King’s Cross train station was oblivious to the fact that it was Sunday. In fact, the entire city arrogantly refused the sleepy notion of a day of rest and its citizens scampered around importantly at the same speed as any other day.
Londoners had an extraordinary talent of knowing precisely where they were without once looking up from their feet, and the result was a mass of ravenous shoppers on Oxford Street and busy commuters angling towards the nearest tube station, all with the backs of their necks pointed towards the sky as they deftly maneuvered in the dead spaces between each other, more often than not with a phone chained to their hand. Tourists were easily recognisable because they looked up and around with gaping mouths and flared nostrils, cameras and backpacks strapped to their chests in nervous excitement.
The station was brimming with both types just before noon. The Londoners angrily weaved in and out of the groups of non-Londoners who clogged the exits. She fought her way through the crowds in the centre of the station with only a few minutes spare to catch her train. A queue of people flashed their E-tickets against the barriers, gibbering in excitement and pointing onto the platform in front of them. Tongue pushed against her bottom teeth, her eyes flicked to the large board every few seconds that displayed the grand digital time. Underneath it, a video played on loop advertising the upcoming celebrations in a few weekends for National Pride and its momentous history. With less than a minute until her train’s departure, she reached the front of the queue, swiped her thumb on the barrier and ran onto platform eight. She could hear the delighted squeals of children and adults alike on platform nine and - like any Londoner - she faintly cursed them, jumping onto the trains just as the doors closed.
She had left the party a few hours after Rob’s (she had taken to calling him Rob in her head) vanishing act, much to her father’s dismay and her mother’s jealousy. Recktall had forced her to do a sweep of the party saying goodbye and, when she had finally managed to extricate herself from his possessive grip treating her shoulder like a steering wheel, she found her mother had snuck a few bottles of ‘the good stuff’ into her bag upstairs. Remembering she had lunch plans, though, she only had one or two when she got home and giggled through Kathy’s particularly catty live messaging commentary of Milo’s new apartment.
She walked through the carriages to the front of the train and chose a seat by the window on the opposite side to the upcoming platforms, as was her custom. Sitting in the first carriage that the engine was in made her feel lighter and freer than being in one of those tugged along behind it. It was also normally empty on the direct train because no one else could find the energy to stretch their legs all the way up the platform.
As the train cruised through the familiar twists and turns of the journey she relaxed into her seat and smiled out of the window, barely noticing her reflection as she was swept out of the Inner Zones. She made the trip back to Cambridge almost once a month, preferring to go to him and spend an afternoon away from the city. The preference was mutual, but he made sure to share a meal in the capital with her every so often to measure the sickness in its lights.
She touched her fingers to the window when the train sped through Finsbury Park station and roared into Zone Three near where she had once lived in Seven Sisters. There was a marked difference in height between Zones - perhaps accounting for his beehive metaphor, she realised for the first time - and the proud houses of Three’s North sat shadowed, slightly, by the luxurious new builds of Two. Where time and money was spent on incorporating adspace into the existing structures of Zones One and Two so it appeared to bloom from the natural landscape in a civilised manner, the occasional billboard sprang up in Three’s residential areas, becoming more frequent and more aggressive travelling down the line.
The last of the offices in Zones Three and Four were far more compact compared to the sprawling quarters of the boastful businesses further into the City, and housed in renovated ex-residential spaces. The outer edge of Zone Four also marked the beginning of the ‘grey belt’, a stretch of grass and trees that was despised by the people it sheltered for its lack of colour and wall of differentiation. But her heart soared as she soaked in the vision of Epping Forest, even though it was more of a park than it had been in the past considering much of the land had been reclaimed to build homes. Those who lived in these houses and beyond, out to Zone Nine, were barely classified as Londoners by those who lived in the Inner Zones.
Not long ago, One to Four had shifted all of its dealings to PrintPay, with every transaction paid for by the swipe of a registered thumbprint. Five to Nine didn’t qualify for PrintPay connections and still toiled away with paper money and plastic cards. This made transactions and trade between them tiresome for the richer crowd who now recoiled at the concept of carrying money. Gradually, cash machines had been removed from inside Four’s border right into the Inner City, and the few that remained in Zone One were normally so clogged with tourists it deterred the Londoners from trying. The shift had been toted to make living faster, easier and safer for Londoners, but she suspected it was a bid to discourage Zero-people from begging on their streets. In the midst of life getting faster and easier and safer no one had noticed the successful cleansing of the Zeroes.
