The Fenchurch Reckonings

This story was awarded first prize in the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition and appeared in the first edition of the British Fantasy Society’s new journal BFS Horizons.

The Fenchurch Reckonings

I

Two minutes late, the buffers of the 06.54 from Fenchurch Street made dull contact with the end terminal at Tilbury Riverside. Sarah listened as the long worm of carriages jolted together in a commotion of metal on metal. She drew her briefcase to her chest as doors swung open, arced and banged against their parent carriages, watched the unstoppable flood of souls pour out onto the platform, making their way towards their offices, shops, yards, beds, destinies. The platform cleared. She flicked back her lank, brown hair and hurried towards the coach of separate compartments, towards the third compartment from the end, next to the Ladies Only sanctum with its elderly secretaries and linen buyers. Sarah was not a secretary or a linen buyer and, besides, if she got in there she would not be with him: third from the end was the compartment he always chose, not here at this stinking apology for a township, but further up the line. She stepped inside and arranged herself next to the woman with leopard skin boots. A familiar, green-uniformed girl slunk in and sagged next to the window on the far side. An unsightly tear in her tights had been daubed with a clot of red nail varnish. Again metal screeched against metal as a return locomotive was attached; the guard’s whistle confirmed their confinement and the heavy wheels beneath them started to turn. Sarah took out Northanger Abbey and festered about her report.

Sarah was a programmer. Her mother had encouraged this choice of career. A girl like her, she had said, with such unfortunate looks, would never find a man, so she should turn her eye to her unsupported future and seek a profession that took advantage of her skills. Computers were the future. This week Sarah had been constructing a pensions algorithm; Arthur Goodman, her fat-toad Supervisor, had grunted disapproval throughout. Yesterday she had handed him a blue folder containing her algorithm report. Later, when she ventured to his office to discuss file security, she had found him absent. She recognized her blue folder open on his desk, glanced behind her then wandered over to investigate. He might have written comments; the pages were slightly askew. She leant forward to straighten them and froze: the title page of her report now declared Arthur Goodman’s sole authorship. Again, Sarah glanced around then backed out of the door and returned to her punch cards. The situation was hopeless: she was a young, unattractive woman in a man’s world. Hopeless.

Outside, grey mist hovered above estuarine wasteland as the third-from-the-end compartment rattled towards Tilbury Town. As the derelict barn sailed past, Sarah leaned towards the empty window seat and watched him come into view. She turned away as he stepped into the carriage, waved to his wife and two little daughters and disappeared behind his newspaper. Once, last July, Sarah had sneezed and he had glanced up at her. Last Friday Northanger Abbey fell to the floor and he had picked it up and dusted it before handing it back. He had smiled as he handed it over. Apart from this, the share-a-train rule of no-eye contact had remained inviolate.

The train rumbled on through flat, brackish marsh, past dirty backyards and into the wet, grey concrete of Grays station. A youth in plimsolls, a lack-lustre Mary Quant doppelganger and a middle-aged whippet in a grey suit found their seats. Sarah shifted as an unknown fat woman hauled her load up the too-high step and sat opposite. Next to him. Forcing him to close his newspaper prematurely. Sarah never sat next to him. She always sat facing forward so she could catch that earliest glimpse; he always sat with his back to his destination, so he could watch his family disappear. She wondered if he sat on that same side on the homeward journey. He had never been on any train that she had taken from Fenchurch Street, and she had made a point of leaving the office at different times. Toad-man always checked his watch as she left.

Obedient to its timetable, the train trundled on past the giant Ford conurbation and stopped just outside Dagenham Dock. There it waited until the all-seeing eye indicated that it might cross the gates into what was quite possibly the filthiest station on earth. The fat woman pulled down the window, opened the door from the outside and puffed herself onto the platform; the schoolgirl jumped out behind her and pushed past her to the exit. Foul air rushed in to take their place. Sarah inhaled the mix of soot, oil and wet bubble-and-squeak that filled the carriage. One day she would investigate that smell. The people outside began to move faster. Sarah watched his newspaper reopen and thought about her stolen algorithm.

