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She tried to straighten her thoughts, give them some order and linearity, and when that didn’t work she tried to imagine herself elsewhere, on a mountain or coast far from the city, rather than on the Central line with its erratic movement and office-bound passengers and the prickly silence of those torn from sleep. She and her mother had been lucky to find seats; at that hour the tube was nearly full, a geometric overload of skirts and suits, and wherever she turned she saw freshly combed hair and painted faces and newspapers and briefcases all vying for space.
“You know, you could have died.” Her mother lowered her voice in the hope that none of the other passengers would hear.
“Well the point is, I didn’t.”
“You nearly did.”
“Don’t you have a sweater in your bag?”
“I gave it away.”
“You gave it away?”
“This morning. To one of the nurses.”
With something close to nostalgia, N. thought back on the small room she’d just left behind, its itchy grey blanket and sweat-faded sheets, and the dent in the wall, courtesy of a former patient, in which her own fist had fit perfectly. Now that she’d left she found herself missing the kind female voices that roused her each morning, voices that for a few seconds invoked the promise of a new life, voices she preferred to that of her mother’s. And she thought back too on the strange dreams she’d had, dangerous and ornate, dreams unlike the ones outside. And then the wallpaper: red and white stripes connecting floor to ceiling, heaven to hell. There was a window, always locked, but as a view N. preferred the walls and the ceiling since they didn’t present any mocking beyond.
In the seat in front of her sat a boy wearing headphones. She hadn’t heard any music in five weeks, she realised, not a note. As soon as she got home she would listen to… everything. Thousands and thousands of songs. She’d go through them all, one by one, day and night, an endless carousel of memories, welcome and unwelcome, round and round, that melodic loop of acceptances and rejections, tiny triumphs and huge disasters. In the clinic, what she’d feared the most was the loss of her memories; now, she was willing to keep them all.
“Which sweater was it?
“Just a sweater.”
“I hope not one of the nice ones I bought you last month.”
“They won’t be on sale again. You won’t have one like that again.”
She shrugged a second time.
“She must have been a very nice nurse to deserve a sweater like that.”
“Yes, she was nice and kind and brought me tea whenever I wanted.”
“Shouldn’t they do that anyway?”
“Well, they don’t.”
Her mother shook her head and mumbled something to herself, as if running a few mental maths, trying to assess whether she had possibly, in this latest guilt venture, been taken for a ride.
N. looked down at her hands, which had nearly recovered their delicate form. There’d been a point when she hadn’t recognized them, they were so purple and swollen she feared they would break off and drift away, the palms puffy and indistinct, a fortune-teller’s nightmare. And then she wondered, as she rubbed them together, what had happened to her gloves, a beautiful pair her grandmother once knit, dark blue with grey borders. They’d begun to feel tight so she’d stowed them away, but where? Well, it didn’t matter, what was gone was gone. Just as long as no one touched her records, the only belongings N. swore to herself she would never sell off. This past year everything, pretty much everything, had gone up in smoke, part of an amazing alchemical transformation of base metal into gold.
She couldn’t help but keep an eye on the doors. Instinct. Each time they opened and closed at a station, an opportunity came and went.
At the next stop two men clutching paper bags from McDonald’s got on. The carriage filled up with the tantalizing smell of french fries.
“I’m cold and I’m hungry.”
“I’ll make you something when we get home.”
“That’s ages away.”
Her mother looked up at the map on the wall. “Only twelve more stops.”
“And then the bus.”
“There shouldn’t be traffic at this hour.”
“I don’t see why we couldn’t take a cab.”
“A cab would’ve cost the same as a day at the clinic.”
“Then think of all the money I’m saving you by leaving now.”
“I just hope Dr. Reid knew what he was talking about when he said you were ready to come home.”
Coming home: once upon a time, quite a while ago now, this phrase was like a magic potion, but the word ‘home’ had now been attached to so many spaces, it’d lost all currency. Each year it had referred to somewhere else, to a different scenario, a different roof, a different set of faces: the rented flat in Bow, the rented flat in Seven Sisters, the family house in Mexico before her mother went off with the Englishman, and of course the string of clinics where she’d been sent after the first so-called intervention.
At Oxford Circus half the carriage disembarked, leaving room for the dozens of passengers who clambered on. Nearly everyone found a seat and those who didn’t grabbed onto the bright red poles and handrails as the tube began to pull out of the station. N. rubbed her arm and thought back on the handsome new patient who’d arrived at the clinic two days earlier. She could still visualise him perfectly, ambling down the corridor with his combed-back hair and long-sleeved turtleneck, no track marks visible, only the familiar scent of melancholy. It was his fourth time there, the nurses said, and they doubted it would be the last. He’d looked over in her direction once or twice, at least she thought he had… If her mother hadn’t arrived so early that morning they might have spoken.
“Twitch, twitch, twitch,” her mother interrupted the reverie. “Twitch twitch twitch. I thought they’d ironed all the twitches out of you.”
“I set some aside for the journey home.”
Yes, her mother had tried. But only for a few months and not hard enough. Her attempts were half-hearted, mechanical, and she’d been careless – forgetting to dispose of expired medication, leaving earrings and banknotes within view, passing on phone calls that should have been screened: endless temptations for the easily tempted. She hadn’t tried as hard as some of the other mothers, at least according to the stories people shared, and she certainly hadn’t been very present in the early days, when N. had desperately needed her.
It was at Chancery Lane that the pigeon flew in, right into the carriage in a clean diagonal sweep, a whisk of all four seasons compressed into one. It was a large pigeon, slate grey with reddish eyes and white-tipped wings, and it entered at the last possible second before the doors banged shut and the tube recommenced its journey.
