Dalzon groaned in exasperation as the flap refused to move, leaving the mirror exposed. He jerked the steel wire up, down, left and right, the cold metal rubbing against his thigh and ankle, but it didn’t help. He knew he had the right setup; it was just a matter of securing and calibrating it so that the mirror and flap stayed in place, the wire didn’t become detached, and nothing got jammed.
It had all begun with the most basic of designs. Fixing a mirror to his shoe was easy. But if anybody happened to look down at his feet in public his life would become anything but easy. Unemployment had made him creative, so he’d begun to innovate.
He needed a way to conceal the mirror quickly, so he’d cut a wide, horizontal slit into the shoe just below the laces, then, after considerably loosening them, wedged one end of the small mirror into it. Then he’d tried kicking the the mirror all the way in with his other heel, gouging the top of his foot and causing him to collapse in pain. He bound his foot with bandage and tape. This protected him but added more bulk, making it much harder to push the mirror back into the slit, so he tied a length of string to a small hole drilled into the edge of the mirror, and pulled the other end from inside his pocket. This worked well, but he still had to stoop down and use his hands to pull the mirror out in the first place.
It needed to be fully automated. By replacing the string with an unravelled, straightened steel coat hanger, he was able to both push and pull the mirror, but there were still problems. It was hard not to push it right out of the slit so it dangled uselessly on the wire loop, leaving him unable to pull it back in.
Dalzon’s frustration was eclipsed only by his determination. The summer humidity in his tiny, top floor bedsit drew sweat from his pores and made him feel fatigued and slightly ill, even with the window, its broken sash hanging loosely against the frame, wedged open with a wooden spoon. Every few minutes he patted down his forehead with a white, stained cotton vest. The noise from the high street below, a blend of chatter, shouting, engine roar and aggressive-sounding horns seemed to reach him as steadily and inexorably as waves of heat borne upward by natural law. Taking regular breaks, he pushed on through his discomfort.
The final iteration combined all the other designs. He went back to basics, fixing the mirror directly to the shoe. This time however, the tensile wire running down his trouser leg was connected to a small sheet of black plastic which, mounted onto the shoe’s upper, sheathed and uncovered the mirror with ease. Finally, after hours of fiddling, lubricating, readjusting and testing, he felt confident enough to trial it in public.
He wore the one suit he had, a second-hand, dark green pinstripe, shiny at the seat and the elbows from being worn every single day in his old job. It was a size too large, the shoulders wider than his own, and the trousers too long – not something that had ever bothered him before, but the hems obscured part of the mirror, so he shortened them himself using safety pins.
He decided to go to one of London’s longest and busiest escalators; Tottenham Court Road underground station. Unwilling to pay to get there, he managed, after much hesitation and a few nervous false starts, to slip through the barriers behind another commuter. Even at Kennington, the morning crowd was already dense. This was a good thing, he reflected as he clutched the overhead handrail on the train. Open space was his enemy.
He could only use the rig when travelling downwards on the escalator. To place his foot on the step in front when travelling upwards meant he would have to bend his knee, which the tensile wire in his trouser-leg wouldn’t allow. His movement was limited. He had to walk in a stiff, steady manner and naturally, sitting down was out of the question.
When heading downwards all he had to do was move his foot forward, between the legs of the person in front, without his heel leaving his own step. Still he encountered numerous obstacles. Most women in skirts also wore tights. Furthermore, they would often stand with their feet together, drastically limiting his view.
One woman, a corporate looking type in her forties, suddenly looked straight down at her feet as they approached the bottom. He pushed the wire down in his pocket, enacting the drill he had been through so many times, and the flap slid into place. He’d probably been quick enough for her not to have seen the mirror, but she certainly saw his foot nestling between her calves. He slowly withdrew it, and she turned around and gave him a look which made him break out in a sweat. At that moment they reached the foot of the escalator and, intensely relieved, he disappeared into the crowd as fast as his restricted, lopsided gait would allow.
Unwelcome thoughts and fears swilled round his mind; that the woman had reported him to station staff, who would now be looking for him with the police; that his face had been captured by CCTV and would be shown on Crimewatch; that the contraption on his foot would fall off and he would end up shamed and cornered by an angry mob. Knowing he was being irrational, he breathed deeply to calm himself. Even though he was standing by the wall at the foot of the escalator like a busker, nobody was paying him the slightest attention. He was like a solitary stone in a rapidly moving stream, the commuters moving deftly around him without a glance. A strange idea hit him; rather than autonomous humans they were pre-programmed, like finely-tuned, fully automated, bi-pedal dodgems.