Barking was approaching. Barking: the portal to East London or the gateway to Essex, depending upon which way the serpent faces. The train groaned to a standstill and most of the occupants of the third-from-the-end compartment stepped out onto the platform. The heavy door clanged shut behind the grey whippet and suddenly Sarah was alone with him. She felt her pulse race, could hear herself swallow and swallow again. Then, as the guard’s whistle blew, the door of Sarah’s boudoir was flung open and a fat briefcase in a fat hand announced an intruder. Sarah gaped as Arthur Goodman grumbled his way into the nearest seat and leaned breathless against the window. He wiped his forehead, glanced across the compartment and saw Sarah watching him. He bumbled an explanation: ‘Not usually this late! Damn terrible night!’

What did that disgusting man mean? Had he been up all night reading dirty magazines, drinking brown ale, fornicating with women of ill-repute? Sarah nodded and returned to Jane Austen, the carriage jolted forward then paused, suspended between stops. Sarah’s peripheral vision alerted her to toad-man rummaging in his case. She sought to concern herself with Catherine Morland’s predilection for the Gothic but a sudden disturbance startled her senses. She looked up as Goodman’s briefcase crashed to the floor, its trajectory mirrored by Goodman himself, who, in falling, pulled Sarah’s humbler briefcase down on top of him. Both cases dispersed their contents. Sarah’s Beloved looked down at the recumbent fatman, jumped up and pulled the communication cord. Sarah stared at her un-mentor as his face purpled and his gaping mouth sucked thick air. This was her opportunity to do nothing, but instead she dropped to her knees, placed her hand upon toad-man’s clammy forehead and inhaled deeply. She felt Goodman’s unpleasant life expire with each breath that she forced into his thickening lungs; there was nothing she could do to disturb his jam-doughnut and beef-dripping heart from its rigour. His time was over.

The guard was moving along the track, checking for a limp chain. The banging was getting closer. The only other living person in Sarah’s carriage opened the door and called, ‘In here!’ She had never heard his voice before. She stood up, slipped on some papers and felt his strong hand catch her arm. ‘You tried your best,’ he whispered. The guard climbed into the carriage, investigated the awkward corpse lying across the floor then hurried away to summon help. Sarah retrieved her briefcase and started to collect her papers. He stooped to help. He handed her a dishevelled file, then eased a blue folder from under Goodman’s bloated fingers: ‘Is this yours?’

Sarah looked at the folder and for a moment was unable to fully embrace this first dialogue. Then she smiled: ‘Yes, it is. Thank you.’

II

Since her promotion, Sarah had found herself becoming more attractive, and this new attractiveness had quite increased her confidence, which combination encouraged several of her colleagues to seek her friendship because, as everyone knows, people prefer to have friends that are attractive and confident. But Sarah was not ready for friendship. Her mother had warned her: ‘People are only friendly if there’s something in it for them.’ Mind you, that’s what Mother used to say before the increased attractiveness. Now mother’s warnings had a different focus: ever since Sarah had told her about the senior programmer asking her to go and see that spaghetti western. Obviously she had refused because going to the cinema with somebody was far too friendly, and because she didn’t much like him, and because how could she consider dating this man when her heart belonged only to F.R. Loveday? But she had mentioned it and the damage was done:

   ‘Mark my words, young lady, you’re asking for trouble. Men want one thing only. They’ll take what they can get then no man in his right mind will want you. The trouble with young people today is they can’t wait. Next thing you’ll be taking those pills that make you go mad.’

Sarah drew her briefcase to her chest, tossed back her long hair and strode towards her usual compartment. The woman in leopard skin boots sat down beside her and, just as the guard’s whistle blew, a dishevelled schoolgirl shambled in and slumped into the window seat. Sarah took out Rosy Crucifixion and thought about F.R. Loveday, waiting up the line, unaware that she was thinking of him. She closed her eyes and remembered how they had made love last night. He was unaware of that as well.

She watched as he came into view. He waved to his wife and their two daughters and took his seat, smiled at Sarah and disappeared behind his newspaper. Breaking the eye-contact taboo had been acceptable ever since the day Arthur Goodman had collapsed and died. That experience had brought them together: they had spoken for the first time. That was also about the time they had first made love.

