It’s a late evening in December and I’ve had a mulled wine (three). Ben is scrolling through Deliveroo, furrowed brow debating the merits of tuna as a pizza topping. I think about warm mozzarella and my body starts to melt against his, the shoulder of his padded jacket resting against mine as he sits on the seat beside me. Earlier, we walked along the banks of the River Thames in the dark, and as our drinks cooled in paper cups we glanced at each other’s hands, fingers seeking relief from forgotten gloves.
Now, train windows steam with the lens of his glasses and he smiles at me with foggy blue eyes. I extend my right hand, palm facing upwards as an invitation for touch. Fingers gently trace mine with repetition, like a shape he’s trying to remember; the outline of the keys in his pocket or the tangled maze of streets he will walk along on his way home.
My breath catches in my throat for it has been that long since I’ve held a hand, but his skin is stretching mine tense in an uncomfortable caress. I’m suddenly insecure about the dry patches on my thumbs and the short hairs on my knuckles that have risen in anticipation of human contact. We hold hands in silence and he rolls my palms flat into dough.
We hold hands in silence and he rolls my palms flat into dough.
I close my eyes and try to imagine what he would feel like on the parts of my skin that lie unexposed. But it feels unnatural, as two strangers who have forgotten how to touch. Now we’re at New Cross and he stands to say we’ll see each other again soon. We don’t, but I spend the rest of the journey unattached to land, like at any moment I could float out of the window and my body would disperse into powdery ash, leaving no trace behind like the now empty seat beside me.
As the train continues to pass through the outskirts of the abandoned city, I feel the company of its ghosts. 700,000 people are estimated to have left London since the start of the pandemic, and the air around me is weighted as though they are all here with me on this train. Ben’s hands felt so unfamiliar I wonder if I conjured his presence from the phantom world, hungry for skin. Did I dream the long leg resting against mine, the kiss on my neck, the hand on my lap. Was he real?