Authors: Charity Norman
Tags: #Fiction, #Family Life
I wished there were another way. I wished I didn’t have to leave them.
My companion pulled her knitting from her bag, rolled wool around one finger and began to click at high speed. She talked and knitted, chuckling fondly as she described her great-grandchild Henry, and rather less fondly when it came to Henry’s parents, who—she said—cared about nothing but material possessions. She herself was eighty-nine years old, and had been a teacher all her working life.
‘My wife’s a teacher too,’ I said. ‘Special needs. In a secondary school.’
? That’s enormously valuable. Aha!’ The carriage had jerked, and was inching forwards. ‘We may get to London today, after all.’
I may get to die today, after all.
‘What’s it going to be?’ I asked, nodding at her handiwork.
‘This? A jersey for Henry. He’d much rather be in a sweatshirt, I expect. With a hood, so that he can go rioting and not be recognisable on the closed-circuit cameras.’
I laughed at this, and she looked pleased. ‘You have a family?’ she asked.
, I always think; but I never say it anymore. People ask what they’re doing now, and I have to explain about Charlotte, and can see them thinking,
But she was only a few minutes old! Why count her?
‘Still at school?’ asked the woman.
‘Good Lord, no! Our second grandchild is on the way.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘You look young to be a grandparent.’
‘Eilish and I will have been married thirty years come October.’
‘Ah! The pearl anniversary.’
I felt my darkness deepening. ‘She’s planning a party to celebrate. Marquee, band, fireworks. Half the world’s on the guest list. The invitations will be going out any day.’
‘Lucky man.’ Milky blue eyes were fixed on me as she knitted. Loop, click, another loop.
‘You don’t sound at all enthusiastic.’
I tried to summon the energy to protest, to insist that I was hugely looking forward to the Big Event; but I hadn’t the will. I felt transparent. Perhaps she knew what I was.
A stranger on a train. There was nobody I could possibly have told except a very old woman I’d never seen before and never would again.
‘I won’t be there,’ I said. ‘If all goes to plan I’ll be gone by tomorrow morning. This signals failure on the line has prolonged my life.’
Her fingers stopped moving. ‘May I ask why?’
‘Because it’s time. Because I have come to the end of a very long road.’
‘But you have a choice. There’s no need for such drastic measures.’
I drained my drink. It felt rough at the back of my throat. ‘You were right when you described me as a lucky man,’ I said, and coughed. ‘Lucky, lucky. Everyone knows that. People kept telling me so on our wedding day—looking shocked, as though I’d somehow tricked her. Actually, it’s true: I
trick her. Eilish French could have married anyone at all, but for some reason she chose me. Look—hang on . . .’ I felt in the pocket of my jacket and pulled out a black and white photograph.
I’d taken the picture on a winter’s evening when I’d just walked in from work and stopped in the doorway of the study. Her head was bent over some child’s handwriting, her cheek freckled, her hands strong and sure. A coppery lock of hair had escaped from its velvet tie and brushed her mouth. It was one of many moments in our life together when I’d felt overwhelmed at the very sight of her. She had music playing on the stereo and the room seemed to swell with sound. I could still hear it, rippling across the rattle of the train. I hummed the melody under my breath. Debussy. It poured into me. It made me want to weep.
The woman put on her glasses to look. ‘Ah, yes. Beautiful,’ she said, before handing the photo back. ‘I suppose you’re having an affair. How very mediocre.’
‘Worse. Much worse. I’ve been acting a part since the day we met. I’m not who she thinks I am.’
‘Who are you, then?’
‘I’m . . .’ No. I couldn’t tell her. My secret shame was too monstrous. ‘Take my word for it. If Eilish knew the truth, it would destroy her.’
‘Whereas your suicide will shower her with blessings?’
‘You think I’m selfish. A selfish coward.’
‘Hmm.’ She considered the suggestion, her head tilted to one side. After a moment she began counting rows, two by two, and I went back to staring out of the window.
I was the birthday boy, five years old, standing at the top of the very tall tree in our front garden. I felt the trunk sway in the wind but I wasn’t frightened. I’d skinned my knee on the way up. A trickle of blood was snaking its way down to my sock. I could see across the garden, across the barns, right to the far end of the farm. They were having a party for me, down there in our house. My mother had invited all the boys in my class at school. I’d run away. I didn’t want the party. I didn’t want the boys. I didn’t want to be me.
Then she found me. I could see the white oval of her upturned face, hear her voice high with panic.
Luke! Oh dear God, dear God. Hold tight!
Something was whispering in my ear.
You don’t have to hold tight
, it said.
You could just let go.
In my imagination it was a mummery figure with a red butterfly mouth. That was my first encounter with The Thought, and it stayed with me from that moment on. Other children had imaginary friends who tempted them to steal biscuits; mine nagged me to run in front of a lorry, or turn one of Dad’s guns on myself.
, it whispered each morning when the lonely child—the anxious adolescent—the despairing adult—opened his eyes and contemplated a world in which he didn’t fit.
No more being Luke. No more being, at all.
It was whispering to me right now, as I sat on the train.
‘Don’t give up,’ said the woman across the table. I’d forgotten she was there.
‘You’re trying to be kind,’ I said. ‘Thank you. Thank you for your kindness, but you know nothing about me.’
‘Perhaps I know something about how your wife will feel.’
‘This is the best thing I can do for her.’
‘I doubt it.’
I leaned closer, wanting her blessing. ‘It’s the right time,’ I said. ‘My father’s died. He needed me, so I stayed; but now he’s gone.
Our children are grown up. Eilish is a strong woman, and the finances are all arranged—she’ll be able to live very comfortably.’
