UNCERTAINTIES AND SMALL SURPRISES
by Stella Duffy
"There are uncertainties," he says, leaning over her in the near empty carriage, "Uncertainties and small surprises to be had in an underground journey."
He sits beside her. She smiles politely, buries her head deeper in her old copy of Time Out. Reads the letters page. Twice. It does no good. He starts again, smiling now.
"Take for example, the Northern Line train travelling south."
She begins to wish she hadn't. The two city gentlemen, misplaced in the far corner of a late night tube, shuffle their newspapers, glare at her and at the chattering man for disturbing them, say nothing. This man has a point to make, about trains and other matters. He goes on to make it.
"The noticeboard says 'see front of train'. The train, of course, says nothing. It is not after all, Thomas the Tank Engine. It does not have the luxury of a voice over by Ringo Starr. Anyway, you decide to take your fate into your own hands. You board the train intending to travel to Victoria to meet your mother at the coach station and ..." here he places his hand on hers for emphasis, her arm stiffens, she waits for his hand to move away. It goes nowhere. His grip is tight. He cares about his subject. The train takes a corner a little too quickly and he lurches once more into his discussion.
"And this is the good bit - it doesn't matter which line the train takes. Charing Cross or City Branch. It simply doesn't matter. You will not know what to do until you pass through the ghost of Mornington Crescent. Or not. Of course it is quicker to go to Euston on the Bank Line. You need only to cross the platform there. A few steps to the train you want. And those Victoria Line trains are so very regular."
Far more regular than the beating of her heart which has gathered momentum in pace with his speech and is now racing at a speed of knots, charged up with adrenaline. Fearful adrenaline. And, if she is honest, which she always is, a tiny breath of excitement too.
Her arm loses its tension and she nods as if giving him permission to continue. He smiles.
"And that is where the small surprise lies. If you have plenty of time and can enjoy the fretful unease of at least six people in the carriage when they realise they are on the wrong side of the Northern Line - you can have a pleasant and enjoyable five minutes in what is usually described as one of the most nightmare of underground journeys. You don't know what's coming but it doesn't matter. You will arrive at the same destination no matter what route you take. How often can you say that in life, eh? Of course, it only works if you're not in a hurry."
She makes a leap of judgement and from observing becomes participant.
"Are you often not in a hurry?"
He looks at her, startled that she has joined him. This is new and unexpected. A small surprise.
"Well, no. Almost never. Still, I imagine it's good when it happens."
She nods, folds the magazine in half and puts it back in her bag.
"Oh, it's always good when it happens."
He moves his hand from her arm. He is not used to conversation. Does not invite conversation. He sits beside her and shuffles in his seat, his back sweaty against the dark stained covers. Dirty tunnel wind whips across his face and he looks at her, sideways through the cultivated lank fringe that flops over his left eye.
"I'm sorry. I don't think I understand. When what happens?"
The train slows. they have been though Euston, Kings Cross, the Angel. The men with neatly folded newspapers have left them alone, plunging into the dark routes home, excuses close at hand. This is Old Street. She stands. Now she leans over him.
"This is my stop. Do you want to come?"
The train has shuddered itself into the station, the doors open.
"It's an uncertainty, isn't it? Do you want to come?"
She is more insistent. She likes this. Likes to lean over him. She can smell his hair, could kiss his forehead if the train jolted her forward only two centimetres. "Quickly. Yes or no?"
Three lads roll into the carriage. They are drunk and loud. Louts. Young men frighten him. Even though he is a young man himself. There are no uncertainties with young men. He prefers to be surprised. Young men frighten her too. In packs. She knows how to take care of the singular. She puts her hand on his. "Coming?"
He stands and they jump from the train as the doors begin to slam shut. She leads him quickly up stairs and through the empty passages and on to the escalator. They emerge into the open den entrance hall, rabbit warren alleyways leading out in circles to dark midnight. It was the last train south. He will not get home now. She runs up the escalator two moving steps at a time, he is out of breath trying to keep up. Her boots are DM's, shiny black patent leather. Small. She is small. Even in the running and out of breath, he acknowledges she would look silly with bigger feet. Like Minnie Mouse. This girl is small. He senses she is no mouse. This is an adventure. He is running up the steps like a man in a movie. He is tall and striding and she will take him home and make love to him and feed him and he will sleep in her caress and wake in a London that is not rain swept and winter dirty. He sees all this as they pass one after the other through the same ticket barrier. He looks over her little, narrow shoulders and sees all of this. He is seeing things.
Outside it is wet, cold after the suffocating recycled warmth of the tube. He shivers in the wind. She turns and laughs, grabs his hand again.
"Should have brought a coat, shouldn't you?"
Hers is red. Red wool he thinks, with black velvet collar and cuffs. It looks expensive. But she doesn't. There is something too sharp about her to look wealthy. And besides, she is leading him through alleyways, down dark streets. These houses are not tall white painted georgians. She is leading him to a council block. Up stairs, dark, lit by broken lights and reflected dirty puddles. She wouldn't live four floors up in a council block off Old Street if she was wearing a real wool coat. He thinks all this in the time it takes her to grab her keys from the bottom of her overfull bag and let them in. They walk down a short, blue painted passage. She shows him into the sitting room, turns on the light. It is normal. There is a view through the windows, she pulls the curtains against the distant lights of the city and the far more present tower block looming opposite. The room is small now and quiet, except for the remote thump of a too loud bass on a neighbours stereo. There is a rug in front of the gas fire. A tiger skin rug. With head and staring, wide open eyes. The tail and ears are moth eaten.
"Like my cat?"
"It looks like it got a bit of a shock."
"One of your small surprises?"
"Maybe. Do tigers deal in journeying uncertainties?"
She shrugs her shoulders.
"This one did."
