Something tells me it’s important not to look dangerous. You would think I’d be beyond it by this time, the old dread of making scenes, but I do want to get it done quietly, with the niceties observed. With some respect for finer feelings, though whose exactly it’s hard to say at this point. If I could be sure of that, if I could be sure they’d take me with an attitude of courteous regret, of sorrow even, that reflects my own, I’d do it today. I would.
My hair and shoes are a little unfortunate but I could make myself tidy. I could practice the proper face in a mirror first. There’s not much I can do about the bones around my eyes that have a bluish, knuckly look about them now, but I think I could upturn my face so it resembled the mask expected of reasonable women entering this supposedly balanced and amiable chapter of middle age. I could clear my throat and imitate the rounded, sprightly cadences of such women’s voices and say—what?
Suppose for instance I said, in that singing-out manner, Oh, excuse me! Could you help? I’m afraid something has happened.
As if I’d dropped a jar at the checkout. Would that be the correct thing?
There must be a right way and a wrong way, as there is for everything. I believe turning up at a police station might be customary, insofar as my particular circumstances are customary. But police stations aren’t in obvious places anymore and I could waste all day looking for one. Or I could dial 999, although call boxes aren’t in obvious places anymore, either. And they would ask me what’s happened because how else are they to know who to send—police, ambulance, or fire engine—and I couldn’t begin to go into it all on the telephone. But what is the emergency, they’ll insist. All I could tell them is that I think I am. I may be the emergency. It’s true that I would be emerging. I would be appearing unexpectedly after a spell of concealment. Surely I must be the emergency. What else could I say? That there’s been an accident?
Once they saw I wasn’t dangerous, I suppose for a time at least they’d prefer to think of me as sick. Indeed, I could just walk into a hospital. That worked before, after a fashion. I could just walk into a hospital, and nobody would ask if I actually believed I could ever find help there for what afflicts me.
The truth is I’m neither sick nor dangerous. I’m merely displaced. Not that that makes me unique. You’ve seen me, or someone like me, anywhere out-of-the-way and out of season, run-down, closing down and in decline, though I may have escaped notice unless you happened to catch me in a small space between thoughts of your own. You will have seen me in odd, deserted places: a woman alone on a bridge, or standing by the roadside at a strange and hazardous point where weeds are sprouting, perhaps just loitering near an inexplicably derelict bus stop. I’ll remind you of loneliness or old age, or that winter’s setting in.
But most often I’ll be in restless places, the passing points of departure and arrival between various somewheres. I’m the one apart and hesitant in the waiting rooms of stations, under the arc lights of ticket halls and in the corner booths, hovering at turnstiles and gates, never quite joining queues nor scanning information boards, yet never unaware of the human traffic. I stay in by the wall, sidestepping the tide of those in genuine and deliberate transit, dazed yet somehow impervious, lost but not utterly bewildered. I drift just outside the echoes and thrums of journeys that are not mine, the endings and beginnings of missions, diversions, pilgrimages, expeditions. I observe lives unlike mine, full of imperative planned destinations, and I envy people this apparent conviction that their myriad tiny events, their moving toward events yet to be, are of some importance. Neither a proper impetus to travel nor a true purpose in remaining where I am falls my way. I lack reasons either to go or to wait, and this looks like failure in me.
Not that I am at all disgraceful. I am never drunk. I don’t mutter. I don’t carry my belongings in a bundle. It may be stained and tatty but I do have luggage, and I tend also to have an address, albeit it’s always temporary. I manage to keep out of hostels, mostly. Once a day I endeavor to eat at a table, wherever there’s a bargain (jumbo platter, hot drink, £3.99) and whether or not it’s a proper mealtime. Also once a day I’ll spend up to an hour nibbling on most of a sandwich and then wrap and pocket the crusts for later. I’m a hoarder, not a scavenger; I admit I never spend money on a paper (and actually it suits me not to read the news before it’s old and discarded) but I would not dream of polishing off abandoned cups of coffee. It’s true that I’m not above helping myself to forgotten gloves and scarves. Once in winter I took a man’s coat, left on a bench.
So my vagrancy is unspectacular. I wear a taint of rationing, that’s all. I have the thready, ashamed look of a reduced person who assumes there is worse reduction to come, who lingers until the last minute where it’s warmest before boarding the final bus or train, or who walks away from the dark station as the grilles rattle down because nobody waits for her in the evenings.
But tomorrow, though it’s hard for me to speak loud enough for you to hear, I’ll try again. I’ll take a sly, off-center interest in your moments of parting and greeting, look too closely at your clothes, the magazine you carry. Your polite glance when you ask if the seat next to me is free I’ll take as an invitation.
Yes! Though it’s none too clean.
No. Oh well, it’ll do.
I’m overglad to be spoken to, so that far too soon and whether you replied this way or not, I’ll turn to you with a remark too intricate, an anecdote too unlikely and revelatory. Yes, the pigeons here are awful, aren’t they? I met a woman once who got worms off a bench, from the droppings, she said. Filthy, it was. Much worse than this! After that she wouldn’t sit anywhere in public without spreading the seat with newspaper first. Once she stood an entire night because she hadn’t got any. But you can’t win, can you, because that played merry hell with her veins, which was worse than the worms. Or so she claimed.
And you’ll look away. You’ll dread that anyone might overhear and think something in you encouraged the likes of me to babble to you in this manner, in a hurrying voice and staring straight at your eyes, using the sincere and zealous hand gestures of a person who expects to be disbelieved or motioned to shut up before her story is finished.
I don’t blame you. I’ll watch you walk away just as I might have been about to ask if you knew where the nearest police station is, or if there is a telephone nearby, or a hospital. I know I’m unsettling. Maybe it’s because I know something you don’t, though it secures me no advantage. It’s only the knowledge that some other knowledge eludes me. It’s nothing more than an awareness of questions that the happenstance of some lives and not others—mine, say, and not yours—poses for some people and not for others.
Such as, where do I pick up the story of a life that should be over, but isn’t? If events have halted a life’s narrative as utterly as death itself, how do I go on as if I believed in mere continuation, never mind solace and amends? You won’t know. So I won’t detain you by saying, Oh, excuse me! Could you help? I’m afraid something has happened.
I won’t call after you to tell you how weary I am, I’ll settle back and wait out another day. To pass the time, from somewhere in my baggage I’ll bring out bundles of thumbed papers secured under rubber bands and I’ll fret over ordering and reordering them, rereading this or that grubby old letter as if it might contain something new. And I’ll sink into wondering again, asking myself the same questions and finding them still unanswerable.
27 Cardigan Avenue
Were the flowers satisfactory? I just got white ones, you know I’m no good with colors. Were they the right thing?
Writing this isn’t my idea it’s Carole’s. You don’t know Carole.
Well can’t think of anything else for now.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Night Following by Morag Joss. Copyright © 2008 by Morag Joss. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.