Sonata Form Chapter 2
Updated: Feb 11
When the trolley arrived, it snapped Brock out of his reverie and brought him back to reality. He righted the cup and watched as a member of the on-board catering staff poured the aromatic black liquid from a large metal jug. It wasn’t the greatest coffee in the world. In fact, it was only just drinkable, but it was part of the package, so he had no intention of rejecting it outright with an exaggerated sense of wounded entitlement. To eat, he chose a smoked bacon roll from the breakfast menu. He tore open a sachet and smeared the paper-thin rashers with blobs of tomato ketchup. Every so often he would sip from the cup, automatically stretching out his right hand to bring it to his lips before replacing it on the table in the same mechanical fashion.
Elbows resting on the table and hands clasped beneath his chin, he used his mobile phone as a makeshift paperweight to keep the tightly bound pages of the book flat. What’s more, because it meant switching to another language, he needed to give the unfamiliar text his undivided attention and not allow his concentration to wander. To some extent, it felt like studying a musical score after a prolonged absence, though he soon discovered the activity became easier the further he read. No longer troubled by his earlier bout of ennui, which had thankfully evaporated, he found himself swept along by the momentum of an unrelenting force, like those flanged wheels of the locomotive as they raced forward along the shining steel rails.
Now he had almost reached halfway through his life, which reminded him of the phrase typically used to describe radioactive decay, his mental capacity and the possibility of its future impairment, was never far from his thoughts, especially since the death of his mother, who had suffered from that most cruel disorder: vascular dementia. Keeping his brain stimulated and in perfect working order had therefore become a recent preoccupation. He had even devised a test he could administer to himself.
Given his knowledge of Germany and the fact it shared land borders with nine other countries, and that the roots of this geographical truth were firmly embedded in the soil of his memory, he would recite their names until he had recalled all nine of them. It helped to imagine a clock face and to proceed methodically in an anticlockwise manner. Thus: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark. There. He had passed. Everything was in order.
Meanwhile, the unmistakable contours of the Cleveland Hills receded as the coppery sunrise brought everything into sharper focus. One moment they were hurtling between the sloping walls of an embankment, the next they were crossing the flat, overwhelmingly rural landscape on both sides of the railway line, with black-and-white dairy cattle roaming the fields. Seasonally, it was a period of flux, with summer about to give way to autumn. With his back to the direction of travel, it felt, metaphorically speaking, as if he were heading into the past, and in a sense he was, for he intended to revisit familiar locations from his time spent as a postgraduate in the city of Nottingham. Once he arrived, he would find a café near the station and work out an itinerary, though he already had certain places in mind.
The extreme levels of concentration he needed to expend on this foreign text relegated all movement and sound into a kind of penumbral region, which no longer registered in his consciousness. Besides, with the music playing at a particularly high volume through the circumaural headphones, he was effectively cut off from the majority of extraneous noises. The music had a life of its own and bore him onwards to its inevitable conclusion, the common time of the Molto Allegro giving way to the Andante in six-eight, and then to the Minuet and Trio in three-four. Only with the finale – that wondrous Allegro Assai – was there a return to common time.
Occasionally, it’s true, he would overhear voices, or the thud of the internal carriage door opening and closing. Right now, for instance, some passengers were moving on the blurred periphery of his vision, preparing to disembark, and when he looked up and saw them retrieving items of luggage from the rack, he realised the train had been perceptibly decelerating as it approached the outskirts of York, providing him, if he craned his head, with an initial glimpse of the river Ouse as it snaked beneath Clifton Bridge before they passed the sewage treatment works.
Some of the pampered denizens of this First-Class coach had attempted to make the oblong aluminium tube into a simulacrum of their office environments, and were busily typing away at laptops or engrossed in prolonged business-related phone calls. Brock felt intense satisfaction that he no longer had to subject himself to this indignity, a form of existence that was totally anathema to him. In many ways, working as a minor civil servant reminded him of his time at school. They both seemed much the same in practice, since they involved sitting at a desk and completing a series of mundane tasks, which would be assessed, scrutinised for error, corrected, marked, and given a final rating. All the while there was a palpable impression of being under observation, albeit of a covert nature, and one could be sure the unofficial spies would be eager to report any misdemeanours should they occur. The vital thing was not to tell them anything, as they would be likely to use any information they gathered against you.
For the remaining early morning travellers, social media was the drug they gorged upon. Submitting to a different order of reality, they immersed themselves in a virtual world, where idle scrolling, that mindless activity, replaced reading. The ceaseless movement of their thumb or index finger over the screen of the device led them through a welter of never-ending images. It was either that, or engaging in prolonged phone conversations to avoid having to confront the essential emptiness within themselves. Cast from the same mould as Sisyphus, they were eternally condemned to fruitless labour without the hope of any reward or sense of resolution.
