Metro| Lucy Middlemass
The Orange Jackets aren’t at the station. As long as they don’t get on later, we’ll be okay. We’ll be alreet. Unless they’re there when we get off.
It’s Sunday evening, warm and there’s a match on somewhere. The Orange Jackets won’t want to be here. Our chances are good. There’s a poster behind us showing the names, ages and residences of the caught. John Potts, 48, Seaton Delaval. They’re adults, mostly men. They’re nothing like us but it worries me anyway. That’s what the poster’s for. I know that.
I’m sitting on the back of a bench with my trainers on the seat. It’s new yellow metal. Heather’s next to me, not speaking because she’s holding a bottle of coke and a bag of crisps. She’s wearing shiny tracksuit bottoms and a jacket from somewhere cheap. She hasn’t washed her hair and her eyelashes are full of green sparkles from last night. Our shadows merge and cross on the platform, and above us there’s looped white ironwork supporting a corrugated roof. I ache for her.
She ought to be relieved about the Orange Jackets. She preferred the vending machine to the one for the tickets. I hold my yellow cardboard rectangle on the flat of my hand to dry. She’s probably disgusted with me for buying it.
The screen says the next metro is in four minutes. She doesn’t bother to look, or to check if I’m looking at her when she asks with one hand, “How long?”
I show her four fingers.
The metro’s early, pulling into the station square-edged and yellow and blotting our shadows. It looks unreal, like one of Charlie’s toys. We get on through the hissing doors and sit opposite each other, my trainers up next to her and hers next to me. It smells like other people’s sandwiches. There’s only a man and his toddler son in the carriage, both in shorts and sandals. There are beeps before the doors close, and a woman’s voice tells us what they’re about to do.
Heather throws her empty bottle on the floor and watches it roll under my seat as the metro moves. The floor is grey with circles embedded in it. Heather’s stuffed the crisps into her jacket pocket.
“How’s things?” I ask her and get the attention of the man with the boy. They’re sitting across the aisle, facing the same way as me. The man thinks he’s got lucky. Even better with the boy here. He’d thought their journey would be boring. Now there’s something to watch.
Heather taps her palm with three fingers for Mam and puts her to her right. Her invisible mother takes the window seat. There’s a universal sign next which the little boy probably shouldn’t see. Her step-dad, the wanker, she puts on her left. Heather turns to her left and plays her mam, “You’re not going out. It’s church.”
Wait. Not church. Palms together like prayer but it’s not. Her mam said, “You’re not going out. It’s Sunday.”
And on her left, her step-dad starts with three fingers on Heather’s palm too, “Do what your mam says. You have homework.” Her mam will have translated this.
I nod. This is how it goes. “Now here you how?” I have the word order right. My Sign would pass an exam. Actually, it did. Heather’s is half-arsed and Geordie.
She slams a door in front of herself and puffs out her cheeks to show me how hard. On her left, back in the house, her step-dad laughs at her. Across the aisle, the man is smiling and watching us. He’s letting his son put sandal-prints on his shorts as he climbs over him for a better view.
Heather’s thumb and little finger make a telephone which she passes to her right. She turns her body to become her mam again, and her mam texts with Heather’s fingers. It’s fast and angry. Heather pulls her mobile out from under the crisps and shows me the result. “Dnt bothr coming bk.”
Heather laughs for real and says, “Fuck her,” or something similar. We didn’t exactly cover that on the course I went to on Tuesday nights with my mum after Charlie was born.
“Tonight house my you stay?” I might’ve messed that up at the end. Time, location, object, subject, verb. Is that right? Being with Heather makes me forget.
She holds up one finger and passes it over her shoulder to show me, “Yesterday,” and then says, “the wanker was pissed off I didn’t get home until eleven. He should keep his mouth shut.”
She doesn’t really say this. She shows me the wanker on her left, eleven o’clock and angry. Then she zips her lips like a child with a secret. The glitter in her eyelashes makes her beautiful.
“So you’ll stay with me?” I ask. “You can go to school from mine tomorrow.” We don’t go to the same school. Heather’s nearly finished anyway, so she tells me. I’ve asked her what she’ll do next but she looks puzzled and doesn’t answer.
My language is better for abstract ideas, hers for stories. Maybe that’s why I like her. My weekdays are full of abstractions. Compounds and calculations make inky tracks across my page until I get off the metro on Friday night.
My weekends are for Heather and my mum doesn’t even mind. When we lived down south, she’d drop me off at Lauren’s house. Lauren played the clarinet and her skirts reached her ankles. Other girls sat on walls outside fish and chip shops, and got into fights and did things with boys they weren’t supposed to. At least, that’s what my mum said as we went past on our way to Lauren’s.
My mum picked me up from the prom at the end of the fifth year. No backseat implications for me. There wouldn’t have been anyway but I prefer her to worry about the wrong things. She thinks I’m safe with Heather.
Up here, where I’m pet not love and I’m alreet not alright, I’m allowed Heather and there’s only one reason. He was born a couple of years ago and can already sign nearly as well as me.
“Ticket where?” Heather says, not asking where my ticket is because she doesn’t care. She wants to know how far I’ve paid for. She thinks I won’t go any further. I’m starting to think I might.
