It was worth getting out of bed today. The waistband of my skirt feels strange after weeks in pyjamas, but it’s good to see how life goes on. People get groceries, kids hang around bus stops. Walking down the street, trains rumble above and below me as if nothing has happened. I’m all heels, handbag, best lippy; people stare. They think I am someone. I thought I was someone, once.
At the end of the street, number 56 emerges through the city-summer haze. Binbags barricade the front of the house. Tangles of nettles burst out as I negotiate the garden. Feral gnomes guard the path to the door. A siren wails past; I drop my bag.
I knock four times before the locks stutter. Huge plastic spectacles and the tattered hem of a woolly hat appear in the crack of the door. Eyes, set back in scrotal skin, stare past me.
“Yes.” Not a query – a statement.
“Mr Jervis? It’s Claire – we spoke on the phone yesterday?”
“Can I come in?”
“Claire from the phone, twenty eighth of July two thousand and five, half past ten, you can come in.”
He disappears down the stairs at the end of the hall. Through the gloom, I make out shadowy piles, sitting all around like quiet ghosts. The air is sour with old milk. I follow him down the laden stairs, clinging to the banister. In the belly of the dark, a lamp illuminates further chaos. A striped shopper bulges with light bulbs. Precarious shelves spill onto cupboards full of old food packaging.
“Mr Jervis, there must be some sort of mix-up – ”
But he interrupts me with a reedy whine: “Doll hospital, no job too big or too small, place for legs a place for toes, just need new eyes or I paint new faces leave it to me no job too small. Or too, big.”
On a table, the lamplight picks out piles of pink limbs, a matchbox of eyes, and a bag of heads. A box of dismembered bodies sits on the chair. I inch closer.
“Ok. Perhaps you could tell me about these dolls we have here.”
He stares at the table. My recorder clunks and whirs.
“They lookâ€¦interesting.” The pen is clumsy in my hand. My fingers feel like they’re not mine, like I’ve borrowed some from the pile in front of me.
“No job too small or too big”, he mumbles.
“Are they your dolls?” I sound like a bloody Blue Peter presenter.
“You’re fixing them?”
“Service within a week you have to get them back to the people. Trainâ€¦everything broke, I picked them up, came back home, fix them.” He chews the chapped skin off his lip.
“Whose are they, then?”
“Mrs. Butler, Paddington three dolls, Carol in Euston one doll, Bet at Stratford station right and right again one box of dolls.”
“And you’re here in Wimbledonâ€¦” I picture the Tube map; now it makes sense. “So I bet you got the green Tube?”
He breathes like a pug.
“Did you try to go to Paddington first? But something happened?”
He strokes a little head. “”Fix all the bodies, heads, faces”, he whines. “Do you need new eyes.”
“Can you remember what happened?”
He measures a torso with a ruler, squeezes out a vein of glue and places an arm in the socket.
The room is shrinking. The piles are moving in on me and multiplying. My clothes feel too tight, I’m hot. I should be used to this by now, I – I’ve barely breathed since I got here – deep breath – he feels suddenly contagious. Too soon. “Look,” I grab my stuff. “You’re busy. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“Twenty ninth of July two thousand and five, half past ten.”
As I stumble past him, he picks up a plump girl’s body, and my head flashes full of everything again, and I wish, I just wish I knew how to make it stop.
At home, I rewind the tape for the fifth time. The button’s cut an arrow into my finger from forgetting to let go. As night closes in, the window projects my face onto the neat Kensington homes across the street. I barely recognise myself.
â€˜Alun Jervis’. His mumbling fills the room. The tape clicks stop. I bolt up. My pen has been drawing circles without me. I pull out another cigarette and drag till my throat hurts.
People think they’ve heard screaming, but they haven’t. Not like that. Sinewy, aching screams that bounced off the walls and poles of the cantilevered carriage.
On the news, they made it look so busy, fast. In my head, it hardly moves at all. More of a jigsaw: a woman, blood falling from her face like rainâ€¦ an old guy fumbling in the dark for his legsâ€¦a mother pushing her child’s head into the blindness of her thighs. A policeman taking a baby from a man in a blue towel.
I’d been given a bathrobe. Everyone was scattered around the back of Marks and Spencers and the staff were giving us clothes. It was hot, but I was shivering; the label kept scratching my neck as I coughed. I had this cold tea from the Hilton. The smell of the polystyrene and the milk’s custard-skin wasâ€¦. And the air had that sickly close feeling, from the summer and the fruit tobacco from the Arabic cafes. There was blood on my suit. It wasn’t mine.
I’d lost a shoe; red Louboutins bought for the Olympic bid press conference. I was rubbing my bare foot and that was when I realised I’d lost the press conference tape. It was in my bag. All I could think about was how Marcus would kill me. I was trying to figure out how to get it from the track; my phone was in the bag, I should call the news desk and tell them I’d be late. But then a woman sank onto the curb next to me, holding her head with one hand and her mobile in the other. She couldn’t dial for shaking. â€˜I can’t call my children’, she stuttered. And that was when I realised I had nobody to call.
The phone rings. I must have fallen asleep at the desk. It’s morning. “Hello?”
“We need you back. The world goes on, you know.”
“Marcus. Yeah, I know. I’m working on it.”
“You can’t stay away forever. Stop crying, start writing.”
“Fuck’s sake, Marcus. I’m over it.”
“Did you get anywhere with that list? Just get one of them to talk. Quickly. They’re already banning us from poaching people online. We need more hero stories.”
“I told you, I’ve got something.” I look at the crumpled page. This job is my life.
“We’re relying on you, Claire. I’ve got Nick at the Standard gloating they’re up for a Pulitzer for their tearjerkers. You were there, for fucks sake! Most reporters would have killed to be in your shoes!”
