She can’t remember herself as that person
but she keeps thinking the pool will remember
and explain to her the meaning of her prayer
so she can understand
whether it was answered or not.
Louise Glück, A Myth of Innocence
Running through the usual gestures of self-reproach, our hero descends into the waking city. Old hand at this kind of thing, sea-legs keep her steady as she regards her reflection in silvered shop windows, beyond which that of the gables and cobblestones and the mist; that stochastic duck-rabbit switch between god it’s all so beautiful and christ what am I doing in a postcard. The answer to the second one being: leaving. Probably to the first, too.
She keeps the river behind her, thinking not for the first time that growing up in a city with a mountain in the middle of it was probably a little like having navigational training wheels on. Rudderless, here. Quiet morning, so that little strobe light of paranoia starts pulsing at the back of her mind – overexposed, unfamiliar streets, walking target. Not a new chestnut. Nice neighborhood, but this merely promises that the CCTV footage of her mugging, mobbing, kidnapping, burning at the stake would be in exceptionally high definition. Though a kidnapping would at least solve the problem of navigating these damned boulevards. Is it too much to ask for street signage? No more than it is to ask a grown woman to keep her phone charged, probably. Although, grown from what? A newspaper stand opening itself up half a block ahead, which at the very least gives Hannah someone to talk to other than herself.
“Merhaba,” says the man standing at the corner, running his little newspaper stand in Holborn, good for him.
“Sure, why not?” says Hannah.
“I’m sorry?” says the man.
“Um, Marlboro,” says Hannah, pointing at the smokes, and the second time round she manages to get the vowels in and the consonants in the right order. The guy does not return her smile, sets the pack down on the counter. He does return some of her coins, because they’re from the wrong country.
“Sorry,” she says. Nothing for that, either.
She does and does not want the cigarettes; they’ve bankrupted her, which she doesn’t want, they’re going to kill her, which she’s neither here nor there about, they give her an excuse to ask the nice man what the time is and which way to St. Pancras, which is the point. One of them.
Friendly neighbourhood Turkish newsagent shrugs at her question, and shuffles away to the far side of his stand, to look bored and jab thumbs at his cellphone. From this last, at least, she catches the time; about an hour before she has to get there, which means it’s probably doable, which means she can’t just give up and crawl back into you-know-who’s bed. Or, not plausibly.
At least there are cigarettes, now. She starts walking again, figuring some kind of marker has to make itself known before too long. Streets are starting to fill up a little more, cleaners and early commuters, folks with their own little trajectories to disappoint, so things aren’t as– what, Hopper? Escher? As alone-in-an-unfamiliar-city. Although obviously she’s not going to stop any of these people for directions. They’d think she was crazy. Or a tourist.
Anyway, it can’t be too much further. Who knows, maybe Virgil might talk them into keeping the gate open a few minutes longer, if she’s late. And didn’t everybody walk everywhere in Dickens? Although probably that’s the kind of too-many-books-spoil-the-broth thinking that landed her here in the first place; the kind that turns an offensively late phone call into a plot twist, instead of a poor decision to be avoided.
The review, if you’re wondering, since he was: the man had fucked like he was solving a puzzle, only ever making eye contact if he were looking for a clue from her – so, naturally, she found herself keeping her expression quite blank, getting off instead on the nearly affectionate kick she got out of his growing frustration. So, three stars.
“Well sure I feel bad after sex, sometimes,” a not-that-good-a-friend had said to her once, “but obviously only if the sex was bad.” Hannah had had to keep from staring at her.
Though, she grimaces to herself, at least this way there’s no possibility of a romanticized vaseline-on-the-lens what-if. A middle-aged jogger catches the grimace, and picks up his pace; so much for the not seeming crazy. Well hell, nobody knows her here anyway. Apparently. She’s usually better at keeping pace with that morning-after ebb and flow, pulling up on the leash enough to keep the successive peaks and troughs from looking quite manic, quite depressive. Blame it on jet-lag. And that has made all the difference.
Cutesy coffee shop open up ahead; that’s, not nothing. If she can’t rely on the celebrated hospitality of first-generation immigrants, maybe she can rely on the celebrated knowingness of gentrifiers. Although for all she knows this place was gentrified back when they still had gentry. Point being: kids with laptops inside, electro-whomp music, name like ‘Dregs,’ they’re going to be able to tell a person where the train station is. Even if they have to roll their eyes for the entire performance. Actually, bigger point being, let’s sit ourselves on some reclaimed furniture for a moment, because these boots were made for – well. Not walking. Not walking this far, anyway. Even the cute overnight bag is starting to get a little heavy, which is frustrating given that – she dumps it on one of the tables and hunches over, digging through the contents and finding little more than receipts, makeup and a granola bar. Which seems like a practical joke of some kind.
