Allegro, establishing the theme.
The District Line
Maybe, of a moment: ratty brown hair parted heavily to the left that almost curled but only managed to look uncombed and slightly greasy, grey cups of skin between cheek and eye, black woollen stockings, short boots with buttons on the side, stripy jumper dress, cocaine habit, love letter crumpled in feathery long fingers. She could have melted away into the soft, suffocating dustiness of the northbound District and Circle platform at Notting Hill Gate.
She was looking for a Tube mouse.
Tube mice are no larger than a breath of dusty air; you could fit an adult in your palm, curl your hand around it, and feel only a whisper of fur. They look a bit like field mice: same tiny teardrop ears, creased neatly on the head, same glassy black eyes, same shape—like a ball of cotton wool—but Tube mice are the colour of the grime they inhabit, some nothing-colour between grey and brown and black.
Not many people know about the mice, not even Londoners, not even though there are photographs, videos, even a children's film about their little lives, all easily accessible. It's strange: if you query the average Londoner about them, he'll look puzzled and more often than not will wonder why you would ask such a thing. There are rats, he'll tell you uncertainly.
Tube mice are a secret that belongs to London commuters. Not all of them, mind—only the ones who've gone past boredom, music players, magazines and free newspapers into a state of walking daydreams, the ones who compose symphonies around the off-tempo of their steps, who find landscapes smudged into the white space of adverts. A gift from the city that understands what they really are. They daydream—and at the back of their minds, they look for a small bustling in the dirt.
Even as she listened to her friends nattering away at the back of the platform, Maybe stared—past her legs and feet, the yellow line, the white cement tiles with the bumps, crisp packets and oily brown grime—at the black eyelets under the rails. The mouse would emerge, if it ever did, from there.
"Oi! Step back," said a voice behind her. "There'll be a train in a minute."
The mice were a strange gift from such a utilitarian, filthy place. When one came, Maybe was always frightened for it: people had such large feet, so many times larger than a mouse—but the mice tumbled over boots and sandals like acrobats, coming out of the crush unscathed. She'd lived in London for most of her life, had taken the Underground nearly every day—and had spotted them fewer than a dozen times.
"May-may," said the voice, "did you hear me? The sign says…oh. Two minutes now."
Maybe moved behind the line, glanced over her shoulder. "Yeah, sorry," she said. The speaker, a blonde girl, put her hands on her hips. For a moment she tried to suss what was going on, but gave up quickly.
Maybe glanced at the sign. One minute. She went back to looking. There was a rustling at the far dip in the tracks. The mouse stopped, mid-step, and looked at her from one eye.
They stared at each other for a breath—until the train swept into the station, severing the mouse from view, and threw Maybe's hair over her eyes. She pulled it behind her ears with sticky fingers.
"Getting on, Bea?" she said to the blonde, without turning around.
"Yeah, all right," said Bea. She turned to face the girls sitting on a bench next to the vending machine. "See you—oi, pay attention, Stacey, I'm saying goodnight to you, you stroppy slag. I'll make it up to you, spilling that drink. I'll buy you that handbag your dad wouldn't get you, yeah?"
"No you won't!" said Stacey, from the other side of the platform. "And I have to wait for the next District train, as well!"
"Why can't you take this one? Go on." Bea was now walking backwards to the train, her arms out in front of her, supplicating.
"Because I've got to take another branch to get to Ealing, haven't I?" said Stacey.
"I swear I will buy you that bag," said Bea, from inside the train. Maybe stepped in after her.
"Yeah, all right," said Stacey.
Drunken shits, thought Maybe as the doors closed and the girls made faces at each other through the glass—but she showed the love letter to her companion, who squinted at it.
"Is that…that letter? From Bertie, yeah?"
"God, what a fucking bastard," said Bea. "Do you have any idea who's it for, darling?"
"Want to sit down?" They moved to the nearest seats. "I told you, I dunno. To be honest with you, it could be to anyone, even you."
Bea looked shocked.
"No," said Maybe, "I don't mean it's actually…look, there aren't any details, so I can't know, can I? He hasn't addressed her once by name, not even a nickname, just gorgeous and babe. I don't even know whether he met her recently or not."
"I wouldn't do that to you, and neither would Stace, nor Clemmie, you know that, don't you?" Bea became serious quickly, to a depth only alcohol could achieve in her. "Maybe. Bella. My Mabsie. You know, you know we wouldn't do that to you, right? I mean, we're your best mates. Right?"
