They Do Things Differently There
We lock eyes on the underground. Deep below London’s sprawling terrain: a second of connectivity in the subterranean scene throttling by. Both spellbound but only for a second. Then two. A dark lock of hair over blue questioning eyes. They seem familiar somehow. And then the spell is broken. Back into our internalised worlds we retreat: two of the many disparate souls riding the Northern Line, Charing Cross branch, at 8:45 on an October morning.
8:45am. Perhaps the worst time to ride the tube. A stranger’s elbow is digging into my back and I’m pressed against the rucksack of some girl with greasy hair. What kind of people wear big backpacks on the tube in rush hour? When she turns around with a smirk of apology, I want to punch her in the face. Not really…. No, really.
The thing is, I’m not a morning person. Especially at this hellish hour as one of the human dominoes stacked into the desperately wanting space of these bloody compartments.
Miiiind the doors please, folks, please mind the closing doors, comes a cockney voice. Then an electronic one. Please mind the doors. Please mind the doors.
There’s a general sigh through my carriage and many eyes roll as there’s some idiot whose bag is
obstructing the door. Dozens of optic daggers fix into his back but of course no one says anything. Oh no, wait. I hear a gruff “Mate get your f**king bag out the door”. He wrenches his bag away from the doors, scarlet-faced. Now I feel sorry for him.
The train pulls out. This time the blue eyes are laughing. Our gazes interlock again. An eye roll of camaraderie to which I reply with a smile. Very cute (him not my smile, although hopefully that is too). I have a fiancé but I can’t help myself; rush hour delivers a handful of attractive men on a daily basis. I would never go there (obviously) but why the hell didn’t I notice them when I was single? Grass is always greener, I guess…
Our shared moment is longer this time. My smile is returned. And I’ve realised what it is about him that’s so entrancingly familiar: he’s the exact image of my first boyfriend, Matt. My first love - Matthew Cavendish. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about him. Now I’ve noticed, it’s uncanny. How delicious to bask in that familiar gaze again. But all too soon it’s my stop, Leicester Square. I hope it’s his too. I mustn’t look, though. Time to breezily waft past him looking elegant and aloof. Or try to... And fail to.
Here we go: dragged along in the swell of nine-to-fivers like a hesitant pebble drawn back to the sea by uninvited waves. As I mount the escalator, a subtle half turn of the head reveals Mr Blue Eyes isn’t far behind. I walk up the escalator, only to find another rule of the Underground violated. Someone is standing on the left. Even outside the capital, I can distinguish Londoners as the ones who stand stubbornly on the right side of an escalating step. More eye-rolls exchanged between those who understand the magnitude of the crime… oh, the solidarity of collective exasperation! Again, no one speaks. So it turns out I can’t walk up after all.
Time for a smoke, I think. It’s the third of the day. Time? 8:55am. Apparently my attempt to quit isn’t going so well. Actually, I’ve noticed that trying to quit for me inevitably entails smoking more. I should be trying to not quit every day.
“Do you have a light?”
It’s Mr Blue Eyes. And it’s too late to stanch the blush. I’m a blusher and it’s mortifying. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve - sometimes unwittingly but always unwillingly - betrayed my emotions.
“Why don’t we walk together?”
A tad presumptuous. But: meh, why not…? He’s the doppelganger of my first boyfriend. What could possibly go wrong?
“How are you today?”
It’s too early for mindless small talk. He laughs. Shit. Apparently I said it aloud. That’s the trouble with not being a morning person: you’re half-asleep until noon, and the usual connection between thought and speech gets disjointed.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
I realise he’s steering me in the correct direction, towards Shaftsbury Avenue where I’m currently temping. He sounds posh unfortunately. But in the watery light of the morning, his resemblance to Matt becomes even more acute.
“Do you know where I work?” Because that’s a little creepy.
“Don’t you recognise me?”
“Um, No.” Well, this is awkward. “Should I?”
“I work in the same building. You’ve said good morning to me for the past week now.”
“Oh.” That explains it; I’m on the reception and there are about ten businesses for which I am the desk-deposited guardian of entrance. “Sorry. Hundreds of people walk past me every day. I say good morning to most of them.”
