There were shadows on the ground when she said goodbye to Humbert. He was coddled in his armchair again, the back of which surpassed his own height. Standing above him made her anxious, his fragility more pronounced by his schoolboy attire and her tall perspective, so she knelt beside him until the moment she could take two swift steps across the room and depart. As she went to leave, she pushed into the carpet and leaned forward to peck him on the cheek tenderly, just as she had done to Recktall the night before. She felt the old man’s body stiffen in surprise. When she pulled away she was left with the faint trace of salt on her lips.
He had asked her how her painting was developing. She considered making a joke about iron deficiency, then she considered telling him what she had done. After a split second she settled on a middling truth, saying, ‘Ironic, in that it keeps me sane.’
As she walked out through his front door she again thought of her naked flight through the building covered in blood. Was that sanity? In her mind, the line that ran down the middle dividing lucidity and vagary was beginning to soften and blur, much like the collar of a dog can become lost against its coat to an owner’s eyes.
The train back to London was busier with families having disconnected themselves from Sunday lunch at the grandparents with enough time to enjoy the capital’s evening. There were distracted teenagers and hyperactive children ignoring their parents who, in turn, were busy ignoring them in favour of the screens clutched in their palms. The uniform of the teens was that of music in their ears and Facebook in their hands, while the luckier members of the younger spawn were allowed to play on their parents’ iPads. That’s if they didn’t have a device of their own. The rest had to be pacified by the flashing displays of adverts that quelled their capriciousness into a honking craving for everything that danced before their eyes.
Two rows in front of her sat a boy of about six, intent on engaging his father in a debate. It was an unusual scene, and she leant forward to wrap both arms around the head of the empty seat in front to listen in. The boy’s tenacious, high-pitched voice was already exacerbated minutes in.
‘But Dad, if I wanted to be a footballer and you wanted me to go to ballet lessons, how is that fair?’
‘Because your parents are in charge,’ came the bored response.
‘But why? Why do you have to be controlled by anyone? Why can’t you do what you want to do?’ The boy had his back to the window and was staring at his father face on.
‘Because that’s how it is,’ said the father, facing straight ahead to the end of the carriage. The boy jumped on his father’s draining energy with rigour, determined to help him see the stupidity of this explanation.
‘But what if I got to seventeen and still wanted to be a footballer and could finally quit the ballet lessons but I was too late! And I’d been forced to do ballet when I could have been playing football and now I’ll never be a footballer!’ His father shrugged, disinterested. ’But why,’ the boy persisted, ‘why can’t you be who you want to be?’
‘Because you don’t always have a choice.’ The boy slumped down in his chair, frowning, and his father sighed, grateful for the silence. She leaned back and buried herself in her seat as tears dominated her vision and baptised her cheeks in anger. It started to rain and painted tears on the boy’s reflection, tears that would soon be forgotten and burnt off in the stale heat of the city, leaving only their crystallized trail like the path of a snail, more precious than any of the world’s diamonds and lost in the rough tide of the living.
But the faint resolve that had begun to bubble in her stomach shook when she stepped off the train and made her way through the monstrous crowds feeling like an unwelcome alien from another realm, passing through unseen. The only proof of her walk through the station and down underground was the occasional flash of her reflection caught in the glass barriers and steel panels. The bubble of resolve started to rise from her gut and into her throat. She tried to breathe down on top of it to anchor it once more but it only made her breath catch and her heartbeat quicken. On the tube, she closed her eyes and thought of the sea, of the froth and the calls of the birds, of the footprints laid in the darker wet sand, to try and still the bubble that sat, now, at the back of her mouth. Her breath came shallow and fast and when she put her head between her knees, clutching her hands around the base of her skull, she heard the mutterings of other passengers. None of them muttered to her.
When she woke up at 3:28am gasping for air and drenched in a cold sweat she didn’t notice the bubble that had crept forward to the tip of her tongue as she slept rise out of her mouth and pop invisibly somewhere on her ceiling. She sat up and pulled her knees to her chest and sobbed quietly. She would have liked to wail and scream but she didn’t know how. Instead, she shook with the effort of feeling. It pooled around her in the pungent way only an accident can. Having closed her blinds there was no difference in her sight whether her lids were open or closed and so she bared her eyes to the world and let exhaustion pour into the darkness around her. Her breath did not quiet and she felt a dull weight hanging around her neck, nestled under her skin; a pendulum swinging gently near her flesh but not quite touching it. She put a palm to her chest and felt it pulsate, sending ripples of radiation through her as if she was to be drowned from the inside out. Her heart danced for it: Prisoner.
She scrabbled for her phone on her bedside table where it was charging and hissed against its bright light when it woke up. Opening her messages, her heart jumped again but towards the phone, it seemed this time, in a bid to be closer to the words onscreen. She typed a reply and even before the sent alert whooshed it away she was leaning back allowing daydreams of Wednesday night to lull her to sleep, blocking out the gnawing swing of the pendulum.