He had made a nest for himself in the very first booth on the train, right behind the driver’s cabin in the first carriage. Few people made it that far up the platform, so he stood a good chance of being undisturbed.
Yet, it was his own restlessness that got him noticed. He constantly arranged and rearranged his possessions; taking them out of plastic bags, putting them into different plastic bags, laying them out on the seats in the booth, moving them around. While doing this, he was leaping up off the seat, standing back to see how the new arrangement looked, and jealously glaring at anyone in the vicinity of his possessions to discourage them from coveting his worldly goods.
Those passengers that had rashly grabbed the empty seats near him studiously stared out the windows and pretended they weren’t monitoring his actions in the reflections on the glass. When they saw him start to tie plastic bags around his unshod feet, their alarm levels shot up. They began shifting in their seats, counting how many stops were remaining until they reached their own and calculating if they should get out at the next one and wait for a later train.
All except for the princess. She sat there oblivious, uncaring. Her sulky pout was coated in a too-bright-red lipstick that washed out the rest of her facial features. Her well-fed haunches had been poured into a pair of jeans covered with rips and tears – jeans that had come out of the shop looking like that. She was still a teenager, if only just barely. But she did not seem like someone with much interest in carving out her own path in life.
As the train approached the next station, the pauper jumped up and ran to the doors. However, he stood facing the opposite platform and craned his neck, trying to spot something or other on the other side of the tracks. When the train ground to a halt, the glass panels in the door behind him were filled with the black puffa jackets of two burly security officers, one obliterating a window each with his bulk and height.
However, when they entered the carriage, they approached him without menace but also in a way that left little doubt as to their authority. Only one of the officers spoke to the pauper, and he maintained a respectful tone throughout. He asked the pauper if he was ok, but then the train-driver burst in. “Look, he’s got his stuff all over the place,” the driver huffed, poking at one of the pauper’s precious plastic bags. “I want him off.” And then he stormed back to his cabin to wait for the dirty work to be done for him.
It seemed as if that had burst whatever bubble the pauper had enclosed himself in. His humiliation a white-hot heat, his eyes glued to the ground, he began to gather his belongings. Some passengers looked at the ground in shame at their own inability to see the human behind the plastic bags, while others sneered openly from the shelter of the security man’s shadow.
The princess remained unmoved. She did not even glance up as the speaking security man gently offered to help the pauper remove his meagre collection of possessions. Wordlessly, still unable to make eye contact, but without any hesitation, the pauper accepted the man’s help.
Once the undesirable element had been removed from view, the middle-class passengers settled back into their seats, gladly anticipating a last cup of tea before they crawled between their Egyptian cotton sheets and relaxed into sleep on their memory foam mattresses.
The princess waited for the train to start moving again and then dialled a number on her iPhone. “I’ll be home in 20 minutes,” she said to whoever it was that answered. “Can you cook for me?” It didn’t sound like a request. “Will it be ready?” she snapped, listened for an answer, and hung up the phone without saying ‘goodbye’ or ‘thank you’. She turned her head and stared through the window blankly until the train reached her stop.