"Hello, Jane Darling."
The woman, who had been studiously reading something in a folder, looked up - bristling - at this unwarranted intimacy.
"Excuse me. Are you talking to... Roy?"
"In the flesh! What's a nice girl like you doing on a train like this?"
"Trying to read." The smile she gave me was everything that I remembered.
"Sorry. But it was such a surprise seeing you here and I couldn't resist it."
"You and half the teaching staff!"
She was proud of her family name - Darling - but it had led to the more-than-obvious jokes from most of the staff at our high school. Not that she minded, really; Jane was the epitome of the phrase "beautiful person" and each time someone made the joke she would blush and laugh like it was the first time.
I had finished sitting down by this point. She looked at me speculatively.
"I'm sorry, I should have asked. Is this seat taken? It's just that seeing you after all this time..."
I broke off unable to say any more.
"It's all right, I'm all alone; I'd be glad of the company. "
The lump in my throat made talking difficult.
"You... you're looking... what are..." I subsided into silence and just stared at her. Her luminosity affected me the way it always had, but not having seen her for twenty years left me unable to cope with the impact.
"Roy. Are you all right?" The concern in her voice, the love, and the friendship were the final straws and I started to cry.
"Roy, what is it?" She grabbed my hand. As always the electric tingle that I felt whenever she had touched me filled my senses. The lump in my throat appeared to dissolve in my tears.
"I'm sorry. It's just seeing you, after all this time. I just couldn't cope."
She looked bewildered and not a little hurt.
"Oh hell! I'm not explaining this well am I?"
"Errrrmmm. How shall I put this?... No. Why not start at the beginning?"
I took a deep shuddering breath and gripped her hand harder. With my free hand I wiped the tears from my cheeks and then I looked into her eyes. I was lost. I couldn't remember the beginning. Twenty years fell away like dust and my feelings for her burned undimmed. I tried again.
"I love you."
"I've always loved you. Seeing you again suddenly caught me by surprise, with my defences down. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
She stared at me like I'd grown three heads.
"I know you didn't feel the same way about me so I tried to hide it. When we were together at school it was like, I don't know, I got used to the joy and the despair. But just now seeing you after all this time, it was too much, all at once and I couldn't cope."
I started to try and stand up, but she wouldn't let go of my hand, so I stayed.
"I never knew."
"I know; I was stupid; I didn't feel good enough for you. There you were, this wonderful girl who made me feel alive just by being in the same room as me, why should you feel the same way about me? I knew how worthless I was."
"You're not worthless!" She said with asperity.
"I know that, intellectually; I try and project this image of myself as someone who's pleasant and caring, but inside I know how horrible I am and the thought of you..." I searched for a word, "... sullying yourself by feeling the same way about me was too farfetched to contemplate."
Stunned. She looked stunned.
"It's still there you know. Holding your hand, it's like holding a live wire."
"I thought that was just me!"
Suddenly the joy hit me and I grinned like a maniac.
"What now?" She asked with an answering grin.
"I was just remembering the last time we were on a train together. The trip to London; we never did find London Zoo." I stopped caught up in the memories. "I know where it is, now; I could take you, if you like?"
"I'd like that."
She smiled again and it was just like old times; she took my breath away. I know it sounds corny, but she did; she wasn't the most beautiful girl in the world, but when she smiled... well let's just say the rest of the world was a whole new place. I felt different and I tried to place the feeling. And then I realized it; I was joyful. For the first time in decades I was joyful.
"I've missed you, you know."
She grinned impishly, "I worked that out for myself. Unless you cry every time you meet an old flame?"
"Not usually, no."
We lapsed into companionable silence. Our friendship had never been one where we had felt the need to fill in the gaps, sometimes we would spend hours together and say hardly a word. The train swayed along, occasionally clattering over sections of switch and crossing.
"You never answered; what's a nice girl like you doing on a train like this?"
"I have a national mathematics curriculum committee meeting."
"Wow! You've been seduced by the 'dark side'?" I leered, in my best Yoda impression.
"Well, I missed a staff meeting and my headmaster volunteered me, he said it was my fault for missing the meeting!"
I laughed and suddenly we were both giggling like mad things.
"Where's the meeting and when does it finish?"
She told me, and we sat and talked. The ticket inspector - sorry Train Manager - came to check tickets. It was at that point that we realized that we were still holding hands. Jane grumbled good-naturedly about the cost of the ticket saying she only wanted to ride on the train not buy the whole thing. Ray, the Train Manager winked at us and went on his way.
"Why didn't he check your ticket?"
"He's already seen it."
"When? This is the first time he's come through this carriage!"
"Oh last week sometime. Ray only checks it once a month or so. It's an Annual Season Ticket."
I opened my wallet and showed it to her. She laughed at my picture on the accompanying photocard. Then she saw the price of the ticket.
"Six thousand four hundred and ten pounds!" She was incredulous.
"Don't forget the sixty pence." I laughed at her amazed expression and she leant across the table and punched me lightly on the arm.
"You do this every day?"
"Four days a week; I usually work at home on Fridays."
The despair was lapping around my feet like some sort of emotional tide, the reference to my home life made me aware of the knife-edge on which my emotional state was resting. With determination I shrugged it aside and clung on to the joy.
"We have to talk about this Roy." Jane was serious now.
"I know; let me take you to the Zoo; I'll collect you when your meeting has finished I can buy something to eat, sandwiches or something." I looked at her and lost myself again in her eyes. "Please." The despair hit me again and I filled up. God! What would everyone think? Half the people on the carriage were people that I knew, by sight anyway. In that peculiar British way we knew intimate details of each other's lives but I hardly knew anyone's name.
"I'm sorry I just can't seem to stop crying." I smiled wanly and Jane handed me a tissue.
"It seems to be catching!" She said as she wiped her own eyes.
This time it was my turn to hold her hand. The electric tingle was stronger now and both of us drew breath sharply. Without letting go of my hand she moved from the seat opposite me and sat next to me. She laid her head on my shoulder and snuggled.
"I remember the journey back from London."
So did I. For a magical few hours I had held her hand, we had cuddled and dozed on the journey home. Then, when her father had been late collecting her, I had held in my arms and convinced her to let us take her home. I shied away from the disaster that had followed - her boyfriend coming home from university on a surprise visit and the next day - our first and final kiss, for 'friendship's sake'.
But for now the joy was back and we cuddled like teenagers and dozed and chatted our way to London.
The train pulled to a stop and Ray made his usual speech about minding the gap and making sure we took all our belongings with us. We sat and waited for the hordes to get off before we collected our stuff and started the long trek along the platform to the station hall.