Traveling west on the Tube with Steve and Marie after rehearsal one evening recently, I was visited by a sudden and painful erection, caused by the realisation that I still fancied Marie, even though we had split up over a year ago. I was a bit pissed at first when she went off with the front man, just because he’s pretty and blond and talented, but I’m over it. You need to keep singers happy. She’s put on a bit of weight. I guess that means she’s happy with Steve, too, although, now I come to think of it, my sister put on weight because she was so miserable after that wanker her ex-husband dumped her. It could go either way, I guess. Perhaps Marie’s weight gain is unrelated to her emotional condition..
Of course, Steve is a fucking brilliant singer, and we write fuck off songs together and Marie is the singer’s girl now, and I wouldn’t do anything to split up the band, not now we’ve cut back on the fist fights and we seem to be getting close to something. Marie and I were miserable together, at least at the end, so my fancying her now means nothing. The Underground is a highly sexualised space, anyway. A glimpse of stockinged thigh on the Tube is sometimes worth more than a shag after a gig, in my view. Perhaps it was this which had rearoused my desire for Marie, and nothing more, but it must be admitted that a few extra pounds seem to suit her, especially on her legs, which have filled out quite spectacularly. Steve, easily the coolest guy I know, is a lucky geezer.
‘Oi, are you looking at Marie’s legs?’ said Steve, leaning towards me across his lovely girlfriend.
‘I am, actually.’
‘Yeah, well fuckin’ don’t’
‘You could write a song about my legs,’ said Marie. ‘They are very good.’
‘Yeah, an’ I’ll call it, ‘Don’t Look At My Girl Friends Legs, Or I’ll Wrap that Fuckin’ Guitar Round Your Skinny Neck.’
‘Can I look at her tits, then?’
‘I love it when you fight over me,’ said Marie.
We were sitting in a row on one of those seats that run lengthways along the carriage; me, with a rekindled awareness of Marie’s sexual possibilities and my guitar case propped up strategically between my legs; Marie, with her yummy remodeled legs, and Steve, with his rockist slouch and his new haircut and his old sheepskin coat and his art school attitude.
We pulled into Baker Street, and a couple in their late middle age got into the carriage, and came and sat on the row opposite, a few seats down from me. They were holding hands. They looked prosperous; both had white hair and tanned skin, and they were both dressed up smart; he in a dark blue overcoat, she in a turquoise suit. Although the display of hand-holding would seem to have indicated his evident fondness for his wife, as we pulled out of the station I could have sworn that this old guy was staring at Marie’s born again legs, staring really hard.
Despite my new-found realisation that I too liked looking at Marie’s legs, rather than understanding the old man’s feelings, I felt a mild distaste. There is something discomfiting about the lust of the old for the young, though I’m sure I’ll feel differently when I’m his age. I just thought he was being a dirty old bastard. But I was wrong; I had miscalculated the angle of his hungry gaze, trigonometry never having been my strong point. He was staring at Steve.
‘Steven?’, he said, in a really posh voice.
Steve didn’t move; I don’t think he heard the old guy over the rattle of the train. Marie nudged him.
‘Steven!’ the old guy said again, louder, a sharper note in his voice.
Steve sat up straight, looked at the guy, and gulped.
‘Mr. Crouch.’ he said.
‘Steven! Hello!’ The old guy turned to his wife.
‘Do you remember Steven, Helen? Steven Hodson. He was head boy… what… five, six years ago?’ His wife smiled and tilted her head towards us. Marie and I turned to look at Steve; he had shrunken back a little into the seat.
‘Five years ago, sir,’ he said.
‘Yes, that’s right. Five years ago. There’s no need for sirs now, is there Helen?’ His wife smiled and nodded in affirmation.
‘Goodness me! It’s Alan now.’
Steve’s lips parted in a ghastly approximation of a smile.
‘So, what are you up to? The last time I saw you must have been about three years ago, at an Old Boys rugger match, or the cricket was it? Can’t quite remember. You were at Warwick?’
‘Yes.’ said Steve.
‘So, what are you up to now?’
‘I’m doing an MA in Criminology,’ said Steve, looking at the floor of the carriage, the smile mercifully gone.
‘And singing in the best band in London,’ I said.
Alan and Helen looked at me as you might at dog shit that talked.
‘An MA?’ said Alan. ‘Really? Hang on, we’ll come and sit a little closer. Can’t hear you properly.’
Alan and Helen, still holding hands, shifted down the carriage four or five seats, so that he was sitting opposite Steve, and Helen was sitting opposite Marie. Steve shrank a little further still.
‘An MA? In Criminology did you say?’ said Alan.
‘Yes si… Alan.’ Alan winced, almost imperceptibly.
‘Marvelous. Marvelous. Here in London?’
‘Yes sir. North London.’
Alan furrowed his brow.
‘North London? That’s one of the new ones, isn’t it? Where’s that?’
‘Holloway Road, sir. The Sociology Department is very well thought of.’
‘Sociology?’ An involuntary moue passed over Alan’s lips.
‘Yes sir. My degree is in Sociology.’
‘Oh, you gave up History?’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Ah, but do you still act?’
Steve blushed. ‘No. No, I don’t.’
‘Oh, that is a shame. A great shame.’ Alan turned to Helen.
‘Do you remember seeing Steven in that production we did of ‘Antigone’ about five or six years ago?’ he asked her. The train was slowing now.
‘Five.’ said Steve.
‘That’s right. About five years ago?’
Helen looked thoughtful.
