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King Solomon's Carpet
By Ruth Rendell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd.
All rights reserved.
A GREAT MANY THINGS that other people did all the time she had never done. These were the ordinary things from which she had been protected by her money and her ill-health. She had never used an iron nor threaded a needle, been on a bus nor cooked a meal for other people, earned money, got up early because she had to, waited to see the doctor or stood in a queue.
Her great-grandmother had never dressed herself without the help of a lady's maid, but times had changed since then.
Places had not changed much and the family still lived at Temple Stephen in Derbyshire. They still spent Christmas quietly and had a big house party for the New Year. They played games as they always had, Consequences and Kim's Game and a game her brother had invented called Closing Pepper Gate. Sometimes they took bets on the heights or depths of things and the location of things and the number of things.
One of the guests asked the others to bet on how many metro systems there were in the world. They asked him if he knew the answer, for if he did not how would they ever find out? He said of course he did, he would not have suggested it otherwise.
She said, "What's a metro system?"
"An underground railway. A tube."
"Well, how many are there?"
"That's what I'm asking. You name the number of your choice and put ten pounds in the kitty."
"In the world?" she said.
"In the world."
She had no idea. She said twenty, thinking that must be far too many. Someone said sixty, someone else said twelve. The man who had proposed the wager was smiling and, seeing his smile, their sister said a hundred, her brother-in-law ninety.
He won and got the kitty. The answer was eighty-nine.
"One for every year of the century," someone said, as if it were appropriate.
"I've never been in the tube," she said.
At first no one believed her. She was twenty-five and she had never been in the tube. It was quite true. She mostly lived in the country and she was rich. Also she was not strong, there was a little something wrong with her heart, a murmur, a valve that functioned less than perfectly. The older people called her "delicate." She had been told that having children might present problems, but nothing that could not be managed. She might want children one day but not yet.
It made her lazy, it made her rather self-indulgent. For instance, she never felt guilty about lying down after lunch. She liked having people about to look after her. It had never occurred to her to get any sort of job.
Since she was seventeen she had had her own car and when she came to London, a fleet of private hire cars at her disposal, not to mention the taxis that swept round the Mayfair corners. She had been married and divorced, had had fifteen lovers, give or take a little, had been to the United States seventeen times, to Africa twice, explored from a car or at a leisurely pace the capitals of Europe, twice circled the world, done the "sophisticated" things but left undone so many ordinary things. And she had never been in the London Underground.
She had no intention of going into it. You heard such stories! Rapes, assaults, gangs, fires, trains halted through suicides, the rush hour.
Her brother, who was also her twin, said when they were back in London, "I shouldn't bother. Who cares whether you have or not? I've never been in St. Paul's Cathedral. I hate it, I'd like to destroy it."
"What, St. Paul's?"
"The tube. I'd like to raze it and plough over the site like the Romans did with Carthage."
She laughed. "You can't raze something that's already underground."
"It runs under my flat. I can't stand it, I hear it in the early hours."
"Move, then," she said idly. "Why don't you move?"
She rested after lunch and then a taxi took her up to Hampstead and a shop that sold a certain kind of ethnic clothes not available elsewhere. The shop was round the corner in Back Lane. She bought a dress made for a Peruvian bride, high-necked, tight-waisted, with big sleeves and a big floor-length skirt, white as a white rose, with white satin ribbons and white lace. They said they would send it, they got so far as taking her address, but she changed her mind, she wanted to wear it that night.
There was no shortage of taxis going down Heath Street and Fitzjohn's Avenue. She let them pass, came to Hampstead tube station and thought what an adventure it would be to go home in a train. Buying the dress had altered her mind. She was possessed by a reckless excitement.
This she knew to have its pathetic side. What would they say to her if they knew, these people who were obliged to use this means of transport day in, day out? The thought of their contempt, their disgust and envy, drove her in.
Some minutes were occupied in the buying of a ticket. She did not know what to ask for at the ticket window so she essayed the machine. It was a triumphant moment when the yellow ticket fell into the space behind the small window, bringing her change with it. She watched what other people did, showing their tickets to the man in the booth, and she did the same.
There was a staircase. A notice informed the public that this was the deepest Underground station in London, three hundred stairs to the bottom. Passengers were advised to take the lift. The gates of the lift closed as she approached it. If she waited, surely another would come. It was then that she reflected how complicated a process it was, this traveling by tube. She thought of herself as intelligent and had been called so. How was it then that all these ordinary people seemed to manage it with effortless ease?