“What can I get you,” yawns the gender-neutral from Hannah’s elbow; Finnish? Croatian? Are we supposed to be able to tell these days? The accent could be from anywhere – which Hannah envies, mildly, so that when she finally remembers how to talk, and says “coconut water,” she’s scowling.
Which, maybe for the best, since they’re back quick enough, with a juice box and a bill. Hannah doesn’t look at the bill, just hands her card over. Exposed wiring in the ceiling, bare brick walls, wobbly tables decorated with mangled geraniums and Himalayan salt in deformed ceramic cups, a person knows better than to look at the bill. Still; bankrupted herself for cigarettes, put herself into debt for stone fruit water, all future transactions are going to have to be in arms, legs, and first-borns.
“I like your shoes,” says the barista, and it’s a sign of just how things are going that Hannah doesn’t pause to parse this for sarcasm.
“Thanks,” she says. “Listen, I’m sorry to be an absolute tourist about this,” and the careful stillness of the barista’s face here suggests that Hannah isn’t fooling anybody on that count, “but my phone’s dead and – do you know how to get to St. Pancras station from here?”
“Oh!” says the barista. Smiles, stops. “Sure. It’s very close, it’s, um, it’s literally three, four minutes along this road – big red building, impossible to miss.”
“I – oh. Great. Thanks, thanks so much.” Hannah punches in a generous-not-that-generous tip, because she’s grateful but ‘impossible to miss’ is what’s called kicking a person when they’re down. Barista swans off to lord their familiarity with their home city over some other innocents, Hannah swirls the brackish coconut water around her mouth. She can’t taste anything; even thinking about the exchange rate doesn’t make it taste any better or worse. How many more mornings like this before something gives? You’re going to have to be faster than that, she thinks, to whatever part of her still tries to get her to evaluate this sort of thing. Besides, it’s vulgar to count. Then again what isn’t? “Pull up,” she mutters to herself, gathering up her things, “you’re in a tailspin.”
“Excuse me?” says the barista, but Hannah either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care, walking blankly away.
Feet are still killing her, but knowing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel helps. Or is that what the moth said about the flame. Anyway, yes, now that there are more people on the street she can see that things are flowing a little more that away – and sure, fine, that’s King’s Cross, so the big redbrick fucker will have to be St. Pancras. Which, incidentally: why name a district after a Greek teenager who got beheaded for being a snot about his sacrificial duties? That’s better. Think about stuff that isn’t you. And it’s a nice day, on balance – probably – good silvery bits of sky, not raining, if it’s cold you’re too hungover to feel it. Or so her thinking goes. She doesn’t know the streets or their history well enough to have much feel for what this place was like even a decade ago – was it ever less metropolitan, less of a crossroads turned into a strip mall, does the way it changed mean anything? Not a thing, to Hannah. It’s just where she happens to be on the way somewhere else. A relief. Not all cities let you get away with that kind of thinking.
At this point it’s more herding instinct, or the gravity of a crowd, than anything else that gets her to where she wants to be – chilled wind, sharpness of smoke and late winter morning mingling gradually with the muted smell of other people under scarves and coats as she gets guided in through the red brick archway, all Victorian confection, then soot and noise and light cutting through the glass curve of ceiling two stories above. Can you tell that it’s getting a bit much? Leaning against one of the cold metal pillars next to some pseudo-Gallic McBar, phone in hand to give the impression of occupation while she stares hard at the speckled tile floor and gets a fucking grip – are you going to have a damned panic attack in a train station? Is it all these people, each with their distinct and separate lives, sweet and futile and out of reach, and oh no you just realised that they’re all going to die, too? If you’re going to crack up, at least let it be for something novel. They’ll never let you live it down in group, otherwise. Now put your bloody mess of a foot in front of you, and then the next, and get past the next round of stores, and don’t look at the nice old woman or the man holding his daughter or the teenage couple making a meal of their farewell scene, because god knows they’re not looking at you.
