People Watching


A short story by Julia Gray, which was first published in MIR11.


“Why do we say people-watching, rather than watching people?” asks Kajsa as they unfold their chairs. She has brought an artist’s stool, her own: a rickety tripod and a scrap of sagging canvas built to hold only the lightest of occupants. Paul’s chair, though not dissimilar, is a sturdier construction; his father used to take it shooting. They are set up side by side, between  the Upper Crust and the cash machines, on the concourse of Paddington Station. It feels odd, thinks Paul, to be stationary here, when everyone else is in transit.

Kajsa hops into her chair. Sitting on one unshod foot like an origami fairy, she can hardly be comfortable, he thinks. Her shoe, an apricot-coloured ballet pump with stained, unravelling ribbons, is upended carelessly beside her. Before Paul sits down he makes a point of nudging it closer to the wall, where it will be out of sight.

“You don’t like my clothes,” says Kajsa.

“No, no, on the contrary. I do. They’re most unique and interesting. I just don’t want someone to see a spare shoe on the floor and chuck it away. They come round all the time with those bins on wheels.”

“So you think my shoe looks like rubbish?” Kajsa pauses a moment before she smiles. “Anyway, Paul. You haven’t answered my question. Why do we say people-watching?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I suppose it’s in the same vein as trainspotting.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“We don’t say ‘spotting trains’. If we did, it would sound like they were bleeding.”

“Yes, or being covered in spots,” says Kajsa, unwrapping a bagel. “By a giant brush.”

A detuned, insouciant bing-bong; a platform revealed like a guarded secret; a tidal surge of rucksacks and wheeled suitcases. A man hurries on crutches towards the barriers, his ticket in his breast pocket. It always seems to Paul that they don’t allow enough time for people to get to their trains. He turns to Kajsa, but she is fully engaged with her bagel. He notices that she eats with a birdlike intensity, both savage and dainty. In eight or nine bites the bagel is gone. She thumbs a smear of Philadelphia from the paper wrapper; she swallows fallen raisins. Paul does not like bread particularly. It has an unpleasant, cardboard bloat to it; he gets this feeling, sometimes, that he might choke. Kajsa, fearless crosser of roads, wearer of improbable coats and headscarves, would be unlikely to fall prey to such phobias.

Now she is pulling a manila sketchbook from her corduroy bag, and a pencil, and a bundle of waxy oil pastels. Her fringe is dip-dyed in mermaid green; her chipped front tooth gives her the look of an inquisitive child.

“I would like to paint a train,” she says, opening the book. “I mean on its surface.”

Paul shuffles backwards, hoping she won’t want to talk incessantly.

He met Kajsa a couple of weeks ago, at the start of term. They had both chosen Introduction to Drawing at the Slade, a borrowed module. Paul’s actual degree is Architecture; Kajsa’s is French. Their instructor, a ferocious, frazzle-haired woman whose patchwork skirts and modest proportions reminded Paul of Mrs Pepperpot, insisted that they keep a sketchbook between classes, and draw directly from life.

“Become expert people-watchers,” she said last Thursday, eyeing the room: two biochemists, a Philosophy student, three modern linguists and tall, laconic Paul, who had barely spoken other than to introduce himself.

“I expect to see some evidence of your progress next time,” said Mrs Pepperpot. “Capture more than just visuals, if you like. Words – sounds – smells – absorb your experiences like sponges!”

Allowing himself to cringe very subtly at the cliché, he was surprised to feel the tap of Kajsa’s fake-suede boot against his leg.

“You want to go with me?” she whispered, and he smiled politely back: Sure, why not.

And so it is eleven on a Monday morning, a time at which he would ordinarily be in the library, or working in the Russian Tea Rooms near the house he shares with three other undergraduates, or walking to Parliament Hill. But instead of doing any of those things he is sitting in Paddington Station with Kajsa the French student, who is not French, or English, but perhaps Swedish, although he is not sure. That he is not able to answer her question satisfactorily – why people-watching, not watching people – irritates him; he thinks it may be to do with predicates. Or inflected syllables. Or perhaps it’s about putting the noun first? His sister, who suffered for many years from eating disorders, used to resort to an activity called water-drinking when it was time for her to be weighed by the nurses. (Her name was Jemima, but the family knew her as Turtle; something about the way she poked her head above the surface of the swimming pool, apparently.) At the age of seven, he hadn’t understood why; later he realised that by drinking a litre of water Turtle could hope to register a kilogram more on the scales, and have her calorific intake adjusted accordingly. He would occasionally wonder, as Kajsa is wondering now, why his sister said water-drinking, not drinking water.

