She has to get on the train.
It’s not her choice, but there’s no way she can avoid it. Her brother and sister have made up their minds.The District Line from Stepney Green to London Victoria. And bussing it is out of the question, ’cause her brother’s never been on the tube and he’s really excited. As for her sister, an hour on the bus doesn’t appeal to her because there’s so much she wants to see and so little time.
If you’ve been fighting cancer for eighteen months and have spent days on end on chemotherapy, hooked up to bags dripping into veins that slowly wither and die before your eyes, nothing frightens you anymore. And if your husband has left you for another man, and the boyfriend you’ve been seeing for just a few months commits suicide when he finds out you had a husband who left you for another man, nothing frightens you anymore.
Her brother is twenty-four and has lymphoma; her sister’s thirty, recently separated after three years of marriage, and the first man she’s dated left her a note a month ago in which he said he was taking his own life because of her.
So they’ve both made it amply clear: they don’t give a fuck about death. But if they had a choice, they’d rather die in a terrorist attack than from cancer or depression. She thinks differently. Her legs feel numb as she descends into Stepney station. And the whiplash of wind across her face makes her feel sick to her stomach. And then they’re on the train: her sister,her brother, and herself.
The train is completely deserted.
After the events of a couple days ago, everybody is still shaken. Except for her brother and sister. And she has to obey and this whole who-gives-a-fuck-about-death-and-dying thing is getting to her. . .dying is a serious business as far as she’s concerned and let’s face it, the prospect is pretty distant, probably further away than the last stop on the Green Line.
And her brother and sister want to play the part of the tourists to the hilt. She doesn’t. The last time she was in London she was studying here, so she didn’t qualify as a tourist. And the last time she was in London she decided she wanted to move here for a few years because she loved this city, it didn’t make her feel lethargic, in spite of the darkness that seeped into her veins. In fact, it usually filled her with an energy she now lacked because her brother and sister had squeezed it out of her, every last drop. She’d been the one to encourage them to make the trip in the first place.
And suddenly, London just wasn’t the same anymore.
Her brother glances at the tube map. “Eleven more stops to go,” he says.
Having made up her mind that she hasn’t got much longer to live, she begins to think of all the questions she’d like to ask her father but has so far failed to get him to answer.
“Do you remember when we used to go down to the playing field and there’d be this box of preserves on that old woman’s doorstep?”
“No, I don’t remember.”
“What was her name?”
“I can’t remember.”
“You can’t not remember, I was with you a couple times and you told me not to breathe a word to anyone.”
“So you shouldn’t be talking to me about it either.”
“And you parked some distance away, ran to get the box, dumped it in the trunk. And then we made our getaway.”
“No, I don’t remember.”
“And what about that morning when I burst into tears because I wanted to go to school and you said I couldn’t . . .?”
“No, you never cried.”
“’Course I did, and then you were saying that school was out and we were on vacation. And I’d seen the boy from next door go to school, so I thought why can’t I go too. . ."
“That was a long time ago.”
“But you do remember that you went on strike, right?”
“I’d forget about that too if I could.”
“And do you remember how we used to go to the port in Valletta to wait for Pantu to come back from Gozo with boxes of veg from Nann Roża?”
“What are you on about?”
“Don’t you remember anything anymore?”
“ … “
“And what about when Nannu got us our first color TV?”
“No, can’t remember.”
“I do remember, though. Every one of our aunts and uncles had gotten one, we were the only ones left.”
“You’re getting things mixed up.”
“Was that ’cause you’d gone on strike?”
“Or maybe because Nannu worked at the dry docks?”
“And I guess Nannu’d managed to get them all on the black market. Or for free, even.”
“He got one for himself first, and then one for Aunt Jenny, and then it was Uncle Manuel and finally we got one of our own.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, you actually accepted it. So how did that happen?”
This friend of hers is getting married soon and is afraid of going to Tuscany on a honeymoon ’cause apparently Tony Blair’s going to be in Tuscany round about the time he and his wife were planning to go, and everyone’s thinking that’s likely to be the next target. And this other friend of hers, a German, she lives in London and says she’d never missed a day’s work before, but that morning she felt queasy and phoned in sick. And she thinks of Marthese, who also used to live in London but whom she’s not heard from since they had a tiff in Republic Street and Marthese had said she was selfish and she’d called Marthese a coward and Marthese took off her top and bra right there in front of the passersby, just to prove that she wasn’t. And she’d have liked to do something to prove that she wasn’t selfish, but she didn’t do anything. And now she’s wondering whether Marthese also called in sick when she woke up that morning.