Because Five to Nine were almost entirely residential, lived in by the unseen workers of One to Four (the cleaners, the drivers, the wardens, the waiters) the smog cloud that hung invisibly above the City broke over them and allowed the real sun to stream down onto their streets. The beams made her breath catch in her throat every time, but they also unflinchingly laid bare the increasing poverty as her train sped above the filthy streets of Six, the two-bedroomed flats housing families of eight in Seven, the ripped billboards of Eight and the starving, pale children of Nine crying for the sparkle of the City with hungry eyes.
The welts of human sadness were not enough to provoke the well-kept, though, and the City of London ignored this other London despite it being filled with people like them: People with stories, people with love, with scars and joy, people with nothing other than their spirit, so often transformed beyond recognition no matter the Zone. She forced herself to look at the horror that nestled among the colours of the country that would make her heart glad if not for the suffering. She wondered how much the man with the yellow scarf suffered.
It took the train another twenty minutes once past the belching reach of London’s poverty to arrive at the last stop. Cambridge was a not-uncommon place in that it became limp and fragile when the boisterous students departed twice a year. Now, however, it was term time and the quaint town was overrun with clamouring and ruthless youths honing their perceptions and accents at the prestigious university (although its reputation relied somewhat on its geographical proximity to the capital.) The year-round residents were either university staff or the dying, moving slowly enough in their last decades for dust to gather between their knuckles.
She struck out from the station on the initial thirty-minute walk into the heart of campus, camouflaged in worn trainers, jeans and a gilet pulled over her jumper. She found comfort revisiting the cobbled streets she had felt safest and happiest in beside the river that still ran blue among green fields. Of course, the students mostly ignored nature’s soft touch until the summer parties ending in the notorious Suicide Sunday. That hangover had lasted for days.
But the bright and open spaces she exalted in that had somehow been salvaged in this quiet town many of the others found oppressive. She remembered walking down Pembroke Street on a spring day and overhearing a first year nervously mutter to a friend that he didn’t like the clear sky and low buildings - he felt like God was watching them.
‘There is no God, idiot,’ had been the response.
She turned left onto Trumpington Street watching the young swing past on their bicycles, a tradition she supposed would never be forgotten. Continuing up, the blocks of the buildings began to get bigger and lighter, and the structures more imposing. Another ten minutes and the street opened onto the magnificent King’s Parade. King’s College loomed on her left, sovereign and efficacious, as proven by the lump of foreigners ecstatic in its presence. She coveted the wonder in their faces that had lessened in hers over the three years she lived there to a cheerful appreciation. Such was the role of the normative. Anyway, she was not a King’s girl.
She continued past the Chapel on her left and Great St Mary’s Church on her right, side-stepping an overzealous girl racing down the pavement, no doubt late for a lecture. Just past the church she turned left onto the smaller Trinity Street, which felt like the mischievous older sister compared to patriarchal King’s Parade, and promised shelter in its narrower path among the secrets and stolen kisses of the past. This was her territory. Her pace slowed and she ambled gently along the cobbles looking up at the buildings that curved over her head slightly like guards.
When she found herself standing in the middle of the Great Court she smiled at the grandiose beauty packed with idiosyncrasies between its stones. It was through this court she had thundered one night after storming out of a private dinner party that sat nepotism at the head of its table. One of the leading investors of the university, which no longer bothered to hide its reliance on private finance, had given a guest lecture on business tactics to her Economics year group at Trinity College. He was CEO of the oxygen supplier for the UK’s most polluted cities, selling first-rate pure oxygen at a premium for those in need of clean air. She had caught his eye when he asked the class to devise an economic model to increase profit margin by five per cent in one year. While her colleagues plotted graphs she plotted something else, gazing out the window as the rest of them tossed figures between them like hot coals. She hadn’t bothered stifling her obvious boredom and he angrily demanded her solution in front of the class.
‘Make the air dirtier,’ she had said.
‘And how would you do that, dear?’ Her lip curled at the use of ‘dear’.
‘I haven’t worked out all the kinks,’ she spat, ‘but instead of hiring a bunch of expensive economists I’d call up whatever fuckwit journalist you have sitting in your back pocket and tell him to write about rising pollution levels and the government’s unwillingness to pay for our health.’ She smiled. ’You just need to make them think it’s dirtier. And while the last bit’s not necessary, it’s a good foundation to hike up your prices if parliament’s already under fire for not coughing up the money when people are coughing up blood.’
