Madame Simone Dorléac noted with mild indifference that the English still dressed appallingly for summer. For a brief second she idly scratched the back of her head and pondered the true degree of this disinterest, then concluded that it did not especially matter. The important point here was that she was correct.
Simone fanned herself with her bonnet as she peered at the train carriage. It was as though it had been decorated with a fluid wallpaper of obscene floral prints. Worse still, the men had uniformly crowbarred themselves into jean shorts, the poor buttons of which threatened to become projectiles. Were it not for the protection of the sliding glass door, Simone would surely soon lose an eye.
Simone adjusted her bonnet in the pale reflection of the corridor windowpane, angling the hat so that it covered the pepper in her hair. She ran her hand over the emerald frock rescued from a Calais department store earlier this morning. Naturally, it felt tight against her skin but then everything did for at least the past decade. This was a minor hypocrisy, certainly, but one of the benefits of ageing was that nobody paid particular attention to what you did or said anyway. Besides, a little bulk after a certain age signified health and elegance, and what price could you place on elegance? As Simone was relieved to consider, it cost less than you would imagine.
She cast one final glance across the sea of sweating faces and leaned back against the cool metal wall, closing her eyes. For the first time since she crossed the channel, Simone felt welcome. These people in their permanently grey country may think of the sun as a smiling stranger, but for Simone heat was home. She could almost taste the salted air of the Vieux-Port as she stood, and feel the Sirocco wind buffet her skin. The curl of arthritis in her hands usually grew stronger the farther from Marseille she travelled, but this pleasant English warmth felt freeing.
Almost inexorably, Simone’s daydream crossed from the port into the ultimate Marseillais domain: the marketplace. No two days there were ever the same, but some faces made for sharper-drawn memories than most. Simone could count every bead on the necklace of the young woman who passed with her nose in the air. She could see each wrinkle on the walnut face of the haberdasher, beating the fine dust out of the fabrics on his stall. Simone was sure she could even smell the monkfish and mussels from the bouillabaisse stall.
The kaleidoscope of faces, scents and sounds threatened to overwhelm her. Simone felt an urge to narrow her focus, imbue the dream with her own particular sense of intimacy. She doubled back and began to follow the young, aloof woman with the necklace. The woman’s head was still tilted back as she surveyed her domain, eyes cold and careless. The jewellery glittered in the afternoon sun as Simone stole behind the woman. Closer and closer she drew, inhaling the perfume that curled around each bead like a shroud. She smiled as she felt her fingers curl and twitch in response.
Somewhere deep inside the base of Simone’s skull, an itch awakened.
No! Simone snapped out of her reverie. This kind of thinking would not do. She slid her fingers into her handbag and caressed the photograph within. Simone sighed and inwardly cursed her daughter once more. It was one thing for Estelle to leave Marseille so soon after her father’s passing, and yet another still to prove so stubborn that she remained in London after finding out that she had been blessed herself. The greatest insult was that Estelle had chosen the corner of the city, Notting Hill, that thought a few rickety stalls equated to a cosmopolitan experience.
The itch unfurled and yawned.
Simone gently shook her head. It did no good to keep thinking about it. The carrots were not yet cooked and the marketplace was a quick kiss in the dark compared to this current mission of love.
She plucked the photograph out of her handbag and carefully studied it. What a precious pearl the baby was, and how dark her eyes. Even on a poor quality Skype print-out, the resemblance to Simone’s sainted husband was startling. There could be no silliness on Simone’s part, no excuse for Estelle to quarrel. If the girl would only listen, Simone could tell her the long and tragic history of Dorléac women extinguishing life’s fires with one measly hose apiece.
Consider Estelle and consider the baby.
The itch stretched, cleared its throat and said, considère-moi.
Simone carefully nestled the photograph inside the bag and took out her train ticket. The itch had not yet begun its well-trodden journey to her fingertips. Still, it was wise to occupy them. She turned the card over in her hands until the ink began to stain them.