The lift came and she got into it fearfully. She was alone in the lift. Would she have to operate it herself and, if so, how? It was a relief when others came, others who took no notice of her but, if they thought of her at all, must think her as seasoned a traveler as they. An illuminated indicator told them to stand clear of the doors and then they closed. The lift went down on its own accord.
Down there in the depths, and she was very aware of how deep it was, a sign pointing ahead and then to the left said: Trains. Some people, instead of going ahead, turned directly left, thus indicating their sophistication, their experience, their refusal to be balked of a short cut by officialdom. On the platform she was not at all sure that she was in the right place. She might find herself not being carried down to London, but spirited away to distant unknown suburbs such as Hendon and Colindale.
The train coming in made a noise that was fearful and seemed dangerous. All her energies were devoted to appearing in the eyes of others as nonchalant. At the same time she watched them to see what they did. It seemed that she might sit anywhere she chose, that there were no rules to obey. She had never been very obedient in other areas of her life but in the tube she was a child again, learning, wary, and without that presence which had always been there in her childhood.
She sat in a seat near the doors. To be near the doors seemed safest. She had forgotten this was supposed to be an adventure, an experience her life lacked. It had become an endurance test. The train started and she breathed deeply, with hands folded in her lap, artificially composed into an attitude of relaxation, she took long slow breaths. Her fear was that it would stop in the tunnel. She understood that she did not like tunnels, though this was something she had previously been unaware of. She did not have claustrophobia in small rooms or lifts. It was possible she had never been in a tunnel before except perhaps in a car going quickly through some underpass.
But she was surviving. She was all right. The train came in Belsize Park and she looked curiously out at the station. This one and the next, Chalk Farm, were tiled in white and buff, reminding her of the servants' bathroom at Temple Stephen. She occupied herself with studying a map on the opposite wall because she knew she would have to change trains at some point. Tottenham Court Road must be at that point, an exchange from the black line to the red. This train would take her there, was bearing her there rapidly now, and at the station she would follow the signs, for signs there must be, to the Central Line going westward.
They had reached Camden Town, blue and cream, another shabby bathroom.
It was unpleasant, what happened next. Such things happen in bad dreams, dreams of the recurring kind from which one awakens in panic and fear, though she had never dreamed anything like this. How could she, never before having been in the tube?
The next station should have been Mornington Crescent but it was not. It was Euston. It took her quite a long time to understand what had occurred and what she had done wrong. The map explained, once she understood how to use the map. By this time she was trembling.
The train she was in was one bound for south London, as perhaps all were, but it would be reached via the Bank instead of Tottenham Court Road, describing a loop through the City to do so. She had got into the wrong train.
All this time she had scarcely noticed there were other people in the car with her. Now she did. They did not look like the kind of people she usually associated with but seemed inimical, common, even savage, and with truculent, peevish faces. She told herself to be calm. Nothing irreversible had taken place. She could change at Bank and take the Central Line, the red line, from there.
At King's Cross a large number of people got in. This was the station where the fire had been, she had read about it and seen it on television. Her husband—she had still been married then—told her not to look.
"Don't get involved. There's no one you're likely to know."
She could see nothing out of the window to show there had been a fire. By the time the train moved off she could see nothing at all out of the window, she could scarcely see the window, so many people were squeezed between her and it. She sat very still, making herself small, the bag with the dress in it crammed behind her legs, telling herself it was a privilege to have a seat. There were people, thousands if not millions of people, who did this every day.
One thing to be thankful for was that no more could get in. She had to revise this at Angel and again at Old Street. Perhaps a point was never reached where no more could get in, but they would be pushed and crushed until they died or the sides of the car burst with the pressure of them. She thought of a tired analogy she had often heard, people in a crowded train compared to sardines in a tin. If things go wrong inside a tin, gases build up and the contents swell and the whole thing explodes ...
After Moorgate she had to think how she would get out at the next station.
She watched what others did. She found it was not possible even to get up out of her seat without shoving people, elbowing her way, pushing past them. The doors had come open and there was a voice on a public address system shouting something. If she could not get out the train would carry her on to the next station, to London Bridge, it would carry her on under the river. That was what that band on the map was, that zone of blue bending up and back like a water pipe, the river.