"I don't even care, Bea," said Maybe. "Whoever it is, she doesn't matter. What matters is he wrote it. And it's not to me because bits of it are about me. And he left it in his jacket pocket, the one he lent me, so he obviously thinks me stupid. Good on you—said Bertie was a slut before I even started with him."
"Yeah, I did say."
Maybe looked at her friend, closely. "You want me to walk you from the stop?"
"Yeah, all right. It's not too far, is it?"
"Want to sleep on the sofa?"
The sofa was almost human; it reminded Maybe of a great-aunt on her mother's side who smoked. It was covered in suede, and it caressed with the scent of old wine and cigarette ashes. Its love tended to be too indulgent, too soft, too giving, and not at all orthopaedic.
Every time she slept at Beatrice's house, it went like this: Maybe would be covered in a thin blanket and she would be sleeping in her clothes. Her fingers would shake from the cold of the blonde's flat. As they shook she would lift them in the air, and they would trace impressionist renditions of flies on the ceiling, all by themselves. She would think about how the line of her arm was broken up by elbow and wrist and finger bones, where the burnt olive oil colour of the street lamp collected in pools, around the little mounds of gristle that stuck out of her chicken-wing arms.
She wouldn't bother to take off her shoes, and her makeup would eat away at her face. The next morning, perhaps a pack of fags would get her into class on time.
So she stayed on the train. Bea was too drunk to care, drunk enough to forget that she cared deeply not ten minutes before; she departed saying, "Muah, not sure I'll see you tomorrow but we must do something this weekend, darling, bye!"
Maybe thought about how solid her friendship with Beatrice was, given that Bea wouldn't remember a thing from tonight, nor from most nights. She thought about how her feet were tired of fitting into her boots. She thought of the Tube mice—to Maybe they glowed. By carrying the colour of debris under the tracks, a colour that spoke of silt and oil and dirt and grease, they lifted it, made it soft and gentle. She thought of them with a stone in her heart.
She kept her knees together and her ankles apart, staring at the ground. The train swayed for what seemed like hours without stopping. She wondered why the old District Line cars had ribs of wood sticking up from the floor.
"What are you thinking of, sweetheart?"
"The mice," Maybe said, and looked up—and there, across from her, was a wolf. He held in his hands an ebony cane topped with silver. He had on his feet patent leather shoes.
"Which mice, dear?" asked the wolf. He grinned at her, decay on his breath.
"The Tube mice," said Maybe. "Are you going to eat me?" There was only, she noticed, a homeless man asleep in the far corner of the car.
"But I wouldn't want to eat you, dear," said the wolf. "You look more like cured meat than fresh to me." He threw back his head and laughed.
Maybe didn't know what to say, so she smiled insincerely.
The wolf lowered his chin and, shifting his foot and the tip of his cane, said in a serious voice, "Now really, my love, why would you think such a horrid thing of me? I'm only trying to converse pleasantly on this autumn night."
"Oh," said Maybe. "I do beg your pardon."
The wolf settled back in his seat and grinned jocularly at her. "I," he announced suddenly, "am going to a party."
"How lovely," said Maybe, meaning it.
"It will be a marvellous party, my darling. It will twinkle with the laughter of ladies, shine with the lustre of gold, luminesce with the glitter of champagne, and glow with the aura of a thousand candles."
He asked, "What do you think of that?"
"It sounds brilliant," said Maybe.
"Oh and it will be brilliant," said the wolf. "Brilliant as the stars and the sun and the moon." He put the silver top of the cane to his right with both hands and leaned his head forward over his stretched left arm—to move closer without actually moving. "What about it, my dove? Will you come with me?"
Maybe put her chin in her hands. "Why, would you like me to come?" she asked. "I thought I was no better than cured ham!"
"Cured ham," said the wolf, "can be quite delicate, and delicious when taken with figs and sweet wine." He smiled at her.
The train was moving so smoothly that Maybe looked outside—and found to her delight that it had gone above ground and that the moon was glancing into the car. "I love it when tube trains go above ground," she said.
"You love an autumn moon," said the wolf. "Listen."
There was a soft lolloping sound, like what might happen were a bowl of feathers able to sing, and Maybe saw owls—thousands and thousands of owls—lining the black trees outside from top to bottom. Some were occasionally perched on a rooftop, or a chimney.
"Look, aren't they lovely," said Maybe, wishing one would fly inside the car.
The homeless man was awake and rubbing his eyes. He had on a very old, very grubby hat and a corduroy suit, and when he sat up a multitude of plastic bags rolled or fell in various directions. He yawned, cast an impassive eye out the window, said, "Bloody owls," and tipped his hat to the wolf, who grinned at him.
