“Do you ever feel that what you’re doing is offensive?” I say this to the woman sitting next to me while staring straight ahead at our reflections in the glass window. She is wearing a headscarf tied under the chin with a knot; the two ends stick out either side of her chin. She continues to stare at me. Our reflections sway occasionally as the tube rattles around corners. Perhaps she doesn’t think I’m speaking to her because I’m not looking at her. Eye contact is overrated in my book. Her mouth is slightly open and her overcoat, a sort of mac, is pale green; ocean green like the metal railings at Brighton beach but a bit darker. I turn to look at her. She’s not looking at me. She’s looking through me. Unblinking. Like she’s frozen in time. The train jerks and judders to a halt. The doors open. The woman gives a tiny shake of her head and faces front. I watch my shoulders sink a little lower. A woman’s slick voice announces changes have been made to the national security contract and advises us to read it regularly and not fall out of line with our comrades. The doors close. Off we go again. We are the only people in the carriage. I wonder where she’s going. It’s 5am. Maybe to work. What kind of work does she do? A cleaner? Or maybe she bakes. Or some kind of weird prostitute whose clients like to wear nappies. She shifts in her seat. She’s probably someone’s Grandma. I can’t believe I thought that about her! I give her an apologetic smile in the window. She’s not looking though. I turn away. There’s something under the seat over there. Like a bundle of rags. What is it? I can’t quite make it out. I turn back to the woman but she’s looking away from me. I look again. It’s gone. I don’t get this. What’s going on? Some kind of optical illusion? Think I’ll get off at the next stop. Don’t like it here any more. I notice I’m gripping the arm of my seat. My knuckles are white. I release the tension and a tiny spread of pink appears. We’re stopping. When the doors open I’m going to stand up and walk slowly through them as if everything is okay. I smile at my image.
The doors slide shakily open. I jump up and run through them. My feet clatter along the platform as my eyes seek the exit. I run with my chest pointing the way, imaginary hands, gloved in dark material, grabbing at me as I run by. I reach the escalators and hurl myself up them, taking the steps two at a time. I run across the foyer, round another corner and stop at the ticket barrier. I slide my ticket out of my back pocket and feed it to the machine who leaves no trace of it. As a reward it opens its gates and I saunter through, panting. I am free. I step onto the pavement. If I turn left and walk for a bit and turn left again I’ll be at the main entrance to Regents Park. I’ll do that. I think of Rebecca as I walk and her story of meeting my mum for the first time. I’ve always loved the houses near Regents Park. Even though we’re all supposed to be equal, I love the richness of them. They remind me of royal icing on a wedding or christening cake. Smooth, cream walls that look like they’ve been rolled out and applied with apricot jam. That’s if the cake inside is madeira cake, of course. Aunt Lucy used to decorate cakes. For pin money. She’d fill tiny bags made from greaseproof paper with icing and pipe words on the cakes. I was allowed to use it up. I piped my name on the back of my hand over and over, licking it off each time.
The light is coming. I like walking around outside when most people aren’t out yet. The street and I have a more intimate connection when there’s no-one around. I smile and turn left. There are the gates. They’re closed. I don’t know what time they will open. Who does that? I walk towards them anyway, hoping for a mysterious piece of luck. They are painted black. I grip the bars and give them a shake. Locked tight. I sigh. I guess I was hoping they’d be open. Maybe I wanted to walk towards the manhole Rebecca climbed down and find my way to that secret room and have a look around it. What am I gonna do now? Maybe I’ll go back to my flat. I don’t want to see Rebecca or Lily. Or mum really. But I don’t want to see anyone from the Party either. I’m sure they won’t be watching my flat. It’s been weeks since I went missing. Although they must have seen me on Underground TV. I haven’t been in the Party papers lately. Maybe it’s okay. Maybe I’m safe now. My flat seems cosy and homely suddenly. My brown cord sofa that is long enough for me to sleep on issues a silent invitation. I could buy some food and take it there and lay on my sofa and watch TV. Yes! I could watch TV! I haven’t watched TV since I ran from the Party. None of the Peace and Love people even have TVs. How do they zone out? I guess they don’t need to if they believe in what they’re doing. Oh, sod it!
