Gary Geistler tripped up the stairs at Queenstown Road station, canvas book bag banging against his right buttock, and landed on the platform just as the doors of the delayed 18:56 to Teddington were sliding open. Jacinta pulled him forward, panting, parting the swarm of disembarking passengers.
“You’re barking, Jacinta,” Gary whispered, as he settled into his seat beside the twelve-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier. “I’m supposed to be the mad one. We poets in our youth begin in gladness; but thereof comes in the end despondency and madness. Wordsworth.”
Jacinta rolled her eyes at him and licked her chops.
Gary Geistler knew he was probably sane. But who in their right mind would turn out for a poetry gig in Mortlake on a bitter Thursday evening in late January? He’d been promised a third of the door money. He’d be lucky if it stretched to a large glass of Chardonnay.
Jacinta yawned, exposing finely chiselled teeth, and dropped her head into Gary’s lap. Since his fiftieth birthday, eighteen months earlier, he had given a hundred and twenty-two readings, attended countless poetry workshops, and self-published three booklets of verse. Half a dozen copies of each booklet weighed down his bag. Chances were that they’d all be going back home with him. The rewards of poetry were intangible, Gary mused, as he played thoughtfully with Jacinta’s ears.
“We will shortly be arriving at Clapham Junction,” announced the pre-recorded female voice. She reminded Gary of Radio 4 news reader Charlotte Green. In the drizzle on the platform he saw a pair of teenagers slouched in baggy tracksuits, hoods up and plugged into their music, no doubt. He sighed.
“Keats,” said Nathaniel, “only sold around two hundred copes of his books in his lifetime.”
“Fascinating,” Lauren replied. “Are we going to catch this train, or what?” She took his elbow and steered him into the carriage.
Lauren nodded at two vacant spaces, travelling backwards, diagonally opposite a man and a dog. Nathaniel grunted his consent. Lauren swung her feet up onto the facing seat, only to retract them a moment later following Nathaniel’s gentle kick against her outstretched calves. Scowling, she unzipped her gym bag and pulled out a dog-eared copy of The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters by Mark Henderson. Nathaniel slumped down in his seat and fiddled with his iPod until he located Michael Sheen reading La Belle Dame Sans Merci. “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?” Nathaniel silently repeated the words to himself. “The sedge has withered from the lake…”
They sat, rapt in their new and somewhat disturbing worlds.
The train stopped again and Lauren looked out the window at the rainswept platform. Wandsworth Town. A businesswoman jabbed impatiently at the door button with her right hand. Her left hand held a half-collapsed umbrella and pressed a mobile phone against her ear. Lauren nudged Nathaniel.
“Fatima Osgood speaking… oh, hi… I’m literally getting on the train now.” She dropped the umbrella on the floor. “I know, I know, and what… well, that’s his fucking problem. ‘Skill set’! Don’t give me that fucking shit – he’s fucking… look… I’m sorry. I’m going to have to cut the intensifiers. People are staring. But I’m really, really, really cross. It’s not as if… oh, fuck off, Doris.”
Fatima slipped the phone into her Louis Vuitton handbag and sighed heavily. It had been a hell of a day and probably wasn’t going to get any better. She’d missed the speed yoga class at the gym and Giles had texted to say they’d run out of toilet paper and goat’s milk and could she get some on the way home. Then another text saying he needed saffron. What pretentious TV-chef meal was he preparing this time? The boys wouldn’t eat it and she’d have to throw together an omelette and chips for them.
A chant of “Chel-sea! Chel-sea!! Chel-sea!!!” came from her bag. She grabbed her mobile and clamped it to her ear.
“Fatima Osgood sp… Duncan – hi! How’s tricks? I emailed the business case over this afternoon… ha, ha!… oh, I know… indeed… ha!… yes, Thursday’s fine… oh, sorry, Duncan, you’re breaking up.” She ended the call. “Arsehole.”
“We will shortly be arriving at Putney,” said Charlotte Green. Fatima tightened her core muscles as the train edged into the station. Huddled under a goofy umbrella was a love-struck middle-aged couple who should have known better. Fatima heaved a world-weary sigh. She wasn’t going to budge for anyone.
“After you,” Evan insisted, ushering Sarah on board while he held the umbrella aloft for her. Then he bounded up, and nearly tripped over an upside-down umbrella someone had carelessly left in the middle of the doorway.
“Whoops-a-daisy!” Sarah exclaimed, grabbing onto him. They stepped around a stumpy businesswoman with a face like thunder who seemed to swear at them under her breath. But they shrugged it off and fell together into a double seat opposite two teenagers. Sarah and Evan did their worst to control their giggles. They had been young, once, and unhappy. Only now, in their fabulous forties, had they found true, ecstatic love. It didn’t help that they were both half-cut following the now traditional post-work debrief in their secret pub midway between the office and the station.
“Settle down, lover boy,” Sarah stage-whispered. “We’re grossing out the youngsters.”
He had his left hand down the back of her pinstripe skirt, stroking her right buttock, brushing her just-healed tattoo of an S and an E entwined together 4 ever.
Lauren peered over her book at the old couple and winced. Evan, to her surprise, winked at her. Fatima lurched forward.
“You dirty sod,” she snarled at Evan. “You dirty old man.”
Gary Geistler, an old punk, knew the infamous exchange by heart.
“Well, keep going chief, keep going,” he said. “Go on, you’ve got five seconds. Say something outrageous.”
“You dirty bastard,” said Fatima, jabbing her finger in Evan’s chest.
“Go on, again,” encouraged Charlotte Green.
“You dirty fucker,” said Gary.
“What a clever boy,” said Charlotte Green.
“What a fucking rotter,” growled Jacinta.
“I don’t like this,” said Sarah. “I don’t like it at all.”
“We will shortly be arriving at Queenstown Road,” said Charlotte Green. “We are now arriving at Clapham Junction. Strawberry Hill. VauxhallRichmondTeddingtonCarshaltonBeeches.”
There was a muffled pop, a whiff of cordite, and the carriage lights fizzled out. Then an ear-piercing squeal, and silence.
The following morning, half a dozen poetry pamphlets were found scattered across The Green at Mortlake.
Jacinta was unable to help the police with their enquiries.