‘Weeeeyyyyyyy,’ bellowed a voice from the carriage. Simone recognised this from tourist season as the unique noise a drunken Englishman makes when in transit. She squeezed herself into the corner of the corridor, her bulk inconspicuous to the more heedless of travellers.
A deeply pink and underdressed man ambled chubbily through the door, his mouth bouncing about noisily in his good humour. His orbit contained a companion who looked a missed breakfast away from emaciation. Together, they resembled a wasp buzzing around a bulldog. The weedier man’s laughter was interspersed with the flapping of his cargo trousers. Here was a man whose shame at his frame undoubtedly rendered his dress loose all year round. Simone’s eyes wandered to the scrawny man’s pockets, but surely not for more than a second.
C’est intéressant, said the itch.
Not as interesting as my family, thought Simone. To underscore her defiance, she clasped her hands safely under her ample bust as the men filed past her toward the refreshment carriage. Simone waited for a few seconds then quivered with relief. They were safely out of distance.
Pas pour longtemps, sang the itch.
Enough. It did not matter how long they were gone, nothing was going to happen.
Hearing the sound of footsteps, a knowing smirk suffused the voice of the itch. Est-ce correct?
Simone looked up to see a middle-aged man enter the far side of the corridor from the adjoining carriage. His eyes were glued to his phone screen. Simone shuffled from the corner and positioned herself beside the door. Before the itch could pass comment, she silently insisted that it was an insignificant movement on her part. As the man strode towards her, she was still convinced that, at most, this was only a harmless little experiment.
The man’s head tilted upwards from his phone screen at the last moment and he swerved around her. ‘I’m sorry, love,’ he said. ‘After you.’
Simone shook her head and beamed widely. The man disappeared into the carriage without a second glance. Come to think of it, there had barely been a first glance.
C’est une excellente nouvelle, said the itch.
It truly is, thought Simone. The marketplace could be hard work at times, but here nobody noticed anything about Simone other than her advanced years. She was uninteresting at best and unthreatening at worst. She was a floater in the corner of your vision, almost as if …
… tu es invisible, agreed the itch.
Simone pressed back into the corner of the corridor and closed her eyes. The bustle, the heat and the newfound suppleness she felt in her fingers were no longer lovers returning from a long journey overseas. Now, they were hulking vikings with blood in their nostrils.
The itch began to whisper. Tu peux me gratter, lé?
Go scratch yourself! Simone told herself to think of her granddaughter, almost a month old now.
The itch began to plead. Me gratter!
This trip was about the baby, nothing else.
Simone told herself to think of Estelle, stuck with a newborn and otherwise alone in a strange land. It did not matter what the girl had claimed. She was stubborn, but she needed her mother. She always had.
ME GRATTER, yelled the itch.
Simone told herself all of this but the voice of the other was louder. She had no choice but to obey and scratch the itch.
The doors at the far end of the corridor hissed open and the air swelled with jollity. The bulldog and the wasp were returning from the refreshment carriage. Simone glanced at the tight shorts of the fatter man. Too risky. She sidled across to the spot beside the door where she had earlier shimmered from the phone-man’s view. As the drunkards grew nearer, Simone felt a tingle in the small of her neck where the itch danced gleefully. She held her breath and stared at the floor as the passengers penetrated her space.
The fatter man squeezed past with only a grunt, leaving the straggler to wait a few glorious seconds for his turn. The skinny man held a bottle of beer in each hand and a sloppy grin on his lips. His eyes swam with liquid merriment.
Simone stared ahead, her peripheral vision focused entirely on the whelp’s trouser pocket.
The skinny man smacked his lips mechanically.
Rapidement, urged the itch.
Simone’s fingers darted into the drunkard’s pocket, closed around something cool and hard, then retreated in a flash. She curled her fist around the object as the itch whooped shrilly.
The skinny man sipped at his bottle and, his path clear of the bulbous obstacle in front, lurched forwards.
Suddenly, his brow melted southwards and he stopped dead in his tracks.
Oh no, thought Simone.
Silence, tais-toi idiot, warned the itch.
The skinny man turned his glazed eyes on Simone and his wet lips sloshed around until they remembered how to form a grin.