He made a dozen more descents during which he managed to glimpse five sets of bare thighs, one pair of stockings and suspenders, and three gussets. One woman he felt sure had no underwear, but it was simply too dark at the top to tell, the light limited by her below-the-knee skirt. Two of them had turned round and glared at him, apparently believing him up to something, but his well-drilled, rehearsed reflexes saved him each time. All the same, he didn’t like the looks. They made him nervous and although he remained expressionless, he felt that if any of them looked long enough, they would see into his mind, his intentions, even his soul.
After each journey down he patiently ascended again like a skier ever-more determined to conquer the piste, analysing where he’d gone wrong and what needed improving. Much of it came down to chance, but it was clearly essential to pick the right targets. He avoided guarded, alert types – women who looked nervously around them, those who seemed fidgety. The dreamy, absent-minded ones presented the least risk. At first he’d avoided women reading newspapers, feeling they fell into the wrong category, but he quickly realised that the newspapers acted as a shield preventing them looking down.
He bought a Financial Times from a kiosk near the station’s entrance. It was painful to him to spend money unnecessarily, but this was worth it. He felt it congruous with the oversized pinstripe suit he was wearing, and more importantly, it would shield him from the angry stares which made him sweat.
As he ascended, he already felt bolder. At the top he paced about, glanced at the folded paper in his hand and checked his watch, feeling himself to be indistinguishable from any of the city workers around him. Then he saw her, looking at a wall-mounted map of the underground network, a sealed takeaway coffee in her hand. Frozen, he watched her bend her knees and crouch, place the coffee on the floor, stand up and tie her blonde hair back. As she slowly squatted down again to pick up the coffee, her white skirt, already several inches above the knee, rode up further still. The skin was pale and from where he was standing, looked flawless. Facing straight ahead but keeping his eyes on the target, Dalzon manoeuvred to stand closer behind her. As she rose to her feet he noticed how smoothly her large, but well-rounded calves tapered to her ankles, an effect mimicked by the swell then narrowing to a point of the chunky high heels she was wearing.
It was what he had been waiting for all along. Electrified with anticipation, he moved closer to the top of the escalator, checking his watch and looking around as if deciding which way to go. She walked past and at once he fell in behind her. He felt his heartbeat in his throat as they stepped on, and he smelt her sweet, heavy perfume. He tucked the paper under his arm and looked down. Her feet were at least a handspan apart.
He reached into his pocket, pulled the end of the stiff wire up, and slid his foot forward. He suppressed a gasp at the view in the small mirror. Her blonde ponytail was inches from his face, her scent saturating his nostrils. He felt intoxicated. As they approached the mid-point of the escalator, he looked around, afraid someone might be watching him. Not a single pair of eyes met his, even those commuters on the other escalator travelling upwards. He looked down again and saw that she’d moved her feet further apart, now nearly shoulder-width. In the little mirror, he could see everything, and now noticed how thin the material of her white skirt was. It was almost paper-like, and it allowed lots of light in. As his excitement increased, the end of the escalator drew near. With trembling fingers he pushed the wire down and covered the mirror. The woman removed her hairband and shook her head, her hair tumbling over her shoulders and back. Then they stepped off, and she was gone.
Dalzon stood against the wall in the same spot as before, away from the flow of people. He closed his eyes, blocked out the surrounding noise and ran a mental replay. When he opened his eyes again he realised he was smiling, but the smile quickly faded. He reflected bitterly on the transitory nature of true happiness.
That night he dreamt of her. She was walking toward him in slow motion, her hair untethered and floating in all directions, as if being blown by a gentle wind. Instead of a skirt and jacket she was wearing something like a white sheet, wrapped around her so that all her limbs were exposed to varying degrees. Her lips were blood-red, and she was smiling at him. Her smooth, fair arms rose and fell gracefully, her hips swayed from side to side. Dalzon reached out to her, but soon realised something; she wasn’t getting any closer. He looked down and saw she was walking on a conveyor belt which was moving backwards. He tried to step onto it but became paralysed, trapped in an invisible force field preventing him from getting on. When he woke up the pain and frustration were still there, and his throat felt sore, as if he had been crying out. Dawn still hadn’t broken. He lay awake for nearly an hour before dozing off into a turgid, dreamless sleep.
