Sardines: a short story

A first for the Jar Belles; we’re pleased to publish a piece of short fiction by Alison Graham.

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Sardines

Ffion’s eyelids hinged open with a shake of the shoulders.

“We’re not moving,” came the explanation, whispered.

“Well, that’s observant of you.” There was a slight dehydrated fracture to her voice.  

“I mean the train isn’t – I’m a light sleeper.”

“I’m going to wake the others.” Their eyes were again hinging open, pupils rather than lids; the dark of the compartment was incomplete, but the closeness of the cold outside gave it fullness.

Once awake, the other noises issuing from all directions could be discerned: a baby wailing in the moments before being nursed, the periodic thudding of suitcases ill-suited to the luggage racks. Even the whist click of a lighter. This lighter in particular found itself serving as the facilitator for a game of blackjack, held by the only sober passenger in the compartment.

Ffion was rapping the others’ bedframes like doors, confident in the sturdiness of the battered plastic.

“What? I’m not going to touch them if I don’t know them.” In spite of her bluntness, she felt that physical contact should follow introductions, if at all.

The woman on the top bunk woke. Eunie was fully dressed (with the sole exception of her shoes). Luckily so, because she swung her legs over the side of the bed and into the nose of her bunkmate.

“Oh shit, what was that? Sorry. Are you okay? Sorry.”

Ignoring her, Ada rubbed her nose slightly then stood carefully. Slow to wake, she stumbled over the even floor of the train before steadying herself. Her hair had been in an impressive arrangement during the day. The veritable undergrowth of pins and curls made her near unrecognisable. By morning she would be horrified by the bloom of mauve on her cheekbone.

“Hello, does anyone have a light?” Ada stage-whispered this, ostensibly not wanting to disturb other passengers and in truth wanting to ensure she was heard.

Without verbal response Eunie beamed all the light that can be yielded from a pencil torch across the cabin. For the second time, Ada clutched her face in her hands; this time, her eyes. Clinging to her bird wrist was a gold watch and the strap of a white clutch bag.

“Not so bright, not so bright,” she puled. Something in the tone, pitch and inflection made the others flinch. It was so soft.

“Sorry, sorry. It’s not deliberate.” Ffion had near-begun to apologise as well, alongside Eunie, but stopped herself.

“Names would be a good place to start.”

“And faces too. I want to put names to faces,” added Roe.  

“Maybe sit down first?” Her voice was almost entirely without accent or age, slightly contralto and so soothing. Gingerly on the edge of her bunk, whilst the others lowered themselves to the floor, she sat. Unwilling to admit she had not intended to position herself like so, she remained there despite the awkwardness.

“I’m Ada.” She continued in the same tone as before. Eunie angled the torch, shaping the vague more gently this time. The shape of the vague was a set of close-set eyes in the most brilliant hazel. This, and lips almost too large for the face to be recognised as beautiful.

“Ffion.” Her brows, in their denseness and colour, could easily have been mistaken for glued-on mouse fur if it weren’t for the fashion falling out of favour long ago. At odds with Ada’s cared-for hair, hers was understandably travel-lank.

“My name is Roe” – the words occupied exactly one breath. When projected onto her face, the illumination affected a flinch. Eunie adjusted the torch accordingly. Like Ffion, her hair had a faint but definite limpness. A Grecian, asymmetrical nose thinly filmed with sweat.

She turned the torch on herself. It was a gift from her brother. Having attended the same university, he knew that the electricity in her accommodation was temperamental at best. As were the professors, but there was no solution to that. All things considered, it was the best university inhabitants of their town could have asked for. Its apparent parochialism ensured parents felt progressive, yet unthreatened, when sending their children there.

Eunie fell into the latter group, of disinterest and even disgust at contrariness. Unsuccessfully she applied for a job at the manufacturing plant in the nearest town just before her degree finished, and successfully she convinced her parents she wanted nothing more than to emigrate. She secured a job across the country and took with her a trouser suit, tenancy agreement and cutlery. The rest of her belongings were to be sent out at a later date, once she was settled. Without the heart to tell her parents she would never be settled in this new city, she would be tactical. Three months, then slip reveals of a newfound happiness into letters. It was a transaction; the teller being her parents, the withdrawal more props to play house and the currency relief in others.

“I’m Eunie.” She had always nursed the thought that her rejection had been down to her appearance. True, she had been required to submit a passport-sized photograph – procured from the damp, ashen photo booth that shuddered against the south wall of the post office. However this fear was unfounded; she had a fierce, hardy attractiveness to her. It made inhabitants of her hometown uncomfortable only because it reminded them of the inhospitableness they found themselves surrounded by. All this stemmed from the pointed features of her face which were like rock shaped through shattering and battering by the elements and then scoured smooth by the same.

“What did you say?” Eunie near-shouted, addressing it to no one in particular.

“It was – it’s – I’ve seen you before. Or at least your face.”

“Well that’s a new one.”