Today the carriage was busy: a lady smelling of fish and an extra person standing from Rainham. As they pulled into Fenchurch Street, Sarah and F.R. Loveday sat back and allowed the other passengers to synchronize their exits. Then he waited as Sarah climbed down onto the platform before stepping out and disappearing into the crowd. That day they made love twice in Sarah’s partitioned office and once in the fourth floor toilet.

Sarah worked late that evening and dashed to Fenchurch Street in the darkening dusk, knowing he would not be there. He was never there in the evening. She ran onto the empty platform just in time to catch the 19.14, hurried into her compartment, settled alongside an insignificant woman and reached into her bag for Henry Miller. When she looked up F.R. Loveday was watching her. He smiled and then looked back at his newspaper. The train pulled away. Sarah pretended to read whilst working out how to kill and dispose of the insignificant woman. But she did not reckon on the breakdown.

Dirty backyards gave way to brackish marsh, visible in the significant full-moon moonlight that was now illuminating the grey, estuarine wasteland, casting silver inside their silent compartment. They rounded an unfamiliar bend and paused, suspended between stops. Sarah looked beyond the insignificant woman to the silver-sky night:

‘Don’t worry, she’s asleep,’ he said, beckoning Sarah to his side.

‘But, F.R. Loveday, men want one thing only. You’ll take what you can get then no man in his right mind will want me.’

‘You know that’s not true, don’t you, Sarah.’

‘You know my name?’ she whispered, removing her coat.

He moved towards her: ‘You know mine,’ he said, unbuttoning her blouse.

‘It’s written on your new briefcase. I’ve never done this before. What if she wakes up?’

‘She won’t. You’re very attractive these days. Stand up a minute.’ He unzipped her skirt and it fell onto the filthy carriage floor, along with her book and her cream catalogue underwear that her mother knew nothing about, and they made love time and time again as the moonlight flooded through the carriage windows, turning their damp, bare skin a magnificent silver grey. When Sarah became too exhausted he told her to rest, helped her dress and dusted her book before handing it back. She glanced at the insignificant, sleeping woman and checked herself over: thank goodness there was no blood. But now she needed to sleep. When she opened her eyes the insignificant woman was standing over her:

‘We’re at Riverside, dear. Hurry up or you’ll finish up back in Fenchurch Street.’

Sarah walked home through wet streets; the moon must have set because she was surrounded by darkness. Thank goodness mother was at Aunt Gracie’s. She would have known straight away. When Sarah woke at 02.14 she was in labour. She staggered to the kiosk at the end of the street, phoned for an ambulance and read the directory as she waited. Very soon she was in Tilbury Hospital, where they put her to sleep with a hot cup of chocolate. When she woke, a doctor with a beard told her that the Caesarean had saved her life. Her baby was in special care. A nurse would take details. Sarah watched him go, pulled back the hospital blanket and slipped her feet onto the cold floor. She pulled her nightdress over the long surgical dressing and left. The cabby looked a little apprehensive until she explained that she was in a hurry. She gave him a generous tip. The birth had exhausted her so she went straight to bed, woke late and phoned the office to say she had twenty-four-hour flu.

The following morning the dressing fell off in the shower: she was relieved to see that she was completely healed. Mother would never know. She really hadn’t reckoned on the pregnancy. From now on lovemaking with F.R. Loveday would be restricted to her office, the toilets and her bedroom when mother was away. She rushed to catch the 07.54 from Riverside. As her carriage approached Tilbury Town he came into view. He stepped inside, waved to his two little girls and his wife, who was holding their tiny new baby, then found his seat opposite Sarah and smiled briefly before taking out his paper and reading until the end of the line.

III

Loveday Contacting South-East Regional Co-ordinator. Second Tetrad Proceeding to Conclusion

Sarah waited for the platform to clear before stepping into the ‘Ladies Only’ compartment, fourth from the end. She nodded to the linen buyer, the two elderly secretaries and the woman who worked in Threadneedle Street, and took her usual seat between the jingle writer and the attractive young trader, who glanced up and commented on Sarah’s ring. Outside their sanctum a few dissatisfied porters wheeled trolleys covered in uncleanable British Rail grime, exchanged pointless remarks and plotted industrial action. A lady in leopard skin boots and an insipid, young woman climbed into the next compartment. Sarah took out The Edible Woman and waited as the return locomotive was shunted from the sidings. The smell of spent fuel filled the air, brakes made a noise like steam and the guard’s whistle confirmed their confinement.

