SWAYING AND STAGGERING against their companions, the commuters grimly pretended that each was the sole occupant of the subway as it careened over the Northern Line tracks taking hairpin turns without slowing, scraping its sides continually and leaving small fires in its wake, fires which died after briefly lighting up the darkness of the long tunnels beneath London. While even in this miserable winter the occasional tourist’s face could be seen, at this hour the tube was crowded with workers heading home. There were labourers too, sweaty and grime-faced, adding to the stink of the close atmosphere produced by the unwashed and uncared for bodies of most of the train’s inhabitants. Bill regarded them all with disgust from his corner near the doors while waiting to arrive at King’s Cross where he could extricate himself from this sulphureous mass. He hated subways at this hour, and the only thing that took his mind off the stench while being crushed against structural pipes or the Plexiglas was to survey his fellow passengers.
In the midst of a stop a familiar couple got on, a man of about forty, neither worker nor executive. Somebody with money by his clothes, and his wife, who was wrapped in a warm coat that reached to her ankles. In her hand as always she held the white cane that at another time of day might have elicited sympathy but on this train simply reduced her to an easy mark for pickpockets. Bill had seen pickpockets nosing their way around her before, but her husband commonly got in their way. He may see her robbed yet, because her husband didn’t always pay as close attention to her as he could have.
Seeing the woman, whose husband he’d heard addressing as Edna, he tried to imagine what it was like to be blind, to be led around or always tapping a stick wherever you went. Wouldn’t be so bad not to see these faces every day, mine too. Only last week on a less crowded train he’d been reading a magazine when he overheard two black girls talking as they moved to stand in the middle of the car holding on to the suspended handles. One of them said, in not so quiet a voice as she may have wanted, “Let’s not stand next to him, he’s ugly.” He had looked over the top of his magazine to see her, his features as unperturbed as if she hadn’t spoken at all. The girl was looking at him, perhaps aware of the loudness of her voice, but as Bill didn’t show he had heard, her face wanting to broaden with a smile at what she’d gotten away with, she turned and laughed, relieved, with her friend. Inside he simmered with rage that a complete stranger should think he was ugly and say so out loud where everyone heard her. It wasn’t that he thought himself handsome. He figured he looked as appealing as anybody who had just spent eight hours in a warehouse. His clothes were stained with dirt, his sneakers were torn up and his pants were grimy. As for his face and hair, well, they couldn’t be helped. He had learned to live with them. Undoubtedly there was a bit of dust on him that he had missed when cleaning up hurriedly in order to catch the damn train, but he didn’t think some stupid girl—what is she, sixteen?—was allowed to say that he was ugly out loud. She’s no prizewinner herself, thin, scrawny, with thighs about the size around of my wrist. Jesus, talk about me, but I don’t say anything out loud, do I? And I didn’t cause any fuss.
Thinking about that again made him angry so he went back to looking at the blind lady. He couldn’t see her eyes because of the shades, her eyeballs must roll around like marbles, but the rest of her face wasn’t bad, a bit sallow, but then that’s English beauty for you, topped with short, light-brown hair. Her face had nice bones though, and the wrinkles weren’t too pronounced. Her figure he’d only seen once and it seemed okay, smaller breasts than usual for here and that was good, not bad legs. Her face when she laughed was pleasant, and her husband was always talking to her, reading the poems off the displays and just keeping her amused, yet lately his eyes strayed to another person who got pushed on the train by the crowd that waited impatiently at one particular stop along the –
His thoughts were disrupted by a familiar jolt that struck everyone by surprise nonetheless, causing a woman’s scream to burst out from the middle of the car and end in an embarrassing silence. Men cursed softly after that pause, and the metronomic beat of the complaints that invariably began after a wrenched “God!” from someone built steadily to presto fortissimo before subsiding into an uneven scattering of whining notes until even these sotto voce remarks died off leaving a quiet interlude, broken eventually by a squeak like a violin peg tightening a flat string, then the entire orchestra tuned up, slowly, and the train once again moved, the solo note from the violin taken up as a theme, hurriedly and with reckless brio, as if by musicians not willing to play one minute more than the scheduled time of a musical’s closing bars, anxious as they are to pack their instruments away before joining their friends for drinks after the performance.
These interruptions in the ride were as normal as the husband’s growing attraction to a quite beautiful girl, naturally red-haired, who used little makeup, unlike most women here. She had a tight, automatic smile, the one anybody in a large city comes to possess, and long legs enticingly wrapped today in black silk stockings with encrustations of bold silver sequins above shapely ankles. She wore a bright jacket, a blouse and short skirt that matched her perfectly, and around her neck was a gaily-coloured scarf. In the last few weeks of London’s foggy, wet winter she was dressed in pleasant, cheerful clothes as if for summer, and Bill’s mood lifted momentarily at the sight of her. He hungered for another sight of her cleavage, for he had once seen her black brassiere against her pale skin and it had scored a mark on his memory. He also realized that the husband, whose name he heard for the first time this particular day, when his wife, alarmed at a long silence on his part, called out “Eric? What?” then became flustered as her voice sounded so loud in her own ears, while her husband had been looking as the young girl adjusted her skirt squashed in a press of people surging onto the train, had been eyeing her closely but arrested his interest, swung round to his wife, looking as he did so directly into Bill’s eyes with a smug and slightly scornful proprietary look, murmuring reassurances in her ear, calming her down.
Over the course of the next weeks the husband generally paid better attention to his wife when the attractive girl was not present, as far as Bill could tell, for they were not always together on the car, and many days would pass before Bill saw either the couple or the girl, so that he received a series of pictures that seemed to jump in time when the four were on the same car together. He was conscious, once again, of the habits of the British, who would often choose the same car when going to and coming from work. When the girl wasn’t present Eric would release acerbic remarks on current events and other people who had just left the train, or else told stories he made up for her, describing an individual who had left the subway and musing about the private life this or that one might lead. His wife was constantly amused by him, yet desperation showed in her laugh. Not hysteria or anything crazy, more like loneliness, and in Bill’s mind her blindness accounted for that. She talked often about their domestic affairs, and over the usually meek voices on the train he could hear them discussing the redecorating of their home, a visit to this or that opera, a dinner engagement with close friends, never a word about children. Perhaps they had been married too late, though he looked older than her, in his forties, she probably in her mid-thirties, though an initial view of her face might make one think, like Bill had on first seeing her, that she was the older of the two.
