She met him in the place that it had happened. The place her life had paused, broken, and become not the same.
London Euston at rush hour. Passengers spewed forward from the dead silence of the stopped train. As she waited to get off, Leah kept the space she liked to keep from the suit in front of her. Somehow, the man behind got the message too. These days, there was always a bubble around Leah King that people did not press.
A staccato of heels and boots drummed as they climbed the slope away from the platforms. She walked on the fringe of people, making better progress. She was heading out of the main exit when they crossed paths, negotiating the web of people, each shooting off in their own directions. He was about a metre away when she clocked his trajectory. His coming towards her made her uncomfortably aware of her legs, hips, the line of her body, the fact that her posture was too straight, her face too flat of emotion, the eyes limp. And she was aware of her reaction to him, the way you feel when someone excites you by their familiarity, because they are just what you would look for. She scowled, almost furious. How dare there be someone that could do that to her, still.
When she blinked, behind the black of her yes, she still saw the blackness on her body. The bruises that had stained her skin, long after. The shame that it had engrained in her.
Eyes open, passing the man, she set her face to impassive, eyes narrowing automatically. She caught the start of it, but didn’t get time to witness all the shock on his face. By then they had crossed and he was heading for the escalators towards the tube. His puzzled expression was another image that remained behind her eyes, like an aftershock.
Outside, heat cloaked the city. Sound choked her ears. The sun was too bright, pinging off cars with people sweating inside, music thumping, tinny. Her sleeveless blouse stuck to her chest, despite its cotton. She switched her briefcase to the other hand, enjoying the maneouvring of muscle. This new strength, her obsession with her body, did not stop her from inching to the left when a tall man joined her at the crossing. Coward. When he scissored through the plugged traffic – cabs rolling forwards, a siren starting almost out of earshot and weaving ever closer – she relaxed. She looked around for the ambulance and spotted the lights, epileptic blue. It veered off in another direction, revealing the intermittent zip of a pneumatic drill buzzing into brick.
Green. She walked.
The university office where she checked in was like a library, quiet and a welcome shelter from the noise and heat. Sweat stung her top lip, she did her breathing exercises to calm down.I am calm, I am strong, I am in charge.
The student manning the desk was at the age where women terrified him. She gave him a tight smile, the pen scored the paper as she signed her name and her university. He handed her a badge and a conference programme.
“Thank you, Dr King. They’re waiting for you. Good luck.”
I am calm, I am strong, I am in charge.
I am calm, I am strong, I am in charge.
Leah listened to her heels hitting the stage, aware of everything. Ten steps from the podium. The eyes of the audience in their stalls, on her. Not unfriendly, just bored. People chatting and sipping water, flipping through their programmes. Not quite settled. She blinked: bruises behind her eyes. She blinked again: the face of the man in the train station.
Focus. I am calm, I am strong…
“Good morning, everybody.” Her voice was mellow and pleasant, drawing people’s attention. She paused, waiting, pulse slowing now she was here, waiting until she knew she had everyone’s attention. “It’s such a pleasure to be here and I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me to be the keynote speaker. I do apologise for keeping you waiting. I am confident, however, that this conference will have been worth the wait. All of the abstracts are fascinating, and I am particularly looking forward to the Dr Townsend’s discussion of fashion and film. Perhaps if I’d asked for an advanced copy, I would have thought twice before wearing these heels.”
Laughter rippled through the auditorium.
“Not wishing to converge on Dr Townsend’s territory, I have to say how interesting it has been to see the plethora of Hollywoodisations of heritage film in the last decade. What is it that fuels our current obsession with the past? Have we simply swapped corsets for heels? If we are the daughters of The Movement, then what of the granddaughters? What lies ahead for women and, most importantly, is that future bright?”
In the refreshments area, Leah held a warm orange juice against her grey shift dress, one arm belted across her middle. All the pleasantries and fake enthusiasm for other people’s research had left her feeling like she’d eaten M&Ms all day. The arches of her feet ached. As she surveyed the cloud of lecturers, students and professors, many of which she had known and worked with over the years, she thought how much she hated being there. At thirty, she was in no position to be a keynote speaker, there were far better researchers, those better able to articulate their theories, those researching far more pertinent topics behind closed doors. But, as her editor said, she had a face for TV. And that was the problem. It had seemed a good idea at first, a way to get her voice heard and her book read, but the book was premature and her opinions, three years later, wildly different.
What stood out about the guy was a froth of ginger beard.
“I read your book Dr King,”
It always started like this.
“Yes, I have to say, I disagree with some of your conclusions.”
“Well that’s what it’s there for. Comprehension results from confusion, and argument. And conclusions are simply there to give structure to essays, they are nevertheless intended to be fluid. If you’ll excuse me, I need a drink.”
His eyes went to her full glass of juice.
She turned her back at the drinks counter and pretended to be topping up. She was something of a celebrity, it was true. Her first book had come off the back of her PhD thesis, her celebrity had come out of a handful of chance meetings, and the fact that she had been just twenty seven and a feminine feminist. There was much misrepresentation of what constituted feminism, or post-feminism, still. So there was this double-bind; the academics loved to have her here because her name commanded attention, drew in delegates who wanted to be on the same bill, but who could feel secretly smug that they were real academics. But she was more than that, she knew, and she would demonstrate that with her new book. The book that kept her publishers up at night, twitching, seeing their investment in her dive-bomb. And yet, she was confident. This needed to be said. If they wouldn’t publish it, she’d find someone who would.
Was this the reason they had targeted her, this mock celebrity? She pushed away images of the attack. After months and months with a therapist, she had control over this now.