In the shrug, her autumn red hair lifts with the black velvet collar of her coat. He glances at the nape of her neck. Likes the look of it, her pale skin, and then looks back at the rug.
"It's cool, I suppose. But it's a bit old isn't it? A bit ravaged. You could pick up something nice from Camden Market. There's those great sun and moon rugs. Everyone's got them."
Her smile is compassionate, knowing.
"Yes. They have. I'll see. I'll think about it. Turn on the fire. I'll make us a nice cup of tea."
He had thought sex. At the least a quick snog, a fumble. But tea? He didn't think that women with tiger skin rugs drank tea. Even small women with narrow shoulders and wide hips. He frowns and looks at her.
Her smile is still there.
"Leave it to me. It'll be a surprise."
In the kitchen her hands are deft. The tea is to be ginger and honey. Warming with lots of soft brown sugar, lemon and a large dash of whiskey. She is still unclear as to why she has brought him here. Not sure what she means to do with him. Not sure why she did it in the first place. She hears him walking around her sitting room. He will be looking at the books, the pictures, the photos. Her sister, her ex-lover. While the kettle boils she removes her coat and boots. The kettle begins to whistle and in its admiring glance she takes off her dress, tights, Marks and Spencers matching knickers and bra. A softer and babier pink than she feels. She pours bubbling water into the pot, a drop breaks out and splashes her naked stomach, she licks her finger and smoothes the tiny burn with her own cool saliva. She arranges the tray with heavy mugs and tea cosied pot, a plate of tiny sweet japanese biscuits and four thin slices of lemon. She enters the sitting room with her offering.
He is on the floor by the fire. Going through her record collection. She has not yet graduated to cd's. He had expected to hear her boots return and is surprised by padding feet. He looks up at her. He is surprised.
"Oh. Yeah. I mean ... wow! Great!"
In his exposition on the uncertainties of tube travel she had thought him almost eloquent. It had helped her to take his hand, offer herself. Now, in the face of her flesh, he has lost his words. She hopes he will rediscover the power of speech. She kneels on the rug, pours tea, adds lemon, a little more whiskey. She hands him his drink. She waits for composure to return to him. She had thought that making herself naked in her own home would grant him some of the power he'd thrown away as he came through the door. She had also thought that it might just give her more power. She wasn't sure which would happen. You never can tell until the clothes are off. Another small uncertainty.
She takes the Joni Mitchell album from him and they drink hot tea with a free man in Paris. He is not sure if he is a free man tonight but the tea has woken and refreshed him, it is whiskey heavy and ginger invigorating like the whiskey macs his father made him when they'd come in late from a cold night on the terraces. His mother clucked her disapproval. The young woman in front of him smiles assent. He leans to kiss her and finds that the soft peck on her mouth is biting back at his lips, cheek, tongue. Their mouths taste of the same bitter-sweet liquid. His shirt, damp from tube sweat, rain wet and nearly dried by the gas fire is damp again, sweat running from his armpits. He smells like travel and the beginnings of sex. Her nose wrinkles. She is still uncertain. Knows what to do next but not what to do after.
He is quickly naked. There is art in the removal of patent leather DM's, slowly drawing the shoelace through the silver eyelet holes. There is no art in the removal of thin wet shirt, old trainers, ripped jeans. They kneel opposite each other. The tea things to her left. Her narrow shoulders and wide hips swing towards him. He is not unaware that there is a certain ceremonial touch to all this, he just doesn't know what the ceremony is for.
In the hot moment of fucking, she looks down at him. His eyes shut tight beneath her kisses. She has done the next thing. The kissing. And done the next thing. The biting. And the next. The tracing of his collarbones under his thin blue veined skin. The kissing of his nipples, the kissing of his cock. They have been polite and quiet, taking it in turns to do the next thing and the next. They have maintained the order and the pattern that is expected even from a fuck picked up on the tube between Camden Town and Euston. And now they are here, in the fuck, the tiger is smiling at her and the young man's temples are throbbing above tightly shut eyes, all his energy, his life, pitched into doing that next thing. He would call out her name but he doesn't know it. She nods to the tiger, shakes her head clear of thought and joins this man in the moment of body where the only uncertainty is in when and the smallest surprise is the quiet "oh" of after. Tired and finished he rolls himself into her and she strokes him to sleep. He sleeps easy and fast.
She leaves him curled on the tiger rug and takes the tray back to the kitchen. On the draining board is the small paring knife she used to cut the lemon slices. The knife cuts sharply into his throat, his eyelids flutter as if they would wake and warn him but it is too late, he feels the acid of the lemon juice as he drowns in the gurgling blood and hiss of escaping air. She is glad she is naked, she would not want to stain the green velvet dress. The tiger is bloodied but that doesn't matter. The tiger is old. She has needed a new rug for some time. He said so, didn't he? She is finished in a couple of hours. Goes to the bathroom and showers with the plastic shower attachment. Her father had promised to put in a real shower but died before he had time. She could have done it herself, an easy enough job according to the cute boy in the hardware shop, but she'd never wanted to acknowledge to her father, even in death, that he was expendable. Besides, the shower attachment, in ugly grey plastic has a certain seventies, retro charm.
She goes to bed alone, Joni Mitchell in her head, his kiss on her breath.
In the morning she wakes bright and early. Climbs out of bed and pulls on her gym gear. She must do something to build up these narrow shoulders. Run more, swim more. Be more with her body. The morning is fine and clear, last night's rain has left a sharp clean city behind it. On her way out of the flat she peeks into the sitting room. He is lying in front of the fire, in a pool of pale winter sunshine. A man skin rug. With a look of surprise on his face.
First published Fresh Blood, Do Not Press, 1996
also published in Germany, Rowahlt Press, 1999
© Stella Duffy 1995
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