Chapter One

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I caught a glimpse of myself today. Not the me of my mirror image, nor the me of my forgiving mind’s eye, but the me that strangers see. I saw my description on the pages of a book, recognised myself in the words of a man I have never met.

I was on the train to work, looking by turns at the passing blur of the flatlands outside and the paperback on my lap, when I was overcome with a nagging feeling that something was amiss. Something unsettling had been said or done, but I had no idea what. I waited for it to either fade or crystallize, but it did neither. Instead, it lingered uncomfortably, following me off the train and taunting me throughout the halting bus ride to the shabby third-floor London office where I spend my time processing orders for hair restoration products.

It may have eluded me all day were it not for the ritual flirtations between my supervisor, Hazel, and Simon, who comes around selling lunchtime baguettes from a basket. I used to buy from him when I first started working here, but wasn’t very good at the small talk in which he wraps his wares, so now I take a packed lunch instead. Hazel does not.

“I think I’ll try the smoked turkey with pesto. And I’ll have a blueberry muffin to go with it,” she purred at him.

“All right, darlin, anything for my favourite girl…”

“Will you have bagels tomorrow?”

“Sorry flower, I can’t make it tomorrow. I’ve got to go to my auntie’s funeral.”

Funeral. The word hit me like a train speeding out of a long, unlit tunnel. My mind ran away without me, darting back through time, looking for the source of this sudden resonance. I picked through the remnants of last night’s dreams and re-read the morning’s newspaper headlines. Nowhere could I recall a funeral, so I replayed my journey to work, watching myself step into the busy carriage, find a seat and silently debate whether or not to take off my coat. I eavesdropped anew on the hushed chat of commuters around me and re-opened my bag to see if it held any clues. The paperback felt relevant to my search. At least vaguely. So, while Hazel continued to play coy with Simon, I opened it anew.

“This story, Dear Reader, begins one summer not so very long ago, on a train filled with office workers and the heavy odour of their collective August existence. Among them were three scantily clad girls who wore their rude rolls of fat with misplaced pride, and through whose poorly painted lips came unsavoury breath telling unsavoury tales of their sexual conquests of the night before.

A middle-aged woman listened with envy to their lurid bragging as delirium tremens lay siege to her body. Mentally breaking her vow of sobriety, she sulkily mouthed the words ‘make mine a double’ at a boy perched on his father’s pin-striped trousers across the aisle. The child stared back at her with wide-eyed fear, brightening only when his young eyes hit upon a bald man whose stomach was oozing from the gaps between the buttons of his inadequate shirt.

The ample man acknowledged the child with a wink and sought to entertain it by blowing his nose into a piece of newspaper. The father struggled to conceal his disgust, and repositioned the boy to face a younger, haughty-looking woman who, refusing to be drawn by any of what she saw, carefully smoothed the folds of the cream and green floral print dress she would be wearing to the funeral she would happily soon be planning.”

There it was, the source of the resonance. The mental relief was blissful, and I closed the book and leaned back in my chair to enjoy this victory over my sluggish memory.     But the triumph was short-lived, because something was still not right. Whatever it was, that something appeared to be connected to the book now lying face down on top of a stack of papers on my desk. I tried to ignore it but the blurb on the back cover rose to meet me. 

“The Ruthlessness of One Man’ is based on the physical appearance of a real-life London commuter. Perhaps she is sitting across from you, at your side, or is the one you just walked past.  Perhaps she is even you. Whoever she is, Mr Walden’s interpretation of her life will leave you, Dear Reader, in no doubt that things are rarely as they seem.”

I received The Ruthlessness of One Man, as a loyalty gift from the old-fashioned book club I joined a few years ago and had previously never heard of either it or its author, Mr. Walden. But it held a certain appeal, so rather than dedicate another lunch hour to helping what appears to be an endless number of balding men – and some women – I read.           

“It was hot inside the compartment, and although she felt it too, Davina had no intention of joining the chorus of predictable heat-induced moans and groans. She rolled her green eyes at her fellow passengers’ futile attempts to fan away the inhospitable heat, mentally berating them for fuelling the very furnaces they were at pains to extinguish whilst simultaneously spreading the ghastly human smells that assaulted her every intake of breath. These she filtered by holding to her nose a crumpled lace-trim handkerchief. Each time she did so, she bowed her head just enough for her fine shoulder-length red hair to fall forward and reveal a thin pink scar below her left ear.”

I think I am that woman.