‘Wotcha, grandma,’ he slurred. ‘Are you ‘ere for the carnival?’
Simone’s returning smile felt as stiff as a good shot of Ricard. ‘Je ne parle pas Anglais,’ she said.
The man laughed. ‘Well, bonjour then,’ he said and continued his journey towards the mother of all future hangovers.
Bravo, cheered the itch.
Simone kept her fist clasped shut until her numbed, deadened legs could carry her to refuge in the toilet cubicle. The second the door rolled shut behind her, she examined her prize: a small bottle opener, the logo long since worn away. Simone’s laughter sounded maniacal even to her own ears. ‘Well,’ she chuckled. ‘I’ve worked hard for this useless trinket. Are you satisfied now?’
Non, tutted the itch. Pas de loin.
Simone felt her leg tremble slightly as the itch rampaged jubilantly through her bloodstream. Her stomach fluttered and she gasped in delight. She gazed upon the bottle opener with a feeling approaching reverence. In that moment, Simone felt that she had never possessed an object quite as splendid as this aluminium irrelevance.
She knew as soon as she had taken the frock from the rail yesterday that its tightness would prove no obstacle against naked want. There was always a way around such things. Simone slipped the bottle opener into the darkness of her undergarments and shivered slightly. After a moment’s hesitation, she rejoined the outside world, mindful to check that her luggage was still in the rack above her unused and unwanted seat. You could never be too careful.
Simone half-watched the countryside streak greenly outside the window. The rush she had felt earlier was already beginning to ebb slowly away. Every time a reflected body passed across the windowpane, the itch ceased its contented purring and its leg twitched and clawed in response. Simone drummed her fingers against her thigh. She shuffled from one end of the carriage to the other, her eyes covetous and alert.
Two teenage lovers passed, their arms locked around each other’s hips, adrift in a sea of their obnoxiously mutual admiration. Simone’s instinctive loathing of them was alleviated only slightly by her gratitude.
Être audacieux, hissed the itch.
Simone flexed her fingers in agreement. There was no need for subtlety with this self-absorbed couple; Simone was in and out of the young man’s shorts with an ease that would have impressed even his young amoureuse. She examined her prize: a stick of chewing gum.
The carriage door slid open. A pretty young train guard materialised in the doorway. Her lips were pursed so tightly that they threatened to suck her entire head inside-out.
Oh non, said the itch.
Simone ducked beneath the safety of her bonnet and popped the freshly-liberated gum into her mouth.
The guard skulked past, lost in her own thoughts.
Le crime parfait, cackled the itch. Quelle équipe!
Simone scoffed. Don’t you dare call us a team, she thought. I do all the work and all you do is talk, talk, talk. You give nothing back.
The itch sulked silently.
In lieu of a more appropriate place to direct her contempt, Simone placed her hands on her hips and scowled at her reflection in the windowpane. I scratch you and you beg for more, she scolded. You’re a tiny ingrate.
Je suis ton animal de compagnie, pouted the itch.
You’re a curse, not a pet, thought Simone. All this work and what to show for it? A stick of chewing gum and a bottle opener is no reward.
At the other end of the corridor, a squat woman struggled through the doorway, a cello case under one arm and an unseasonable suede jacket over the other. Her entire aura was coloured banknote blue.
Voici votre récompense, breathed the itch.
Yes, thought Simone, but great rewards generally hold hands with great dangers. She closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself. She felt the giddiness of the itch on every nerve ending, in every cell of her body. The itch was mercifully muffled against the drumbeat of blood in her ears, but should Simone speak out loud, their voices would call out as one. Now they were a real team.
The cellist lifted her head and clicked her tongue as she saw Simone lurking by the doorway. She turned sideways, her back facing Simone, and began to inch delicately past.
Fais le maintenant, said the itch.
Now, agreed Simone through a glimmering haze of hunger.
Her hand slipped into the pocket of the suede jacket and closed around a purse. Like everything else about the cellist, it was chunky. Useless! Simone’s hand slipped out unnourished and unnoticed. As the cellist disappeared into the carriage, Simone scuttled off in the opposite direction.