The woman looked severely at me, her brows drawn. ‘Think of the poor person who has to scrape you off the railway line, or fish you out of the Thames.’
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘I’ve thought of that. I’ve everything I need in our flat in London. It won’t be messy. I’ve planned a way to make sure I’m found by someone who won’t care. He’s ex-SAS.’
‘Even ex-SAS soldiers have feelings, I expect.’
‘Not this one. And especially not about this, because he doesn’t like me very much.’
She completed several more rows of knitting before she tackled me again. ‘You’re not quite sure, though, are you? When you spoke before of your family, of your wife . . . there’s ambivalence. I can hear it.’
She was right. My family. Eilish. I felt something blocking my throat.
‘My husband once made a mistake,’ said the woman, laying down her knitting. ‘He worked for a charity. He cooked the books; embezzled money to pay our children’s school fees, though he never told me we were struggling. They could have gone to the local school, for heaven’s sake, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world! He meant to pay everything back, his ship would soon come in, but it never did. He thought of the disgrace he was bringing on all of us, of prison; he imagined what the newspapers would print. Those thoughts possessed him. So he drove his car to an isolated spot and piped the exhaust through the window.’ She reached into her bag, took out a flowered handkerchief and pressed it to her nose.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said.
‘So was I. So were our children. So were his poor mother and father. He was thirty-eight years old. Do you think we were grateful? Do you think we cared two hoots about the money when we buried him? Would I have cared now, aged nearly ninety?’
‘We didn’t. We
.’ I could hear her anger, still raw after all these years. ‘I dare say it would have been grim—possibly I would have divorced him, though I doubt it—but he would have been alive to give his daughter away on her wedding day. Don’t you want to accompany your daughter up the aisle on her wedding day?’
I smiled, despite everything, at the unlikely image of Kate in a white veil. ‘She’s not that kind of girl.’
‘Mine was, but her father wasn’t alive to see her married. He couldn’t see any way out. That’s what he said in his letter.
No way out
’ She shook her forefinger, admonishing the long-dead husband. ‘If he’d asked me, I would have told him! There are always other choices.’
‘Not for me.’
‘Yes, for you!’ Her voice was almost a shout. ‘It’s been fifty years since Jonathan left me. My children, my grandchildren . . . all of us haunted by that one terrible act. His parents never recovered. They died in grief. When I see him at the pearly gates, I’m going to give him a damned good kick up the backside.’
‘I’m sorry. I really am.’
Her eyelids came down for a second, heavily, as though I’d bored her. ‘Have you murdered somebody?’
‘Have you raped or maimed or tortured anyone?’
‘Well, then. Whatever your “crime”, your wife has the right to know about it.’
The unshed tears of decades began to scald my eyes. Eilish was my closest friend. She knew me better than anyone in the world. I longed to confide in her.
‘She’d think me a monster,’ I said.
you a monster?’
The door at the end of the carriage slid open, and a guard came noisily click-clicking. ‘Tickets, please; all tickets, please.’ He woke crisp-packet boy. The woman tucked her anger away,
attacking the knitting with pursed lips. I finished my letter to Kate, slid it into an envelope and wrote her name on the outside.
When the train pulled into Liverpool Street, I stood up and lifted our bags from the rack. Hers was small and very light. She thanked me coolly as she put on her jacket.
‘Let me carry your case to the taxi,’ I said.
‘Don’t leave that beautiful woman alone. Don’t leave her with unanswered questions. And anger. And guilt. She deserves better. Take it from someone who knows.’
It took quite a while to get up the platform and past the barrier. The station was packed with Friday travellers, and my companion was alarmingly shaky on her feet. She used a stick, but even so I was afraid she was going to tip right over. I saw her to the covered rank and waited with her until we were at the front of the queue.
I was helping her into a taxi when she gripped my forearm. ‘You will continue living? Promise me.’
I had no answer. No promise.
‘There’s a drain,’ she said, lowering herself into the seat. ‘There, by your foot. Drop the keys to your flat down there. Buy yourself a little more time.’
I thanked her, and we said goodbye. I stood irresolute as her cab drew away. Three women waited in the queue behind me. They were dressed to the nines, perhaps for the theatre: sparkling earrings, high heels, swirling skirts. I caught a puff of scent mingling with exhaust fumes, hot tarmac and midsummer dustiness. Their heads were bent together in easy intimacy—if you watch a group of women together, you’ll see that they manage this as men cannot—talking very fast, never quite finishing a sentence; never needing to, it seemed. Suddenly all three burst into helpless laughter, and I felt the familiar agony of envy.
The rope was waiting for me. I’d already made it into a noose,
already tied the knots in exactly the right way. It’s amazing what you can find on the internet: step-by-step guides to suicide by every possible method. I had an email ready to send to Bruce, the retired SAS man turned property manager who might or might not have feelings. I’d be long, long gone before he found me.
The next taxi was mine. The journey would take no time at all. Within an hour, I’d be free.
Now was my time. Now. Tonight.
I reached into my pocket to turn off the phone. I couldn’t bear to hear her voice now. Two black cabs pulled in from the road, and the first stopped in front of me. I took hold of the door handle. I could feel the vibration of the engine under my fingers.
All around me, life roared and rolled. The three women waved at the second taxi. I glimpsed a flurry of heels and skirts as they threw open the door and piled inside. My driver looked out and spoke to me.
‘Sorry?’ I said.
He spoke again, but I heard no words. The sky was billowing. I saw Eilish in the garden, among the roses. She had a silk scarf in her hair, and she was alone. She was alone.
Out on the road, it had begun to rain.
I felt the first drops of rain speckle my arms. It was a gentle, happy sensation; a caress.