‘Dramatic effect,’ she shrugged.
After the class he had invited her to the kind of dinner party that was an unofficial reason to attend Cambridge, and insisted she sit next to him all evening. While he plied her with wine he dangled job offers before her, eyes fixed on the necklace dangling between her breasts.
After dessert, and the suggestive action of his tongue on the spoon, he put a hand on her thigh and whispered through her hair, ‘You know, my DV is enormous.’
‘Yeah, but I bet your dick is tiny,’ she snapped loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Afterwards, he had demanded she be removed from the course and she had been dragged into meetings with the Head of her College. But she was grateful - that was how she met the professor.
She cut through the arches on the West side and into Neville’s Court, at the other end of which sat her favourite place in the world, Wren Library. She slowly walked towards the U-shaped building beholding its sandstone pillars and large, arched windows with the same humility it first held her as an undergraduate. It was formidable yet gentle, and its symmetry marked the tenderness with which the staff cared for it, hundreds of years after its birth. Walking through it she felt, as always, guarded by the stone womb that allowed the mind to bubble and grow, gifting strength photosynthesised in the light of its windows.
It was closed now, permanently, to both students and the public, neither of whom had the need for books nor the time for ‘ceiling-gazing’, a derogatory term wielded at lovers of art, including those who discovered their finitude in the portals between bookcases.
Like a ribbon caught in a breeze, she meandered underneath the arches breathing in the dusty motes of memories that whistled between the pillars. The West side sat on the bank of the River Cam, the reflection of its closed doors leaning down into the water like Narcissus. She recalled tumbling across the grass with Kathy when they were still teenagers. They were laughing, nymphs of the night, their bodies imbued with wine and ecstasy. They were maidens. They were vixens. As they danced in front of the Wren the sight of Kathy’s body moved through her like a siren call. And then the girls were on the ground. And then her insistent lips threw flames down Kathy’s throat. And they were tearing off each other’s clothes with the desperation of snakes shedding skin hoping their next membrane would be different to that of the devil’s. And then she was rearing over Kathy, silhouetted against the tall, strong pillars that stood erect behind her as she succumbed to the violent desire to claim the other girl’s body and be lost in its abandon.
She shuddered as the urge once again surged in her - the urge to destroy Kathy, to eat her up, to punish her for the very thing between her legs she took such pleasure from, for the soft mounds of her breasts that would always present themselves to be suckled. This carnal rite wasn’t particular to Kathy; the shadowed body could have been any girl that night. She had been flooded with guilt when Kathy had looked past her navel, eyes white, bright, against her black skin. The thrill was lost for her in that naked gaze. She could not stand to let Kathy between her own knees, which were shaking with shame just as Kathy’s had shook around her ears minutes before. She was frightened by the rage and, although they never spoke of it, she knew her friend had been frightened, too; Kathy’s mottled wrists the next morning painted something other than passion.
She knocked on the white door of the house on Jesus Lane (he liked that it was white, he said it was something they shared) but this was merely a formality. He always left the door unlocked when she was coming. She stepped lightly through the hallway, careful not to knock over the stacks of paper and books that lined the walls and continued up the carpeted stairs on either side, ensuring only one foot would fit on any of the steps.
‘Professor?’ she called out. Looking to her left into the lounge, which could have easily doubled as a library, she saw a mug of tea still steaming atop a pile of Britannia encyclopaedias and a dog-eared book lying open on its broken spine. She walked forwards and picked it up to read a few lines, instantly recognising the style of Nietzsche before even glancing at the title; he was a rare philosopher in that he doubled as a good writer. The door to the kitchen on her right burst open and she grinned, returning the book back to the table.
‘Stop trying to inflict your penchant for right-wing thinkers on me,’ she smiled.
‘Right-wing is an ideology, not an identity,’ came the stiff reply as the professor moved towards her and settled himself back in the chair, causing her to step backwards.
‘Coulda fooled me,’ she said. He picked up the book.
‘If you’re going to talk at me in clichés please go away.’ He picked up his mug and took a loud sip before turning his attention back to the tortured, German soul. She stood in front of him with her weight shifted onto one leg, arms crossed and a grin growing wider each passing second. Suddenly, he looked over the edge of his book, raised his thick, grey eyebrows to his hairline and stuck out his tongue in a flash. In less than a moment he was studying the book again so intently you would not be forgiven for blaming his sleight caricature move for a figment of your own imagination. She laughed.
