She is travelling south on Métro Line 4. She sits on the second seat from the central-doors with one hand rested on a silver suitcase. She doesn’t turn to me as I board. No, she is turned to the platform and all I get is the thin edge of her face. But that is enough. I look again. She wears a short black jacket and a black scarf. She wears burgundy ankle-boots, long black socks that rise over her knees, and a burgundy short skirt. She wears a black floppy hat. She lifts her head and checks the high mounted route-map. She is pretty. And she wears a red lipstick; a bright red, a jumping red. Against the bright jumping red, her face is a pale white and her skin an innocent clear. She is young, this pretty pale innocent thing, maybe sixteen or seventeen, or a childish eighteen, and she is so nice, so lovely.
A bright robe boards at Château d’Eau and takes an aisle seat. He lowers his head and gazes through his knees, blocking the external, living the internal, reaching the eternal.
Without question the girl is English. Without question she has taken the line at the Gare du Nord. And without question she is transferring from the London train to a TGV southbound from the Gare Montparnasse. The English are so English. And the Métro Line 4 is their Paris transfer to routes going to the southwest. The Aquitaine is popular with a certain sort of English, a kind of middle-aged English who move to deep France when their children have grown and gone and so they rush down with dreams of writing novels or painting wonderful art or of resurrecting old wrecks, or younger families with delusions of remote isolation and rugged self-sufficiency or hog breeding or pony keeping. All with notions of adopting to French country ways and patterns; a baguette under the arm in the morning and a bonjour all-round; so they relocate to the middle of nowhere. Who would want that? Yes, I know these settlers.
I worked the Paris-Bordeaux track for eight years, and then Bordeaux-Toulouse for five, before I got a permanent slot back here in civilisation. The only solace in a life down there is the wine and the rugby. And, with not much of anything going on, there’s plenty of time to read. But how much reading is enough? And how much is too much? But it’s good to be home, it’s good to work in Paris. The big city may be colder than the south, but it’s alive. And, besides, it’s full of girls. Lovely girls. And fresh; not old and crumpled. I look at her wheelie-suitcase and I see the nametag tied with pink ribbon. Perhaps she is visiting on a break from university, she looks the student type; without question she has a useful brain to go with that pretty pale face and that young fresh body.
The bright robe is still contemplating the four noble truths as I walk past the girl and hold the handrail. He descends free of want as I ascend to need. Of course, she doesn’t know I am watching. They never do.
Three bundles of books board at Réaumur–Sébastopol. They shuffle and skip their way to the rear of the carriage with hurried comment as the examined life is extruded through the sieve of scholarly instruction. The only good is knowledge, and the only good knowledge is that of the human good. Is that it? But what is good? Does it matter? Anyway, what is right? I mean, what is right for the taking?
At Les Halles, two Romany men step up to board. I put one forearm across the doorway.
‘Not today, Monsieurs,’ I say, and I give them a smile.
They retreat to the platform, the doors close, the train pulls away, and from the quay I get the finger from the younger of the two thieves. I ignore him. The city is scourged by these gypsy pickpockets and criminals. The metropolitan gendarmerie must come down solid on such immigrants; they need to be rounded up, roughed up, and deported. And the more public the push, the better. A soft-handed approach does not work with these crooks. A hard hand is all they understand. They must be removed. We have enough rogues of our own, without these itinerant scum.
I check on the girl, but she is quiet and untroubled. That’s good, because a girl like her is easy prey for Romany thieving bastards like those. And she really is so pretty. The bright robe, too, remains unmoved; no doubt believing nothing until it goes through his own reason, knowing all is subject to change, knowing life is suffering if we apply a self; and so the bright robe controls the desires, frees the way. And so it is for all shorn of attachment. We provide for self-indulgence.
At the rear of carriage the three bundles of books toss around enquiry and quip as we arrive into Saint-Michel. Two hooded habits enter as the bright robe departs. Be your own lamp, I throw at him as his glide is swallowed by the dark platform crowd. The two hooded habits take the seat vacated by the eternal.