"Evenin' squire," said the homeless man to the wolf.
"Good evening, Arnaios," replied the wolf. "Fine earnings today?"
"So-so," said the homeless man, scratching behind his neck. "I've seen much better. They're good to me at Christmastime. Hah! Christmas. Too bloody cold for me to have a good hols." He peered at Maybe. "Why, hello there miss. Didn't mean to offend." He began to look quite worried. "I didn't offend you, did I miss?" And the homeless man took his hat from his head and wrung it expressively.
"No, no, not at all."
"Are you sure?"
"Quite sure," said Maybe reassuringly. "I wasn't offended by anything you said."
The wolf laughed. "Really, my dear man, you needn't get so worried! She's not one to jump to conclusions. Are you, sweetheart?"
"No," said Maybe. "Really, it's all right," she continued, standing up and walking to the end of the car, where she patted the old man on the shoulder.
He sniffed and smiled at her, and she could see brilliant white teeth, and she was puzzled.
"You're a good girl," he said.
The train slid to a halt. The homeless man pressed something into her palm, which she put in her pocket. "Here, take this. You'll need it before you're home again," he said. He lowered his voice and murmured in her ear, "And don't ask him his name."
"That's right." The homeless man glanced at the wolf, who was paying attention to delicately removing lint from his suit jacket. "You'll learn it when the time is right. But for heaven's sake don't let anyone else tell it to you but him, and don't ask him for it." He straightened up and patted Maybe on the shoulder. "You'll have a lovely time. Party, is it?"
The wolf looked over at them. "The party to end all parties," he said.
"That's all right then, she'll have a lovely time," said the beggar Arnaios. "This is my stop."
Maybe turned around and saw moonlit ruins, stretching out to an inky sea. The station platforms were partially buried in bone-coloured sand. The train slid noiselessly to a halt and the doors grated open. "Bloody sand," said Arnaios.
Maybe waved him goodbye, but he was sitting on one of the benches, rummaging through a worn and battered supermarket bag. She turned to the wolf and arranged herself on the noxious orange and yellow and brown and black seats, choosing one a bit away from him, next to an empty sour cream and onion crisp tin and a well-loved copy of that day's paper. She needed reminders of her own reality.
A full pack of fags would have been better than an empty crisp tin, she reflected. But then again, who leaves cigarettes on the Tube? And anyway, she had her own. She fished around her handbag and produced a half-pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
The wolf was wagging his finger. "Ah, ah, ah! No smoking on the Underground," he said.
"Bollocks to that," said Maybe. "I reckon no one will be able to write me up for it." Then, more seriously, "And besides, everyone does it after midnight."
The wolf shrugged, and sat back.
"Do you smoke?" she asked him.
"If the tobacco is sweet, and fragrant."
"Would you like one?"
He took it with a smile and put it to his nose. "It's a bit stale. I don't like it, but I will smoke it for solidarity's sake." He produced a silver filigree lighter—its tendrils and fine leaves glinting—and lit Maybe's cigarette, then his own. He blew smoke delicately, downwind, so as not to let it float into her eyes. "We don't have much longer to go," he said.
"Well," said Maybe, "how do I get home?"
"You're worrying about how to get home!" exclaimed the wolf. "Oh dear. Have you never been to a party before?"
"Of course I have," said Maybe irritably.
"You must go as if you have all the time in the world to be there," said the wolf, "even if you only plan to 'make an appearance', as they say. You must," and here he began to gesticulate with his cigarette, "you must set the time for the party. You must be the party," said he.
"Really," said Maybe, unimpressed.
"My darling," pleaded the wolf. "Really now. You'll have such a good time. I'll make sure of it."
"We'll see," said Maybe. Her back was beginning to ache, the muscles to twist. Normally she would have a hot water bottle under it and a blanket over her head and some ibuprofen in her blood, but now all she could do was smoke. This, this was the downside, the payment for self-medication. The insidious sadness, the existential worthlessness, the contorting, cramping muscles, all this was chemical and by God she would wait it out and take her lumps. And for her, it was worth it, because twenty minutes of coke high meant twenty minutes of a blank slate, and no emotional baggage, and you could keep on doing it right up to the day you had a heart attack because you hadn't had a drink of water for hours and you were dancing like a cat in a bag and you were chain smoking and your pulse was 200 bpm and your heart just went whump and that was it for you.
"Don't put on that face," said the wolf. "We're nearly at our stop."
"It must be four in the morning already," said Maybe.
