Issue 3

Ian McGuire
Extract from Spontaneous You

      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.
      “Excuse me,” the woman said. She was wearing vermillion lipstick and gold half-moon spectacles. Her hair, an unruly mix of grey and blonde, was pulled up and away into a kind of cross hatched scrum held together by pencils and chopsticks. She was wrapped in a tweedy cape. “I’m a liddle confused.”
      Liddle. She was American, that explained it then. Rod unbraced himself.
      “Join the club,” he said.
      She offered a hapless half-smile. There was a pause.
      “This may be a really dumb question,” she continued “but where does a person buy a ticket round here?”
      “You don’t,” said Rod.
      The woman’s confusion intensified.
      “What I mean to say,” he continued, noticing as he did so the handsome turn of her neck and the way it flowered and flattened into the angular overhang of her jaw, “is that this is what they call an unmanned or (if you happen to be of the feminist persuasion) unpersoned station. There are no tickets to be had.”
      “So it’s free?”
       “Oh lord no.” Rod laughed. “You pay at Victoria.”
      She smiled and thanked him.
      “If you’re here for any time,” he suggested, “you might consider a Travelcard.”
      “I’m here for a year actually.” Her voice on the empty platform under the lowering September sky had a vehement, almost caustic quality. (Did she imagine he was hard of hearing?) “I’m taking a class.”
      “Well there you go.”
      Now she was looking down at his violin case.
      “Do you play?” she asked.
      The question was accompanied by a sudden grin the width of which took Rod aback. He imagined for an incoherent second that she must have mistaken him for someone she already knew quite well.
      “I practice a lot,” he lied with a shrug.
      The American woman’s eyes widened.
      “So, you’re a perfectionist.”
      She made it sound like a branch of the Catholic church.
      “I’m stubborn,” he conceded. “The word pig-headed has been used on occasion.”
      With a hiss and a sigh the late-running 10.35 arrived in front of them. They stepped into the carriage together and sat down on facing seats.
      “Well I admire your dedication,” she boomed.
      “I have a lot of spare time and very little furniture.”
      The American woman craned forward and squinted.
      “I’m sorry. Did you just say furniture?”
      “My girlfriend and I had a parting of the ways.” Rod explained. “I got the CD player and espresso machine.”
      She inhaled extravagantly, her face seemed to swell.
      “Trauer,” she said, “so oft seliger Fortschritt entsprint.”
      Rod was understandably taken aback.
      “Pain,” she translated “is so often the source of our spirit’s growth.”
      “Nietzsche?” Rod hazarded.
      “Rilke actually. I’m one eighth German on my mother’s side. Has it helped your violin playing much? The loss?”
      “The loss?” Rod thought about it. It had practically destroyed his violin playing. He barely had the energy to dress himself in the mornings let alone run through a few pages of Kreutzer.
      “Not much,” he admitted.
      “No,” the American woman agreed “it’s too raw. My husband Olaf died two years ago. For about twelve months I didn’t write at all.”
      “You’re a writer?”
      “I’m a poet.” She shook her bulging shopping bag at him and smiled hugely once more. “I’m taking a writing workshop with Dorothea Quirk over at Colonial College. My name’s Barb Salt by the way.”
      “Rod Winkle.”
      They shook hands. She smelled of vanilla, there were pale triangles of breakfast muesli lodged between her lower teeth. Her husband Olaf was recently deceased. Rod sensed in Barb a loneliness as raw and unappealing as his own.
      “Dorothea Quirk,” he mused. “I’m not exactly sure I’ve heard of her.”
      Barb Salt gasped in amazement. She pulled a thick and well-thumbed hardback from her bag and handed it to Rod. The Enigma of an Onion, it said on the cover, Collected Poems 1965-1995 by Dorothea Quirk. Rod, who had not read a poem in earnest since 1975 felt an immediate urge to give it back. He flipped instead to the blurbs: “The warm, autumnal fruits of a magnificent career”; “Quirk is our female Frost. Cleave her to your bosom!”
      “Do these poems rhyme?” Rod joked, “I’m most keen on poems that rhyme.”
      “It’s mainly free verse,” she explained cheerily. “But there’s a fabulous sonnet sequence.”
      “Free verse? Isn’t that a bit like doing a crossword puzzle without the clues?”
      “Rod!” she pushed down her glasses and gazed at him. “I think you’re being controversial.”
