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An Encounter


She woke him from a deep sleep. To his right, a young woman struggled to cram her suitcase in the luggage rack overhead. The First Class Compartment was flooded with a soft but brilliant glow as the setting sun was released from behind a passing mountain. He glanced at her exposed stomach, heaving gently with the exertion of her task. Where the late evening sunlight fell upon her skin, tiny golden hairs, soft like down, glowed as if lit from within. A paperback book fell onto the table with a loud slap.

“Ah, bollicks!”

At least, he thought, it’s someone from home. She had abandoned the idea of using the luggage rack, and had now turned and bent over to push her case between two seats. He noticed she wore a backpack with two little silver wings attached. Having successfully stowed her case, the girl straightened up, turned around to face him, tied her long hair back with a garishly coloured kerchief, and – in a belated show of modesty – pulled the bottom of her striped tank top down over her stomach.

And that was how it started.


7:04 pm

She unhooked the backpack, tossed it onto the table, and flopped down into the seat opposite him. As the backpack landed, the blank-paged notebook that had lain before him for hundreds of miles was knocked from the table onto the floor.

“Sorry – er, I mean ’scusi,” she said without looking at him.

“That’s OK,” he replied, and smiled, though she still wasn’t looking at him. “And don’t worry about the Italian – I’m Irish.”

“Really?” she replied in a tone that indicated his nationality was a matter of supreme indifference to her.

He stooped below the table to retrieve the notebook and when he resurfaced he felt momentarily – but distinctly – giddy.

With the battery in his iPod dead, and suffering a mini writer’s block, he decided a comfort break might help. He stood into the aisle and stretched.

“I’m going to the buffet car,” he said, “Would you like a coffee?”

“Don’t drink coffee,” she said. She still hadn’t looked at him.

Although not untypical (in his experience) of people her age, her brusqueness took him aback somewhat. He was considering his response when she spoke again, her voice softer this time.

“A tea would be nice, though. Thanks.”


7:16 pm

When he returned with the drinks, she was engrossed in her book. He placed the cups on the table and sat down.

“Your tea.”

“Thanks,” she replied without looking at him.

“You’re reading The Da Vinci Code?” he asked.

She sighed and placed the book on the table.

“That’s right. Have you read it?”

She looked him full in the face for the first time and her beauty rendered him momentarily speechless. Glossy melted-chocolate brown hair framed a face of almost divine loveliness. He noticed two things about her : firstly, that the whites of her eyes were almost unnervingly pristine, throwing into greater contrast the glacial pale blue of her irises. Secondly, above her left eyebrow was a perfect pock mark, the legacy of a childhood bout of chicken pox, he guessed.

“Sorry, what?” he stammered, feeling his face redden.

“Have – you – read – it?” she repeated in a playful mocking tone. She was smiling at him for the first time. Her teeth were perfect.

“I have, yes. Some time ago – I was lent it by a friend.”

“What did you think?”

“It was enjoyable,” he replied. “Pacy, you know? But not really my type of book.”

“Right. So what are you reading at the moment?”

“The Color Purple – by Alice Walker? Have you read it?”

“God, no!” she said, laughing. “I hate that literary stuff – this means that, that means the other – why can’t they just write what they mean?”

“Good question. Not sure.” He liked her laugh – it was quick and light and girlish, but something suggested to him that she didn’t do it as often as she should. “So how’s your tea?”



“So, will we be going all the way together?” he asked with a smile, aware of the inelegant double entendre, but emboldened by her casual friendliness.

It was her turn to blush now, and she reddened even across her neck and chest visible above the scooped neckline of her tank top. Although he was unsure why, this made her appear even lovelier to him.

“Sorry,” he said quickly. “That was just crass. I’m not even going all the way myself – I’m getting off in Milan.”

“Yeah. Look, before you make a total eejit of yourself, you should know I’m engaged and I’m going to Rome to meet up with my fiancé.” She waved her left hand to show her engagement ring.

“OK,” he said. He was struggling to reply to her forthrightness. Despite feeling mortified by the exchange, he found himself gratified by her presumption.

“Well, you’re safe enough on that front – I’m married.” He, too, waved his left hand, to show his wedding ring.

An uneasy silence arose between them and she returned to her book.


