Underneath the barrelled glass roof of the railway station, in a vaulted space as lofty as the nave of a cathedral, Brock waited on the bitterly cold platform, watching the crackling blue sparks – like malevolent St. Elmo’s fire – dancing around the pantograph of the approaching locomotive.
The prospect of embarking upon this journey at such an unearthly hour had lost much of its appeal, ever since the insistent clamour of the alarm clock had ejected him from sleep. Having taken early retirement, it was the first time he’d been roused in this unnatural fashion, and it felt disconcerting. The comforting thought he might remain exactly where he was in bed and end up deliberately missing the booked train was an option he contemplated for a few minutes, but the more he thought about it the more it struck him that aborting this journey would be wasteful in the extreme: the tickets and the money he’d already paid for the hotel would be effectively thrown away, since it wouldn’t be possible to claim a refund at such short notice. As a viable alternative, it was, therefore, a non-starter.
In the circumstances, whatever course of action he pursued was ultimately irrelevant, as the laws of the universe had already mapped out what was about to happen. For are we not, he mused, simply privileged bystanders, watching impotently as our lives unfold in a predetermined manner? Despite operating under the mistaken belief we have a choice in the matter, in reality we are no more than a wretched golem, a creature moulded from clay, animated by external forces which we can neither control nor comprehend.
Launching himself out of bed, he made for the bathroom. It was as a result of this simple decision that the day’s events were ultimately set in motion and could no longer be held back, no more than the quantum fluctuations at the beginning of the inflationary period of the universe could return to their initial state of quiescence. To speak of this moment in such terms was perhaps overly dramatic. Yet from now on, there would be no prevarication on his part, no turning back. An invisible hand had already added the time signature and the key to the five parallel lines of the initial treble clef, and the first bar of music was about to be composed.
Because he’d stupidly forgotten to alter it, the central heating wasn’t due to switch on for at least another hour. In any case, everything about this room was uninviting, from the glare of the enamel coating on the cast-iron bath, to the stainless steel shower attachment, right down to the white mosaic floor tiles.
As he wiped the layer of condensation from the shaving mirror, he could see through the window the full moon shamelessly exposing herself as she picked out the glinting shards of bottle glass on the rear wall. It was a dismal sight in his current frame of mind.
He jiggled the clogged head of the safety razor in the basin and applied it again to his stubbly cheeks, a habitual procedure he had been performing for at least forty years, with only a slight alteration in the design of the shaving apparatus over that time frame. Today he was using a disposable Gillette twin-blade razor with a green and blue handle made from plastic and rubber. As for the contours of his face, these had imperceptibly changed, together with the hue of the stubble – these days the latter was salt and pepper – though his eyebrows remained stubbornly black. Meanwhile, from the airing cupboard, he heard the steady drip of water into the tank.
With it being an Edwardian terraced property, he sometimes caught the sound of footsteps coming from next door, together with voices: a woman’s voice in particular. Late at night, or in the early hours of the morning, he would infrequently hear a steady whimpering and moaning. To overhear his neighbour in these moments of intimacy, on the verge of reaching orgasm, smacked of voyeurism, even though it wasn’t technically the right word in the circumstances for this act of furtive listening. Maybe, he postulated, female voices were more noticeable in such circumstances because of their higher register. After all, wasn’t there a marked variation in terms of frequency between male and female? Not a huge divergence, admittedly. You could perhaps think of it as being the difference between the range of a violin and a viola.
He pulled the plug, and the water gurgled away, making an obscene sound as it did so. Prufrock had measured out his life with coffee spoons. What about him? Should he measure his with disposable razors? It seemed an appropriate way to deal with the passage of time: each wet shave a step nearer to oblivion. Yes, maybe that’s what he should do.
Mornings – and the days that followed – were often a blur, and could no longer be differentiated one from the other. There had been a time when he had eagerly counted down towards the weekend. Now, each day was indistinguishable from the next. Today, though, would be different, and whatever unknown quantity lay ahead, the forthcoming hours no longer filled him with apprehension, but rather a keen sense of anticipation.
Dressing hurriedly, he checked the clock, only to find there was ample time. Rather than order a taxi, he would shake off the last vestiges of sleep by walking to the station. It was less than a mile, and the exercise would do him good. The only thing he would need to ensure was that he left nothing behind, despite having already checked the contents of the shoulderbag before he went to bed.
Since breakfast would be served on board the train, and in an attempt to wake up fully, he contented himself with a cup of strong black filter coffee before he left the house. For, despite the obligatory shave and shower, his energy levels were still depleted, like a battery drained of its charge.
With time to spare, he reclined in his favourite armchair and looked out of the window over the park where the streetlamps were still illuminated. On the wall inside the alcove of the fireplace was a cheap fine art reproduction in a wooden frame with a gold finish of Odilon Redon’s pastel of a young woman, Portrait Of Violette Heymann. The artist had captured the niece of the Parisian collector Marcel Kapferer in a pose that seemed to represent a state of reverie as she sat in a chair and gazed to her left at the various flowers on display. Whatever vibrant colours the print may have possessed when it was first manufactured were no longer in evidence, and the intervening years had been unkind, darkening the entire surface to such an extent it was now simply a dingy, foul mess. The frame was perhaps the best thing about the picture. He only kept it for sentimental reasons, since it had once belonged to his mother.
