On the Eurostar back there was a girl in the seat next to me. She was about my age, perhaps a little older, pretty and dressed well. My seat was number 24, coach 16, a window seat, and she was already there, sitting in the partner seat, when I boarded.
‘I’m sorry, excuse me, I’m there’ I said, and pointed.
Her back was to the aisle slightly and her legs were crossed, already spread out proprietarily in the leg space of both seats, but she got up and let me in. She didn’t look at me, or speak, as she stood, and instead of sitting back down she moved to the pair of empty seats across the row and sat there. Possibly she was only looking for two seats to sleep on, it was 6.20 in the morning, but it felt unfriendly.
Five minutes later a man boarded the train and, ticket in hand, stopped at where she sat, ‘Excusez moi’.
She moved again, this time further down the cabin and I lost sight of her. I closed my eyes and listened to the music in my headphones. It felt dusty in the carriage, a scratchiness at the back of my throat. I coughed, raising my hand and turning my head to the window.
The girl moved back to the seat next to me just before the train moved off. She didn’t touch me as she sat, but I felt something clsoe to me and opened my eyes. She had taken her suit jacket off – it was draped over her arm – and the scarf had been removed as well. She wore a thick cream pullover, a knitted roll-neck, monogrammed above the right breast.
As she sat she turned away from me, out towards the aisle, a mirror image of how she’d sat before. With her left hand she tucked her fingers under the fold of material at the neck of the pullover, then rolled it up and over her mouth and nose. She held it there like a mask held against her face.
The act of sitting seemed to raise more dust; I reached for a roll of tissue and coughed again.
She turned her face away, re-adjusted the roll neck.
She’d covered her mouth before I’d coughed; perhaps she felt the dust as well.
I closed my eyes again.
The train left at 6.34.
The head rest of my seat was loose and pushed back when I leant against it. Annoying at any time, more so when trying to sleep. My jacket was folded up in the overhead shelf but I didn’t want it. I coughed again, my throat still dry, and saw in the corner of my eye the girl move the knitted mask back up to her face, saw her shift away from me, flick her eyes towards me.
The first Eurostar from Paris to London is largely a business train. In the queues at passport control there were some families, some day trippers, but at the espresso bars it was mostly suited men with loosely knotted neck ties, and women with pencil skirts and silk blouses that were standing in line. The 6.34 gets in before 9.00.
I plugged back in to the music.
I had to cough again, twenty minutes later. She covered her mouth again, shifting her shoulder forward a fraction to hunch away, obvious. The cream material covered her lower jaw, triangled up to her nose. She left it there for a while, like a child burying her head against a smell.
With my hand over my mouth and turned towards the window, I coughed again. Perhaps she didn’t like close proximity to people, or was allergic. Still, it seemed pretty fucking rude.
I coughed once every ten minutes or so from then on, until I fell asleep somewhere in the blackness of the Channel Tunnel. Fell asleep somewhere around the point, I like to think, that workers on the tunnel first broke through to each other, and the Frenchman and the Englishman first shook hands.