Wednesday 25 July 2018

Through the Screen

by Helen O'Neill 

freshly squeezed orange juice

What a glorious morning!
I post a picture of an orange sunrise rising up over the silver city; then quickly return my frozen fingers to their glove and my gloved hand to my pocket. I bounce silently on the spot, breathing out little puffs of steam that merge with the breath from the other travellers standing on the platform in the freezing dawn. All of us are waiting, filling the time with activities designed to distract us: reading books, tapping on our phones, listening to music. None of us acknowledge each other, commuter etiquette forbids it.
When the train finally arrives we cluster around the double doors and the person nearest the button pushes it repeatedly until the light comes on and it activates, letting out a soft ping as the doors slide open. A line of people start to file out, but the once patient boarders can’t wait any longer, they push their way inside in hope of a seat, scanning the isle to make sure that a pregnant woman or an elderly person doesn’t come along and thwart their mission. I’d love to tell you that I’m not like them, that I wait by the door to let the passengers off the train first as instructed, and that I don’t jostle for my position, fighting for one of the last remaining seats, glaring at the woman who is making her way to it from the other direction. I’m just not that virtuous. But I am victorious and I smugly squeeze myself into the middle seat between two large city men who are spilling into the space from either side, using the tips of my elbows to communicate I will require them to move.
                I unwind my scarf and scratch my neck before folding it onto my lap under my handbag. I pull off the gloves that have provided so little warmth and breathe on my red fingers, flexing them to return circulation. When I’m settled and the train starts to trundle out of the platform I pull out my phone and smile as I note the number of likes my sunrise picture has received.
                Commute win! Got myself a comfy seat on the train today :)
The man sitting next to the window is starting to snore, his head dropping to his chest as unconsciousness attempts to take over, only to cause a little start as he wakens just enough to sit upright again. His legs are stretched out in front of him so that the woman sitting opposite has had to contort herself to fit into the space. She scowls. I give her a sympathetic half smile.  
Heat is blasting from the vents on the floor by the walls of the train, swirling around our feet. I wish I’d taken off my coat before I sat down, and I unbutton it with clumsy fingers that are struggling to keep hold of my phone and the knee balanced bag.  In the isle, people are squashed together to maximise the use of all the available space and some are starting to feel the effects of the claustrophobic environment. A woman with a flushed face leans over and pulls open the window, letting a burst of cold air into the carriage along with the heightened noise from outside. She should have asked. Now my feet are cooking but the sharp breeze is chilling my ears, I’m convinced the combination will result in a cold. But I don’t say anything, I give her my sympathetic half smile and she looks at me, hopeful that I might offer her my seat as she is so clearly in need of it. I don’t. I swipe open my phone and post,
Precious early morning reading time!
I pull out my battered paperback, wondering for the millionth time why I haven’t upgraded to an e-reader and find the place where I’ve used an old receipt to mark my progress. Bending the book's spine I lower my head to begin reading and realise that my concentration is being interrupted by the steady thump of a questionable music choice. Giant green headphones clasp onto the head of the man sitting on my other side. He looks ridiculous with the combination of a tailored gentleman’s suit paired with a teenager’s portable sound system. I glance over to the woman crushed in the corner again; her book is resting unopened on her knees and I can tell that her literary escape has also been disrupted. Neither of says anything, though.
The train nears our destination. People rise from their seats to pull bags from the overhead rack and wrap themselves back up in the layers they had wisely discarded. I pack up my bag and drape my scarf around my neck, not waiting until the train has stopped before climbing over the other passengers and moving with the isle dwellers to get a good spot to leave the train. As the doors open we flock out, automatically moving towards the exit as one, and then slowly dispersing as we head in our separate directions.
My route takes me straight into the coffee shop nearest my office where I join a queue and shuffle slowly towards the counter. The assistant is the same one that I see every day and the order I give is the same one that I always make, but she doesn’t give any indication that she recognises me. Instead she hands me my porridge and soya latte through a fake customer service smile that remains static on her face as she turns her attention to the next person in the queue. I don’t leave a tip.
Breakfast of champions!
I post a quick picture as I sit at my desk booting up my computer, then shovel lukewarm, lumpy porridge into my mouth and gulp down my coffee. I don’t even like soya milk, I never really understood what was wrong with normal milk, but everyone seems to turn their nose up at traditional products these days and I don’t want to be judged.
My morning is uneventful. I sit tapping away at my computer, only rising to grab a drink of water in a plastic cup and later to pop to the loo. I smile at my colleagues and make small talk when it’s required, but I have little in common with these people. My desk is positioned near the window, so that when I look up I can see the sky, but I’m careful not to get caught day dreaming. The hours tick slowly by and at lunchtime I head out into the city again for a sandwich. The people around me are all variations made from the same mold. We are grey and navy and black with pinstripes. The shop is generic, one of thousands that populate every street of commerce and I pick up a sandwich that I could have made at home for a fraction of the price with better quality ingredients. There are tables in the shop and high benches against the window where people balance on wobbly high chairs as they grab a moment between meetings to check their emails or to finish a call. There is a buzz of anonymity in the air. I don’t stay long. I carry my little paper bag of lunch back to my desk where I continue working, wanting to show willing. There’s just enough time to update the world,
Busy, busy. Working lunch today!
 I smile and slip my phone back into my bag, returning my attention to the computer. I accept an invitation from my boss for my appraisal meeting next week; I still have so much to do.
My day officially finishes at 5pm. The parents among us proclaim their turn to do “pick-up” as they walk out on time, while the rest of us stay at our desks not wanting to be seen to be the first to leave. Some look genuinely busy, others start to gossip, to paint their faces as they prepare for a night out, or head to the bathrooms to change into gym gear for their evening run. I try and look like I fall into the first category and tap away at my keyboard, moving files and creating lists. When I’m satisfied that everything is in order, I shut down the computer and pack my things away in my drawer not bothering to lock it.
Outside, the early evening light is fading and the streetlights are starting to come on. I head back to the train station where a man sits begging by the entrance. I stop to give him the last of my change and he smiles up at me as I move on, ready to repeat my morning routine in reverse. By the time I unlock my front door it is dark. The house is cold and silent. I don’t bother with the light as I grab a bottle from the fridge and I make my way upstairs, still in my coat and shoes.
I light the candle by the bedside and draw the curtains on the world. I sit on the edge of the bed and pull out my phone. I should post something profound, something that they will all remember me by, but I can’t think of anything to say so I take a picture of the candle instead, relieved I no longer have to pretend. Then I pick up the bottle and taking a large gulp, I start to take the pills.

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