When the girl was on the train Eric paid a great deal of time in answering Edna’s questions after asking her to repeat them above the sound of the train, responding when the noise of a sharp turn began to mount. Amid the clanging of train on track he would begin his response, the frustration of only partially hearing his reply reducing her to silence for the rest of the journey. His interest more obviously attached itself to the girl, particularly as his wife accepted that conversation had gradually become impossible on such a noisy car and increasingly received no more than terse comments from her husband.
One day Bill had located himself quite close to the couple, behind them in fact, and could smell the faint scent of their intermingled colognes. He came upon them in the middle of one of the husband’s stories. “And hunted later, as you well know, by the rabid right-wingers there, McCarthy and that sort, not an easy life. The story is that once he was headlining in Las Vegas, singing in one of those posher establishments. A club, of sorts. Just himself and a man at the pianoforte, a grand piano at that. He was singing a few light arias, some popular songs that he had made famous, and the audience loved him. In the middle of the second set, one mostly of love songs? I think. I’m sorry, dear, I don’t remember that part. Anyway, there he was and quite comfortable, so he took it into his head to sit on the piano. He was in front of it, and he took his hands, placed them on the edge of the grand piano, and hoisted himself up onto it.”
“What happened?” she asked quickly.
“The most embarrassing thing, and it’s also so funny too. He pushed himself up on the piano and then overbalanced.”
“And broke his nose!?”
“No, no,” testily, then smoothly again, “tipped over backwards into the piano, splintering the wood because of his massive weight and size, you see.”
“And then there he was, caught in that piano,” and at that moment they reached a stop and the girl got on. “Just a minute, dear, let’s wait for the train to start moving again, I don’t want one word left out” while looking lustfully at the girl who returned his stare and Bill felt certain for the very first time smiled back making “Eric?” colouring as he turned to his wife and in a louder voice “Here I am, where was I? Had to, wait, wait, ah yes,” and his composure regained, “there he was, his feet up in the air, waving his legs wildly. The audience thought this screamingly funny, and laughed at him as if he meant it to happen but,” as his eyes swung openly to the girl and he fixed her with a broad smile that paralleled his story but ran independently of it, her own flashing back as she stood in the crowd listening to him, “he was trapped, do you see? Caught within the piano by his weight, he then went through the piano, so you could only see his hands holding on to the piano’s frame, his feet, and his head too, where there was some blood.
“Oh, he was all right, just a scratch, and they tried, the piano player then a stagehand, to pull him out, then some other people helped until they realized there was no one to bring down the” girl’s hands playing with her long hair as she watched “curtain and he could only grunt and moan all the while the piano strings snapped around him, wood cracking and crashing.
“But Eric, he didn’t hurt himself too badly?” imagining this patently false story even to Bill in her mind as a case where someone at a disadvantage unwittingly became an object of fun.
“No, no, let me finish, and then you see,” winking at the girl with a meaning in his eye Bill couldn’t decipher but which made her flush and turn away, though not too quickly, “someone got to the ropes and brought the curtain down. Well, the audience was howling but when they heard these men and the commotion behind the velvet drapes, heard them grunting and hollering as they pushed the piano across the stage, with him saying Am I all right? My head ain’t bleeding, is it? Get me out! Get me, and of course they nearly went through the floor –”
“Not the piano and him, the audience because it was so funny!” And yet his wife did not find this story humourous, even if the girl did, covering her mouth and looking with disbelieving eyes, and his wife’s drawn face, looking a little more beautiful when seen up close, could not stop her husband from continuing, because of course he told this story in a voice loud enough to carry to the girl, his intended audience now, forgetting his wife even as she trembled against the time of the train.
Things remained like that over the next week or so, the girl remaining at a slight distance, but eventually she moved closer. Bill watched her and them, Eric watched the girl, isolating Edna, and the girl watched Eric with a slight effort at discreetness. The day that she stood two people away from Eric dressed in a smart suit which complimented her figure exceedingly his wife looked around sharply, exclaiming in a voice a shade too loud for public transport, “There’s a rather nice perfume here, whose is it?” to which he replied “Some office girl, I expect,” his voice then lost in the noise of the train pulling into King’s Cross. Bill and the couple got out, Bill looking around to see the girl standing in the open door of the subway car looking purposefully in his direction. Turning around Bill saw Eric staring at her, then the crowd swallowed everyone.
Bill felt intensely curious about what qualities the redhead found attractive in the man. He acted like someone with a good bank account. But not like someone with a wife. Is that what she’s interested in? Wasn’t it a little easy to think that money was all she was after? She didn’t look like she shopped at any two-bit stores, a Sainsbury’s girl, not a Tesco’s. Where did she live? One evening he stayed on the train with her until it stopped at the British Rail station at Moorgate. She got off then and continued, Bill speculated, out of town. Maybe she was looking for someone in London itself, a man to set her up and help her buy everything she wanted. Bill thought this too easy a conclusion.
Days later chance, and the habitual choice of the English, brought them together again, each converging inside a ferociously crowded car. Bill was positioned behind the three of them, the wife and the girl on each side of the man, Bill behind the girl. This was the closest he had ever been to her and during the trip he compared the young beauty to the older woman. The man answered his wife in short bursts while working his arms free from where they were pinned to his sides, and put his right arm around his wife’s waist, at which she lay her head on his shoulder and seemed to drift asleep. Delays occurred along the line. “Probably another bastard offed himself,” from one commuter, who was answered peevishly by another with “And at this time of day too. You’d think they’d have a little more respect. Absolutely no consideration for others.” The subway remained stuck for fifteen minutes, the air poisonous, then the tube resumed its sluggish motion, allowing people to shift their limbs with relief.
