By Harlan Bouma
Herman takes up two seats, his feet wide apart and placed firmly on the ground. Dried-up mud is caked to his shoes. His knees very nearly touch the seat opposite him and his right shoulder has already wiped some of the steamed-up window clean. Herman stares at the floor. Over his beard, he studies the dirty footprints left behind on the floor of the train, between the croissant crumbs of the morning commuters.
The train stops and the doors open with a hiss. Herman looks up. A small, blonde girl in a red coat is running along the platform. Her cheeks are glowing from the cold. The mittens hanging from each end of a string threaded through her sleeves bob up and down. Behind her, a young woman, trying in vain to keep tucking her short brown hair behind her ears, hurries. She grabs the child’s hand and pulls her quickly towards the train. The whistle sounds, and the child stumbles along beside her mother. Herman watches them board the train just in time. ‘Here, mummy,’ calls the little girl when she reaches the empty seats opposite Herman. Hesitantly, the woman sits down. She pulls her child towards her, but the little girl manages to wriggle loose. Sat on her knees, she starts to scrutinize the man sat opposite her in detail.
‘What are you looking at?’ Herman asks suddenly.
‘You look like a giant!’ the child exclaims.
‘You look like a giant, Sir,’ corrects her mother, who immediately lowers her eyes. Herman notices red blotches appearing on her neck. The little girl looks wide-eyed, first at him, and then at her mother. Herman sits back, takes a packet of stroopwafels out of his coat pocket and starts to fiddle with the plastic seal. He tries to get his nails behind the small piece of plastic, but his large fingers can’t get a grip.
‘Shall I…’ the woman puts her hand out. Herman looks at her. For a moment there’s a deathly silence. Then the woman leans towards him, takes the pack from his hand, removes the plastic seal and gives it back to him. Twice, Herman feels her cool fingers against his hands, against his right thumb as she takes the pack, and against the back of his left hand when she returns it. Herman shakes two stroopwafels out of the pack and gives one of them to the little girl. He looks once again at the woman sat opposite him, puts the biscuit he is still holding on the table between them, wipes his hand off on his trousers and holds it out to her. Her hand disappears in his, her voice trembling as she says her name. ‘Herman,’ he says, in a deep, husky voice.