“There isn’t much to make me stand out I guess.”
I’m not sure I agree with him there but I appreciate the false modesty. We’ve reached the building.
“Well?” he turns to me expectantly, holding his hand out.
“Maria. I’m Mark.”
Of course you are: you look like a Mark. “Nice to meet you.”
“Well, have a good day. Maybe tomorrow you’ll remember me.”
We’re through the glass doors and he’s off. I don’t know what to make of that encounter. A bizarre start to
a Monday morning.
My shift is with Poppy. After exchanging fake smiles and the unremarkable summaries of each of our weekends we sit down at the desk. Poppy works here on a permanent basis which, in her eyes, dictates her superiority. For me, it's sort of the other war around. It’s not exactly a demanding job: answering phones and letting people into the building.
I don’t mind too much. It’s better than the demonic world of advertising I occupied once, where I’d naively tried to fit in. As it turned out, my skin wasn’t thick enough. So now I’m doing temp work until I “figure out what I want to do with my life”. At least, that’s what I’ve told my parents. Truth be told, I haven’t got a clue. But I don’t think I’m alone in that. One look at any of these faceless yuppies who scuttle into work each weekday can tell you that. They don’t know what they want to do either. In the meantime they’re earning as much as they can in our wonderful capitalist world. But they hate what they do. Even that bloke Mark; I don’t know exactly what he does but he hates it. I can just tell. As for me... Well, three years accumulating a mountain of debt for a first-class degree and this is what there is to show for it. Not that I’m bitter or anything…
“Are you going to get that?”
“115 Shaftsbury Avenue, how may I direct your call?”
And so the dull day commences. One drawback to reception work is the hours we are left twiddling our thumbs – or perhaps I should say clicking our mice. There’s a sizable dent in my bank account since I began temping. Too much free time equals too many online purchases. I’ll try to resist the materialistic impulse and indulge the nosy one instead. I logon to Facebook. It takes a moment for the newsfeed to load.
What the…? What?
No, he can’t be.
I don’t know what to think. How weird – no, not weird, spooky - that I was thinking about him only this morning: is it just a cruel coincidence? Or a sign?
“Maria, are you OK?”
Poppy’s voice sounds very far away. Muffled. I’m at the bottom of a pool looking up and she and the rest of the world are beyond the rippling surface. I must’ve gone pale. I feel sick.
On the Facebook newsfeed, I can see a post from someone who went to our school. It’s a timeline photo of Matthew Cavendish. The caption is what’s heart-stopping: RIP buddy. You were the best. Gone but never forgotten.
I’ve lost control of my respiratory and circulatory systems. Hyperventilating, heart hammering, I click on
Matt’s page – a page that I’ve stalked more times than I care to mention since he left my life. Other inadequate words of condolence litter his feed, so it must be true. RIP Matt. You’ll be missed… Can’t believe I won’t see you again. Thoughts and prayers with your family… I can’t believe you’re gone. Miss you. Rest in Peace.
“I’ll be right back.” It comes out barely a whisper.
In the lady’s toilets I call Anastasia (the only person from school with whom I still keep in touch).
“I saw,” she’s saying. “It was a car accident apparently. Sorry Masha…. I… Shit. I don’t know what to say.”
Neither do I. It seems no one does.
The rest of the day passes in a blur. I’m swallowed by unsolicited memories. When Matt first passed his driving test, he drove me two hours to catch the sunset from that viewpoint. Then there was the time we ran through fields, jokingly singing fields of gold. Then that time he nicked a sombrero from a street vendor to make me laugh. And always, always, on his face a grin which had the power to dissolve my worries; to make my cares float away, cliché it may be… But all of the memories we shared are now shredded to ribbons of film fluttering in an a-temporal breeze.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
Wasn’t LP Hartley right? My memories seem to occupy another world. A past world - a lost one. And I don’t recognise the girl in the remembered scenes. She’s an imposter. Looking at an old online album, that can’t possibly be me: that laughing girl with her arms fixed around Matt’s neck. What aftershave did he wear again? Davidoff something? I won’t be able to smell it again without the brutal scent of bitter nostalgia. A perpetual reminder of a lost place – of that foreign country where they do things differently.