As Bill changed hands, allowing one tortured arm to rest while keeping the other hand wrapped around the rubber knob suspended on coiled wire from the ceiling of the car, and as he moved his head into the path of the pathetic draught of subway air that leaked in through a small grill, he noticed the husband’s arm around his wife’s waist almost mirrored by his arm hovering around the girl’s buttocks, though he had not as yet touched her. Perspiration stood out on everybody’s foreheads but Bill thought that there might be an additional reason for Eric’s sweat. A sudden turn compressed the standing passengers into one lump, bringing Bill’s waist in contact with the girl’s shapely behind, the husband’s hand between his stomach and her back. Great, he thought, until he saw a face staring at him, not the girl’s but the wife’s. Why’s she looking at me? I haven’t done anything to her. Still, he felt embarrassed at the thought he’d had. Desire, more like it, when her ass hit my groin, boy, and could Edna read that from me, or can she feel that coming from him? Did she pick it up somehow? Now she gazed around, not seeing anything, but for a moment he wondered exactly how blind she was, then another jerk pulled them into a different configuration, and this time the long slender fingers of the husband settled loosely on the purse of the girl.
Another delay a stop later as the train pushed slowly into a station, a man holding shards of reddened wood leaving the scene of a suicide, body bags filled with what looked like round hunks of meat carried out by four bobbies, their shoes leaving faint traces on the cement, with the train cruising leisurely through the station, everyone crushed together straining for a view at the gory scene on the side of the platform. As they gathered momentum the husband’s hand began slowly fondling the girl’s behind. She turned around to her right, then behind her, flushing, glaring at Bill who responded to “You fucking pervert, get your hand off my backside” with a gesture that showed his other hand had been nowhere near her. “Well it better not be,” but she had embarrassed herself and him amongst the people there. If she knew it was that guy what would she do? The rest of the trip contained nothing eventful, for the husband’s hand retreated to his side.
Some days later the weather had warmed sufficiently for less heavy clothes to be worn, and Bill could see the husband looking eagerly around the car for the girl who did not disappoint him by not appearing. As the train was not overly crowded a carelessness in behaviour on his part became evident when she stepped on the train. She wore a long skirt and an off the shoulder top, revealing her neckline and the beginning of her cleavage. Eric stood transfixed, then started his usual conversation with his wife, though he no longer had to tell her stories as she had given up trying to hear him, defeated by the noise on this route. And maybe she knows something funny is going on, the way animals smell things before they see them. The glances between the girl and the man were frequent and she looked with brazen curiosity and challenge into his face as she stood by his side. He almost backed away but decided that with his wife on his other side rendered mute, and the noise of the train covering any sound he might make, he could take a chance, and cautiously leaned over, kissing quickly, then once more, slowly, “Eric, that smell, it’s that perfume again,” but Edna’s following words were drowned out as they roared into a station.
When he could Bill sought out the couple and the girl, and while they were aware of him his presence didn’t bother them because it was obvious he wouldn’t interfere. On a Wednesday he managed to get a seat on a two-person bench, the other spot vacant. Tired and numbed by a hard day he was unaware of anyone else in the car until a passenger sat down heavily next to him. He had been looking out the window at the pipes and wires running the length of the track when he felt a sudden sharp blow of a stick across his knees. “Jesus Christ, what the –” only to stop and see the blind woman’s face in front of his.
“I’m sorry,” her voice came out hesitantly, liquid and soft, “I didn’t mean to hit you. My husband lost his balance helping me here and I came down a little awkwardly, I’m afraid. I hope I didn’t hurt you.” He had never heard a voice so modulated and warm.
“Sure, no problem, just unexpected, that’s all.”
“Oh, you’re American, how funny. Are you here on business or vacation?”
“Canadian, not American. No, I work here.”
“Ah, I see. I do apologize for my mistake. Where’s Eric? Eric?”
“He’s trapped by everybody in the middle of the car,” supplied Bill after looking over his shoulder through the Plexiglas, her husband in plain sight, side turned away from his wife and openly kissing the girl whose arms guided his hands over her body.
“I just see his arm,” said Bill, afraid to tell what he could see.
“Oh, the dear man, he gives up so much for me.”
“Yes,” and then regretted using that word and lying for her husband who had by this time pressed the girl against the Plexiglas wall that separated them from the seat his wife was on. The girl’s back was to Bill and the man’s face leered down at her, totally oblivious to the looks from other passengers who had woken up to the fact that some kind of drama was unfolding, a rather smutty sex one in their view, although they had missed Eric dumping his wife into the seat next to Bill.
“Excuse me for interrupting, you’re not reading are you, I don’t hear you turning any pages.”
“No, I’m not, what is it?”
“Have you been in England long? Where do you work?” Bill paused before telling her the truth. As with many English people she would not think of asking a complete stranger his name.
“I’m here for a few years, just working odd jobs, to see if I like the place.” He told her briefly about his job.
“A regular job, then? I mean, you go to work every day at one time and leave at a regular time?”
“Oh yeah, five days a week, always.”
“And you can’t afford a car?”
“No, I’m always on this tube,” and a manicured ageless hand waved slightly in the air while she said, “Then you can tell me, I’ve noticed a delicious fragrance, a trifle too something or other for me, mind, that someone who also travels on this train wears, some office girl, Eric says, but that seems a little too dear for her to be able to afford. Can you smell it?”
Bill felt caught by the answers inside him. Dumb, dumb, I didn’t see that coming, and he cast a glance at the two absorbed lovers in a furious embrace behind them. I hope this tube stops on a dime and you bite each other’s tongues off. He responded slowly. “Let’s see, there’s a couple of women over there who look familiar, maybe it’s them, sorry, they’re a few seats down I mean, in the next part of the car,” and once again his sentence was chopped off when she somewhat crossly.
“No, nearer, nearer, and it has to be someone you see fairly often, who travels alone. I can smell it from here.” He looked up and saw King’s Cross approaching, thinking not soon enough.
“There are a lot of people here, and some of them are on it every day, sure. Maybe it’s a new perfume.”
“Thank you for your help,” drily, “I truly appreciate it.” He began to move from his seat. “Are you going?” He would have if he hadn’t seen that neither her husband nor the girl was moving from where they were. Should he leave the woman by herself? Would that be fair? “Sorry, I… no, it was just… I thought I saw someone I knew. I was wrong. No, this isn’t my stop.”
“Which stop is yours?”
“Elephant and Castle,” choosing a far enough away destination in order to give himself as much room as possible for leaving after the girl departed at Moorgate. He watched King’s Cross until it vanished.
“So far away to come for work, and that must be tiring. How do you pass the time?”
