The Ticket By Laura Martens
I have been a policeman all my life. Started straight out of school, where I told everyone I was going to serve the community but really, it was all about the uniform. I don’t regret it. I think I did some good, but who knows.
The 08:55 train shoots straight through the North London suburbs. Back when I was younger, they made these seats more comfortable. Now, you feel every spring dig into your back, no matter how much you try to wedge yourself in.
The girl across the aisle sinks deeper into her seat. Listen: in my job, you have to read people all the time, and she caught my eye immediately. I would have chosen her for a random spot check, if you know what I mean. Dressed all in black, she sits slumped over, trying to hide, messy hair over one side of her face. She keeps her bag wrapped up in her arms, as if scared someone will come and take it from her.
I didn’t have the time to get the Evening Standard when I changed at King’s Cross, so I am pretending to watch the blurry rows of houses in front of the window but also keep an eye on the girl. I don’t trust her. Rosie used to call it a gut instinct, and then she would point at my stomach and laugh, but just a little. And then she would make a roast on Sunday anyway, because that’s just the person she was.
The corners of my mouth have twisted into a smile, and I quickly stifle it before someone notices. The girl glances up, meets my eyes for a moment. I think I was fast enough, but I frown for good measure. She immediately twists her neck back to stare out of the window. Something icy prickles at the bottom of my stomach. I can hear Rosie complaining about the very same frown. It’s like you are trying to make people afraid, she said once, in our last year, and I remember laughing then, but the kind of laugh that does not stay in your eyes after you finish.
You have to look mean on the job, is the simple truth. Otherwise, people take advantage of you. There’s even a guideline about it somewhere, I think. Been meaning to look it up, actually, now that Charlie forced me to get one of those horrible smartphones. I cannot get the bloody thing to work—he set the background to Rosie and I’s wedding photo, of all the things, and didn’t tell me how to change it. Some days, I just leave it buried in the sock drawer, so I cannot hear it when it rings.
I know they say I was just following the rules. Speed limits are there for a reason. Do you know how many people die every day because people are going too fast? It’s those damn foreign cars, is what it is, and those young people who do not care about the law. So yes, sure, maybe I could have changed something if only I had been there faster. But what could I have done, anyway? I’m not a doctor. We get basic First Aid training, and that’s it. Much use that will be for an aneurism.
The girl glances up again. An object falls, further down the carriage, followed by the low monotone of, Tickets Please!, and, Thank You! Her eyes widen, and her hold on the bag turns into a death grip. I have seen the face a million times before—someone whose luck has run out at last. It used to be my favourite feeling, back in the day. That moment when you get to tell someone that for all their smugness and all their smartness, the law got to them after all.
I do not feel that way now. The distant cold of my rucksack presses against my calf, where the stack of Meals for One is leaning against the other side. I think when I get home, I will take my phone out of the sock drawer and just look at it for a while. Maybe I can call Charlie, too. He was always Rosie’s favourite.
I truly look at the girl for the first time. She is younger than I thought, although all young people sort of look the same to me. Her eyes are red, in a from-crying way. The lashes of one eye are all stuck together. I frown instinctively, then force myself to smile in the way that Rosie used to call ‘almost handsome’.
The girl still looks scared when I walk the two steps over to her. Damn smile, does nothing. I hold out my hand and let my Oyster card drop onto her backpack.
‘Has a travel card for this month on it.’ I haven’t used my voice all day, and it feels like rust is crumbling from my vocal cords. I clear my throat. ‘Keep it.’
The girl’s mouth opens. She blinks, then tries to hand the card back to me, but I already turn around. By the time she has untangled herself from the knot she put herself in, the ticket inspector is standing in front of me.
I sit up straight, and for some reason, the springs in the back of my seat don’t feel quite as uncomfortable this way. I look at the waiting hand for a moment, then shrug one shoulder. ‘I don’t have one,’ I say. And smile.
Laura Martens is based in London, UK, where she writes things and sells books. She loves skyscrapers, busy train stations, and cafés with window seats. Her writing has appeared in CP Quarterly, the Journal of Erato, and others.