And, more or less like that, Hannah makes her way to the platforms, letting her training kick in when it’s time to fish out her ticket or passport, empty her bag and pockets to be searched by indifferent, snuffling security, until she finds herself away from the refurbished brick and glowing floors and in the godawful departure hall with its plastic chairs and chemical brown floors and she can begin to breathe again. Ugly 70s chic is something we know how to deal with. Or else with smaller rooms. Not too much later, a whistle goes and an arm gets waved and, steeling herself again, she shuffles from the departure lounge and into the train proper, ignoring the scale of the place, claws her way to her seat, sets herself down, and relaxes. Or remembers that relaxing exists. She lets her eyes close, and counts, and breathes, and waits. There’s the sound of harried people, the resonance of their last few footfalls and collapse into chairs that carry the stink of strangers giving way to the deeper hum of engines coming to life, and then at last:
Hannah sighs, the doors sigh, and probably the city sighs as it lets her go, moves off from the train to find easier, more palatable prey. The station noises recede.
“Bloody spare me,” says a friendly voice – so, obviously not her own – and Hannah snaps her eyes open to defend herself, but Virgil’s slouched in his seat opposite her and eyeing something further down the aisle over her shoulder. She turns; one of the teenaged boys from before is folded into himself with bagel-sized headphones, crying against his seat window.
“Be nice,” she yawns. “He was last seen weeping against somebody almost handsome. How was the rest of the talk?”
“Well I could have guessed that much,” he says, “I just miss the days when twinks were a little more stoic.” He tugs at the bag under his seat, his rumpled jacket sleeve getting pulled some inches up his wrist. “As for part two: I’m hydrated and well-rested, so please take a wild guess.” Virgil fumbles out a grey pill case, and manages to get it to his mouth. Hannah watches his tremor subside.
“You know, I get just the same way,” she says. “Travelling in foreign climes, all these unfamiliar biomes. Plays hell with the allergies.”
He doodles a crucifix on the glass misted by a compartment’s worth of breath; Hannah doesn’t feel compelled to vacate the area, so either she’s not wholly ruined yet, or Virgil’s having an crisis of faith. Swings, roundabouts. Beyond the fast-fading scrawl, the off-green of Kentish countryside briefly makes itself known.
“You don’t get to play dowager countess with me while you’re wearing yesterday’s ensemble.”
“It’s called recycling a look, and you’d be in the same position if you’d played your hand better.”
“I’m not disapproving of your having let’s-call-it-sex, you understand. It’s the lack of planning.” His gaze slips from the window to the space over Hannah’s shoulder again, not bothering to pause at her eyeline. “Christ,” he says.
“Still with the crying?”
“Snot, tears. I think my passions may have been doused.” He pulls some papers out of a breast pocket, furrows his brow at them in a way that still needs practice.
“You should tell him,” she says, stretching against her headrest. “It’s what I’ve always relied on, when I’m having a cry; strange old men telling me that I’m not looking attractive. Just like that, colour trickles back into my day.” A pause. “Weren’t you giving me shit about Calvinist repression like a day ago? Or am I just getting nostalgic.”
“Projectile vomiting your feelings isn’t any better than bottling them; they both avoid processing. At least your way’s quieter.”
“Look at you, ministering to the unwell,” says Hannah, bored again and eyeing the indifferent flashes of chalk and village rolling by. “Do you have my books over there?”
“Ah, no – those would be in the luggage.’
“The yesterday luggage?”
“The very same.”
Sending luggage ahead to meet them in Paris had seemed like a cutesy Graham Green sort of conceit, until the mess of paperwork that it involved manifested – paperwork that repeated at length, that whatever’s lost that Hannah doesn’t want lost, whatever’s found that Hannah doesn’t mean to be there, is Hannah’s fault. Which, maybe isn’t all that unlike what Greene would’ve wanted. Or Virgil, for that matter.
“More fool me. Kick me awake before we get to the big hole under the sea, would you?”
She’s asleep without much of a run-up, and there we might as well draw a curtain; whatever she thinks about, whatever half-recognised yearning she comes up with in her hindbrain while she’s lulled ever further into drooling against her chin while the train cruises through and out of the south of England, is yanked cleanly out of her recollection when she jerks awake at a hand on her shoulder. The hand’s attached to an attendant with a perfunctory smile and a gesture that usually means ‘last call,’ but in this case –
“Are we there?” says Virgil, face also thick with sleep, papers folded on his lap.
“Did you catch the tunnel?”
“Looks like not.”
“Sorry. Just close your eyes and hum, it’s a little like that.”
The steward waves at them from the carriage door, and they pull themselves together to shamble out of the train and fall into step with the other bodies moving in the big wrought-iron hangar, shaking off sleep and confusion and loss enough to do whatever the next thing is.
And, well. You can get used to that, too.