“Sometimes I read, sometimes I doze, most times I just think of things.”
“Just things, you know, things. I’d rather not –”
“Of course not, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…. I’ve always been dreadfully curious about people. Like that scent that girl is wearing, whichever one she is. She paused, considering. Whatever else she might be she isn’t stupid, Bill reflected. “Do you see my husband? Is he still standing, poor man?”
“No, I mean yes, he is standing, I just lost sight of him for a minute. He’s rather pinned in the middle of a group of fat men and one or two secretary types.”
“Rather,” she repeated, “rather, an odd word for a Canadian, you must be here too long,” her laugh sounding fresh and younger than he had heard it before. “My husband so entertains me with little stories about the people on subways whenever we go anywhere. He really is a clever mimic. When we get off at Moorgate I’ll introduce you.”
Moorgate, great, with the girl, he’ll have me with him in a cab probably talking to this woman while he screws that piece in the back seat, us sitting on those little fold-out chairs those cabs have, even now he’s got her Jesus I don’t believe this he’s sitting down with her at the end of the car. At that moment the train lost speed ominously, coming to a complete stop between King’s Cross and Angel. “What is it, Eric?” and he somehow reached her before a high note escaped her throat.
“Nothing, my dear, nothing, it’s just a delay, probably a fire on the line, one of those small fires.”
“Have my seat,” began Bill, but he interrupted him.
“Have you been bothering my wife?
“No, Eric, no, he’s not, no. He’s just been sitting here and we’ve been talking while you’ve been stranded with those dreadful Grub Street types.”
“The fat bankers and those secretaries,” put in Bill without consciously realizing until after he had said it the alibi then provided for the husband who winked as he had that time before only now it meant complicity.
“Ah yes, those men, and their dreadful… you know, dear, I’ve found out that that girl with the dreadful perfume, the one you asked about, she works at one of those job agencies, can’t make out which one.”
“But she was behind me and I could smell it,” she said with an acuteness unimpaired by blindness.
“Yes, and she met a man she knew down at the part of the car I was in. Most rude of her, she just waltzed down that crowded aisle without the slightest consideration for anyone, spraying that scent when she got there because she’s going out to dinner with someone when she gets off at the station. And,” his voice dropping conspiratorially, taking in Bill too, “she’s as big as a house. With that perfume! Vulgar woman, vulgar.”
“Why don’t you join your wife, then –”
“And what do you do? You look… dear, this is the man I was telling you about, the worker, the one who always looks as if he’s put in an incredible day’s effort. You recall me telling you about him. You do look knackered, you know. Thanks very much for the offer of your seat, now I’ll just wait until you get up and –”
“Oh, him!” She turned slightly to regard Bill. “No, he can’t, he’s got a long way to travel, Elephant and Castle, dear, and we get off in just two stops. Let him rest, the poor boy.”
“He’s strong, he can stand for a while, surely, then you can take one of our seats, yes?” I could take you out, pal, if you don’t watch your fucking lip, thought Bill.
“Yeah, no problem, just let me get by –”
“Oh, now see, you’ve made him mad, Eric, he’s tired.” The strength of her hand alarmed him as she unerringly clasped his arm. “Sit, please. Eric, don’t cause a fuss, dear, he’ll have to stand all the way if you don’t let him have this seat.”
“But are you sure? Will you be all right? He’s not—I’m sorry, no offense, you won’t mind, Edna? Are you sure?”
“Of course I am, dear. Don’t worry so much about me.”
“Fine then, I’ll just find a spot somewhere.” He went back to his seat with the girl and both looked every now and then at Edna and Bill without guilt. The train eventually limped into Angel. The crowd of commuters was larger than normal due to the delay, every inch of space taken up by loud businessmen and arguing contractors who blotted out Eric and the girl. Instead of making up for lost time by rushing to the next destination the train kept its doors open, waiting for the next load of travellers, most of whom would not be able to squeeze on. Eventually the subway listlessly proceeded to Moorgate.
“My husband’s like that.”
Startled that she knew what he was doing Bill said “Do you mean you… I don’t understand.”
“What? That he cares for me? Thank you.”
“No, I didn’t mean that, I –”
She laughed again. “Obviously you don’t have a girlfriend or wife. My husband said you spent a lot of time looking around at the women. Is that all you think we’re good for, to be looked at?”
“No! You don’t understand –”
“I gather I don’t. What I was about to say is that my husband is worried strangers might take advantage of me. And the reason he guides me around so much is that four years ago I took a bad fall and damaged my sense of balance. That’s why it’s so important for him to stay with me at all times.”
“And I’m like that, huh?” he responded, thinking, what is it about me that brings out the best in people?
“Don’t get me wrong,” and it was her turn to be embarrassed, “really, he’s only said you look, ah, rumpled and tired, not harmful, if you know what I mean. Curious, I suppose –”
“He meant it as a compliment,” faltering, revealing that there might be more to whatever inventive story he’d made up about him to amuse her. They travelled along, conversation stopped by her remarks and impossible anyway due to the orchestra’s fanfare of drums and trumpets as they arrived one stop short of their destination at Old Street. If he told her so much about me then he knows I get off at King’s Cross. What does he think I’m doing here? Helping him or something? The bastard.
“My husband makes up little tales about people, the ones on the train and famous people,” she inserted into a sudden quiet stretch. “He only told me that you seemed to work awfully hard, should you wonder if he said anything… else about you.” He appreciated that remark, and her old tone was back, not the one of laughter and easy speech from earlier but the one composed of lonely notes and almost inaudible sighs he’d heard on first seeing her.
“You asked me a question awhile back, let me ask you one. Do you and your husband have a car?”
“That’s a little embarrassing, for my husband, not me.” She rushed out those last words. “He had a tiny too much to drink and wrecked our car, well and proper this time, plus they took his licence away for six months. Of course, I can’t drive, and it’s fun in a way to be in a subway.”
“He only lost his licence recently then.”
“How did you know?” and the surprise in her voice was real. Bill could not imagine a voice more beautiful than hers.
“If you’d been taking this tube regularly all that time it wouldn’t be too much fun.”