The itch began to mewl.
Shush rogue, thought Simone. We had no need for the purse.
The itch squealed.
We did not even particularly want it, please try to understand that.
The squealing became one long, ululating note.
Simone put her fingertips to her temples and oohed. She needed to scratch badly. Just once more would be enough to settle her rascally little friend for the remainder of the journey.
Simone cast a glance at her luggage in the rack. She stalked past her empty seat and straight through the carriage to find newer and richer pastures.
In the next corridor, a teenager stood by the toilet door, her red hair scraped back into a sloppy bun. She gnawed at her nails and stared morosely at a puny rucksack wedged between her feet. She was quite clearly alone on her travels. The concentration etched upon her delicate features was deep enough to remove her from time and space altogether. In other words, she was perfect.
Simone glanced at the teenager’s dirty, frayed jeans. An envelope peeped out of the back pocket, a papery siren whose song only Simone and the itch could hear. She slipped in behind the girl and moved closer. The teenager remained entirely oblivious to her new, intimate company. Simone stood motionless, listening to the itch pant in anticipation. The envelope was gloriously flabby. It must be notes, maybe traveller’s cheques.
Ces richesses, said the itch.
Yes, thought Simone. And with these riches, you can sleep until we go back to Marseille.
Simone cast a quick glance along the corridor. Her fingers jittered. With infinite love and respect, she tweaked the corner of the envelope between her thumb and forefinger and slid it out of the girl’s pocket.
Simone realised a millisecond too late that her fingertips were slicked with the dew of the desperate.
Simone realised a second after this that the envelope was unsealed.
A photograph slipped out and clattered to the floor with alarming speed. The girl turned to face Simone, her deep green eyes pure circles of terror. Her hand shot to her belly in a gesture that Simone recognised only too well.
Simone’s jaw, disconnected from the main circuitry of her brain, flopped open and closed uselessly.
Au revoir, said the itch.
‘Ça va?’ stammered Simone. After a beat, it occurred to her that she was not asking this question of the girl.
’Leave me alone, will you,’ said the teenager in a thick Irish brogue. She shrank back against the wall, a wounded animal reacting with base instinct to a threat it did not immediately understand.
Simone stared at the floor, suddenly unable to meet the girl’s stark eyes. A sonogram picture glared up from the floor in even starker accusation. In the corner, the girl had scrawled the words, Mammy loves you in large, childish handwriting.
Simone’s cheeks roared with rouge. She realised only now what the itch gave her in return for her constant scratching. Without her little passenger at hand to devour her shame, she was ballooning fast. Soon, she would be as bloated as a month-old donkey corpse.
Alone, she would be visible to all.
‘Alone,’ she mumbled. The girl spasmed in fright and Simone turned away, her stomach imitating a washing machine in its death spiral.
The door at the end of the corridor chose this moment to peel back. The air of the tin can thrummed with indignant, righteous fury.
The cellist was back and pointing a stubby finger directly at Simone.
‘That’s her,’ she blared. ‘The old woman in the bonnet. She’s the rotten pickpocket I told you about.’
Simone’s panic squirted out of her pores in hot jets. She attempted a frown of confusion, but it was crystal clear to her what was about to happen.
Right on cue, the pretty young train guard emerged from behind the cellist, squinting against the afternoon sun. Her lips, if possible, were more tightly pursed than before.
You said that we’re a team, thought Simone. Where are you when I need you? She listened for the voice of the itch, but it was gone. The only thing running through Simone’s bloodstream was liquid dread.
The train guard approached slowly. Her smooth skin crackled with irritation. ‘Madam?’ she asked.
Simone glanced at the guard’s name badge: Stephanie Beauchamp. Simone’s veins coursed with hope. Maybe this young woman was a sister of sorts. ‘Je ne parle pas Anglais,’ she murmured. ‘Est-ce qui tu parles Français?’
