Charmed (Part One of Two)
Audio version at: https://soundcloud.com/user-62051685/charmed-part-one
Charmed (Part One of Two)
The sun doesn’t shine in the London Underground; a bustling world of commuters packed into weather-less, subterranean tunnels transported across London like ants in a nest. I had just passed a busker in one of the many passages that weaved between the surface and the trains below. He was banging out Beatles hits on his acoustic guitar, his little fox terrier attracting donations from passers-by. I flicked a pound coin into his trilby hat lying next to him on the floor. Well he was good.
Emerging from an arched entry onto the platform, I looked up at the scrolling message board overhead. It indicated that the next ride to Euston was in fourteen minutes on its red, LED display. Fourteen minutes in which to continue my escape from purgatory. I could hear metallic rumbling, echoing off walls from a train that had just departed, its back carriage disappearing into the inky blackness of the Tube. The place smelled of axle-grease and damp from the dank warrens that lurked below London streets.
It was evening, just after 8pm. I had been working late again. The length of the day had given me a chance to think; to ponder what to do. Perhaps this was a sliding doors moment. In one reality you get on the train; in another you don’t and live in a completely different timeline.
I thought about the events that had led me to this point as I looked across the empty platform. More passengers would replace the ones just departed within minutes. None of them would be overly concerned about my dilemma. They would be either travelling home or into the City for a night out. The Capital didn’t sleep much; not many of us do.
I had met June a few months ago at a dinner party. It was one of those fashionable affairs where upwardly mobile, career-types gather around a varnished, wooden table quaffing wine and exchanging witty stories. Needless to say, the plonk was hardly the fiver a bottle variety from your local Tesco and the food was all immaculately presented. Home-made tomato soup, beef bourguignon with baked Alaska for dessert – Perfect (allowing for a lack of vegetarians present). I am a twenty-something, investment banker working in the City and a co-worker had suggested I meet a few people. Ben is a good friend. Also in his twenties, he is athletic with a slim build, one of those manly, stubbly beards a la David Beckham and an intelligence befitting his station in the financial services industry.
There was six of us there, that night; I can still see it clearly. Tamara and Gideon Wright rented a bijou flat in Reigate. They were intellectuals who liked to read the Guardian and quibble about how many different kinds of recycling bins there should be. Both worked for the borough council in the housing department. I had them down as in their thirties. Tamara had striking blonde hair, blue eyes and wore glasses. Her petite demeanour was offset by Gideon’s six foot frame. He was stocky without being intimidating. Both were dressed for the occasion with Tamara wearing a white blouse and black, pencil skirt and her partner donning a checked shirt and jeans.
The rest of the party was made up of two women – June and her sister, Amber. The hosts had gone to the trouble of using white, place name cards on the table. This struck me as old-fashioned but well intentioned. I sat next to June. I remember our first exchange vividly. I was introduced to her by Ben. As I heard her name, we both smiled. I recall being lost in her green, emerald eyes for a few seconds. She was beguiling. Black, raven hair cut in a bob that caressed her face, she had a pert nose and a full mouth with lips tastefully coated in a thin sheen of lipstick. Diamond ear rings dangled from both ear lobes. She wore a red, strapless dress with mauve shoes.
I should say that her sister was equally alluring wearing a cream top and black skirt. The family resemblance was there for all to see in each sibling’s face. As the evening wore on, I became more and more entranced by June. With each anecdote that attracted laughter from those present, in the lulls in-between I would chat more and more to the lovely June in hushed tones. A business analyst for a company based near Euston, she was twenty-eight years old and looking to leave the singles scene behind. She wanted to meet someone who wanted something more than just a good time. I listened intently, her voice melodic with its lilting Surrey enunciation. At one point I caught Ben looking over, grinning and winking at me. I rolled my eyes and continued to take in more of June’s back-story.
We had finished the evening by exchanging mobile numbers. She said that she had enjoyed my company and not to be a stranger. I wasn’t. I called her before the week was out.
Our first date was at a wine bar in Soho. “Noble Rot” in Greek Street was a Bohemian venue that gave us a platform to eat, drink and get to know each other. Rows of wooden tables with chairs on one side and plum-coloured, leather-backed benches on the other were complimented by glass-enclosed prints on the wall and electric lamps in globes perched on brass fittings. Square leaded windows flanked wooden doors that opened out onto the cobbled street. We mingled with the trendy crowd out and about in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. We talked about all the innocuous stuff couples talk about when they first meet – the weather, the journey, the day’s events. It was suitably bland to start with but subsequent glasses of wine gradually added fuel to the conversational bonfire. We strayed into more intimate areas of discussion.
We hit it off. I was invited back to her place in Rickmansworth for coffee. It turned into an all-night stopover. We did the things you see in the movies and on those tv shows. The locking of eyes then the rushing at each other to kiss, the lustful, longing looks as mutual clothes get ripped off before you both fall onto the bed and make mad, passionate love. Yes, it was like that despite the lingering cliché. Bottles of wine uncork the libido.
I looked down at the platform and wondered how often passengers strayed the wrong side of the yellow safety line. I could see a map of the Tube line on the white, tiled walls on the other side of the rail tracks. The overhead sign had counted down to eight minutes. I stared at a London Underground logo a few feet adjacent to the map and then at the crowd that had assembled over the last few minutes. A middle-aged woman carrying shopping bags had two, small boys hovering about her. A man in a trench coat holding an attaché case adjusted his glasses sliding down his nose. A group of half a dozen teenage lads slapped each other’s backs before firing off the next, humorous aside. They were wearing casual jackets, shirts and slacks. Bars and clubs beckoned. A petri dish of life incubating below grey pavements.
I had bought a one-way train ticket to Birmingham online earlier. My plan was to make it to my mom’s house in Great Barr and hole up for a while. My mother knew I was coming. The packed suitcase that was with me would give the game away of staying for a few days. She wouldn’t mind; I would explain.
Those first few months with June had been a blur. We would meet for lunch, meet for dinner, meet for meeting’s sake. I came to love her intensity. She had seemed so gentle at first. As I got to know her better, it became clear that she was a force of nature. It was on a rainy night in September that she first surprised me. Sitting on a settee at her apartment, she turned and stared at me gravely. I wondered what I had done wrong. That was when she smiled and asked me to move in. My initial reaction was one of shock. I knew things had been going well but I didn’t realise things were quite that good. Before I could answer, she took my left hand, raised it gently into the air and placed a gold ring on my third finger. It had a cupped, ruby gemstone. She said that it was an eternity ring and it would be bad luck to ever take it off. I glanced back at her and said I needed to give it some thought.
A few days later I had moved in. It ticked a lot of boxes and the journey into work was as easily commutable from her place as it was from mine in Shoreditch. Everything seemed idyllic for a while until I returned late one night in October. I had been working particularly late. Quarter end targets and all that. I recall jiggling my keys in the lock and opening the front door. I assumed June would be in bed as it was getting on for midnight. I decided to grope my way along the hallway passage in the dark and eventually find the bedroom via the kitchen. I didn’t want to wake her. The lounge was along past two bedrooms. Entering the living room at the end of the hall, I could make out two candles alight on either side of the hearth in the fireplace. They had burned down low. In the gloom I could see a shape in the middle of the room. There was the sound of quiet chanting. I thought about reaching for the light switch. Before I could follow through on that impulse, I suddenly heard the flapping of wings. Startled, I turned the light on. There was June sitting like some kind of Buddha, legs crossed, back straight, eyes closed on the rug in front of the settee. Between the candles was a silver chalice, an ornate dagger and what looked like a wand. My eyes fanned the room looking for a bird.
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