The Rules of Commuting by Janelle Hardacre
Layla prepped herself to fit into one of the small spaces under the armpits of suited businessmen and hipsters. Her fourth day in her new job and she already understood the unwritten rules of tram travel. No eye contact. No huge rucksacks. No smelly food.
She’d timed the journey exactly. 12 minutes in the crush. So packed you could hear the squeak of uncleared sinuses. It was all worth it to be a Store Team Member in her favourite ever shop. Her new status was advertised on her lanyard, despite her not being allowed to wear it outside work. For Layla there’d be no more clearing trays for people who thought they were better than her because they didn’t wear a hairnet and rubber shoes.
Toes tapped inside her platform trainers as she turned on her playlist. She gripped the yellow pole and tried not to think of all the unwashed hands that had done so before her. The doors slid open and yet more commuters negotiated their way into the horde.
Layla felt moist breath on her neck and saw a stubbly chin in her peripheral vision. The carriage surged onwards and she felt something brush her bottom. A bag, perhaps? Someone settling into position? She cleared her throat and turned up her music a couple of notches. She jumped as something made contact with her thigh. Definitely not a bag, but a large, warm hand. It clenched. Layla looked up, widening her eyes in a silent plea. No one glanced up from their phones and paperback thrillers. She pressed pause. Breaths in her ear quickened. Then he was leaning, pushing himself into her.
It had an endpoint. 12 minutes. Less than. She could endure. Couldn’t she? A ball of anger and strength blew up inside her chest, until. ‘Excuse me.’ She enunciated. ‘Stop that. Get your hands off me!’ She’d done it. ‘I’m reporting you.’ Her limbs throbbed.
Layla saw a man in a grey jumper with just-washed floppy hair lift his phone. A bright light shone on the attacker. Others whipped out their earphones, asked her if she was ok, put themselves between her and the man. He was surrounded. Trapped.
The tram doors finally opened and Layla launched herself out, not daring to look back. A description? She couldn’t give you one. This wasn’t her stop. She’d be late for work on day four and get a strike against her name.
She could only manage a staggered power walk, now. She heaved in air, wishing those words really had escaped her lips. But strangers didn’t speak on the tram. It was one of the rules.