Grey mist hovered above estuarine wasteland as the carriages rattled towards Tilbury Town. F.R. Loveday came into view, glanced at his wife and their three little girls and disappeared into the adjacent compartment. Sarah tried to read but found it impossible to concentrate. Ever since the weekend she had been feeling uneasy about her engagement. Peter was a wonderful person, clever and handsome. But there was something missing. Something she had once known. It hadn’t been real. She had been ill in her head since the breakdown just outside Barking when Arthur Goodman had died at her feet, lying across the dirty floor with his papers all around him, when she’d placed her unkissed lips over his corpse mouth and forced air into his dead lungs. The pills the doctor with the beard had prescribed only made things worse, exhausted her thoughts so she couldn’t understand them. It was those pills that drove her mad. Mother said it was a breakdown. And that breakdown had given her a dirty mind so that she thought about sex all the time. Especially sex with F.R. Loveday, who was probably sitting the other side of the partition, watching his wife and his three little girls disappear.

Sarah had told Peter all about F.R. Loveday but he’d laughed and said everybody has fantasy affairs although he was the real thing. But she hadn’t told him about the full-moon moonlight. And she hadn’t told him about the six-hour pregnancy and the new baby left at the hospital. He’d think she was crazy. Pregnancies last longer than six hours. A lot longer. Often, in the shower, she would check really carefully, but there was no scar. The doctor with the beard, who gave her the pills that didn’t help, called it a phantom pregnancy. That didn’t help either. Suggesting she’d gestated a phantom. She told him that two days after the Caesarean Mrs Loveday had been holding the new baby instead of her, so he increased her dosage. She knew it was impossible because Peter had said she’d been a Blesséd Virgin. No doubt about it. And that was what was important to him. But she still felt unfaithful. The lovemaking had seemed so real. Peter was passionate but he never came close to F.R. Loveday in the full-moon moonlight.

The carriages shunted unpleasantly into Fenchurch Street. Sarah smiled at the girl who wrote jingles then stepped down, making sure that her feet went as far as the platform but no further. She glanced back to check that she had left nothing behind and remembered her cream catalogue knickers lying in the filth. But that had been in the next-door carriage and it wasn’t real. She turned and noticed the insipid young woman watching F.R. Loveday disappearing into the crowd, just as she once watched, before her breakdown and before they took away her six-hour baby and gave it to Mrs Loveday so she could make another daughter. That evening Sarah wandered hand-in-hand with Peter in the full-moon moonlight and tried to listen as he told her about the flat in Whitechapel that he had found for them, but all she could hear was F.R Loveday saying, ‘You tried your best’. Time and time again.

Fenchurch Reckoning Loveday Tetrad Completion Achieved. Operative FRL Southern Region Requesting Rehabilitation

The day after whatever day that day had been Sarah waited opposite the secretaries and the linen buyer and noticed the woman in leopard skin boots step into the next carriage. Heavy doors clanged shut, the guard’s whistle confirmed their confinement and the wheels beneath them started to turn. As the train pulled into Tilbury Town, Sarah noticed that F.R. Loveday was not waiting, that a wife and three identical daughters were not waving, and she felt a suffocating claw release her mind and knew that at last she was free to be married to Peter, to have proper babies. Perhaps three little, all-the-same daughters. Sarah smiled across at the attractive trader and she smiled back.

The day after that day, Sarah watched the leopard-skin woman, a grey ghost and the more attractive, no-longer-insipid girl, fully recovered from twenty-four-hour flu, step into the next compartment. The wheels beneath them started to turn. Outside grey mist hovered above estuarine wasteland as the return locomotive rumbled towards Tilbury Town. Sarah noticed the man with F.R. Loveday written on his briefcase once again step into the next compartment. Outside the station three little daughters stood waving beside their mother, who was holding their tiny, new baby sister, who would one day be just like them.

