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November 2008
THE ALDGATE FAST

Menaka Raman
He stands at the end of the platform, an unfamiliar face. Confused, her eyes search for the unsmiling Asian man and over-aged Goth they are accustomed to, until she realises she is taking an early train home.
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Her eyes wander back to the man’s face. The hair is close cropped and a shade of brown that would be labelled mousy or plain on a woman, but is somehow deemed acceptable on a man. His face is a pointy oval on which the features are evenly distributed. The eyes are pale grey, the nose straight and the lips neither mean and thin nor fleshily vulgar. The symmetry and beauty of his face is marred by faint scars; souvenirs from a long past visit of acne perhaps?

The imperfection pleases her somehow. It allows her to move past his well-defined chin and the stubbly bulge of his Adam’s apple. He is tall and on the right side of gangly in his well-cut suit. With no tie and two shirt buttons undone she imagines he possess’ a subversive streak. His hands are free of the de rigueur messenger bag and cell phone. Instead, they clasp a book. The title is obscured by his ringless fingers. Tufts of brown hair stick out like tumbleweed at the knuckles. This pleases her too — a sign that he is not a body waxing metrosexual.

His fingers shift. Thackeray. Vanity Fair.

She suppresses the urge to arch an eyebrow. He didn’t strike her as the type, although exactly what type he is, she does not know. She takes her own book out of her handbag. Murakami. Norwegian Wood. The contrast pleases her somehow. He looks up at the digital display and as he returns his attention to his book he glances at her. The corners of his perfectly formed lips turn up in a semi-smile.

• • •

She is furious. Darcy! Arrogant and a misogynist to boot. The delayed train adds to her anger. Typical. The one day she manages to sneak out of work undetected, there’s a faulty signal or a passenger action. She cranes her neck to see if there is any sign of the train. A tall, quasi-familiar figure is striding down the platform. It is Thackeray. Book in hand.

She silently wills him to come close enough for her to see what he is reading. Heller. Catch 22. She casually shuts her own book, holding it in such a way so that he can see the cover. If he wants to. Her hand unconsciously goes up to smooth her hair. But he does not smile at her. In fact he doesn’t even seem to notice that she is there. Resentment stiffens her spine and she returns her attention to her book. Darcy’s arrogance and Thackeray-Heller’s become one.

• • •

It takes her eight days to forgive Thackeray-Heller. For a week after the incident she savagely convinced herself that he and his books were a front. That he went home to stacks of Loaded, Nuts and ready meals from Iceland. But then he smiled at her. Not the vague, slightly embarrassed smirk exchanged by the person squashed next to one on the commute home, but a proper smile. The day after that he offered her his seat. She refused of course, preferring to stand close by and slyly peer at him over the edge of her library’s well-thumbed copy of Middlemarch (was she the only one who had taken for granted that George Eliot was a man?)

• • •

It has been four months since she first met Thackeray-Heller-Roth-Proust-Melville-now Auden. The choices confuse her. They throw her off track. She feels like a thwarted portrait painter whose subject turns up for each sitting with a different face on.

She leaves the office early every day so that they can travel together. She enjoys the silent companionship they share. Late trains no longer irritate her. In fact she longs for them; praying for suicidal platform dwellers and expanding rail tracks. Anything that will prolong the time she has with him.

She always waits for him to board the train first, allowing him to choose their compartment. She never sits next to him, preferring to be seated diagonally opposite instead. She hates it when people, baby buggies and fake Dior bags crowd the aisle and obstruct her view. She loves watching him read. The way he holds his book — tenderly but firmly — says so much. Sometimes he follows a particular line with the tip of his finger, shuts his book and stares out the window. Not in an empty thoughtless way, but really thinking about what he has just read.

Before, she would leave the office in a breathless rush, bag half open, newspaper and jacket crumpled, hair astray. Half a cherry muffin in hand, half in mouth. Crumbs on lips and coat lapel. She takes her time now. A visit to the ladies room has become mandatory – make-up is retouched and hair combed. She dresses with care and has weaned herself off cherry muffins. The change has not gone unnoticed. She is asked out by colleagues and occasionally accepts. But then they admit they ‘don’t really get the point of books when I can watch telly’ or mention that they think the latest footballer’s biography ‘is a classic’. She begins to develop migraines and create terminally ill grandmothers. The office grapevine whispers that she is a book-reading, closet lesbian.

She buys a notebook.