“You’ll have it tomorrow.”
“I still don’t see why you can’t write your own story. You must have done something? Saved someone? Surely you didn’t just stand there…”
I fling the phone across the room. The growling scream that somersaults out my mouth is only one of a hundred others that stay trapped in my head.
There’s someone else at the door of 56. Another journalist? Or social servicesâ€¦that would be a good angle. Maybe I should call them myself.
“Are you here to see Mr. Jervis?”
“Yeah. I’m next door. Come to â€˜ave words.” The woman smells of chips and hairspray. “It’s a bloody pigsty! Disgrace. He wants putting away.”
The woman goes to knock. I block the step between her and the door. “I know it looks bad. But Mr Jervis is having a hard time at the moment. That’s why I’m here. To help him.”
“The social, is ya?”
“Not exactly, but – you do realise he was in the bombing?”
The woman gasped. “Never! Oh my God. Him? Evil, in’t they. Bloody Muslims, coming over here. It were nearly me, you know. Normally go my sister’s on Thursdays on that train, makes you think don’t it, you never know. Just shout if there’s summat I can do. We Brits got to stick togevva!”
She totters off up the garden shaking her head. I wonder for a moment what she would’ve done if she had been there.
Alun is in the living room, standing in the middle of a row of old Hoovers. There’s a sign on the wall behind him: â€˜Doll Hospital’ in a â€˜70s font, with opening times and a number for â€˜Mrs. Jervis’.
“How are we doing?”
He seems nervous today. He picks up a blue towel. It’s one of those tacky ones with spiritual dolphins all over it, and he’s folding it as small as it will go, like he’s squeezing it out of existence. My stomach retches to see it. A clamminess dews on my skin; the vacuums seem to be wheeling in on me.
“That – that towel, Mr Jervis. Have you remembered now what happened?”
“Don’t – remember.” He stutters. “Big bang. All broken.”
I can see him crawling around in the debris. Get a jigsaw-flash of that blue towel.
“There was aâ€¦babyâ€¦Alunâ€¦Alun, what about the baby?”
He wrings the towel between his fingers. “Don’t know don’t know don’t knowâ€¦”
“You must remember! Come onâ€¦the policeman?”
“If you don’t know what to do you must find a policeman,” he mumbles. “BANG! I sit outside with all the people.”
“I know! I KNOW you!”
“Claire from the phone.”
“What happened on the train, Alun?”
“And the rest, tell me the rest Alun, make it up for all I care, no-one’s going to know, just – I don’t have time for – ”
“Claire from the phone no job too big or too small do you want new faces -”
I stare at the dolphin laughing at me from the towel. Alun throws it to the floor and skitters off downstairs; in a blur, I seize it and hurry out. Two messages on my phone from Marcus threatening dismissal if I don’t file immediately.
I sift through papers from that day. I’d been saving them, but what for? I’d never be ready. As I turn the pages, the claustrophobic feeling creeps over me again. The entrance to Edgware Road station leers out of the page. There’s that man, holding a mummy-mask to his face, and the woman we’d all stepped over as we walked up the train. I swallow sick.
The photos show everyone helping. But where was I? Fretting about work and – fucking – shoes. I scan every figure. I spot the woman who smashed the windows of the carriage with her fist; the same woman who had swapped places with me, so I didn’t have to face theâ€¦on the ground beside us…bodies, there I said it. I’d thought of that woman a lot. Everyone says you don’t know how you’re going to react in those situations. Why hadn’t I been that woman? I draw a circle around her and stick the page on the wall.
I wrap the towel around me, pulling it tighter against my shoulders, kneading it in my hands. I curl over on the floor and beat my head on the ground, hands pressing the blue velour tight to my face till I’m suffocating in the memory of that towel, the second of those hundred screams slipping out as a long, low bray.
“So, I’m here to help you, Alun, but I think you can also help me. We can help each other, can’t we?”
He fiddles with a big doll on the table. It’s the last one left to fix and he has run out of the right sized heads.
“See memories – they’re a bit like your dolls, aren’t they? Sometimes they don’t work like they should, but they can be fixed!”
He’s lost in concentration, sticking out his tongue. “It’s easy to forget things, isn’t it? So I thought I would share with you what happened to me. See if it…jogs your memory.”
He chooses a head that is far too big for his patient’s body and struggles to fix it in place.
“There was that big bang. Remember, Alun? It went dark, there was smoke. It was hard to breathe. I couldn’t hear anything at first, like I’d gone deaf. Were you the same? But then I started hearing thoseâ€¦screams.”
I start pacing around the clutter.
“I got up to smash the window with my fist. I almost tripped over you then, crawling around on the floor. Yes? â€˜The dolls!’ you kept whining. I helped you find them. You were coughing a lot, weren’t you? I told you to get down lowâ€¦”
I perch on the stool beside him. “You lay next to me on the floor, but you didn’t like to see the – the dolls – all broken next to you. Do you remember? I swapped places with you. That was better, wasn’t it? I protected you.”
I try to take his hand, but he squirms away. “Then I saw the baby. Everyone started going up the carriage. I gave you the baby and said, â€˜Go outside, follow everyone else, get the baby outside!’ I stayed behind to help.”
A jolt from the body on the table distracts me. Alun is dissecting the mechanism between its shoulder blades.
“Later, I saw you give the baby to the policeman. Remember the policeman, Alun?”
He looks up startled. “Policeman. Baby. Train station.”
“That’s right! I’m so pleased I was able to help you remember. We were very brave, weren’t we? And no-one will know how brave we were if we don’t tell them – will they?”
He picks up his last ward and cradles it for a moment before standing it up to face me. He pulls the mended string on its back and lets the cord slip through his fingers until it runs down to silence.
â€˜Mama!’ the baby bleats.