In his hand, you have to imagine how it feels, the Di Berardino classic briefcase. It all starts with that feeling in his hand.
The whole focus of his being is in the grip of his hand around that hard leather handle, in the way the seam stubs into the underbellies of his fingers, in the swing of the handle in its solid brass satin finished fittings. In the sense he has of its contents and how they influence the swing and how that swing uplifts him.
The case is a present from Julia. That she was able to choose it for him, that she’s willing to spend the two hundred pounds plus on him, two hundred pounds out of her teacher’s salary, that she did this for him. It’s proof of something. It reaffirms his faith in her, in both of them. It is as if she has presented him with a leather-goods interpretation of himself. This is you, it says. I know you, I understand you, she’s saying.
He feels a brim of sweat insinuate itself between fingers and handle. He is focussed on that film, on how it lends a granular quality to the beautiful vegetable tanned leather of the handle. Is that the salt? he wonders. He wants to wash his hands but he’s standing on the down escalator in Highgate tube station. Suddenly the air around him is grainy.
Entering the platform, he changes hands, sharing the privilege of carrying the Di Berardino. He thinks about the miracle of her buying him the case, presenting it to him this morning in honour of his first day.
His last job was Charing Cross Branch. This job is Bank Branch. It will take some effort of will to remember.
He flexes the free hand, giving the sweat some air, and checks the display. First train up, Morden Via Charing Cross, two minutes. Next Bank train, four minutes. Not so bad. He doesn’t want to be late on his first day.
He realises he should be thinking about that, focussing on that, but instead he’s concentrating on the feel of his fresh hand around the handle, living there, enjoying for a moment the pleasure of the Di Berardino classic, weighing its cargoes, emotional and otherwise.
The case contains the comb-bound acetate-covered Welcome to Diamond Life document, his current paperback and a banana. He felt odd putting the banana in there but this is his work case, a working case. It must contain the things he needs it to contain. Otherwise what’s the point?
Normally he would take a couple of bananas so in a sense the single banana could be thought of as a concession.
He realises he is not nervous about his new job at all. He is eager for it, cannot wait to claim it. He is impatient. Does not want to linger on this platform. If he is nervous about anything, he is nervous about the people on the platform. There is a flow that carries him to the far end, away from the entrance.
He looks at women. This is something he does. He looks at and assesses their sexual attributes. He hopes he does it in a way they do not notice but cannot be sure. Once a girl in a low-cut top, a plump girl, a girl as plump as fruit, a girl who seemed to be making a display of her breasts, the skin was there for all to see – once such a woman turned away from him in a tube compartment. They were standing near the door at the end of the compartment and she turned her back on him for the whole of the journey. She must have caught him looking at them, at the taut-pored skin of them, but, hell, he was reading his current paperback and any glance he had made in the direction of her fruit-plump breasts was furtive in the extreme. So furtive he had not even caught himself doing it.
The women he looks at in this way, all women to some extent, he wonders if any one of them reciprocates his glance with a glance of exactly equal meaning, equally assessing, equally laden with a quality of hopeless, pointless desire. (If only they could appreciate the poignancy of that glance!) He doubts it. He is not one of those men that women look at. Few men are, he thinks.
The platforms at Highgate are longer than they need to be, longer than the trains. There is an empty space at the end of the platform. The trains always pull past it. He was caught out once. Never again.
He’s nearing the invisible cordon that marks the beginning of the no-go area when he sees her. Or rather that is the moment he is conscious of seeing her. Something chimes, something that makes him think he knew about her all along. She makes him nervous. There is something familiar and precise about the nervousness she inspires.
