Mind the Gap
by Holly Gibson
In the centre of the carriage between the two sets of sliding doors were two rows of seats facing each other. At the end of one of these sat a woman, squashed up against the handrail, trying to read a book. On the opposite side sat a small girl, she had swung her feet up onto the seat next to hers and was leant up against a rather large woman who was fanning herself with a magazine.
“Get your feet down,” the woman said. The girl did not reply. “Chelsea, I won’t tell you again.”
“But Mum, I don’t want anyone sitting next to me,” the girl replied, “You said everyone on the tube smells.”
The words rang through the carriage and there was a distinct pause in quite a few conversations, the woman with the book looked up and was unfortunate enough to catch the eye of the large woman who gave her a particularly scornful look. She smiled sympathetically but the large woman just grabbed her daughter and swung her round so she was sat up straight. “Stop being cheeky,” she said. The commuters returned to their conversations or went back to reading their newspapers and the little girl sat still for a second.
An old lady shuffled through the forest of elbows, and claimed the spare seat for herself; she placed a shopping bag between her feet and let out a long loud sigh.
“Is that lady tired?” asked the little girl.
“I don’t know,” her mum replied.
“Is she tired because she’s very old?” the little girl asked.
Her mum looked at the old lady, mouthed an apology, then spoke to her daughter, “If she is tired it’s probably because she didn’t have anywhere to sit before,” she said, “and whose fault was that?”
The old lady looked up at the girl’s mother, “Not to worry, I’m sure I look very old to her young eyes,” she said, then she rustled around in her jacket pocket and produced a small crumpled paper bag, and out of this she pulled a bright pink and white striped sweet and promptly popped it into her mouth. The little girl watched all of this wide eyed.
“I want some sweets,” the little girl whispered to her mum.
“I haven’t got any,” her mum said back.
The old lady was sucking and slurping at the hard boiled sweet in her mouth. She clutched the little bag tightly in her hand.
The little girl slumped down in her seat. “Why is that lady reading?” she asked her mum.
Instead of looking up again the woman with the book held it a little higher, she had read the same paragraph three times already and didn’t really want to engage with the large woman again.
“I don’t know,” her mum replied, “why don’t you ask her.”
The woman held her book very tightly – please don’t ask me she thought, she knew it wouldn’t stop at that one question there were sure to be more; what are you reading? What’s it about? And why? Why? Why?
“Because you told me never to talk to strangers,” the little girl said.
“Well, maybe she enjoys reading,” her mum said.
“I like reading,” the little girl said, “do you like reading mum?”
“Yes, Chelsea, I like reading,” her mum replied.
“But you never read,” the little girl said, “you just watch stupid programmes on TV.”
“Well what’s this?” her mum asked, waving the magazine she was still using as a fan at the little girl, “now, sit up straight or you’ll fall off.”
There was a loud crunch from the old lady, and everybody looked at her. The little girl continued to stare as she crunched and cracked the sweet in her mouth. Once she’d swallowed it, she put her wrinkly hand back in the little paper bag and took another sweet out. Holding it between her thumb and forefinger she looked at it for a few seconds, then pop it was gone, and the old lady sucked and slurped again. The little girl had copied every move, opening and closing her mouth around an imaginary sweet.
“Mum,” she said, tugging on her mother’s sleeve, “I really want a sweet.” This time she said it louder and did not take her eyes off the little paper bag, her mum caught the eye of the old lady and smiled.
“Well maybe that nice lady will give you one if you ask nicely,” she said.
The little girl sat up on her knees and with what appeared to be a much practised pretty smile and a most polite voice asked the old lady if she could please have a little sweetie.
The old lady bent her neck and addressed the child. “You should listen to your mum,” she said, “you shouldn’t talk to strangers and you most definitely should never accept any sweets from them either.” She popped another sweet in her mouth, letting out a little giggle as she did so.
The woman with the book was astounded, she’d never seen such meanness, but she also had to suppress a smile and secretly she couldn’t wait until she was old enough to say such things. The little girl was near tears; her mum muttered something under her breath, opened her handbag and pulled out a mobile phone. “Here, if you’re bored you can play a game,” she said, “we’ll be home soon and you can have a biscuit then.” The little girl grabbed the phone; she sat in silence staring at the little screen in front of her; and only every now and then glancing up at the old lady as she crunched down on another sweet.
You can read Holly’s next FreeSpace* on Wednesday 13th October
*FreeSpace offers 3 post slots on ArtiPeeps to any creative or group. They can be taken in a cluster or over a period of months for showcasing, projects or self expression.