Operative Fenchurch Reckoning Loveday: Request Granted

The following week or month, maybe several, the very attractive, once-insipid girl stepped into the fourth-from-the-end carriage and smiled at the two elderly stenographers, the linen buyer, the old lady from Threadneedle Street, the city trader, the jingle writer and the computer programmer. Then she settled down to read as the 07.54 from Riverside sped across estuarine wasteland, through flat, brackish marsh, past dirty backyards, on towards the end of the line.

IV

Sarah lifted her suitcase into the No-Smoking carriage, positioned it flat across two empty seats and sighed with exhaustion: two days with mother and she was ready for the asylum. She organised her things into the double seat opposite and looked up as a harassed woman shunted three squabbling children into the far end of the carriage and found a block of seats not far enough away. Sarah considered relocation. No: she couldn’t be bothered, and besides, the other carriages usually stunk of tobacco. She would just have to listen to the racket and hope they were not going all the way to the end of the line.

The train pulled away. Sarah reached into her bag, took out The White Hotel and started to read but she found it difficult to concentrate what with the noise and all the recent stress with mother. She gazed past her reflection in the window and let her mind wander as the grey estuarine wasteland rolled past, giving way to the houses at Tilbury Town, to the empty dereliction of Grays Station; and to the plague of new estates creeping across the hinterland between the remains of those places they used to call villages. All those lives in boxes. People not knowing where they are anymore unless they check their postcodes. Sarah looked back down at her book and remembered.

The trouble with remembering is that, once it begins, there’s no stopping it. So, despite the shrieks and threatened carnage going on at the other end of the carriage, Sarah remembered all the way to Fenchurch Street. She remembered the woman in leopard skin boots, the grey-suited whippet with the nicotine fingers, the two lesbian stenographers who smiled like tabby cats, the jingle writer that married the engineer. She remembered the day the carriage door wouldn’t open at Dagenham Dock and a schoolgirl climbed out through the window and ripped her tights. She remembered Arthur Goodman’s thickening lungs. And she remembered F.R. Loveday. Where were they now?

She closed her book. Only another chapter. She’d read that in bed before trying to sleep. The carriages pulled into Fenchurch Street and the harassed mother pointlessly instructed her children to remain seated until the train had stopped; one of them fell onto the filthy floor as the carriage jolted to a standstill and had to be dragged onto the platform in a state of pained tantrum. Sarah pulled her case towards the nearest door and stepped out into the putrid air of the early-evening exodus from the City. She laboured her way through the crowd to the taxi rank. She could have taken the tube to Russell Square and then walked but her case was too heavy, jammed full of things that mother didn’t want to take to her new apartment: Riverside Mews: Sheltered Accommodation for Elderly Harridans and Surviving Husbands. Perhaps this would mean mother would transfer the essence of her nightly anxiety telephone calls to some warden or other. Perhaps even somebody else’s surviving husband.  It was beginning to drizzle.

Sarah waited in the rain as taxis failed to appear. She’d have to get herself a car sooner or later. Peter had agreed to take the Audi on the understanding that she would buy herself a new one. They were still good friends. They always would be. His wife was pregnant again. She was so pleased for him. He had always wanted children and he made such a perfect older father. A black cab stopped alongside her and the driver ignored her as she struggled to lift her luggage into the back.

As the cab pulled up outside the apartment block Sarah rummaged in her handbag, gave the cabby a generous tip and dragged her case out onto the pavement, up the three marble steps and in through the large front door. Peter had given her almost everything in the settlement: the apartment, the furniture. He had been very clear about that. He was a wonderful person, still handsome. And very successful. They had both been successful. Professionally. If they’d have had children it might have been different. But some things were just not meant to be. Whatever treatments they purchased. There were adhesions and scarring. Possibly due to some chronic low-level infection. Was she ever treated for an abdominal infection? Not as far as she could remember. She nodded to the concierge as she stepped into the lift. Some things are just not meant to be.