He was aware he hadn’t been entirely honest with her. Or had he? Was ‘I’m married’ inaccurate? Perhaps ‘I was married’ or ‘I used to be married’ were more appropriate. They were, however, misleading at best. And craven at worst. But anything was preferable to the dread ‘W’ word. Widower. ‘I’m widowed.’ That was true. Truly awful.

He was slightly surprised in a non-conscious way at just how infrequently he had been compelled to explain his marital status in the three years since his wife had died (the dread ‘D’ word). 

Oddly, it jarred most when filling out forms and completing surveys, a crunching grind through the marital gears, from ‘Married’ to ‘Widowed’, taking him straight through ‘Cohabiting’, ‘Civil Partnership’, ‘Separated’, and ‘Divorced’. Quite a ride.

His wife had laughed fondly at the diligent manner in which he approached any opportunity to offer his views through surveys, questionnaires, reader panels, viewer panels, listener panels, focus groups and feedback forums.

“If you don’t tell them what you want,” he would say, “You can hardly complain about what you get, can you?”

“They just want your data so they can flog you more stuff you really don’t need and probably can’t afford,” she teased him.

And he knew that was pretty much it. She was right. She got it, and she got him, and they were happy. They were very happy, even after she got sick.

‘My wife died.’ Somehow this seemed to him to imply that the person you were telling knew your wife. If they didn’t, it just sounded wrong.

‘My wife is dead.’ So brutal. A big mortuary slab of an answer.

‘I’m a widower.’

Truly awful.


She was aware she hadn’t been entirely honest with him. She was going to Rome, that was true, but it was her sister she would be meeting there, not her fiancé. And she wore an engagement ring, clearly, but there would be no wedding.

She’d told him two nights ago and he’d taken it surprisingly well. She suspected that his feelings were more closely aligned to her own than even he realised. It would have been an enormous mistake, the diametric opposite of what they should have been doing, which was splitting up.
Well now that was done. There were the parents still to talk to, and the ring stayed on until that happened. Her sister would help her sort it all out. It was the right thing. Disengagement.

She looked back to the older man opposite. He was nice. Made her smile. He’d seemed to care about her before they’d even spoken properly. That had struck her straight away. Slightly pompous, granted, but she’d be having none of that. He seemed kind of assured: confident, but not in a cocky or arrogant way, like men her own age. But there was also a sort of sadness around him that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She liked him.


8:19 pm

They had been talking again for a while. The sun had now set and the carriage had fallen darker. He suggested that, given the limited time available to them, they use the “Critical Question Method” to get to know one another better.

“The what-question-what?” she asked.

“Critical Question Method”, he clarified. “We use it in work. You only ask and answer critical questions.”

She mock gagged. “Sounds fascinating. Why would you be asking and answering non-critical questions in the first place?”

“Ummmm, fair challenge. And I think you’ll find what you’ve just asked me is, indeed, a critical question.”

“OK, let’s get on with this. Where were you born?”

“In Dublin. You?”

“Belfast – born, bred and buttered. So where do you live now?”

“Just outside Paris. Work, you know?” he said, aware of the non sequitur. “So what was the first record you ever bought?”

“Kylie – ‘Can’t Get You Out of my Head.’ You?”

He winced inwardly at the thought that he had stopped listening to music in any meaningful way long before she’d even started.

“Good tune. Mine was ‘Ghost Town’, by The Specials,” he answered dutifully. He felt no compulsion to point out that this must have been five years before she’d been born.

“What’s your favourite food?” he asked, keen to steer the conversation into an area unbounded by time or era.

“Tuna plait.”

“Specific, and random,” he smiled.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever cooked. We learned how in Home Ec when I was in school. Anyway, food’s dull. I hereby unilaterally declare it “non-critical”. So, next : what is your favourite film?”

“Ooooooh. Tough one. So many. ‘Mean Streets’. Or ‘The Mission’. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, there’s another.”

“Yeah, three’s enough. What about books?”

“My favourite author changes all the time, but I think if I were only allowed one, I’d have to say Philip Roth. What about you?”

“Ross, right,” she said. “Can’t think I’ve ever read any of his stuff. Her stuff? OK, OK, I’ve never heard of them. I’m more of a popular fiction kinda girl.”

“Roth”, he corrected with an indulgent smile. “He is a little dry, I suppose.”

Despite the utter randomness of their meeting, he could already feel an unexpectedly intense connection to this girl, and was desperate to know if she was feeling the same thing. This was very much uncharted territory for him – he just didn’t do this type of thing. He felt, however, that he might be about to.

