Last year I made the runner up list in a short story competition run by Penguin Ireland. I’ve been thinking about maybe turning it into a novel. The title of the story is One Smile. Any thoughts, comments or critiques are welcome.
Strange isn’t it, how one smile can be all it takes to give a person hope?
I’d decided I would die that day. I didn’t have a home, so I intended on going to the park. I was going to find a quiet spot in amid the bushes and put an end to a life filled with poison. Somebody would have found my body eventually, with no identification and no way to trace who I was since I was a foreigner in this land.
I’d have disappeared, there would be no family or friends to mourn me. But I didn’t do it, because you got on the train and smiled at me. It was vital to me that smile, and you gave it freely. Why was it that you smiled when you saw me? I thought that if a girl could get on a train and smile at me then maybe I was making the wrong decision. If I died that day there would be no more smiles for me like that.
You sat a few rows away from me on the opposite aisle. I could watch you from that position. You had bleached your hair some time ago, brown roots grew out about three inches long. You didn’t seem to care about those roots, or about the mismatched blond strands. You wore black leather boots with no laces in them and a long dark green military jacket. Your lips turned down at the ends, a shape that reminded me of a woman in a Man Ray photograph. I watched as you read a tattered old book and listened to music on your headphones at the same time. I wondered at how you could concentrate on both. Maybe you just wanted to drown out the world. I could relate.
When an announcement came across the speakers telling of the next stop your eyes glanced away from your book, you took one bud out of your ear and listened, then you put it back in and your eyes returned to your reading. Those eyes. Blue like a pool of water in the Mediterranean sun.
You turned the pages of your book, but didn’t lick your finger, that endeared you to me. I hated when people did that. I hadn’t planned on following you, but when you got off at the second last stop my body did the same. I was conflicted. I needed a distraction. The decision to follow you was just something to do. I had no specific intentions. Just curiosity.
I kept close behind, you never turned around to see me. In your mind you were invisible, I know that now. I made sure there were ten or eleven paces between us, but it didn’t matter. You never suspected anything. You strolled with arms and legs swinging happily to whatever music had been streaming from those earphones. Ten minutes later you bought a ticket and hopped on a tram. I got on too. I didn’t buy a ticket. The tram was crowded, and when a man in a business suit harshly brushed past you, almost knocking you to into the safety glass window, I had to grit my teeth to keep from catching up with him.
You got off at a stop in a residential area outside of the city. A rush of blood ran through my veins, because instinctively it gave me a high to know where you lived. I liked knowing that I could always find you. You stepped up to a tall black gate, I kept across the road because as oblivious as you were, I don’t think you would have failed to notice me watching you if I’d gotten too close. You swiped a card across the door entry system and disappeared inside. I waited several minutes, the sun was shining that day, even though it was only February and I’d always considered Ireland to be a cold, wet country.
Once I was sure you were gone I went up to those gates and looked through. Inside there was a communal garden, I wondered which house was yours. But then, just like that, I didn’t have to wonder anymore. When I heard a front door open I slipped off to the side so that I wouldn’t be seen. You emerged with a woman of about fifty. She had brown hair and was in a wheelchair. You settled her just outside of the door and then went back inside. A moment later you returned with a mug and gave it to the woman.
I heard you speak and I loved your voice. The sound of it for the first time made my heart beat rapidly. You kissed the woman on the top of her head and then went back inside your house. It was ten or fifteen minutes before you came back out. I waited, greedy for another sight of you. This time you had a big tin watering can in your hand, you went over to the flower beds on your patch of the communal garden. You took your time over those flowers, made sure each one got just the amount it needed.
I stayed there well into the night, just waiting for another sight of you. It became obvious that you weren’t going to leave your house again so I left. I wanted to know you. You had no idea that you had saved my life with one single spur of the moment facial expression.
I tried to think of a way to insert myself into your life. Nothing seemed good enough. You don’t know how much I needed you right then, because thinking about you was the only way I could distract myself from why I was here, running away from myself.
Early the next morning I went back to your street, the air was cool and crisp, the sun slowly creeping over the horizon. I didn’t know if you were going to come out. Or maybe you’d already left. Did you have a job? Did you go to college? Did you sleep late, or rise early before going about your day? It was an hour before I saw you leave. Your long mismatched hair was twisted up and clipped at the back of your head this time, and you wore a white top and black jeans with those unlaced boots. You had a black leather bag slung across your shoulder, and you walked in the direction of the tram stop. I followed.
Like before, you bought a ticket and got on the tram. I stayed at the opposite end of the carriage because it wasn’t very crowded and you might have looked at me and remembered me from the train the day before. I wasn’t ready for you to know me yet. All the while I watched you from my far off corner. You sat and stared out the window at the passing scenery. Then you rooted that same old dog eared paperback from your bag and began reading. The journey was only ten minutes, over too soon. I felt at peace watching you read, unaware of my observation. No inkling in your mind that you had an enraptured audience.
