M. T. O’BYRNE
By Another Route
Mrs Carter-Bryce was holding a red umbrella and a small bag of liquorice all-sorts. She was wearing her comfortable shoes, the ones she’d bought in June. She had a long way to walk. They were best, she thought. No sense in getting too dressed up.
‘I thought I’d make us spaghetti bolognaise tonight,’ she said to her husband. ‘But I’m out of tomatoes.’
A breeze swept in from the street, disturbed the curtains by the entrance and ruffled a newspaper.
‘And garlic,’ she added, pausing by the door as if reticent to leave. ‘I’ll be out all afternoon, probably. I have to see… I have to call in on Mrs Dougherty about that sewing she wanted done. You remember?’
She stepped out into the street, her heart beating, thinking that at any moment he would come after her and ask her about the sewing. He never took much notice of what she said, thank God. She may as well have told him: ‘I’m just popping out to see that nice young man. You know, the one that’s just been released from jail. Yes, for murder, dear. I’m hoping he’ll be open to another.’
There was no nice young man, however. And Mrs Dougherty had died in her bed on Tuesday, while pretending to read a French newspaper. She always affected intellectualism: ‘Oh, there’s nothing like reading Proust in the original, my dearest. Here, you may have my copy of his first volume, if you like.’
The book was on the bedside table, next to a French-English dictionary. Mrs Dougherty wouldn’t miss it, Mrs Carter-Bryce thought. Not now, in any case. And it wouldn’t be missed as part of her estate, for that was promised to her dogs, none of which could read and despite Mrs Dougherty’s protestations to the contrary, couldn’t understand French any more than she could.
At the corner of Observatory Gardens, Mrs Carter-Bryce looked back to make sure she wasn’t being followed. There was no reason she should be followed. She’d not been followed yesterday. Still, she stopped, adjusted her collar, and looked over her shoulder; a very subtle glance, as if she were turning to the wind to blow the hair from her face.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Carter-Bryce,’ the porter said.
Where had he come from? she wondered. She smiled. He kept on walking and went into his office. The porter would be asked questions later. No matter, she thought. What could he say? ‘Yes, constable, I saw the lady at about 12:30 pm. No, sir, she looked fine. Yes, she had a red umbrella.’
I must get rid of the umbrella, she thought. But not now. Keep on walking.
A peel of bells wafted by.
Was someone getting married at St Mary Abbots church? Mrs Carter-Bryce wondered. Not a very nice day for a wedding. Overcast. Rainy. The nicest peel of bells in the world, though. Better than anywhere on the continent. A lovely sound. A happy ring for most. I shall miss them, she thought.
She looked down at her finger. She tried to remove her wedding ring, but it was on too tight. Have to take it off on the tube, she thought. But perhaps that would look strange. Best leave it on for now.
She heard the words of an ancient priest in her mind: ‘Do you take… To love and to cherish?’ The priest’s probably dead now, she thought, or living in decrepitude, praying that the Virgin Mary will take mercy on his soul, or else thumbing his bible, looking for absolution for his turpitude.
An old lady was pulling a shopping trolley up Hornton Street. Her gaze was fixed on the wet pavement. Was she alone? Mrs Carter-Bryce wondered. Or was she living with an aged husband, whose mind had been addled by dementia. Alone either way, she thought.
Mrs Carter-Bryce stopped to look in a shop window, which was crowded with overpriced antiques: silver boxes, cracked plates, paintings in golden frames, watches stopped at various hours. Like me, these things, she thought.
A man inside the shop looked over his glasses, and with this one look must have determined that the woman outside would not come in.
Taking this as a challenge, Mrs Carter-Bryce walked in. The door rang music from a little bell.
The man stood up, ruffling like a newspaper.
Mrs Carter-Bryce walked around the shop, bending to look at something here, craning to see something there. Touching, very carefully—‘all breakages must be paid for’—this and that trinket. She meandered around the shop, all the while twiddling her ring. And when, at last, she had removed it, she stood before the shopkeeper and asked: ‘How much will you give me for this ring? It’s 18 carat gold.’
The man took the ring, held it up for inspection, said, ‘Hmm,’ then placed it down on the counter.
A click of a switch and the dark shop was filled with light. Previously dull crystal vases came to life and distributed this light in purples and greens about the busy walls of the shop before finally being captured and confused by the angular faces of various knick-knacks in glass cabinets.
A shabby cuckoo emerged from a clock, said nothing, and went back inside.
‘Yes, well, I might be interested,’ he said, raising a sceptical eyebrow, ‘but you’ll have to come back on Friday as I’d need a second opinion. I’m just filling in today. Not really my area. Do you mind?’
Outside, Mrs Carter-Bryce thought that she did mind. Thought, indeed, that a gold ring was a gold ring and should only need to be weighed and its fading hallmark examined. She wrapped the ring in a tissue and put it into her purse. It would be safe there for now, she thought, placing the purse in her handbag.
Exiting onto Kensington High Street, Ms Bryce – yes, why not, she thought, and found this notion added celerity to her step – was overwhelmed by the colour red, the colour of London. Three buses in a line like toys; a post box standing aloof on the pavement; brake lights painted on the road; the Tube. And now her red umbrella in a bin.
