‘Does your boyfriend, I mean, partner smoke?’ he asks, trying, but failing, to make the question seem as casual as possible. He’s already clocked that her fingers are bare of adornments, a promising sign. She takes a puff of her cigarette, and replies without looking at him.
‘No’. Another puff.
‘I don’t have a boyfriend.’
There are two kinds of smokers, social smokers and proper smokers. Paul is firmly in the former camp, smoking only with a drink, usually somebody else's cigarettes. Paul's colleagues are surprised when he starts taking smoking breaks all of a sudden. But Paul has spotted Maria, although he doesn't yet know her name. She works for a different company in the same building. He tries to get a feel for the timings of her cigarette breaks. She’s usually with a colleague. A stern-looking woman with too much make-up and a rather severe fringe. On these occasions, Paul tries to look cool, pretending to text while trying to catch snippets of her conversation, She’s a Northerner; Lancashire probably. This is the first time he's managed to catch her alone.
And this is how it starts for Paul and Maria; standing, smoking, shivering and stamping in the cold, outside an office block in London, EC4. The City, but only just. The pub names reflect the area's history – 'The Printer's Devil','The Cartoonist' – but the printing presses and the newspapers are long gone. It's all accountancy and law firms now.
Paul’s dad had been a proper smoker, smoking in the street, smoking in bed, smoking at breakfast - drinking tea and tapping his ash into the empty shell of the boiled egg he’d just consumed. He’d died in his sleep at 52 with the Golden Virginia and Rizlas within easy reach. Paul had taken up smoking half-heartedly at university to fit in with the middle-class kids with their endless supplies of Marlboro Lights. Even now, he has the good sense never to smoke in front of his mother; it would break her heart. Whenever he lights up, he is transported back to dad's funeral. I hope you have the good sense never to smoke, he hears his mother saying. Don’t die young and leave a family behind like your dad. Mum, I promise. Mum, I promise.
'Let's use the self-service. That one's free.'
'I don't like them.'
'Come on. Why queue? We've only got a few things for the picnic.' Paul snatches the basket and heads for the free berth. She presses the button to start the process.
'Unexpected item in the bagging area.'
'What the ...' Maria says, puzzled. 'I haven't even put anything through yet.'
'See,' he says. 'I told you it would end in tears.'
'You liar. It was your idea.' She punches him in the arm.
'It's probably those plastic bags. Move them. I'll call the guy over.'
'Wait; what's this? It looks like a jewellery box. The last person must have left it; did you see them?'
'I'd better hand it in to customer services. You watch the shopping.'
'Why do I need to watch it? We haven't even paid for it yet.'
'Just watch it. I'm not going around again. It took you long enough to choose the cheese the first time.'
'Kraft slices or Dairylea slices. You have to weigh up the pros and cons.'
'Stay there. I'm taking it over.'
'You're going nowhere until we see what it is.'
'It might be valuable.'
'What do you know about jew...'
'I bought it,' he interrupts. 'It's yours.'
'Unexpected item in the bagging area.'
'You'd better pick it up. You're drawing attention to us.' She lifts it up gingerly between her thumb and forefinger.
'Open it.' She obeys.
He takes a deep breath.
She laughs. 'Say it.'
'Will you … pack the shopping?'
She punches him again.
'Yes, I bloody will. Let's get to the park before it closes.'
'We'll need this.' He pulls a bottle of champagne from behind his back.'
'Got any glasses?'
They're walking along the sea-front, what they used to call a promenade. It's cold, it's windy.
They stand at the railings that stop drunks falling from the streets down the stone steps onto the beach. They're wrapped in heavy coats, their gloved hands holding onto the railings to maintain their positions against the swirling gale. They huddle together for warmth, yes, but also to show the world they're a couple. Above them, birds rise and swoop, squabbling over items of food picked up from the floor; chips, dropped burgers, discarded kebabs.
'What are those?' Maria says, pointing.
'I know that. What kind?'