“I suppose you’re right. But at the moment it has all sorts of charms, like interesting sounds and hearing all the different conversations, all of it running together, although my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Part of the accident that damaged my balance.” She bent closer to him. “There is sometimes quite an odour here, isn’t there? How is Eric doing, please?” Bill stood up and looked over the crowd. Through a momentary unravelling of a knot of people he witnessed the girl handing a piece of paper to Eric, her streetfinder out for him to see where she lived. So goddamn public.
“He’s doing fine,” as he sat down, unconsciously patting her knee, quickly taking his hand away, his gesture surprising both of them, disturbing them for different reasons. She did not talk much during the rest of the trip, saying only a hurried “Goodbye!” when her husband came for her bearing a locker-room smile across a flushed face. The girl had already left the car. Bill followed the couple out. He then went to the subway heading back in the direction of King’s Cross, using the cleaner Circle Line, and this time had an easier time getting a seat. He felt strangely disconcerted yet could not quite locate the reason for his mild agitation. As near as he could discover, it had a root in twice aiding Eric in his philandering, and he had not fathomed that action by the time sleep came over him.
All the next day he contemplated his behaviour on the subway the evening before. Why did I lie for that scum, make up a story that helped him get away with what he had been doing? And even before I knew what I was saying I gave him a way out. He must have lied to her lots of times before, been with a lot of women on the side. He’s a pretty smooth guy, can’t take that away from him. And he just knew I would lie for him, didn’t he? How did he know that? What stopped me from leaving at King’s Cross, or telling Edna that her husband was rubbing up against some sweet young pussy with everybody looking on? Well, Jesus, you couldn’t tell some stranger you’ve only talked to once, Hey, your husband’s with another woman right in front of you. What would she do? The thought occurred to him late in the afternoon that perhaps in some odd way envy had prevented him from telling his wife. Certainly he enjoyed looking at the young girl too. But her taste bothered him. How could she go for someone his age, and with a wife? She’s probably AIDS city, he thought sourly, knowing he wasn’t being entirely honest, because he wouldn’t stop some night in an alley or bedroom to slip on a rubber raincoat before screwing her. I wonder if her pussy is red-haired? Maybe gold-red. She looks like she knows all kinds of tricks, and that son of a bitch is going to enjoy them. Bill ruled out the idea that the girl was interested in money. Maybe she just thinks he’s good-looking, maybe she’s bored. It sure helps kill the time on the train, right? And maybe she, like the husband—and me too, sure—we’re just hunting for a piece of ass out of it. There’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to get humped or sucked off when she feels like it, but coming on to someone’s husband while his wife’s right in the same car, and her blind and not even able to stand straight without him, that was shitty.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe that was the thing she was doing. If you could steal money from under the nose of a teller in a crowded bank, knowing no one would butt in, and that the teller couldn’t see you, why wouldn’t you? This girl, there she is, in a car full of boring men, people with nothing special, and this guy with a bit of dough gives her the eye. Maybe she’s interested, maybe just playing. Then she looks at the wife and thinks, Hey, I could go right up to him and she’d never know it. Oh, she might hear me, smell me, sure, but in a crowded car you’re gonna be close to people. I could just rub right up against him and feel what he’s got. No problem, and he wouldn’t mind. The thrill of it was that she could do it with everyone else watching, betting no one would say a word. How would the wife be any wiser? So why not.
What Bill couldn’t understand was the reason the husband started all this in the first place. It isn’t the girl’s fault if he’s giving her the eye. She was just standing there looking pretty. What was wrong with him? So what if his wife isn’t a beauty like the young one, she was his wife, for Chrissake, married to him for years. Maybe he got tired of leading her around all the time, of all the talking and that. Maybe he wanted someone who could handle things on her own, who wouldn’t be straining him every day. Still, he knew she was blind, knew about her balance problem, what the hell is he looking for? Why do some husbands, money or no money, got to screw things up for guys like me who don’t have anybody? That bitch is a looker, and he’s got a wife, so that makes two women. What’s he doing, comparison shopping? It’s probably not your first time, sport. I don’t understand it, what way is Edna no better than her? Beauty, sure, but she’s not bad-looking, a helluva lot more refined than her, or him for that matter. That voice, so lovely, smooth, maybe she sounded a little odd at times when she’s left alone, but is that enough to dump her? What was it he was looking for?
That evening he boarded the train with his familiar companions, the first time they had ever been together two days in a row. As it was one of the warmer days at the end of winter people were wearing less bulky coats and had discarded hats and gloves. Eric was nattily dressed in an expensive Italian mid-weight suit while Edna had on a more casual dress that for the first time exposed some of her neckline, though she did wear a light coat wrapped around her. All eyes were on the girl, however, every male hormone activated by her attire. Her hair had been swept up to reveal ivory skin and prominent shoulder bones. Her black dress had a collar around the throat, then was backless down to the middle of her spine. A deep slit a little too wide for modesty opened her chest to view from where the collar ended to just below her breasts. The entire garment ended below the knee and from there pale stockings revealed the perfection of her legs. Bill assumed she was wearing garters. A fur coat lay to her side, not the best fur, but one obviously saved for special occasions. What would Eric think of this, he wondered. If he feels like I feel his cock’s a little uncomfortable right now. Eric nodded to Bill, whispered to his wife, then beckoned him over. Warily he approached.
“Edna has a favour to ask,” and Bill backed away suspiciously. “I have a business appointment in Hampstead, about some investments, and my wife has to get back home. I’ve arranged to have a friend meet her at King’s Cross to take her back to our apartment. Would you be so good, we were wondering, since you don’t get off until Elephant, if you could just stay with her to help her off the train?” His smile was almost real. “It would only delay you ten minutes, fifteen at the most.” Tempted to say no, Bill saw Edna’s face, her smile tentative, her face pulling anxiously at the edges as it must always do when she thinks she’ll hear a no.
“Wonderful, good, you see, dear,” and her saying “Thank you, I didn’t want to drag Eric away from such an awfully important meeting.”
“I’ll make sure you get a seat,” Eric said, and as the train pulled into Hampstead led them to the place where the girl and her coat were. “Excuse me, Miss, would you mind terribly if my wife sat there? She has a problem with her balance.” The girl got up and put on her coat without a word, and Eric pecked his wife before leaving. A moment later Bill idly turned around to see where the girl had gone but she was not in the car. Glancing out the window he saw her disappear arm in arm with his companion’s husband. Furiously Bill twisted his attention away to stare at Edna, who today in her pale summer dress appeared quite vulnerable.