In the morning, feeling less than refreshed, he forsook the suit in favour of a pair of khaki chinos, a blue shirt and a brown pullover. He left his room at half past seven in the morning, knowing the journey from South to Central London would get him to Tottenham Court Road station at eight o’clock, just as it was getting busy. He managed to slipstream through the barriers at Kennington on the first attempt. When he reached his destination, took his usual position at the top of the escalator. This time however, he was looking not for new targets, but for her.
After half an hour of waiting, he gave up and went back to riding the escalators. Over the course of forty minutes he saw five gussets (one of them above a pair of hold-up stockings) a tattoo of a bear, and several varicose veins. Throughout it all he felt not a hint of nervousness; the previous day’s apprehension and anticipation had turned into despondency. At ten o’clock he called it a day and returned home to his little room, feeling no better than he had when waking up from the dream.
Wednesday went pretty much the same way. He went earlier and spent nearly three hours in the station, but still there was no sign of her. Nothing made up for her absence – not one of the seven gussets, or even the pair of testicles he saw beneath one dress. He felt like a subterranean Sisyphus, growing wearier with each ascent.
The following day he managed to get a good view of a woman with no underwear. A brunette, she was tall, lean and wore a green dress with matching flat green shoes. It came as a surprise, as she didn’t look the type not to wear knickers. It went to show, he reflected, that it really was unwise to judge people at face value. She’d drawn her feet closer together halfway along, blocking the view, but he didn’t really care. He wondered why he was so unmoved, and questioned whether he was actually losing his capacity to feel anything. There was nothing wrong with her – she was probably in her late twenties, with good skin and quite shapely, slim legs. This was supposedly why he was doing what he was doing, going to all this trouble. If it no longer did anything for him, there was simply no point. A little later, as he gazed dispiritedly into his shoe mirror at the milky haunches of a stocky red-haired woman in her early forties, he began to suspect that he might be depressed.
The following day he returned for little reason other than it had become his routine, and a routine appealed to him a good deal more than sitting at home, which was more depressing than anything. He tried to look at the upsides. Firstly, he was getting good at what he was doing. He’d become adept at travelling for free, and he was proud of his design, the wire-controlled flap, which hadn’t once failed him. He’d not been given one dirty stare in the last three days. Secondly, new plans were beginning to seed in his head. Hours of pretending to read the Financial Times had resulted in him actually absorbing some of the content. He didn’t understand a great deal, but still he was starting to think about investments. The more he thought of his dingy little room, the more pervasive the thoughts were. He had to do something. When right at the bottom, he reflected as he looked up at the stream of sour-faced, descending commuters, there was only one way to go. He didn’t have a lot of money, but his old employer had given him a lump sum redundancy payment, which he’d put aside. Since then he’d subsisted almost entirely on government benefits, managing to avoid dipping into the savings altogether. Perhaps it was time to dip in after all.
The next day, Saturday, was the hottest yet. He dressed down further, donning a pair of faded, usefully roomy jeans and a white t-shirt with Lomax Computing written across the front. Likewise, when he arrived at the station he saw that very few in the crowd were dressed formally. Dalzon had become highly tuned to his environment. He noticed that each day had its own characteristics. The Monday throng was a little less dense, probably the result of staff calling in sick. Wednesday was the busiest, the faces less depressed than on the previous two days, despite being marooned in the middle of the week. Perhaps the trauma of transitioning from the weekend back to desk life had worn off by then.
Dalzon knew Saturday’s crowd consisted mostly of shoppers, so he arrived at eleven, by which time it was really busy. The bulging carrier bags all around him were both a help and a hindrance. They provided extra shielding for his activity, but just as often they were placed between feet, rendering his mirrored foot useless.
At the top of his third ascent, he saw her. She was coming through the ticket barriers, wearing nearly exactly the same as she had on Monday; chunky heels, an above-the-knee white skirt and a formal charcoal jacket with a pinched waist. Her hair was down, covering her shoulders. She was walking slowly, looking not ahead but at the mobile phone in her hand. She wasn’t carrying any shopping.