'The big ones are herring gulls; they're the bombers. The smaller ones are the fighters, black-headed gulls.'
'Their heads are white.'
'They go brown in the summer.'
'Why the name, then?'
'I don't know. I didn't choose it.' They look at the ocean together. There is no clear horizon. Somewhere in the distance, the grey sea and the grey sky muddy into each other like a watercolour painting. For a few moments, they listen to the noise of the wind and the waves and the gulls and the crows. Eventually she speaks again overwhelmed by insatiable curiosity, love of life.
‘Is the tide coming in or going out, do you think?’
‘It’s always coming in. We've just borrowed the land from the ocean; with every incoming tide, the sea takes back what it's given with interest.’
‘What are you on about?’
‘The polar ice-caps are melting. Sea-levels are rising everywhere. Buildings are toppling off cliffs. We can't build walls everywhere. Where's Noah when you need him?’
'Noah-dea!' They laugh.
‘We’ll be OK though, won't we?’ she asks.
‘I suppose so. But what about our children and our children’s children?’
‘Since you brought the subject up …’
‘No; children. I’ve got something to tell you.’ She squeezes his gloved fingers. He doesn't know what to say. His first thought is how to tell his friends. Nobody should want to bring a child into this world, he's always told them.
'Shall we go back to the hotel?' he asks.
'No. Let's stay a little longer.'
'I wondered why you'd stopped smoking.'
'Well, now you know.'
'Do you want me to stop?'
'It would be better.'
'Honestly, I don't mind.'
'Shall we go back to the hotel?'
'If you want.'
'What do you want?'
'We'll stay, then. A baby.'
'I've got to dash,' Maria says. 'Meeting at nine, and I'll be late tonight. We've got the auditors in and I've been nominated to count the tea-bags.'
'Eight-ish I should imagine. You'll have to feed yourself. Think you can manage?'
'Of course. I've got an A-level in Home Economics.'
'No, you haven't.'
'No I haven't. Where are those pizza leaflets?'
She pecks him on the cheek.
'Don't forget this,' Paul adds, handing her the shoulder bag containing her precious laptop.
'What's this?' she asks, flicking a metal disc on the strap. 'Baby on Board?'
'A present from me to my lovely fat wife. No need to thank me. I was going to put it on your coat, but I wanted to survive till the weekend. Apparently it cost three hundred quid – the coat, not the badge.'
'I'm not even showing, though.' She patted her stomach.
'I know. That's why you need the badge, so people will give you a seat.'
'I don't want a seat.'
'But he does.' Paul points.
'Shall we find out?'
'No, I'd prefer a surprise.'
Paul is just about to protest and say that you can't possibly be surprised when there are only two possible outcomes with roughly equal chances, that if you toss a coin you can hardly be surprised when it comes up heads, but he thinks better of it. He opens the door and watches her disappear down the path and turn right towards the station. He'd be making the same journey an hour later.
"All London underground lines have a good service."
I'll be the judge of that, he thinks. It's nearly six. Baker Street station, Paul's interchange, is packed with stony-faced commuters weaving their way mechanically through clumps of mislaid tourists. Paul never ceases to be astonished by the popularity of Madam Tussauds; Spaniards and Italians queuing to see plastic models of Prince William when he had hair, Michael Jackson when he was black, Michael Jackson when he was alive, David Beckham, David Cameron. Why is the overtaking lane on roads on the right, but on escalators on the left? No wonder people are confused. Paul arrives on the northbound Bakerloo line platform. Stonebridge Park train due in three minutes. Result, he thinks; no change at Queen's Park. He makes his way to where the second carriage will stop. It's hardly worth it, but he sits down and opens New Scientist. He glances up at the scoreboard as he calls it – still three minutes. Strange.
He stares back along the platform into the tunnel as if his impatience can draw forth a train. He looks for the familiar pair of headlights emerging from the dark, listens for the rattle of the rails, waits for the gust of wind heralding the approach, but still three minutes is stubbornly indicated. He goes back to his magazine.
