking his opinion. ‘They must be,’ he says. ‘You didn’t half wallop them.’
Her air of self-confidence is dropping away from her. Tears start in her eyes, glinting in the uncertain light of the station. ‘I was just defending myself,’ she says, and she leans towards Arthur, resting the side of her face against his jacket. He can feel her shaking and, hardly believing that this is happening, puts his left arm around her. She sobs for a while, her shoulders moving, leaning more and more heavily against him. He brings his other hand up to touch her hair, to hold her head against him. ‘I’d better call someone,’ he says eventually.
He feels her nod, but the sobbing increases. He doesn’t want her to stop. This is like a wonderful dream. They stand together on the platform for several minutes until her sobs decrease and he feels it is no longer the decent thing to do. He leads her to a bench, and takes out his mobile. ‘What’s your name?’ he asks.
Without thinking, she tells him. ‘Jennifer,’ she says. He starts dialling, but at the second zero she puts her hand over his mobile. ‘Don’t tell them my name,’ she says. ‘Tell them you just saw it at a distance, then saw them hurt when the train pulled away.’ He nods, and presses the final zero.
‘Police,’ he says to the operator, and when he is put through explains that he has witnessed a fight on the train, and that there might be two badly injured men who need help. No, he says, he didn’t see who did it, just the injured people as the train passed him. They might have been fighting each other, he suggests.
Jennifer squeezes him in silent thanks as he rings off, but she starts to cry again as he stands. He has more confidence now, and he leans down and helps her to her feet. He is hoping for another long hug. ‘Come on,’ he tells her, ‘this is no time for tears. You’d better get a move on if you don’t want the police to talk to you.’
‘Will I see you again?’ he asks her quickly.
‘What?’ Jennifer thinks she has misheard him, this spotty boy.
‘Will I see you again?’ he repeats. He knows she won’t let him, but he has to try.
Jennifer pauses, obviously giving it serious consideration. ‘Why don’t you give me your number, and I’ll call you in a while?’
He nods, and fishes out a scrap of paper from his satchel, hastily scribbling his name and number before handing it to her self-consciously. ‘Only, you know, I’d like to see you again, when it’s not like, you know, like this.’
Jennifer flashes him a smile. ‘Of course,’ she says, and tries the name on the paper. ‘I’ll give you a call, Arthur.’
‘You’d better go,’ he says as they hear a police siren drawing closer. She nods, reaches up to kiss his cheek and turns away. He is shocked, his hand rising without conscious effort to the cheek she has kissed, watching her as she walks out of the station.
She sees she is in a well-lit street with shops and a bus stop only a few metres away. She waits there as a police car, lights flashing, pulls in to the kerb in a no-stopping zone outside the station. A bus arrives, and it is going in the right direction. As she climbs aboard she drops the scrap of paper to the floor. ‘Silly sod’, she mutters to herself. The bus is half full. She finds a seat and sits looking at her reflection in the window and smiles.
She knows how to look after herself.
© Michel Dignand 2011