Even now, she couldn’t help looking at her watch to see how long she had left. It was
something like the ghost of a feeling, the excitement that used to get her through the
trudging and the tiredness, the gradual erosion of her patience by the queues and the
crowds. It was time to go to the café where they always met, to put down the bags that
were biting into their fingers, to rest their legs and recharge.
This year he would not be there. She stood on a corner and tried to understand this,
looking out on the slow-moving shoppers, the coloured lights from the Christmas displays
casting patterns across their bobbing heads. It was strange, the world that he had left
behind. When something tragic happens in your life, suddenly everything else seems
surreal. The ridiculous things that people do with their time, like Christmas shopping, here
on Oxford Street, in late December. The strange things that people do to earn their money,
like their son Jerome, persuading people to change from one mobile phone company to
Standing there on the slush-covered pavement, outside a temporary shop selling
perfume and underwear, tears began to swell behind her glasses. To fight them back she
decided to go to their café anyway. She could still get some enjoyment out of it, surely?
Falling back into a big chair and taking the weight off her feet. Choosing a cake with which
to complement her first slurp of coffee.
After much too long in the queue, she paid for her gigantic latte, and took her place at a
table that was crammed with cups and plates. She poised her bags, full of carefully
considered presents, between her feet to protect them from thieves. Warming her hands on
the mug, she thought of all the potential presents she had seen, decided who would like
what, and tried to plan a route to pick up the winning gifts.
This had been one of the few areas in their marriage in which she had been equal to
Leon, in which she had occasionally been able to impress him. A few years ago, when
Jerome had been around thirteen, she had bought him a Playboy calendar and, from a
different shop – she had been sure to keep the presents in their separate bags – some
matching Playboy tissues. When she’d shown Leon this, he had tossed back his head and
laughed, that deep, warm laugh that was free of pretension, and people at the surrounding
tables had turned their heads.
Now she was alone. She stared out of the window at the dark mass of bodies, shuffling
along under the street lights. This was very near where it had happened. The CCTV had
captured five of them even though only had been charged; the two who came back. The
magistrate asked if she would like to see the footage herself. At first, she refused, with
what she felt must have looked like a television widow’s grief. You were never prepared and
it never seemed real.
Leon had been driving at a snail’s pace round the car park under Park Lane, looking in
vain for a space, when another car turned on its engine and backed out suddenly, straight
into the side of his. She only imagined the crumpling sound of the metal, the tinkle of their
brake lights hitting the pavement. As usual, Leon lost his temper, but his gesticulating must
have stopped when the car doors opened in unison, and five young black men got out. He
was black too, of course, one of the few with a real reputation in Comparative Literature.
Sometimes, guiltily, she thought his career trajectory might have been boosted by his charm
and undeniable good looks. It was this winning combination that massaged away her
mother´s stiffness the first time Leon met her parents; by no means the first black man to
cross their threshold, but definitely the first to eat at their table. Perhaps it was this same
strength of personality that aggravated the young men in the car park even more.
They shouted at him, forming two finger guns and pretending to shoot. On the CCTV it
looked both child-like and terrifying. Right then, although it was a strange thing to think, he
must have rejoiced in the long line of cars, creeping inch by inch along the concrete. She
often tried to imagine how he had experienced that night’s chain of events, through a wash
of adrenaline, relieved to feel the animal warmth of the people in their slow-moving packs. It
must have taken a long time for him to calm down, maybe an hour or so of shopping, until
the difficult process of selecting gifts became meditative.
She assumed that by the time he finished and returned to the car park, he’d succumbed
to temptation, and started to do what he had enjoyed doing most: turning the experience
into a set of ideas, an intellectual exercise. The mob mentality that can be provoked by
enforced proximity. The paradox of crowds, how badly people behaved in them, restriction
giving rise to freedom. Maybe it had been this, his absorbing train of thought, that
prevented him from noticing that they were still there. In the long corridor that connected
the car park’s entrance to the bay where his VW Golf was parked, two of them waited to
settle the score.
“Mind if I sit here?”
