Métro

Rosa Rankin-Gee

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

They are going to take the métro. He suggested they meet at KFC.

"Mais non—" she'd said. (She was glad this was on the phone and he couldn't see her.) "Kentucky, non. C'est pas correcte, ça."

Instead, she'd said, the fruit shop. The one where the pigeon flew out from the pineapples.

"Night we made the ratatouille?" he asked.

"'Touille," she corrected, and soon after that he'd hung up.

But the fruit shop it was, and now he was waiting for her, looking at his watch, lightly bouncing on his back heels. He knows which door she'll come from—seriously though, what's she playing at? nine minutes late now—and finally, it opens.

It's the middle of the day, burning, and Chateau Rouge is busy. Dark men sell charred sweetcorn, darker men sell denim leggings. It's so crowded at the top of the stairs to the métro that RATP men in mint green uniforms have blocked it off and let the crush through in short bursts. There is a lot of pushing.

So yes, it's true that it's busy, but he can see her: she is not trying, she is not walking quickly. A taxi stutters to let her cross in front of it, but she waves it on, and waits. She's pretending she hasn't seen him, eyes anywhere but straight ahead.  When she is close, she takes out her phone, looks like she's reading a text, smiles. She makes it obvious, she knows what she's doing.

Just as she looks up, he looks down. He has stopped bouncing, and is scuffing the back of his heel now, as if he's trodden in something.

"No pigeons this time," he says when she gets close, pointing behind him.

"What?"

"I said 'no pigeons this time'. In the fruit shop. No pigeons." He forgets she's French, he shouldn't speak so quickly. "No pigeons," he repeats, and this time he vaguely flaps his arms.

"Oh."

"We're late, we should go." He wishes he hadn't done his bird impression. "It's so hot today. Are you okay? How are you?"

"Fine... tired. Fin—crevée." She raises her shoulders with each word, but they are already so high. Tension: he can see it in her neck. She always used to get pain there, and he would smooth the knots as she sat on his lap on the métro. He moves to touch her but stops himself, and puts his hand back in his pocket.

"Yeah. Me too. Tired... You look great though."

"Beaming?" she says. She says it 'bimming'.

"We should walk to Line 2. Too many people here."

And so they go down Boulevard Barbès. It's lined with shops, but the street itself is where the selling happens. Sim cards, mangoes, chants of malboro-malboro. When they were together, his arm would be around her. She was his, and they would leave her alone. There are few rules here, but that is one of them. Now they are not touching, men try to sell her perfume and cigarettes and say she is beautiful, or worse, as soon as she has walked past.

"Doesn't it bother you?" he says when they are on the platform. "Jesus—"

"What?"

"The men. All of it. I could have hit them." He could have, but he didn't. If his life was a song, this might be the chorus.

He checks the métro map, even though they know where they are going. Nine stops, no change, his finger an inch from the plastic so he doesn't have to touch it.  He leans over the track to look for the train. He's always done that and it's always annoyed her—it won't make the train come quicker, and what if he falls?

"It's coming," he says, turning back to her. He always seems a bit proud, like it was him that made it happen. When it stops, they push on.  It doesn't look like there is enough space for either of them, but once they're inside, four more people squeeze in after. The human body is soft and yielding, she thinks. We believe we are bigger than we are, but we are just like gas.

The boy leans close, and puts his hands on either side of her. "Sorry," he says. "There's no room."  It's a wall he's built around her with his arms. Now she will not fall, he could save her.

One more woman pushes on, pushes the boy and girl's heads together. "Fuck," he breathes, "it's hot..." Their eyes snag for a second, then break free. All these other faces around them—painted eyebrows, purple weave, ponytails and saggy cheeks.

"Sweat," he says after that. He's not whispering. "I can feel other peoples' sweat. God, it's like going back into the womb—" He stops short. "It's not like this on the tube. The London one. I mean, the tube's shit, but it's expensive. I swear people wash more."

"We speak English in France, you know," she says. He's always loved the way she says 'France': it rolls, it falls. "All of us, we do," she goes on, "We understand you."

Two stops later, at Stalingrad, people pour out. The need to stand tight leaves with the crowd, and so the boy lets his arm wall fall.

It is just one man, alone, who steps onto the train through the doors.

How do we tell, almost instantly, the eyes which are best avoided? Neither boy nor girl look at this man, but they catch him in the corners of their sight. His legs do not bend at the knees, instead they move as wood. Each crash-landing sends a sweet-sour wind their way.

The second splits, it becomes a story: two things happen entirely at once. Just as this man comes on board, just at the very moment he sets foot on the train, a baby in a pram starts to cry at the other end of the carriage.