Glad he’d made a habit of buying the newspaper, he tucked it beneath his arm and performed exactly the same manoeuvre as before. He stood looking at his watch as if undecided about something then as she walked past, closed in behind her. He shivered with pleasure as he smelt her perfume, already so strong in its associations. He wondered what it was, where he could get hold of it, so that he might always relive this experience through smell. As she stepped onto the escalator she tied her hair up, exposing her neck. At the same time she widened her stance. At once Dalzon pulled up the flap and slid his foot forward between her meaty calves. It seemed that with her hair up, her scent was even stronger. He felt light-headed with pleasure.
Now he looked not only at the mirror but at the nape of her neck, her arms, her hair, the whole package. Her right hand clutched the strap of a small black leather handbag. He began to wonder what was inside it, and then heard a voice murmuring close to him. He turned around to see a tall youth wearing a red baseball cap and enormous pair of headphones gazing absently in front of him, above Dalzon’s head. He heard it again, a voice close to him, saying something he couldn’t make out. The lips of the boy behind him weren’t moving. He span round again and looked at the back of her head, but the voice couldn’t have been hers either; it wasn’t coming from the right direction. They reached the foot of the escalator, and walking in the stiff style he’d perfected from necessity, Dalzon followed her all the way to the westbound train platform, where a train was arriving. Not wanting to be too obvious, he dropped back to let another commuter between them as the train slowed to a halt. A bright gleam hit his eye from below, and to his horror he realised he’d forgotten to lower the flap; the mirror on his shoe was reflecting the harsh, bright striplight above the platform into his eyes. He thrust his hand into his pocket, found the end of the wire and pushed it down. The flap slotted into place, and at the same time, the sliding doors banged shut. Dalzon watched the train pull away, the woman in the white skirt inside it. Almost out of view, she turned to face him and for a moment their eyes met.
He was numb, but as he made his way home, he began to feel comforted. Later that night, lying in his single bed and staring at the cracked ceiling and naked, forty-watt light bulb hanging from it, he felt something like a warmth inside, nurtured by the conviction that he would see her again. He felt untroubled by the shouts of the drunks outside, the noise of sirens, and even the groaning, clattering and bumping against and beyond the walls of his room.
Luckily for Dalzon, he had the time to spare. He reasoned that if he continued the pattern of going early on weekdays and later on weekends, then provided her life was subject to any kind of routine, they were bound to meet again. Meanwhile, he was learning all the time. By gazing at the numbers in the newspaper each day, even without paying conscious attention, he began to notice certain trends – the slow but steady increase in value of cobalt and lithium Exchange Trade Funds, the relative steadiness and predictability of the gold market, the wild fluctuations in certain energy markets. He made a decision; he’d break into his savings and, one way or another, make a return.
On Tuesday morning she showed up, this time wearing knee-length boots and a short black dress. Once again, the moment he stepped on behind her she tied her hair up, exposing her neck and letting her perfume reach his nostrils unhindered. It was a decent enough view, but the thin, white material had worked so much better. Like a paper lampshade it had allowed the light through, whereas the black dress had the opposite effect. He withdrew his foot a little and in response, she inched back towards him, moving her feet farther apart as she did so. His heart beating hard, he wanted to say something to her, to tell her this dress wasn’t working. As they neared the bottom, he heard the voice again.
“Shingasinga legrig”, it said. Again he turned around, this time to see a schoolgirl chewing gum. She stared insolently back at him, still chewing, and as he faced forward again he heard the pop of the gum-bubble she had just blown. He reached behind his head to make sure none of it had gone in his hair.
“Dreewee downder”, said the voice, loud and yet a whisper at the same time. He wondered again if it was possible it was the woman in front of him. He angled his head and leaned forward, so that his ear brushed her pony tail, but he heard nothing more, and they reached the bottom. In one seamless movement she pulled off the hairband and shook her head, her hair tumbling over her shoulders. She walked off quickly this time, leaving him with the bizarre feeling of wanting to apologise to her.
The following day Dalzon waited two hours in vain without making a single trip down the escalator until he returned home. He wondered if he’d blown it with her.
On Wednesday, the day when the commuters seemed to cheer up, he found his usual spot near the top of the escalator occupied by a busker playing Beatles songs on a loud, jangly electric guitar hooked up to a small amplifier hanging from his belt. With his head thrown back and eyes closed as he sang, he was completely oblivious to the dirty stare Dalzon gave him. Given little choice, he decamped to the opposite side. It was an inconvenience; upon seeing her he would have to push his way through the stream of people coming off the upwards escalator in quick enough time to fall behind her. Even so it was the best remaining option. Standing anywhere else, he would have looked out of place and drawn attention to himself.