I turn and head back to the main road. I walk, keeping my eyes peeled for a taxi. And when I see one and hail it I realise that I must go back to Rebecca’s.
The elevator in the apartment block probably gives the smoothest ride I’ve experienced in an elevator so far. Not that I’m well traveled. I’ve never been out of England. It’s frowned upon. Not environmentally friendly. I think one of the reasons they picked me for the Party was this sticking to the guidelines that I do so well. No subversion here. Well only in small ways. The elevator doors glide open and a woman’s voice tells me I’m on the thirteenth floor. I leave the small space and drag my heels all the way to Rebecca’s door. It’s ajar. As I push the door open I get a flash of something; a cracking sound in my brain. It’s gone in an instant. I close the door behind me.
“When his dad died he completely numbed out. Never cried. Not in fro-”
“Oh, hello!” Lily beams at me. Mum stares. They are sitting side by side on the cream sofa. Rebecca uncurls herself from the charity shop chair.
“Have a seat, Steve. I’ll stick the kettle on. Everyone want tea?” Mum nods. So does Lily.
“Coffee for me please, Rebecca. White. One heaped sugar. Ta.” We dance around each other as we try to get past and I plonk myself in her warm seat. I look at mum. “Numbed out did I?” She nods. “Why do you think I did that?” She shakes her head. “I did that because when I tried to talk to you about my feelings you were too busy or thought I was trying to stay up late. I learnt to numb out from you!” I smile at her as if this was her greatest lesson to me.
“What are you talking about?” She seems genuinely confused.
“I’ll give you an example. I came downstairs, after lights out, about a month after he’d died. I’d had a spot of bother at school. Normally I’d talk to Dad about it in the garage over a cuppa but not this time. I couldn’t could I? I was feeling lonely so I came downstairs and sat on the bottom step for ages. Trying to get my courage up. Then I opened the door and said, ‘I miss my Dad!’ to you. You looked like you were crying but you stopped. Your face was red. You snapped, ‘what are you doing out of bed? Get back to bed now!’ I turned and went back to bed. I resolved never to approach you again.”
“But it was the wrong time. You could have tried again!”
“The wrong time? I was a child! I was not told of wrong times and right times. All I knew was right then I was in pain and I needed someone to help me make sense of it but there was no-one! No-one helped me. I was left to deal with it by myself. Do you hear me?” I’m leaning forward in my seat and my hands are gripping the arms. She is nodding. Her face is pale. Tears streak her cheeks. “You had Ron. I had no-one.” I sit back and relax. Rebecca brings a tray of drinks and places it on the coffee table.
“That must have been so hard for you.” She touches my hand. Briefly.
“No. I just got on with it. That’s what you do isn’t it? You accept the shit and find ways of dealing with it. I numbed out as mum puts it.”
“That’s what I mean. It was so hard that the only way you could deal with it was to numb out.”
I look at her. The way she said that. Like she understands. She doesn’t look away. “And then, of course, while you were numbing out about your Dad, Ron took advantage of you. That’s really shit. I hate that that happened to you.” Her gaze remains steady. I don’t know what to say. I want to run away. I feel unworthy of this… respect.
“I met this homeless guy. He reminds me of Dad.” I turn my eyes to mum. She blinks at me. “I took him for a cuppa and a bite to eat at a caf- oh no! I didn’t pay! Oh no! He’d have to do the washing up anyway!” My eyes fill with tears. I realise they don’t know what I’m talking about. “He does it in exchange for food sometimes.” I look at each of them in turn and each of them nod at me. “He is definitely dead, mum, isn’t he? Dad?” I wish I could pause the moment before she answers me indefinitely. It would be better not to close down the possibilities by her answer.