'Paper Trail' by Steve Campbell



In a huff, I upend my handbag and tip everything out onto the table and over my open laptop.


“It’s in here somewhere,” I snap at the conductor looming over me. It’s almost a question. I rummage through my possessions. Tampons, pens, scrunched school newsletters, a takeaway menu, makeup, paperclips, loose change, two pairs of glasses. Why am I carrying around so much crap? I sift through the debris, and there it is. I hold up my ticket and a grunt escapes from the conductor before he wanders off to the next carriage.


“Excuse me. I think this is yours?” The tattooed girl sitting opposite holds out a crumpled piece of paper as I’m collecting everything back up. I blow hair from my eyes and take it from her and flash her a polite smile. I smooth the paper flat on the table. It’s the receipt for the coffee I bought earlier. Through the flimsy paper I notice writing on the reverse and turn it over to read a handwritten note: ‘Slow down. Take some time for yourself - pass it on’.


I frown and rub a thumb over the lettering. The ink smears, leaving a smudge on the paper and my skin.


Time for myself? They’re kidding, right? Whoever wrote this note clearly doesn’t know me. Time to myself is taken on the platform waiting for a train or standing beneath the shower when the kids are fed and asleep.


I glance over at the girl. Her head is buried in her book and headphones are clamped over her ears, blocking out the train. I watch her for a few seconds, waiting for a reaction, but she does nothing. I open my mouth to speak but stop myself. Surely I would have seen her writing the note? I crane my neck to look down the aisle after the conductor but he's long gone. Maybe the man who served me coffee? I dismiss the idea when I recall the jostle at the counter to get served.


My phone buzzes as the train slows for my stop and I manage to catch the call before it goes to voicemail. “Yes… Getting off now… No, I'll be five minutes... Yes, okay...”


With my phone wedged beneath my cheek, I gather up my things and fight my way off the train.


*


I’m on chapter three of the thriller I’ve been meaning to read since last December. My lunch has been devoured and my coffee is cooling.


I haven't visited the office canteen in months, I usually eat at my desk or striding down the corridor between meetings. Today, I’ve taken forty five minutes and counting for my lunch. My phone is on silent in my desk drawer upstairs.


A man walks past me and sits down a few tables away. I think his name is Craig, he works in HR. Or accounting. I’ve spoken to him in passing a few times. Just the occasional pleasantries, nothing more than that.


I pick up my coffee and take a sip, watching him over the rim of the cup. He wolfs down a container of cold pasta with a plastic fork while swiping through his phone. He only looks down at his food twice in the time it takes him to eat it. He doesn’t chew. The food goes in and then down the gullet, swiftly followed by the next forkful. Any morsels that plop onto the table slide around the shiny surface, between pincer fingers, before being scooped up.


I narrow my eyes when he finishes the pasta and washes it down with glugs from a can of Red Bull.


I put my coffee down and rummage through my handbag for a pen and a scrap of paper.





Steve Campbell has short fiction published or forthcoming in places such as Spelk, Fictive Dream, MoonPark Review, formercactus, Train Lit Mag and FlashBack Fiction. You can follow him via twitter @standondog and his website, standondog.com. He somehow finds time to manage @EllipsisZine.

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