The voice snapped her back into the present, in which ‘Christmas Goes Jazz’ was playing
a little too loud, and people were lurking at the edges of the seating area, to swoop upon
when a table became free. She felt a familiar, embarrassed smile appear on her face, and
nodded. The stranger, a boy around seventeen, thanked her and sat down, sliding a single
carrier bag onto a small space at the corner of the table. He had spiky hair in which a bluish
dye had nearly washed out and ear-rings that were actually inside his ears. In spite of this,
she thought him good looking for his awkward age, around the same age as Jerome. Like
her son, this boy’s features were in a fascinating state of suspension that presaged
imperceptible change. She realised now that she found this beautiful, this age at which
time’s work on the face was still welcome.
She wondered what the boy thought when he looked back at her. He would see the
brown eyes, almost black. Short dyed hair, a small mouth with thin lips behind which were
what Leon used to call her ‘tiny teeth.’ And of course the glasses, which had spread like
contagion amongst all of their friends, when their forties had turned into fifties.
After they took Leon, she’d quickly became re-acquainted. She knew it much better now
than she had even in adolescence. In the first month alone, she spent hours studying it in
the mirror, staring at herself until Jerome told her to stop. She knew now that when other
people look at your face, they transform it, for themselves and for you. And when Leon’s
gaze was gone, her idea of herself disappeared as well. Instantly.
“I’ve been at it for nearly two hours now,” the boy announced, animated, sitting forward
in his chair, “and guess what? I’ve bought one book. That’s it.”
She wanted to take interest, to ask which book he bought and who it was for, but her
thoughts were still with Leon. She didn’t trust her voice not to waver and crack. She didn’t
want to embarrass the boy with her thoughts. Regular visits from Jerome’s mute friends had
taught her that, amongst adolescents, friendly people were few and far between. She just
gestured towards the boy’s Waterstones bag with her chin and gave him an enquiring look,
as if about to speak. He seized the opportunity as her thoughts returned to the car park,
almost a year before.
Shane was the name of the one the court had watched on the CCTV recording, tapping
Leon on the shoulder. Before Leon had a chance to turn round – they had been too
cowardly to let him do that – the young man had pulled a pistol from his jacket or the
waistband of his jeans and shot Leon in the head. On the footage it was hard to tell what
had happened. The tension left his body all at once and it folded onto the ground. Shane
and his accomplice stood over him for a second and then run, their movements jumpy and
full of excitement. When she saw this, it made her think of her own youth, ringing
someone’s doorbell and then running as fast as they could, amazed at their own
naughtiness. She tried to concentrate on that, or on the presents he bought that day,
returned to her by the police, or on anything else that would take her mind off the central
fact of what happened. A shooting from another world, and its occurrence in their lives was
unreal. She would never understand it, she thought, and looked up from her cooling coffee
at the strange boy, who was reaching down into his bag.
Noticing that he had lost her attention, he was waving the silver paperback under her
nose, turned so that the title was facing her. He was eager for approval, like they all were
really, but as soon as she realised which book he had chosen, she turned pale. He was
thrown by her startled reaction but attempted in heroic fashion to maintain a good-
“The Metamorphosis. I mean, there’s other stories in there, but that’s the one I bought
She wanted to say that she knew the story, that Leon had spoken to her about it many
times. But she couldn’t speak. Here she was, in conversation with a young man with blue
hair who was young enough to be her son.
While at home, and she hated herself for even thinking of the expression, Leon was
being baby-sat by Jerome.
Under normal circumstances, the few daylight hours that Jerome saw were usually taken
up practising DJ-ing. So when he rose mid-morning and mumbled to her –
over his shoulder while he was switching the kettle on to make tea – that he would be
happy to look after Dad until college started again, she was so proud of him that she
feared she might choke. A brief squeeze, standing behind him so they would not have to
look into each others’ eyes, had been the only way to communicate her feelings.
“Have you read it?” asked the boy. “Well, it’s about this guy, Gregor. He’s just a normal
guy, he works in an office or whatever, he lives with his family… But then, one day, he
wakes up…” Here he smiled, as if about to give away a premium piece of teenage gossip.