“Zone Three,” I say out loud. I catch myself and show her three fingers.
The man across the aisle will lose interest unless Heather decides to say something longer. It’s a shame, he’s finally got his son sitting comfortably and Heather hasn’t really begun.
I look out through the smears and I’m surprised to see the sea. I have been for months because it’s impossible we live so close. Ocean liners sit in the grey water. The scale seems wrong because I’m not used to the view. I can’t tell how big they are, or how far away.
We stop for Whitley Bay and the man with the toddler gets off, probably disappointed with Heather’s short performance. The doors open too briefly to help much with the picnic smell. It’s hot and Heather hasn’t taken off her jacket. The skin on her arms is covered with tiny freckles like a bird’s egg and I want to see it again.
A woman in a shop uniform gets on but doesn’t sit down. She stands by the doors, telling us silently that she wants Cullercoats or Tynemouth at the most. Heather draws my eyes back to her. This is why I’m here.
“My step-dad,” she says, making his glasses on her own face which is the proper sign they use for him, “is doing it again.” She’s serious now.
The woman by the doors is looking over, probably thinking we’re talking about something hilarious. Heather is animated and presumably excited. We’re just a couple of teenage girls. It’ll be boys or schoolwork or teachers we don’t like. The woman ought to concentrate on holding the grey plastic strap above her head and keep her eyes on that view. She’s not going to. She’s going to watch Heather.
“Mam wanted to throw him out last week,” she says. “He was fucking someone else. She caught him in their bed when she swapped shifts with Kath. It’d been going on for months. But she can’t leave him, he only lets her out to go to work.” The windows turn dark as the metro goes underground.
I nod although I don’t know who Kath is. It might have been Kate, she spelt it too quickly to be sure.
“He lets Mam have her medication as a present,” she says.
Not as a present. More like, “He lets Mam have her medication as a treat.” That makes more sense except that it doesn’t. “Bastard,” she adds.
I nod again. I don’t have the language for this. I ask her if she’s okay, which is a stupid question but the only one I’ve got. The metro stops. We’re in the dirty tiled station that reminds me of a public toilet. There are more posters here, this time advertising books and films.
Heather shrugs. I don’t know why. Okay isn’t too abstract, surely?
“Where are we going?” she asks. I see we go where? As if we’ve never done this before.
We met on the metro. My mum paid for her ticket the first time we saw her and made ridiculous gestures at her, even though she could sign well enough by then. Mum wanted us to be friends. She took Charlie into another carriage, thinking his crying would somehow disturb us as we got to know each other.
I make a circle with my fingers. We’ll have to swap metros soon to get back to Monkseaton where we started. Then we’ll have Jesmond, Ilford Road, South Gosforth, Long Benton and the rest to go. If I heard them out of sequence now it would be preposterous.
The Orange Jackets are here. They get on and stand where the woman in the shop uniform was watching us. She’s gone. I didn’t notice when. They’re by the doors nearer us and if I looked behind me I’d see them by the other set too. There’s no escape. Heather isn’t bothered and I wish I were more like her. Her pass is at home or the machine was busted where we got on. Will either of them work? Shit. I’ve got the wrong accent too.
Heather taps the seat next to her and opens her crisps. I move, sitting by the window where she played her mam. The metro pulls out of the station and the Orange Jackets come to life, swarming through the almost-empty carriages. It’ll take them seconds to get to us.
Heather’s hands are covered in salt, and crisp dust falls onto our legs as she speaks. “They don’t matter,” she says, meaning the Orange Jackets. She might be saying, “Ignore them,” or, “Fuck them.” I can’t tell. I don’t have the accent for this either.
One of them is behind her in the aisle. “Tickets and passes, please,” he says. He doesn’t mean the “please.” They never do. I put my hand in my pocket but Heather stops it with her own. It’s gritty with crisp. She moves up my bare arm and pulls me to her. Her mouth tastes like pickled onion.
This isn’t going to work.
“Tickets and passes,” he says. Not so bored this time but no “please” either. “Lasses. Tickets and passes.” He sounds as though he doubts we have them but he likes his own rhyme. Everyone up here thinks they’re funny.
I reach for my pocket again. Heather’s hand is on the back of my head and she won’t let me go. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel. Probably not like this. It’s not how I’ve been imagining it. She grips my wrist to stop me moving. Her tongue sweeps over my teeth.
We’ll be thrown off for this if not the ticket. It wouldn’t matter if we could just get the next one but it doesn’t work like that. They make you fill in a form, I’ve seen them. Then our names will be on one of the posters too.
I’m desperate and wriggle away from her. I start to apologise to the Orange Jacket for Heather, first in Sign because I’ve forgotten. Before I’ve remembered the English word order, Heather hands him a ticket from her tracksuit bottoms pocket. He checks it, returns it, takes mine.
“Thank you, pet,” he says to us. There doesn’t seem to be a plural.
“Ticket you get from where?” I ask Heather when he’s gone.
“I bought a day ticket this morning. You always look so worried. I’m coming back to yours, then?” she says, more or less.
I nod and know I’ll go to school tomorrow with her glitter on my cheek.