“Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.” T.S. Eliot
“Yet another room in another city,” she said scornfully.
“Well we are safe at least; hidden and out of the way.”
“Safe? You mean you are safe. What about me?”
I shrugged and started to unpack, and after a few moments I realised that Cheryl had disappeared. That is the problem with people who aren’t really there; they come and go as they please, never finishing an argument or a sentence. But I was right; at least for the moment I was secure, and nobody could find me.
I love the smell of the Underground. I am not sure what the aroma actually is; is it the ventilation system pumping dead around the endless tunnels, or is it the smell of humanity, past and present, dead and undead?
I walk through the miles of passageways under the surface of the city, pushing past all these Londoners hurrying on their way hither and thither. And then I prise myself onto a train, any train, as I don’t care where it is going, so long as it is going somewhere. It is then that I feel most anonymous and safe, sitting in a carriage with all these people who are so distracted by their own concerns, that they have no time to worry about anybody else. They pour into the stations from all corners of the city, pushed together for a few moments, until they escape into the city’s offices and shops, museums and parks, a constant flow of humanity, never still for more than a few minutes.
I saw somebody I recognised getting on at Hammersmith; he sat down almost opposite me, smartly dressed and but pale and looking preoccupied. Where did I know him from? He seemed very familiar, perhaps somebody from University, or a colleague from the laboratory back in Manchester. And then a name came to me.
“James.” He did not look up, just stared in front of him, oblivious to everything around him. I called his name again, and several passengers glanced in my direction, but he continued to look into space, so I left it. Perhaps it was not him after all, or maybe he was not in the mood for a conversation. I got off at the next stop and as I meandered around the city I tried to place James, but without success, and yet I was sure that he was important, the key to my disquiet.
I spend my time in galleries and museums or walking briskly in London’s varied parks and gardens. It is November, and a particularly cold one, so I have to keep moving to stay warm, or find somewhere indoors to stay for an hour or two. I have my work, writing articles and transcribing data, but it is easy and does not take up much of my time, and my room is cold and lonely, although sometimes Cheryl makes an appearance, sitting quietly on the bed so that I do not realise that she is there until she says something or coughs, and then we talk, or she stays silent, watching me, before disappearing as quietly as she arrived.
It feels as if I am continually walking, as if there is no day or night. I constantly pass the same buildings and look at the same exhibitions, and I am sure that every day I bump into the same people, but that would be impossible. And then I find myself back in my room, although I cannot remember how I got there, and then to sleep where I am troubled by horrendous dreams.
I saw James again by St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“James, how are you doing?”
“Andrew,” he seemed lost for words, frightened and confused.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Adjusting, it is not like Manchester.”
“No I suppose not.” I hoped that by talking with him I would remember who he was, but nothing came to me, it was almost as if I knew him too well. His eyes constantly wandered as if he were desperate to escape, or he was looking for someone.
We stood in silence; he had a strange smell about him, as if he had not washed for a while, despite his smart appearance and fading good looks, and instinctively I stepped back in disgust.
“Well, I am glad you are okay.”
He nodded, “Yeah, yeah.”
I wanted to ask him who he was, where I knew him from, but something held me back, and then without a word he left me, and headed off towards Mansion House Tube Station, not looking back. I was tempted to follow him, find out where he lived or worked, as that might be a clue, but by the time I had decided to do this he was gone, hidden by the crowd.
My elderly landlord, Mr Wyatt, came to see me. He and his wife had rooms on the ground floor, from which I would invariably hear Radio 4 playing loudly. He looked exhausted and was panting by the time he had reached my room two floors up.
“I could have come down.”
He shrugged, barely able to breath, “The exercise does me good; anyway, it gets me away from my wife.”
I laughed, “I know the feeling,” a man-to-man joke, but he looked at me oddly, as if I had said something unseemly.
“A young woman was asking after you,” he told me. “She asked when you would be back”.
“Did she give a name?”
“Diane,” he thought for a moment, “no, Denise, definitely Denise.”
He sat on my bed and I thought he was going to tell me more about my mysterious visitor, but after regaining his breath, he pushed himself back up and headed back downstairs; for far too long I could hear his laboured, reluctant footsteps heading down the uncarpeted stairs.