“And he’s been turned into a giant beetle! And no-one gives a …I mean, no one cares.
So he just has to get on with all the normal stuff, except that he’s this huge insect, and so
everyone’s shocked and no-one really knows what to do.” He paused, studying her, this
implacable woman who seemed so hard to impress. He sat up and decided to change tack.
“Of course, it’s like a critique of society as well,” he said offhandedly, “of how we deal
with outsiders and, well, not losers but you know, unfortunate people.”
“Yes,” she finally managed to say, and smiled at him. She remembered the title of
Leon’s ground-breaking study, the work that had made his career, which she’d been fishing
for since he first handed her the book. She turned The Metamorphosis over, studied the
blurb, then handed it back to him, glancing under the table to check that her bags were still
there, between her feet.
“I … I think you’re right,” she added, gaining composure, “I think that’s exactly what he
was trying to do.” For the latest in an endless series of occasions, she felt something like a
ghost stirring, the old Leon, not the slow-moving man who had been discharged from the
hospital and into her care. The boy’s interpretation was a world away from his own
argument in Surrealism and Semantics: There Can Be No Escape. She knew this not because
she read it – Leon assumed she never would – but because he had on several occasions,
with a theatrical patience he seemed to enjoy – explained his theory to her ‘in a nutshell’,
using The Metamorphosis as an example.
“On one level,” she could hear him saying, perched in an informal and accessible manner
on the arm of the sofa, his legs crossed and a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. “you have
the aesthetics of it. What commands your attention? This gigantic insect!” The more
repulsion her face betrayed, the more he relished his description. “The gleaming back, the
bloodless legs, working in a frenzy as it tries to get back on its feet. And that,” here came a
miniature crescendo, “is an undeniable part of the story, and of life. The awe you feel at the
strangeness and the beauty of it all.”
Only now did she realise that she never knew if his idea of ‘strangeness and beauty’
included her. From their first meeting, at a party thrown by the department for a visiting
lecturer, all the way through her rapid promotion – from department administrator, to lover,
to wife – she never dared to ask if he was actually in love with her, or whether he thought
her to be beautiful. She was from such a different background, where everybody looked the
same and nobody went to university. When she thought about it now she could see that it
seemed pathetic, but she always suspected that he saw things on a whole other level, and
that she had simply not understood.
“But of course,” he would continue, “there is another level to surreal works like Kafka’s
story, which is the need for analysis. The desperation to understand. And the real benefit of
these stories is that they show that, to interpret what happens in our lives, we can’t avoid
either of these systems. The surreal and the semantic. Both are perfectly useless on their
own, but together, infinitely superior.”
Only now, in the café, with the boy making as if to go, did she wonder whether the
terms ‘perfectly useless’ and ‘infinitely superior’ had been relevant to their relationship. Even
though she’d been good at booking his meetings and tutorials, organising conferences and
parties for visitors, she sometimes worried that he really saw her as perfectly useless, and
himself as infinitely superior.
Pointedly, the boy zipped his coat up under his chin. She must have been terrible
company, she realised, her silence stifling his admirable enthusiasm. His She movements
had a sudden purpose to them. He’d decided that this experience was over, maybe he
already saw it as an anecdote, talking to a mad woman in a café, and was preparing it for
repetition to his parents or friends.
“Who’s it for?” she asked, aware that she would never know unless she said something
“Oh, it’s for Katie,” he replied. “my sister. She’s just getting to that age, you know, when
you start to love things that you don’t understand.” She smiled at him, gathering her things
to spare him the guilt of leaving her on her own, and it struck her that there was no end to
the age he had just described. She had certainly never understood the few things she
loved, any more now than when she had been a teenager.
They walked together to the entrance and he held the door for her. Outside, they
shared an awkward goodbye; he walked backwards and waved, then spun suddenly
around and disappeared into the crowd. She was disappointed he had gone. He would
break a few hearts in his time by doing exactly that, turning his back on someone and
joining the ranks of the oblivious.