And then she looks at her sister. Stares into that turmoil in her eyes. She’s on the verge of telling her that this is their last chance to talk over all the things that need to be cleared up, seeing as they’re about to die. And her sister seems to understand but it’s so quiet on the train she picks up a book instead. Some shitty paperback, which is all she ever reads.
“Do you remember playing doctor and patient when we were kids, and I’d always tell you to get undressed (though I was younger than you), and I’d keep my apron on and you’d be stark naked and I’d give you a full examination, top to toe?”
No, she doesn’t remember.
“You used to enjoy it too.”
She doesn’t remember.
“And do you remember how, on your wedding day, just before we went into church wearing our best smiles, you told me you didn’t love this man and that this was going to be the biggest mistake of your life? And I just gave you a dirty look . . .“
She doesn’t remember that either.
“And what about when I told you I’m into women and I find men disgusting and you just changed the subject?”
No, she doesn’t remember.
Her sister chuckles at a bad joke in the book.
This friend of hers says her life is like the London tube map: it veers off in all sorts of directions, but she knows where each line starts and where it leads to, what time the train leaves and how long the journey’s going to take. And her moods (which vary a lot) are the tube colors. And the stops (which vary even more) are the various relationships she has with various people in various moods along the various routes. And right now she’s wishing she could ask her whether there’s a contingency plan for when there’s a bomb scare and she’s got to shut down parts of her underground network. Her friend once told her that when she first visited London she’d spent all of her time on the tube. She liked the idea of being able to go wherever she wanted with a single ticket. She got off at every stop and then caught the next train to go to the next stop. And she marked every stop she got off at on the map, in pencil. By the time she had them all marked, it was time to go back to Malta.
Someone gets on the train. He’s carrying a backpack. She can’t stand it, the way she’s beginning to tar everyone with the same brush. But her mind races on ahead regardless. It thinks its thoughts and comes to conclusions too quickly, and just as quickly panics. ’Cause what she can’t get her head around is how some guy with a family and a decent job could suddenly decide to blow himself and forty others to kingdom come. Not to mention how this guy could decide that she should die along with him.
She’s feeling suffocated and her brother, peeking into the musty vault of her mind, cottons on. And then she’s about to tell him that since they won’t be around for much longer, this might be a good moment to talk about that row they’d had, when he’d thrown the pointed kitchen knife at her head. She tries to remind him by staring flick-knives into his eyes.
“Do you remember when you threw that knife at me and missed me by a hair’s breadth?”
He doesn’t remember.
“And I picked it up and was on the verge of throwing it right back at you, but instead I went out and carved a scratch into the side of your new car.”
He doesn’t remember.
“It might be a good idea to apologize to each other today, seeing as we’re going to die pretty soon.”
He’s not paying attention.
“And do you remember when you were at the doctor’s, and he told you about the tumor? And then you went to another doctor and another and they said it wasn’t a tumor you had, just a hernia, and that evening you were telling me about it and we were both in fits, and when you blacked out I simply kept on laughing ’cause I thought it was all part of the act but you didn’t get up. And we rushed you to the hospital and they kept you there.”
But he’s still counting the remaining stops to London Victoria.
In the end it had turned out not to be a tumor. It wasn’t a hernia either, though.
There’s this other friend of hers who’s really paranoid, she’s always afraid that someone might break into her place, not to rape her but to steal her laptop that’s got the first few chapters of a novel she’s been hacking away at for about six years. So she backs up her novel every Saturday at nine in the morning (thieves tend to break in on Saturday night) and hides the CDs in different parts of her apartment. She used to think it was hilarious, what her friend did, but now she’s the one who’s feeling paranoid in the tube, making the sign of the cross every time a bearded man with a backpack gets onto the train.
And then she takes her mobile phone out of her handbag and starts writing a text to her friend.
when am back we shd wrk
on d plan yeh, i’ll give u
a hand.. if I die spare a thought
for me gal
Turns out there’s no network access down here, so she saves the text to send later. That’s assuming she makes it through.
