Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This week Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
The Station Clock
She was telling me, again, about the house. About how, from the kitchen window, you could see the moorland stretch out, and with the window open you could hear the stream, or the grasshoppers in summer. About the station clock she’d installed on a post at the end of the garden, and the ivy that entwined itself around it, and the air. Apparently there was something special about the air. I found it impossible to picture it all on the dark street, though the distant traffic could have passed for the sound of a stream.
‘We should take the tube, I’ll miss the train.’ She’d broken off her description and was looking at her watch through the crook of my arm. We were on Seymour Street, near Cavendish Square Gardens. Her train wasn’t for 40 minutes.
‘We’ll walk, we’re in no hurry,’ I said.
It was more of a heavy mist, carrying the glow of the streetlights up around the buildings and leaving a slick film on the tarmac which took on, for an instant, the imprints of the tyres on the passing cars. There were a few people on the pavement, mostly alone and looking down, sometimes in twos or threes, but no group, or no two individuals, ever acknowledged each other. The air here was special too, in its way. The soft rain gave it the illusion of freshness. Small pockets of dry air occupied the spot-lit window displays of the closed shops — art shops, jewellers — shops that were mainly empty space, that made the cut stone of the Georgian houses they occupied seem absurdly overbuilt. I imagined the boozy air of the bars, and the cold air hanging over the river and the bridges. I thought of the air in the trains below us, full of hot breath and condensation, and, even there, the unifying fumes that cut through the city.
I asked her to repeat what she’d been saying, and a flicker of annoyance crossed her face.
‘We can’t keep putting it off.’
‘You mean I can’t keep putting it off.’
‘We agreed to live together.’
‘We will.’ I pulled her close against me. I felt shielded by my coat; there was something armour-like about wearing a coat at night. However close she was I felt protected and isolated. I could say anything, so I said, ‘There are some things I need to sort out here, then I’ll come.’ She pressed her head against my shoulder. I looked up at the details and relief carved below the guttering that ran the length of the street. Just one stone must have taken an age to finish. The previous generations had stacked up thousands of them into these buildings, made each a museum distinguished in its style by area and year, showing how the fashionable districts had bloomed and died and bloomed again, and the poor areas had spread and bedded in, mainly to the south and the east. (I had a sudden compulsion to walk there, where it was livelier.) I tried to imagine the cumulative effort in building the city, and it was difficult to make even myself seem significant, let alone an irritating personal problem.
‘I can’t wait,’ she said, and I felt her warmth pass through my coat.
We exited Howland Street onto Tottenham Court Road, by the school of architecture, when two cars crashed in front of us. They pulled out at the same time and collided at 90 degrees, and one of them was pushed into a parked car which began to sound its alarm. At most they came within about three metres of us before stopping, and then the drivers burst from their darkened interiors and started shouting at each other. I froze, and reflexively tightened my grip on her. I didn’t push her behind me, but held her exactly next to me, my arm locked so she couldn’t move. I hadn’t meant to put her in danger, but perhaps I had. She took hold of my arm and freed herself, and we continued walking.
‘Are you okay?’ I studied her face.
‘I’m fine. This place is full of surprises.’
‘I didn’t mean to hurt you.’
‘No, it’s fine,’ she said, but I wasn’t sure she meant it. I had to lengthen my stride to keep up with her. I put my arm around her, but as we were no longer in step it was difficult to keep it there.
‘I really do want to go to the house,’ I said. She glanced at me.
‘I didn’t think you didn’t.’
‘Yes, well, it sounds beautiful, much better than here.’ We’d broken out onto the soulless strip of Euston Road. I pressed on.
‘It’s not as though I’m in love with living here.’ She relaxed her grip on my arm and turned to face me, slowing her pace.
‘No, I don’t think you are. But I’m not sure you can stop.’ She didn’t say anything else, but I felt her move once more against me, and her breath against my cheek. We slowed as we approached the station, leaning on each other, lingering. I started to formulate ways of asking her to stay, but none of them seemed convincing. The station clock indicated it was nearly time. She asked me to go with her. Come with me, she said, stay, just for a bit, a week, buy a ticket. The rain had soaked through my clothes, I realised they were wet against my skin. Overheated, foul smelling air blasted out of a shop and misted up my glasses, unmistakably city air.
I smiled, and said what I needed to, and kissed her on the cheek. I watched her walk across the concourse. If she turned, she did so after me, when I was walking back, tightening my coat, waiting for the lights. I thought I might walk all the way. I was already wet, and I was in no hurry.
Copyright, Peter Watson, 2014. Image by Wing, in the Londonist Flickr pool.
We’re still after your stories based on London at Night, which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.