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Chapter Twelve

There is, for some reason, something especially grim about pubs near stations, a very particular kind of grubbiness, a special kind of pallor to the pork pies.

Worse than the pork pies, though, are the sandwiches.

There is a feeling which persists in England that making a sandwich interesting, attractive, or in any way pleasant to eat is something sinful that only foreigners do.

``Make 'em dry,'' is the instruction buried somewhere in the collective national consciousness, ``make 'em rubbery. If you have to keep the buggers fresh, do it by washing 'em once a week.''

It is by eating sandwiches in pubs on Saturday lunchtimes that the British seek to atone for whatever their national sins have been. They're not altogether clear what those sins are, and don't want to know either. Sins are not the sort of things one wants to know about. But whatever their sins are they are amply atoned for by the sandwiches they make themselves eat.

If there is anything worse than the sandwiches, it is the sausages which sit next to them. Joyless tubes, full of gristle, floating in a sea of something hot and sad, stuck with a plastic pin in the shape of a chef's hat: a memorial, one feels, for some chef who hated the world, and died, forgotten and alone among his cats on a back stair in Stepney.

The sausages are for the ones who know what their sins are and wish to atone for something specific.

``There must be somewhere better,'' said Arthur.

``No time,'' said Fenny, glancing at her watch. ``My train leaves in half an hour.''

They sat at a small wobbly table. On it were some dirty glasses, and some soggy beermats with jokes printed on them. Arthur got Fenny a tomato juice, and himself a pint of yellow water with gas in it. And a couple of sausages. He didn't know why. He bought them for something to do while the gas settled in his glass.

The barman dunked Arthur's change in a pool of beer on the bar, for which Arthur thanked him.

``All right,'' said Fenny, glancing at her watch, ``tell me what it is you have to tell me.''

She sounded, as well she might, extremely sceptical, and Arthur's heart sank. Hardly, he felt, the most conductive setting to try to explain to her as she sat there, suddenly cool and defensive, that in a sort of out-of-body dream he had had a telepathic sense that the mental breakdown she had suffered had been connected with the fact that, appearances to the contrary nonwithstanding, the Earth had been demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass, something which he alone on Earth knew anything about, having virtually witnessed it from a Vogon spaceship, and that furthermore both his body and soul ached for her unbearably and he needed to got to bed with her as soon as was humanly possible.

``Fenny,'' he started.

``I wonder if you'd like to buy some tickets for our raffle? It's just a little one.''

He glanced up sharply.

``To raise money for Anjie who's retiring.''

``What?''

``And needs a kidney machine.''

He was being leant over by a rather stiffly slim middle-aged woman with a prim knitted suit and a prim little perm, and a prim little smile that probably got licked by prim little dogs a lot.

She was holding out a small book of cloakroom tickets and a collecting tin.

``Only ten pence each,'' she said, ``so you could probably even buy two. Without breaking the bank!'' She gave a tinkly little laugh and then a curiously long sigh. Saying ``Without breaking the bank'' had obviously given her more pleasure than anything since some GIs had been billeted on her in the war.

``Er, yes, all right,'' said Arthur, hurriedly digging in his pocket and producing a couple of coins.

With infuriating slowness, and prim theatricality, if there was such a thing, the woman tore off two tickets and handed them to Arthur.

``I do hope you win,'' she said with a smile that suddenly snapped together like a piece of advanced origami, ``the prizes are so nice.''

``Yes, thank you,'' said Arthur, pocketing the tickets rather brusquely and glancing at his watch.

He turned towards Fenny.

So did the woman with the raffle tickets.

``And what about you, young lady?'' she said. ``It's for Anjie's kidney machine. She's retiring you see. Yes?'' She hoisted the little smile even further up her face. She would have to stop and let it go soon or the skin would surely split.

``Er, look, here you are,'' said Arthur, and pushed a fifty pence piece at her in the hope that that would see her off.

``Oh, we are in the money, aren't we?'' said the woman, with a long smiling sigh. ``Down from London are we?''

``No, that's all right, really,'' he said with a wave of his hand, and she started with an awful deliberation to peel off five tickets, one by one.

``Oh, but you must have your tickets,'' insisted the woman, ``or you won't be able to claim your prize. They're very nice prizes, you know. Very suitable.''

Arthur snatched the tickets, and said thank you as sharply as he could.

The woman turned to Fenny once again.

``And now, what about ...''

``No!'' Arthur nearly yelled. ``These are for her,'' he explained, brandishing the five new tickets.

``Oh, I see! How nice!''

She smiled sickeningly at both of them.

``Well, I do hope you ...''

``Yes,'' snapped Arthur, ``thank you.''

The woman finally departed to the table next to theirs. Arthur turned desperately to Fenny, and was relieved to see that she was rocking with silent laughter.

He sighed and smiled.

``Where were we?''

``You were calling me Fenny, and I was about to ask you not to.''

``What do you mean?''

She twirled the little wooden cocktail stick in her tomato juice.

``It's why I asked if you were a friend of my brother's. Or half-brother really. He's the only one who calls me Fenny, and I'm not fond of him for it.''