Her thoughts lapped away from the conference to the man at the station. Was he on a train? Or were the doors hissing as he stepped off a tube? Why had he even stuck in her mind, a symbol of possibilities always missed, or something else? She sipped, and tasted sour orange, tangy and with bits.
The ginger froth was approaching again, obviously wanting to get entangled in a heated debate.
A voice shouted over the general buzz of chatter; they were going back in. She took her chance to lose herself in the crowd.
Leah avoided the tube and walked from UCL, away from the well-painted doors with brass plaques above them, beaming about people she should, but didn’t know, and beating a straight path into Chinatown. She always felt at home there. In Chinatown, the men weren’t interested in you; you became invisible. As she walked, zig-zagging through the herd of people, she felt her spine soften. She was becoming herself again, not Dr Leah King, post-feminist, ungrateful daughter of The Movement keynote speaker, best-selling author, once dated a movie star, academic sell-out. She was whoever she wanted to be.
In the bobbing sea of Oriental faces, she slowed and looked into the shop windows and displays, onto a different culture. One that had perhaps been modified by English commodities, but different nonetheless. She admired the pink paper umbrellas in buckets outside shops, the lanterns. Ducks and various other animals she couldn’t recognise were skewered in shop windows, their skin painted red.
She spooned salty soup into her mouth, one hand checking her Outlook messages on the notebook on the restaurant’s table. All the other delegates would be having a meal together, getting drunk, falling into each other’s hotel rooms. But she wasn’t lonely, she had too much work for that.
A taller than average, smiling waiter came over to ask how the soup was. He had a Mancunian accent.
She dabbed her mouth. “Lovely, thank you.”
The napkin kept the imprint of her lips, deep pink and slightly apart.
She remembered the hotel room with Raleigh. Its heavy flocked wallpaper, so thick it reminded her of Edwardian doublets. The intimacy of those snatched times, before everything went wrong. He was wrong, right from the start. She should have known. He was everything she shouldn’t have wanted. His priviledge, that upper class smile which gave a calculating look to his icy blue eyes. His Nordic features, despite the fact that he was Kent born. Home Counties. His alternation between intensity and gentleness, and then his gruff indifference, his sometimes violent demands and behaviour, and how he could talk his way out of him. How she had let him talk his way out of it, how she had agreed that all of their problems were her fault, she was insecure, because of her father.
But their nights and days in those hotel rooms were like pockets of secrets scattered over London. Holes in time that still seemed magical, despite what happened later. The pain in her stomach was cruel as she remembered kissing him, their mouths hot together, tongues binding, and then her eyes open and trusting as she gave him a blow job, and that sneer on his face, that little half smile. They’d laughed at the lipstick mark she’d left on his cock. She should have known.
She licked her lips, mouth still salty from the soup. The heat of the day had slackened and she’d enjoyed wandering through the tourist areas. You had to wander in these places, so intense was the mass of colour and culture. She walked past the entrance to the palace, shoulders cool, smelling the grit and stench from the horses. Past Downing Street, American accents reaching her ears, the flash of yellow jackets; police milling, past the impassive parliament buildings, the Thames glittering as night pooled together. It made her feel like she belonged to get impatient with tourists not watching the road or holding up a flustered cabbie just to stand back and get the best frame for Big Ben.
She ducked into the Westminster tube, navigated the stalls and warren of walkways. Her hip jutted on the escalator as she stood with one knee bent. London made her feel strong, because she had to be when she was here. She couldn’t let the memories seep in, because they were good and bad and too cruel because of it. She reached her platform as the tube glided in.
Standing in the centre facing the doors, she steadied herself against one of the poles. Her awareness was pricked as soon as she’d got herself in a position. She thought about the vampire books she’d read as a child, her irritation with passive female characters all in need of rescuing by beautiful, brilliant and tortured men, who were not exactly human. Had this been the case with Raleigh? Was she that different? In the end, he’d been such an addiction. But she thought about those vampires, and how they were always depicted as having a sixth sense, recognising their own kind. She felt like that now. Her own kind was on this tube. Familiar.
In the blur of her peripheral vision, she saw the shape of the man she’d seen earlier. Can’t be.
She turned her head a fraction, the shape became true; the same man from Euston. His mouth flickered with an easy, affable smile, a kind of shrugged apology, for what she wasn’t sure. She took in his clothes, casual and comfortable. Nothing like Raleigh, and yet he had the same blondeness healthiness about him, just that shade darker. That shade scruffier. In his hands, as he leaned casually against another central pole the next carriage alone – sign of a true commuter, someone who lived here – was a dog-eared hardback copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Her only novel, carefully cupped in the wide hands of this man. She could see the cover jacket was shiny in places and realised that he, perhaps, or someone else, had taped it back together.
She almost smiled. Perhaps he saw the intention.
There was a real announcer over the intercom.
“Your next stop is Euston.” And further instructions, depending on where people were headed.
She did not dare turn her head towards the man and Sylvia Plath as she got off. She felt him watching her as he whizzed by. But she would never know if he really did. The disappearance of the tube left a much-needed breath of air, whipping her hair which had frizzed in the heat and airlessness down here. Navigating the corridors up and out of the ground, she climbed towards Euston, feeling as though she had left something important behind.
“Don’t touch me.”
The rain sounded like a swarm of locusts, attacking the roof of the Mercedes, a plague on both of them. Being so close to him again was suffocating. Panic imploded inside Leah at intervals, the shockwaves rippling through her body.
I am calm, I am strong, I am in charge.
But she wasn’t any of those things.
The driver eased the car through the downpour, wipers flicking back and forth like an athlete casually flicking sweat. Her dress was stuck to her, see-through in parts. The smell of leather and aftershave made her nauseous.
“You have to believe, that I had no part in what happened to you.”