Notes from the Underground by Terry O’Shaughnessy

            It’s only been three days since I got back to London and I’m already in a bookstore. I count out the freshly unfamiliar money to a black-haired sales woman—the heavy coins sliding everywhere in my palm, so much heavier than those at home. Fourteen pounds and ninety-nine pence for every story Raymond Carver ever wrote. She puts the book into a bag. “Blistering stories,” she says, approving my choice. Her hair is long and straight, just like mine used to be, and I can’t help staring at it when she turns away to answer the ringing telephone.

         I leave the store, and turn right in the direction of the Tube station. It’s autumn and a clear rain falls on the asphalt. It feels good to walk, though I’m surprised that my new brown boots, bought back home before I left, don’t click on the sidewalk. For some reason, I don’t make a sound as I walk down the High Street to Richmond tube station.

Richmond Station

            I enter the Richmond station and buy a ticket to the heart of London, to Piccadilly Circus. I walk down the filthy steps, then along the platform to the train. Inside, yellow and black furry upholstery covers the seats as though a swarm of elderly, incredibly shabby bees have taken up residence.

            The train begins to roll. I decide to open the Carver book at random, the way my mother does with her Bible back home. To read her fate, to let it fall open to whatever page it lies on. I do the same with Carver and land in a story he wrote about Chekhov. It’s right in the middle of the action but I just begin reading anyway. Chekhov has had a hemorrhage, but I can’t find out why because I’m interrupted. A woman is roaring into her cell phone and everyone in the coach can’t do a thing but listen because she is so loud.

            “Oh NO!” she yells. “WHAT a SHAME!” Her voice reverberates off the wooden grates on the floor of the train, off the filthy glass of the windows, off the thin, frail silver of my earrings that catch on the edge of my wig. Then someone else starts to talk into his cell phone. Really, it’s deafening. I can barely read with all this noise going on around me. It’s as bad as being in the hospital, with the orderlies coming into the room all night.

Ravenscourt Station

            In the blue morning light of Ravenscourt station, I’m still quite a few stops away from Piccadilly. The trains have been late all morning. People who would rather lose an arm than wait a few minutes for the next train stuff themselves into the carriages. A red-haired man in a large, sensible winter hat says in a bossy way, with a hint of menace: “There’s going to be ANOTHER train in FIVE minutes.” He is aggrieved at all those sacrificial limbs, and who can blame him.

            I re-open the Carver book to see what has happened to Chekhov. But at least three other people begin talking on their phones and I can’t read even a full sentence without being distracted. Is reading on trains another pleasure to be forfeited? This will be hard to give up, I think.

Gunnersby Station

            At Gunnersby station, a man and his two sons sit down opposite me on the yellow and black seats. One son complains without pause, and he remains a seat away from the other two. His eyes are swollen and pink, as if he has allergies. He is deathly white and whinnies unhappily.

            “Yes, you CAN change at Turnham Green–it’s just a bad MAP,” he whines.

            There is longstanding grievance here, you can tell. The other son is sporty and clear-eyed like the father who has straight bristly hair, graying on top of the original black. They all verbally scuffle for awhile about sandwiches and their lunch–who has it, did you squash them, chocolate or crisps?

Turnham Green Station

            At Turnham Green, they get off the train and I realize I’ve missed 11 a.m. and my pills are late. I notice an official sign beside the door. It shows the symbol of the London Underground and asks, “Had enough to eat and drink? Then please take your drinks, bottles, and cartons with you.” It has a scolding air, as if you as a passenger can’t be satisfied — as if you couldn’t stop eating in front of people better mannered than you, or not as hungry as you. Or maybe it simply ensures that you will leave without a trace. I settle back to Carver and Chekhov and read undisturbed for three whole minutes, but the squealing of the brakes penetrates even Carver’s language and I look up. Time to change trains and get on the blue Piccadilly line.

Hammersmith Station

            A famous stage actor gets on the train at Hammersmith station. His handsome, aged face is delicately preserved, and his hair carefully arranged. He wears exquisite leather shoes that could have been made from the hide of finest antelope for all I know. No one bothers him. In fact, my frisson of excitement is the only one in the carriage. He sits down and reads from a thick manuscript of red, printed-out pages. He makes prodigious notes on the pages, in silver ink. His lips never stop moving. His hair is really so beautiful, I can’t get over it.

            I wonder for a moment if it’s a wig. It looks just like real hair so it must be very expensive if it is. I idly wonder if the actor is using glue to anchor the wig over his forehead, or if he’s just taking his chances because he can’t stand the smell of the glue. I want to ask him. I hated that glue smell and after I got more used to the wig, I would just pull it on like a hat and hope for the best.

Baron’s Court Station

            “Owing to bad weather, all music is at half or below cost,” reads a handwritten sign at Baron’s Court station. It is propped up against a sleeping dog that belongs to an old man playing a harmonica. I notice that there are security police everywhere. The IRA detonated a bomb near the BBC last night and I expect to feel a tension in the city, I want to feel it, that sense of danger. But people just keep milling around, briskly going about their day, ignoring the threat, ignoring the fact that someone or something is trying to kill them.