"Not at all!" he exclaimed. "It's only midnight."
"Not on your life," said Maybe. "I left the pub at half twelve."
"It's always midnight," said he, flicking his cigarette stub onto the floor and grinding it in with the tip of his shoe. "Until we want to leave, and then it's exactly half past one."
What the bloody hell am I doing in a fairy tale, thought Maybe. But she said, "Oh."
"You don't believe me," said the wolf, matter-of-factly. He drew out his pocket-watch, and Maybe had to exclaim on it.
"What a lovely watch!" she said, for it was a lovely watch, detailed in gold, with separate dials for the day and month, and a third, larger dial that Maybe didn't recognise, the face full of figures and animals painted in miniature and lacquered so that they shone like jewels.
"Look, please," said the wolf. Maybe looked closer, and there! the minute hand was quivering over midnight.
"Why, it's broken!" she exclaimed.
"Not at all," said the wolf. "It works perfectly, and has done so for many years." He leaned back and once more crossed his legs, revealing lilac silk socks. He put the watch back into his waistcoat pocket and looked at her thoughtfully.
"Those aren't…kid gloves, are they?" asked Maybe.
"Funny how some people can't tell the difference between wolves and trolls," said the wolf. As he spoke he adjusted his gloves by pushing a fingertip into the seams between his fingers, one by one.
"That's right, sorry. It was a troll in that story, wasn't it," said Maybe, chagrined.
"I don't mean you, my darling," said the wolf. "Really, I can understand them—nobody wants to put their eyes close enough to either of us to find out for certain. I'm happy to let the trolls have credit for that one—who knows what would become of my reputation were I to admit of philanthropy?"
"What do you mean?"
"Those billy goats were an utter nuisance, my love. Gruff isn't even the word. They were absolute pigs, trip-trapping about delicate historical sites just as careless as you please. They could have ruined a national treasure, just like that. Did you know, that bridge dated from the Norman invasion? Shocking," said the wolf. "And speaking of pigs, don't get me started on building-permit violations."
"But you have done some horrible things," said Maybe.
"Maybe," said the wolf. "Maybe not."
"My name is Maybe. Well, it's actually Maybelle."
The wolf sat up straight. "Really," he said. "Then I shall have to tread carefully with you, my dear."
"Don't worry your lovely head about it," said the wolf. "By-the-bye, what was it the old man gave you?"
Maybe ran her thumb over the package in her pocket. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with packing twine. "I don't think I'll open it just yet," she said.
"Well, add this to your stash of treasure," said the wolf. He dipped the first two fingers of his right hand in the inner pocket of his coat. Out of this pocket he brought a something gripped between the tips of his fingers, a something that shone gently, and held it out to her. Maybe took it from him and examined it. It was his business card. It said, in a red deep as antique port, in generously looping script: "Wolf, MD PhD FRS FRI c/o H.R.H. the Duchess of Kent. Lupus in fabula."
"What are you a doctor of?"
"Philosophy," said the wolf. "Cambridge. 1909."
"And a medical doctor," said Maybe.
"Oh, I lied about that one," said the wolf. "Everyone sees a PhD and they assume you know medicine. I was simply exhausted from telling them otherwise, and so I just changed my card." He reached out for the card with his left hand and took a fountain pen from his pocket with his right. Maybe handed him the card. He crossed out the "MD" very carefully in carmine-coloured ink and handed the card back to her.
"You're a Fellow of the Royal Institution," Maybe said.
"I'm surprised you recognise the credentials."
"My father pays dues."
"Of course I became a Fellow when becoming a Fellow was impossible," said the wolf. "Michael Faraday had trouble when I'd been attending their luncheons for at least two years."
Maybe put the card in her pocket.
"Be sure you keep careful hold of that," said the wolf. "Show it to anyone and they'll direct you."
"Why does everyone keep giving me presents?"
"Everything is more pleasant when there are presents exchanged," said the wolf.
"But I haven't given you a present," said Maybe.
"You have," said the wolf. He flipped his fingers over, in a movement that might have traced a crescent moon, and there was the cigarette Maybe had given him, untouched, between his fingertips.
Maybe said nothing, only lit another from her pack.
"I wouldn't smoke too many of those," said the wolf. "And if you perchance smoke them all, do keep hold of the empty packet. Familiar things are so lovely and grounding." He put the cigarette away carefully.
Maybe took a bit of tobacco from the tip of her tongue. "These are rubbish, anyway. They've been in my bag too long."
"Not to worry," said the wolf. "Just ask me for one instead."