Water-drinking, trainspotting, fox-hunting. Actually, there’s quite a lot of them, now he thinks about it. Stamp-collecting, sheep-worrying, soul-destroying. Wait, though: that last one doesn’t work as a compound noun. It’s more of an adjective. These things bother him: things he knows he may never understand. People-watching, regardless of its syntactical make-up, is not a practice that interests him, but he is doing it nonetheless – or, he is about to do it, when he finishes his coffee – for several reasons. First, it’s a university assignment, and he would like his 80 per cent average to remain undisturbed at the end of the module. Second, Kajsa has invited him, and he finds her alluring. There’s an otherworldliness about her that charms and unnerves him in equal measure.

As he watches her, she looks up, leans over and says, “Are you done with your coffee?”

“Yes, sure.”

Kajsa has drawn a sketch of a woman with two bandy-legged children in tow, queuing for baguettes at Delice de France. She’s drawn it quickly, in confident, linear scribbles, the tip of her pastel barely leaving the page. Now she dips the corner of her sleeve in his cup and wets the page with coffee, dragging a blur of moisture across the lines which results in a not-unpleasing sepia effect. With the tip of her finger she pushes the shading around, blowing on it until it’s dry.

“What?” she says. “You never saw anyone paint with coffee?”

“Never,” he replies. “But, now I think about it, water is so conservative.”

His own page of heavyweight cartridge paper beckons blankly. Twisting to face the platforms, he blocks in the furthermost arch of the roof. Then he begins to pattern in the others, glorying in the business of geometry, his needlepoint pencil to-ing and fro-ing like a gramophone arm. Kajsa is silent. Perhaps she thought he was making fun of her, when he said “water is so conservative”, when in fact he wasn’t. Honestly: it’s refreshing to see someone dip their sleeve in coffee and paint with it. But of course, he didn’t say that. Maybe he should have.

There was a third reason for coming today. This is it: his ex-girlfriend, in one of a series of increasingly unhinged and accusatory emails that detailed his various shortcomings, recently used the word “myopic” to describe him. And despite the fact that she was in many ways illiterate – “they’re” and “there” used interchangeably, sentences that drooped, verbless, like abandoned puppies – that one sharp jolt of myopic has remained with him, tailgating his everyday stream of consciousness. Is it possible that she is right? True: he didn’t remember when her period was due, that she didn’t take milk, preferring some kind of rice substitute that disintegrated like baby-sick, that she had a phobia of cats and Barbie dolls. He failed to notice her fringe, cut to look like Marianne Faithfull; he failed to compliment her on her newly whitened teeth. Personally, he doesn’t think that makes him myopic, but he has found himself thinking about it lately, all the same. What better practice, then, for the criminally unobservant, than to set up next to the Halifax machine and observe?

“Paul,” says Kajsa. “You haven’t drawn any people.”

“I’m doing the background first.”

“I thought this would be a nice place for people-watching,” says Kajsa. “Which is why I chose it. So many different types and kinds.”

Singing under her breath, she takes a cobalt-blue pastel and a purple one, and holding them closely together draws a pair of old women who are sitting in Caffè Nero. The twin lines create a hallucinatory doppelgänger effect: each old woman has a purple shadow, a hovering psychic field.

“Do you know this station well, Paul?”

“It’s a good place to change from the Hammersmith and City Line,” he answers blandly. Paddington Station isn’t really a place he thinks about much. Then again, he remembers coming up to London with Mum and Turtle, looking for the exact spot where Paddington Bear might have been found, in his coat and hat – or perhaps the coat came later; he isn’t sure. He remembers this station before there was a Yo! Sushi and a Monsoon, before there were quick-collection points and you had to queue for hours off to the side, sweating into your hair at the thought of missing the Plymouth train. He remembers looking with wonder at the domed ceiling, and thinking about the brain that had come up with something of such magnitude. He remembers saying goodbye to Turtle, when she’d finally kicked all her problems – for the time being, at least; there was always a sense, with Turtle, that another problem was lurking in the distance – and booked a flight to Thailand. In fact, he and Mum and Dad had stood not ten metres from where he is now, by the Heathrow Express, and watched as her train departed.

A man in a duffle coat approaches and asks for change, and Paul becomes absorbed in the contents of his pockets. But there’s only a jangle of 1p and 2p pieces, so he gets out his wallet and gives the man a fiver.

“You know, your work is really accurate,” says Kajsa. “I forgot you are studying Architecture.”

