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Reading on the Tram

by Adam 

Posted: 17 September 2003
Word Count: 756
Summary: This is quite a short short story, and quite a departure from my first attempt, Sojourn in Mantua (which is yet to be re-edited). It is intentionally simple, yet I hope it conveys something beyond its simplicity. Please feel free to comment as I have pretty much left unedited what I idly scribbled on the tram...

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I sit on the tram and I read. I read people: that’s what I do. I watch them, I read them, and then I write about them. Perhaps not directly, but from every person I meet or observe, I take something. I imagine whole stories, whole lives, and I write. Each time, what strikes me is their persona: the mask they all don when situation requires. I’m watching now. And, as I watch, I take in the pretence, the affectation they assume. I read people.

Perhaps I’m not making myself clear. In each of us, there lies a duality between the public and private self. It cannot be helped, but it is rare that the two are united. Nor, I hasten to add, is it necessarily a bad thing. However, it creates a duality: Shakespeare evoked it in his Hamlet, his Romeo, his Juliet. Even the hermit, in his overt rejection of society, expresses this duality: his is a statement, an open expression of exclusion, a yearning for solitude and the private self. In this, however, his existence, his essence, is shaped by the without, translated by the external world: he has rejected it, and chosen to be alone. Each of us requires this absence, this solitary quietude, in moments – however brief – of utter seclusion. We need an interlude between the rasping music of life, the harsh chords that sound incessantly.

This is what strikes me when I see Felicity. She sits, slowly tracing the contours of her face with her finger; lost in thought. Her mask is slipping and I can see thin lines of sadness appearing on her face. She is unaware that I am watching her, that I am reading her. I imagine her name is Felicity and that she drinks hot chocolate in secluded cafés on the other side of town, that she reads French novels and dreams of sparse Parisien appartments where artists stare at broken mirrors. Although this is probably untrue, it’s what I read, what I imagine her life to be. I wonder why she is sad. Perhaps she is thinking of an old lover who broke her heart, long ago, by a platform in York. She smiled, sadly, tears streaming down her face, before slowly walking towards the train for her departure. She never looked back.

John sits two rows in front of her, to her left, and gently taps his finger against his walkman. He looks serene, silently mouthing the words that echo in his ears. I’m not sure what John does – nor do I care. Behind his mask of apparent serenity, I see his eyes, staring aimlessly ahead. I read their listless vacuity and wonder what it is that he dreams. His sadness is not the same as Felicity’s: his sadness is an absence from himself, a detachment from his life. Days roll by in black and white – reels of fleeting images that rarely alter. He yearns for a life far beyond his present inertia. I imagine him walking down the street, head bowed down, dreaming of the life beyond. One day, he may even walk out, without a word or a hint, and jump on the next boat to Patagonia.

One day, he may even meet Felicity – they take the same tram at the same time, day in, day out, – and timidly ask her for her number. She smiles shyly and etches it on his hand with eyeliner. They meet for a drink the following Friday. He kisses her. She kisses him. He smiles – she smiles. He caresses the soft skin of her cheekbone with his thumb. She smiles. He whispers something in her ear. A week from then, they kiss and find themselves in a lovers’ embrace. No, not a lovers’ embrace – words miss it, it goes beyond words: they are neither merely lovers, nor simply caught in an embrace. But this is the closest I can get with words: the dancer dances, but she and her dance are inexpressible, inseparable. I digress. Their first child is named Emily, and they move into a semi-detached in a leafy suburb of Manchester. Perhaps Sale. Perhaps Timperley.

It doesn’t matter: it’s all imaginary, all pretence. None of it, I imagine, is (or will be) real. It’s now my stop and I have to get out. I close my book, put away my pen, step off the tram and make my way home. I now realise: it is I who is wearing the mask, and you are reading me.

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Comments by other Members

Nell at 19:23 on 17 September 2003  Report this post
Hi Adam,

That was an absolute treat - beautifully written, sensitively observed, and quietly haunting. And the end was inspired - love it, look forward to more.

Only one tiny typo too: Days roll by in black white...

Best, Nell.

Becca at 21:18 on 17 September 2003  Report this post
Adam, yes, thought provoking and with nice touches. I'd be tempted to edit down the first and second para, I feel when you pass that bit you get into your stride, and you could expand on the imaginings you have about the man and the woman, make more of it, the power of it lies there.

JohnK at 01:49 on 18 September 2003  Report this post
Adam -

I'd like to think your imaginings turn out to be totally accurate, and you discover a second sense that enables you to read people with precision, leading perhaps to foiling a murderer's wrong step, or joining a planned project before others get wind of the possibilities.

I too loved the twist, and you are being read.

All the best, JohnK.

Adam at 11:52 on 20 September 2003  Report this post
Hi everyone!

Thanks a lot for your comments! Nell, typo is no more - thank you!

Becca, I think you're right about the second paragraph in particular - it's a little didactic and slightly jars with the tone of the piece overall. I'll try to edit it down, simplify it and help it gel with the whole piece.

As to expanding the characters, I'll look to it, but my feeling is that the story needs to be short, and that I can't delve too far into my imaginings... My first writing, 'Sojourn in Mantua' was a little over-written and at times pretentious. This, however, works because of its simplicity, I think.

And John, who knows? Maybe they'll invite me to the wedding!...


Adam x

bjlangley at 11:47 on 22 September 2003  Report this post
Adam, I like it, perhaps because I do the very same thing every time that I take the bus, creating whole lives for these strangers.

Tabitha at 22:17 on 06 October 2003  Report this post
I liked this a great deal. But I would scrap the second para completely - it's beautifully written, but adds nothing to this story. It's what's known as a 'darling', and is redundant repetition. Save it for another story. :-))

Adam at 00:24 on 07 October 2003  Report this post

I'm glad you liked the piece, and thank you for your comments. I think, however, that paragraph two has its place, although perhaps in a pared-down form... I'm giving myself a little time and distance before re-considering the piece - space to re-evaluate and re-approach it from as objective a point-of-view as possible - but I'll get back to it soon, and edit it. I think the second paragraph needs to illuminate the story as much as possible, although admittedly it is presently a little flabby!

I hope you get chance to read the new version (whenever that may be!), and to let me know what you think...


Adam x

PeterOC at 17:28 on 21 October 2003  Report this post
Hi Adam,

Nice work. It felt like the start of something bigger to me and I wanted it to go on. I wanted to know more about both of the characters pasts and would have liked more detail of their meeting and first date and subsequent relationship. Because it was all imagined you could just run with it and see where it ends up...

Incidentally, do you often write on the tram? I write occaisionally on the tube but I'm always paranoid about the person beside me looking at what I'm writing (I write some strange stuff). It's quite tempting to start writing something like... "So I will pick a random victim, maybe somebody sitting beside me on the tube..." :]


Becca at 18:09 on 21 October 2003  Report this post
Hi Peter, sorry to speak across your crit Adam, just to say that I also sometimes find the person next to me on the tube reading what I write, the worst moment being when I'd written the words 'and it's never black and white, always grey' and a drunk beside me said 'You're racist.' Silly.

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