"I shall. Thank you."
The train shuddered a bit. Maybe glanced up, then gestured at the window, astonished.
"Oh, are we at the bridge?" he asked.
"Yes," said Maybe.
"The bridge" was a spindly web of rusted iron that plunged hundreds of feet into the blackness; Maybe could not see the bottom. A chasm extended for miles on either side of the train, which whipped along the track with the sole intent, it seemed to Maybe, of toppling over. The bluffs on either side were bare rock, their tops covered in tall grasses; there was not a tree nor bush in sight. Far away, across the gap, just visible in the moonlight, a structure of some kind had attached itself to the train track—a station, perhaps—the only blemish on that featureless plain.
She grinned at the wolf maniacally.
"Having fun, dear?" he asked.
"So much fun!"
"You're a smart girl," he replied.
Maybe opened her window and leaned out over the darkness, shouting. When she pulled her head back inside the train, her cheeks were rosy and her hair wild. "Amazing!" she said.
"You look very well, darling," remarked the wolf.
Maybe leaned her head out of the window again. The wolf smiled, and checked his pocket-watch.
"Can you see the end?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "Fast approaching." A second or two, and she said, "There it goes. Did you see that? The bridge—swallowed up by the rock." She brought her head back inside.
"Amazing," she said again.
"Can you guess its name?"
"No," she said. "I wouldn't even like to try." She sat down again and picked at her stockings, removing pills and tossing them on the floor. "How long 'til our stop, then?"
"Not long," he said. "Move closer to me, please."
Maybe looked up. "What?"
"This is the last stop before ours. Move towards me, please." The wolf had his arm draped over the back of the seats.
Maybe did not like the tone of his voice, and so did as she was told. The wolf, who was holding his cane in his right hand, tilted it down, so that it came to rest on the edge of the empty seat on Maybe's other side—as if shutting her in, away from the carriage. The doors slid open.
A woman drifted in over the floorboards. She was beautiful: ragged flaxen curls like corkscrews poking out of her head in every direction, pale, nearly translucent skin, and spidery, delicate arms.
But Maybe pressed the back of her knees against her seat and her feet against the floor; she gripped the cushion with both hands and felt dizzy. The beautiful woman's eyes were so rolled up in their sockets that only a faint, quivering shadow could be seen of her irises, and the corners of her rosy lips pulled down so violently that all that could be seen of her teeth were specks of pearl rising from her gums.
She did not step but moved, like mist, to the seat directly opposite Maybe, where she sat. Maybe sobbed once, then bit her tongue to hold it in place. The woman drew the hood of her deep red cloak over her face, so that not even her chin could be seen. Her hands moved gently in the air—a maiden's hands.
"Who are you?" said the wolf.
"Pruh…preen…sssss," said the apparition, in a whisper.
"A princess," said the wolf.
"Eh…ehyeh…sss." The fingers fluttered.
"Funny things, the creatures that come from that stop," said the wolf, to Maybe. "Perfectly harmless." But he angled his cane so that it rested across her knees.
"Have one of your cigarettes," he said.
"I shouldn't use them up," said Maybe.
"Go on," he said. "You have a few left." He was right; her packet didn't look much emptier than when she first got on the train.
Maybe nodded, and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. She did not let a single part of her body pass the barrier the wolf had created with his cane. The smoke surrounded her in a stale, soothing cloud. She brought the cigarette to her lips but did not breathe in—then lowered her arm again, letting it burn merrily away between her fingertips.
The package from Arnaios lay heavily in her pocket. She picked it up and held it, rubbing her thumb over the twine, but did not take it out of her pocket, lest the woman see it and take it from her.
The train entered a town. The strange woman twisted towards the shining lights, as if her dead eyes could see through the heavy fabric.
"Princess," said Maybe, and the apparition turned.
"Are you going to the party?"
"Good. I hope we see each other," said Maybe. The wolf looked at her in astonishment.
The woman tilted her head to one side. "Th…aht…is…hluv…lee…for…hyuh…to…say," she said. She turned back towards the window.
"Well my dear," said the wolf, under his breath, "while that sort of conversation is indicative of some very admirable sentiments on your part, I must ask you to refrain from it in future. You should not speak to her. It is not good for you," Maybe opened her mouth to protest, "and it is certainly not good for her."
"I shan't, then."
"Good," said the wolf.
"You are very peculiar," said Maybe to him, at a normal volume.
"Originality," he replied, "is an art that becomes more difficult to achieve with each passing day." The train began to slow. "Come, sweetheart. We're at our stop."