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memoir: train to victoria

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I pull cobbler’s pegs out of my hair and let them drop to the cabin floor. I wonder, briefly, if this is somehow illegal. Then I realise I know nothing about British flora anyway. Again I rummage in my pocket and pull out the printed map of my route, already dog-eared from being so often slid through nervous fingers. I’m catching the train to Victoria Station. From there I’m walking to a bus pick-up point to be taken on a tour of Stonehenge, you know, doing the tourist thing. It is an overland train, Victoria is the last station before the line becomes a city subway, and by the way, I hate trains. I survey my opponents. Two rows in front of me, a woman talks loudly on her phone. It is May, and she has been to the Chelsea Flower Show, but needs a ride home from the station. A young man in a blue hoodie faces me. He slowly eats a chocolate bar with chubby, primary-school fingers. He licks each finger, looks at it, and licks again. His mouth closes into a pout around the bar like tuckshop arms eating the strap of a dress. His fingers glisten with slightly caramel saliva and his knuckles never bend. I look down at my map. I have to leave the train station to the north. Once outside, I take a right and then right again, then I walk until I see The Press Centre. It’s that easy, nothing to stress about.

The train trembles to a stop and only a couple of people enter our carriage. A very large woman trundles down our aisle, wheeling a suitcase-sized amount of presents wrapped in bin-liners. She props herself up across from Primary-School Fingers and lets her long blond hair with its grey roots fall across the green plastic of her luggage. I look down to see a small triangular pill. I crush it with my shoe, before imagining what airport security might say if remnants are caught in the grates of my joggers.

 

Inside Victoria Station I ask several gatemen for directions, no longer understanding the map I have been looking at this whole time. As I make a nervous northern advance, a middle-aged man with a large open gash over one eye staggers up beside me and says with a slur, ‘Where do you want to go?’

He is wearing a tweed jacket and carrying a cup of coffee. The open slit running along his forehead is set against three lines of furrowed brow. He looks altogether too tanned to be English, but then I realise that it is just a combination of sweat and dirt that gives his leather face a honeyed glow. I look down at the bright purple stockings on my 23-year-old legs, and remember just how alone I am.

‘The Press Centre on Voxhall Bridge Road,’ I say. I decide to play as friendly as I possibly can, and to ignore the state of his face. I would prefer to play blind than to play mother. He seems completely unconcerned by the cut, to the point where I wonder whether he is yet to notice it.

‘Oooh!! The Press Centre!’ he exclaims, like he was going there anyway. And with that I find myself walking down the street with this bleeding stranger. ‘Are you a journalist?’ he asks, the left side of his jacket sweeping open each time he turns towards me, a tortoiseshell flag that licks his left elbow and then darts away.

‘Nah…’

‘Studying to be one?’

‘Nah, nah… I’m just doing a tour and that is the meeting point.’

‘But… you do want to write a story, don’t you?’

The question catches me off-guard. I suppose I do want to write a story, but not in the way that he is imagining. He seems to have assumed that I want to go to The Press Centre to work on some interesting and urgent journalistic matters, but I won’t be entering the building at all, merely standing out the front looking forlornly down the street for an approaching bus. I decide to answer his question philosophically. There are plenty of stories I would like to write.

His good eye turns toward me. ‘We will see if I am on the back page today.’ Pride and excitement drift into his voice and one eyebrow lifts at the same time as one half of his mouth. ‘Well, I haven’t seen it yet, but I hope I am.’ The excitement in his voice drifts to disappointment and back again in scales.

Considering the blood leaking into his eye and drying on his cheek, I say this next sentence partly as a compliment, and partly to remind myself that appearances can be deceiving… ‘Oh, are you a journalist?’

‘Hmmm… well, no. Last night I ran into a wall,’ he says. ‘Sometimes they have that kind of stuff on the back page.’

‘Oh!’ I feign surprise, and then ignorance. ‘In a car?’

‘No.’ He frowns into his coffee. ‘In a pub.’

‘Typical night out in London, hey?’

‘Yes! Oh cack yes, why do you think I don’t come here often?’ The excitement lifts again in his voice and a dramatic throw and twist of his neck causes blood to move into his hairline. Still he shows no concern, and neither do I.

‘I’m leaving in four days’ time.’ I try to match his sentiment in my voice, but really, I’m very much enjoying London.

‘I don’t blame you.’ He looks up to the overcast English sky and squints and blinks rapidly despite it not being bright. He must have just noticed the blood leak. We have turned a corner, so I look around surreptitiously for a road sign. The street name isn’t one I recognise from my map. Beyond the names of streets, there are no recognisable landmarks. I fantasise about pulling a compass out of my pocket. I look down to the cement path, across to the parked cars that choke the curbs, and up to the dark brown drab of the old buildings, slotted next to each other, Tetris-style.

‘Where are you going?’ He grabs at my attention again.

‘From here to France, to visit family.’ I say.

‘Oh that’s nice. Have you ever been to Antibes? It’s between Nice and Cannes. It’s a pity all the beaches are private though.’ He looks up to the sky again. In this moment I can almost see this man as a failed James Bond. The accent (despite what he says about ‘not coming here often’), the jacket dancing in the wind, the white-collar coffee, the clipped brown hair, the battle wounds.

‘I hope to do a lot of daytrips – get out of everyone’s hair during the work hours.’

‘Yes, family can be so annoying can’t they! Don’t drink, my dad said last night, so what did I do? Drink! Don’t get into trouble, my mum said, so what did I do?’ He pauses for my answer.

‘Get into trouble?’ I return. The Bond fantasy is all but swept away.
‘Yes!’ He claps his hands around the Styrofoam cup, crushing it at one side in his manic excitement. Looking up from his hands I see a bridge that spans from one grey -brown part of the city to another grey-brown part of the city. If it weren’t for the sun that has now emerged from the clouds, I could be led to believe that we’re just looking into a giant mirror. I peer far ahead to see if I can find myself on the other side. But it is no mirror, and the grey and brown of the city seems to stretch forever both in front and behind.

‘Well,’ he says, drawing a long breath and clasping his spare hand over his chest as he breathes, ‘The bridge is just there.’ Pointing into the sun, he rubs the now-empty cup across his forehead, unwittingly lifting a small clump of dirt from his hairline and drawing it across his face. ‘I’m just going to have a cigarette in the park one street over, you’re more than welcome to join me.’

‘Ah, I have to be there in ten minutes, so maybe not this time, but thank you for the walk.’ I look into his good eye, giving my best charm-loaded smile and making sure I emphasise the ‘k’ in walk like the English seem to do. He has clearly forgotten, between the station and here, that I wasn’t looking for a bridge, but a road of the same name. I decide that I should take it from here.

‘Okay…’ he begins as I start to walk towards the bridge. ‘If I can give you one piece of advice, never ask foreigners for directions in London. It’s just asking for trouble. They have no idea what you’re saying, and they don’t even know the way.’ I figure this is fairly obvious.

‘I’m glad you knew the way,’ I call back with a bemused smile and almost wink at him, before realising this may be seen as some sort of attempt to draw attention to the one-eyed pirate-faced look that he is going for. I turn away and feel a moment’s hesitation; a second of wondering what interesting adventure may lie ahead if I follow him one street over for a cigarette, or better yet, what danger.

‘Robert Hallsman’s the name!’ he calls from behind me. ‘Had a big fight in Covent Park!’

I turn around, but not completely, and wave. With that he turns away, hoping to be my next big back page story.

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