‘I don’t speak French,’ said Stephanie Beauchamp. Her broad Cockney accent and broader hostility dared a fool to question this fact. ‘Can you speak any English at all?’
‘Little,’ said Simone. ‘I no comprendre.’
Beauchamp rubbed at her bottom lip. ‘This woman says you stole her purse,’ she said. ‘Is that true?’
‘I said she tried to take it,’ boomed the cellist.
Beauchamp sighed loudly. She pointed at Simone and slipped her own hand into the cellist’s jacket. She waggled the purse and then a solitary eyebrow at Simone.
Simone shook her head hard enough for the bonnet to make a whooshing noise in her ears. ‘No, I not do,’ she insisted.
Beauchamp sighed again and Simone stared at her with fresh intrigue. On the guard’s second, heavier exhalation, Simone’s nostrils filled with a mist of fresh peppermint undercut with something altogether more sour. She willed the itch to come out and talk. She knew that it would make sense of this immediately.
‘Madam,’ said Beauchamp. ‘I’d like you to open your handbag for me please.’ She pointed at the bag and mimed.
‘I told you that she didn’t take it,’ thundered the cellist. ‘She tried to take it. Mind you, I bet she’s got all sorts in there.’
Between Simone’s thighs, the bottle opener weighed as much as a car.
Beauchamp bent over to look in the bag. At this close distance, Simone noted the dark circles under the young woman’s eyes, the network of tiny broken veins on her nose and cheeks.
Finding nothing in the bag except for the photo of Simone’s granddaughter, her train ticket and passport, Beauchamp glanced back at the cellist and shook her head.
Simone grinned broadly. ‘See? I not have anything.’ To illustrate the point, she tugged at her dress until it clung tightly against her bulk and fanned herself with the bonnet.
The cellist glowered at Simone and Beauchamp. ‘You’re not listening,’ she said to the aggressively bored train guard. ‘I saw her sit down in my carriage when we left Dover. She’s got a reserved seat and she hasn’t used it since she first got on. She’s up to no good. Why else would she lurk in the corridor?’
Simone clutched the small of her back and groaned. ‘I walk, make good,’ she said. She felt the itch sidle out from its hiding place.
‘She must have stashed everything in her luggage,’ said the cellist.
‘Where’s your luggage?’ said Beauchamp.
Simone pointed towards the carriage and rolled her eyes. She saw Beauchamp chew away a tiny grin.
The cellist saw it too but resisted her visible temptation to swing her cello like a battle-axe at either of the two women. ‘Well,’ she stormed. ‘Aren’t you going to check?’
‘How could she have stashed anything in her luggage?’ asked Beauchamp. ‘You’ve already said that she hasn’t used her seat since she got on.’ The guard enunciated each word as if talking to a particularly dense child.
The cellist’s lips formed a word that Simone recognised as one of the more lurid in the English language, but no sound came forth.
‘Did you actually see her take anything, Madam?’ said Beauchamp.
The cellist stared at the floor in midnight-black silence. Simone’s mouth flooded with the marzipan-sweet roots of total victory.
‘What about you?’ asked Beauchamp to a fixed point just over Simone’s left shoulder.
Simone’s mouth turned Saharan. She had forgotten about the teenager.
The girl stared at the floor and shook her head. ‘No,’ she muttered. She shrank back further against the wall, becoming as much a part of the train as the condensation on the window.
Beauchamp heaved another rasp of pure annoyance. Her body clearly wanted to join her mind in whichever location it currently resided.
A refreshment trolley rumbled past, forcing the four women to squeeze closer together, much to the teenager’s hearty dismay. Simone watched Beauchamp’s eyes flick to the sweating bottles of beer on the trolley, the green glass dancing in the sunlight.
Simone did not require the itch to utter a word. She understood instantly; Beauchamp may not be a kind of sister, but she was undeniably a cousin of sorts.
‘Listen to me,’ said Simone in a voice low enough for only the guard to hear. ‘Sometimes I itch, and it feels like it will never stop. But that does not mean I have to scratch. Today, I chose not to scratch.’
