The Curmudgeon


Friday, April 13, 2012


A Tale

The present delay had lasted several minutes, and there had been two apologies so far. The train was in a station, so the doors were open; the station was above ground, so it was cold and raining; and Pulver had worked late and missed the rush hour, so the train was in no particular hurry to get going again.

In the years Pulver had been using the metro, much had changed for the slicker. Standees on crowded trains now had brightly-painted bars to hold onto, instead of dangling truncheons with rubber balls at the end. There were advertisements that moved as well as grinned, and the announcements on the public address system were in comprehensible English rather than the barnyard squeals and cavernous echoes of a decade ago, or perhaps it was nearer two decades. There were still just as many delays, but more of them had apologies attached.

The passengers had changed, too. They didn’t smoke; they wore less clothing and more metal; and when they read newspapers instead of black boxes, the newspapers they read were all tabloid size. Almost invariably, the rhythmic rattle of a train’s progress now had a counterpoint in the rhythmic rattle of headphones; and the moment any train emerged from the tunnels conversation would break out on all sides, though naturally most of the talk would be between passenger and black box rather than passenger and fellow human being.

Occasionally one even saw women applying make-up: painting and powdering and grimacing away as though the public transport system were no more than an extension of their bathroom at home. Pulver sat facing one such at this moment; though this one, admittedly, was an unusual specimen. The only other occupant of the carriage was a young man slumped in the corner several seats away. His ears were plugged with rattling plastic and his eyes, though open, were exclusively for the black tablet at which his fingers tapped and scratched. He could have been answering messages, massacring aliens or merely keeping time with whatever rhythm was pounding itself into his head.

Values and standards changed, of course. Perhaps the advent of the mobile phone had habituated people to bringing chunks of their private lives into the outside world. Possibly the headphones undermined inhibition by helping individuals to blank out any surrounding crowds from their attention deficits. Doubtless the internet and post-modern anomie had played their parts. Pulver thought it likely that the world in general was going to the dogs.

Take, for example, the one sitting opposite. Pulver was uncertain how long she had been there; the warmth of the carriage when he first got on had made him dozy for one or two stops. But he had been watching her with a certain fascination since the station before last, and so absorbed was she in her facial doings that he had yet to see her features. At least, Pulver assumed it was a her: the lumpish clothing gave no clue, and he could hardly expect to tell from the length of the hair, which dangled down in clotted strands the colour of railway coffee and obscured everything above and between a pair of unattractively hunched shoulders. The hair’s ragged ends hung limp above two sets of stubby fingers, which bustled up and down between the hidden features and a make-up kit the size of a small briefcase.

Rather than putting on her face, it seemed to Pulver that she was removing it. Making up required visibility; no doubt one advantage of doing it on the metro was that the subtler touches were aided by the same harsh light that made their application so grotesque to watch. But Pulver had never yet seen anyone erasing the outlines from their eyes, damping the glow from their complexion and bringing forth their blemishes into the spotlight. Nor, strictly speaking, had he seen this one doing so, but he could not imagine what other reason she might have for such unfashionable shyness. The fleshy white hands moved with the silent precision of crab mandibles; Pulver’s eyes caught flashes of instruments conveyed from the case and then back again, with sometimes a brief glint of metal behind the weedy strands. He found himself trying to get a look at her nails, but the movements of the hands were so rapid and complex that he could not be entirely certain they possessed nails at all. The contents of the case were hidden by its lid, which was hinged and presumably had a mirror inside it; that might explain her peculiar posture, although it could hardly explain how she was able to see well enough to do properly whatever she was doing.

With a brief electronic jabber of warning and a final apology, the carriage doors slid shut. Her hands became still and then, as the train jerked into motion, they carefully closed the lid of the case. There was no alteration in the posture of the head. Pulver wondered whether the journey might be more comfortable if one of them were sitting somewhere else.

The hands reached up behind the curtain of hair and began scrubbing or scratching vigorously. White powder fell, first in dusty motes that floated down onto the case in her lap, then in small lumps and clots whose impact Pulver fancied he could hear above the noise of the train. The stuff did not look as if it were meant to smooth or decorate the skin. It sounded like large flies bumping against a window. Flecks of other colours appeared amid the white; and when the flecks turned into gobs, Pulver decided that it was past time to change his seat.

As he made to stand, the train’s interior lights went off and her head was silhouetted against the window. He saw her tensing, then felt a soft weight cold and damp in his lap. By the time the lights flickered on again, the train was in the tunnel and her face, assuming it was a her, had reached his own.


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