He’d grown so used to the station and its usual sounds, the hubbub of voices, the whirr of the escalators and the announcements from the overhead speakers, that he found the busker’s presence thoroughly disruptive. He didn’t even pause between his wretched songs. As Dalzon contemplated trying to get him moved or ejected by complaining to station staff, he saw her come through the ticket barrier, the same one she always went through. He moved at once, murmuring apologies as he edged through the two-deep line of commuters leaving the escalator for the exit barriers, in the process treading on an elderly woman’s foot.
“Do you mind?” she snapped as the elbow of a big man in a suit nudged him painfully in the back. He made it across just in time. As he stepped behind her, she tied up her hair. Feeling both elation and relief, Dalzon closed his eyes and let the scent waft up to him, stimulating and caressing his senses and his imagination.
When he opened his eyes he noticed that she had new earrings, larger, more elaborate ones. She was wearing a light blue woollen sweater, but the white skirt was back. The sweater went well with her blonde hair, he thought. He smiled and held the folded newspaper to one side, his hand primed on the steel wire in his pocket.
Then he heard it again.
“Yakayeega barber, teberwear, ten.”
It was hard to hear the voice against the shrill sound of the busker’s music, and to make things worse, the man behind him kept coughing loudly. This time rather than trying to work out the source of the voice, he closed his eyes to listen. The music stopped.
“Seventy-five percent uptick”, said the voice, and then it became muffled, as if by a hand clamped over a mouth. He opened his eyes and noticed that, for the first time, she had put her feet together. Dalzon looked down, his eyes wide, and then the man behind him sneezed, spraying the back of his neck without a word of apology. He wanted to turn around and confront him for the disgusting act, but didn’t want to risk another payload directly in the face.
As she strutted off the escalator and whipped off her hairband, his eyes remained fixed to her rear, causing him nearly to collide with a pushchair. He stood in a corner, his mind racing, the pestilential chorus once again assaulting his ears from the upper level. For the rest of the day he remained so lost in his thoughts that he forgot to eat.
On Thursday the busker was gone and Dalzon was able to resume his usual spot. He wondered how much he’d made. There had certainly been lots of coins in his guitar case. He probably made more murdering popular songs for a few hours than Dalzon got every fortnight from the government.
This time as she came from the ticket barrier to the escalator, she caught his eye. Completely unprepared, he looked down at once, and was so hesitant in following her that they were nearly separated by a couple holding hands. Having reassured himself that the pair behind him were preoccupied with each other, he opened his newspaper and lifted the flap on his shoe. At the same time she put up her hair, this time smoothing out her pony tail with her hands. For the first time, he noticed a ring on her wedding finger. As soon as he put his foot forward, he heard it again.
“Kensuzi Telecommunications, medium-term hold.”
This time there was no mistaking it; the voice was coming from between her legs. He tried to tilt his ear downward to hear better.
“Temposuki metalworks, short-term hold, twenty-nine days. Shinto Plastics, medium to long-term hold, nineteen months.”
He wondered if the couple behind could hear it too. He turned his head further, not far enough to see them, but enough to hear the slurps of their kissing. At the same time the voice in his other ear became muffled again. He looked down to see she’d put her feet together once more, and realised it was probably because he’d withdrawn his own foot. He lifted his hand to tap her on the shoulder, but then they reached the bottom, she unleashed her hair, and was gone. He didn’t follow her. He stood beside an illuminated hand cream poster, opened his Financial Times and leafed through it until he reached the International Stock Markets section. There it was. Kensuzi Telecommunications, Shinto Plastics and Temposuki metalworks were all listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
The following day was Friday, but Dalzon didn’t dress down. He wore his green pinstripe and even polished his shoes, flap and all. She looked at him again as she passed. This time he held her gaze. Now he saw her face properly, he noticed that her eyes were a little sad. This time he took care not to withdraw his foot from between her calves. The moment he heard the voice, he tucked the newspaper under his left arm and took a pocketbook and pen from inside his suit.
“Sakurako Waste Disposal, hold five days.”
He cursed silently as the pen dried up. The voice stopped speaking. As she walked away, she turned around, looked at him again, and smiled. He smiled back and contemplated waving for a moment, then felt daft. He realised his throat was sore. He was coming down with something.