‘Tea,’ she said simply, taking off her gilet and moving into the kitchen. Professor Humbert was in his eighties, she thought, but with the impudence - and the wardrobe - of a schoolboy. He religiously chose short-sleeved shirts, vests and shorts, no matter the season. He remembered a time, or, at least, being told of a time, when the world was coloured and the people lit from within, not by the piece of software grasped in their palms. There were artists and writers, not just celebrities and salesmen, he said, who saw the truth and captured it in their work - and were encouraged to do so. It was a time of education and books and discussion, he said. There were still idiots, of course, but there were less of them, and they weren’t so dangerous.
He battled his way into the education system and collected the books that were gradually being taken out of circulation, building a camp for the lost souls of the Humanities. He also collected students, students he thought might be interested in learning ‘about themselves, as people, not machines’. As age would decree, he had given up by the time she strolled into her disciplinary with him wearing that particular kind of disdain borrowed by beautiful women.
In his stubbornness justified by his position he had demanded any original paintings that had survived the E-transition be swapped back into his office and the E-paintings put into storage while he was Master of the College. Despite his one blind eye and her quick cover-up, he did not miss her shocked reaction at the paintings, which normally provoked boredom in his other students. When he called a second meeting a week later he had the painting that hung behind his head of Henry VIII swapped again for the E-replica and, admittedly, he did enjoy seeing the colours transmitted in the E-paint. However, when she entered the room not only was her double-take at the painting obvious, but the unmistakable sadness in her face revealed her secret to him as she looked away from the grey Frankenstein in pain.
She went back into the lounge with a milky cup of tea inspired by the flash of loneliness that had struck her as she stood in the kitchen of the old man who knew more about her than anyone else. She moved across the room and took a seat at the dining room table, watching him read. He wore large, square glasses now that his hands trembled too violently for him to insert contacts, but sometimes when he looked through them at her with his one good eye, she felt he was gazing at the reflection of his own pupil cast in the lens.
‘I’m sorry about Monday.’ she started.
‘Yes!’ he exclaimed. ‘Tell me about him!’
Which one, she thought to herself before speaking. ‘I told you everything on the phone that night - he was definitely wearing a real yellow scarf. But,’ she took a sip of her tea, ‘I saw him again on Wednesday night near Hackney Central - I saw him run across the road and disappear-’
‘Are you sure it was him?’ interrupted the professor.
‘Unless all Zero-people are wearing yellow scarves now, yes.’ The professor’s left hand drummed the armrest. ‘Then Kathy said something interesting I hadn’t considered - why was he there? It can’t have been to beg, and that was the last thing any Zero wanted from a day in Zone One. And then why was he hanging about Two days later? He must have some kind of purpose.’
‘I have thought about this,’ nodded the professor, his right hand moving across to quiet the drumming of his left fingers.
‘No idea,’ he grinned, trenches appearing around his mouth. His good eye sparkled above the scarred flesh of his nose. ‘Could mean something. Could mean nothing.’ The thumb of his right hand gently stroked his left wrist.
‘I think it’s something,’ she said decisively.
‘Of course you do! You’re young! Me? I don’t think about changing the world anymore.’
‘I don’t want to change the world, Humbert. I want to free change in the world.’ She paused, looking into her tea. ‘Although some days I’d rather not be in the world at all.’
She could feel him looking at her with concern but couldn’t bear to meet his eyes while hers abruptly welled with tears. She knew her skin was raw and dry, that she was carrying bags under her eyes and sporting spots on her chin. She hoped he wouldn’t be able to notice that her belt was buckled one hole tighter than normal. Sip. Blow.
‘It’s not easy,’ he said gruffly.
‘What is? Talking? Easier than a lot of people have it.’
He shook his head. ‘Not talking - knowing. It can be very difficult to know.’
‘You mean running,’ he frowned at her.
‘I mean shaking up more than just the bars of this internal cage.’
He sat up and leaned towards her, his voice growing louder. ‘Alright - shall we buy you a scarf so you can run off and join the Zero-people. Is that what you want?’ She knew he wasn’t mocking her. He was asking her to be rational.
‘Same crap, different bowl,’ she conceded with sagging shoulders. ‘But that’s not what I meant.’
