I was on the train home after a long day’s work in the city. I settled into the seat and pulled out my phone instinctively, as if to check the headlines or dip my toes in the constant stream of social media, but when I saw the screen wake up, something in my mind woke with it and said, “Don’t you see the window?”
I looked up and sure enough, there was a window beside me opening up to a world of detailed reality. The slates and chimneystacks, steady construction and hurried cars, and the backs of old houses who didn’t seem to notice our train at all, saving their best show and freshest paint for the cars.
Which is the only reason I saw her. If I had driven home, I would have seen something entirely different: another old row of Georgian homes, squared off in perfect regularity except for the half-circle windows and colourful front doors. From my window on the train, I could see behind that flat mask of sameness and take in the creativity of long generations of home-improvers and addition-builders. The variety of methods and building materials was unified only by a common disregard for aesthetics in favour of practical function. There was no room for grass, so every corner was filled with living space. Beauty was reserved for the front, where the eyes in the cars would see it, the eyes that might know and care about who lives behind the painted doors. The eyes in the train are anonymous, going somewhere else. They’ll not know the names behind the doors, so their eyes don’t matter. My eyes certainly didn’t matter to her.
She probably didn’t even notice the train anymore, and even if she did, she was as anonymous to us as we were to her. Still, I had to wonder why she was sitting there in the middle of a flat square extension roof, three stories high, with an open window beside her. It was obviously risky – there was nothing under the window, all the way down to the ground. It was the kind that opens on the top only, which didn’t leave much wiggle room for getting through and reaching a foot sideways to land on the addition. She must have done it, though, and brought the book with her, because there she was reading away in the sunshine as if there was nobody else in the world.
Why was she there, on the roof? Was it the only place she could go to feel the rare warmth of the sun? Did some dreadful reality on the other side of the glass push her to escape? Was it simply a way to be alone and lose herself in a story without interruption? I don’t know, because my eyes are train eyes, anonymous eyes. I am allowed to see the back of the house and the girl on the roof, but I am not allowed to understand them.
In a moment, she was gone, even though she was still there. The houses gave way to trees and fields, and then my stop and my own front door, which is the sixth in another row of regularity. I reached for the handle, and was struck by how little I know of the living worlds around me.