As was with Monday mornings, Edgware Road underground station was teeming with goers to and goers fro. Women ran in high heels. Over the phone, a bouncy teenager thanked his date for dinner last night. Someone complained Boxing Day was far away. The announcer at the rails insisted to a gentleman that the next train would be a circle line, although he averred it was a district line. I took in the sights and sounds of the underground and shoved my hands into my coat pockets. I liked to people-watch and was glad that they couldn’t fly and go high up like birds or I might have needed binoculars. Mercifully, people were reasonably sized and earth-borne. I could watch them comfortably up close.
He came with yesterday’s Evening Standard tucked under his arm. A thin sheen of sweat shone on his brow; he loosened his tie slightly. His white shirt was tucked into his black trousers, and a starched blazer hung from his shoulders. One of his shoes lacked the polished gleam of its pair, perhaps as a result of running. He looked around himself and exhaled once. The train arrived and some of us, including myself, got on, and I caught him turn to gaze into the crowd one last time. Just before the doors closed, a windswept lady rushed in, and he patted the seat beside him. She sank into the cushion, and at that moment it wasn’t clear which of them was more grateful.
These weren’t two people who were strangers to each other. Nor were they, from the looks of it, companions lulled into comfort from years of friendship. There was a slight edge, a tightness in the way they reacted to one another. Their bodies exuded a taut rhythm, as if responding to music of a certain frequency perceived only by them. From a few feet away, I found myself drawn to this hypnotic dance, but I didn’t have to worry about them discovering my staring, for they were engrossed in each other.
Often, the lady’s cheeks warmed and turned pink. She laughed, her head tilting so that, I imagined, she could glance sideways at the man beside her. In response, the man smiled at her generously. The man didn’t notice his newspaper fall to the ground, and at one point, he casually rubbed his dirty shoe against the back of his trouser. The lady patted the dew on her nose with a handkerchief. Her brown hair was cropped close, extending just beneath her ears, from which two tiny pearls dropped delicately. Her pale blue shirt and black blazer complemented her black pencil skirt. She had on flat shoes that could withstand chasing runaway trains.
Once in their conversation, she tugged the lapels of his blazer for emphasis, and I was transfixed by her nails. Clean, unpainted, round, healthy. Perhaps manicured once a month at a mid-range salon chain. Was the man aware of the beauty that gripped him? I remembered a line from a poem by G.M. Hopkins:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held…
I wondered what it was like to engage with celestial charm. He certainly looked at ease, all previous traces of dishevelment gone. A fitting couple, I thought. Or rather, a couple in the making. It didn’t seem likely that anyone else perceived this sense of immanence. They were busy texting, or hushing their children, or thumbing through paperbacks. I was the lone audience who continued to watch this mime unfold, because I wasn’t close enough to hear what they were saying, and I didn’t have to be.
While my eyes continued to stare at the couple, I felt my brain drift away from the scene and recede into previous psychodramas I constructed. One of them was about the hostility I sensed between two young men walking in a dark alley. I had imagined they were a sales duo who were on the verge of selling an insurance plan to a middle-aged couple, until one of them stuttered and said something silly, bringing down all they had built up over hours of syrupy persuasion. But the reality could have been anything. They might have been brothers caught in a family tiff. They might have been entangled in a love triangle, both fuming as neither allowed the other to win the girl. And now she had got away. Or they might have been lovers, one’s jealousy grating on the other’s nerves.
I suppose I have always had this tendency to create stories out of this world and inside my head. Years ago, when I was seven, my friends and I gathered in late December to build a snowman. But one of them, Coney, didn’t come out to join us. We shouted beneath his house, inviting him. Our voices were visual, the cold converting whatever came out of our mouths to fog. Coney’s house didn’t stir and showed no signs of hearing. We stubbornly believed that the entire family was huddled there, so we went up and rang the doorbell. His father opened the door just a crack, and told us kindly but firmly that Coney was not in, he was at his grandmother’s. Dismissed, we shuffled down and set about making our snowman, Coney’s absence soon forgotten.
Before I fell asleep that night, plots began converging in my mind, and I thought back to the day’s events. While making the snowman, I occasionally felt like we were being watched, but when I asked around, no one else seemed to have observed it. It wasn’t the kind of watching that made you conscious, or made you drop whatever you’re doing and slink away from visibility. This was the kind of watching that betrayed a wistful longing from the watcher, trapped between the dual need to avert their gaze lest their misery increase, and continue staring, imbibing vicarious pleasure from those who were enjoying what they couldn’t. At one point when I looked up at Coney’s window, I thought I saw the sliver of an eye, a retreating rush of dark hair. After we built our snowman, I rolled a small ball of snow and stuck twig ears on it. Our only carrot was spent on the snowman, so I used a pink pebble for the nose instead, such that the snow creature resembled a cross between a bunny and a cat without whiskers. This I placed beneath Coney’s house, and trudged in the direction of my mother’s anxious voice.
