Chapter One

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– 1 –

 I caught a glimpse of myself today. Not the me of my mirror image, nor the me of my forgiving mind’s eye, but the me that strangers see. I saw my description on the pages of a book, recognised myself in the words of a man I have never met.

I was on the train to work, looking by turns at the passing blur of the flatlands outside and the opening pages of a book, when I was overcome by a nagging feeling that something was amiss. Something unsettling had been said or done, but I had no idea what. I waited for it to either fade or crystallize, but it did neither. Instead, it lingered uncomfortably, following me off the train and taunting me throughout the halting bus ride to my shabby third-floor London office.

It may have eluded me all day were it not for the ritual flirtations between my supervisor, Hazel, and Simon, who comes round selling lunchtime baguettes from a basket. I used to buy from him when I first started working here, but I wasn’t very good at the small talk in which he wraps his wares, so now I take a packed lunch instead. Not so Hazel.

“I think I’ll try the smoked turkey with pesto. And I’ll have a blueberry muffin to go with it,” she purred at him.

“Alright, darlin, anything for my favourite girl…”

“Will you have bagels tomorrow?”

“Sorry flower, I can’t make it tomorrow. I’ve got to go to my auntie’s funeral.”

Funeral… the word hit me like a train speeding out of a long, unlit tunnel. My mind ran away without me, darting back through talk and time looking for the source of this sudden resonance. Eyes screwed shut and fingers pressed hard against my ears, I picked through the remnants of last night’s dreams and re-read the morning’s newspaper headlines. Nowhere could I recall a funeral, so I replayed my journey to work. I watched myself step into the busy carriage, felt my relief at finding a seat, heard my silent debate over whether to remove my coat, and saw myself decide against. I eavesdropped anew on the hushed chat of commuters around me, re-opened my bag and retrieved my book. My book, which felt relevant to my search, but about which I could recall nothing. So while Hazel continued to play coy with Simon, I started to read it again.

“This story, Dear Reader, begins one summer not so very long ago, on a train filled with office workers and the heavy odour of their collective August existence. Among them were three scantily clad girls who wore their rude rolls of fat with misplaced pride, and through whose poorly painted lips came unsavoury breath telling unsavoury tales of their sexual conquests of the night before.

A middle-aged woman who sat shaking uncontrollably as delirium tremens lay siege to her body, listened with envy to their lurid bragging. Mentally breaking her vow of sobriety, she sulkily mouthed the words ‘make mine a double’ at a boy perched on its father’s pin-striped trousers across the aisle. The child stared back at her with wide-eyed fear, and only brightened when it caught sight of a bald man whose stomach was oozing uncontrollably out of the gaps between the buttons on his wholly inadequate shirt.

The ample man acknowledged the child with a wink and sought to entertain it by blowing his nose into a piece of newspaper. The father struggled to conceal his disgust, and repositioned the boy to face a younger, haughty-looking woman who, refusing to be drawn by any of what she saw, carefully smoothed the folds of the cream and red floral print dress she would be wearing to the funeral she would happily soon be planning.”

            There it was, the source of the resonance. The mental relief was blissful, and I closed the book and leaned back in my chair to enjoy this victory over my sluggish memory.

But my triumph was short-lived, because something was still not right. And whatever it was, that something appeared to be connected to the book now lying face down on top of a stack of papers on my desk. I tried to ignore both the book and the feeling, but I couldn’t prevent my eye from wandering to the blurb on the back cover.

“The Ruthlessness of One Man’ is based on the physical appearance of a real-life London commuter. Perhaps she is the one sitting across from you, the one at her side, the one you just walked past, or perhaps she is even you. Whoever she is, Mr Walden’s interpretation of her life will leave you, Dear Reader, in no doubt that things are rarely as they seem. ”

I knew nothing of The Ruthlessness of One Man, except that I received it as a loyalty gift from the old-fashioned book club I joined a few years ago, that its author was man called Mr. Walden, and that I grabbed it from my kitchen table as I hurried out of my house this morning. But when I read those few lines about the real-life London commuter with whom I may once have brushed shoulders, they made me want to know more.