“I was supposed to meet my brother,” he said, apropos of nothing. “In Milan. To go to a football match. But he can’t make it, so I’m kind of at a loose end. He had the tickets, so I can’t even go to the match on my own.”

“So why go to Milan at all?”

“Not sure, actually. I’d booked the train ticket and the hotel already, so I thought I might as well just go. Coincidentally, I thought I might visit Santa Maria delle Grazie.”

She stared at him blankly, and he nodded toward her book.

“The chapel in Milan? To see Da Vinci’s Last Supper?”

“Ahhh. Not sure I’ve ever seen it. The painting, I mean. Definitely haven’t seen the chapel.”

“Actually, it’s a mural, not a painting. Perhaps you’d like to come with me? To see it?” he heard himself say as he shot her an uncertain smile.

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea, do you?” she asked. Her eyebrows were raised in a mock stern expression.

“Well, I wasn’t actually asking whether it was a good idea or not. I was asking whether you wanted to do it with me. I mean, get off with me. In Milan, I mean.” He was flustered now, and felt relieved when she suggested dropping the subject.

“Do you smoke?” he asked.

“Certainly not. It’s a disgusting habit and it – will – kill – you.” That playful, mocking tone again.

“And that matters to you…why?”

“It doesn’t. Was just saying, in case you weren’t aware.”

“Yeah, that’s likely,” he laughed. “No one ever mentions that it’s bad for you, do they? It’s just I have a doobie here, the last of some weed I scored in Amsterdam, and I was wondering if you’d care to share it with me? In the loo?” He was asking more in hope than expectation.

A visible wave of deliberation swept across her face before she smiled and jumped to her feet.
“Ah, what the hell. Let’s go – as long as you stop talking like one of my brother’s stoner mates.”

“Deal,” he said, laughing, and rose from his seat. She walked off down the aisle ahead of him. When they reached the loo at the back of the carriage, he glanced around before they stepped in and locked the door. He pulled a little white reefer from his pocket, put it in his mouth and lit it.

Within a minute, the small room was filled with thick, pungent smoke. He offered it to her, but she refused, saying “I think just being in here with you is enough to wipe me out.” They talked, their conversation peppered with giggles, a result of the smoke and the absurdity of the situation – locked in the loo smoking, like a couple of naughty school kids.

“I feel about fourteen,” he said.

“You wish. I know what you mean though – I half expect one of the nuns from my school to knock on the door and bust us”.

He laughed. “You’re safe enough from that, I reckon.” The smile faded from his face as he continued, “But that’s not actually what I meant.”

“So what, ‘actually’, did you mean?”

“Well,” he began and took a deep breath, which in the circumstances was unlikely to assist him in thinking clearly, “There’s no easy way to say this – right now I want nothing more in the world than to kiss you.” He paused and glanced quickly at her. From the expression on her face he could tell the news had not been as big a shock to her as he feared. “But I don’t know whether I can. Or should.”

“And how do you propose finding out?” She was blushing again and he thought he could see her hand trembling as she pushed behind her ear an errant strand of hair.

“Ah, you’ve got me there.”

“You could try this,” she said. She took his chin in her hand, turned his face to hers, leant forward, and kissed him full on the mouth.

She tasted exquisite. He placed his right hand tentatively on her hip and could feel her warm flesh above the waistband of her jeans. Suddenly, she broke away from him – “Wait, no,” she said, “We both – ”, but she was unable to finish, as he was already kissing her again.


12:04 am

They had been talking for hours and she was exhausted.

“Well, I think I’ll go to sleep,” she said with a stage yawn.

“Really?” He was unable to keep the disappointment out of his voice. “So, will you come to Milan for the day with me? I know a little gelateria near La Brera Art Gallery that serves the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted. This train gets in at seven a.m. – I could wake you?”

“I thought we’d established that wasn’t a good idea.”

“I think you’ll find you said that; I happen to disagree,” he smiled. “I’ve checked with the guard and there’s a train from Milan to Rome at seven tomorrow evening. You could catch that? I’ll even walk you to the station.”

“Look. I can’t pretend I’m not tempted. And I won’t lie by saying that I haven’t enjoyed the last few hours – a lot. But we both have our own situations to deal with and I just don’t see how what you’re suggesting could do anything other than complicate those further.”