She asks him then about buildings, and to distract himself from the sight of a girl with a tangle of foamy blonde hair, walking – with turned-out, ballerina feet – towards the turnstile, he tells her. He tells her about Nunney Castle, his favourite moated building, and about designing unmeltable igloos for the Young Architect of the Year Award. He tells her about Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth, Brunel and Zaha Hadid, and how he’d like to specialise in access arrangements when he graduates, because the best thing about buildings, really, is that you can use them to keep people safe.

“Aha!” says Kajsa. “So you do care about people.”

“Of course I care about people,” he says, his consonants rigid, like spilled beads.

“But you still haven’t drawn any.”

“I think I need another cup of coffee. Would you . . . ?”

She shakes her head; her mermaid fringe bubbles. He gets up, cracking his knees, and goes over to Nero. He stands in the queue, quelling a roiling of indignation that has started a reflux in his throat. Why would Kajsa imply he doesn’t care about people just because he hasn’t gotten around to putting them in his drawing? Did he not give a fiver to the man in the duffle coat? Unlike her, he is not slapdash; he needs time, he needs to get the proportions of things right, he needs to choose his subjects with thought and care.

He waits until he is calm before he returns to his chair.


Kajsa has covered six pages with watery, narrative sketches: a family of American sightseers (sightseeing; that’s another one) clustered under the clock, a lone man with a springer spaniel at his feet, a boy and a girl both covered in webbed tattoos buying flowers outside WH Smith. Taking the instructions of Mrs Pepperpot seriously, she has inscribed loose threads of conversation in looping cursive underneath her drawings, embellishing her verbal hoardings with flowers and butterflies. Call me, she’s written, in overwrought calligraphy, when you’re safely home.

Something similar was said to Turtle on the platform of the Heathrow Express, thinks Paul. Those were the earlyish days of mobile phones. Reception was poor; the idea of using it abroad sent a bolt of terror down your dialling arm, and his sister’s cracked Nokia was in any case unlikely to withstand the journey. Turtle had therefore been furnished with a BT code: a number she could dial from anywhere in the world to call Mum and Dad, reverse-charge.

“Call us when you get there, love,” Mum had said. “Let us know you’re all right.”

But Turtle had not called.

Paul turns to a fresh page of his sketchbook, abandoning his picture of the roof, and looks about in search of a subject.

The homeless man is sitting on a bench near the departures board. He has bought, with Paul’s fiver, perhaps, or else with another donation, a bagel. Paul decides to begin with the boots, and teases an outline onto the page. His pencil moves upwards, suggesting the crinkles in the man’s cargo trousers. Now he draws the torso, the shoulders angled protectively towards the food, the down-bent head. People-watching, not myopic, Paul looks more closely.

Then he puts down his pencil.

“I can’t do this,” he says.

“Why not?” asks Kajsa, leaning over. “It’s great! You should keep going!”

“I can’t, I can’t, I just can’t. It’s an invasion of privacy, what we’re doing. Haven’t you ever thought of that? Do you think that American family wanted you to write down every bloody thing they were saying? Do you think this guy wants me to fucking draw him while he’s sitting there in peace?”

“Paul,” says Kajsa quietly. “We are just people-watching. There really is no law against that.”

“Yup. Yes, you’re right. Sorry.”

“Draw what you see,” says Kajsa, parroting Mrs Pepperpot, her syllables long and didactic.

Silently, Paul imagines his deft riposte: “I see dead people,” in – of course – the sepulchral rasp of the kid in The Sixth Sense. That would shut her up. And, besides, it’s true: while he does, theoretically, think that it’s an invasion of privacy to render in pastel and pencil and coffee the actions and aspects of people going about their own business in Paddington Station, it’s more than that. When he looks at people closely – really studies them – he becomes aware of their mortality. He pictures them dead, stretched out in some cool mortuary, or angular open coffin.

“Paul? Are you all right? What do you see?”

It is not possible to people-watch with pleasure when each subject appears in the guise of an eventual corpse.

“I see things that aren’t there, Kajsa. Sometimes.”

How mad she must think I am, he thinks. But she says mad things all the time. Perhaps she won’t judge.

He adds: “I’m perfectly all right, though. Thanks.”


Was Turtle ever all right? There must have been a time when she was: he pictures her aged six, aged eight, dangling from low-slung branches, her hair studded with clip-on gems. Sewing Brownie badges – Agility, Booklover – onto her dress, stitching the sleeve closed by mistake. Playing a nun in The Sound of Music. Dancing with turned-out toes to Carnival of the Animals.

Yes: in those moments, surely, she was all right.

Another bing-bong; another eddy of travellers. Kajsa shifts restlessly in her chair, and he wonders what she’s still doing here. She opens a packet of banana chips, offering him a handful; he declines.

