I could talk about the engineering of the rail transport in Chicago: how some of it is elevated and some of it is subterranean. How underground you could be anywhere, how above ground you can only be where you are. I am not going to talk about it though, because there’s nothing to say, not really.
I could mention how the weathered wooden platforms on the elevated sections remind me of Baltimore by Nina Simone and how I am always afflicted with a desire to photo the treads and risers on the staircases, both here and abroad. I could mention those things, but it might make me seem weird, so I won’t.
Public transport by train makes me think about my Grandpa and the red Central line on the London Underground. It makes me think of being gently rattled out of Leyton, after waiting for a train for Epping, or a journey in the opposite direction, Going Underground at Stratford on the way to Bethnal Green.
In Chicago you can go to Harlem and California on the Blue Line; in London, Mile End and Holborn on the Red. Both lines intersect with those of a different colour, travelling in different directions. In London I spoke to Americans returning to Atlanta, in Chicago I spoke to a black man about Marcus Garvey; all of them strangers, me the most. Taking a city train is a meditation, with some psychedelia thrown in, when you open your eyes.
Or maybe that’s just me. Like I said, I could talk about it, but I won’t.
It has been a hot day. Now the children are back at school, anyone with any sense and money left will have gone on holiday. The rest of us are stuck on this train to Essex.
The woman diagonally opposite me looks of a delicate disposition. She reminds me of Frances de la Tour, but with platinum blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. She dabs at her face with a handkerchief. She is too elegant to slump in her seat, but she seems weighed down by something. As the train leaves London behind and heads towards the M25 belt that holds the city in, the heat, the time of day, her fellow passengers seem to get her down and she droops a little further. As do her eyelashes.
She is dressed as any conservative, even modest, city worker might. A pale fuschia linen shift dress and fitted cardigan for the expected autumn weather that has not quite arrived. Her shoes verge on the sensible. Her eyelashes are a feat of engineering but, in the heat, the glue seems to be melting. We cross the M25. Slowly, she removes her compact mirror from her small, neat handbag on her lap. She leans forward, peering into the mirror. She touches the undersides of her false lashes, lifting them slightly. I wonder if they had started to impede her vision. I wonder why she has them on for a day in the office. I know girls who wear false eyelashes all year round, work and play, but they are twenty. This commuter is anywhere between fifty and sixty-five.
When Operation Eyelash has been completed, she takes out a wet wipe from a packet and wipes round the edge of the compact and then her fingers. Then she takes out her mobile. It is possible that I am now on the edge of my seat. Certainly, I am trying not to stare. This woman makes strange but compelling viewing on this hot train. I have given up pretending to read the free newspaper. I am drawn in by her movements, all are slow and deliberate. This phone call must be important.
She does not press the ring button on the phone until the train is at a scheduled standstill. The voice on the other line answers the phone. We hear from him that his name is Steve. She says one word, so low that an eavesdropper like me would have to strain to hear it.
Then she hangs up.