I caught her eye. Recognised a kindred spirit. Her head then converted into cruor popcorn. Colour of grey nail varnish, millet porridge. Scarlet white and woeful.
I feared I’d lose my lonesome bench for good.
She ceased to any longer be a person. Unseen thereafter. Hush toned, her name, whatever it was, became. Unqualified for corporeality. Happens to happen to us all. You, too, angel, fly fishing for souls. The world moves on, leaving some behind. Those swearing love promise never to forget and then forget. Save for the outline of her shape in memory, in one ear, out the other, she might as well not have been. One moment she fretted over that evening’s meal, or her lover, or her–well, it might be stars or stairs or soups she worried for–great philosophical questions, physics, fish–then suddenly all gone.
The morning she jumped from the platform, I thought ‘now someone in shock is bound to sit beside me,’ but the air proved ripe with scream, loud enquiries, roast pork spare rib sticky sickness, passenger taken unwell, cotton on the tracks, slam-door sorely missed, corridors crammed with men in caps herding travellers, most confusing, made my head hurt.
I wouldn’t have minded. This bench belongs to everyone.
The way trains piston air into the station, the smell of oil and spark, aftershave, dirt, catarrh, perfume, cold cures, a pool of nicotine at the nape of a stranger’s neck, the press of bodies, mints, knees up pearly queens, the strategies that permit a thousand people to pretend they are alone when all are sardine shimmered. These gifts wake me, raise me rushing to the station ready for the fun ahead, to sit a while on a bench, to watch, and take in the breath of people.
Brylcreem’s rare I notice, styles change with time, I don’t approve, too short a hemline, hemlock, then too long, up, down like a funeral service, oh my knees, my aching sides, busts in and out and bound to confuse a woman, and if it ain’t broke, all that. Usually I’m here by seven, latest, late, wrapped in heady bacon smells, simmered coffee, hot muffin ooze, breakfast is sometimes lager, how I shudder, aroma malodour patina melanoma, the stink, which calls me, and I sit here apparently waiting for my nine AM train, to Edgeware Road, cemetery deep-level Bakerloo, to Marlyebone, and beyond, but truly I’m watching small habits, betrayals, nose-pickers, pick-pockets, fair dodgers, the throbbing bead of life, and I think ‘I bloody see you all,’ gain a jolt of jowly joy, like a train-spotter noting rare numbers in a sad notebook only he will read.
She timed it beautifully, smack, can’t be a day over thirty, what possessed her? still books, judging covers, all that, still waters, no arm bands beyond this point, no accounting, people are daft, fore and aft. Head hard to driver’s glass, smashed skull, heard it, saw it, take down my particulars, officer, pretty-blood fractural before sliding mince-like down, and under cutting wheels. Eight butchered grume joints. I counted, pieces of personhood, when the platform emptied. Sat here on my exclusive bench in shadows. Forensics arrived with shovels and cameras, tripods, smiles, kind eyes, what do they put in those little plastic bags? as I waited for the train, maybe to Regent’s Park, beyond, not that I’m nosey, far from it, but the noise she made reminded me of a backdoor slammed in the face of a father, a thing not often seen these days. I miss those days these days and maps of the moving front, over there, over here, chewing gum, uniforms, write to me, but no telegrams.
Next morning, six forty-nine AM, with the larks, up regular as clockwork, there I am, Gracie in her finest, could pass for forty on a good day, that being when a fellow’s lost his glasses, and it’s as if nothing’s happened, the same press, tiles-off-white, unspruced, reduced service, but about seven fifteen give or take, there’s a girl on my bench, all of a sudden, where did you come from? young, ankle socks, school coat, peaky, get some sun. We ignore each other, this being England, people have standards, we’re not stuck up, until both stare at the same vicar boasting a hint of curler near his neck, our eyes meet, and we raise a nod to one another, thinking ‘what does he look like?’ a look brief-like, perhaps I fancy a rueful recognition, both buggered, no nosey parker me, and I straighten my pleated skirt, heavy, stocking-ladders, not light, brush brick dust from my shoulder, and say ‘busy today,’ but she looks lost, away, with the fairies, see-through.
I’m about to have another word when the tilt of her hopeless noodle makes me think of that woman headbutting the train, so I ask ‘you okay, love?’ and she says, little girl lost, red-riding hoodwinked ‘I can’t remember,’ so I think ‘now, Gracie, reassure her.’
‘It all comes back in time,’ I say, ‘each hand-carved ivory memory, each sadness parading its victuals like a purveyor of hams to His Majesty,’ and I say as to how she is to hang on, tightly, keep hold of her darlings, ignore the dark tunnel but also turn from light, wait until the right train comes, like as not nine AM to Oxford Circus, and beyond, Piccadilly, which is not a tracklement. That makes her laugh. And I say ‘mind how you go, mind the gap, mind the tracks, tracklement,’ but she won’t laugh a second time, which is when she disappears into the throng, up the tunnel, toward the blessed light, like a fool, leaving me alone, on a bench, my bench, feeling cold.
