A chapter excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Chris Middleton.
(Literary fiction, a story told in real time. Ageing reference book publisher Fin has lost his job and is returning home on a slow commuter train, haunted by visions and unaware that the stories he spins in his mind about his fellow passengers will end in violent confrontation and the revelation of a terrible secret.)
Tortoise-shell spectacles. Grey eyes pinned in a folded face.
Fin caught his reflection in the train window. It was a ritual of his on this journey: to stare through his own weak face and see the muscular landscape outside Bath relax into the fields of Wiltshire, Hampshire, and then Sussex. He saw the long roof of a narrowboat on the ridge of a hill. Fin closed his laptop and pushed it aside to gaze out endlessly at the hunched copses and the rise and fall of power lines.
The carriage was nearly full: just two empty seats at his table. A young man and woman had been whispering by the luggage rack and now made their way towards him, lugging their rucksacks in front of them. Students, thought Fin, second- or third-years at a solid, second-rate university.
They both had brown hair: his rough and sculpted into crests and spikes, hers smooth and gathered in bunches. The girl sat next to Fin without a glance, the boy wrestled their bags under the table and sat opposite. Neither spoke. Fin knew he was invisible to the young and let his eyes wander over their faces. She is bright and fragile, he thought, a Humanities student who drinks tea from a broken mug. Her name is Polly, Bebe, or Suze (Clare is too plain for her). He is thick-set and slow – and studying medicine, of course. His name is Adam, Dan, or Joe. She is much brighter than him, but has not yet been disappointed. For now, they adore each other. They met in their first year and become inseparable – like siblings, thought Fin. She reading Wilde at 3am, him poring over histopathology texts in her room.
The girl wore an oversized, coarse-knit jumper – the boy’s, perhaps. They have won each other, then, thought Fin. This boy whose leonine face looks at her without flinching. She imagines that anything would be safe in his hands: a bird, a horse’s mouth, her heart. Fin smiled to himself.
They will travel to Thailand, Mexico, and Cuba, he thought. They will hawk skunk on a Goan beach and share such a kiss in Bangkok one night that it will seem they have sacrificed everything. In five years they will marry at a humanist ceremony and rave in a meadow til dawn, falling into each other’s laughter and lightstick-locked fingers, caned on the vicious amphetamine beat in their stomachs. A friend named Tull or Wizz will sneak a cube of Red Leb into the boy’s pocket and, that night, they will fuck a bright baby into the world, beatific. They will lie in the teasing grass and think how beautiful it has been.
But they are good people, thought Fin, not like the others in the banks and City corporations. He will qualify as a GP, but still DJ for his mates. One day, she will leave her PR agency in Fulham to start their family. A year later she will push a pram up a long, steep hill while he downs another pint with his mates. They will live in Brighton in a one-bedroom flat with white walls, seagrass carpets, a friend’s abstract painting, a wire-haired terrier, and a roof terrace beneath a clamour of gulls. There will be nothing, then, to catch their laughter, save the sky and their neighbours’ brooding resentment.
Fin rested his left hand on the laptop. He looked out of the window again and saw a farmhouse made of beige stone, a woman waving, and a boy running down the hill towards her with open arms.
© Chris Middleton 2014. All rights reserved.