            Just this morning I watched the harbourmaster go up the Thames twice. Then, after throwing up in the sink after drinking tea with milk the way I used to drink it, I happened to look out the kitchen window and saw a policeman in a lime green coat walk back and forth along the roof of the building opposite our flat. He looked like a sniper though he held no rifle. The swans paddled alongside the boat, new daffodils sprouting on the riverbanks the same acid citrus as the policeman’s coat, as the chemotherapy Danger sign on the bags at the hospital. Poor John, he would sit on the bed and watch it all. It wasn’t fair, well none of it was. Our wedding, then the new job in London. Then the lump, and I’m in my mother’s house back home after surgery, and John’s alone in London in our flat with the moving boxes still unopened.

Earl’s Court Station

            At Earl’s Court Station, a swarm of people pour into the carriage and fill it to the far corners. I try to return to the book to see what’s happened to Chekhov, but the phone conversations resume.

            “WELL!” roars Cell Phone Woman. “You can live it up now!” She’s wearing a gorgeous pair of brown boots. She repeats this sentence in different ways:

            1. “You can LIVE IT UP.”

            2. “YOU can live it up.

            3. “You CAN live it up.”

            Three differing lines of argument here. I imagine her pacing a barrister’s courtroom in her boots and a white, powdered wig. Then I wonder if she really means it, and if she, like me, has repeated these questions enough.

Knightsbridge Station

            At Knightsbridge I adjust my hat carefully because it feels like my hairline has sagged since Hammersmith Station, then I’m back in Carver’s story. Tolstoy has entered the scene and I’m quite surprised at this. He’s sitting with Chekhov after the hemorrhage and going on about the immortality of the soul. I think it must be hard for a short story writer to listen to a novelist go on and on. Chekhov writes later: “I lack a political, religious, and philosophical world view. I change it every month. So I limit myself to the description of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, and die.”

Green Park Station

            By Green Park, I’m happy that Tolstoy has left the story and Chekhov is probably relieved too. You can tell Carver is because he let’s Chekhov say: “Tolstoy assumes that all of us will live on in a principle, the essence and goals of which are a mystery to us. I have no use for that kind of immortality.” Yes, I think. You can tell Carver agrees. Chekhov is the one spitting blood after all.

Leicester Square Station

            A man and a woman in matching leather jackets get on at Leicester Square. She sits sloppily on the seat and leans towards him, her large belly sticking out in loose gray terrycloth material. Her arm slips around his neck, and her long fingers caress him slowly–his neck, his hair, his head–over and over and over. She doesn’t look at him directly, but holds him in her peripheral vision. He has short grizzled hair, gray and brown, and seems oblivious to her busy hand though his long eyelashes bristle like a broom. She is intoxicated with him but patient, like she has all the time in the world and I look away.

Piccadilly Station

            I finally arrive at Piccadilly Circus and climb up the endless black stairwell to the busy street above the Underground. I stop to get my balance, to still the blue stars that jig and jag behind my lids since I walked up the first set of stairs too fast. How nice to be going to a movie matinee, and to be in no rush. Big black taxis hurdle by. Men and women in busy conversations clutch at their briefcases. The famous statue of Eros has been boxed-in by some protective brown metal, whether to prevent the IRA from hiding bombs in it, or to simply shield it from the drunken businessman who is vomiting onto the pavement beside it, I don’t know.

            I once saw a movie where a character on his first trip to London couldn’t wait to get to Piccadilly Circus. “What a shitty circus!” he cried, seeing it for the first time. But I don’t think Chekhov would have agreed, and neither would Raymond Carver.

                                                            * * *   

 

Hyde Park Corner Station

            At Hyde Park Corner station now, and on my way home. The movie was good, not great. All is well after a huge problem in South America with drug lords, evil bankers, the actress’s perfect lipstick and the actor’s lined, human face. I hope I’ll be able to eat dinner—it feels like I might be able to today. The tiny sharp bristles of hair beneath my wig itch like crazy and I can’t wait to get home and take it off.

            I sit down and re-open the Carver book just as he writes: “Chekhov is dying.” The doctor has prescribed cocoa, oatmeal and strawberry tea to combat the final, fatal stage of tuberculosis. When the day of Chekhov’s death arrives, however, the doctor cancels this prescription and orders a bottle of champagne instead. Chekhov drinks the whole thing and dies. Tolstoy’s need of a moral universe, all that striving for control, is not present in the death room. Chekhov’s last words are: “It’s a long time since I drank a bottle of champagne.”

Kew Gardens Station

            Almost home. Must mail a card to a friend then buy dinner. Maybe I’ll grill some fish and serve it with a sweet chili sauce. Maybe that will go down. And then maybe a chewy chocolate brownie for me and a raspberry something for John. We’ll bring our plates into the living room, turn on the television and sit and wait for the news.

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