For the rest of the weekend he was confined to bed, getting out only to empty his bladder and vomit in the yellow-walled, creaking shared bathroom. It was bound to happen sooner or later, in close proximity with so many strangers with so many germs flying around. Although he couldn’t be sure, it was most likely the man who had sneezed over him. He shuddered as he remembered the man’s gargling, rasping coughs, fearing he was in for a hard time. He was proved right. It started with sniffing, blowing his nose constantly, then coughing. By Sunday it hurt to breathe. Every time he coughed, it felt as if his chest were being ripped out. He fantasised about booting the sniffing, hacking disease-giver down the full length of the Tottenham Court Road escalator. With nothing to keep him occupied but a little radio and some old novels, he spent another two days at home before venturing back out again. The first thing he did when he went out on Wednesday morning was buy a copy of the Financial times, which he took to a greasy spoon café. As was his habit he leafed quickly through it, scanning through the articles first before looking at all the numbers. Then he saw a headline which made tea spill from his lips onto the formica.
Following a surprise takeover by the giant Yukihito Service Corporation that morning, the price of shares in the beleaguered, written-off, junk-status Sakurako Waste Disposal had increased by a completely unprecedented 370 per cent. When the waitress came and asked him if he was okay he heard nothing, and only looked up when she touched him on the shoulder.
On Thursday he took six pens, a pencil and sharpener with him. She arrived at the usual time, this time with her hair already up, pleated at the sides in a fifties style. She was wearing his favourite skirt, or at least one very much like it, and a purple sweater with a low neckline and the sleeves pushed up past her elbows. With the newspaper under his arm, he wrote down everything he heard, barely looking into the mirror although he held his foot in place the whole time. At one point she drew her legs together so her calves squeezed his feet. By the time they reached the bottom, he had filled an entire page of the notebook.
On Friday, for the first time, he left the mirror mechanism at home. It was a sweltering summer day and, being dress-down day for many workers across London, he knew he wouldn’t draw too much attention. The breeze felt good around his toes and his legs. Wearing shorts felt nothing short of liberating, and the slowing of his walking pace from wearing flip flops was still nowhere near as restricting as a stiff wire down his trousers. He felt positively dynamic. When they met at the top of the escalator, he detected something like disappointment in her expression. She looked him up and down, then he was behind her again. Although no longer wearing the mirrored shoe, he slid his foot between her calves. He didn’t want her putting her feet together again. His pen was readied, but he heard nothing. Halfway down the escalator stopped abruptly, throwing him forward into her. As he mumbled apologies she turned around, saw the pen and pad, and gently took them from his hands. Dalzon felt like voiding his bowels as she turned her back on him. He quivered as he thought of her leafing through the previous pages. Perhaps she wanted to punish him for having the audacity to turn up in shorts and flip flops, without the mirror. Maybe he deserved whatever was coming to him.
She turned around and smiling her slightly toothy smile, handed the pen and pad back to him. There was a telephone number in the middle of the page and beneath it, a name: Elaine. They reached the bottom and off she went, her hips swaying noticeably more than usual.
Dalzon didn’t return for several weeks, but he kept the number. When he eventually called, her voice was far softer than he’d imagined it would be. He realised as she spoke that he could no longer picture her face at all. Her ankles, legs, hips, the back of her neck, even her ears, he could visualise as if they were still right in front of him. He could even summon her smell in his memory, as well as the sensation of her tied-up hair brushing his mouth and nose. But the face was gone.
They met on a wednesday evening in a Sushi restaurant. She wore a black dress, her hair down, her lips a striking red. Dalzon was wearing a suit. Not the old green suit, but a new, fitted one made from Gabardine wool. It was the first time he’d worn clothing which fitted properly and it still felt strange to him, as did the Italian leather shoes on his feet. He had the feeling he was wearing somebody else’s clothes.
“You look nice”, she said. “Different, but in a good way. Really smart. It suits you.”
He nodded and murmured in appreciation as he picked up the menu. It all looked the same to him, both the names and the pictures, and besides, he was too distracted to make a decision. All the dishes looked to him like female pudendae. Finally he decided to copy her set option choice of miso soup followed by salmon sashimi.
He watched her stir wasabi into a pool of soy sauce with her chopsticks, then carefully followed her example. They ate in silence for a while, during which he again noticed the ring on her wedding finger. She saw him staring at it, then put down her chopsticks and covered it with her other hand.
