So here begins a brand new, two part story in which the intricacies of female friendship are explored…
It would take eight minutes, I figured, to walk to the bank and return. I could be back in time for Cindy’s visit; even a short diversion to the shop for milk and a packet of biscuits wouldn’t add much more.
Grabbing my purse and keys I stepped out into the overcast street and set off, brisk, mindful of the time.
I walked fast, overtaking the stymied snake of traffic that choked the High Street most days and reaching the underpass just as the first, fat drops of rain began to spot the pavement. I descended the slope, feeling the usual frisson of tension at the mouth of the subway, an apprehension I fought each time I crossed under the busy road despite there being a steady flow of pedestrians in both directions.
As I entered a thunderous deluge fell outside, a roar magnified by the dark echo inside the rounded tunnel and glancing behind me I glimpsed the flicker the lightning made while a rivulet formed to pool at the base of the slope. I had a fleeting vision of how my hair was going to look after it had been plastered to my scalp and my heart sank at what Cindy would say, given that she is inclined to criticise my hair care and indeed, all aspects of my appearance. Still, I pressed on.
He was there, towards the end of the subway, about two thirds along, propped up and swaddled in a bulky sleeping bag. The homeless man; head slumped. There was no one else, no other pedestrians in the tunnel. They must all be sheltering in shops and doorways. I dropped my chin and walked, tormented by the usual questions. Should I look? Should I speak? Should I donate? Most days I’d stare straight ahead, fumble in my bag or look away at others but today there was no one, no solidarity in ignorance.
I was almost level now. With nobody else to pass the buck to I paused to glance sideways, just a quick shifty to make sure he was alive. I wouldn’t want to pass by a corpse, or almost a corpse. That would make me heedless, callous. On the other hand, I didn’t have long. Cindy would be round soon, wanting her coffee. We needed to get together to plan our holiday which would require booking soon before the prices went up.
His head hung over his chest but I could see enough face to note that the skin had an unhealthy, greyish pallor and a thin string of saliva hung from the corner of his mouth, dribbling on to a dark, spreading patch on the blue nylon of the sleeping bag. I stepped nearer and caught the dry, musty smell of him in the damp air of the tunnel.
Normally he’s sitting in the bag, surrounded by empty styro-foam cups and dog-ends, gazing at passers-by and wishing them the time of day in the interests of his income. Normally he follows my progress through the tunnel with patient optimism and a murmured ‘Morning’. Normally his head is tilted upwards to engage pedestrians, eye-to-eye. It’s harder to ignore someone when they’re looking into your eyes.
I looked both ways again in vain hopes of a passing Samaritan, only to see the stair-rod rain step up a level, a thunderous, roaring wall of rain. I bent slightly towards the inert body and cleared my throat. “Are you ok?” I croaked, unheard above the crashing rain. In a moment I realised that I would have to be the Samaritan and in a simultaneous recognition understood that I was ill-equipped for the task, having no medical experience or expertise and being an impractical nincompoop. I experienced a hot flush as I remembered Cindy’s biscuits. There was nothing I could do about them now. I extended a tentative finger towards his forehead, which felt cold and clammy, like a newly caught mackerel from the fish counter. His eyelids were translucent and papery, trembling with each quick, shallow breath. When his lips parted to mumble an incoherent utterance, I jumped back as if stung.
It had taken me a long time to get friendly with Cindy. I’d been a member of the singles club for more than five years when she joined. I was never after romance after Brian went, more that I needed to make new friends but I’d tended to be on the fringe of the group. I don’t have the gift of the gab-not like Brian had and like Cindy. As soon as she joined, she was the centre of the crowd like a bullseye in a darts board with everyone radiating around her. Then one club night they’d organised a board games session and I was sitting it out because Monopoly isn’t my thing and she came and sat with me, said she wasn’t keen either. We talked about what we did like and it turned out we both love holidays and sunny destinations but find it hard to travel alone. We’ve been away a few times since then. Cindy’s the gregarious type, starting up conversations with strangers, chatting up waiters. But she’s an air-head. She can’t get organised and she’s hopeless with money. I used to work in management so I’m used to dealing with money, timetables and plans, so I suppose we’re the perfect travel companions. I don’t mind that she’s so glamorous and a man magnet because I’d be hopeless on my own. But I often worry that she’ll meet someone, remarry and I’ll be back to how I was, back to being lonely.
I took off my coat and draped it over the man the best I could, thinking perhaps he was cold. I don’t know a lot about first aid but it’s what people do in accidents, isn’t it? For shock or heart attack? Now I’d have to get to someone with a phone. I’d have to go out into the storm without a coat, find a stranger and accost them. Cindy would have no trouble with this but Cindy is not a mouse.
I took the town side steps, reasoning it was more likely there’d be passers-by that side. I was soaked in seconds and once I gained the top, I scanned the precinct for someone. An individual rushed by, head down, ignoring my approach. Spotting a couple sheltering in the jeweller’s doorway I ran to them, gasping. They shook their heads, assuming, I imagine, that I was asking for money. I suppose by now I had the look of a vagrant myself with hair plastered to my face and clothes sticking to my skin. Desperate, I pushed open the door to the coffee shop next door and stood, dripping on the doormat.
The entire clientele and all of the counter staff froze in a collective stare, which was mortifying in itself. I must have looked wild, as if I was about to draw a gun and shoot the lot of them where they sat hobnobbing over their cappuccinos and lattes and toasted tea cakes, but I took a deep breath and blurted, ‘Can someone ring for an ambulance? There’s a sick guy down in the subway!’ There was a short pause then a lone figure rose from the corner.
‘Show me’ was all she said. I led her to the steps and stood aside while she galloped down and was swallowed up by the tunnel. I began to follow, as did a number of café patrons, intrigued by the prospect of some pavement entertainment on a rainy afternoon. The café woman was kneeling over the recumbent man talking to him but with no response. She shouted. ‘Ring an ambulance. Do it now!’
Episode 2 of The Subway can be read in next week’s post. Thanks for visiting!
Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/
This is interesting, a story that asks a lot of questions about situations and friendships that most of us are familiar and uncomfortable with.