She’s young, a student. Japanese, he thinks. He’s not very good at making racial distinctions but he thinks he can tell Japanese from Chinese, for example. She has a large flat face, round like a plate. Not pretty, but fascinating. Appalling almost, in the sense that there is something in that face that you do not want to see. A blankness. But also an intensity. A fixity of purpose. Despair. This is despair, he thinks. She’s hugging a Snoopy ring binder to her chest, covering her breasts, which he guesses are tiny. And it’s the Snoopy ring binder that convinces him she’s Japanese. He has the sense that they go for that sort of thing. And she’s dancing. Yes, dancing. Or that’s how it seems when he first is aware of seeing her. She’s moving with measured steps in a circular sweep, a repeated movement, advancing, retreating, sidling, circling. Her partner in this dance is the platform guard. Standard-issue London Underground guard, royal blue shirt, peaked cap, running to fat. They are face to face. And he moves with her. When she goes to the side, he goes to the side. When she backs off, he backs off. When she steps forward, he steps forward. And all this is strange and worrying to see. He cannot make sense of it. All he can do is grip the handle of the Di Berardino classic.
Then he realises what’s going on. The guard is blocking her. She’s trying to get to the edge of the platform and the guard is trying to stop her. They do not say a word to each other. Maybe she doesn’t speak English. Or maybe there are no words that can be said. All the guard can do is position himself between this girl and her intent. He is whispering into his walkie-talkie.
Then something happens, something terrible happens. The overhead sign reads TRAIN APPROACHING. The air begins to rumble. The light in the tunnel enlarges. He can feel the vibrations underfoot. And it’s now, at the worst possible moment, that the stationmaster, or some other blue-shirted London Underground official, comes striding onto the platform. He calls out to his colleague. The platform guard looks up. And in the moment of his distraction, she gives him the slip.
As the train bursts out of the tunnel she leaps off the edge of the platform. Arms and legs akimbo. And he is horrified that he has time to think of the word “akimbo,” a word he has always enjoyed, that it should occur to him now. It is as if she is trying to scatter herself to the ends of the earth, the shape she makes. It is more than akimbo. Akimbo doesn’t do it justice. The blunt front of the train innocently proclaiming MORDEN VIA CH+ gathers her up and carries her off without ceremony or resonance, with just a defeated crumpling. He hears, or thinks he hears, over and above the frozen squeal of the brakes, the brisk thud of the collision, the screams around him, something that he takes to be the last breath expelled from her body.
And now he sees two men comforting each other. The platform guard, the girl’s last dance partner, is windmilling his arms and wailing. The sound of his cries is hurk hurk hurk. The stationmaster is trying to slow the movement of his arms, is attempting soothing strokes that don’t strike home. He’s batting at the other man’s despair. The stationmaster is taller than the platform guard. He holds the other man’s head to his shoulder. The hurk hurk hurk is muffled now and the station master’s shirt is quickly drenched with tears.
No one else there has that license, to choose another to give and receive comfort. The rest of them, all the others there on that platform remain only strangers. They look to each other, they search each other’s faces. But it cannot go beyond that.
And then he sees it. It’s there on the platform she dropped it the Snoopy ring binder. And in the shrieking chaos, he feels the need to retrieve it. He would never have guessed that he would do this, dip onto one knee and in a fluid movement scoop it up. That he would have the presence of mind or the need.
The vinyl touch of it, there is comfort in the vinyl touch of it. He thinks he understands. Why she was holding on to it, holding on to it for dear life. It is cushioned and textured, stippled, a texture like skin, only without pores, this skin. It is hermetic, sealed. It has a slight sheen. There is comfort in the touch of it, even in the touch of the rigid moulded seam. The colours comfort. The white of the background. The yellow of Snoopy. Snoopy comforts. He has never really understood Snoopy until now. The black lines. He runs his fingers over it expecting the different colours to feel different. There are only three colours. White, yellow, black. The simplicity and boldness of the colours comfort. He is not disappointed. The different colours feel different. The black lines feel raised. They come out to meet his touch. He imagines them on a molecular scale, as massive ridges. The yellow is raised too, though not as much as the black. It’s like a gentle plateau.
He thinks he understands why she was holding on to it and why she had to drop it. Why she could not take it with her.
He looks around to see if he has been seen. But no, everyone is absorbed in their own horror. Or if he has been seen, it is without comprehension. This is a moment when nothing can make sense.
He has the ring binder tucked under his elbow now and is fumbling with the satin finished solid brass clasp. For now that he has it, the Snoopy ring binder, there is only one place it can go. Inside the Di Berardino classic, between the comb-bound acetate-covered Welcome to Diamond Life document and his banana.