“It’s not how you think. He barely speaks to me. I can’t remember the last time he asked me how my day was. He won’t be home tonight, or the next two nights. It’s this work, it takes him away all the time. He’s never around.”
Dalzon’s eyes watered and he winced. He had put too far much wasabi on his sashimi. He let out a spluttering cough, and she pulled out a tissue and leaned over.
“Are you alright? Here, take this. Shall I ask the waiter for some water?”
He shook his head, waved his hand and sipped wine to quell the sting.
“There’s something about you. You’re sweet.” She began to eat again.
“People think I should be happy because I live in a nice, big house, and I could choose not to work if I felt like it. But they don’t understand. Nobody does. It’s like I’m existing, not living. I feel like I have no purpose. What about you?”
Dalzon coughed again. All he could think about was coming up with a pretext to get beneath the table.
“All those times we went down that escalator together, then I’d get my train, but you never got on with me. Where did you go? Where do you go?”
A waiter approached. “Is everything okay? Are you enjoying the food?”
“Very much, thank you”, she said with a brief smile. She was definitely more attractive when she didn’t smile, he thought.
“Well, it’s probably better I don’t know”, she continued. “It’s not like I want to to tell you about my life. Not just you, anyone. I mean, there is nothing to talk about. That’s really the truth.”
They watched as a small, rust-coloured basset hound trotted down the aisle beside them. It stopped near the counter, panting, then came over to their table. It sniffed Dalzon’s ankle, poked its nose up through the tablecloth and between his legs, then withdrew beneath the table again. Seizing the opportunity, Dalzon lifted the tablecloth and looked under. The bassett looked back at him, tongue out, then licked his hand. He bent down lower, pulled a pen from his inside pocket and shooed the dog away.
“Oh, that dog is adorable. But what’s he doing in a restaurant?” he heard her say.
Finally the dog turned, wagged its tail in his face, and pushed its way back out again.
“Are you alright?”
He was listening for something else. Still beneath the table, the tablecloth draped over his back, he was straining with his ear poised between her knees, scribbling on the back of his hand. He noticed she was wearing shoes he hadn’t seen before; black heels with gems embedded in the toes.
He saw the waiter’s shiny shoes glide by, and extricated his head from beneath the table. She had stopped eating and was looking at him with a mournful expression. An argument was beginning at a nearby table.
“I’m sorry, madam”, said the waiter. “Dogs are not allowed in this restaurant.”
“Why didn’t you say anything when we came in? We’ve ordered now.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s strict policy. Animals are not allowed in here, unless it’s a…”
“Bring me the manager.”
“I am the manager. I’m sorry madam. The dog has to leave.”
With considerable noise, clattering and ceremonious scraping of chairs, the couple got up and left, the dog following them.
“Do you find me boring?”
He shook his head, coughed, and a chopstick fell to the floor. “Hold on”, she said, looking around. “I’ll get him to bring some more.”
But Dalzon was already under the table again. The chopstick was nestling between her feet, but he ignored it and whipped out the pen for the second time.
“Hey, it’s okay, he’s going to bring a new one”, he heard her say.
He noticed she was moving her feet apart. Her hands appeared, gripped the sides of her skirt, and hoisted the hem up several inches. He heard the sounds of glassware being moved above him, then the thud of the wine bottle as she placed it back on the table. Then he saw the waiter’s shoes again, inches from his face, pointing towards him. Once more he resurfaced.
“Here you go.” She held out the fresh chopsticks in their paper sheath. As he took them she touched the back of his hand, which was festooned with numbers written in blue ink. “What’s that?”
He pulled his hand back. “Nothing, just… reminders.”
“I’m sorry. I suppose I don’t have the right to ask you about what’s on your hand any more than you do about what’s on mine.”
She took a long sip from her wine-glass.
“I think he’s having an affair too”, she said. “God, why am I even saying think? I know it.”
She poked at her food with the chopsticks, moving pieces around the plate.
“You don’t like me, do you?”
Dalzon coughed again, deliberately this time. He stooped over in his chair and, pulling a face, pretended to fiddle with his shoe, as if something was stuck inside. As he drifted slowly downwards, she reached over and grabbed his arm.
“Wait”, she said. “I get it. Look, I don’t judge you for wanting that. You’re only a man. But please, can we just talk? You’ll have as much of it as you want, later. I promise.”