I stayed awake until one, reading and then watching television, wondering if this mysterious Denise would come, but nobody did, and then I suppose I must have fallen asleep. Perhaps it was a mistake. I did not know anyone called Denise (or Diane). Or could it have been Cheryl, come to find me, to say sorry for all that happened?
James was in Highgate Cemetery on Saturday. He was with a young girl (too old to be his daughter, too young to be his girlfriend) looking at George Eliot’s grave. They seemed engrossed, but as soon as my back was turned I could sense that they were looking at me instead. I walked over to them.
“Hello James” I smiled.
The girl moved nearer to James, at my approach, as if to protect him. She was wearing a rather old-fashioned dress, as if she had stepped out of the Victorian age.
“Hi Andrew. Marian is showing me some of the sights.”
“Oh, don’t you know London?”
He looked at me oddly, and as I could not think of anything to say I gave them a mock bow and wandered off.
I heard a snigger beside me as I walked away. I had not heard from Cheryl for a few days, but then she had never been that talkative even when we were married, or certainly not towards the end, as by then she had been in love with her “friend” and was spending all her time either screwing him or telling him how horrible I was.
“Oh, stop moaning,” she told me. “You would have done the same if you had had half the chance, but just with more angst and guilt.”
I had forgotten how self-righteous she could be.
“And you do not know who James is, do you?” she asked with mockery in her voice.
“I can almost remember, but something is stopping me.”
She laughed and then walked away back into the cemetery.
“That policewoman came again,” Mr Wyatt told me, the Archers theme tune blaring out behind him.
“What policewoman?” I suddenly felt scared, as if I had been caught doing something that I shouldn’t have been.
“I mentioned her earlier in the week,” he said, as he sat back on my bed.
“You mentioned a young….”
“Yes, a young policewoman. She had a colleague with her this time, a man, Ross he was called. They asked you to report to Wood Lane police station.”
He gave me a note. “I don’t want any trouble; my tenants are good people, we cannot have the police around here.”
“Don’t worry, it will just be about my ex-wife,” I told him, which did not seem to soothe him.
I arrived in Rome last winter with as many of my belongings as I could fit in my two bags. Everything I left behind no doubt my landlord sold or burnt, but my possessions didn’t seem important, and I didn’t miss them. At least Rome has been warmer, and I feel happier than I have for a while, although it is not the city I had known and loved.
I thought someone might grab me at Gatwick, but my passport appeared to arouse no suspicions, even so it was only when I left Fiumicino Airport and got into a taxi that I breathed properly, and knew I was safe. I did not even quibble over the extortionate fare. I wanted to tell the driver that I used to live here, that I knew the ropes, but even though I was safe I did not want to cause a fuss, just head into the city and stay hidden.
I got an apartment somewhere pleasant and quiet, with marble floors and a large desk on which to work.
“You took me here, for a fortnight. Do you remember?”
“Yes, an early holiday. One of our best.”
“You are kidding,” Cheryl gave a sarcastic laugh, “meeting all your awful scientist friends and chatting away in Italian, whilst I was just your wife sitting in a corner looking pretty and feeling stupid.”
“What language did you think they would be speaking in? Japanese? I assumed you knew Italian,” I told her exasperated. “It is not a difficult language to learn.”
I continued to lie under my light duvet, the sun pouring in through the blinds, the room like any hotel room, the same artificial floral smell of cleaning spray. But at least I was in Rome, the place where I had been happy and young. I got up with a sigh, and Cheryl walked into the bathroom, and when I followed her in there to urinate she had gone.
Whilst studying Biology at Birmingham University I had become friends with an Italian student, Fernando, and after I graduated he told me about a job working in a laboratory in Rome.
“Better than living in England,” he told me, “tastier food, more sunshine and prettier women.” He was right and I had loved it. The job had been fun and I was good at it, examining swabs and helping to create antibiotics. And Rome was beautiful, with new things around every corner, and the people so friendly and welcoming.