From someone so small, it is a strong, high, wrenching sound. And you can almost see it land on the man.

At first, he cannot tell where the noise is coming from. His forehead jerks as if his eyes are chasing an imaginary wasp. If you allowed yourself to look at him, you'd see that one side of his face is gristled with scabs. He has a tall can of red Amsterdam in his hand and squeezes it until his matte fingers meet. The baby howls again, and then the man makes his own noise. It's as if his throat and his teeth have taken the corners of a cry and ripped it in half. He turns to face the infant. His head twists after the wasp one more time, and he starts to stagger towards the pram.

"No—oh God," says the girl, letting go of the metal pole and grabbing the boy's thin t-shirt instead. She turns her face as far away as she can. "I can't look—" she says. He must see she cannot look. That she is a girl, that this is the difference.

The man is making his terrible noise closer and closer to the baby, but he has not got there yet.

"What's happening?" The girl stares at the boy's t-shirt, his chest, the faint push of his nipple. "Il fait quoi, là?" The boy must look for her.

"It's OK," he says. "He won't do anything..." He can't, the boy thinks, it's a baby, there are rules.

But the man is getting closer, his roar is getting rawer. The mother is moving to put herself between them.

The girl turns quickly to flash her eyes in their direction.  The man is so close now. The mother wants to turn to her baby, but she cannot turn her back to the man.

Men, the girl thinks, Men. There are all these other men, in suits and shiny glasses—proper men, safe men—and they are staring at their newspapers.

"I...—" The girl looks at the boy, her forehead is chewed, she can't speak. The terrible, shouting man is three feet from the mother now; cries are filling the train.

The boy's body is tightly tensed. Like he might leap—he might, he could—but he stays exactly where he is.  "It's... going to be fine." (There are rules: you don't stand up, you don't look, you don't hurt a baby, there are rules.)

There are no rules. When the train come into the station, it stops with an almighty lurch. The shouting man remembers his can and tries to stop it from spilling: he loses his footing, he tips away from the pram. But as the doors open, both feet slam flat to the floor, sturdy. His rough face chases the wasp, and he turns back to the baby. No one gets on, and no one gets off. No one moves. The doors, about to close, begin to beep.

But the mother is a mother and she takes her chance: she takes a sharp step towards the shouts and uses both hands to push, with her eyes shut. There are times when no one can look. It happens very fast. But the man falls out through the doors as they shut, his can hitting the floor in front of the pram and spinning, spilling, on the spot.

The man roars one last time, but the door is shut. The base of his fist lands hard on the window; for the beer, for the baby. But the train moves on, the man is gone.

The girl is still holding the boy's t-shirt. She is still holding her breath. It takes a second to realise she can let either of them go. There are three more stops till theirs. Do they have a conversation? Perhaps. About a film they'd seen, her mother, his flatmate. Maybe. But the whole time, the whole time, her hands are shaking.

She stares and stares at the métro map. Normally she sees Paris clearly in its coloured lines. But now it's a tangle. She does not know where she is.

They talk to make noise. It's only when they are about to get off the train that they notice the baby has stopped crying.

Two middle-aged sisters—they must be sisters, they have matching eyes—have moved to sit next to the mother and child. They're perched on the fold-down seats, leaning over the pram, singing a lullaby. It is Portuguese. Or Brazilian Portuguese: open, bouncing, squashy, and the baby is silent.

On the platform now, the girl stays still, looking at the sisters sing until the doors slam shut. Humans are mostly, mostly soft and yielding. When the train pulls away, still, the girl stands. Finally, the boy puts his arm around her shoulder, and guides her to the exit. He was going to say something about a happy ending, but he cannot. They walk up the stairs of the métro and as soon as they are back at sea level, he lets go of her.

"It's this way," he says. "I checked before I came. It's not far. It's easy."

As they walk, she says that it's good of him to come. He says he had leftover holiday to use, and besides, he shrugs, it's for both of them. His eyes fall to her neck—so tight. Maybe he could still make it better. But he looks down at his watch again. Just in time. Fine, it will be fine.

The doors to the clinic are white, as they thought they would be. Each waits for the other to push them open. Here, the journey ends.



Rosa Rankin-Gee (b. 1986) lives in Paris, where she edits the London-Paris-Berlin-based arts journal A Tale of Three Cities and co-founded The Book Club - book swap parties for often more than 300 people. Last summer, her novella 'The Last Kings of Sark' won Shakespeare & Company's international Paris Literary Prize. Follow her on Twitter @rosarankingee.