The Man on the Train

Several years ago, I was asked to write three short stories linked by some of the same characters. Here is the first …


The Man on the Train

Melanie Richards, wide awake at six that February morning, knew that today was either going to be spectacular or an absolute catastrophe. There’d be no half measures.

She’d spent the week preparing for a second interview for a job in London. With more than two hundred applicants, getting a first interview was a feather in her cap. Now she’d been asked to give a detailed presentation. If she were to be given the post of Human Resources Manager at Robinson’s, a prestigious magazine-publishing company on Bond Street, would she choose six problems she might encounter among the staff and explain how she’d deal with them.

Melanie caught the train home to Oxford, ideas buzzing. She’d rewritten her presentation seven times, rehearsed it in front of the mirror, timed it – she was allowed fifteen minutes – bought a new trouser suit and had her hair cut.

“I really need this job,” she told her mother on the telephone. The small publishing firm she’d worked for in Oxford had folded in the recession and her redundancy package had run out. “But I don’t want them to know I’m desperate.”

“Do your best, Mel, and be yourself. Good luck. I’ll be thinking of you.”

“How’s my wonderful Edinburgh?” A wave of homesickness flooded through Melanie, taking her by surprise.

“Magnificent as ever … Guess who I bumped into yesterday afternoon in Princes Street. None other than Hamish Macpherson!”

Hamish?” Melanie sat upright on the sofa. “I thought he’d disappeared to New York, never to return.”

“He said The Museum of Modern Art was a great experience but he’s been head-hunted as curator of an Edinburgh art gallery. Evidently he’s home for good. And he’s still single!”

Melanie undid several buttons on her shirt above her wildly beating heart. “You could knock me down with a feather …”

***

A clear turquoise sky beckoned her into the morning and a deep frost etched the lane as she closed the front door. She wore her best high-heeled shoes and her warmest coat. She carried her smartest handbag and her special red-leather briefcase in which lay her presentation and that encouraging letter from Robinson’s editorial director, Laura Forbes. She had seven minutes in which to catch the bus to the station.

Five minutes later, as she rounded the corner of the lane, the heel of her left shoe cracked. Melanie flung out an arm, clutching at the hedge to stop herself from falling. She’d have to hobble home, put on sensible walking shoes and catch the next bus. She’d also have to take a later train, one that was always crammed with bleary-eyed commuters. She knew exactly where she’d stand on the platform to be able to fling herself in the door as soon as the train had stopped. If she wanted a seat, timing was of the essence.

***

Shifting from one foot to the other to keep warm, she stood on the station platform, her briefcase beside her, a copy of The Times under one arm, a black coffee scalding her mouth. The train was twenty minutes late; the platform crowded with bad-tempers. The moment the train stopped, Melanie leapt for the door. Sighing with relief, she sat by the window and spread out her newspaper. She glanced out of the window where the guard seemed to have a problem with a passenger.

On the ground beside him sat a red-leather briefcase. How extraordinary! Everyone’s luggage these days looked the same as hers…. Except wait a minute…. Melanie gasped. She checked her seat, her legs, the floor beneath her. God in heaven! That was her briefcase. She’d left it on the platform. In her rush to get on the train, she’d left her precious briefcase, on which her entire day depended, sitting on the platform.

She stood up, grabbed her handbag but left her newspaper and coffee on the table. She pushed her way through the crush of passengers, jumped onto the platform, snatched her briefcase from beneath the startled eyes of the guard – “So sorry, but this is mine!” – and flung herself back on the train.

A man sat at her place, reading her paper, his hands curling around her coffee. He wore a scarlet woollen scarf draped above an expensive camel-haired coat. His thick copper-coloured hair swirled over his forehead.

Melanie pushed towards him. “Excuse me, but you’re sitting in my place. That’s my newspaper and my coffee.”

The man hardly raised his eyes. “Finders keepers,” he smirked. He took a gulp as the doors closed. “Could I have two sugars next time?”

***

Melanie sat in a heavily-carpeted room that smelt of stale tobacco and highly-strung nerves. She’d stood for the entire train journey, taken one look at the queue for taxis and walked from Paddington to Bond Street. Her shoes were muddy and her legs ached. It had been a relief to sit down, even though she was now so nervous she could hardly remember a word of her presentation and felt sick.

A door opened. The man on the train stood in the doorway shaking someone’s hand, flicking his scarlet woollen scarf around his neck.

“Thank you so much for your time, Miss Forbes,” he said. “Whatever you decide, it’s been marvellous meeting you.”

“It’s been a pleasure, Mr Lewis—”

“Please, do call me Gareth. Start as we mean to go on.”

“We’ll be in touch… Miss Richards? We’re all ready for you. Please come in.”

The man on the train swept past Melanie without a flicker of recognition.

***

“Mother … It’s me.”

“Hello, darling … How did it go?”

“The presentation couldn’t have gone better. I’d done my homework, and I held their attention. When I answered their questions, they seemed happy with everything I said.” Melanie gulped at a glass of wine. “But I’ve got competition.”

“You knew you weren’t the only applicant—”

“I mean, I’ve met the competition. There was this ghastly man on the train. He took my place and I had to stand the whole way. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw him at Robinson’s and then he leapt into my carriage on the journey home. I heard him on his mobile talking to his friends. He seemed to think he’d got the job, that the presentation was a mere formality.”

“Oh, darling … Don’t be too disappointed.”

“I’ll try not to be.” Melanie drained her wine. “May the best man win.”

“Or the best woman,” said her mother. “Which has really got to be you.”

***

The next morning at eleven the telephone rang. Robinson’s had loved her presentation, Laura told her. She was a very close runner-up. Unfortunately, somebody had beaten her to the post, but only because he had slightly more experience and was planning to move to London.

“I suppose,” Melanie said bitterly, “you’ve hired Gareth.”

“As a matter of fact we have.” Laura sounded surprised. “Though that’s strictly confidential. Such a charming man … Do you know him?”

Melanie put down the phone, her heart thumping with disappointment. She flung on her old coat and went for a walk on Port Meadow. The frost had thawed into rain.

So: she’d been beaten by one of the nastiest characters she’d ever met. If Robinson’s wanted to employ a man without a heart who didn’t know the meaning of good manners, they were welcome to him. He’d treat his human resources with complete contempt.

She stood at the edge of the river, watching a pair of swans gliding through the water. And she decided what she was going to do.

***

A week later the telephone rang. Melanie wiped her paint-spattered fingers on her apron, dunked her brush in turpentine and climbed down the stepladder.

“This is Laura Forbes from Robinson’s. I’ve some very good news for you… Gareth was going to join us, as I inadvertently let slip last week. Unfortunately, he’s unable to do so. He was on a skiing holiday and he’s broken his leg. He’ll be out of action for at least three months.”

Melanie stifled a laugh. So there was justice in the world!

“The thing is, Melanie, we’d very much like you to join us in his place.”

Melanie took a deep breath. “It’s kind of you to ask me, but it’s too late.”

“Have you had a better offer elsewhere?”

“Not exactly.” Melanie stared out at her frost-bitten garden, its flutters of dead leaves and rickety fencing, and then at the letter from Hamish Macpherson. “I’m going back to Edinburgh. It’s my home town and my mother’s delighted. I’ve just put my house on the market and I’m sprucing it up.”

Melanie ran her fingers over the letter’s signature. All my love, Hamish.

“And anyway, it wouldn’t work out for me now. You wanted the man on the train, didn’t you? I’d always only be your second choice.”

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