Others got out and she was carried along with them. It would have been hard at that point not to be ejected from the train. She felt tumbled out, pushed and pummelled. On the platform the thick, sour air seemed fresh after the atmosphere inside the car. She breathed deeply. Now she must find the red line, the Central Line.
The strange thing was that it did not occur to her then to follow the Way Out signs, leave the station and go out into the street where a taxi could be found. It occurred to her later, when she was in the westbound Central Line train, but not then, not when she was trying to find her way to the interchange. All her concentration and all her thought were bent on finding where to go, on doing it right. The bag with the dress in it was crushed, her pale shoes were covered with black scuff marks. She felt soiled.
Once she went wrong. She waited for some minutes on a platform, a train came and she would have got into it if that had been possible. She could not have brought herself to do as some did, step in and squash her body against the bodies of those who formed the dense wad of people which already bulged from the open doors. The doors ground to a close. Looking up at the illuminated sign overhead she was glad she had not attempted to push her way in. The train was going eastwards, bound for a place called Hainault she had never heard of.
She made the transfer to the right platform. A great many people were waiting. A train came in, going to another place she had never heard of, Hanger Lane. She knew the direction was right, it would stop at Bond Street where she wanted to be. She began to feel that if she did this a few more times she would get the hang of it. For all that, once would be enough for her.
Entering the train was not so bad as entering the eastbound one would have been. It was possible to walk in without pushing or being pushed, though there was no question of finding a seat. Others stood, so she could too, it would not be for long. What she should have done was obey the voice that told her to pass right along the car. Instead, she stayed near the doors, holding on as best she could to an upright rail, the bag with the dress in it clutched in her other hand.
A man, quite young, was sitting in the seat nearest to the door. Of course he would get up and offer her his seat. She waited for this to happen. All her life men had given up their seats to her, at point-to-points and tennis matches, their window seats in aircraft, their centrally positioned armchairs in balconies overlooking royal routes. This man stayed where he was and read the Star. She held on to the rail and to her bag.
At St. Paul's a great throng crammed the platform. She saw a sea of faces, each stamped with a kind of purposeful, hungry urgency, a determination to get into this train. As before, when she was on the Northern Line, she thought there must be some rule, some operating law, that would stop more than a limited, controlled number getting in. Authority would appear and stop it.
But authority did not appear, not even in the form of a disembodied voice, and the people came on in, on and on, more and more of them, a marching army, a shoving, crushing battering ram of men and women. She could not see if the platform emptied because she could not see the platform. A man, pushing past her, swept the dress bag out of her hand, carrying it along with him in his thrusting progress. She could see it still, made an ineffectual grab at it, seized only a girl's skirt instead and, relinquishing it with a gasp, saw its wearer's face loom close to hers, as distressed as her own must be.
The bag was bundled and squeezed, stretched and squashed, between the legs of the stumbling mass. There was no possibility of her reaching it. She did not dare let go but hung on to the rail, where another four hands also hung on, for dear life. Faces were closer to hers than faces had ever been, except those of lovers in the act of love. The back of a head pushed one of them aside and pressed so close into her face that hair came into her mouth, she could smell the less than clean hair and see the beads of dandruff. She turned her face, twisted her neck, found her eyes meeting a man's eyes, their eyes close and gazing, as if they were about to kiss. His eyes were dead, purposely glazed over, blinded to deny contact.
And then, as the doors groaned shut and the train moved, the fidgeting, the adjusting of positions, the shifting of hands, ceased and all became still. Everyone froze into stillness like people playing the statues game when the music stops. She knew why. If the heaving had continued, if there had been continuous restless movement, existence inside the train would have been impossible. People would begin to scream. People would begin to beat each other in their frenzy at something so intolerable imposed upon them.
They were still. Some held their chins high, stretching necks, their expressions agonized, like martyrs in paintings. Others hung their heads in meek submission. It was worst for the very short, like the fat girl she could see between face and face and back of head, standing with nothing to hold on to, supported by those who surrounded her, her head under the men's elbows, a woman's handbag, clutched under an arm, driving its hard corners into her throat.
By now she had lost sight of the dress bag. Acquiring its contents had been the purpose of her outing, but she no longer cared about it. She cared about surviving, about remaining very still and suffering, enduring, holding on until the train reached Chancery Lane. There she would get out of the train and the system. She should have got out of the system at Bank, she knew that now. To lose the dress, the white Peruvian wedding dress, was a small price to pay for escape.
Excerpted from King Solomon's Carpet by Ruth Rendell. Copyright © 1991 Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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