“Look Wendy, it’s her again. The woman in the fur coat!”
“I’m not looking round now, I’ll look like a freak. I’ll wait until we get off the train.”
The commute to Bracknell has its consolations and the woman in the fur coat is definitely one of them. We first spotted her a couple of weeks ago, and since then it’s developed into a bit of an obsession on my part. The coat in question isn’t just fur, it’s leopard print fur, a mottled pattern that looks all wrong on a big chunky fur coat.
It’s so fake that it almost looks real, you could nearly convince yourself that a leopard died to make those soft, glossy lapels. But then you come to and you realise that you’re not at an embassy in Vienna at the turn of the century, holding a martini and listening to a string quartet. You’re on the train to Bracknell with a latte in one hand and a copy of the Metro in the other, and the woman in the fur coat is not a countess.
Her hair is the other amazing thing. Several different shades of blonde, all streaked together, a pattern not unlike the leopard print. In fact, the first time I saw her I wondered if she was wearing a leopard-skin parka with the hood up, that it was all one continuous smear of material. I was a little disappointed when I found out that was not the case. But then I realised that the jumper she wore, underneath the fur coat, was also leopard print and that made up for it.
The train journey to Bracknell has provided plenty of people watching opportunities already – the obnoxious grey-jumpered children who get on at Wokingham and squabble all their way to Bracknell, the two lads who sit next to each other and awkwardly chat about football as if being forced to converse at gunpoint (but always call each other “mate”), the two elegant old gentlemen Wendy and I spotted one evening on a late train home, dapper in suits, rakishly tilted hats and pocket squares.
Despite that, the woman in the fur coat is my current favourite. She has a hard face and dark thin eyebrows that don’t seem to match any colour in her coat, in her top, in her hair. She could be twenty, she could be forty, there’s no way of knowing: not without asking, and I have no plans to do that.
After Wokingham, the train went through fields so pretty it was hard to believe the next stop would be Bracknell. Despite being autumn, the fog outside wrapped trees in fluff and softened the fields into chalky smudges. Standing in the vestibule the kids bickered, too young to appreciate how beautiful it is outside. I spotted them and I tried to figure out how old I was when I stopped bickering and started noticing this kind of thing. But then Wendy took the piss out of me for something, and I told her to shut her trap, and I realised I’m not quite old enough myself. Not yet, anyway.
The train trundled past the ugly houses on the right and the uglier car park on the left, variations on a Brutalist theme, and pulled up on the platform. “We are currently at… Bracknell!” said the recorded announcement over the speakers, read out in an enthusiastic tone by an actor who had clearly never visited.
As we all shuffled to the doors I saw her in front of me, the woman in the leopardskin fur coat. She was so close I could almost touch it. It looked so soft, and so comforting. My hands stretched like those of a zombie, or a sleepwalker, two things I often resemble at half past eight in the morning.
“Stop it!” heckled Wendy.
“But it looks so nice.”
“Honestly, behave yourself. It’s like something’s got into you.”
“Behave myself? You’re the one who flashed me on the train last week.”
“Only in your disgusting mind! One of my buttons had come undone and I didn’t realise, that’s all.”
It’s true, and the worst thing of all is that I’d been conscientious enough to tell her. If only I’d kept my mouth shut I would have had a view of cleavage all the way to Bracknell. It was the closest I’d probably ever come to a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. Worst of all, I hadn’t said Your button has come undone, Wendy like I should have done. Instead I said That’s a very revealing top today, in a way that suggested that Wendy showing that much flesh was not beyond the bounds of possibility.
Perhaps Wendy should invest in a fur coat, I thought. She must have been reading my mind, because as we went through the open ticket barriers, tiny step after tiny step, like zombies or sleepwalkers, she said “I wonder where her coat is from?”
“I don’t know, you should ask her.” I said, fighting back the urge to stretch out my hands again. She was just in front of us, in a big throng. She would never have known it had even happened, and even if she did she would never have known it was me.
“I’m going to.” she said.
Outside the station, taxis wheeled up to take people somewhere even less attractive. As we turned left and went past the manky hole in the wall selling grotty tea and forgettable sandwiches, we caught up with the woman in the fur coat. And, because when Wendy sets her mind on something it happens, she kept her promise.
“Excuse me. I’m sorry, but I have to ask. I really like your fur coat. Where’s it from?”
“Thank you! It’s from TK Maxx. Sixty quid!”
“Sixty quid? That’s a bargain. I might have to get down there myself.”
There was a short pause. With hindsight, I should have known what would happen next. Wendy had that look. We’ve been sharing a train carriage for the last few weeks and already I’m beginning to recognise it. Anyway, as I said, when Wendy sets her mind on something it happens.
“My friend would really like to touch your coat. Would you mind?”
“No, not at all.”
I’m only slightly ashamed to say that, despite grimacing with reluctance, I leaned forward and did it. It was as soft as I thought it would be, and more.
“It’s lovely.” I said. I wasn’t really sure what you were meant to say. It’s not every day that your friend eggs you on and makes you fondle a stranger’s outerwear.
As we waited outside the station by the bus shelter, waiting for the coach to pick us up and take us to the office, we watched the lady in the fur coat walk into the distance, go up the footbridge and disappear from view.
“I can’t believe you did that.”
“Oh shut up Evans, you loved it. I bet you got off on it.”
I decided to let that one go: the answer wasn’t yes, but it wasn’t no either.
“You should definitely get one of those fur coats yourself. You could just go to the office wearing that and nothing else.”
“Are you always like this first thing in the morning?”
I thought about it for a second.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Do you think the sleeve was the wrong bit to touch? Should I have gone for the arse?”
Wendy gave me a funny look and pushed her glasses up her nose.
“Wizard’s sleeve, more like. Anyway, that coat didn’t cover her arse!”
“It did, I checked. You just weren’t paying enough attention.”
The funny thing is that I did love it, but not because of the feeling of her soft sleeve against my fingers, soothing though it was. I loved it because when Wendy told her that she loved her coat, when she asked how she could buy one just like it, the woman’s face came alive and all that hardness drained away. And I loved it because when she walked away from us and climbed the steps, there seemed to be a bounce in her walk that hadn’t been there before. Being able to have that effect on someone, especially at half-eight in the morning outside Britain’s most repulsive train station, is quite an achievement.
This morning, I took the train on my own and the fog was there again. I sat in a carriage, drank my latte, pretended to read the Metro and looked out the window at a landscape that looked like winter come early. The kids bickered, the stations passed, the paper was uninteresting, all was as it should be. At the end of the trip I rushed through the barriers, made my way to the bus shelter and stood staring into space, wishing I’d worn my gloves. Then, a familiar figure approached – fur coat and all.
“Hiya!” she said, as she walked past me. It took me a couple of seconds to realise that she was talking to me.
“Hi.” I said back.
Then the strangest thing happened: she beamed, right at me. And I thought that commuting might be all right after all, if sometimes strangers smile.