``So what's ...?''

``Fenchurch.''

``What?''

``Fenchurch.''

``Fenchurch.''

She looked at him sternly.

``Yes,'' she said, ``and I'm watching you like a lynx to see if you're going to ask the same silly question that everybody asks me until I want to scream. I shall be cross and disappointed if you do. Plus I shall scream. So watch it.''

She smiled, shook her hair a little forward over her face and peered at him from behind it.

``Oh,'' he said, ``that's a little unfair, isn't it?''

``Yes.''

``Fine.''

``All right,'' she said with a laugh, ``you can ask me. Might as well get it over with. Better than have you call me Fenny all the time.''

``Presumably ...'' said Arthur.

``We've only got two tickets left, you see, and since you were so generous when I spoke to you before ...''

``What?'' snapped Arthur.

The woman with the perm and the smile and the now nearly empty book of cloakroom tickets was now waving the two last ones under his nose.

``I thought I'd give the opportunity to you, because the prizes are so nice.''

She wrinkled up he nose a little confidentially.

``Very tasteful. I know you'll like them. And it is for Anjie's retirement present you see. We want to give her ...''

``A kidney machine, yes,'' said Arthur. ``Here.''

He held out two more ten pence pieces to her, and took the tickets.

A thought seemed to strike the woman. It struck her very slowly. You could watch it coming in like a long wave on a sandy beach.

``Oh dear,'' she said, ``I'm not interrupting anything am I?''

She peered anxiously at both of them.

``No it's fine,'' said Arthur. Everything that could possibly be fine,`` he insisted, ''is fine.

``Thank you,'' he added.

``I say,'' she said, in a delightful ecstacy of worry, ``you're not ... in love, are you?''

``It's very hard to say,'' said Arthur. ``We haven't had a chance to talk yet.''

He glanced at Fenchurch. She was grinning.

The woman nodded with knowing confidentiality.

``I'll let you see the prizes in a minute,'' she said, and left.

Arthur turned, with a sigh, back to the girl that he found it hard to say whether he was in love with.

``You were about to ask me,'' she said, ``a question.''

``Yes,'' said Arthur.

``We can do it together if you like,'' said Fenchurch. ``Was I found ...''

``... in a handbag ...'' joined in Arthur.

``... in the Left Luggage Office ...'' they said together.

``... at Fenchurch street station,'' they finished.

``And the answer,'' said Fenchurch, ``is no.''

``Fine,'' said Arthur.

``I was conceived there.''

``What?''

``I was con-''

``In the Left Luggage Office?'' hooted Arthur.

``No, of course not. Don't be silly. What would my parents be doing in the Left Luggage Office?'' she said, rather taken aback by the suggestion.

``Well, I don't know,'' spluttered Arthur, ``or rather ...''

``It was in the ticket queue.''

``The ...''

``The ticket queue. Or so they claim. They refuse to elaborate. They only say you wouldn't believe how bored it is possible to get in the ticket queue at Fenchurch Street Station.''

She sipped demurely at her tomato juice and looked at her watch.

Arthur continued to gurgle for a moment or two.

``I'm going to have to go in a minute or two,'' said Fenchurch, ``and you haven't begun to tell me whatever this terrifically extraordinary thing is that you were so keen to get off your chest.''

``Why don't you let me drive you to London?'' said Arthur. ``It's Saturday, I've got nothing particular to do, I'd ...''

``No,'' said Fenchurch, ``thank you, it's sweet of you, but no. I need to be by myself for a couple of days.'' She smiled and shrugged.

``But ...''

``You can tell me another time. I'll give you my number.''

Arthur's heart went boom boom churn churn as she scribbled seven figures in pencil on a scrap of paper and handed it to him.

``Now we can relax,'' she said with a slow smile which filled Arthur till he thought he would burst.

``Fenchurch,'' he said, enjoying the name as he said it. ``I -''

``A box,'' said a trailing voice, ``of cherry liqueurs, and also, and I know you'll like this, a gramophone record of Scottish bagpipe music ...''

``Yes thank you, very nice,'' insisted Arthur.

``I just thought I'd let you have a look at them,'' said the permed woman, ``as you're down from London ...''

She was holding them out proudly for Arthur too see. He could see that they were indeed a box of cherry brandy liqueurs and a record of bagpipe music. That was what they were.

``I'll let you have your drink in peace now,'' she said, patting Arthur lightly on his seething shoulder, ``but I knew you'd like to see.''

Arthur re-engaged his eyes with Fenchurch's once again, and suddenly was at a loss for something to say. A moment had come and gone between the two of them, but the whole rhythm of it had been wrecked by that stupid, blasted woman.

``Don't worry,'' said Fenchurch, looking at him steadily from over the top of her glass, ``we will talk again.'' She took a sip.

``Perhaps,'' she added, ``it wouldn't have gone so well if it wasn't for her.'' She gave a wry little smile and dropped her hair forward over her face again.

It was perfectly true.

He had to admit it was perfectly true.


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