She starts to think about how it doesn’t occur to some people, when they’re really pissed off, to lock themselves away in the bathroom and scream their heart out, instead of doing themselves and about fifty other people in. It’s what she does, when for example her mum starts going on about premarital sex. Or when her dad asks her on a Sunday morning whether she’s been to church. And then she shuts her eyes and thinks of her mother and of the last row they had, and she wants to tell her that finally she’s going to be rid of her once and for all, ’cause this is it, her daughter’s going to die so she needn’t worry anymore about what the neighbors think of her daughter, and she’d also like to ask her about Aunt Ċett, not for the first time, but maybe this time she can get her to talk straight for once.
“So what’s with Aunt Ċett and Pina?”
“What about them?”
“Well, they’re inseparable!”
“Oh come on, Ma, you know that it’s an open secret, the way your sister and her friend stick together!”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Well, stands to reason . . ."
“It’s all inherited from your side of the family!”
“Nanna’s sister was like that too . . . only they had her down as an old spinster who never managed to get married.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Funny, that, ’cause I do remember.”
“How could you remember, you were barely six when my mother’s sister died!”
“She had a girlfriend too. Ġanna, her name was, she was always talking about her.”
“I don’t remember.”
“And now Pina’s started to sleep over at Aunt Ċett’s.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“It’s got plenty to do with everything.”
“She’s sick isn’t she? She needs someone to take care of her.”
“You’ll buy anything, won’t you, even from a couple of sixty-year-olds.”
“You keep going on about this.”
“You never admit it.”
“That’s why you’ll never understand.”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
“That’s ’cause it suits you better not to know.”
“Let’s face it, this business with Aunt Ċett and Pina . . ."
“Yes . . ."
“There’s no way I’ve got that wrong.”
“It’s not important.”
“So I’m not important either?”
“We’ve got enough problems as it is.”
“But that’s just it, this isn’t a problem . . ."
This morning her cousin told her that one of these days, he’d like to sit in the tube playing the guitar. It’s not about money, he just wants to try it out, see whether anyone would stop and listen, whether they’d like the songs he writes. Her cousin lives in Stepney Green. He says he feels he’s a Londoner and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, despite the racist jibes he occasionally gets when he boards a bus. He told her that although he isn’t blond and good-looking and doesn’t live in a nice area, he’s made up his mind to stay put, because he was born in this place. And he said that music was the only escape valve he needed, and he’d thought up this idea of playing in the underground right now, just so he could make the point that he wasn’t scared. Then he asked her whether she’d spare a little change for him if she was ever passing through and came across him playing, at which point she just screamed and chucked a shoe at him.
It’s stifling. There’s a smell she can’t identify. It gets into her nostrils like Duncan’s fingers the day they had a row over a bit of weed. She can almost feel the blood trickle down as it did that day. Her legs are splayed out, like they were that time on Hastings Bastions, her shoes in her lap and her legs jutting out catching the cool breeze. But she’d started to cry soon after, and lit a cigarette and stubbed it out repeatedly on her flabby thighs. It hurt. And it makes her wonder, now, why these types that decide to turn themselves into kamikazes don’t just lay into themselves with a blade and stop when the pain becomes unbearable, the way she does whenever she feels angry at the whole world, feels like taking it out on the whole of humanity. Or why they don’t just light a smoke and burn their eyelids with it just to remind themselves of how much it hurts, being burned, the way she does whenever everyone and everything seems to have it in for her. But to just do yourself in, not to mention a whole lot of other people, jesus fucking christ that’s . . . way out . . . and she’s tried to kill herself several times and has never managed to go through with it. Hurting yourself when you’re pissed off she can understand, though. And it works, too.
She glances once more at her brother and he says, “We’ll be there soon.” And she feels the urge to tell him that she loves him and wouldn’t want him to die even though they have these nasty rows and he calls her a loser because she can’t seem to hold down a job for longer than three months. Then he tells her she should consider becoming a train driver ’cause it seems to be a cushy kind of job, fun, like, and she might even manage to stick it out for longer than three months. And she aims a kick at him. And she wants to tell him that they should probably start taking life a little more seriously, stop ribbing each other, because they’re about to die.