‘Christ Almighty, stop trying to say what you mean and instead just mean what you say.’ He stood up, unusually lithe for an older man, and she followed him through the kitchen and out into the garden without a word. He was shorter than her, with thin little legs like springs comically holding up a broad torso and small arms he held out from his sides when he walked. He let the garden overgrow - for her - so that in summer it bloomed like a fantasy and a battle commenced between jungle and man trying to reach the picnic table that sat at the end on top of a slight hill.
They reached it easily enough now, sitting down next to each other to face back across the garden towards the house. She ran back down to the house for her gilet and the tea he had left inside. Sitting back down, she zipped the gilet up under her chin and shoved her hands in her pockets. He didn’t comment, but it wasn’t cold.
‘Changing the world is a big burden for one, no matter how brave you are,’ he said eventually.
‘I’m not brave, Humbert. I’m as afraid as everyone else. I just don’t let it control me.’ Her voice echoed with loneliness.
‘And what do you think bravery is?’ he asked her. ‘To boldly go; to be unpredictable.’
‘I’ve been feeling pretty predictable lately. Well, with dashes of madness.’ Her vision swam and her voice as she spoke was low and hollow. ‘I’m unhappy.’
‘Yes,’ he said simply.
‘I just don’t see when it’s going to end. If it will ever end. I feel trapped.’
‘Who’s going to change it?’ she looked to him pleadingly. He turned to her and smiled with his expressive eyebrows.
‘I thought you were!’
She paused, thinking. ‘Some moments I feel everyone’s fury and then others I feel as weak as a newborn,’ she finally admitted.
‘Interesting,’ he mused. ‘Are newborns weak?’ She looked at him incredulously and he continued. ‘We are born strong and then weakened with time, that’s how it has always been.’ He placed a hand over the top of his mug, turning so he could use his left eye to look at his dying clematis impaled on the garden wall. ’Only, now, we are artificially fortified in the womb, which makes the human weakening a far quicker and more devastating process.’
‘Human processes. Artificial fortification. Look at how we talk about life,’ she laughed coldly. ‘I suppose the only good thing left in our nature to rely on is love.’
‘When there’s no rescue coming how long can a lifejacket keep you afloat before you begin to curse it?’ he murmured. She removed a hand from her pocket and scratched at the moss growing on the table.
‘That depends on how long the water lets you live,’ she said. He smiled at that.
‘Now imagine,’ he said, ‘if you were to slide out of that lifejacket and find the seabed beneath your feet.’ He turned to her, his seeing eye calm like a lake in winter and his white eye fractured like the ice that sets over it, putting it to sleep until spring.
She frowned. ‘Are you implying that we shouldn’t love?’
‘There is always such finality in your conclusions!’ He banged a hand down on the table. ‘Everyone should have the freedom to love, just as everyone should have the freedom to walk along the seabed, if they so choose.’ He smiled, turning his head back towards the house so she could not see the unsettling eye. He threw the cold silt of his tea into the bushes behind him and stood, slowly extricating his legs from the bench.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘let us go back down the mountain. I have a book to give you.’ She smiled as he trotted down the small hill and back into the house, but she could not ignore the frustration in her chest. No matter how much she enjoyed these ‘lessons’, which consisted of books and discussions and arguments, she had begun to feel restless and wary of their routine of talking that came so easily. She was afraid she was becoming like one of the stone gnomes dotted about the garden. But the petrification had crept up her body so subtly she feared she might crack apart if she was to shake. It would only be later she recognised that fear is the same, no matter the mask, and restless vibrations are no substitute for action.
Her phone beeped in her hand that was once more thrust in her left pocket. She pulled it out as she stood, knocking the table in her carelessness and spilling her own half-empty mug of tea. She barely noticed, gleefully re-reading the text:
‘Two can play at the elusive game, kid. But let’s cut the crap and have dinner Wednesday instead. Robert.’
The professor appeared in the garden again, standing next to a crop of ferns by the back door.
‘I hope whatever you’re reading is as impressive as Simone Weil!’ he yelled.
‘I think it might be,’ she offered before grabbing her mug in the other hand and skipping down the hill like a schoolgirl. As she approached Humbert she noted he didn’t look much bigger up close than he did when she was by the bench.
He turned to lead her back inside, catching a cobweb he could not have seen around the crown of his head from the fern. It glittered, wrapped around his white hair and clinging to his forehead. She watched the tiny garden spider run across the top of his head, perhaps bemused or shaken, eight legs furiously working for a foothold on the man’s crown. Humbert reached up and brushed at the web absentmindedly, running a hand through his sparse hair. When he brought it back down by his side the spider had gone.