The 5.42 from London Bridge

A short story by Chris Fairthorne

She had made it! She had to run but she had made it. The 5.42pm from London Bridge to Redhill; she normally caught the 6.12pm, but for the first time in months she had got away early, and it was Wednesday! She liked to be early on a Wednesday, but normally that never happened.  She made her way along the train, pushing her way through the normal throng of tired commuters in the vain hope of finding a seat.  It had been a hard day, a frustrating day, but now she was hopeful she could grab a place to sit, and if so, spend the next thirty-five minutes finishing the last two chapters of her book, a Michael Griffons’ paperback entitled “In another Life”.   It had been gripping and she was looking forward to finding out how it would end.  

      Fellow travellers took little or no notice of the petite young woman with long red hair and wearing the standard city issue black trouser suit as she made her way through the carriage. She was in luck, right at the end of D carriage she came across an empty seat. It was one of a single pair. A young man was sat in the chair opposite, his hands resting on the small dividing table and cradling his iPad, its USB lead plugged into the charging point above the table. He did not look up as she squeezed into the seat, lifted her briefcase onto her lap, opened it and removed her book and red-framed reading glasses. It would be just seconds before she relaxed into Chapter 34.

Mike had struggled with the situation, he always had—”, she started to read the first line of the chapter.

“Michael Griffon, ‘In another life’?”  The voice pulled her back to reality and she raised her eyes to find the young man looking at her.

 “Yes, have you read it?” she asked.

“No.”  The young man’s reply was short, almost abrupt; he returned to his iPad.  She was taken aback, a little angry at being disturbed for what she considered to be no more than a pointless statement of the obvious, why did he do that?

Mike had struggled with the situation, he always had—”, she reread the line.

 “It was first published in hardback in 2017 by Brooks and Backer, before being released in paperback later that year.”  

He’d done it again!  She let out an exaggerated sigh and rested the book on the table.

 “Was it?”  she replied, making no attempt to mask the irritation in her voice.

 “Yes”, another one-word reply. “I think, if I remember rightly”, he continued, “it sold 756,000 copies in its first year, that’s paperback copies of course.”

 He looked up and using his hand brushed away the mop of fair hair from his blue eyes.

She glared at him. “You’ve looked that up on the internet.”  She gestured towards his iPad.

He looked taken aback by her comment, “No, no I haven’t.”

She eased herself up in her seat and tried to look at the iPad. He moved it towards his chest to shield it from her.  

“That’s rude, this is private.”  

“And so is my time and what I read,” she snapped. “I’ve got forty minutes to read the last two chapters of my book and relax, so will you please let me do it?”

He frowned. “This train goes to Redhill, do you know that?”  he questioned.

She resisted the urge to scream.   

  “Yes”, her reply was venomous.

He continued, oblivious to her irritation, “Well, the average weekly travel time from London Bridge to Redhill is thirty-eight minutes, we have been travelling eleven minutes, so you only have twenty-seven”, he looked at his iPad, “no twenty-six minutes left now.”  

      The first rays of the light of realisation now started to shine in her head.  His monotone voice, the head for facts and figures, she should have realised sooner. She had spent the first two years of her working life as a teaching assistant in a school for children with learning disorders, before going to university to study law. This guy was either the world’s best wind-up merchant or was on the spectrum somewhere. 

“So”, she said, placing her book on the small table, “how do you know so much about books?”  

As she spoke, she flipped open the book at the first few pages and read, “Published by Brooks and Backer, March 2017.”

“It’s my job to know”, he looked up at her.   She raised an eyebrow in response.

“I work at the International Bookshop, Tooley Street, London, SE1 2QN.   Do you know it?”

 She nodded.

“What do you do there?”

“I work in the stockroom; I check stock levels and pack books.”

“Interesting”, she replied.

“No not really, it is easy.  What’s your name?”

The question surprised her, rang alarm bells. She started to feel a little like an insect that had been enticed into a Venus Flytrap and had failed to notice the light fading.

“That’s a personal question”, she replied.

“Mrs Gibson says I do that.”

“Do what?”

“Ask inappropriate questions, she says I should stop and think first.”

“Who’s Mrs Gibson?”

“My supervisor, she’s very nice”, he paused.  “Don’t you want to tell me your name?”

Now she felt guilty, guilty of treating him differently. She met people all the time and nowadays the exchange of first name was common practice. Why had she not wanted to tell him?

“It’s Jenny, my name is Jenny.”

For the first time he smiled, it was a warm smile. He thrust out a hand.

“My name is Robert, and I’m very pleased to meet you Jenny.”

Instinctively she took it. The Venus Flytrap had done its job, she was caught.

“What’s your job Jenny?”  he asked, laying his iPad down.

“I’m a lawyer.”

“Now that is an important job”, he leaned forward, “you must be very clever.”

“Not really”, she replied, “I just spent a lot of time learning what to do.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

If his other question rang alarm bells this one carried a government health warning. She raised her eyebrows and just looked at him.

“I’ve done it again, haven’t I?”

“Yes, you have Robert”, she tried to sound stern.

“Sorry, I didn’t think first, Mrs Gibson says I do that.”

“I’m married.”  Her reply was designed to stop any further question on the subject. It didn’t.  

