“Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction,” says David Ulin in The Lost Art of Reading. So, I do resist (eventually) but at what cost?
From Dalston to Waterloo I have 40 minutes and an old book I grabbed on the way out. It’s not a long journey. It’s not even a complicated one: three changes and plenty of time.
In an empty carriage to Canada Water (because it’s 3:45pm on a hot Saturday afternoon); I ignore the book in my bag for an out-of-date Metro from the next seat, then consume it like a McDonalds – as if it’s going to get cold and congeal – and realise that I have no idea what I’ve just read. The stories don’t resonate. Not even Nemi (Metro’s cartoon strip) on the back pages sits for long in my memory bank. But it stands between me and the book, in the same way the internet is now thrumming behind this half-typed page, whirring away to be opened. Eventually the book, A Multitude of Sins by the American writer Richard Ford, gets its turn. On the front cover one man stands in a blur that is Grand Central Station. I soon realise that I’ve read all of these stories, except the second half of the last: ‘The Abyss’.
The train hunkers through East London. Before I know it I’m at Canada Water. It’s 4pm, but there’s plenty of time. So I read from where I left off years ago, riding the escalator down to the Jubilee Line. An illicit affair between two people at a conference in Arizona has suddenly taken a wild turn. The pair rent a car and, despite their reservations about each other, all that they risk, and what the hell they’re doing, they speed off for a romantic break to the Grand Canyon. It’s an overlapping of his and her POV. She thinks he’s arrogant, oafish and boring. Her enthusiasm for the vastness of the landscape suffocates his. Five hours into the trip and her voice is that of birdsong on a sketchy winter morning. As soon as they hit the road, away from the ‘illicitness’ their work environment defined, sexiness disintegrates to a sordid layover in a motel en-route and then… where am I? On a now crowded train at Bermondsey. One more stop and the pair, frazzled, irritated and bored of each other, reach the Grand Canyon.
I get off at London Bridge, with 15 minutes until I meet my work partner, Steven. So I head out of the station into the sun. The London Dungeon guys, covered in fake blood, try and spook me as I find a spot away from the tourists. But I’m taken. The couple are at the canyon. Each desperate to define the wonderment they feel so individually. She takes photos. Hands buried in his pockets, he scuffs the dry earth, longing for his wife.
“Take a photo of me!” she cries. Reluctantly, he takes the camera as she larks around in front of him.
“Just a bit closer,” she squeals, stepping over the safety barrier. “Look at me!” He sees her, star-shaped for the photo. Aligning his right eye with the view finder, there is an “Oh my!”
Fully aligned now, but he can’t find his subject. He moves the camera around the space, frowns, she’s not there – only the drop of the cliff edge and the crevice of the void. Dropping the camera, he walks to where she stood, steps over the safety barrier and looks into the canyon. 100 feet below, and her broken body lies in the top branches of a tree.
What? It’s 4:30pm. If I don’t run to the foyer I’m going to be late. But where is it? Everything looks different.
“Where’s the main train station?” I yell at a man in a fluorescent jacket as I run past.
“The consort is straight ahead.”
I sprint to the consort. It’s smaller than I remember, mostly under construction and screened off by bright orange netting. A few upbeat station attendants stand at the gates to the platforms.
“Is this the main station?” I puff.
“This is it!” the guy says, twinkling in amusement.
“Really?” I look around – nothing but screens of orange and a Cafe Nero.
“But, I’m supposed to be meeting someone under the ‘big clock’.”
He roars with laughter. “You’ve been watching too many films!”
“We’re catching the 4:50 train! Is there a clock at this station?”
“You must be thinking of Liverpool Street, love.” He now frowns.
Digesting this, his eyes well up, the laughter roars out again. “Waterloo? This is London Bridge!” He splutters. “Del Boy met his wife under the clock at Waterloo!”
“We are a culture that seems unable to concentrate, to pursue a line of thought or tolerate a conflicting point of view,” says Ulin. Well, what if you can concentrate – just not on the right thing? In being so ready and willing to disengage from the plentiful distractions around me, I lose sight of B and am lost before my final destination.
At 4:46pm, an angry Steven is still standing beneath the clock at Waterloo. We make the train, but when I reach down to find the book – it has gone.
And the unfinished narrative has been distracting me ever since. Wondering what that man did after seeing his mistress dead on top of a tree caused me to take the wrong branch of the northern line to work this morning, which in turn stressed out a heavily pregnant woman and thirteen people in a BBC meeting. I wish I could just completely disengage from reality and submerge myself in a fictitious world but that would leave me as the figure on the front of Ford’s book – in a daze, at the wrong station, with the real world shooting past. But maybe that’s just what happens every time you read a good story.