With these thoughts uppermost in his mind, he looked up again from the book, and as the development section of the Allegro Assai introduced its strange chromatic variation on the first subject theme – like an eruption of the uncanny into the world of everyday reality – a face appeared behind the pane of the internal door before it slid open on its runner. The sort of face you might encounter in a dream.
Roused from his state of introspection, he struggled to appreciate the significance of this event. By investing all his mental energy in studying the images and text of the book, not forgetting the immersive quality of the music, he’d completely overlooked the fact someone had reserved the seat opposite from York.
His eyes followed the young woman as she checked the seat reservation and looked up at the height of the luggage rack with a rueful expression. The leather holdall in her hand would need to be lifted beyond her reach, given her exceedingly petite stature. He immediately paused the music and took off his headphones.
Almost without knowing it, and seemingly before his motor cortex had sent a stimulus to his limbs, he had smartly stood up in what can only be called a reflex action. In a more formal era, one might have risen in the presence of a female, yet nowadays such a response seemed old-fashioned in the extreme, even for someone of his age. Brock, though, had something else in mind.
—Please. Let me help you.
When she fathomed what his intention was, she released her hold on the handle and transferred it into his grip. At such proximity, the jasmine scent of her perfume overpowered him, inveigling itself into his nostrils like some potent pheromone. Steadying the holdall with his left hand, he leaned forward and slid it carefully on to the luggage rack.
—Thank you, she said, before taking her seat.
Upon returning to his place, he reviewed his recent behaviour. In retrospect, his tone of voice had seemed somewhat urgent. Imploring, even. Rather than a simple request, it had become almost a desire to serve her, as if he existed at that moment solely for her benefit. It was as if he were beseeching her to be allowed to perform this insignificant favour, and yet, having done so, it continued to afford him pleasure. The disruption had been so marked it caused him to return to the beginning of the last movement rather than playing the music from the point at which he had paused it.
The woman was no more than nineteen or twenty, quite possibly an undergraduate. Since she was wearing a pair of white canvas shoes with rubber soles rather than something high-heeled to enhance her diminutive stature, it was easy to see she was no taller than about five feet. Given the orientation of the seating, it was impossible not to study her features. He noticed at once the vivid streaks of cherry-coloured highlights that had been applied to her hair, which was dyed blonde and not its natural colour, whatever that might be. As for ornamentation, a solitary titanium barbell pierced her perfectly sculpted right eyebrow. Moving his eyes lower down, he found her nose was retroussé, a feature which tended to convey to him a sense of arrogance or haughtiness, and it was perhaps her least appealing feature. Her lips, though, were soft and pink. Confined within a vibrant yellow low-cut top, almost like a dirndl, her breasts were pushed up and voluptuous.
If human skin was, in the first instance, from a purely evolutionary perspective, merely a functional barrier, it was also a source of sensory stimuli. Certain areas of the female body had a clear sexual significance, and she ensured she flaunted these to maximum effect, whereas others were covered, albeit to appease convention. Partial exposure had even more of an erotic charge than full nudity, since it allowed for one’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
On belcher chains around her neck hung two separate sterling silver necklaces: one of them bore the legend Princess, the other gave her name, Shannon. It made him think of the Celtic myth, with its familiar story of the death and rebirth of a mortal woman who sought the well of knowledge and who was subsequently transformed into a river and ultimately a water goddess. Princess Shannon. He could easily envisage her as a naiad.
Despite this feeble attempt at diverting his thoughts with these secondary details, her eyes continued to unman him. They were a pure, greyish-green of the most limpid colour imaginable. As he gazed in wonder, it would be no exaggeration to say those eyes of hers engulfed his very soul. At this moment, he was merely a votive subject, engaged in an act of idolatry. In any event, given that they were facing each other, how could he look away? Her appearance and enigmatic quality meant he found himself unable to concentrate on what he was reading, and so he slid the bookmark between the pages.
Was it so wrong to find her beautiful and so sexually appealing? How could he not? To someone of a religious persuasion, this admission might be thought of as lustful – sinful even – but he had long since left behind such archaic thinking in childhood. Although his current infatuation might be considered perverse, he sought to rationalise it. Besides, any sexual contact would be unlikely, though not impossible, given the disparity between their respective ages.
With a deft precision and elegance about her movements, as if assembling the ingredients of a still life, Shannon arranged a series of items beyond an invisible line on her side of the table: a variety of pencils; a graphite stick; a tortillon; a kneaded eraser; a bottle of sparkling mineral water; and a Braeburn apple, its streaky colouration eddying between pedicel and calyx like the lines of force at the magnetic poles of a planet.
Her precise actions were almost those of someone in the grip of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. In fact, they reminded him of a former colleague who would lift her mouse and keyboard at the end of her shift and check underneath them as many as three times, sometimes even returning to the office to complete this ritual all over again before she felt comfortable enough to leave for good.