This is the first time she’s seen that station in such a desolate state, waiting for the people to turn up, sending off train after empty train, forlorn in the absence of the morning rush . . . what is she doing here? And she needs to look happy because this is the first time her brother’s been abroad. Her sister looks as if she’s standing on the shore of the new world, the way she herself used to feel every time she went to London, except that now everything seems to have died, and she’s begun to think that maybe this isn’t the best place to spend the rest of one’s life after all. Then she sees the policemen with their dogs. And shortly after, a man in civvies walks past carrying a squarish brown briefcase, looking as though he’s searching for explosives. And her brother thinks it’s really cool and takes a picture of him. And she feels a strong urge to shove her head into a trashcan and vomit. But there are no trashcans in Victoria, and she decides it’s not worth making a mess on the station floor.
This friend of hers wakes up at five on the dot every morning and eats exactly half a cup of Special K, then goes right back to bed and sleeps until six-thirty, then gets out of bed and heads straight for the bathroom. Her friend says that makes her life so much easier, compared to other people who don’t get up before eight and then have to rush to be at work by eight-thirty. So one day she asked her friend what would happen if she didn’t hear the alarm clock ringing, but her friend said this had never happened; or what would happen if she ran out of Special K, but her friend said this had never happened either; and now she’d really like to ask her friend what would happen if she was in the tube and it blew up and they took her to the hospital and the hospital couldn’t serve her Special K at five in the morning and she couldn’t use the bathroom at six-thirty on the dot. But this friend of hers is way too laid-back, she doesn’t consider possibilities unless they concern her directly, and maybe that’s why her life’s so much easier and she thinks she’d really like to be that way herself, except she couldn’t get up at five to eat her Special K and anyway, she’d be sick of it after a week.
Then, her brother and sister go to look up the route to Leicester Square. The Piccadilly Line. Part of it has been shut down, but they can still catch a train to Leicester. But she’s feeling dizzy. Her legs seem to be made of lead. She can’t face another ride on the tube. Why not take a walk? It’s not such a long way. The police are still around with their dogs. So’s the man with the briefcase. Her brother and sister wander off to take the connection to the Piccadilly Line. She starts to have visions of her friend eating her Special K, her cousin strumming the chords of Julia somewhere in the underground, her mother praying, her father saying the rosary, her friend staring at the tube map, the bearded man getting on the train, her brother at Boffa Hospital, her sister in bed all alone. She needs to feel the chill of the ground beneath her feet, so she takes off her shoes and socks, rolls up her jeans, and walks barefoot.
She gets home and shuts the door behind her, turns the keys in both the top and bottom locks, slides the bolt on the little window at the side, and plods the remaining steps to her bedroom. She draws the nylon curtain, then the stripey drapes. The light outside gets on her nerves, like the repetitive yammering of a scratched CD. She takes off her belt, undoes her waist button, and unzips her trousers. The zipper goes down jerkily, releasing the flab on her belly. She tears her shirt open with such livid force the buttons fly off. She hears them as they hit the floor. One, two, three, four. Like those glass beads she used to play with when she was a little girl; when she got tired of playing with them, she’d try to get the cat to swallow them and choke. She takes off her shirt, flings it onto the bed behind her. She pulls her trousers off, then her panties. First one leg, then the other. Unfastens the clasp of her bra, lowers the strap over one arm, then the other. She looks in the mirror. Grabs a bottle of perfume in her right hand, squeezes it tight between her fingers. Stares at it. She lifts her right arm, squeezes the bottle even harder. She draws herself back a little and. . .
She slams down hard onto the bed and shuts her eyes.
After a few minutes, she gets up again, looks into the mirror once more and is aware of a tear teetering over the edge of her eyelid, reluctant to take the plunge. She walks to the bathroom. Opens the door. Walks in. Shuts the door behind her. Turns the key, sits on the toilet, and hugs the tank.
And she thinks of good sex. Of how she felt like throwing up after sleeping with Silvan that night. Of her mother, of every time she tells her, “Sleeping with a man is sinful, sleeping with a woman is three times as sinful.” And then of her father, of when he asks, “Which mass are you going to this morning?” She remembers her time in London with her brother and sister, how everything had happened at once and she’d felt like stubbing out a hundred cigarettes on her thighs and had ended up walking barefoot through the station instead. And she wishes there was some way to ascertain that the bathroom is in fact the safest place to be.
Hugged around the tank.
Keeping her solitude at bay.
Translation of “Il-Linja l-Ħadra.” Copyright Clare Azzopardi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Albert Gatt. All rights reserved.