Five subway trains had stopped, disgorged and consumed meals of commuters and tourists then eased their silent weight into the westbound tunnel, vanishing like wraiths. Sounds of the sixth train echoed its arrival. However, the blast of warm air, pushed in front, went unnoticed. Mr. Derby Lough sat tucked in his herringbone coat and gloves, now and then hovering a hand over the cardboard box sitting next to him on the bench. The size and weight of a hearty loaf of bread—the kind with seeds that his wife said was ‘so much more healthy’—the box had his name and address printed in the corner, even though he’d had to pick it up in person. His hand hovered again. It came close, but never touched its surface.
“Hey, wasn’t you in that same spot, lease two hours ago?”
Mr. Lough placed his hand in his lap and tilted his head up from staring at the menacing gap between the train cars and the platform. He shrugged silently and turned away from the brash youngster.
The lad persisted. “Yous alright, mister? You lost or somethin?” He wore a garish football jacket and black knit hat. He rubbed his hands and blew into his fists. “Right cold down here. Maybe…”
“Ah, an American. Well, only a fool would get lost in the underground.”
“Alright, alright. Ya don’t need to get nasty. You mind?”
Mr. Lough moved to scoot the box closer, barely touched it and let it sit. “Not my bench. Not all of it, anyway.”
“You have a good Christmas?”
“We say holiday, here.”
“Yeah, holiday then.”
The man sat and Mr. Lough noticed worn patches on his jacket, what looked like a shoddy wash job, white blotches on his jeans, and a pair of dirty Nike’s. “What have you got to be cheery about?”
“Cheery? I don’t know. Nothing. Everything.” The man’s knees began to bob. “What’s in the box?”
Mr. Lough gave the fellow a harder look. “Maybe I do own this whole god-forsaken bench. Why don’t you go and sit elsewhere?”
“If it weren’t for the kindness of strangers, man.”
Derby Lough closed his eyes and imagined a summer day, Emily and he dipping her favorite anise biscuits in tea, complaining about the noise of the young calves and lambs in the adjacent field. “Not that it’s any business of yours, but… No. No. I’d just like to sit here and, and think.”
“So your holiday sucked, too.”
Derby inspected the fellow and thought the man’s white-toothed smile and round, brown eyes might have held a guileless, naïve view of the world. “You’re going to sit there and pester me, aren’t you?” Derby rest his hand solidly on the box.
“Back home, I see some old guy sittin’ for hours in the subway…”
“I assure you, I’ve got nothing of value.”
“What? No, man. That’s not… Shit. You know? You have great goddamned day?” Knit hat rose gracefully from the bench, avoided eye contact with Mr. Lough and soft-shouldered his way down the platform.
“Hold on. Here, why don’t you go get us some coffees.” Derby offered a tenner. “You’re right, I’ve been here far too long. But I need a bit of a kick to… I’m sorry, I’m Derby Lough.”
“Avery Meadows. I’ll be right back.”
They sipped coffee for a minute before eventually falling into a comfortable tete-a-tete discussion of sports, travel and food. A seventh train invaded King’s Cross Station, instantly filling it with noise and commotion and just as quickly sighing with the dispersion and the return of quiet. When the platform was once again their own, Avery mentioned a childhood favorite, Caribbean cuisine.
“My mama had the best recipe for jerked chicken. We even went into business, in the summertime, cookin’ and sellin’ from a stand in our front yard.”
“My Emily would season her dishes with far too many peppers. Oof the heat. I’d have to spend the remainder of the day… Well…”
“Is that who you’re waitin’ for? Your wife, Emily?”
Mr. Derby Lough, his arm resting protectively on the box, closed his eyes once more. He smelled the gumbos and curries, the cinnamons and roast beef of his wife’s cooking. He smile flatly and shook his head. “No. No need to wait for her. Not anymore.”