What went wrong? Between Matt and me, I mean. At this point it’s a bit fuzzy. I remember everything else though. Vividly. Too vividly. Our first conversation; our first kiss; our first time. I lost my virginity to this guy. And now he’s gone forever. I can’t remember the exact last time I saw him, though. It must’ve been at least seven years ago.
It’s the end of the day and Mr Blue Eyes just passed with a small smile, nodding his head at me. There he goes, dangerously similar to someone I’ll never see again. Outside, he turns around and waits in response to my shout.
“Want to grab a drink?”
My voice sounds breathless. It’s not my voice.
It’s still dark outside but it’s morning.
Dry mouth. Pounding head. Symptoms with which I’m all too familiar. My phone tells me that it’s 6 am. But I’m putting off the recollection of last night. I’m still occupying the hinterland between sleeping and waking and it’s not real. Not yet. Finally, the series of Whatsapps from Graham tell me a little about the evening’s events. His messages over the course of a few hours:
Hey sweetie, can you let me know when you’re coming home?
Babe, seriously, I expected you an hour ago. Have you gone out? I don’t mind but let me know.
OK starting to get worried.
Maria can you please pick up your phone?!
Call me I’m worried.
And there’s a message from Anastasia: Masha you need to call Graham. He just called me. Are you OK? Don’t worry I didn’t tell him about today but you need to call him. Love you.
I cringe at my pitiful response to Graham a few hours later. The message must’ve exposed to him – as it does to me now - the state I was in. I doubt it alleviated his anxiety.
Sdorrt sweetu. Having drinks fun Emilt. Stay wid her. Seen your tomro’
(Sorry sweetie. Having drinks with Emily. Staying with her. See you tomorrow)
Please, hope to God, he didn’t call Emily. I doubt he has her number; she’s in my, not our, circle of friends.
That must’ve been why I picked her as my alibi. Apparently, even plastered I’m devious.
Someone stirs next to me. The male sigh echoes across the room and with it comes my shudder of shame.
I’m officially the worst person in the world. I’m evil. Evil.
Get up. Get dressed. Get out. I’m putting on my tights when I hear a croaky,
“Morning, Maria.” I freeze. “Are you trying to sneak out?”
He looks amused, head propped up on his elbow. Jesus, it feels like I’m looking at a ghost. The embodiment of who Matt would’ve been had he reached his early thirties. Both of their names even begin with “M” for Christ’s sake. I have to get out of this flat. Now.
Mark is trying to pull me back to bed. I dodge out of the way. As I dress I barely respond to his questions. I barely hear them. I give him a squeaky ‘see you’ before closing the door behind me in an accidental slam.
Of course he lives somewhere like St George’s wharf. Arsehole. Vauxhall tube is open and the early-bird commuters are beginning to trickle underground. I know I look awful but for once I really don’t give a shit if I look like shit. The ride home is horrible. I’m feeling sick - in both stomach and conscience. Should I tell Graham the truth? Risk losing him? I can’t risk losing him. The wedding is only months away. He loves me. And I love him…. at least I thought I did. But I’ve cheated. Does that mean deep down I don’t really love him? I am – was - someone who used to pride myself on the fact that I’ve never, in my whole life, cheated. What a joke.
At home I gently unlock the door and creep in. Graham is in the bathroom. “Maria?!” He must’ve heard me come in. Before I know it, I’m in his arms. This wonderful man I’ve just stabbed in the back. He hasn’t showered yet and has the musty smell of sleep about him. A comforting smell: the smell of his pillow on which I sleep when he’s away.
“I was so worried about you last night,” he is saying. “What happened?"
I can't stop myself. The tears that I suppressed for the most of yesterday surface. They erupt, ugly and heaving and uncontrollable. Graham's kind, bewildered face is catalytic. Out spill even more tears and I can't breathe. An explanation begins to rise and hovers through my mind in a gathering swarm of words; my own murmuration of chattering excuses. But so transient that I can't pick the individual words out to form a coherent sentence.
And so I can’t explain.
So I stop trying and sink to the floor.
And I remember that foreign country where we once did things differently.