‘No’, she said, and when Alan looked disappointed, she added, ‘Oh yes… yes. Vaguely.’
‘We did ‘Antigone’ when I was at Cambridge, thirty and more years ago. Marvelous. I was the second soldier.’ said Alan.
‘Was it a speaking part?’ asked Helen.
‘Well, I had a couple of lines, but it was very sad. Very sad.’ Alan shook his head and smiled broadly.
The train came to a stop in the tunnel. There was no escape.
‘Of course,’ Alan continued, ‘everything was paid for in those days. The grant covered everything. Not like now, eh? We even had enough money for beer!’ Alan laughed aloud at happy memories of quaffing foaming pints of nut brown ale by the firesides of Fenland inns long ago. Steve forced another weak smile across his pop star lips.
‘Always enough money for drink, sir.’ he said. Alan sobered up.
‘Quite right. Quite right. So… how goes the MA?’
The train lurched forward again, into the light of Edgeware Road Station.
‘Very well sir.’
‘Heading for a distinction?’
‘Well, I’m borderline, sir. Between a high merit and a low distinction.’
‘Well, I’m not surprised.’ Alan turned to his wife. ‘Steven was always one of the brightest of my pupils.’ I could feel Marie shaking with the effort of suppressing her laughter.
‘Yes, very bright.’ said Alan. ‘Very promising. And a first-rate head boy.’
This was too much for Marie, who went ‘PAH!’, luckily just as the doors slid open with a ‘PAF!’ of their own, which disguised some of her pleasure. Helen peered at Marie’s legs over the top of her spectacles.
‘This is our stop, sir,’ said Steve, starting to stand up.
We stayed sitting.
‘No it isn’t,’ said Marie. Steve sat down again.
‘You haven’t introduced your friends, ‘Alan said.
‘I’m sorry, sir.’, said Steve. ‘This is Marie and Robert.’ We smiled, and Alan and Helen smiled back with a glint of frost..
‘And are you both studying for your MA’s too?’ asked Alan.
We both nodded, even though we weren’t.
Alan smiled again.
‘You know, I remember the last time I saw you now, Steven. It wasn’t at the cricket. That was on the tube, too. Isn’t that extraordinary?’
‘I’d been doing my Christmas shopping, that’s right. I was loaded down with books and CD’s… …and books and CD’s!’
Helen and Steve laughed at this little pleasantry, Helen with affectionate memory, Steve with hard forced politeness.
The wheels tickered over the rails…. I mimicked their rhythm, whispering to Marie,
‘Books and CDs… Books and CDs… Books and CDs’. Marie forced her nails into the back of my hand.
‘Do you remember, Helen? That was the year when I put an empty CD case in everyone’s present!’
‘Yes!’, she said. ‘You’re expecting this really expensive present, and the first thing you see is an empty CD case.’ Alan laughed too, but the strain was clearly beginning to get to Steve. The smile still clung to his face, but tears were starting to well in his eyes.
‘The thing was,’ Helen continued, ‘was that I’d cracked one of my CD cases, and an empty one came in handy.’
I sensed she was trying to make the best of things; for what, after all, was Alan’s taste in CD’s? Harrison Birtwistle? Hindemith? Einsturzende Neubauten? You can never tell. Perhaps an empty case signified a blessed silence in their household.
‘Where are you all headed for?’ said Alan.
‘Bayswater,’ I said.
‘We’re going to buy drugs,’ said Marie.
‘It’s Paddington for us, of course, Steven,’ said Alan.
‘We’ve been to see Richard Eyre’s ‘Hedda Gabler’ at the Almeida,’ said Helen.
‘Have you seen it?’ said Alan.
‘Oh, you should. It’s marvelous. We’re Friends of the Almeida; we see everything. But I’m blowed if I’m going to drive into the centre of London, so we always leave the car at Marlow station, and come in on the train.’
Alan and Helen stood up.
‘Such a shame you didn’t pursue the History. You did a project on Victorian railways for GCSE, didn’t you?’
‘Then I expect you’ll know better than I that Paddington is the world’s first Underground railway station… and here we are. Nice to see you again Steven, wasn’t it Helen?’
‘And to meet your friends,’ said Helen.
We smiled. Alan and Helen got down from the train and walked along the platform. As the train pulled past them, they waved hands in farewell, and Steve waved back.
Steve was oddly quiet. He seemed to be intent on reading an advert for cut price holiday insurance just above the seat where Alan had been sitting. Marie and I looked at one another.
‘Steven,’ I said.
‘What?’, said Steve.
‘Have you got something to tell us?’ said Marie.
‘What?’ said Steve.
‘You told me you went to a big inner city comprehensive,’ said Marie.
‘You told me that you got expelled for stealing motors,’ I said. ‘You told me that you’d got sent to a young offenders institute.’
‘You told me that’s why you were doing Criminology,’ said Marie.
‘Did I?’, said Steve.
‘Yes.’ I said.
Steve prepared to make a last stand.
‘Well… who’s to say I didn’t?’
‘Head boy,’ said Marie.
‘Antigone’, I said.
‘Did you go to a large inner city comprehensive, Steven? Were you in a young offenders institute?’ I asked.
‘Or did you, in fact, attend a minor public school near Marlow?’ said Marie.
Steve grinned. He really is very pretty.
‘Yes, you bastards. And Crouch was my housemaster.’
‘Alan.’ I said. We all started screaming, with relief, I think, as much as anything. People further down the carriage turned and looked. And then the doors slid open again, and it was Bayswater, and we had business to attend to, so we said no more about it.