“Not for me –”. First Roe blurted, then backtracked. “I’m a cleaner at a supermarket, and there’s a photo booth at the back, for my job – well I was a cleaner – I have – had – to clear out any throwaways. And there was part of a photo strip of you one day.” She let the past tense roll pleasantly on her tongue, savouring it.

“Shit, you’re from there?” Suddenly remembering herself, she forced a chuckle. “My condolences.” Eunie was immersing herself in character – just the right side of sardonic, disaffected small village girl. It made everything feel less real, less concrete; it wasn’t her that had left, it was someone else. Eunie was on a train with strangers and Eunie was in the supermarket deciding how to spend her bonus, weighing up which set of curtains to buy her parents. The strangers wouldn’t go; the city itself was a person to her, and a stranger at that; a body writhing with street light nerves and smog breath and the millions of other human lives she was aware of but couldn’t quite touch.

“I was a cleaner. Not now though.” Her speech poised to answer the question.

“So what are you now?” Ffion propped herself up against the bunk, deforming the circle.  

“I’m going to be a por-trai-tist, but for now I’m a gallery assistant. But it’s money and I’ll be around art all day, Monday through Saturday. Or art will be around me I suppo–”

“Did you draw me?” Eunie interrupted.

“Would you draw me?”  Ada had been tight-lipped until then, and not just for the sake of skittering her hands across the floor in search of dislodged hair pins. After the question escaped her lips she scolded herself inwardly for her stupidity – this light could only yield a distorted drawing, nothing like a likeness.

Roe cringed tangibly in the dark, at least tangibly enough for Ffion to perceive it from her position next to her and react.

“What about you, Ada? What are you? Besides quiet.” The tactlessness served to break the ice; it provoked the wordiness of defence.

“I am Ada, and I am thirty-seven; I have three children, all of them wonderful in their own way and the husband, well, he’s –” Her speech didn’t just stumble here, it tripped and fell thirty feet and found itself unable to cry for help. There was no lie – she had a husband, and three children, as well as a semi-detached in the catchment area for an Ofsted Outstanding school, a group of coffee morning friends and while her husband rarely discussed work with her, she had several evening gowns, all of which saw plenty of use. Ada also had the most exquisite spending cap on her debit card. Not placed by the bank but instead by her husband, and this functioned in tandem with a curfew and her husband’s refusal to buy her clothes above a certain size. At present the debit card was inside her bag, and she had most certainly exceeded both her curfew and budget. Her children – Joanna, Harry and Samuel (‘Sammy’ until he learned to speak) would be asking where she was and her husband would likely be preparing to follow through on the dozen year threat. Roe mistook her shaking for shivering and draped a hoodie over her shoulders with ridged hands. The last time Ada had felt hands so uneven had been when she shook the gardener’s hand, so impressed was she at the state her flowerbeds had been left in.

The hoodie was enormous. The party had been alright, nothing extraordinary and nothing more unbearable than usual. Ada had excused herself to go the toilet, to “powder her nose” in the husband’s words. She did indeed find a toilet cubicle, at the train station far from the hotel’s function suite. The ticket booth girl took her to be drunk or some other way intoxicated but sold her the ticket nonetheless, apologising for the inconvenience of a shared compartment. She may have looked three bottles gone, but it was definitely prosecco and not WKD.

Ffion softened.

“Are you alright?”

“No, I’m going to be, all it is is –”

On opening the door, the conductor whistled in surprise.

“All this space and you’re on the floor, like… like sardines!” exclaimed the conductor. “Anyways, um, ladies, we have a minor mechanical problem but that should be fixed soon. Arrival is going to be about an hour later, maybe two. Extra sleep I s’pose!” Uncertain of what else to say he exited without excusing himself.

***

Reaching a safe distance away and another conductor, he chuckled.

“They’re having a sleepover and a half in 11C.”

The two of them squinted in thought.

“God, that’s one of the singles compartments, isn’t it? All separate tickets? Very strange.”

***

“What were you saying, Ada?”

“I, it’s that, you know the um, I decided to take a last minute holiday! To see my ex-sister-in-law.” Ada hadn’t actually spoken to her brother’s ex-wife in eight years, but she hadn’t spoken to her brother in longer and so she surmised that between herself and– what was her name? Kirstie? – there was common ground, in the estrangement from her sibling. With a twinge in her chest she realised she hadn’t said goodbye to the Café Mums. They called themselves that, her and the others who she met for coffee each morning, in a part-joking and part-earnest manner. They weren’t all technically mums – there was Steve, with his partner Ryan, whose wedding she was now going to miss. Another punch from the inside of her, liable to cleave her chest wide open.  

“Very, very last minute. I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but I just sort of woke up today and thought life’s short and all that,” she continued, straining to convince herself.

“Cool! I did the same. Well, a bit more planned,” Ffion tittered, wanting to ease the tension. “Bad breakup, if I’m honest. It was the end of the semester anyway, and I haven’t been away in any of the other holidays so I thought to myself, ‘why not?’ I’m actuallys on my way back now.”