“It was hot inside the compartment, and although she felt it too, Davina had no intention of joining the chorus of predictable heat-induced moans and groans. She rolled her eyes at her fellow passengers’ futile attempts to fan away the inhospitable heat, mentally berating them for fuelling the very furnaces they were at pains to extinguish whilst simultaneously spreading the ghastly human smells that assaulted her every intake of breath. These she filtered by holding to her nose a crumpled lace-trim handkerchief. And each time she did so, she bowed her head just enough for her lank shoulder-length brown hair to fall forward and reveal a thin pink scar below her left ear.”

            I think I am that woman.

I am not given to vanity, but the likenesses were too great in number to be coincidental. I read the words again, slowly and deliberately, checking them against the facts of my life, and asking reason to guide me to my senses. It stressed that of all the commuters in the country, I am not the kind to stand out and inspire writers to their pens. I may have shoulder-length brown hair, but so do thousands of other women. I may also have a cream and red floral print dress, but I know for a fact I am not alone in that either. Even scars are not hard to come by. But when it came to the line about the crumpled lace-trim handkerchief, reason reached a dead-end.  And it left me there.

Because how many of these nameless, faceless women bound together by the unity of their haircuts, dresses and accidents are also comforted by the smell of rose oil bled into a small square of lacy cotton?

“Enjoying yourself?”

I slam it shut and look up to find a pair of dishwater eyes staring at me from the depths of a puffy pink face.

“Oh, you gave me a fright.”

“So I see. Good book?”

Hazel has an absurdly keen interest in my life. I never give anything away, in part on principle, but in part because the reality would disappoint her. Perhaps even more than it disappoints me.

“I’ve only just started it.”

“What’s it about?” She tries to snatch the book from my hands, but I pull it away, accidentally scraping one of her fingers with my badly clipped thumbnail in the process. “Ouch! What was that for? I only wanted a look.”

“I’m sorry, Hazel. Did I hurt you?”

Hazel studies the wound which is barely managing to bleed, and sucks on it with a pained expression. Then without another word, she rolls on her chair back to her desk and rummages through her top drawer. After a moment, she makes a general plea.

“Anyone got a plaster?” Hypochondria is the oil on the wheels of Hazel’s day. The temp from the reception desk hurries to her aid with a box of assorted plasters. “Ooo, that looks sore. What did you do?”

Hazel flashes me a reproachful glance.  “Ruth scratched me.” She looks over at me again, her eyebrows raised suspiciously. “Makes me think you must have something to hide.”

I shove the book into my bag, wishing I had scratched her harder.

Our toilets are not a place I normally like to spend more than the bare essentials of time – they have a cold, institutional acridity about them. The cracked seats are invariably spattered with pee that other women can’t be bothered to wipe away, the bowls are stained, and the ancient toilet brushes are themselves too soiled to be of any sanitary use. But there is nowhere else in our building I can hope to continue reading undisturbed. I enter the cleanest cubicle I can find, trying to breath without inhaling the stench. As soon as it neutralizes, I remove The Ruthlessness of One Man from my bag.

I read the back cover over again, rapidly shifting between believing and disbelieving that I could really be the real-life London commuter to which Mr. Walden refers. I tell myself I would never want to be singled out to serve as a model for a literary protagonist, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s the truth.

On the inside cover I find an acknowledgement:

“I dedicate my book to the beautiful face which inspired me to write it. In a railway carriage full of people, she stood out and arrested the attention of my thoughts and my pen. I thank her for showing me the truth, and hope she will like the life I have imagined for her.”

             When I read that, disbelief conquers belief. Fact is, I am too dowdy to stand out in a group of three, much less an entire railway carriage. And there is nothing about me that is beautiful or that has the power to arrest anyone’s attention. There must be a greater likelihood of my winning the lottery. And I don’t even play.

* * *

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