PLEASE MIND THE GAP | Emily Ford’s short story shows defiance in the face of commuter harassment (cw: sexual harassment)
content warning: sexual harassment
by Emily Ford
Alex later wondered if she’d had a soft or timid look about her as she shuffled aboard the South Eastern service to Petts Wood. But at the time, she had only had room for exhaustion.
She’d been running around after rich people for eight hours, marching out of the kitchen in a brigade of waitresses, circling the master table and deftly placing ornate crockery before them in synchronisation with her ‘peers’ – like some elaborate ballet. Tucked into corners of the gigantic square plates were precisely sliced morsels of potato gratin and salmon, which were leered over by rich fat white guys who would still be hungry at the end of the night.
Breaks weren’t a given in this industry. Which meant food wasn’t either. Someone on the train was tucking into some chips and the smell clinging to the spare stale air around her was keeping her conscious.
Men in stiff suits and damp shirts had her surrounded with elbows, paunches, beards and briefcases. She was driven further and further into the corner, by the bin next to the doors. She tucked herself in, as if she could nestle it into some cosy little cubbyhole.
A squat bald man, his hairless head slick with sweat, battled his way through the throng to stand next to her. He’d just made it through the closing doors and the train took off straight away, so that he swayed and pushed relentlessly into the left side of her body. She braced against his weight. A dance she was used to in London.
The train stopped and two seats came free, right in front of her. These were the moments she lived for. She slipped straight in and sank into the sagging felt of the seat cushion. Into the stiff black folds of her servant attire. This might be the first time she had sat down in about nine hours.
And just as she prepared to close her eyes for a few moments, Sweaty Head slid into the seat next to her. Despite his physical body filling less space than her own, he still seemed to overflow onto her seat, his leg pressed against hers.
Here we go. She fully expected him to strike up a conversation. To flirt. So she pulled out her phone and stared at it like it was the only object in the whole carriage. She scrolled and scrolled, not reading anything, just trying to look fully absorbed. Too tired to really focus.
When his arm dropped to rest along the crease where their legs met. She could feel both of them tense at once. The lines slippery. His body now her body. Her body now his body. Not yet sure if she was overthinking things. But pretty sure a line had been crossed.
“That red-hot sickening shame she had felt when he touched her – she could see it now in his cowering little body.”
And then it came. A hot, clammy, claw of a hand. Gripping her thigh. A hand like a hot brand, burning her flesh. Leaving the rest of her body cold. Skin crawling with what nexts. Like assault. Like pain. Like rape.
She stood immediately. Towering over him. He shrank into his seat like a schoolboy. And that red-hot sickening shame she had felt when he touched her – she could see it now in his cowering little body. As if she had expelled it from her borders and into his.
Excuse me, she said. And he moved his legs daintily, trying to disappear into the back of his seat, as she squeezed past. To stand in the aisle, glaring at him and the empty seat beside him. He shifted uncomfortably, pretending not to notice as she surreptitiously snapped pictures of him on her phone.
As she walked to the police station the next day, hugging her Samsung to her chest with its hefty megabytes of justice, she felt a little thrill of hope. Felt smarter, kinder, braver than the man who had grabbed her on a crowded train. Felt that, maybe, she could win this round.