Sonder

 
Pictures by Melissa Reid

Pictures by Melissa Reid

 
 

The subway rolled into the dingy platform, glowing peach and bringing with it a gust of city air that made everyone’s hair fly above their heads. I jumped on, settling down on a lumpy seat in the middle of the carriage.

As the train rumbled into the tunnel – shoving me into the elbows of the old man in the next seat – I stuffed the ticket into my jacket pocket and tried to get my breath back. My stomach was in knots, and for good reason: I was going on a blind date.

It’s a bit of a long story. But after my 24th birthday, I’d given in to societal pressure – and when I say ‘societal’, I mean my grandmother who had ‘two bairns n’ wan mare oan thu way’ when she was my age – and I’d downloaded a new dating app called Doogle. I was apprehensive about using an app but, relatively speaking, this one didn’t sound too bad.

Doogle supposedly matches people ‘scientifically’ with compatibility tests to find the user’s ideal partner, the only downside is: couples don’t get to see pictures of each other. The philosophy behind this is that we all focus too much on looks and that blind dates are the way forward. It had seemed like a good idea at first, but sitting here now, I was already starting to regret agreeing to meet my ‘ideal match’, Tom. 

Tom was getting on at Partick and we had arranged to go to Hillhead Book Club for lunch. I'd described over text what I was wearing so he would recognise me. Now, all I had to do was wait. 

Rather than taking out my latest tea-stained, crumpled-paged book from my bag or playing with my phone, I decided to just sit until Tom got on. As expected, I soon got bored and resorted to my favourite hobby: people watching.

. . .

Near the carriage door, a young woman with waist-long blonde hair was sitting with a little boy on her knee. He was bouncing up and down with a Milky Way in one hand and a carton of blackcurrant Ribena in the other, while the blonde woman spoke to an older lady sitting beside her.

‘Why should I have to apologise?’

The older lady with mousy brown hair whispered an inaudible reply.

‘I don’t care if he’s family! He started this whole thing back in July on Gillian’s birthday. Remember?’

There was another shy, noiseless response from the older lady.

‘I know the holidays are coming up, Mum. But I’m not going to sit across the table from him at Christmas if he doesn’t at least apologise.’

The little boy on her lap squashed the melting chocolate in his palm and started to lick his chubby fingers. I strained over the racket of the train, trying to hear what had happened on Gillian’s birthday, whoever she was, and what this family member had done that was so bad she couldn’t forgive him. But I couldn’t hear any more.

They got off at the next stop.

. . .

At Ibrox, a tall man stooped under the carriage doors to board the train. He was wearing glasses with lens that were entirely white. For a moment, I wondered if he was blind. But in that case, why were the lens white instead of black?

As he sat down, he lifted a small Jack-in-the-box out of his jacket pocket. He fumbled with it until he found the crank and started winding. The crank clicked again and again like the ticking of a clock. But the little clown puppet inside never popped out. Click. Click. Click. But no bang.

. . .

At the other side of the carriage, a middle-aged woman with purple hair was singing to the little girl beside her.

Now it’s five by five, finger paint and circle time. I love you till the day I die, Elvis,’ she sang with closed eyes and a toothy smile as she squeezed the giggling toddler’s hand.

As she sang, no one else seemed to notice. Everyone ignored her and avoided looking at her, and each other. Just like everyone does on the subway.

. . .

Sitting across from the singing lady and the little girl was a young redheaded woman. Maybe 20-years-old. I tilted my head to the side to see the title of the book she was reading: The Land of Green Plums.

I started thinking about those green plums and wondering why they were green and not purple. The more I thought about the title of the little murky green book, I started imagining fields upon fields, acres upon acres of green plums; never ripening, never being picked.

. . .

‘Agonising, isn’t it?’ A voice whispered.

My head snapped round and I noticed a man sitting beside me. I hadn’t even noticed him sitting down. A dimple on his stubbly cheek deepened as he smirked at my expression.

‘Excuse me?’

‘I said, it’s agonising,’ he repeated in hushed tones, ‘realising that every passer-by has a life of their own, just as rich and intricate as yours. Realising that all these people aren’t just extras on your film set. But that they each have their very own movie to play the leading role in.’ His breath was scented with hardboiled rhubarb and custard sweets.

My pulse throbbed in my loudly in my ears as I sat frozen, slightly startled by this stranger’s sudden appearance.

‘We catch glimpses of other people’s lives every day,’ he said, ‘but never the full story. Just snippets that always go unfinished. There’s a name for it, you know.’

‘Really?’ I asked, mesmerised like a child watching an illusion. ‘What is it?’

‘Sonder.’

‘Sonder…’ I said slowly.

I looked around at the rest of the ‘extras in my movie’ as they read books and sipped from travel mugs, and I thought about sonder. Maybe not knowing the stories, hopes, and struggles of everyone that passed me by did bother me. A little more than I cared to admit.

I turned my head back to look at my neighbour.

‘Tom?’

‘Sure,’ he smiled. ‘If you like.’


Sophie McNaughton is a 3rd year undergraduate student at the University of Strathclyde, working her way towards a degree in literature, journalism and creative writing. She's a fiction writer, journalist, editor (in fact, she's one of our assistant editors this year) and blogger. She has had works of fiction published by Short Story Sunday and Devolution Z Magazine. She says, 'I like trashy 80s glam metal, gothic horror, typewriters, experimental fiction, concrete poetry, and Trainspotting (the book and film, not the hobby).' You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.