This is a real-life meeting, told more or less truth-for-truth. However, the character this person will inspire will be amalgamated with fictional concepts.
“Why is it so busy here?” Lilith whispered to her friend as she sat down.
“They’ve closed a few Underground lines, apparently,” I answered, both of them looking at me. The jostling of limbs was making my chest feel like a collapsing bookcase, so I was glad to open my mouth to breathe. “The DLR, the Overground, and… the Bakerloo, I think. And one or two more I can’t remember.”
They rolled their eyes. “The London Transport system sucks!” Spat her friend beneath her shades, grinning in her Australian accent. Lilith seemed to have an accent, too, though I couldn’t place it at first.
“It’s never usually this busy…” Lilith said, nodding. She turned to me and added, “I usually come down this end because it’s dead quiet in the mornings. It’s a Sunday…”
“This is a daily commute for you, then?” I asked.
Lilith titled her head back and forth, mulling it over. “Nearly daily.”
“Ah, right. Where do you work?” The natural flow of conversation began to ease my shoulders.
“Euston,” Lilith replied. Her friend didn’t add anything to that; she could’ve been a friend or a colleague, I guess, but they had been relaxed chatting since I got on the Jubilee, so I presumed friend.
Lilith then said what she did for a living, but I didn’t catch it.
“Oh, cool,” I said, as I do as matter of habit. It’s become more of a tick than a response now, in certain situations anyway. Like a loud busy Jubilee Line.
“It’s going to be 27 tomorrow,” Her friend told Lilith. “Londoners will be going mad.” She waved her arms around in imitation and seemed to be revelling in it.
“That’s nothing in Australia,” her friend added, noting Lilith’s eyes bulging. “27 is Winter. Our Summer’s 45.”
“You’d have to in, out, in, out,” Her friend continued, presumably acknowledging that Lilith was pretty pale, especially in contrast to her, tanned with fluorescent pink fingernails. “Otherwise you’d burn!”
“I reckon I could manage the heat, but not the spiders…” I added.
Lilith’s Australian friend looked at me as if I’d just licked my elbow. “Spiders…? What, are you going hunting in the bush for them?”
“Then you won’t have anything to worry about, will you?” She grinned.
I swallowed the thought. “So all that stuff about them hiding in dark corners and toilets is bullshit, then?”
“Yeah, totally. This is me,” she said, turning to Lilith and giving her a kiss on the cheek. Our cramped carriage had opened its doors to columns of cramped people, but thankfully quite a few people were getting off ours on this stop. It must’ve been an important stop, but I didn’t catch the name of it – all I needed to know about the world outside was that Stratford was the last stop.
Sadly, our Australian friend was among those alighting. As her “See you later” was muffled and lost in the whooshing and shuffling of the stop, I settled to sit where she had been standing. My backpack was killing me. “Make use of the makeshift seating,” I said to Lilith with an attempted smirk.
Sitting opposite brought out Lilith’s blue eyeliner and masquara where I hadn’t noticed it before; suddenly I noticed colours fitting into shape: the aqua turquoise hair, the dark emerald long jumper underneath the black veteran-style jacket, which in turn matched the shade of the fabric boots. It resembled the transition from pasture to ozone, the journey morning dew might be taking right now, evaporating into the atmosphere, through the sky blue of her eyelashes. She smiled as I struggled to tuck my legs in underneath me, working my back into position against the plastic of reality.
Striking, too, was the tattoo of a rose scaling her neck, right beneath the chin and rising up her right-hand jawline. “It was a cover-up, so they had to go quite deep with it,” She said, jaw twitching.
I flinched a little. “I was going to have one on my ribs at some stage, but I asked someone who had had one down once and they told me not to.”
She nodded. “It would get more painful as you get closer to this bit,” she pointed to her solar plexis.
“Ooh,” I grimaced. “Yeah. And my veins are quite close to the skin, so I have to be careful,” I said, rolling up my sleeve a little to reveal a bulbous wrist.
“Mmhm. The hardest bit about it” – about her neck getting done – “was not moving. I stopped breathing. They had to go in, I held my breath, then back go out again, so I could breathe, bit by bit.” She paused. “I want to cover myself in tattoos, though.”
“You’re getting sleeves, then?”
“Yeah, on this side,” gesturing to her right arm so her jacket shifted and draped itself loosely over her jumper. For someone who felt the heat, she had enough layers to keep her warm in a rainstorm. “Getting it done bit by bit.”
“Good idea, they’re quite expensive.”
“The tattooist I know does them for me for free, helped him out on a favour once.”
“Wow, that’s the way to do it!” I grinned: free art.
The doors swung open again, and people tried to make our way past us to get out. “Oh, God,” I muttered involuntarily, getting to my feet and shifting my bag out of the way to let people past. They apologised uncertainly, thinking I had been frustrated, maybe because I sounded frustrated, though I was merely panicked. I felt more sheepish sitting back down than I did before.
“Where are you off to after this?” Lilith asked.
“Um, Ingatestone I think, then Colchester with a bus,” I replied. “You?”
“Bed. I’ve been working 8 to 6, I’m just coming back from work to sleep then I’m going to a Pool with a mate after that. Then back to work again…”
“Wow. Night pay good?”
“Very,” she nodded. “Very good.”
“That’s good.” I paused, wondering if I want to bring work into the conversation. I wanted to keep it light. “We don’t get night enhancements where I work, just weekend hours.”
“I’m self-employed, mate,” She said dismissively as she got up. We had arrived at Stratford.
At this point, I should probably tell you that Lilith never told me her real name; she is definitely not called Lilith in real life.
Joining her on the platform, she didn’t wait but didn’t ignore me either. “Self-employed, at Euston?” I questioned clumsily.
“Stripper,” She said quietly. She let it sink in. “It’s not like what people say, though. They treat you well in there. Secrets, it’s called.”
It didn’t seem like a rehearsed line. She probably meant it. “Been doing it a little while now,” she added.
“Where did you come from originally?” I asked.
“Birmingham.” That’s why Lilith’s accent was familiar. I’d helped my folks move near Birmingham recently and I’d spent time there looking at the University, too.
“Ah, right. I know it. I’ll be doing postgrad there soon.”
She looked across at me as we headed for the stairs. “So how old are you, then?”
Before I could think about how not to make it awkward, she reciprocated with her own answer: “Eighteen.”
I almost wanted to tell her that she was very level-headed for her age, but then again, I really didn’t. With how her expression had changed, now, I think she had sussed that one out long ago. Other questions started forming in my head, too, but they were all too curious, considering how much she’d already opened up.
“So Ingatestone, is it?” She asked once we were up another set of stairs.
“Yeah, I believe it’s one of these platforms,” I stuttered, looking around, disorientated.
After a quick scan of the perimeter, Lilith smiled and said, “Nice to meet you,” and hopped back down the stairs to the Underground.
“You too,” I called. Seamlessly, I watched Lilith evaporate into the crowd below.