“Did he get off all right?” she asked with a slight touch of worry.
“He got off all right.” To himself, He’ll be getting off all right in a little while, too. Christ, what an idiot.
“How are you?” he began. She responded pleasantly, and eventually Bill asked her why they always took this train.
“Oh, it isn’t always this one, is it? Although we English are pretty predictable. Well, you see, we have an invalid friend of mine who lives near the tube station, she’s just gotten out of the hospital, having had a… woman’s operation, you know, and she feels quite sad. I try to visit her as frequently as I can because her family lives away. She’s so lonely, and I know how…. Then we head back home for a late supper.” His curiosity satisfied, Bill and Edna talked about other topics until the train pulled into King’s Cross. Bill got out with her and looked for the friend she had described who would pick her up. Twenty minutes later she had to sit down, dizzy, and Bill’s patience was thin. “Are you sure someone is meeting you here?”
“Why yes, Eric called a friend this morning to arrange it.” Probably took the phone off the hook and pretended to dial, thought Bill. Hello, Tess? Yes, I have a wife who needs picking up at King’s Cross. She’ll be with a dirty-looking sucker named Bill, a Canadian. You’ll have no problem recognizing them, a blind dizzy woman and a grime-streaked young fellow. Don’t worry if you can’t find them, or don’t make it, they’ll be able to get home on their own. Ha ha ha.
Bill got up when Edna said she felt better. He realized she was close to crying, that she had probably never been on any arm but her husband’s for years. Frightened to death I’ll let her trip or knock her down myself. Is this what he doesn’t like, her reliance? Always having to worry about her? Is she always this afraid? Or does she think he’ll never come back if she lets go of his arm?
“I’m… fine, yes, but I think….”
“Could you tell me where we are, I need to know, or… please take me to a phone booth, I’ll call a friend who’ll take me back, she should be home now.” Bill walked with her to the telephones. There was no answer at her friend’s.
“How far do you live?”
“About fifteen minutes’ walk.”
“I’ll take you there,” at which she pulled back as if he’d touched her knee.
“No, that’s not necessary, thank you, I’ll…,” trailing off into a trembling silence.
“You’ll what? I’m not going to leave you here to be mugged or something.” Don’t say things like that, he thought, or she’ll really be scared. Think, think.
She acquiesced after a few minutes to his guiding her home, although he kept the pretense alive that he was a stranger to this part of London, more at home in Elephant which he had only been to once. Edna guided him, and the quarter-hour walk extended to forty-five minutes, made longer by her pointing out this shop there or that one there, the map of this area a Braille grid in her head for which she had no coordinates. She could tell you the stores and sights, but to find them on her own? No chance. Bill remembered a movie he’d seen about a blind white girl and a black man, Sidney Porter was it?, and how he helped her and she loved him. Her parents didn’t care enough to teach her to get around a city, making her like Edna, helpless. They made their slow way along, a young man rougher looking than he was escorting a trembling, older woman whose staccato raps with her cane underscored their conversation.
He must have had this planned, keep her nervous and occupied all the way home so she won’t think too hard about where he might be gone. When I see him next time I’ll bust him so hard he won’t be able to screw a light bulb. What am I doing here with his wife? Why am I babysitting her? Boy, he had my number pegged. A sucker born every minute –
“What are you thinking?”
“What? Nothing. Just looking for your street. Like I said, I haven’t been in this area before, I usually –” and caught himself as he was about to say “go in the other direction,” instead finishing with “only visit other parts of town.”
“It’s nice here, isn’t it? Such a difference, Eric tells me, when you come out of King’s Cross and go to Islington instead. I enjoy the park so much in the summer, and on days like today when it’s warmer than normal, it’s so nice. I know the flowers are out, the smell is so wonderful.”
“When is Eric’s meeting over? I mean, you won’t be home alone for long, will you? Or are you used to that?” He wondered if she might get alarmed at that question, or whatever the hell it was she felt when Bill said what he thought were innocent things. He was curious if there were any other surprises waiting for him along the way, like holding her hand until her husband could drag himself away from that girl’s bed. He looked at her face to gauge the response, surprised that a great deal of the nervousness that had been there at the beginning of their walk had disappeared.
“Not until late. The friend he mentioned invited him to supper, and after that some other people who deal with stocks and such are getting together there. Apparently it’s about an important opportunity Eric has been looking at for a while. I don’t know precisely when he’ll be home. As for me, well, you probably don’t think the blind can get around at all, but I know every inch of our flat, renovations and all.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it, you know.”
She softened, her arm clinging a little more tightly to his, as a consequence of which he almost ran them into a pole. He shook his head and stopped thinking how this March light and this false spring day combined to wipe years away from her features. Though it was slightly chilly now she preferred the breeze wrapping around her to the coat’s protection, and her dress fluttered merrily in the wind. At length they reached the apartment, not normally a walk-up, but as the lift—elevator, he said to himself—didn’t work he helped her up the stairs. “How do you,” hoping she wouldn’t take it the wrong way, “make your way around the apartment with your balance like it is?”
“You don’t give people like me much credit, do you? There are chairs there, and tables, lamps, couches, that sort of thing. Eric made sure all the furnishings were placed in such a way that I always have something to hold on to or lean against,” which Bill could see as the door opened and she turned on the lights.
“You know, I’ve never talked to a blind person before, I don’t know how you get around. You’re not very understanding,” fighting back churlish strains that might seep into his voice, “of what someone who’s never led anyone around might wonder about. I’m sorry for asking what are probably dumb questions but I just don’t know the answers.” She was silent as she navigated the room adjusting lights and temperature, closing and opening blinds and doors, turning the radio on to a classical music channel.
Bill watched her move around from room to room, waiting for some moment to say goodbye without leaving her to wonder if he had indeed left. “Can I get you a drink?” she called out from what he presumed was the kitchen, “some tea or coffee, unless you’d prefer something stronger?” She appeared back in the room. “Ah, good, you’re still here. Sometimes I can’t tell when people are in the room but I always know when they’re in the same room as I am. What about that drink?”
“No, I don’t think so, I think I’ll be on my way.”