'There are severe delays on the Bakerloo line due to police action at Paddington. Customers are advised to travel by alternative routes.'
People begin to leave the platform. Paul is determined to tough it out, knowing that in the past he has accepted these announcements on trust, taken a circuitous route home only to find the service has been restored the second he has left the platform. I’m just going to sit here and read my magazine, he decides.
'There are severe delays on the Bakerloo line due to a person under a train at Paddington.'
This is part of life in London. In the good old days, suicide used to be a solitary activity. Put your head in the oven while your husband is at work. Non-toxic North Sea gas has put an end to that game. Or wash a bottle of paracetamol down with a bottle of whiskey. Not now. In this day and age, to kill yourself properly, it is essential to paralyse London’s transport infrastructure. Not only that, it has to be during rush hour. This isn’t a cry for help but a cry for attention even if you're not around to enjoy your five minutes of infamy. Like the bastard who murders his own family before ‘turning the gun on himself’. Why doesn’t he just kill himself first?
'The Bakerloo line is suspended between Piccadilly Circus and Queens Park. Tickets will be accepted on alternative routes and London buses.' Paul gives up his silent vigil and ascends to the failing daylight above ground and the unpleasant prospect of the number 18 bus.
Why isn't she home yet? It's nearly ten. He tries her phone again but still it goes straight over to voicemail. He hopes she's not stuck on a train broken down in a tunnel somewhere. He hopes, at least, she has a seat. He goes to the window in the hope of hastening her arrival by his presence, even though this tactic stinks of watched pots. The street, for once is silent. It is a cold, cloudless night. He peers out past the houses and the trees and the city into the night sky. There is Polaris the constant, the Plough with its seven points, Orion the hunter. These names, and others, he has known since childhood. Beyond the familiar stars is the enormity of the universe. It is hard to believe that the tiny points of light that puncture the blackness here and there are gigantic nuclear reactors, some many times the size of our own sun. How serene and still they look, he thinks, yet they blaze with uncontrollable fury. He knows too, but finds it equally hard to comprehend, that the light from some of these stars he is seeing has set off on its journey millions, perhaps billions, of years ago and that, in some cases, the stars from which the light has originated has long since exhausted its fuel and been extinguished by the suffocating vacuum of space. Paul is a worrier, he worries for the fate of the universe, the fate of the planet, and now for the fate of the small child whose heart beats quickly but faintly inside the womb of his beloved wife.
His gaze drops downwards to earth from heaven. The street is still deserted. On the chilly breeze, the noises of the city can just be made out; police sirens, car engines, dogs barking, raised voices, bins being put out. He returns to his seat as the familiar theme tune of 'Question Time' begins. Ten minutes later, the slogans and sound bites of the faceless politicians have sent him to sleep.
She is banging at the front door. She must have left her keys at work. He checks the clock as he springs up from his sleep. Half-past one. He stumbles down the stairs. At last. He yanks open the
door. Two police officers, a man and a woman. British Transport Police. They are not smiling.
She checks her watch, and grins. She'll be home before him. Instead of counting her teabags, the auditors have gone to the other site to count toilet rolls. She looks at the scoreboard, as Paul calls it. Harrow and Wealdstone train in one minute. Result, she thinks; no change at Queen's Park. She sees the lights, hears the rails, feels the air from the tunnel, then an arm reaches out towards her and pulls hard at the bag holding her laptop. They've picked on the wrong person. With two hands she pulls back just as hard. Surprised by the resistance, the thief lets go and dissolves into the crowd, but she is falling, falling, falling with nothing to hold onto, nothing to save her.
'Please stand clear of the doors and let the passengers off first.'
'What shall I do with this, sarge?'
'What is it, constable?'
'A badge. Baby on board.'
'What shall I do with it, sarge'
'Bag it up with the other stuff.'
'Do you mind if I smoke, officer?'
'It's your house, sir.'
'Our house. Damn, I'm out of cigarettes. I don't suppose you ..'
'No, sir. I could send someone.'
'Thanks. It would help.'