Today’s story was inspired by an item in the window of a junk shop.
The first thing I noticed was his Fairisle tank top. It was the sort of jagged, intricate pattern I like and the shirt underneath it picked out the least obtrusive and most beautiful colour in the jumper – a gentle, duck-egg blue.
He had the window seat and I took the one next to him even though there was another whole table free. That’s what I’m doing now. That’s what I’m trying to do – to make the choices that feel like the right ones, even when they’re not the most socially acceptable. He didn’t seem to mind. He looked up and smiled at me – hazel eyes, and more wrinkles than I was expecting. He was well into his sixties.
As the train pulled out I looked at my home town, the rows of houses piped across the hills and the splashes of green parks. He was looking out the window too and he spoke without turning to face me.
‘I can only go because I know I’ll be back.’
For a moment I wasn’t sure if he had spoken aloud without meaning to. But then he did turn round and it was clear he was talking to me.
‘Are you from Brighton?’
‘And you love it?’
He smelled good. The sort of cologne that curls to your nose rather than slapping your face. He was sipping tea and I was faintly aware of silver jewellery on his wrist. We sat in silence as the train passed through Preston Park station and off – out of town. Then he turned to me as if the conversation had been continuous.
‘I came to Brighton in 1967.’
‘Before you were born, no doubt.’
‘Well, only just.’
I was audience. I was audience and I was happy. This man, this scented, beautiful man, was not overly interested in my replies and I felt lighter immediately. I could be anybody. I sat back and looked into his eyes, inviting him to go on.
‘I was seventeen and I got a job at Joe Lyons, on the corner of St James’ Street. There’s a Sainbury’s there now, you know? And I had the time of my bloody life. I was skinny as a rake. Nipping between the tables with the coffee cups. Blonde hair to here…’
He tapped his shoulder and smiled – dreamy, blissed-out.
‘Worked there five years in the end.’
He pushed up his sleeve suddenly and I saw that the silver flashes at his wrist were one piece of jewellery, a charm bracelet. I hadn’t seen one for years. I didn’t think I’d ever seen one on a man’s wrist.
‘After that I worked for David for a while and he got me started with this.’
I looked down, wanting to touch the bracelet but unsure if I was being invited to.
‘Go on, have a proper look. The little fish, that was the first charm. He gave it to me because he called me Little Fish. Lovely man. He leant me most of the money for the deposit on my first flat. Died in 1984. He said to me, ‘people might buy them for you, Rob. But if they don’t, you buy them for yourself.’ And some have been gifts and some I’ve gifted to myself.’
I had to touch each one. It seemed a bit much but I couldn’t stop. Next to the silver fish was a thin cat – sitting. A miniature well with the tiny jutting handle for reeling down the bucket. A little donkey with flat ears and its nose down. An owl – like the owls of Athens – stylised and elegant. A rocking horse. A spinning wheel. My favourite was a shining wave of silver with a minute, sexless, stick character crouched on it – a magic carpet. My fingers lingered.
‘My favourite too. Bought for myself from a little antiques booth in Chelsea in 1993. I couldn’t afford it at all. But I knew I wanted a magic carpet and I’d never seen one so delicate.’
It was thin, fine, almost like a fragment of foil. The figure on it was just a suggestion of a person. The train was slowing for Hayward’s Heath. The man stood up.
‘This is me.’
As the train moved off I watched him walking across the platform to the steps down – shoulders back, head up. I slid into his seat. It was warm and sweet-smelling. I closed my eyes and slept all the way to Victoria.