One moment it had been on a vaulted platform with friends, the next, it found itself alone with the other species inside a closed space in motion. Almost immediately, with the first awkward movements of the tube, the bird turned into a dervish of feathers, panic and confusion. People ducked and dispersed yet it still managed to graze a few heads and shoulders. Two startled young women rose from their seats and hurried to the opposite end of the car. Someone waved a handbag.
The pigeon flapped this way and that and N. caught a glimpse of its underwing, of an inverse serenity, light powdery grey. Each stroke of its wings released a slight breeze, the breeze of hundreds of flights across the city.
“Ssssss,” someone hissed when the bird came too near.
After about a minute or two of useless histrionics, the pigeon seemed to calm down and landed on the floor with a thick, clumsy thud. It surveyed the area and then headed enthusiastically in the direction of the men with bags from McDonald’s. One of them stamped his boot and muttered something in a foreign language. The pigeon backed off.
N. and her mother watched on. The other passengers watched too. No one spoke, no one moved. All eyes were on the bird.
At St. Paul’s, a station N. rarely used, a woman with a dark ponytail got on and took an empty seat near them, straightening out her skirt as she sat down. The woman pulled a novel out from her bag, cracked the spine wide open, and turned to the first page. When the pigeon pecked at something near her feet, she simply moved them a few inches to the left without looking up from her book.
When had she last read? She couldn’t remember. She’d started countless books, of that she was sure, novels and biographies and even some poetry. But despite the warm glow that came out of the pages she would doze off before long and find herself, hours later, with the book in her lap or at her feet, and she’d put it aside and pick up the next one, and this too, she realised, was an endless carousel, though instead of a whole variety of memories the main memory the books brought back was of herself as a student before she dropped out of university, and of her prodigious concentration, remarked on by everyone, and her proud rows of 10’s.
Swoosh, swoosh. The pigeon was back in the air and had begun flapping more frantically than ever. It circled a pole, zipped down the carriage, zipped back near where N. and her mother were sitting. People would hastily make way for it, clearing a path for its desperation, but it didn’t want to see. At one point mid-tunnel it flew into a darkened window and was thrown to the floor for a few seconds before resuming its flight.
At the next station N. grabbed a sports section that had been left behind and tried to usher the bird out but it grew even more flustered and headed in the opposite direction just as the doors were closing.
“He prefers it in here, where it’s warm,” someone said. No one laughed.
At Liverpool Street a serious-looking man in a pinstriped suit strode on and sat directly across from them, the aroma of McDonald’s replaced by the confident reign of cologne. The man was hefty, with cheeks bearing the flush of countryside and pale blue eyes that with one glance sized up the other passengers. He set down his briefcase, wedging it between his polished black shoes, and unfolded the newspaper he had under his arm. Soon all N. could see were shoes, large knuckles and knees and the outspread wings of the Financial Times.
“By the way,” her mother turned to her, “We’ve decided you’re going to Mexico for a year.”
For the first time since her last fix, she was aware of the blood circulating through her body.
“You’re going to live with your father. We’ve discussed it and agree it’s the best option.”
“I’m happy here.”
“You know you’re not. This is your last chance.”
There’d been many last chances; she was nearing the end of her supply.
“What will I do there?”
“You’ll live with your father and start thinking a little more seriously about the future.”
“Of course, the future…”
Little by little, it had come to represent nothing more than a shadowy road lit by fireflies, lined on either side by the silhouettes of people and possibilities that would remain just that: silhouettes.
The woman reading the novel let out a small cry. The pigeon had flown past a little too close, brushing her cheek. In a delayed response she waved a hand in front of her face and leaned back as far as she could but there was no need, it had already flapped away. A grey feather zigzagged to the floor.
“Three more stops,” said N.’s mother.
It was shortly after she said this, N. would never forget, that the pigeon flew right into the centre of the Financial Times. Without blinking, the man in the pinstriped suit lay down his paper and within what seemed like a fraction of a second, grabbed the bird – the whole carriage was now watching – and with his fat knuckles snapped its neck. It was a clean snap, expertly done, as if he’d been snapping birds’ necks his entire life.
One second the pigeon had been tense and aquiver, the next, an immobile lump of grey. Whatever its journey across the city had been, it ended here. The man deposited the corpse on the empty seat next to him, picked up his paper and continued to read.
The act was met with silence. Everyone simply stared at the dead bird, just stared and stared, as if pooled together the intensity of their gaze might resurrect it.
For a few seconds N. fought the impulse to pick up the pigeon and take it outside to bury – the sanitation people would surely just toss it in a bin – but the thought of touching the thing made her queasy. She imagined what it would feel like to hold the feathery corpse, still warmed by its recent life force, and wasn’t sure what was more overpowering, her distress at witnessing such brutality or the guilty flicker of revulsion she’d begun to feel.
As if in quiet defeat, the pigeon’s head lay to one side like the emblem on a fallen coat of arms. Its eye had almost immediately turned white, or perhaps it was the eyelid that had closed, and its legs, already stiff, looked like little pink twigs that could easily break off.
N. turned to look at her mother, who continued staring at the bird, willing her to say something, anything. But no, she kept whatever she was thinking to herself, hands in lap, fingers interlocked.
At the following station, which was open air, the businessman folded his paper, picked up his briefcase and stepped out. The doors of the tube took a few moments to close, and as they stuttered N. gazed out at the sky and the platform and the spaces in between, seized by the urge to grab her bag and run for it, in whatever direction opened up to her. But she remained in her seat and with one strong tug unzipped her jacket, for the temperature inside the carriage suddenly felt very warm