I should have stayed, but my mother became ill, and so I was given six months’ leave. But once back in Manchester I found it hard to return, even though my mother swiftly began to recover and seemed embarrassed at my coming back just for her. I started a temporary job, but then it became permanent if I wanted it, and I met Cheryl, so, reluctantly, I wrote to the laboratory to resign. My manager wrote a kind letter, regretting my leaving and saying that there would always be a job for me, but the next time I returned to Rome it was as a tourist rather than a local, and that part of my life was over.
But could there be a job for me now? I was free, as free as I had ever been, and I was more experienced now than then. Surely there would be a place for me. It was true that it was about fifteen years ago that I had worked there, and that I had not heard from any of my colleagues for several years now, but it was worth a go. I am sure that someone would be there who remembered me.
It took me several hours to find the laboratory, although the journey had always seemed quick and straightforward. The bus I used to catch no longer appeared to exist, or I misremembered where I got it from, and I had trouble working out the best route. It was only after a very long walk and two bus rides that suddenly I found myself standing in front of my old workplace, although not sure how I had got there.
The large sign outside the laboratory showed that it was now part of the EMBL group and there was a new director. It looked much more modern and bigger than when I worked there, more professional and sleek. I wondered if Fernando was still behind the scenes, peering at slides and making notes in his meticulous handwriting. I walked to the entrance and realised that I did not look particularly smart, certainly not for Italy. I don’t know why I hadn’t put on my best suit, or even bought a new one. I felt self-conscious and out of place.
The guard looked at me suspiciously as I walked in. I mentioned my old manager, but the guard said he had never heard of him, nor Fernando, nor the other names that I threw at him.
“Is there somebody I can see then?” I asked. “I used to work here.”
The guard continued to look unimpressed, but to get rid of me he scribbled down an email address and suggested I contact a Signor Sirigu, Head of Recruitment, then dismissed me by turning to the magazine that he had been reading when I had so rudely disturbed him.
Chastened, I walked around the grounds, spacious and almost green, and then I sat on the dry grass and munched on some unpleasant tasting olives and cheese and watched the young men and women making use of their break flirting or sunbathing. I loved the sounds of Italian and was glad to notice that I could understand most of it. Eventually I left, and once back to my rooms I emailed Signor Sirigu, but the email came back to me almost immediately, as apparently the address did not exist, and I could not even find the laboratory on the internet. Perhaps it is always a mistake to go back.
A few days later, walking around the Pantheon, I realised I was unhappy. Despite this beautiful city I was bored, and my attempts to locate my friends and colleagues from the past had failed completely. And Rome seemed a pale shadow of the past, the buildings barely there, and whereas in the past I would discover new sights every day, now I seemed to be following the same paths, unable to venture out anywhere new.
As I left the Pantheon there was James drinking from a fountain, and then he poured the water over himself. It was not the first time I had seen him. I had caught glimpses of him on the Metro, in the Palazzo Barberini, in the Sistine Galleries. Like me he looked purposeless, glancing at the art, or scanning the people as if he was looking for someone.
As in London I spent most of my time on the Metro (or Metropolitana di Roma to give it its full name), which I could not remember using when I was here before. The system was much smaller than the Tube or the Parisian Metro (although it was in the process of being extended), but I enjoyed travelling from station to station, the voices on either side of me fast and anxious.
Food and water was beginning to taste unpleasant. I would sip from a fountain and almost vomit at the taste of something rotten like decomposing meat, or fish. Even when I bought bottled water it was the same. I had to close my eyes and quickly drink a gulp of it or I would have died of dehydration, although come to think of it I was rarely hungry or thirsty, and only drank or ate out of habit.
“There was something funny with the cheese I bought here,” I told the woman at the Gastronomia. It had been the same taste as the water, as if Rome had been infected by the countless dead from underground. The owner of the shop gesticulated angrily and told me that nobody else had complained, and then started shouting that there was nothing wrong with her food, so I hurriedly left, her angry voice following me out onto the hot street.
I bought cheese, butter, bread, olives and a bottle of wine at the local supermarket, and back in my room I made myself a meal and nervously ate. At first it was fine, the olives salty and plump, the cheese, creamy, but then my mouth was filled with that same foul taste, and I spat the food out onto the floor and put some toothpaste in my mouth, but even that was disgusting.
“Oh dear,” said Cheryl, so close that I could feel her warm breath on my neck and smell that perfume she had started to wear towards the end of our marriage, “Oh dear.”