In hindsight, Coney might very well have been at his grandmother’s house where he may have built not one but many snowmen, and that he, a happy boy, would regale his family with warm winter stories upon his return. At that moment, it just suited me to disbelieve the truth, and reconfigure it in my thoughts. Some might call it fiction, and I acknowledge the tendency to do so. Early on, I understood that all facts and truths are preceded and succeeded by spaces. Spaces you can grow or shrink depending on what you decide to do with it, on how you choose to fill it. In any case, Coney never gave any indication of receiving my consolation; neither did I bandy him about it.
Quickly tracing my previous mental meanderings, I snapped back into the present. The couple had their eyes locked, whispering to each other. A slow blush crept to the lady’s neck where it froze at her collar bone, forbidden to climb higher. When the automated announcement signalled entry to High Street Kensington, she jumped up, startling him. It dawned upon them that there existed a larger world beyond their seats, outside the gleaming interiors of the Monday underground. As the lady leaned in for a hug, the man pecked her cheek so fast it was a blur. If she was taken aback, she didn’t give any indication of it. He watched her alight and beheld her figure all the way until she must have resurfaced above ground.
When the train lurched again, he picked up his paper and thumbed through it. Occasionally he looked over it and into space, the corners of his mouth crinkling. A careful observer could tell this was a man gladly wounded by Cupid’s arrow. I experienced the familiar sensation of my thoughts scattering and the insides of my head expanding; presumably how roads feel when they are about to be widened. Deep spaces opened like inviting cavities to be filled. In moments like this I have learned that there is no use resisting, it is best to oblige the imaginative necessities of your brain. No — not merely the brain. Dare I say soul?
I focused with intensity on the man’s newspaper, and an alternate reality unspooled.
Before the lady got off at her stop, the man solicited: ‘Can I see you again tonight?’
‘Yes. Why don’t you come over to my place, I can cook us dinner.’
‘I’d like that very much,’ he smiled. She hurriedly scribbled her address on the edge of his newspaper and made her exit.
The man was worried that for the rest of the day his goofy grin wouldn’t be easily wiped off his face. Work was slow for them both. He, enamoured by her gestures, her beauty, her vivacity. She, preoccupied with the menu. And him of course. His demeanour when he spoke with passion. The way one of his eyes involuntarily half-closed when he smiled widely, his gravelly voice tickling her ear when he leaned in to whisper something, hopelessly failing to be subtle in expressing his desire for her. She found this endearing, as she had gazed back at him coyly. She registered his parting kiss, and each time she recalled it during the day, her face emanated heat.
She left her workplace earlier than him and stopped at the supermarket on her way home. The atmosphere seemed brighter than usual, with the floors sparkling, and the racks filled with tins emitting a glow. Intent on her task, she quickly and efficiently loaded her cart. She paused a while at the alcohol section, debating whether to pick up a bottle of wine, and then decided against it when she suddenly remembered she had an unopened one from a previous dinner party. Miles away, the man was tapping furiously at his keyboard, and in the few minutes he stopped to stretch his arms, thoughts of her filled his head. He chided himself for behaving like a teenager.
On arriving home, she laid out the meat, vegetables and sauces on the kitchen counter and made herself a quick cup of coffee. Her jangled nerves needed calming. Her mind began to wander, and she briefly doubted whether he would appreciate her cooking. It’s too late now, she thought, and got to work. She set about marinating the chicken and turned the stove on to cook the rice. She soaked cucumbers and tomatoes in water for a salad. Then she brought out the eggs, flour and cooking chocolate for dessert. Once the rice was ready, she placed it with the chicken in the oven. By then she had whisked the contents of the dessert, until the mix was smooth and creamy. This too went in the oven. I’ll make the salad fresh, she thought as she made her way upstairs. There was still time for a shower.
As their dinner was an impromptu plan, she was temporarily at a loss as to what to wear. After some thought, she picked out a dress which often attracted compliments. She dabbed some light perfume and applied a little makeup. She side swept her hair and secured it with a small, silver-studded barrette. Pleased with her appearance, she almost made it out of her room until she realised she had forgotten to use mouthwash. After a quick rinse, she descended the stairs to check on the food. The chicken was bathed in a rosy glow, the cake had risen, and she felt a puff of pride. She turned on the radio and sang along to Ella, but when she opened the fridge, she clapped a hand to her forehead in dismay.
The wine was nearly over. It could not even have served one glass. The clock read a quarter past seven, and he would arrive at half past. There was absolutely no time to make a dash for the nearest supermarket. She berated herself for not checking sooner. She knew he wouldn’t mind but that was beside the point. She sighed. She exited the kitchen to ensure the hall was tidy. She placed the stray magazines inside the shelves and plumped the cushions on the couch. She dusted her perfectly sized dining table. It was ideally only meant for two, though when friends came over it could be crowded to accommodate four, sometimes even five. She gazed at the postcards that adorned a section of her wall above the table, and hoped he’d ask her about them. It was then the doorbell chimed.
