Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This week, Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter.
The Sender Of Second Chances
Chock-a-block all the way down on the bus today so I’m upstairs. Sun’s hot through the glass but best not take my coat off, I’ll be getting ripe underneath it and there’s stains on my dress won’t sponge off with cold water. Place I’m staying in now, you have to be up with the larks and up for a fight if you want hot water, and I’m past that now.
Not much happening on the street down there — folk scurrying about with their heads down mostly. Think who they might see if they’d only look up now and then — neighbour, friend, old lover. Or a stranger with silver buttons on his coat, and a smile like summer. Saw him pluck up the courage — come to the sea with me, he said, train to Margate; go on, you only live once.
You get the teenagers upstairs, flicking their hair, putting on a show, no idea the thousand different ways their lives might turn out. Downstairs the mums battle their prams and kids, promising the moon to keep the peace. Missed that boat years ago, but I keep a picture in my head of what could have been; a boy I like to think, with that same sunny smile. Daft, I know.
Bus swings into a stop at Kennington Park, usual clatter of branches from the chestnut tree against the windows. Young woman comes upstairs — something promising about this one, not plugged into her phone like most. She has a proper look at people, gives me a smile instead of a wide berth and sits down in front of me. Her eyes are grey and ever so clear, like the rock pool where we sat down at Margate, dipping our feet while we told each other everything we were, all that we wanted to be. The rock was warm and smooth under my feet when we kissed.
We lurch away up Kennington Road. Driver yesterday kept sending the tots flying into everyone’s legs — miracle how some of them pass their test — I shot my arm out to catch one, human instinct, but the mum grabbed him off me quick as a stick, eyes wide.
I don’t blame her. The years haven’t been kind and nor has some of the company I’ve kept, grog included. Thirty years and more since I sent him away, after the sand had gone cold under our feet and everyone else was going home. Make a mistake big as that, you stop trusting yourself to make decisions, just let life carry you.
Going round the corner at Lambeth, the woman in front has to grab the pole to stop herself being hurled off her seat by Stirling Moss down there. Her hair’s dead straight, the colour of conkers, something like mine when I was a girl.
Waterloo Bridge, and we’re almost full. Last one to come up is a tall fella with a full beard, trimmed neat like his Brylcreemed hair. A stillness about him, something solid. He has a look down the bus and starts to turn back when he spots the last two empty seats, next to me or next to her — well, no prizes.
Got a good feeling about these two. They clock each other just a bit longer than they need to as he sits down. His eyes are set deep and his smile is slow, trace of an old sorrow in it, maybe. I feel the spark, probably before they do. She runs her hand down the side of her neck, smoothing her hair, and he straightens his shirt collar, first one side then the other. I whip out my notepad and scribble, pencil shooting off the page as Stirling throws the bus round the corner at the Aldwych. They turn towards each other again, not quite in time, and I can’t see from behind whether they’ve caught eyes, but I’ve been doing this for so long I pick up the smallest signs, and I see them lean a hair’s breadth closer.
The woman turns her face like she’s looking out the window, dabs something on her lips from a silver tube in her pocket, faces forward again with a little shake of that lovely hair. Go on, say something one of you, God love us! But when the brakes get slammed on at Holborn Tube, he gets up slowly, flashing her a smile with a pound of regret in it before he disappears down the stairs. She half rises, hitching her bag strap over her shoulder, but no. She sinks down and sighs, twisting her hair round the fingers of her right hand. No point telling her what I think, she’d smile politely and pull a book out of her bag.
Hundreds of missed chances like this every day, but I can’t be everywhere at once. Sometimes people take the plunge afterwards and send a message into one of the free papers that get left all over the seats: 'To the girl on the District line with the blonde hair and the black coat' — well that narrows it down — 'I can't stop thinking about you, please get in touch.' That’s why I carry a notepad, so I can get all the details, so there can be no doubt.
Her coat's the same colour as his all those years ago, silver buttons on the shoulders catching the moonlight after I sent him away down Margate seafront, slowly shaking his head. I thought there’d be others could make me feel the same. Didn't know I'd fallen in love.
I know the PO Box number by heart. I write out the rest of the message: 'To the woman on the No.59 to King's Cross, Tuesday 1st October — chestnut hair, grey eyes, olive coat, amber earrings, and the man who sat next to her over Waterloo Bridge — red and black checked shirt, brown leather satchel, beard — I saw you both wondering What If? Here is your second chance.'
We’re still looking for London short fiction stories based on the theme 'Summertime'. Please continue to send submissions to email@example.com. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.