It had been a bad breakup. Well, disappointing. He would wake up in the morning with a square, velvet-effect box left on his desk, the clasp snapped shut. Inside: an engagement ring. It had cost the both of them half a week’s worth of food shopping to pay for the dinner, not to mention the effort required to procure a dinner jacket from students, so she had smiled and nodded and offered to think it over.

“What happened?” asked Roe, wide-eyed. Second-hand accounts like these of others’ lives, and their loves in particular, fascinated her. This trait was something her aunt had always referred to as being a curtain-twitcher but a person who knew her better would find no maliciousness. She loved to hear these things as a child loves to collect seashells.

“Well, things were moving different speeds. Our lives, our feelings.That sort of thing.”

“Oh god, men are always like this – always the slow ones in the relationship. You’re thinking about what sort of house you’d like and they’re still trying to work out if you got a haircut last week.”

“Oh, well, actually, I was the slow one. Or he was the fast one. Depending on which way you look at it. He tried to give me a ring, an engagement one. Out of the blue. It was beautiful if it weren’t for all the expecting on his part. To be honest, I sometimes wish we could just take the jewellery and not, y’know, have to do all the other stuff to get it, you know?”

Roe laughed nervously.  

“I don’t really think I’m in a place to turn down a ring, d’you know what I mean?”

“Oh. Right. Sorry.”

“Why d’you say sorry so much? You said it when the conductor couldn’t get past you in the corridor, when you didn’t want food from the trolley… D’you say it to the recipe book when you burn cakes?”

“I, um, I, I’m not sure,” fumbled Ffion.

It calmed Ada to mother the others, and so she told them to sleep. Ffion struggled to sleep, however, and stared at the ceiling for several hours. More than anything she didn’t want to be rude. She had left hurriedly in the middle of the night a week ago so she didn’t have to be rude to her boyfriend. In a few hours, he would officially be her ex and would remain that way after what she’d done.

Ada feigned sleep until out of exhaustion she fell into a light slumber, but not before feeling a great odd bitterness seeping through her lungs to all her vitals at what she had done; it was made only more bitter by the slim threads of exhilaration, of possibility stitched through it. And they were stitched through a dress in whatever size she liked.

Eunie had a dream, really more of a fever dream. She was pressing her face into the exposed rock face found a hike away from her parent’s house. Her features slotted perfectly into it and she found herself wanting to stay there; even three helicopters with elephant ears attached to her by taffy couldn’t pull her away.

When each of them woke and prepared to disembark, they had to consider for varying lengths of time whether the previous night had really happened. The daylight had washed clean away whatever magic had conduced conversation. The glare of the industrial plastic gave no room to hide. It was Ffion that spoke first, having realised last night that she no longer had room to hide. Eunie was still doing her very best to melt into the walls and the artist’s dream of the city, the lines and shade and hue thoroughly giddied Roe. What Eunie feared had Ada catching her breath. In the pavements grubby with discarded gum she hadn’t seen before, and the supermarket cashiers to smile at and the cigarette butts to step over. It was all there, and her breathlessness was of no consequence because she had space to breathe, which she did, copiously and attracting Eunie’s frown.

“This is the final stop. All passengers must leave the train at the next station,” blared the tannoy.  

“Let’s stay in touch,” Ffion suggested. The train swayed but only her speech stumbled.

“Yeah, we should. It’s always good to have friends somewhere new.” commented Eunie. Initially it was the curtain chooser Eunie that spoke, not the career girl. To her speech she strove to add magazine-ready charm and instead only succeeded in blandness. “My new office is a real piece of architecture and there’s meant to be a great bakery nearby.”

“Email addresses?” interrupted Ffion.

“Alright,” smiled Ada.

“You know Ada, I’d like to take you up on that,” Roe admitted.

“On what?”

“Drawing you. I didn’t want to say, but the gallery’s given me a commission. They want a charcoal, of anything I want. If it’s decent, it’ll go into an arts magazine. Nothing big, just local, a review of the overall exhibition –”  

“No. I changed my mind. But thank you.” Ada’s voice had lost the soothing quality at mention of this, at least temporarily. Images of the husband scouring pages and search engines filled her head, and choked her like swallowing sawdust.

The train was clattering with the stirring of other passengers. Eunie rattled her torch, then slapped it against her palm repeatedly and finally rummaged around in her bag.

“None of you know where I’d get batteries, do you? My torch is broken,” queried Eunie.

“Um, no, sorry. I mean, I’m from here but don’t really know this part of town. So to speak,” answered Ffion.

“You’ll find batteries, somewhere. They’ll be somewhere,” reassured Ada.

The doors of the train swished open. The buzz of the platform became more clearly audible, a pleasing rhubarb rhubarb of commuters.   

“Well, if not light then I’ll have sound,” Eunie laughed.  

   

____

“Well if not light then sound.”

– Alison Graham writes poetry as well as short stories and is an admirer of Jenny Holzer. She is soon to be based in Norwich and you can follow her here: @alsngrhm.

This work is copyrighted and it may not be reproduced in part or full, in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the author Alison Graham.