MARY McCLUSKEY                     

Role Reversal

         The room smells of cigarette smoke, fetid breath, stale sex.  The only room available in her price range.  The bed is covered with a velvet spread of crumpled stormy purple; a yellow ashtray is on the bedside table, a piece of chewed gum hardening in the centre.  Maria had asked for a non-smoking room, but the woman at the desk pursed a slippery red mouth, shaking her head.

         "None of those left, dear," she said. "Popular those are."

         Maria falls backwards onto the bed, sighing, and reaches for the wine she had purchased at the corner store.  She twists the cap, then drinks deeply from the bottle as if it were soda.  It tastes warm, coats her tongue.  When the room trembles, then roars, she jumps to her feet, frightened, spilling the wine.  The red stain soaks across the pillow, adding a new scent to the room.

         "Jesus," she murmurs.

         The light from the window is blocked by hulking black metal.  Only yards away, a train waits at the signal light outside her window.  The train screams suddenly and then is gone.

         The next train startles her but it moves more slowly.  She watches from the window, staring directly into a first class carriage.  A man sits reading a newspaper.  He wears a dark suit, a quiet tie.  He is dressed like Derek before a court hearing.  She imagines his briefcase full of appellate briefs and pages of research put together by his paralegal.  He will look at these later, while his wife reads a novel and pours strong, soothing cocktails.

         The man frowns, looks up and around the carriage, checks his watch, then stares back out of the window.  He looks right at her.  His face does not change but she wonders if he can see a shadow woman in this dim hotel room.  Slowly, the train pulls away.  She checks the time.  The 6:20 train from the city.

         The next night she is waiting, she has the light on, and sits at the window.  But the signal-light is green and the train does not stop, simply slows a little and slides on.  No one looks out at her.  No lawyerly man with Derek's hair and clothes.

         She wonders if he has a mistress, too.  Does his wife know?  Will she discover?  And run out into the night, forgetting luggage, cash, credit cards.  Carrying nothing of value except the jewelry she wears and will sell in a pawnshop that smells of cat's pee.  Wanting to get away.  Wanting also to punish.  Let him worry, wonder if she is alive or dead, let him explain to friends, colleagues.  Let him.

         Maria leaves the room only to replenish her wine supply, then she sits very still and waits for the train.  When it slows, then stops, she is at the window, illuminated by the light.  Yes.  There he is.  He sits calmly, looking at her.  Looking at her.

         Slowly Maria removes her blouse, lets it slide to the floor.  She loosens the bra, releasing her breasts, then tosses her head back so that her hair falls down her back.  She has seen such a pose in movies.  She wills him to respond.

         He stares, his mouth dropping open, such confusion on his face.

         Maria looks at him with brazen eyes and pouting mouth.  Like an actress.  Like a mistress.

         She smiles as the train shudders, moves on.



Mary McCluskey is a British journalist, usually based in Los Angeles, presently researching in Shropshire.  Her short stories have been published in Atlantic Unbound,, Dim-Sun (Hong Kong) NightTrain and many other print and web publications.  She recently completed a novel, White Nights, which is now with an agent.  E-mail: