The stench of Ariel hovers around me like a suffocating mist. My soggy skin begins to shrink away from the freezing temperatures of February. Short sharp shocks of cold sting my spine as icy droplets of white water slide from the ends of my sopping hair, crawling beneath my collar, down my back. Soon, my skin will be so numb from cold that I won’t notice it. The benefits of a thick woolly coat can only really be understood when standing on a platform in mid February, dressed head to tow in recently washed clothes.
Clothes straight from the washing machine, onto my own skin. Sliding my feet into saturated tights was not easy to do: there was the pain of the cold – it hurt, to put cold onto my body, a body still hazed from deep sleep. Sleep reached after hours of scrubbing skin. There was the pain of the act itself, knowing that every time I did this, I was effectively breaking my own legs. Worst of all, the pain of the helplessness. Helplessness that can only be understood by someone standing alone in a train station, mid winter, soaking wet through. Literally dripping. Wet to touch, wet to smell. I am fucking drenched. I hope that no one will notice the droplets that are gathering at the hem of my pencil skirt. They cling to the cotton for as long as possible before diving dramatically, complete with sound affirming glug, onto the grey platform surface. I hope no one will notice the disgusting odour of chemical ridden detergent, disguised as springtime flowers.
I would give anything for a warm drink to hold, but I have only cash on me and I can’t face the ritual of cash. Sweaty fivers stained with who knows what. Grubby coins that may as well have been dipped in blood, shit and semen. No, fuck the tea, I am too exhausted for that shit, I’ll just stay cold. As the speaker overhead announces the impending arrival of my train, I start to plan. The Tory reading his paper, cut on his hand, fresh scab, a day or two old, stay away from him. The small octogenarian by the platform, keep back from her. She just dropped her ticket on the floor and there’s an old beige plaster twenty feet from where she is standing.
As the train comes sauntering around the far bend, chugging along like it’s hungover, I wonder what I will do if I cannot get two seats to myself. Stand. All the way to London? That’s two hours. Fuck it. Rather that than sit down and run the risk of brushing the arms of a stranger with my sodden jacket. Lots of things can be explained away with fairly minimal effort – staring at the floor for signs (“I’ve lost an earring”), retracing steps (“I thought I saw a fiver on the floor!”), but there is no excuse in the world that I could fabricate, no lie I could tell in the heat of spontaneity, that could account for my wearing soaking wet clothes in February, the coldest month of the year. I would be less cold if I were wearing shorts and flip flops, but of course then I really would stand out. I am shivering so much I begin to wonder if I will ever reclaim control of my own body.
I am so jealous of their warmth, their dryness, their fluffy, bouncy, bone dry hair. They probably blow-dried it this morning, scalps tingling with the waves of delicious hot air. I would do anything for a hairdryer, if just to warm up my legs, and I can’t feel my feet at all. My hair is wet, broken and falling out, another piece of collateral damage, done to myself by myself. My once unruly mane is now a thin wisp of brittle and frayed skipping rope. At least once a week I’m tempted to cut it all off, if just so I don’t have to wash it so much (long hair gets contaminated easily). I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the window: my skin is grey. I am grey.
Two free seats, thank god.
I carefully inspect the seat in front to be sure it is safe, before hanging my saturated jacket (faded from so many visits to the washing machine) up, in a vain attempt to help it dry. Perhaps the sun will aid the drying process? Perhaps it will warm my skin. Nothing to do now but wait. By the time I get to London my clothes will have started to dry, surely. I’ll be a little warmed. My hair won’t look so utterly ridiculous. In the meantime, I must wait and be cold. So very – and completely – cold. Cold that hurts. I close my eyes and go into a space of imagine. What would it be like to be so warm right now?
My mother used to tell me that I should never go outside with wet hair, that I’d catch my death.
Eyes open, head snaps upright, an iron ball appears at the base of my throat that I can’t seem to swallow away. The Aga fires up anew in my ribcage. The lower half of my abdomen shifts ever so slightly, as though my intestines are moving into position, ready for the attack. I embrace the thought, hold it a while, it starts to blend with the contents of my stomach. Food processor. Spicy piping hot soup, gurgling at the base of my oesophagus. I can feel my eyelids widening and contracting with every surge of thought, my pupils must look like saucers. What have I done?
There is a small, sadistic part of me that has itself a good little chuckle. Oh, the irony. In trying so desperately to avoid catching AIDS, I’ve gone and given myself fucking pneumonia.
One hour and fifty five minutes to go.