“Yes, you have a long ride, don’t you? And I suppose you’ll have to cook your own supper when you get back? My goodness, it’s,” as she felt her wristwatch, “late, isn’t it? I didn’t realize how much time we’d spent getting here from the station. What time will you get home? It must be a good hour or so before you’ll eat. Stay here, since you’ve been so kind to help me. I’m sorry about what I said. I didn’t think that it was hard for someone to know what things a blind person can do, I’m so used to Eric being around.
“I don’t think that, I probably should get going, you know,” unable to walk away from her as she stood there, feeling in part sorry that her night alone was due in part to his furnishing Eric with a cover yesterday. He had become involved and felt obligated to see this evening through. I’m curious about her, and them too, yeah. It hasn’t been much more than a piss-poor day anyway so I might as well clue the thing up halfway right.
“I already have dinner on,” she said in the silence, “it’s in the microwave, timed, and Eric always puts in more than I can eat, he thinks I don’t eat enough. Maybe he likes them with a bit more flesh.” Lady, that girl with the tissue-box dress he’s squiring around as we stand here definitely has a bit more where he likes it than you do, with your catching his thoughts about her before they took more explicit form than he would have wanted. Clearing his throat he agreed to stay and asked where the toilet and washroom were, returning a few minutes later cleaner and relieved. She had changed while he was away into a casual green blouse and black slacks which replaced her fragile demeanour with something more confident.
“Do I,” blushing, “look askew?,” laughing at her words. “Sometimes my hair goes everywhere when I change in a hurry, and I can’t always tell if what I’ve got on matches. I leave,” giggling, “my clothes around a little too negligently, Eric says, so I’m not sure what’s where sometimes.
“You look… fine,” he said, not sure whether to tell her of a missed button on her blouse that showed unblemished skin where her bra had been.
“Do you like this gray top? I bought it only a few days ago, and I have a green one like it because Eric said it looked good on me.” The result was that he could not find a way without embarrassing them both to tell her that when she bent over to pick something up, or moved to one side or another, he could see more of her breasts than either person would likely feel comfortable about. A few minutes later they sat down to eat and he could focus on learning more about them while they talked.
Eric was a stockbroker who retired recently in order to care for her and to enjoy the considerable success he had had in his business. Through schemes and an occasional gamble he had taken their money and parleyed it into something approaching wealth, getting out of the game, as he called it, while he had his health. She had been blind since birth and when she married Eric only six years ago had given up all thought of children due to her not being able to care for them. She detested the idea of governesses, nurses, and maids. It turned out Eric was unable to father children and both had resigned themselves to being uncle and aunt for their few nieces and nephews. I’m not so sure she’s not hurting over that. She was thirty-seven, he was forty-three, now he’s screwing a girl twenty years younger while I’m sitting here at his mahogany table eating off expensive china and drinking out of fine crystal. Not bad for a stock boy, but he’s a stock boy too, and he laughed for the first time in days. “What is it?” she asked, joining in with him once, after careful editing, he told her what he had found amusing.
Despite his earlier sentiments he had a good evening with her, and over Irish coffee they talked about her childhood, her dead parents, Eric’s care for her—a topic she referred to often, which grated on Bill’s nerves and made him wonder how much she actually knew abut him—and of lighter subjects, such as trips and aspirations. Not surprisingly she had many when a young girl. Now she was content. “Married to a handsome, successful man, who has the most delightful family and friends, and who is fiercely protective of me, you know. If he knew I had a man in here, a handsome young man, especially, well,” she laughed a delightful scale, “he’d have something to say about that, oh yes.”
“What makes you think I’m handsome?” he asked, not out of vanity as much as puzzlement.
“Oh, as, well you see, he’s told me about you – didn’t I say that? Perhaps not. And he –”
“You said he told you I looked rumpled and tired, that was what you said. I know. I have that kind of memory. Phonographic, I think it’s called.”
“No, he told me, yes that’s right, he –”
“It doesn’t sound like something a man would say, somehow.”
“You don’t know my husband –”
“No, but I know men, and they don’t call other men handsome to their wives, maybe they say, I suppose you’d call him handsome, if you go for that sort of a face, or whatever it might be. That’s what I think,” and as before he wondered if he had said the wrong thing.
No, you’re right, he didn’t, he—there’s no need to… it was from your voice and how you treated me, even when I was saying those rude things to you, I’m sorry again, it seemed as if you might be handsome. Not like I understand movie stars are handsome, but—you know what I mean.”
“I think so,” and this time it was Bill’s turn to be a little dry. Her face fell and she shifted uneasily in her armchair.
“May I ask you something?,” her timidity ensuring his positive response. “This is so awkward. May I feel your face, to see you, if you understand? Please.”
He looked at her and thought, If those glasses were off would I see your thoughts? She was waiting. “Are you sure about… do you, is it what… Jesus, it is awkward,” he laughed, and that dispelled their reservations. She moved quickly to the couch and sat next to him, then slowly placed her hands on his cheeks.
“You shaved this morning.
“Yeah, I did.”
“And cut yourself, as one finger brushed his throat.”
“Where?,” and he put his hand up to check for himself, to feel her soft dry hand under his, and to hear her say “I made that up. It used to drive…. Now, keep your head up and let me see what you look like.” It was hard to do that as her proximity on the couch let him look at her as well, examining her face, her neck. “Chin up for just a moment, please,” his eyes seeking against his will her breasts that were now much closer to him, her aureoles faintly visible when she moved. Couldn’t she feel a draught, then realized this was the first house in London that was warm in the winter. She couldn’t tell, could she? Could she? Her mouth was close and he could see the tip of her tongue between her teeth as she concentrated with her fingers.
“Maybe I was wrong about you the first time,” and he felt disappointed, “but not now,” and she slowly took her warm hands from his face, returning them to her sides. She settled back in the chair. “You are handsome, but not only for how you look. If I take these glasses off I know people can’t bear looking at me, I can tell from how quiet everyone becomes. It’s what you are like that made me right, and how you look, but mostly, that you aren’t uncaring. It may be your culture, because we English aren’t too caring sometimes to people we don’t know, or even people we do know. Except for Eric, and some others.”
“I don’t know, he practically whispered, “some people where I come from aren’t that warm either.”