She knew immediately that shopping was over, that all ambition to find perfect presents
had gone, and that she needed right now to be at home with Leon. Gathering up her bags,
she made her way to the edge of the pavement and, seeing that a cab was about to pass,
raised her arm to hail it. As she leaned down to the passenger window to tell the driver
where she was going, she heard somebody shout a little further up the street. She turned
see a woman around her age, gesturing at her, then punctuating the end of her tirade by
flicking her cigarette at the ground, where it bounced in a shower of sparks. She stepped
into the darkness of the taxi, slammed the door, and breathed a sigh of relief when the
locks clunked shut.
The car crawled along Oxford Street, and the shoppers surged around her. It surprised
her how much she wanted to see Leon, and she felt guilty and elated at the thought. It had
never been like this before. She had been proud of her handsome husband, proud of their
three-storey home, but it had been the idea of her life, the theory, that she had enjoyed.
There had been none of the ease, the everyday affection, that she saw signs of in other
peoples’ marriages. She certainly would not have dared to use the word ‘love’. It was an
item of her vocabulary that had taken refuge twenty years ago, especially from Leon, who
saw it only as an idea, a strange new thing that people hoped would suddenly appear in
Steadily, though, in the course of the last year, she had noticed something happening.
Sometimes, when she had shown him – as if for the first time – how to chop vegetables,
and they were quietly preparing a meal behind the steamed-up windows of the kitchen. Or
sometimes when she was taking him on a long, slow walk around the park, and he stopped
to pick up conkers, marvelling at their wooden sheen and the mystery of their concealment
in spiked green globes. At times like these, she would realise how often they were together
now, more in the last year than in the previous ten, and how much pleasure they obviously
took in the simple fact of each others’ company.
After six months, his hair had grown back over the wide, black-red scar that ran across
the back of his head. But even now, she would sneak up behind him when he was sitting
down, trying to decipher a magazine or a newspaper, following the print with his finger, and
she would stroke his hair to reveal the traces of the scar underneath. And sometimes, when
she did this, he would turn around and look up at her.
He was handsome still, although his expression had changed, the devilish charm that
used to animate his face had disappeared. His previously pursed lips were now fuller, more
relaxed, and softer when she kissed them. His eyes did not dart around to follow the ideas
in his mind, but were still, two peaceful green pools that she could stare into. And his
expression, when he did this, was what she thought of now, as the lights changed at
Marble Arch and the taxi gathered speed along the side of the park. That look contained
elements of both fear and fascination. When he looked at her like that, she felt love surge
through her, and she dared to think that perhaps it was love that shone back at her from
his face, the face that was waiting right now behind the glowing windows of their home.
Of course, sometimes he had bad days too. Days when he couldn’t understand what
Jerome was trying to explain about finding things on the computer, or when she would let
him lead her to the park and he would stop, suddenly terrified, with no idea where they
After days like that, she would often wake up in the middle of the night, and find that
Leon was holding her, his arms tight around her body. She would shift to show him that she
was awake, and he would bury his head in the hollow of her neck, his beard prickling the
soft skin. She would hold him like that for an hour or even two while he gradually relaxed.
And although she would never really understand how he felt when this happened, she
thought that these moments were the most perfect. Snug to his warm body underneath the
duvet, she would look at the bedroom’s soft silhouettes in the blue light of the coming day,
and listen to his breathing as it slowed down, became calm.
“Just here please,” she said, as the taxi drew up opposite her house. She handed the
driver a twenty pound note and told him to keep the change. Naturally, Leon had been
insured, and last month the claim had finally been settled, relieving her from the need to
work, for the immediate future at least.
“Merry Christmas then, love,” said the driver as she gathered her bags.
She made her way up the miniature path, and had been about to set her shopping
down and fumble for her keys, when the door opened. Rather than coming out to help her,
or standing aside to let her in, Leon remained perfectly still in the doorway, staring at her.
She did not move, but stood there in the pool of light, looking back at him.
Author Unknown. If you are the author of this piece or know who is, please let us know at r.kv.r.y.editor(at)gmail(dot)com. We lost records when the old website imploded, and would like to fully credit all authors who have generously shared their work with us. Thank you.