I am alone in a city whose name I do not know, where everything is artificial and manmade, even the air feels processed and stale, and the only light is electric. I walk through covered streets looking at shops that never close, whilst there is a faint humming sound everywhere I go.
I arrived here on impulse after leaving Rome. The train journey into Germany was unpleasant, airless and too hot, and the young couple sitting opposite me kept giggling and, when they thought I wasn’t looking, staring at me. And then I saw a familiar figure come through into my carriage and sit facing away from me. Minutes later the train drew into a garishly lit station and I grabbed my two bags and left. As I looked at the departing train, all the passengers were staring out of the window at me before disappearing into the night.
The station had seemed empty of humanity; trains pulled in and pulled out, but nobody arrived or left, and there were no staff, just empty trolleys and automatic ticket machines. There were no taxis outside, but a moving staircase led to the metro station, with pristine trains every five minutes heading into the city centre. On board there were half a dozen people, all alone, with ear plugs and their eyes closed. And for the first time I noticed the humming that is everywhere in this city, not loud, but constant, at the back of everything.
My hotel room is small, and always a degree or two hot. I try to open the window, but it is fixed to the wall. As I lie in bed, there is the glimmer of electricity coming from outside, and that everlasting hum. Cheryl comes to me; she is naked and frightened.
“Where am I?” she asks. “Save me.”
“But you left me,” I tell her as I wake. “You found someone else.”
She is weeping, and I want to reach out and comfort her, but when I try to do so, she flinches and draws back. So I get up and write and then email my reports, wondering if they will go where I want them to.
I have almost stopped eating and drinking, just occasionally trying something to see if I can, but the awful taste is still there, even the dark German bread, which I used to love, is unbearable. But it does not matter, I do not feel hungry or thirsty, it is as if my body has closed down. I no longer even drink my morning coffee; even the thought of it revolts me.
I was sitting in a mall, half-dozing. The seat was uncomfortable and I was constantly trying not to slide off it, so I sat on the floor, which was clean and relatively soft, being made of rubber. I leant my back against the chair and eventually dozed. I could not remember when I had last slept, maybe two days, maybe two hours.
And there was James, he was with Cheryl. They were sitting together, holding hands and gazing at each other in a room I recognised.
“You stole my wife,” I shouted at him.
He shrugged, “She came to me; she does not belong to you, she never did.”
He smiled and they looked at each other, a private intimate look, and then they both started to scream, and I woke covered with what felt like sweat.
My back was sore and my head hurt, and I wanted to go back to England, to see Cheryl. It was as if she was calling to me, to come back and to make it right. But could it be that simple? Just as I was, I headed for the train station, something I should have done a long time ago rather than hiding.
“Jesus,” said Ross. He was an experienced policeman and had seen some horrendous scenes in his time, but even so he had the urge to run out of this house and not come back. His partner Denise came in before he had time to stop her, to prepare her.
“Jesus,” she echoed, as she looked at the three bodies and the dark blood. The woman and one of the men lay on the floor, partially hidden behind by the dining room table. The chairs they had been sitting on when they had been shot fallen behind them. For some reason, even more horrendous was the other man, who lay slumped in a comfortable chair, vomit and saliva down his chest, and as dead as the two people he had killed.
“The neighbours were right,” said Denise, trying to show that she was okay and calm, “they said she left for somebody else, perhaps they came back to talk it over.”
She heard Ross whimper and then he pushed past her and she heard him vomit long and loudly upstairs.
Denise called for help on her radio. And then she looked at the three bodies and thought of her boyfriend, who said he loved her, wanted to marry her and have children with her, and she got out her mobile phone and called him, just to hear his voice.
Cheryl lay in my arms, breathing lightly.
“I am sorry,” I told her, “more sorry than you can imagine.”
“It is okay,” she murmured. “It is over now.”
I kissed her lightly on the forehead and there was something sticky on my lips and that foul taste again, and I choked, and couldn’t breathe, and her body was cold and still.
She rose up out of our bed and, despite the blood, kissed
me lightly on the lips. And there was James standing waiting for her,
and they walked away from me, out of sight, talking happily, whilst
I lay unable to move, unable even to scream.
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