“You must find it hard here, not having anyone who respects and loves you like I have Eric,” she said unsteadily, to which he could only reply “Some people are a little unfriendly. Not like you,” and he could only look at her while she rested, her face having lost the strain he had become used to seeing, a face that had lost ten years since earlier this evening.
“Can I ask you something? Can I see your face?”
“You mean my eyes. I never show them to strangers, not even friends, unless—but yes, you can, I don’t know why,” and she leaned into him. He took her glasses off gently and looked at her, then her hand raised his to her cheek below her right eye, saying hoarsely “I have to have people look at me as I look at them,” and he stroked her face wordlessly.
After a minute he put her glasses back on. You have a beautiful face, he would have said if she did not get startled easily, so consequently remarked, “I think your husband is very lucky,” which he meant but thought it struck her in a peculiar way, and she eased herself up with “How about some red wine?,” and the evening continued. When he left two hours later he thought about assholes who have a nice woman waiting home for them and screw it up with a girl who you meet on a train, but abruptly stopped. I want to have her, don’t I? Isn’t that what this is all about, he got there first? Resentment burned inside towards Eric who had succeeded where he hadn’t. Her soft skin and attractive figure, what else could I feel? This miserable line of thought occupied him all the way home.
The next week he had to work late, and decided to reward himself with a night out at a much-talked about club on Saturday. Around one in the morning he glimpsed Eric and the girl. A step down for him, pretty normal terrain for her, it looks like, and they can do what they want here without anybody saying anything. Gossamer threads of lace reined in her breasts, the sides were scooped out of her dress, and a slit up the leg to the top of her thigh allowed his hands inside. Soon she was on his lap and by watching very closely Bill observed him unzip his fly before she settled on him, pretending to dance over him to the music blaring from immense speakers. Who’s watching her now, he wondered, obscured by the gloom of his corner at the booth adjoining theirs. “Get rid of her, why don’t you? Fucking hag, she’ll ruin you, can’t you see that? You want to take care of her the rest of your life? Now settle back, let me finish off.”
“I’ll be damned if that’s the way things stay.”
“Right, right, now you see, it’s better that way, only do it soon.
“No, no, it’s not that easy, children, lawyers, contracts, property, you don’t understand the ties.” Why is he lying about this?
“But don’t you want me, and this, every night?,” the flurry of drumbeats from the dance floor forcing their words back into the booth, Eric trapped in the discord with her legs wrapped around his waist, one hand rubbing the side of his head.
“I think I’m bleeding from that noise, the percussion, can we get out of here?,” grunting and pushing against her while she let him up and they argued across the floor out into the cool night air.
On Thursday Bill took the same car as he always did, seeing the couple’s backs as he waited for the last of their party to come on board at the next stop. Edna was pale and cloaked in her long coat, the winter weather having returned, her husband irritable but managing scattered remarks. When the girl got on he expected Eric to ignore Edna entirely and moved up for a better view, the girl seeing him first. She ignored Eric, motioning with her head to Bill who, confused, made his way to her. “Look, get talking to her for a minute, would you, luv, I’ve got to talk to Rick,” flashing a mechanical grin and looking away while she waited for him to do what she asked. Bill decided to do so out of curiosity, feeling suddenly tense. He made his way through the crowd and was about to say something when Eric spoke first.
“What the hell do you want? After getting my wife drunk you come around and act like we’re friends. Is that your game? I don’t appreciate it, lad.” Her face wore a strange look of contentment and something indefinable, blended with sympathy and wistfulness.
“I’m sorry, Eric’s so jealous, about the other night.”
“Be quiet, Edna. Don’t think I don’t know what you were up to, trying to get her drunk, a woman with her conditions. You’re lucky we don’t press charges. Get away, get away from us!”
Bill made his way back to the girl who, like the other passengers, had heard Eric’s tirade. “Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know, what a bastard,” and he realized her anger was with him and Eric. “What the fuck are you staring at? Goddamn pervert. You get off doing it to blind ones, do you? You’d been looking at her with that stupid dreamy look for how long? Then you fucked her, he says, and what am I left with? He went back to her once he knew about you. You screwed me out of what I wanted.”
“You knew what he was going to say?”
Her face changed. “No, I just had to know what he wanted, me or that bitch. Now I do. That’s all. Now just keep the hell away from me, understand?”
Bill retreated to the back of the car. What did Edna tell Eric? What did she make up on her own? The drinking, the missed button, could he have made something of that, something that never happened? Then it came to him that the indefinable look in Edna’s face might be one of victory in winning her husband’s attention back from the dangerous distractions she had sensed were connected to the perfume and his silences. She thinks he’s back with her like before because he holds her and gets angry at me for something he has to know didn’t happen. As soon as the girl wanted him to leave Edna the fun was gone out of having her on the side. He only wanted a mistress who wouldn’t want anything from him, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts searching around again.
Another, less pleasant, thought occurred to him, that perhaps Edna had purposely used that evening’s dinner to pretend she had been interested in someone else. The drinks, the loosened blouse, her touching his face, her natural intelligence, all could be convincing, and if she embellished things even a small amount Eric would be convinced that at some time she could find a lover, and feel threatened at a sudden show of a type of cunning he had presumed not possessed by her. Or, and this was worse, perhaps she had wanted something to happen that night between them, waited for him to take a cue from her actions. But being friendly with some man didn’t mean trying to get in bed with him, just because you were alone, and maybe she only wanted to see if he would try something with her. Bill tried pushing these ideas away, abruptly refusing to think any more about how he felt. Huddled in the back of the car he regarded the others. The girl stood glaring at the ads, the floor, the ceiling, playing with her hair absent-mindedly. The couple were close together, Eric casting black looks around to make sure Bill was not near, arm tightly embracing Edna, she nestled into his shoulder, murmuring into his ear from time to time. He had lost that face he’d thought of for so long without fully knowing it, until this moment when he could view it for only a few minutes more, what it meant to him, her softness and fineness, her curiously appealing unease in the world, all gone for good. He left at the next station taking with him a last glimpse of her delicate features and exquisite hair, the touch of her hands on his skin burned in his memory, already missing her musical laugh, missing that instrument he had seen briefly at rest once between her husband’s acts.
Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.