“Sorry, I’m tired. I know that didn’t make sense. But the answer’s no.”

“OK,” he said, crestfallen. “Then I guess this is goodnight and goodbye.”

“I guess it is,” she said with a sad smile. “I’ve had fun. A lot of fun. But all good things come to an end.”

“So I’m never going to see you again?”

“Never say never.”

“I hate that phrase,” he said.

“Grump,” she said, laughing.

“Tease. Good night.”

“Good night. And goodbye”.

“Goodbye,” he said.


12:08 am

He had lifted his book and tried to resume reading it five times in the last three minutes, but it was pointless. He just couldn’t concentrate enough to read. And he was acutely aware that the sleeping girl in the seat opposite him would – in just six short hours – be leaving his life forever. He couldn’t explain (even to himself) why this grieved him so, but it did. He cursed the fiancé he would never meet, even the train for carrying them at such speed toward the moment he wanted never to arrive. The only aspect of the whole sorry situation he felt unable to be angry at was her, which confused him further, as she was the only one who could change things to allow them more time together. He knew how irrational it was to have developed such intense feelings in such a short space of time. It was quite unlike him. He looked across at the girl who just a few hours earlier had become the second woman he’d kissed in twenty years. She was beautiful – that was indisputable – and desirable to a point he had difficulty understanding, but that wasn’t it.

Or, at least, that wasn’t all of it. If it were just a case of unbridled lust, he was sure he could handle it. He had before. But it wasn’t that. She was also strong, smart, funny, and honest – sometimes painfully so: in that casual, unthinking way that people of her tender years often were. She was also courageous, fearless almost, in her ambitions and aspirations – for travel, work, family : her place in the world. He was reminded of what it felt like to be young and bulletproof. Before quiet desperation began to take its hold. Before life began to chip away at your armour, day and daily.

He turned to look at his reflection in the window beside him, the black Italian night beyond lending his image the clarity of that in a mirror. The artificial light in the carriage and the late hour conspired to make him look old. Actually, he thought, I just am old. It had been a gradual process, an incremental closing of the gap between the age he looked and felt, and the age he was. He was pretty sure he now looked every one of his forty-eight years. He began to feel foolish for thinking that an earthly goddess such as her – twenty-one (she’d told him to his discomfort) and fizzing with the possibilities of a life yet unlived – could believe he had anything to offer her. But then there had been the kiss and…..

But she wasn’t getting off in Milan with him. He imagined the day they might have had – breakfast in the Piazza by Il Duomo, morning at Santa Maria delle Grazie, lunch (had to be pizza), then the afternoon in La Brera and window shopping in the Galleria. And if he could dissuade her from catching the seven o’clock train to Rome, an evening meal and drinks before retiring to his hotel……..but he was just torturing himself. A tiny window of opportunity may have briefly opened, but it had been closed – and locked – almost immediately. He was embarrassed at himself for thinking that anything could ever happen.

He was tired now, but sleep was beyond him. He stood and arranged his coat over the girl’s legs, the temperature in the carriage having fallen suddenly. She twisted in her seat and smiled dreamily. He sat back down to watch her sleep, her beautiful face serene, and her long lashes fluttering as she dreamed of – well, how could he know?


6:03 am

Having lifted his suitcase down as quietly as he could, he stood in the aisle watching her sleep, his heart heavy as the train ground to a final halt at Milan Central Station. He found it improbably difficult to tear himself away, but knew that he must. He leant over her sleeping face and kissed her lightly on the forehead.

“Bye,” he whispered.

It was still dark as he stepped out onto the platform and the cold early morning air forced him to draw a sharp intake of breath. He set his case down and fished in his pocket for his cigarettes. Behind him, the train’s air brakes hissed and it rumbled off into the dawning day. He stooped over to prevent the gust from the departing train from extinguishing his lighter flame.

He turned around, to see her wake and slowly turn to look at him, as the window framing her face glided past, and the train gathered pace, taking her to a future of which he would not be part.
She spread her hands on the window, her fingertips and palms whitening, her perfect face between them.

“Sorry,” she mouthed. ”Bye.”


A. Joseph Black is a Forty-four year old father of three from Belfast, Ireland.  He writes mostly short stories, very slowly (while that first novel continues to simmer).  Occasionally he sets one free.


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