At Saint Germain Des Pres the carriage door opens to a vagrant sitting by a pile of bags on the platform. He has a Russian shape to him; with his long coat tied around his waist and with his wide trousers tucked into high boots. And with his pointed beard, he’s like a down-and-out Lenin, that instigator of the great collective for the human good. However, to make human good, you need human good. And that’s a fleeting thing. But, a lie told often enough becomes the truth. Anyway, the most important thing is to never lose heart. Lenin sees me watching. He waits for an instant and then he jumps to his feet. He gives a stiff exaggerated bow and then stands rigid to attention, soldier like. I give a salute before the door closes, but I see that he remains in his military stance as the train leaves. I laugh, I mean you meet it all down here; the everyday mingled with lowlife and lunatics. I check again on the girl, and all is well. I check on the three bundles of books, all is good there too. I check on the two celibates who are in quiet agreement with small solemn nods peppering their gentle whisper. They do not ask for much, these sisters of the beloved. They do not have much. To them it is not granted. For the one who has will be given more and will have in abundance. But the one who does not have will be deprived even more.
A business suit boards at Saint-Sulpice and finds a seat near to the three bundles of books at the rear of the carriage. He looks briefly to the scholars but then turns away as their conversation bounces around corralled thought. He glances back up the carriage past the two whispering hooded habits. Though looking, they may look and still not see, and though hearing, they may hear and still not get the sense of it. The business suit checks his watch.
The girl rises as the train enters Montparnasse. I let her pass, let her gather and go, let her be swallowed by the crowd, let her be funnelled through the platform. And then I follow. It is a ten to fifteen minute underground walk from the Metro to the mainline station. The distance is longer than visitors expect and a tendency to rush or panic is common amongst the unfamiliar. She pushes on pulling the silver suitcase. With her floppy hat, it is easy to keep her in sight.
In the train terminus she stops at the initial information boards and vending machines. Angled and hidden from this point, the main concourse with cafés, shops, kiosks, and platform boarding gates is just ahead, but it is not in immediate view and many pause at the initial displays. This is it. It’s game on. From my inside jacket I remove my Hi-Vi vest and cap and put them on. I pin a small walkie-talkie to my lapel. I approach an Asian couple to the girl’s left and ask if I can help. I check their tickets and advise them on a route to Platform 7 for the train to Chartres. They thank me and move on. Next to the girl I assist an elderly man with advice on the train for La Rochelle from Platform 3. I can see the girl’s relief when I ask if she would like some assistance. I check her ticket. She is travelling to Agen on the TGV to Bordeaux and Toulouse.
Ah, Agen, I tell her, the southwest, very good. I tell her I know it well from my work. We chat and she tells me her parents have a house near Moirax. Her Daddy will meet her at the station.
‘Moirax,’ I tell her. ‘Nice village. And good wine down there. But crazy rugby-men.’
And she giggles. I bring the walkie-talkie to my mouth and ask for an update on the Toulouse train. I press listen and get a crackled muffled response. It is just a gadget and a recording I made myself, but it works.
‘There’s a football crowd,’ I tell her. ‘Hooligans,’ I say, showing off my English vocabulary, ‘are arriving on the next quay.’ So I offer to escort her and she agrees. We move into the main concourse.
‘Tell you what,’ I say, as the crowd thickens. ‘I’m going to take you through the crew gangway and avoid the mob. These football fans can be very nasty.’
Just then I see the two hooded habits by a near bench. Well, the dead arose and appeared to many. How did they sneak up like that? No, wait. It isn’t the same two. Well, they all look the same.
‘Hello, Sisters,’ I greet them giving a soft salute, and then I lift the walkie-talkie again and report my intended action. Again I press listen for a crackled response. I lead her to the side of the concourse, around the large advertisement signs and through an unmanned access-gate towards the unscheduled-maintenance siding. I urge her to quicken and don’t allow her time to think. I keep talking to her, asking her questions. We drop a level by a concrete stairwell. We push past the tooling sheds. I stop and usher her in front with my best smile.
‘Nearly there,’ I tell her.