“I, also, see things that aren’t there,” says Kajsa. “Often. Like yours, my imagination escapes sometimes. The boy and the girl with the tattoos – I imagined that inside the bouquet of roses, they had concealed a weapon, and they were going to open fire on the station. I imagined the man with the dog was a policeman and he was going to try and stop them, but he became distracted by the American woman because she was so strange and beautiful. I find it so hard to draw only what I see, and not what I imagine. Look – I have covered these sketches with butterflies and things – it’s stupid!”

Laughing, she begins to tear the pages from her sketchbook, sending a patter of banana chips to the floor.

Alarmed, Paul says, “Don’t do that. They’re good. Really good.”

Kajsa stops, and looks at him sideways, scrabbling for the last of the banana chips.

“So draw someone,” she says.

He picks up his pencil again. The homeless man has gone. A woman buys an armload of lilies; a child runs screaming away from its mother. The American family finally makes for its train, like a line of hastening ducklings. Kajsa starts on an Innocent smoothie. The roof of the station opens out like a magician’s hat and a single eye peers in. The air is a suspension of Paddington Bears, each with a label pinned to their front: Please look after this bear. Call me when you’re safely home.

Let us know you’re all right, love.

Before she was taken out of school, Turtle would call from a pay phone outside the library. Sometimes he, Paul, would answer, and he would always know it was Turtle because he’d say “Hello?” and it would be quiet on the other end, so quiet that it sounded like no one was there. And then he’d hear the snuffle, the unworded choke that betokened a lost place, an unsafe place. And he’d go to find Mum and Dad, and he’d say, “I don’t think Turtle is all right,” and hold out the cordless phone.

Suddenly, when she was eighteen, Turtle rounded some hidden curve between not all right and all right. Her limestone skin turned rosy; the lustre returned to her hair. She finished her sentences; she saw her friends again. One of them was working in a bar in Thailand; Turtle, who had rarely been well enough to travel, decided to join her. Mum and Dad had said no, at first, because it might not be safe. Because anything could happen. But anything could happen anywhere, argued Turtle. So off she went, like Nellie the Elephant, with her travel-size guitar and the right malaria pills, the ones that don’t make you think you’re the devil. A week passed; there were no calls, but it was likely that she’d lost the phone card.

They did not worry, particularly.

With tremendous ocular flexion, Paul concentrates. His eyes become filmy and soft-focused; he allows his hand to move freely, sketching in a series of feathery, side-to-side motions. Sometimes he sips at his coffee. The station is an orchestra of unsynchronised sounds: the shriek and hiss of departing trains, the footfalls of travellers, the beeps and whistles of mobility vehicles. He allows these sounds to dissolve; he becomes unhearing.

Finally he breathes out. There’s a heaviness in his lungs. He looks down at his work.

“Oh, Paul, well done,” says Kajsa.

Paul says, “I’m just no good at drawing people. I’m better at bridges and stairs.”

“Who is this?” asks Kajsa, tracing a curious fingertip over the page. “She is very pretty.”

She casts delicate glances about the station, cross-checking the blonde heads and backpacks in the baguette queue, at the cashpoints, at the ticket machines. But she won’t find anyone here, thinks Paul, with flared jeans, because no one wears them any more.

“Where is she?”

Ah, but there’s no answer to that question. At last, when they were beginning to get anxious, when emails to Turtle’s Hotmail had gone unanswered for a fortnight, the phone did ring. It was the consulate. The roof of the bar had collapsed; why was unclear. They’d had a hard time identifying her body, apparently. Turtle returned in a zinc-lined coffin. He’d wanted to read at her funeral, but had been too shy.

“I’m not really sure,” he says. “But her name is . . .”

We would like to speak to someone regarding Jemima Grover.

“. . . Turtle.”

For a while Kajsa says nothing. Quietly, she gathers up her discarded pastels and makes a bundle of them, like rods of polychrome dynamite. Paul, for whom sympathy – from strangers, from friends, from in-between acquaintances – has always been the worst thing, stares down at the first portrait he’s managed to draw for ten and a half years. It is, he decides, not a bad likeness.

“Turtle is an excellent name,” says Kajsa suddenly.

And then: “I think we should go to the pub. The one upstairs, with the fruit machines. I am sick of people-watching, watching people – what does it matter? It would be nice to have a beer.”

They put away their sketchbooks. They fold up their chairs. As he follows Kajsa to the escalators, Paul thinks about the people who cannot be kept safe, even in the safest of buildings. He wonders if there are people watching them: the girl with the mermaid fringe, the tall boy whose eyes betray the beginnings of tears. But he doesn’t really care.

20 August 2015