She walked to the entrance, her gait slightly unsteady, and told herself to get a grip. She opened the door with a smile, and for a minute he didn’t say anything. He gazed at her in wonder before leaning in to give her a hug. His embrace was firm and warm, just what she needed, and she could have stayed like that forever, but there was salad to be made, and a guest to be entertained. She took his hand and ushered him in. He presented her with an elegantly wrapped bottle of wine, which she accepted, hoping her relief wasn’t too evident. On asking if he was hungry, he replied that he was famished.
‘Everything is ready except the salad. Do you want to help me?’ She asked.
‘Of course. Lead the way,’ he gestured after her.
In the kitchen, they split the duty. He began to chop the tomatoes, and she got started on the cucumbers. For a few minutes, they worked in companionable quietude.
Indeed, outward silence only serves to mask internal thoughts that go on overdrive, creating a ruckus inside cerebral membranes like a high-speed electric drill. They stood beside each other, the only sound heard was knife upon chopping board. He stole a glance at her every now and then and took in her lissome profile. The black dress with pale white and gold flowers clung to her figure, and he found himself getting distracted if he stared too long. Even if he didn’t look, her scent swirled in his head and was enough to drive him crazy. He was thankful that salad was a relatively quick and simple dish to make.
When the meal was finally ready, they laid out everything on the dining table, and he poured them each a glass of red wine. After toasting to the other’s health and success, they began to talk about everything and nothing. He told her about his day and how long it had been with a wink (a fact that made her go red), and she told him about a particularly difficult client she had to deal with. When he took the first bite of the chicken, his eyes closed in bliss, and her body sang in pleasure. Often, he took her hand in his, his thumb tracing circles above her palm. But she didn’t let him do this for more than a few minutes, because his touch addled her brain, and she had so much to share with him.
Eventually the talk came to discussing passions, and they began to reveal the things they lived for. He spoke of his love for reading, and how as a child he had so many books he once made a small bedside table with several hundred paperbacks glued above and beside each. Before she could begin talking about her passion, he enquired after the postcards on the wall, and she broke into a winning smile.
‘But why are they on the wall? How will you be able to read what’s written behind them?’ he wondered aloud.
She had wanted him to ask her, but now that he had, she suddenly felt at a loss for words. How was she to elaborate the ways this passion had fuelled her for years, that though they were stuck on the wall, these postcards acted as portals for time travel to those luxurious destinations she had visited? She surprised herself with her reply.
’Oh, these postcards are unwritten. I collect them from my travels. In photographs, reality is too earnest, too unaffected. But in a watercolour postcard where borders and boundaries are fluid, everything takes on an impressionistic quality. It understands that places, real or imaginary, can’t be contained in 5.8 x 4.1-inch paper. Things, people, events… all become a palette of possibility.’
He considered what she said and rose from his seat to stand before the postcards. He lingered around one that was a replica of Van Gogh’s Starry Night from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and another which was from the Indian Museum in Calcutta. This depicted a turtle bearing the vegetation of the world, with trees and shrubbery emerging from its shell. She watched him watch this valuable extension of her life, and not wanting to interrupt a moment she regarded as personal, retreated into the kitchen to bring out dessert, which they savoured on the couch.
After the leftovers were stowed away in the kitchen, they returned to the couch, fingers entwined. Words didn’t need to be exchanged, they were filled with a satiating silence. Sharing these moments with her, he felt languorous, luxurious, limitless. He moved in slowly, pulling her close, his hands wrapped around her waist. She leaned into him, bridging a gap that was never much there—
Here, something curious happened. My brain shut off, my imagination progressed no further. It felt as though I encountered a wall that forbade itself to be scaled. Perplexed by this unforeseen barrier, I pushed and prodded, poked around the periphery, but to no avail. Perhaps it was some deep realisation that I was trespassing upon a private moment; and that despite the scenario being my methodical invention, it sought to shield its intimacy through a counteractive mechanism unbeknownst to me. Out of respect, I eventually abandoned my effort to find a way in, and it remained a moment forever unattainable by my imagination.
I found myself staring at the space occupied by a man who was no longer there, who left an empty seat and a crumpled newspaper in his wake. In a few days, these two individuals might recede from the corners of my mind’s eye, and curl at the edges like an old photograph set aflame. As I got off at my stop, I wondered at the usefulness of my elaborate imagination, and why I sought to test the malleability of reality ever so often. Later that day I was startled for a moment at the supermarket, for I saw a lady with short hair in a pale blue shirt at the wine counter. I thought that my fantasy was somehow about to turn into reality. But then she turned, and I realised I mistook someone else for her. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Then at a turn round the corner, I saw a man selling postcards. I ended up buying a few that were so vivid, that throughout the evening I was giddy from a rush of colour to the head.