To his left the lead despatcher, clutching a plastic bat like an oversize table tennis paddle, was in position in the middle of the train with his assistant at the front. He was ensuring the track ahead was clear and that no passengers were loitering too close to the platform edge. As the locomotive, with its characteristic sloping driver’s cab, came into the section, the despatcher alerted the signal box by holding down the grey button, connected to the overhead gantry, for approximately five seconds.
From its previous condition of a broken yellow circle, the indicator on each of the coach doors was fully illuminated and passengers alighted. Although the despatch procedure had been initiated, it could always be aborted, even after departure, by the simple expedient of the lead despatcher raising both arms in the air like a soldier offering to surrender to superior forces.
The action of Brock boarding the train and stepping on the pressure pad caused the internal door to slide open with the savagery of a guillotine. When he had booked the ticket, he learned someone had reserved his favourite seat, L61. As a rule, he preferred the corner seat because it faced in the direction of travel, but today fate had determined he would have his back to the engine. It was yet another salient reminder, if such were needed, he had no say in the events that were about to occur.
For the time being, he put his shoulderbag on the floor and adjusted the seat position by pressing the button. He sat back with his head resting on the white antimacassar with its FIRST CLASS legend, stretched out his arms on the two grey plastic armrests and relaxed against the blue fabric. The facing seat, he noted, was reserved from York.
As a teacher on playground duty might endeavour to attract the attention of a group of recalcitrant pupils and bring them to some sort of order, so the shrill double whistle from the lead despatcher had the desired effect of spurring into action the lethargic travellers and hustling them on board, as well as alerting his deputy that departure was imminent.
On the oak-effect table, the breakfast settings were in place. A cup stood upside down on each of the four grey place mats, and on the bottom you could read the maker’s name: DUDSON FINE CHINA. Serviettes were also provided, together with white and brown sugar in paper tubes, and clear acrylic beakers for soft drinks. A Customer Service Assistant would soon be coming round with a trolley containing urns of tea and coffee.
Brock removed the mobile phone from his inside jacket pocket and placed it on the table in front of him. Unzipping a compartment of the shoulderbag, he took out a pair of folded headphones.
By now, the lead despatcher was checking to see if he had obtained the proceed aspect and whether a green light was showing. There were perhaps only thirty seconds before departure and everything was as it should be.
From another compartment of the shoulderbag, Brock took out a slim book. Initially, he had been drawn to the idea of bringing with him the Michel Butor novel La Modification, published in paperback by the Éditions de Minuit, since he considered it appropriate reading material because of its subject matter.
This work had appeared in 1957, a year before his birth. Surely a good omen? But he decided against it because his French was admittedly rusty these days and he would therefore have needed the help of his bulky Collins Robert Dictionary, which would have taken up too much room given its size and weight, so he had abandoned the idea as being impractical.
It’s true, he could have brought the Simon and Schuster version by Jean Stewart entitled A Change Of Heart, but he had already read it and wanted to study the work in the original language. The way in which the title had been rendered still mildly irritated him. As an amateur translator himself, he would have opted for The Modification, or even omitted the definite article altogether – Modification. How was it that this objective, singular French noun had burgeoned into something so florid, so subjective?
After yet another penetrating double blast from the lead despatcher’s whistle, the assistant responded with a single reply and a gloved hand raised in acknowledgment. This resulted in the lead despatcher giving a final whistle and holding the white bat over his head to signal to the guard at the rear of the train that the station workings were complete.
At the outset of this carefully sequenced procedure the guard would have opened the flap with his T-key in readiness to access the control panel, and it was apparent he had activated the central locking mechanism since Brock could hear the coach doors simultaneously sliding shut with a thump along the full length of the train. The illuminated yellow circles would now be extinguished. And once the guard had given two beeps to the driver by depressing the green signal button, the driver responded by drawing power from the overhead lines before releasing the brake and sending two answering beeps to the guard.
Instead of the Butor novel, Brock had selected a book about the German artist Christian Schad. Im Irisgarten, with its repeated mirror images of a naked young woman with red shoulder-length hair, was one of his favourite paintings of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. This second-hand book was first published in May 1999 in Miesbach, Germany. Its carmine cover featured a detail taken from Maika, the 1929 oil on canvas. Maika, or Maria Spangemacher, was Schad’s girlfriend and model at the time.
To reach him, this book had itself travelled on a much longer journey than the one he was about to undertake. At the Antiquariat Am Ungererbad in Munich whoever had wrapped it had paid particular attention to protecting it in transit, so that when he opened the Deutsche Post Priority envelope, he found it swathed like a mummy in bubble wrap and pages taken from one of those free newspapers called Hallo München, which served the areas of Aldstadt, Lehel, Maxvorstadt, and Schwabing. Once he had removed these pages, he discovered two pieces of stiff cardboard forming a protective layer around the book.
Brock scrolled through the music on his mobile. Opening out the headphones like a folded pair of spectacles, he plugged them into the miniature socket at the bottom of the device. Just as the train was moving towards its ultimate destination, the rails stretching into the distance, so the music of Mozart’s K550 moved inexorably forward, the groups of notes on each of the staves representing that temporal movement in symbolic fashion. He settled back in his seat, immersing himself in the familiar turbulence and dramatic contrasts of the first movement, complete with exposition repeat, all of it composed in strict sonata form.