• • •

On weekends she trawls bookstores. She tells herself that the alternative is staying in bed and watching television. But deep down inside she yearns to bump in to him. She hopes that he will see her browsing through Amis (father not son) and ask whether they have met before. She will return his puzzled expression and after a few moments murmur ‘Oh! You take the Aldgate Fast don’t you?’ She will smile and then mysteriously disappear in to the Classics section.

She heads to WH Smith. Bright lights and insincere smiles. Bestseller lists and Keira Knightley on the cover of Austen. Take That and dull carpets that hide stains. When none of the staff have heard of Pynchon (his latest read) she berates herself for not knowing him well enough by now. Of course. He is not the high street sort. She moves to Foyles and the dusty second hand bookshops of Charing Cross. She lingers in the Oxfam on Marylebone Street studying inscriptions made inside books in limbo. Searching for a name she does not know.

Her notebook travels with her everywhere. It was meant to be a diary. But with nothing other than his chosen book titles and the degree of his smile to note down she has turned to writing fiction. Thinly veiled fiction. She sits in small quaint cafes that once made her nervous with their real coffee and six different kinds of granary bread, notebook open, her pen skittering across the page creating scenarios and what ifs. Characters sketched out in round o’s and ridiculously curlicued p’s. Every one of them him. Like some earthly Mahavishnu, his various avatars descend on the pages of her notebook. She is writing their story.

• • •

She has started reading what he reads. Not at the same time but a week or two after he has moved on. And always interspersed with her own choices. Occasionally her efforts are rewarded. The flash of recognition in his eyes helps her as she struggles through Joyce (rather the first chapter of Dubliners) and the rare smile makes her persevere with Stendhal.

• • •

She lies awake at night and talks to him. They have long conversations about mood, plot and characterisation. Sometimes she reads their story out to him. But she prefers that he does most of the talking, stretched out on her back as his whiskied voice washes over her. She wonders if he thinks of her as she thinks of him.

• • •

She imagines his home. Parquet floors and a classic chair in the corner. Nothing that will distract from his books for they are the star attraction, not sash windows, fancy cornicing and limited edition wallpaper. She imagines him surrounded by his library. Arranged chronologically, by genre and author on clean-lined shelves found throughout his studio (why would he need anything larger?). He goes home every evening and greets his books as one would a lover, make himself a light meal and then settles down on his chair under the glow of an anglepoise. Book in hand of course. She is sure he doesn’t have a television. She is tempted to give away her own.

• • •

She sometimes takes her notebook out on the train. But she never writes, preferring to leave it on the small table that occasionally separates them. It is a tantalizing, exquisite pain; the knowledge that he could reach out, pick up the notebook and read the burgeoning stories. Sometimes it is too much for her and she snatches her notebook back.

• • •

She tells her mother she has met someone, not only to put an end to the incessant questions and worrying but because she knows she has. She refuses to volunteer a name though, loath to tack a careless John, Joe or Michael on to him. Also it adds an air of mystery to their relationship and infuriates her smug, married sister. He has been invited to spend Christmas with the family.

• • •

One day their great granddaughter will find her notebooks in a rusty trunk in the attic and have them published. She believes her writing will not be appreciated in her time.

• • •

She cannot see him. He has two minutes to make it. She tries to stem the panic rising inside. Where is he? The train pulls up, opening its doors and emitting the usual teenage mothers and disapproving OAPs. Oblivious to the shrill bell, announcements and departing train she waits for him. The obvious explanations flutter in her head: he’s not well, he has gone for a meeting, he is working late. Two more trains and the hour hand on her watch crawl by.

• • •

It has been a week since she last saw him. She wants to throw herself in front of the Aldgate Fast. But the thought of him standing underneath the over-bridge the next day holding his tattered copy of Balzac keeps her feet on the platform. The week soon becomes a fortnight and then a month. He is dead, a voice in her head whispers.

• • •

Her notebooks have been put away. She can not bring herself to burn them.

• • •

She waits for their train. It has been six months since he disappeared. She no longer looks for him every day. Just once in a while. When she sees tall men in crisp suits walking down the platform she tells herself not to bother, that it’s not him. But as they get closer she cannot help but look up in hope. It is never him though. She gets in to their compartment, grateful for the warmth. She sits down in his usual place and takes out her book. Austen. Pride & Prejudice. At least she knows how it will end.




© Menaka Raman 2007
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