The Stranger

It began on the train. The sudden extraordinary intimacy of eye contact. His eye-lashes were a feathery brown, the irises they guarded greeny-blue pools. Eyes you could dive into. Oh-oh, Maggie thought, and looked the other way, studying the flakes of dandruff dotting the collar of the man standing on her other side. At the station he made a point of letting her step off first, then strode ahead, a brown leather jacket, collar up, disappearing in the crowds.

It was a quiet day in the gallery. Another quiet day. Julia came and went as usual, ear pressed to her phone, her bangled arms tinkling. Julia’s husband was rich, the gallery her play-thing. For lunch Maggie ate what she had thrown together in a plastic box that morning, left-over chicken, some peppers, shreds of wilting lettuce, cashews, a squeeze of mayonnaise and lemon. She took each mouthful slowly, making it last. In recent weeks food had started to taste of something again, and that was good. And noticing the man, that was good too.

At two o clock Clive called. How was she? Had she eaten? He would be home late. Again. Because of the new show. He was sorry. She wasn’t to wait up. He would sleep in the spare room so as not to wake her. Sometimes, Maggie thought they had their best conversations on the phone.

The next day the brown jacket was there again, a gleam among the grey morning throng. Maggie noticed the shock of dark hair this time, the closeness of the cut above the ears, emphasising the bounce of natural thickness on top. His eyes found hers the instant she boarded, as if they had been searching, waiting. Maggie responded with a flicker of recognition and then edged into the deeper safety of the carriage, keeping her back to him as they sped on towards London. She didn’t want to start anything, not even a conversation. Clive was the only person she could talk to these days. Only Clive knew how to speak to her, what to say, what to avoid.

‘Go where you are appreciated,’ her father used to say, and that was exactly what Maggie had done. Clive had been fresh from his curating stint in New York when they met, alluringly confident of his opinions, easy in his own skin. ‘Don’t move,’ he had instructed, a voice out of the blue as she bent to inspect a small exquisite porcelain vase in the V&A on a wet afternoon, back in the day when she had thought being on the fringes of the world she loved was just a temporary step to becoming a part of it. The vase was in a display of Japanese curios, its torso curved and translucent, its rim as fine as paper. She had been on her way to the Ladies, during a part-time stint in the gift shop. ‘Wow. Beautiful. And I don’t mean the vase.’ He had pronounced it vaze in his soft American drawl, scrutinising her with the cool bold appreciation that made her skin tingle.

After work, Maggie made a detour via the gift shop. On Saturday it would be four years since the V&A encounter and she and Clive always got each other cards. Maggie settled on one that said You Rock My World and then, on a whim, picked out a keyring dangling with a tacky plastic vase of flowers to go with it. It was awful, but it was also a vaze, and therefore funny if you viewed it right.

The card made her miss her usual train. She picked up a Standard and settled to wait, leaning against a wall by the platform entrance.

‘I don’t suppose I could buy you a drink?’

He looked older close to, laugh-dents round the marine eyes and the beard he could have already shadowing half his face. There was a faint lilt in his voice, something Irish, or Scottish, some buried root.

‘No. Thanks.’ Maggie flashed a brittle smile and returned her attention to her paper.

‘You look like you could do with one though.’

Maggie gawped. It was such a personal thing to say. Such an offensive thing.

He brushed at something invisible on his jacket. ‘I didn’t mean…you look sad, is all.’

‘Well I am not.’ Her phone beeped and she fell on it. There was a message from Clive. Another late one. Sorry. x She almost waved it in the man’s face as she walked away. By the time she looked back he had settled on a bench to read a book, his long legs sticking out and crossed casually at the ankle, the slick of dark hair falling like a curtain across his forehead.

At home, Maggie stood before her open fridge trying to summon the wherewithal to conjure a meal from its contents. Cooking was less fun on her own. She was aware too of something still fluttering inside her, something that felt like shame. To think sadness could show. Like some visible disease. It was loathsome. And it made no sense either, not just because she was starting to feel so much better, but because she had lost something both she and Clive had agreed they hadn’t wanted. The clinic had been booked. As Clive had pointed out at the time, her body had merely got there first. Clever body, he had called, , doing his best to hold her in spite his famous queasiness around blood.

Maggie poached an egg in the end, eating it on a piece of toast, adding a dash of marmite for added punch. She had a glass of white wine and then a second. She fiddled with the plastic keyring vase as she ate, sticking her finger in and out of its small opening. It occurred to her that the miscarriage hadn’t left her sad, so much as hollowed out. Empty. Like the vase. There had been something inside her – something alive – and then it had gone.

She ran a deep hot bath and lay in it staring at her floating limbs and the seaweed of hair between her legs. Clive liked her smooth, but she had given up on all of that for the time being. There was little point, given that they hadn’t yet got back to lovemaking anyway. She didn’t blame Clive. He was working so hard. And who would want to go near a scene of carnage anyway? It would take anyone time to get over that, let alone a man with a fear of blood.