When you got off the tram I walked behind you for ten minutes before you slipped inside a café. I peered inside the window just in time to see you walk through the staff door at the back. So you did have a job, and this was where you worked. Perhaps it was coincidence when I glanced across the road and saw the park. The park I’d planned to die in. It had benches where I could sit and watch your comings and goings. The front of the café was all windows so I had the perfect view. I saw you emerge from the staff door a couple of minutes later. You tied a black apron around your waist and pulled a small notepad from your back pocket. You approached a table where two men sat and you smiled at them, but it was a weary smile, nothing like the smile you’d given me. You took their order and left.
I watched you from my bench going through the motions of your day. You didn’t seem happy like when I’d first seen you, you seemed dead inside that café. On your lunch break you dashed across to the park and my heart came alive with nerves and anticipation. You didn’t really look at the people around you, so there was no chance that you’d look at me either.
You sat on a bench, women with children in buggies walked by you, business men in suits, teenagers in school uniforms. You never glanced at a single one of them. I would have killed to know what so consumed you, your eyes downcast, your thoughts occupied with whatever it was that was inside your head.
You pulled an apple from your bag and took a bite. You’d saved my mind from despair, plunged hope back into my life. I was curious as to how one smile from you could do that. You sat there for the whole hour, long after you’d finished your piece of fruit. You didn’t even look up when an ambulance sped past out on the road, its sirens blaring. I left you after that, you went back into the café and I walked out of the park, going nowhere in particular.
I left because I wanted to give you your privacy then. There had been something on your mind, it was clear by the way you sat like a statue on that bench. I’d be selfish to try and ingratiate myself into your life. My poison was contagious and I didn’t want it to touch you. So for the next three weeks I didn’t follow you, didn’t take the tram to your street to watch for you. I struggled with that all the time, telling myself it would be wrong to see you again. I would only be watching something I could never have.
It was a Sunday, almost three weeks later to the day when I began watching you again. I went back to your street. As I sat on the wall of a house across the road, a black tom cat walked up to me and let out a deep meow. Then he hopped up beside me and rubbed himself along my arm. I petted him and he purred happily. I waited as several of your neighbours left those black gates. I made sure not to look suspicious, if anybody glanced in my direction I’d bend down and pretend to be tying a lace. I always found some ingenious way to obscure my face. It was midday when you left your house, you wore a light floral dress under your long military coat. I found the contrast between femininity and masculinity that always associated itself with you amusing. The dress made you a girl, pretty, vulnerable, while the coat made you a boy, tough, not to be messed with. It was a good costume.
As usual I rode the tram with you, all the while not really being with you. I chanced a closer proximity this time, I wanted to know what you were reading. You’d obviously been reading and re-reading this book because it wasn’t very thick and it was definitely the same one from the first time I saw you. You had it held up to your nose, so I could see the cover. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I committed it to memory.
When you got off the tram I followed you again, but you didn’t go to the café where you worked. You continued on to the train station and bought a ticket. So did I. It was the same journey as before, I realised that the first time I saw you on the train had been a Sunday too. You must have been going to the same place. I itched to know what place that was
You got off in a suburban town. A short walk from the station you turned off the street and went into a Church. It was a surprise, I hadn’t pegged you for the religious type. An atheist or agnostic maybe. But my assumption was wrong, you weren’t going to mass, you went into a hall at the side of the church. I peeked inside and saw lots of people standing about talking. Was it an AA meeting or some kind of club? I sat down on the grass in the church gardens. I took out a cigarette and lit it up.
It was when I took my first drag that I heard the piano start up, a slow, jazzy tune. Then I heard voices singing, It’s a marvellous night for a moon dance, that song by Van Morrison. Male and female voices singing together, harmonising. So you were in a choir, it was the last thing I’d expected. I could hear your choir practising scales and doing breathing exercises. I tried to pick out your voice from the twenty or so that were singing, but all the voices mostly blended into one. I suppose that’s the aim of a choir. To synchronise.
The practice went on and I sat and listened and smoked. When it was over people began to leave in dribs and drabs. You were one of the last, emerging with an older man with greying black hair. He flirted with you, but you didn’t seem to notice. He was too old for you, but he took your friendliness as interest. I clenched my fists.
Anger is a problem for me. Possessiveness even more so, and in my mind you already belonged to me. You were all I thought about. The man seemed to be trying to persuade you of something, but you shook your head no. He accepted your decline and walked away. You leaned back against the church wall and let out a tired breath. I stood and walked towards you. You didn’t see me until I stepped in front of you and said hello. You smiled at me, and said hello back. Now I owned two of your smiles. But it wasn’t good enough, I wanted to own all of them. So I put one hand over your mouth, the other firmly around your waist, and dragged you away from the world you knew.