Beauchamp’s eyes widened and she stared at Simone for the heaviest of seconds. ‘Your English has improved, I see,’ she whispered.
Simone nodded. ‘I know that you can understand my words. Always, I have the choice not to scratch.’
Beauchamp’s eyes narrowed before her interest in the narrative crumbled into fine dust. ‘Take your seat, Madam and stay there until your stop,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to see you again.’
The cellist threw up her hands in frustration and espoused venom about the decline in service standards on trains these days. Beauchamp made a great show of turning her back to them all as she waited for the trolley to remove itself from her path.
Simone stole a glance over her shoulder at the teenager. The girl shook softly, arms crossed over her belly. Simone’s thoughts turned for the first time for however many miles and minutes to her granddaughter. A cocktail of emotions slushed about in the base of her skull, washing away the footprints of the itch. There was still time before the train reached London. There was time to make this right.
This teen was so clearly a runaway, a cur trotting down the side of a winding road that leads only to Misery Central. The girl had nobody to eat her shame. Something had to be done.
Simone reached across and stroked the girl’s shoulder. The teenager went mannequin-stiff.
‘So young and pretty,’ said Simone. ‘And so alone.’ She glimpsed over her shoulder to see if the others were watching. Simone smiled at the girl and tilted her head to one side. ‘God bless you,’ she said. ‘God bless your little one.’
Beauchamp turned, noticing the teenager properly for the first time. Even the waves of anger emanating from the cellist became momentarily diluted. Simone nudged her way past the pair of them and, though the cellist’s muscle memory caused her to step back an inch, Simone had once more become invisible to them.
Simone took her seat for the remainder of the journey. The itch, that prancing coward, remained resolutely mute. While the cellist made every excuse to stalk past Simone’s seat, the only body part which still spewed forth bile were her eyes. Simone was unmoved; her attention was consumed by the events still unfolding in the corridor.
Simone sat with her hands clasped over her belly as she watched the pair. Beauchamp had entered into deep conversation with the girl. The teenager’s barricades were stripped away second by second and inch by inch. Her lips moved silently but rapidly. Just before the final station, Beauchamp took out her notebook and began to pat away at her own pockets. Simone was relieved to see the girl had by now grown bold enough to pluck a pen from her own rucksack and scribble furiously. She looked up at Simone.
Simone waved once. I did this for you, she thought.
The girl returned the wave before refocussing her attention on Beauchamp. Maybe she had heard Simone’s message of goodwill. The teenager’s gesture may have been thanks, it may have been innate politeness or something altogether different, but Simone knew at that moment that some genuine good had been salvaged from this catastrophe.
The train breezed into the station and Simone, keeping a prudent distance away from the cellist, shuffled out of the station. So, this was London. This is where Estelle had erected her own barricades. Maybe they would fall as easily as the teenager’s had. Simone stood in the street and let the fresh air lap at the dampness on her cheeks. After a moment, she leaned against a quiet wall and shuddered uncontrollably. When she was sure that no passers-by are paying attention, Simone retrieved the bottle opener from her underwear and tossed it down the nearest drain. She hailed a taxi from the rank and set off for the final leg of her mission of mercy.
Simone relaxed on the backseat and took out the photograph. She ran her fingertip over the baby’s face. After a moment or two’s thought, she smiled and dug out the pen from the depths of her handbag. In the top corner of the picture, she scrawled grand-mère t’aime, then closed her eyes in satisfaction.
Such a big reward, she thought.
I did this for you.
Une grosse récompense, agreed the itch.
Simone opened her bag to put away the photograph. As she gazed lovingly upon the pen, the sun flashed from between the rooftops and illuminated the engraving of Stephanie Beauchamp. The pen winked as if in silent conspiracy before every voice in the car fell away for the rest of the journey.
Barry Marshall is a literary fiction writer from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. He is studying a Creative Writing MA at Northumbria University and has been published in Idle Ink, STORGY Magazine and InkyLab Press Anthologies. Barry’s happiness can be measured by his proximity to cats and quality black coffee. He can be found on Twitter under the handle @BJM_Writes.