A couple of seconds after that bloody Miles Davis track has ground to its dark, insistent halt, he finds himself back outside The Hole In The Wall. A cold, thin afternoon, wrapped in mist and that obtuse, clouded quality of just waiting: he knows straight away that, once again, he’s in the years before the Imagists, before they’d changed everything, before they’d grabbed the urgency and the factories and the inventions and the possibilities and twisted them from Victorian dream and grandeur into what Kurt calls, coldly, Perfection - their shared, spiteful prison-world of technology and blood and delusion.
As he shuffles across the road and up the steps into the station, he knows he’s still carrying the old bitterness and hurt - and this time she almost certainly won’t be here. Even if she is here, she’ll have taken a subtly different route through life up to this point, maybe turned round that October morning and checked the oven was off one more time, bumped into someone different in the cafe, stopped to tie a shoelace, decided not to go into work because she had a cold or a hangover. As a result, he and she won’t have met yet and she’ll be married with kids and living in bloody Camden or somewhere, or have become a model, an actress, a dancer, a singer, an art historian, a writer, a gondolier - the things she always wanted to be and to do, the things that didn’t involve him, didn’t need him. And, of course, even if she is here and he finds her, eventually, in this paralysed city, she won’t recognise him anyway and he’ll have to do what he always does and decide whether to exhaust himself in the chase, exalt in the capture, luxuriate in the connection, die slowly in the loss. One more time.
Fuck. The faces here under the clock - across the whole concourse - are all white: some Jewish maybe, some Mediterranean, but none black, none Asian. He always finds it creepy, this monochrome, anaemic sea of dead faces and - no matter how often he comes to this time - he knows he’ll never get used to its crushed, spiritless monotony, its shadowy sense of dread. He catches himself whistling - the Kinks song - and, smiling for the first time, he shifts over to the bench he always sits on when he comes here.
He stays completely still for a moment, then closes his eyes, finds himself gradually calming, slowing down, thoughts disappearing, the old rage and fears easing. The chatter of the grey hordes drifts over him, anaesthetising him, cloaking him in its inconsequential buzz. As good as it gets . . . The sudden, piercing shriek of a child forces his eyes open again and he sees her - fucking hell! - walking towards him, that same, upright grace, soft red hair, pale skin, the same lost, searching stare, the same fated, expectant half-smile. His heart’s thumping, his mouth dry. She sits down next to him, passes him a small glass bottle. He takes it, has a swig. Sharp, strong, warming. And familiar.
He’d been wrong: she knows him. Jesus. He watches himself put his arm round her shoulders then, pulling her into him, holding her tight, feeling suddenly closer to her, more lost in her, than he’s felt for centuries. Her scent is the same, the touch of her cheek on his as beautiful and heartbreaking as ever. Hook, line and sinker. Hook, line and fucking sinker. He turns to her:
‘You ever feel really, really frightened? Really - I mean - terrified?’
‘No. Well, maybe, sometimes. But it doesn’t help, doesn’t change things.’
‘I was frightened that night. Last time.’
He sees her close her eyes, feels his breath catch. She opens them again, turning towards him.
‘So was I.’ And then, suddenly, she starts talking, an insistent almost-whisper:
‘I was on holiday, once, with Mum and Dad. I was about ten. Clacton. You know, chips and candy-floss and ice-creams and Brummies on the beach and sand in your sandwiches, all that. It was great, I was happy. French cricket with Dad and volleyball . . .’
Christ. How had he lived without her? How could he ever leave here?
‘. . . I wanted to go into the water on my own, and Mum said I could, as long as I stayed right in line with the ice-cream place just behind where we were sitting- then I wouldn’t get lost. I tip-toed out into the sea, it was packed. A dog bounced past, a couple of older kids, splashing and screaming. I remember thinking, if I keep walking, I could get to America . . .’
‘They didn’t do geography at your school?’ Shut up, you idiot.
‘ . . . and I kept walking, and the water was slipping higher and higher up me, I turned round, I couldn’t see Mum and Dad or the ice-cream place, but I didn’t really mind. I was worried about jellyfish, though, and kept thinking I’d step on one. But the water was great, it felt like it was hugging me, holding me, like . . . I . . .’ She does the stare then, the piercing, pleading, ancient, childlike look into his soul that’s always made him want to cry and says, with a thin smile, squeezing his hand, ‘You still awake?’
He smiles, squeezes her hand, says to her, ‘What happened?’
‘The water’s up to my neck now; I get a sudden splat of it in my mouth, and I cough. Yeah, I remember coughing . . . It feels like I’m all on my own in the sea, now, there’s other people’s voices but they’re miles away. I want my head in the water, too, so I bend my knees, close my mouth and duck under. There’s a rushing, whirring noise, and a horrible pressing in my ears and in my nose. I jerk myself up, my eyes feel stingy and blurry. I can feel myself wobbling, my feet aren’t touching the sand anymore. I’m suddenly a bit scared now, well, really scared, and I can feel my heart beating like it did when I’d got to say something in class or something. It’s starting to feel horrible, I’m not standing or sitting, not facing forward or backward, I can’t make my body do what I want it to, the sea’s taken over, it’s moving my limbs for me; I can’t see anything, there’s cold, slimy water everywhere, in my mouth, there’s a funny feeling against my leg, like it feels when you’re walking along and you’re wearing a dress and the material’s rough on your leg, oh God, it’s a jellyfish! My ears are hurting, my head goes right under the water again, there’s snot coming out of my nose, and I can hear a funny noise like a whining sort of screaming; it’s wet, it’s wet, it’s blue and green and rushing and loud and I can’t breathe and I can hear that screaming and it’s my screaming, I’m going to drown and I’ll never see Mum and Dad again. And then there’s something touching the top of my arm and a boy’s voice, and a hand is pulling me, two hands, roughly, the boy’s fighting against the water and me to pull me back. I can feel my heels drag against the rough sand, the boy - it’s Kurt, I know now - is saying - yelling – ‘you’ll be alright, you’ll be alright’. I cough and cough, I wipe the snot with the back of my hand, I know I’m going to die and then I’m on the beach again, half-sitting, half-lying; Kurt’s disappeared, there’s suddenly loads of people around, talking and talking and patting me and touching me but none of them are Mum or Dad . . .’
She looks at him - through him: she’s back there now, he can tell, in one of her childhoods, lost, small, aching for touch and comfort. He holds her and holds her and he can feel her sobbing, feel her raw, bleeding pain, she’s shaking, her hair’s touching his cheek, the noise of the station is outside them, the world’s outside them, further and further away, he can hear his own breathing, smell her perfume, the wet kiss of a tear on his face, it’s just them, it’s all it needs to be and then, suddenly, he hears Kurt’s voice and he jerks himself away from her. Heart pounding, he takes a deep breath and waits for Time to change things - and take her away again.