Maggie rummaged in the linen cupboard for a fresh towel, her skin pink and steaming, bath water pooling round her feet. Clive had a big blue one she wanted, which he kept on the top shelf, along with his face-flannels, cuff-link boxes and spare toiletries. He had been fastidious like that from the start, marking out his own zones as soon as they moved in together. That separateness was key to desire was one of his mantras. In the early days he had liked to trace the contours of her body with his hands for hours before actually touching her. The looking aroused him. No man had ever made her feel more beautiful, more appreciated.

As Maggie pulled at the blue towel a small paper bag slid out of its folds. Inside was a greetings card of Degas’ bronze ballet dancer, still in its cellophane. The Saturday anniversary. Maggie smiled. It was the perfect card for her. And typical of Clive, to have it bought already and stowed it safely. In the bottom of the bag there was also a tiny black leather box. Maggie’s fingers trembled. They never got each other presents, only cards.

It was an antique brooch; a thumbnail of tiny diamonds. Maggie ran her fingertip over the bumpy surface, tears spilling down her cheeks. She would have to buy him something too now, something proper. Tenderly she returned the treasures to their hiding place. She had dried anyway, from standing for so long. In bed she watched the headlights of passing cars slide across the curtains, trying to stay awake. But her new happiness made her sleepy and by the time she heard the creak of his footsteps outside the spare room it was almost dawn.

On Saturday she left Clive to catch up on some much needed sleep and went to the organic fishmonger to buy something special for dinner. There was queue as usual but Maggie did not mind waiting. The fresh fish sparkled on their ice beds. Life was about timing. The right things happening at the right time. She bought ten stout slivery tiger prawns and then stopped by the antique shop, settling on a tie-pin she that caught her eye among a cabinet of trinkets. A slim gold needle topped by a pearl. Her heart quickened at the price-tag but Clive would love it.

When she got back Clive was sitting in his grey silk dressing gown at the kitchen table with a pot of coffee and two cups. ‘Sit,’ he said, smiling at her. His face looked pouchy from sleep. He would be ugly when he was old, Maggie realised suddenly, startled at her own dispassion.

He poured her coffee, black as she liked it. Maggie sat down, aware of the bulge of her card and gift in her cardigan pocket. ‘Coffee. Lovely. And I’ve bought supper. Happy Anniversary.’

‘Ah.’

‘Clive? Are you all right?’

‘Not too bad. The spare room bed is not the best.’

‘No, it’s awful.’

‘But we know where we are at least, don’t we.’

‘Yes. We …’ Maggie stopped, catching the beat of something odd in his voice.

‘This distance between us. It’s awful isn’t it. Excruciating. When we were once so close.’ He gave her a rueful smile. ‘I’ve been so miserable.’

‘Miserable?’

‘Maggie, I know you’ve noticed.’

Maggie squeezed the little package in her pocket. It dawned on her that Clive had never known – or wanted to know – how she felt about anything. She had been too busy trying to read him – his needs and hopes and desires – to notice. ‘You’ve met someone else.’ The sudden obviousness of it made her want to laugh out loud.

‘Of course I haven’t.’ But there was a flicker in his eyes, a darkening in the bright blue that told her he was lying. He held her gaze, a defiance that confirmed the guilt.

Maggie saw the tiny cluster of diamonds in her mind’s eye; the Degas bronze on the card. Hidden treasures, but not for her. Clive’s latest project had produced a new object for his admiration. One as yet unsullied by suffering. The young assistant curator maybe, from Poland he said, or was it Paris. Twenty six not thirty two.

‘Well, it’s our four year anniversary and I got you this. Silly me.’

‘Maggie, calm down.’

‘Oh, I’m very calm, thank you Clive.’ And she was. She stood up quickly, enjoying how he flinched at the screech of her chair on the tiled floor. The heat of anger was inside her, but it was lighting her up, showing her the way. She could take the tie-pin back, for less money maybe, but she would get something. ‘I’d like you to fuck off now, please. I mean, right NOW.’

Clive laughed uncertainly. ‘Look, can we be grown up about this?’

‘Oh yes. Grown up. Good idea. As in fuck off and I never want to see you again.’ Inside her it was as if floodgates had opened. Permission to hate him, that was what it felt like. Permission to give up. He hadn’t wanted their child. He hadn’t tried to understand. He hadn’t wanted to hold her close. She had been an object to him. A piece of artwork.

‘I said fuck off.’ He darted past her. Thumps from the bedroom followed, drawers being opened, the zipping of bags. When he emerged she was holding the flat door open. He began to talk about money, about needing to come back to get more things. He was so afraid it almost made her pity him.

The man in the brown leather jacket slid into her mind from nowhere. He had seen her sadness. A complete stranger had seen. It made her feel glad rather than ashamed. She thought too of the rarity of that, the courage it must have taken him to say what he said. She was thinking that she would stand in her usual place on the platform the following week, every day, until she saw the man again. If only to smile at, not caring where it led.

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