On the Platform

A short story from Shanghai – by Michael Russam


He still caught himself getting lost, from time to time, in thoughts about the city that had been his home for a year now. About the way that Shanghai was so prettily decorated with its past and present and future but also, the more he thought about it, so muddied and polluted. Today wasn’t one of those days, though. He was on his way to the office, and today his thoughts extended no further than thin black coffee and his three deadlines. Or was it four?

As he reached the train station, his thoughts were interrupted by a crumpled face demanding to scan his bag (he refused) and the question of whether to purchase a desperate, gloopy sandwich from the 7-Eleven inside (he didn’t).

The escalator was broke. He plodded up the stairs and was almost at the top when his vision rose above the meniscus of the stairway and he saw a teenage girl. Her eyes locked with his for a moment. Her skin was dark, the color of syrup. 

The girl’s face was shaded even darker here and there by what looked like dirt or dried blood. The remnants of old injuries that had already slipped from her face. He didn’t stare long enough to gauge how severe. 

These details all took shape in his memory after that morning. What actually called him from  his irritable, dusty disposition that day was her smile, which seemed to dance and glisten, as if separate from her face. 

It was a smile that she gifted him for a moment before passing it on to its next fleeting owner. There was something very pretty in that smile, a depth to it. There was history and tragedy behind it, he decided. No, no, it is was just empty. 

He turned away to face the rails but returned to her face every few moments. She was wearing all black. Cheap sports clothes with ample evidence of wear and tear. Maybe no more bruised or beaten or torn than those of your average scrappy child fond of getting herself into a certain amount of trouble. If you were being optimistic. 

She continued passing her smile from person to person, though no one seemed quite as taken with it as him. Occasionally it was accompanied by a small wave of the hand, half-greeting half-beckoning. They ignored that too. 

The only other people on the platform who noticed the girl were a pair of police officers, uniforms as black as hers but clean with resplendent white stripes. Better fitted, too, not counting the slight but noticeable bulges around the waists. Her eyes had met his vacantly; now they had met those of the cops and seemed to have had a few drops of fear poured in to them.

Calmly they approached the girl, who now seemed a little older than he first thought. Her smile swung towards them, and then, a few seconds later, her eyes. The cops smiled at her as they lumbered towards her, all laughs and friendly twinkles of the fingers. The fear he had just seen drained away as quickly as it had arrived. There was that emptiness again, that same shimmering smile on the surface of a still pool. The three began talking, and he turned away.

More and more people swarmed onto the platform. A sea of high heels and broken sandals, Prada handbags and burlap sacks washed forward like a wave threatening to break.

He turned back towards the girl on the platform. She was laughing now, along with the police officers, all three of them exchanging smiles and nods and winks. She placed her hand on one of the officer’s shoulders for moment. She somehow looked much realer than just a few moments ago when he had reached the top of the stairs. 

Why couldn’t he stop watching her? Underneath the worn clothes she was probably quite beautiful, but it wasn’t that. Scratching his chin, he turned away for a last time as the train pulled up. 

Is that what I look like? His reflection in the train windows looked exhausted, eyes marked and puffy, cheeks loose. He yawned and stroked his face, thoughts drifting downtown to his office again. Today wasn’t going to be easy. 

The doors opened and people trickled out. The heaving mass of bleary eyes and smart phones shuffled and forced their way into the carriage, faces turned downwards and elbows thrusting. This subway line was above ground and he liked to distract himself with the views of a big, dusty metropolis on his journey, so he made an effort to stay near the window.

A voice blared something unintelligible yet familiar over the intercom; the speakers bleeped and the doors closed. He decided to take one last look at the beguiling face of the girl on the platform, still joking and laughing with the two officers. 

As the train pulled slowly out of the station, he watched as suddenly one of the officers lunged forward and grabbed the girl by the wrist. Her smile disappeared and she began to yell. He could hear nothing, but he was sure of it. The other officer grabbed her other arm, near the shoulder. She shouted and struggled, her eyes no longer empty but full of terror, the terror that he had seen begin to creep in to them a few moments before when the cops made their first advance. She writhed and kicked, but they held firm. Now it was their faces, their eyes, which were filled with a strange, vacant nothingness. 

And then the train was out of the station, and he had nothing to look at but the city ahead of him, beige and gray buildings flecked with dirt and smog, colored with clothes hanging high from wires and more people than he could count running and driving backwards and forwards underneath and inside it all. 

What were they going to do with her? Would they just throw her out on to the street? And what for? She had seemed to be beckoning people towards her, for a moment, but if she was looking for money she wasn’t trying very hard to get it.

But all that didn’t last long. He and everyone else on the train shot through the city as fast as a bullet and as quickly as his mind had been overrun with tremors it was no longer under siege, it’s assailants retreating and drifting away through the shadows of the skyscrapers, weaving through a million windows. 

He eased forward on his feet and rested his head on the carriage doors. He noticed his breath creating a small fug on the glass. Three deadlines today. Or was it four?

Michael Russam is a copywriter and occasional writer of other things in Shanghai