The drawing on the vellum surface of the three-ply Bristol paper was almost complete, or so it seemed. It was an impressive study of a woman in profile – perhaps in her early thirties – with shoulder-length hair cut in a fringe. He could see a tiny silver stud in her nose and she wore a three-banded necklace, like a series of heavy torcs, one over the other. Her lips were fulsome and there was a tattoo of a bee in outline on her right shoulder. He wondered if the occasional jerky movement of the train might impede or even ruin her work, but the alterations Shannon made to the drawing were minimal, requiring only infrequent use of the tortillon to blend in the lines. Given her own striking appearance, he felt certain she would also have used herself as a model for some of her drawings, perhaps by employing a mirror. Throughout the process of embellishment, the kneaded eraser sat unused on the table like a lump of dirty black putty.
With her alterations complete, she tidied away her implements, opened the clamshell of the laptop and began typing sporadically, her slender fingers with their beautifully manicured white-tipped French nails virtually caressing the keyboard as she did so. Listening to music through a pair of in-ear headphones, she would sometimes glance out of the window, but rarely at him.
Would it be stretching the point to say those headphones constituted a visible reminder to strangers such as himself that Shannon preferred her own company and drew the line at being subjected to unsolicited attention? Given her striking appearance, he could well appreciate this might be the case. Even so, he yearned to praise her artistic ability and to ask her about the woman in the drawing – was she perhaps a professional model? Did she not realise that he, too, appreciated the fine arts? Surely the book he was reading indicated as much. The headphones, however, formed an effective barrier, and it seemed to him that to initiate a conversation by intruding on her personal space would be disrespectful, so he decided against it.
She took out a battered phone with a cracked screen and indolently checked her text messages. He was surprised to see it wasn’t a more recent model, given the ruthless way in which those siren voices of the advertising industry played upon the insecurities of consumers, so that each year they replaced perfectly functional devices with the latest iteration. What struck him forcefully was how so many people had unwittingly become advocates for, and willing slaves of, the very economic system which oppressed them. More often than not, they tended to be concerned about relatively trivial details, such as how many gigabytes of memory their new phone possessed or the resolution of its inbuilt camera rather than expressing their opposition to the prevailing ideology, which depressed their wages and sought to exploit them.
Shannon reached for the apple she had retrieved earlier, which still rested on the paper serviette. When she produced a foldable paring knife from her handbag, he wondered if she intended to peel the skin from the fruit, but instead she halved it with one cut lengthways and then separated the halves into more manageable quarters. Trimming away at the core, she removed the endocarp and the pockets where the brown pips were located before raising the segment to her mouth.
Having consumed all four quarters, she grasped the serviette to wipe the sticky residue from her fingers and got up to use the lavatory. After the ENGAGED light was illuminated, Brock looked about him. Fortunately, no one had taken any of the seats nearby, so he reached for the drawing and turned it round towards him, the better to study it. Clearly based upon a photograph, and with strong contrasts between those areas in light and shadow, she had probably superimposed a grid on the paper, the lines of which would have gradually disappeared as the drawing evolved.
As he studied it, he couldn’t help imagining Shannon inside the cubicle, and how at this very moment only a flimsy partition separated them. When she pulled down the stretchable nylon underwear, which barely incorporated sufficient material to cover her sex, the fabric would undoubtedly be impregnated with a scent memory of its resting place. In his imagination he could see her shaven mons veneris, and the smooth expanse below, like two folds of dough separated into equal halves, with its inviting groove between those crinkled petals of flesh.
He envisaged her elfin figure perched on the edge of the seat, her feet splayed, having already wiped the white plastic surface with a wad of toilet paper prior to sitting down. The lukewarm urine would either be completely transparent or exhibit a slight yellowish tinge as it trickled fitfully into the bowl before gushing forth in a tremendous torrent from the source and forming a white froth of bubbles on the surface like cuckoo spit. It would surely have the hue of grapefruit juice, and if you were inclined to taste it – the thought of doing so gave him an erection – the flavour would be just as astringent. Would she dab at the mouth of her vulva, he wondered, once the flow had subsided to individual droplets?
With no need to leave his seat, his febrile imagination set to work on its raw material. Soon, he pictured himself kneeling before her, kissing her bare feet, paying homage to her in the most abject manner. It was only a matter of time before he dreamt of further debasement. Instead of sitting on the toilet, he imagined her squatting over him, using his willing mouth as the receptacle for her urine. Subverting the myth of Zeus and Danaë, in this instance, it was the goddess who manifested herself to him as a shower of gold.
No matter how strenuously he strove to channel his thoughts in another direction, this vivid and perverse image of Shannon, enthroned above him, kept returning to torment him. Eventually, he had no option but to succumb to its captivating power, and he revelled in it, safe in the knowledge that only he knew of its existence. For the rest of the journey, the table they shared served another purpose – to hide from Shannon the pronounced swelling in the vicinity of his groin.