“But you’re not wearing a wedding ring”, he questioned, looking down at her ringless left hand.

“No, I’m not.”

His response was swift.

 “Why not?”

She reached up and pulled out a thin gold chain from round her neck, the wedding ring hung from it.

He looked puzzled, “That’s a funny way to wear it, why isn’t it on your finger?”

She held the ring in her hand for a moment before returning it back into her blouse. She had told him too much about herself. It was the blunt almost childlike questions that he fired at her one after the other, keeping her off balance, keeping her unable or maybe unwilling to hide from him, to hide from the truth.

“We’re not living together at the moment Robert.”

For the first time his face showed emotion, “That’s sad, very sad.” He shook his head, remained silent for a moment, then the question came just as she had feared,


“I don’t know Robert, it’s difficult, life is difficult, things get in the way, work, money, lots of things.”

“What’s his name?”

“His name is Luke.”  She had answered without any hesitation, any defence, she had surrendered under cross examination. Despite Robert’s difficulties he had undone her with all the skill of a top barrister, it had been easy for him. She didn’t doubt that Robert was highly intelligent, skilful and probably he didn’t even realise how much.

“What’s Luke’s job?”  

“He’s a theatre nurse at St James Hospital.”

“Wow! Now that is a very, very important job, I bet he must save people’s lives.”

“I expect he does Robert, he’s very dedicated”, she paused then said quietly “sometimes too dedicated.”

“You still love him, don’t you?”

“Mrs Gibson wouldn’t like that question”, she said shaking her head.

“I know, and I’m sorry but it’s important, you still love him, don’t you?”

“I suppose I do a bit.”

“A bit! A bit! You can’t love someone a bit, how big a bit? A little bit or a big bit? You either love someone or you don’t.”

“Do you love someone Robert?”  The question stopped him in mid-flight. You could see he was thinking.

“I love my Mum but that’s different, everybody loves their Mum.” He looked up at her and for the first time his blue eyes held hers, “does Luke still love you?”

“I don’t know Robert”, her reply was sharp, “you would have to ask him that.”

“Haven’t you asked him? Do you still see him?”

“Once or twice a week”, she replied.

“Once or twice a week! That’s crazy, you still love him, you still see him once or twice a week and you haven’t asked him?”

“No! No, I haven’t, I can’t ask him that!”

“Why not? He might still love you a big bit, a very big bit; it’s just silly not to ask him, you will never know otherwise, and you will just go on being lonely.”

“I never said I was lonely Robert.”

“No, no you didn’t, but you are Jenny, I can tell that you are. You wear your wedding ring around your neck because you, you don’t want to let it go; you told me you still love him, a bit, I think it’s a big bit, and you’re scared to ask him how he feels in case he doesn’t love you anymore, and you are lonely without him, lonely and sad. Don’t be lonely and sad Jenny, I know what it’s like, it’s the worst thing ever to be lonely.”

She could see the sadness in his face, she felt for him. He had probably spent most of his life being lonely, aching to talk to someone, anyone with the patience to listen. She felt sad for him.  For the first time ever, someone had made her look at herself, examine her feelings, and she wasn’t sure that she liked it.

He picked up his rucksack opened it put his iPad away and stood up.

“What are you doing Robert?”

“In two and a half minutes we will be at Redhill”, he moved out from behind the table, “I have to be first to the door.”


He shrugged. “Just have to.”

She had not realised; time had just gone. She had been so caught up in the conversation, in the examination of her life that she had lost all idea of time and where the train was.

“I’ve enjoyed talking to you Jenny.”

For the second time she took the outstretched hand.

“And I you, Robert.”

He looked down at her, “Don’t be lonely Jenny, please don’t be lonely, you’re too nice to be lonely.”

She smiled at him, “Thank you Robert, I will try hard not to be.”

He turned to make his way to the door then stopped and looked back at her.

“A theatre nurse at Saint James’s”, he shook his head, “it must be wonderful to save lives, I couldn’t do that.”

Before she could reply he was on his way towards the door. She sat back in her chair, her mouth open as if to speak, but it was too late.

By the time she had gathered up her book and glasses and returned them to her briefcase the train had stopped, and fellow passengers had filled the aisle waiting for their turn to disembark. She reached the door just in time to see him disappear down the stairs at the far end of the platform, the rucksack on his back. She felt sad, alone as if a dear friend had gone from her life and yet she had only known him for what would have been thirty-eight minutes on an average weekday. As she stepped down onto the platform there was a ding and her phone vibrated in her pocket. It was a text. Making her way out of the crowd she stood by a bench and opened the phone. It was Luke.

“It’s Wednesday and I’m not on shift are we on for a drink, same place same time? Smiley face xx

She read the message and for the first time since they had been separated, she wondered about the significance of the two kisses.

“He might still love you a big bit, a very big bit.”  Roberts words echoed in her head. “A bit! a bit! You can’t love someone a bit, how big a bit? A little bit or a big bit? You either love someone or you don’t.”

Her thumbs moved over the keys.

“I’m at Redhill station now, caught the 5.42pm from London Bridge. Haven’t eaten yet, if you haven’t why don’t we meet at the Indian we always used, I could go straight there. My treat, there’s something I need to ask you. Smiley face xx.” Send.

She smiled, perhaps you can save lives Robert, perhaps you can.