The Manchester Review
Ian McGuire
Extract from Spontaneous You
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      Rod Winkle rinsed out his espresso cup and ground the nub of his morning Benson into a nearby yoghurt pot. After looking around for a while, he found some socks on the floor in the hallway and sat down to put them on. It was 10.30 and he was teaching his weekly violin lesson at the Camden Deaf Institute at eleven. Sighing, he pulled on his parka and re-velcroed his training shoes. His violin was lying on the floor near the front door. He picked it up.
      It was happening again – he was doing things, moving around, being alive. He opened the Yale lock and stepped through the front door. The view, as always, was of the opposite wing of Pasolini Villas, flats 9 to 12, then past that the other four blocks of the Fassbinder Estate. The sky over Battersea was an unruly slew of blue and grey and burnished white. The air was chilly and smelt of wheelie bins and diesel. Rod’s headache was gone, but his bowels were still roiling. The train was due in five minutes. It was a brisk four minute walk to the station. He was not yet late, but he was, as usual these days, teetering on the very brink of lateness. What had come over him? Rod had inherited from his Edwardian father the idea that punctuality, like fish knives and a proper concern for one’s feet, was the virtue which most clearly separated normal people from the working classes. Although disparaging his father’s politics Rod had conformed through most of his life to this idea of punctuality as a moral principle. Nowadays however, he flirted openly and frequently with lateness, he explored its margins and nibbled its edges as other people in his position (fifty three, alone, possessionless) might, he imagined, have flirted with alcoholism or thoughts of suicide. He would delay frequently and for no good reason until the very last minute, and even, on a few rare and exquisite occasions, beyond even that. On this particular morning, for instance, he would just make it if he walked briskly, but (it was undeniable if strangely involuntary) he was not walking briskly. He was strolling. Several other pedestrians whisked past him. He could see the station entrance. It was already 10.35. Perhaps the train would be late. Perhaps it wouldn’t. If he missed the 10.35 he would be fifteen, possibly thirty, minutes late. The lesson would be half over before he even arrived. This vision of his own absence thrilled and disquieted him in equal measure. Was being late, Rod mused to himself, pressing the WAIT button on the pelican crossing, a kind of petit mort – a way, however faint, of prefiguring and dramatising one’s own eventual demise?
      Rod wandered nonchalantly up the tarmaced incline to platform B. 10.36, there was no train, no sign of a train. Was it late? Had it left already? He paused for a moment, allowing these alternatives to ricochet briefly in his head before checking the overhead announcements. Delayed 10 minutes expected 10.45. Rod felt a moment of inner cheapness, as if his recent flirtation with lateness had been just and only that – a hollow tease which he lacked the courage to pursue. He shook his head. He would be on time as usual. The deaf kids would attempt, as they always did, Pease Pudding Hot, they would fail horribly, he would trouser the fifty quid. Plus ca change. Platform B was vacant, he noticed, apart from a middle-aged woman circling vaguely near the chocolate machine. Across the tracks there were a handful of reverse commuters carrying umbrellas or clad in light raincoats awaiting the arrival of the train to Dulwich, Selhurst and points south. The woman near the chocolate machine suddenly ceased her circling and looked over at Rod. Rod, in response, looked up again at the overhead announcements, then down at his watch as if to signal his seriousness as a traveller. The woman was still looking at him – he sensed something odd, even unbridled in her manner, a lack of discretion or shame which put him on edge. Twenty years of living in London council housing had made Rod fluent in the various languages of lunacy – he knew its accents and its dialects. The woman seemed neither drunk nor obviously religious yet the look, the grin, and now the definite movement towards him – a stranger on an overground platform at 10.38 am – signalled something not quite right. He braced himself and turned to meet her advance.