It was four o’clock when I saw him, and all I could do was be dead scared he would go somewhere else, somewhere that wasn’t here, where I was, in the middle of my everyday muck. I was standing in it, and on the DLR platform, with all my weight stranded to the left side of my body, because sometimes I do that to make people wonder if maybe I had a strange disease as a child even though I can’t think of which it might have been; he was wearing his hair parted to the left, although I could tell this hadn’t always been the case. This made me think there was no longer perfect balance (because that’s what we should always aim for they say: equilibrium). Something had tipped over. Or as mom would say: someone must not have done their job right. She says it like she wants someone to be punished, and then her nostrils start to swirl.
His scalp, that little piece of bleached skin squinting between the two coasts of black hair, itself interrupted by exciting gray that swayed as the train towards Lewisham approached, seemed unworn, sort of like baby skin. I don’t like holding babies because they make me feel like I’m about to fall. Anyway, there were other things too: the way he’d made his Travel card look all sexy when swiping it through the machine, how he wasn’t just staring at his feet or at nothing at all, how he went over to the vending machine and took a really long time in counting his change, as if they weren’t his from birth. Little things, you know, just like someone making their bed tells you something about their general tidiness but not everything at all, which means you should definitely not move in with them right away.
The train came, I watched the doors open, and then I saw them close again, and all I did was shift from the left to the right side. Now I was a different kind of cripple, and I was also completely sure of it: his newness at Canary Wharf station at four o’clock, and how he was wearing it but not flashing, the smell of foreign shores.
I thought maybe he was one of those rare visiting professors at the university or an ambassador, like Herman, my mother’s friend who showed us Travel pictures last year and was so proud about it he looked sick. This guy didn’t look sick: only new. Out-of-worldy. I considered phoning mom to tell her I couldn’t go to mindfulness practice with her, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself so I didn’t. Instead I made sure not to let him out of my sight. After that train left, the gaps in the crowd were filled within seconds, and the average — the syrup, that is, of everyday sickness — was quickly restored. Back to normal.
It wasn’t really like I was stalking him. And if it was it was my first so that made it okay.
In the kitchen back home, mom would be waiting for me to come home so we could be on our way to that thing she calls “brainwashing shite” and then come home and warm our frozen pizzas; she would be chain smoking while she waited.
The new guy was wearing a jacket from H&M. I knew this because I’d seen the same one when Christmas shopping with Christine, but on him it looked like it had grown out of his own skin, and like that change had taken place far, far away from the store on Oxford Street where Christine got a job over the holidays. She had a pretty good discount but she wouldn’t share. The next train was the 04.10. I stretched my neck to see past this tall girl’s backpack and that’s when he looked my way and I panicked, but then I saw he was only looking at the display. He was looking at it so much it seemed like it was completely new to him, the fact that trains ran on set times in London, as I’ve heard they do in most other places people go to. Then he bent down and smiled as he discovered a piece of gum on the sole of his shoe, like he forgave it because he was so much bigger than any of it or us or me. So I sighed and got a little closer to make sure we’d make it in through the same set of doors.
I guess he must have been middle-aged but nothing like mom or even Herman, who is considered to be in really good shape. On him the fake black leather of the jacket looked soft and friendly, like it had been given a wash-up with a sponge in intimate places by someone who loved it, without feeling even a little tempted to look away and pretend it wasn’t really your hand doing the touching.
A few minutes after four o’clock I picked up my phone. I could tell Christine was at work because there was an announcement being made in the background, but I couldn’t hear what it was about.
“”Hey,” she said. “I’m on my break so I can’t talk long, okay?”
“I’m on the DLR,” I whispered. “Or, on the platform, and there’s a fghhorgheigngnerr!”
Sometimes whispers can draw a lot more attention than proper speech.
“There’s a what?” Christine asked with her mouth full. “I can’t hear you.”
“I just saw a fhoreighghntktker!” I hissed. “Someone new!”
In fifth grade we invented this code language by replacing the consonants in a word by guttural clicking sounds like we’d heard people talk in a documentary about some indigenous tribe in Africa. It was ideal for passing the time during diet-council class. Try saying chocolate without the vowels.
“I have to go back to work now. Call me when you have a better connection, okay? Or no, wait, I’ll call you when I get home.”
She hung up and my throat felt clogged up, but not as if I was about to start crying, just worn out. Like the arteries of those people they used to show us pictures of in school before the prices went up so high no one could afford to eat meat anyway, except for chicken.
I know where the word ancient comes from, you know. It comes from ante, meaning before. Before what, I wonder. Before they banned cars, or before they dug out the underground bullet proof walls? Before passports became restricted to diplomats and they closed almost all airports? I feel ancient.
This city is the safest place on earth, mom says. Even as a “wee lass” (she’s Scottish, that’s why) you can walk home at night without fear of having your jeans torn off or your phone and organs stolen because it never gets dark anymore, not really. Not like in the movies they show down at the World Wide Wonder in which all sorts of horrible things happen, enough to make you never want to go anywhere even if you could. The light is patronizing but it keeps secrets from becoming dangerous, like the cold canopy of a lit-up morgue. It bounces off the white buildings and that new stuff they use for facades which takes the heat really well. It comes from the sky, which is never anything but blue, the light: happy. Scolding happy, even when it’s cold. In this city, says mom, there have never been any questions left unanswered. She says it like it’s a good thing.
A few steps behind, like a smaller boat follows a big ship, I decided to make him my destination instead of anything else I might have or haven’t had planned. When entering the DLR I was elbowed in the side by a woman who looked really cold, which is strange because you’re not supposed to be cold anymore, or too warm (that’s something else they fixed), and I thought maybe it was psychosomatic. She must have been stressed out and needed those classes more than I did. I had to return the elbow because she got in between me and the new guy, but then more people squeezed through the doors and for a second I lost him. I started blinking really, really fast, just like I wasn’t supposed to. I needed to find a seat before it was too late.
Maybe because I was scared, I started to think about kangaroos. They were declared extinct about twenty years ago but there are facts and figures on the website and I had memorized them all. When we got into the train and found seats I ended up about two kangaroo jumps away from him. Near enough to see him set down his briefcase on his lap, cross his legs, but not enough to feel if he had a particular smell. I was sure if I could it would be something without preservatives: something incredibly organic.
Once I was safely inside I tried calling Christine again.
“Hey listen to me. A troinkoinkvipi person. Here. Now!”
I told her because this was something I thought we could share, I wanted us to talk about this when lying on my bed listening to the news online and guessing what the voices looked like, but she didn’t seem at all interested.
“I told you I can’t talk. My break is over now, have to get back to marking skirts.”
“Screw you!” I said and then I hung up, knowing that at least four or five heads had turned in my direction. I was scared of looking up so I spent some time scraping off a little toothpaste stain off my collar. When I finally did look up, was when I noticed that one of the windows was open, which hardly ever happens. I thought I could see the outside air making its way in, with a particular smell attached to it: the smell of rotten eggs. Then I noticed how that was the one place in the whole carriage where nobody was looking: like a black hole. Like the possibility of something going terribly wrong. I lifted one foot.
Then I lifted up my whole self and started walking down the aisle. People couldn’t even blame the fact that they were reading, because nobody was. They just weren’t seeing me. They were staring out through the window (the closed ones, exclusively) and by the time we stopped at the next station I had made it over to where he was sitting. The woman next to him was getting off at Crossharbor so I got her seat. Nobody had yet closed the window, even though they weren’t supposed to be open. I tried sitting down casually, looking out at the station, which was quickly gone again, and I wondered if he knew about the zoo.