Behind the advertising hoardings and the tooling sheds, and having dropped down a level, we are out of sight from the station. This dead-end siding is used only for emergency repair and unscheduled cleaning; so the platform is either busy or deserted. Today, it is vacant. Today, it is empty and quiet, and no one is here, no one, and she is just beginning to doubt, and her step slows. But I had expected that.
I had a colleague who worked with me on the track down south. On the big railway contracts, we worked three weeks on and then had ten days off. On the train home, and in keen anticipation of an immediate fucking with his wife, he said that he was so eager he could bull cows. Yes, I know that now. I’m so keen, I struggle to hold it back. I take her, quickly, from behind. One hand across her mouth and I sweep her feet away with one kick. I let her fall, just holding her mouth; the wind taken with the knock, and the shock, will keep her quiet.
They say they will scream and kick in their magazine articles and their self-defence classes. They don’t. The horror paralyses; and once it starts, they only hope to survive. I grab her and turn her. I still cover her mouth, but she is so petite the whole of her pretty little face is under my hand. I pull the black short from her, pull it down over burgundy booted feet, throw it, quickly now, and kneel between those pale English legs, the white skin atop the black long-socks, the flash of the fur as I push the skirt. Quickly now, I unbutton myself and with my free hand guide myself to her. Her legs are like a child’s, there’s no weight to them. Then I fall on her, push it to her, and drive myself in. It’s good. She is so small beneath me I can’t see her; all I get is the rim of that floppy hat against my throat. I take her now, and I lower my hand to her neck to hold her little body in place. I try to get some grip from the ground. I hold her down, her neck so small I can grasp around it. She is so pretty. So nice. So very lovely. And she is so soft; almost nothing there. Tight now, I hold her in place, and I’m rushing to an end. So pretty. So nice. So lovely. Rushing, can’t slow it, it’s too good. Fuck!
I rise from her and button myself in. I see she is dead. Pity, she is so cute. But they don’t all survive the taking. The heart can fail with the shock, or, perhaps, sometimes I hold them too much. It’s hard to control the lock in the excitement and the rush. I lift her to the edge of the platform and drop her down into the dark between the siding wall and the end-of-track buffers. The night maintenance team will find her, or, perhaps, the cleaning crew. Or they might not. I left a girl by a workshop in dépôt des Joncherolles and she wasn’t found for two weeks. Two weeks? Wouldn’t a person think somebody somewhere might have noticed her missing? But, without question, some don’t have families, and some must have families that don’t care. It’s a strange business.
I lift the black short from the ground; simple, no fancy lace or anything. I hold it. I breathe it. Lovely. Sweet. I throw it down. The silver suitcase, too, I drop beside her. Her black floppy hat is on the ground. I lift it. She sure was pretty under that thing. She had a good eye for fashion. I throw the floppy hat down and it lands on her, partly covering that pretty pale face. Good shot. Below the floppy hat, a smudge of Christmas red runs from the corner of her mouth along her chin line, until it disappears beneath the black felt. She really is a lovely thing. As I leave the station, I refold the Hi-Vi and put it inside my jacket. I replace my cap with my woollen beanie. I’m not on the work roster until Sunday evening, so I have the rest of the weekend off. I will spend the afternoon watching horseracing in my local PMU bar, so I make for the Métro.
Just then the business suit marches past, a takeaway coffee held in a napkin and a telephone pressed to one ear. I watch the business suit, a nobody passing through nowhere, and then I go. And I think of the girl. So soft. So lovely. And I think on the smudged lipstick running from her mouth to the black floppy hat, that jumping red on the pale white. She really was pretty, so sweet. And I think why any parent would let a girl like that travel alone? I just don’t know? Irresponsible. Foolish. Stupid.
What were they thinking?
Mark Mulholland is not from the USA or the UK or even Australia or anywhere snazzy like that. Mark, through no fault of his own, was born and raised in Ireland. However, when fifteen, as luck would have it, he underwent a stroke of genius and left schooling to linger full-time around a second-hand book store. He has been educated in this way ever since.