He slowly straightened up again, and as the waiter caught his eye, he signalled for the bill. As they waited he gingerly placed his ink-free hand over hers and stroked it as comfortingly as he could. She smiled at him, but her eyes remained sad.
That night as she slept curled around him in his single bed, her bare form gently rising and falling, he reflected. Nothing was immune to change. He’d started off looking for one thing, and in finding it, found something else that he wanted more. It was ironic that one’s aims, once achieved, changed fundamentally in nature. It wasn’t so long ago that the mere thought of glimpsing in his shoe mirror what was now right beside him, exposed in the penumbra, had him losing sleep with excitement. But it hadn’t been long before he’d lost interest in seeing it or touching it, and become interested only in listening to it. And he’d listened all night, as she slept, and taken notes until he himself had fallen asleep. Now he could think only of his new ambitions. He pictured himself standing on a balcony high up in a prestigious part of the city, a concierge calling up to confirm his taxi had arrived to take him wherever he wished to go. She turned her head, let out a rasping snore, and like a bubble pricked with a pin, the picture evaporated.
He pushed her away in irritation. There were no absolute truths. Life did not have to be a struggle and happiness did not, after all, have to be fleeting. He reached over, across the notepad covered with fresh numbers and writing, and turned off the bedside lamp. He drifted into dreams of faraway lands with emerald seas and golden sands, beneath bright blue skies. When he woke in the morning, she was gone. In a momentary panic he looked across to the bedside table; the notepad was still there. Reading directly from the pad, he called his broker and instructed him. This time, everything was to be invested. Every penny.
Autumn passed quickly, and the golden leaves which crunched underfoot were soon replaced by dark brown husks and slush. The days shortened and darkened, and pubs became cosier, their crackling fires offering warm relief from the bitter cold outside, but still Elaine did not return his calls. Every week, he called his broker. The news was never encouraging, but he held out hope that the tide would turn. It had to.
One particularly cold, unforgiving evening, Dalzon took a walk. Harsh rain pricked at his skin like pin-points, and the wind blew hard. He stood on the pavement for a while. He felt his breathing was restricted, and his stomach ached as if he had been winded. Indeed, he wondered if being punched in the stomach by a professional boxer felt any different at all to losing everything one had. He moved closer to the road and stared into the traffic, fighting to keep his composure. As he watched the vehicles go by, he began to compare them and wonder what would take him out most efficiently; a double-decker bus or an HGV. It would depend on the speed, of course. If he was going to do it, he didn’t want the job half-done. The wind and rain spat at him, and he drew his cashmere scarf tighter around his neck.
With his hands in his pockets, his collar up and head down, he forged through Russell Square, past the restaurants and hotels of Bloomsbury, past beggars, addicts, shoppers and drinking students, eventually arriving at Tottenham Court Road underground station. He scanned the ticket hall for station staff, and then, deploying a move he’d used too many times to forget, slipped through the entry barriers behind an elderly man.
He felt a range of emotions as he stepped onto the moving stairway. The anger had mostly subsided. It was hard to be angry when you’d lost everything, although when he got the bad news he’d first accused his broker playing a joke on him, then of making a mistake. It wasn’t anger as much as blind panic at his own impotence and utter helplessness in the face of reality, a reality which yelling at his broker would not change. Then he thought about her. It seemed silly to blame her for something over which she had ostensibly no control or influence. The truth was he’d known she was hurt even as they’d dined in the restaurant. The fact she’d chosen to spend the night with him didn’t change that. But it changed everything else.
As he was carried down the escalator he almost imagined he could feel the cold, hard steel wire running down his right leg. Although many months had gone by, he recognised many of the faces. None of them, of course, recognised him. They all remained wrapped up in their newspapers, their mobile phones, their lives. As he neared the bottom he heard a train rumbling in. A bus or a lorry might fail to do the job, he thought, but the tube wouldn’t; That roaring hundred-ton mass of metal, machinery and human cargo would take care of everything, forever. Afraid of his own thoughts, he turned and stepped onto the upwards escalator. Then he saw her.
She coming down, wearing a black formal jacket over a white shirt. He thought about calling out, then saw the man behind her. Despite the opened newspaper in his hands he was looking directly down. It was clear she was standing as far back as she could on the moving step, her back pressed against him. Her eyes were closed, a faint smile on her lips.