Chicken Chow Mein (A Short Story)

Chicken Chow Mein (A Short Story)
by Katie Lumsden

You are on the tube when you see him, at the start of the long journey home.

It is eight o’clock on a Friday evening and he is sitting directly opposite you. His hair is receding and there are faint lines around his eyes, and yes, he looks heavier about the waist – but otherwise he is so nearly the same that it jolts you. His eyes, cast down at his book, have that same heavy blueness, his hair the same dark waves, his nose the same slope. His lips are the same lips you once pressed to yours, some fifteen years ago.

He looks well – that is your first thought. You would take him for early- to mid-thirties, not approaching forty as he must be now. He is still attractive, sitting up straight, looking down at the book in his hands. He holds it cautiously, intently, almost tenderly. It is Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov – a book you read once at university, chiefly so that you would sound clever when you said you’d read it. Only, you never do tell anyone you’ve read it because you can never remember how to pronounce it. His copy is a paperback penguin classic. The spine is not creased. He looks intelligent, sat poised with the book in his hands, oblivious to the commuters around him.

You, meanwhile, have cheap plastic headphones pushed into your ears, and are listening to music, because you can’t concentrate on books these days. More specifically you are listening to Ed Sheeran. You are singing along in your head, because you know all the words, although if someone were to ask you who your favourite artist is you would lie and say The Smiths.

This is not how you would like to be seen, not by someone who you haven’t crossed paths with in so long. You are dressed in old jeans and your hair is tied in a loose bun above your head. You are tired, and you are sweating inside in your winter coat. It is not as busy as in rush hour, but people are still standing, dressed up for Friday nights out, young girls in heels and men in jackets and shined shoes. It is busy enough to be hot, to slowly boil you in your clothes.

Your rucksack is squashed between your feet and you are chewing gum. You chew gum frequently these day – sugar free stuff that loses its taste after a minute or two. You are half ashamed of chewing gum at your age. You never did as a teenager, even as a young woman, but now, edging closer to middle-age, you have taken it up. It is not an addiction so much as a support; you chew gum when you used to smoke cigarettes, when you are stressed, when you are worried, when your mind won’t stay stuck on one thing.

You are stressed now. A week staying with your sister and her family is enough to stress anybody, and anyway you do not like London and you are desperate, so thoroughly desperate to get back to Liverpool, to quieter trains, to familiar accents, to the sound of the Mersey, the taste of salt in your mouth.

In a few hours you will be home, but for now you are sitting on a tube, staring at the man sitting across from you.

He is not one of the ones you have dreamt of meeting. There are those who you dream of, those faces that stand out from the past, the great loves and passions, the missed opportunities. Paul, who ran up hills at night with you and shouted your name to the sky. Greg, who you were with the longest, who smelt of warm autumn nights, of cigarette smoke and home. Harry, whose glasses never sat straight on his face. Dylan, the American, with his too broad smile. And Erin too, that pretty girl who always wore silver hoop earrings, the girl you’d turned down because it had seemed so simple then, so black and white. I like men so I must only like men.

You imagine meeting them on the train, on the bus, in the supermarket, in the library. You imagine softly walking towards them – Paul, Greg, Erin, whoever – and they look up and you both smile and drift into conversation. The feelings of the past flicker into the present and something new begins.

You have never dreamt of meeting this man. He has slipped from your mind and heart in the last fifteen years, and you have barely thought of him. Sitting on the tube, watching his eyes scan the pages of his book, you cannot remember the last time you thought of him. You dated for – what? three months, four? You were in your early-twenties, he a little older. You look at his face, his hands, the dark jacket that hangs from his shoulders, and it comes back to you, in snatches, memories as faint as those dreams you wake from in tired mornings and cannot catch.

There is some intangible, elusive sensation of his body pressed against yours, broad shoulders, soft hands. You remember the smell of strong soy sauce, Chicken Chow Mein, and you have a distant idea that he lived above a Chinese takeaway, although you couldn’t be sure. You have an image swirling in your mind of a burgundy sofa, of twisting the buttons on a cream and blue striped shirt. You remember the feeling of wind through your hair – not sea wind, a different kind – a flashed freeze-frame in your head, two bikes riding side by side, reaching your hand out to his. You remember sandy sheets and the smell of paint.

You wonder what he’s doing now. Your eyes fall to his hands. No wedding ring. Does he live in London? Would he recognise you?

You wonder if it’s worth speaking to him. If only you weren’t chewing gum, if only you looked better. You think about swallowing it, about letting your hair down. You have been staring at him for three stops now, and he has not looked up once. If he does look up, if he recognises you, then and only then, would it feel right to say something. But if he does look up, he will surely know you have been looking at him for a while. You have left it too late to be natural. Yet if you sit in silence, if you look away, you might be betraying some part of yourself, some person you can barely remember being. This man must have been important once, although you cannot quite remember how it began or ended, only those vague smells and feelings from fifteen years ago. You think about taking out your headphones, leaning over the aisle, breaking the silence of the London tube and saying, Long time no see–

And then it hits you. You cannot remember his name.

You’ve lost it. It has got caught in the whirlpool of the past. It has been buried in years of other lovers, of meetings and office parties, of Friday night beers and awkward family get-togethers, of broken washing machines and the weddings of friends. It lies abandoned somewhere alongside all the books you meant to but did not read, all those lives you intended to live. It has tumbled down some cavern in your memory, filed in the forgotten moments of your past, along with the girl you once were, died blue hair and tight skirts, a girl who chatted to strangers on buses to ask them for a light. You have lost her, and you have lost his name.   

So you keep your mouth shut, and say nothing.

Two stops on, he closes his book, slips it into his bag, and stands up. You look up at him as he rises, and he looks down at you and grins. The smile is so wide, so knowing – but it is gone in a moment, and then he is off the train in a rush of people, back into the ether of the past.

That smile. As you sit on the tube, people swaying and pushing around you, you try to work out what that smile meant. Did he recognise you after all? Had he, like you, been waiting to say something? Perhaps he simply noticed you were staring, imagined you to be some tired stranger admiring his face. Or was the smile smaller after all? Was it simply a smile at the awkwardness of meeting eyes, some amusement at breaking one of those London rules your sister tells you are so sacred? – as though London were the only place in the world with its own codes, as though she has lived there all her life and is not, like you, from somewhere else.

Only, you do not know what the smile meant, and by the time you reach Euston you cannot even hold a picture of his face in your mind. You have forgotten the smile as you have forgotten his name, and as you step off the tube you are no longer even certain that it was definitely him.

You buy takeaway Chicken Chow Mein at the station, and queue through the crowds to get your train.

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