Well, say what you like, but a fortnight later, a man, let’s say sixty, let’s say turning grey, broad-shouldered dull, thick-necked bull, alone, plastic bag burdened and haemorrhaging gifts, he’s jostled by a gang of kids, and down under one, head first he goes, upon the tracks, to Charing Cross, and beyond, passenger action, what’s a girl to do? regular as clockwork trains these tumbles, thirty, forty a year, who is counting? shouldn’t everyone count? and I think ‘poor sod,’ minding his own, until pop goes the temple, sphincter, Sphinx-like I saw it all, terrible.
‘Please leave in an orderly fashion,’ on the tannoy, and the nice woman with the kind eyes from forensics turns up with her body bag and sandwiches, which is when I smile, feel warm, a little light, and she looks over, takes a step back as she catches a glimpse of my bench, and the shape of me, and my torn tan stockings, are my seams straight? and the brick dust, and she must think ‘forty on a good day, achieved through not smoking forty fags on a bad one,’ up in smoke, price of tobacco, ration the wrinkles, then she turns to the task of doing algebra, calculating the weight of a train on a head, steel-eyed, steel-wheel, dampeners, coils and grease, to Embankment, and beyond.
And there, unexpected, not even the next day, on my bench, is a boy, or a man, he’s blurred as dad on a Friday night, slurring fists, cursing, and I say ‘young man, there’s no call for that sort of language,’ and he says ‘there bloody is, I was going to see my Ethel,’ and I say ‘that’s a shame,’ and he says something in Greek, which I’m sure is right, and I tell him, I say ‘and when the Luftwaffe came, all my neighbours, friends, family, their hands were cerise-burned from the searching for me, quite a sight, lot of noise, sirens, let me tell you, searchlights, and naturally I made my way to the shelter, thinking, “they’ll be along soon,” what with dad at the docks, berthing boats and hope, oranges rare as gold dust, he might have missed the fun, and he’ll be looking for his Gracie, she’s only little, small enough to miss, which is when I found this bench set back, and I made it my own, it being between a rock and a hard place, the dark and light tunnels, escalators, neither up nor down, and I thought “in a bit, they’ll turn up, come down, come find me,” and I waited, you see, and I still wait, but never once did I swear in Greek,’ and he asks ‘what’s that?’ and he’s pointing down that particular tunnel, and I say ‘love, once you go that way no passenger returns,’ and he says ‘sold!’ and runs off, jumps on the tracks, leaves bloody footprints, plastic bags, memories, and me clutching myself, saying ‘stay a while longer, Gracie girl, dad will be down soon, you don’t want to miss dad, he’ll go spare,’ so I settle and cry a bit, because, well, you know how it is when you’re bleeding and feel unheld, when you sit alone, on a bench, waiting, to beyond, wanting not to want, and not a soul waits with you, feels much like the artful secrecy of waiting for a husband to demob.
It’s the sounds and smells, you see, each evidence of life, and the excitement of trains, throb of air, like lungs the station shudders, and people rushing on, who’d have thought, and hairstyles up and hairstyles down, it’s safe here, this shelter, and if a bomb falls, why, I scoot beneath the bench to huddle, keep to myself, not nosey, and it’s the people, and the waiting for dad, who read the telegram about my husband, how he managed to go missing in the desert, silly man, so he might be down in a bit, too, found by dad, brought home to me, these daft worries drag me out of the house by seven AM sharp, often earlier, to wait daffy on the station bench, platform crowded, now not, though I don’t remember sleeping, but I’m like the His Majesty that way, apart, like Winston, Montgomery, still standing, still, mustn’t grumble, mind the line, avoid a tumble, take the weight off, borrow my bench, stay as long as you like, where are you going? you must be off, angel? I shan’t follow you, well up the escalator with you it is then, or down the tunnel, thank you for asking, I’m fine where I am, and my family will be along in a bit, right as rain, best to wait here, time of my life, time of day, hate to think the worry I’ve caused, little Gracie, always in a scuffle, disappointment to them I declare, but any minute now, you’ll see, I’ll catch sight of them, and its safe here, I’ve my bench, and I try not to think of bombs, falling, bricks bursting, carnation fires, keep home fires, burning, the boys will be back soon, some of them, not mine, house flattened, and the little hand of our youngest, spitting image of his desert dad, why did he desert me? our little boy, ragdolled in the nursery, such a marvel, his smile, and I saw, I saw his fingers covered in plaster, each pointing the wrong way, blood, our boy, no more than a baby, dust up his nostrils, which is when I ran to this shelter, and they’ll be down in a bit, just see if they aren’t, my family, and I must be here, ready, any minute now, here for all my darlings waiting, take the train to Waterloo, and beyond, no proposed extension, we’ll meet again.