‘The umbrella’s broken,’ Ms Bryce said to the policemen that stopped her at the entrance to the Tube. One of them retrieved it. Ms Bryce clutched the strap of her handbag. Now I’ll be found out, she thought. But why are these two so concerned about an umbrella in a bin? Oh, he’s coming back with it, probably to tell me that it seems perfectly all right. Can’t a person dispose of something without suffering an inquisition. ‘No, it’s broken,’ she said. ‘Is there a law now against disposing of an umbrella in a public place?’
No, of course there wasn’t a law, Ms Bryce thought, touching in with her Oyster card. A ridiculous thing. And were we so much safer knowing that policemen rocked on their heels, watching, clutching at guns, and keeping their avid eyes out for suspicious looking umbrellas? Ridiculous. But now, of course, she thought, the porter would not be asked if she had been carrying an umbrella. Or maybe he would? ‘She was captured on CCTV depositing her umbrella into a bin at – the detective examines his notes – at Kensington High Street station at 12:51 pm…’
The Circle line train was late owing to a delay on the District line.
Across the loudspeaker: ‘Customers are reminded to always touch in and touch out with their Oyster cards.’
Customers are reminded, Ms Bryce thought, that in this inclement weather the arbitrary disposal of perfectly serviceable umbrellas in bins will attract the attention of security personnel.
Ms Bryce was reminded about touching in and touching out a further thirteen times before the train came.
The train arrived and Ms Bryce got in and sat down. Two stops, she recalled, then get off, change to the Piccadilly line, then to St Pancras.
A young couple sat opposite her. The man had dark hair; he was whispering something in the woman’s ear. The woman smiled and then laughed. They kissed.
Love, Ms Bryce thought. I remember that. She smiled. I had been in love once. On Brighton beach. Making sand castles with a red bucket and spade. ‘This shall be our house,’ she’d said, laughing. ‘No, this shall be one of our houses,’ and made another alongside.
She took out a tissue and looked back at the young couple, who had stopped kissing and were now staring at her.
‘I’m okay,’ she said to them. ‘It’s the air down here. That’s all. I must be allergic to the Tube.’
The couple smiled. The train stopped at Gloucester Rd and they got off. At the door the woman turned round and looked at Ms Bryce with a sad expression.
Ms Bryce smiled as if to say, ‘I’m all right, dear. Don’t worry about me.’ She sat up straight. I’m all right, she thought as the doors closed.
In a tunnel now. Everything outside the window is black and white. Like going back in time, Ms Bryce thought. And this is what black and white smells like. She breathed deeply through her nose, closed her eyes and saw a man in a hat.
How old fashioned her husband had looked when she’d first met him, she thought. Her romantic notions of his dress were soon contradicted by his actions. It should have been a warning sign: sartorially conservative man seeks meek wife for may-they-live-miserably-ever-after marriage.
Ms Bryce used to be a talker. Effervescent, her friends had described her. Jane most of all. ‘Oh, what do you want to go and marry him for?’ she’d asked. ‘Not meant for you, that man. Rich, yes. But there’s more to life than…’
I wonder, Ms Bryce thought, if I can ever be like the woman I used to be? I’ll have to buy new clothes. Be more carefree. But then I might seem eccentric. Too old now to be carefree. People would nod their concurrence at her bold choice, but telling on their faces would be a contrary expression, one that would say: ‘How foolhardy! Don’t let her near the children! Keep her away from the dog!’
The train arrived at South Kensington. Ms Bryce got off and made her way up the breezy passageways to the Piccadilly line, where a train was waiting. She got on and sat down opposite a mother and her son. She was smiling as if recalling a pleasant memory, but was, in fact, imagining teaching dogs to understand French: ‘You dogs must simply listen to Proust in the original.’ She laughed.
The mother and son got up and moved to another part of the car.
There they go, Ms Bryce thought. The mother shepherding her son.
We should have had children. But no. Children were noisy and messy. ‘I love children,’ her husband had said before they were married. A lie! Ms Bryce thought. No children, no love, just… existence.
The train arrived at King’s Cross and Ms Bryce was swept out of the car by a crowd and taken up some stairs, an escalator and then was cast upon the entrance to the Eurostar terminal.
She sat down on a bench and opened her bag of liquorice allsorts. As she ate, she wondered if she would be able to buy liquorice in Paris. But it wouldn’t matter if she couldn’t, she thought, for there would be éclair chocolate and millefeuille, shops full of odds and ends, people in blue jackets, vowels pronounced in kisses, and trilled consonants rolling off tongues.
A newspaper ruffled behind her.
Two policemen then stood stock still in front of her. The umbrella was broken, she thought, and that is why I left it behind.
There were no more liquorice allsorts left. The bag was empty. Ms Bryce neatly folded the bag and put it away in her purse. What could they want, these policemen? she wondered. And now they want me to stand up.
‘No, my name’s Ms Bryce,’ she said.
‘Mrs Carter-Bryce, a man in a suit behind the uniformed policemen said, stepping forward.
‘That’s not my name.’ The impertinence, Ms Bryce thought. She withdrew a tissue from her sleeve and dabbed her eyes. ‘Is this about my red umbrella?’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
M.T. O’Byrne is an Australian writer currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. He has previously been published in The Westerly, SWAMP and Black Denim Lit.