      Rod swallowed. He was not used to being flirted with on the way to work, and he felt momentarily annoyed with Barb Salt for disturbing the dull regularity of his routine.
      “We need more discipline these days, not less,” he said.
      She laughed.
      “I’m quite serious.”
      “You sound like a real Puritan.”
      “Well you would know all about them.”
      Barb’s smile straightened.
      “No not really,” she replied. “We don’t burn too many witches in Minnesota.”
      He handed back the book. She nodded and returned it to her bag. They looked together but separately out of the right hand window at the brown hulk of Battersea power station and the black meccano-rubble of cranes and coal chutes between it and the Thames. The train was now sing-songing towards the Victoria railway bridge. Five more minutes and they would be there, Rod thought with some relief. No more Barb Salt. Just the usual rush to the Deaf Institute, fifty minutes of Screechy Scratchy Little Star and home again for sausage and Smash and a few hours of Radio Three. Perhaps he would practice. Perhaps he wouldn’t – he could already feel the lulling magnetism of his single bed, already imagine himself conceding to the soft-hard cuddle of his own gloom.
      The train’s rattle dropped an octave as they crossed the bridge. The darkening sky flickered like a home-movie between the lines of rust-proofed girder. It’s bound to rain, Rod thought, and almost as soon as he thought it several large, confirming drops spattered the window. A second or two later it was coming down hard, and there was nothing to be seen to their right but rain and more rain – long grey curtains of it swishing down the Thames. Not wishing to straighten his gaze and risk catching Barb Salt’s eye, Rod swivelled around quickly to his left instead. On that side, a few tracks over, another train was heading into Victoria – its yellow and blue livery hazed and glossed by wetness. As Rod watched, this other train bumped silently over some points and changed angles so instead of running in parallel the two trains now seemed set to collide.
      “I hope I didn’t offend you just now,” he said, “with my Puritan remark.”
      She paused a second or two before re-releasing her grin,
      “Of course not,” she hollered back, “but do you really think the world needs more discipline?”
      “Absolutely,” He felt buoyed by her forgiveness. “Excellence is only earned through struggle. You must know that – as a poet I mean.”
      “Oh I know the agonies of composition well enough – plunging one’s quill into the crimson inkpot of the heart, Dorothea calls it.”
      “Exactly, but how many people nowadays are prepared to do that? Precious bloody few I’ll tell you. If it’s too difficult we give up. As a nation we gave up years ago. We glory in our own crudeness and stupidity nowadays – we think it’s all one great big Larf.”
      “But at least you have something to lose, Rod – you have memory and tradition. You have Stratford and Covent Garden and the BBC. I’m from middle America – a place where we’re too dumb even to read subtitles.”
      “You think America’s even worse?”
      “Much, much worse.”
      “Memories are all we have,” he said. “We’re one vast museum.”
      “You have some wonderful young poets.”
      “Do we?” Rod felt a twang of pride, then a blush of ignorance. “I don’t read much poetry.”
      “Oh you should.” She mentioned several names Rod had never heard before. “They’re all terrific. I’ll lend you some of their books.”
      Their train was pulling into Victoria: the tittle-tattle of rain was replaced by the elasticated doing of station announcements. A blue-grey twilight filled the carriage, and a minute later they were standing together in front of the ticket barrier. Barb had just paid the guard, and was now rifling through her shopping bag. She came out with a purple filofax stuffed to bursting with postcards, newspaper clippings and post-it notes “Let me have your phone number.”
      “I beg your pardon.” Rod’s vague imaginings had not extended beyond bumping into each other again on the 10.35.
      “So I can arrange to get you those books.”
      “I don’t have a phone I’m afraid.”
      “It doesn’t have to be a mobile.”
      “No, I don’t have any phone at all.”
      She looked at him.
      He shook his head.
      “She really took everything didn’t she?” Barb wrinkled her nose in concern and touched him gaily on the elbow. Despite her good looks, Rod, remembering the post-Janet desolation in which he now lived, felt suddenly intruded on and patronised.
      “I still have my Bach,” he said sternly
      “Ah.” She nodded not noticing his change of tone. “You, Rod Winkle, are clearly a man of principle. Address?”
      After a pause Rod told her.
      “Then I shall send you a note.”
      They shook hands, and she walked off past the baked potato franchise and the self-serve ticket machines, and out into the grey-brown froth of London. Rod looked up at the fluorescent digits of the station clock – 10.54 – if he walked slowly enough, he realised, he could still be almost late.