Sarah let herself into her spacious hallway, disabled the alarm, placed her case in her bedroom and resolved to unpack tomorrow after the office. She checked the answer phone but there were no messages, phoned mother to say she was home, listened to her latest anxieties about the wardens, watered the plants and then poured herself a large gin and tonic. She considered making an omelette but was beyond food, so instead she took D.M Thomas out of her bag, wandered into the lounge, settled down in the lamplight and remembered.

V

It was good of Peter to come to mother’s funeral. Especially considering how ill his wife had been and everything they were going through with their middle boy. So many young people’s lives are being ruined by drugs. But Peter would pull him through. She never saw much of them these days ever since their retirement to that huge rambling farmhouse in Devon. She might just take them up on the invitation to visit. Now that mother was gone.

Sarah stood alone on East Tilbury Station and waited beneath the harsh British Rail floodlights as the train slowed and stopped. She stepped back as a group of youths pushed past her, then she climbed into the First Class compartment and lowered herself into a seat next to the window. She glanced round to check that the toilet was where it was supposed to be, leaned back and sighed. A speaker just above her head offered some ill-enunciated information and the train jolted forwards. She glanced beyond her reflection in the dark window, back through the night towards her mother’s apartment and was relieved that she would never be returning there. She had packed up what few things she wanted to keep. The rest could go to charity. After the staff had picked their way through it all. Good luck to them. She was just pleased it was all over. This last few years had been too stressful for words. Stressful. She had such a headache and the movement of the train was making it worse. She rubbed her fingers in small circles around her temples but it didn’t help.

The train rumbled on, past the spur that once led to the Riverside terminal, through the dark, starless-night towards Tilbury Town. She reached into her bag and took out Northanger Abbey. She had been reading it to mother but they hadn’t finished it. They don’t write heroines like that anymore, Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet. Just sex goddesses with neuroses these days. The train stopped and started. Sarah tried to ignore her burgeoning headache and concentrate on her book. Her head felt like it might explode. Had she remembered to take her pill before leaving? She was becoming so absent minded.

‘… the very first moment I beheld him my heart was irrecoverably gone … her feelings  at that  moment were indescribable.  Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale  …’

Her eyes paused over those familiar words but her brain refused to read them. Then some slight disturbance caused her to look up. FR Loveday was watching her. The same, absolutely-not-different FR Loveday

He smiled: ‘Hello, Sarah. You do remember me, don’t you?’

Without replying Sarah glanced back down at her lap. She felt her pulse quicken, heard herself swallow, was aware of blue veins across the back of her hands as she tried to hold her book steady. Her eyes drifted across the carriage. She lifted her fingers and covered her thin, long-since-kissed lips and spoke with a voice that sounded strange through her ears. ‘But, F.R. Loveday, how can you be here like this?’ She watched his grey eyes sparkling in the full-moon moonlight as it streamed through the carriage window.

‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ he said, beckoning her to his side.

‘But, F.R. Loveday, I have to finish this chapter and I have such a terrible headache and I’m so very old and unattractive.’

‘You know that’s not true, don’t you, Sarah.’

She let her hand fall back onto Catherine Morland’s declaration, folded over the corner of the page, closed her book for the last time and let it fall onto the filthy floor. She rubbed her hands one over the other and felt them become smooth, looked down and watched her blue veins sink and disappear into soft flesh. She got to her feet and took one small step towards him. ‘How can this be happening?’ she whispered as she sat down beside him, as she embraced once again the scent of his skin against hers, as she felt his strong hand on her shoulder, pulling her closer, felt him caressing her, steadying her trembling fingers.

‘Don’t be afraid. It’s you I chose, Sarah. It’s you that I’ve always loved. We’re together now. You mustn’t be afraid.’

She studied his smile. ‘But, FR Loveday, where are we going?’

‘To meet our daughter.’ He ran his fingers through her long, brown hair. ‘She looks just like you.’

Sarah smiled up at her Beloved with no care left for this world. And, as she rested her head against his magnificent silver-grey chest the last train from Tilbury rumbled on across estuarine wasteland, through flat, brackish marsh, past dirty backyards, the giant Ford conurbation, the endless urban sprawl of bubble-and-squeak Dagenham Dock and Barking, on towards Fenchurch Street. On towards the end of the line. And beyond.

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