I was on the train when I first noticed. A gentleman crammed into the aisle, too wiry to fill out his suit. He held a briefcase of the sort you don’t see so often nowadays. But he was young; perhaps the suitcase was a gift from his father. He was certainly holding on to it tight enough. His thumb was twitching.
In men’s toilets at Waterloo Station was a person who my daughter would probably tell me was “non-binary.” He — assuming they were a he — was putting some kind of powder onto his face in the bathroom mirror, I assume with the intent of sharpening his cheekbones, because one appeared much more pronounced than the other. I hoped he would be done by the time I’d finished pissing, but perhaps unsurprisingly, he wasn’t. He stood to one side to let me wash my hands, though, so maybe they aren’t all as bad as the papers say.
Anyway, as he did so, his thumb was twitching, almost vibrating, so severely that he dropped the makeup sponge he was holding.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Sorry,” I said.
On the escalator, I looked down at my thumb. The escalator handbelt was moving ever so slightly too slow, so my thumb moved closer and closer as I descended. But it did not twitch.
Everyone has their hands out on the Tube. For a tall man like myself, every Underground journey is a sea of hands clutching rails. It was crowded and stuffy in the first carriage, but I noticed the next carriage along was far quieter. I braved the howling chasm between the two carriages and shut the door behind me, at the same moment realising my mistake. Four young men sat in front of me, all in black, from the jackets to the shoes. I couldn’t turn back now without appearing racist, so I shuffled past them with twice as many steps as needed, and sat down. A pretty young girl was sitting opposite, and I wondered whether she was with the boys, and without knowing how, I knew that she was not.
I got my phone out to avoid looking at anyone, feeling my cheek burning for no reason at all. I scrolled through Twitter, even though we were too far underground for anything new to appear, and as I flicked my thumb upwards … it twitched.
I fixed my gaze directly on the thumb now. Thin, pale, it has always seemed more like a finger than other people’s thumbs. It was probably the first time I’ve looked at it, really looked at it, since I was a boy. Skin folds like cracks of marble; a jagged mole I had never even noticed before. When did I stop paying attention to my own body?
It did not twitch again.
For some reason, I felt hugely relieved. With a rush of confidence, I was comfortable enough to look up. I tried to examine the other passengers while never taking my eyes off the station map above their heads. The girl opposite looked no older than 20, and although I knew that made me more than 30 years older than her, I still had trouble conceptualising that idea. I couldn’t quite believe that there was more than 10 years’ difference between us. She truly was very pretty, with hair bleached white and a piercing through her septim. I remember when my daughter asked if she could get her septim pierced; I fear I had some choice words for her that day.
Swerving away from that thought, I turned my attention to the boys in black, and with a twinge in my stomach I noticed the one whose eyes were on the girl. His thumb twitched furiously against the seat fabric.
“What’s your name?” he called out to her.
She looked up, but not directly at him.
“Alexa,” she said.
Straight away, the other three boys were in stitches. It was over the top, but it relieved the tension.
“It wasn’t a bad name when my dad chose it,” she said, in on the joke.
There was a twinkle in the boy’s eyes now. “Is your dad a big man?”
I didn’t understand the question, but she seemed to. “Bigger than you,” she said, her smirk showing now.
The boys loved that too.
“You sure about that?”
“Yeah.” She shrugged her jacket up her shoulder, and a wide hoop earring showed through her hair. I felt my thumb twitch again, followed by a twinge of panic.
“Maybe you could take me home to meet him?” The boy chewed his lip.
“Can’t, this is my stop,” she said, with another smile, standing up.
She had almost walked out of the carriage when I saw White City written on the platform behind her. Shit. I jumped to my feet and bumped my shoulder squeezing through the closing doors. The boys mocked me openly as their window accelerated up the platform and into the dark tunnel.
The girl found my sudden departure from the train far less funny. She glanced back, scornful, hostile, and then clip-clopped her way up the platform. Not wanting to scare her, I watched her walk the length of the platform before following her to the exit. I found it hard to look away from her, though.
She was gone by the time I emerged from the stairwell. To my dismay, the hospital was right in front of me. Confronted with it, after hours of travelling, I wished it was further away. I pushed my way through the hoards of tourists and passed two policemen on horseback. One looked down at me, his gloved hands on the reins, thumb convulsing. A pit of dread yawned in my stomach.
The hospital staff were excellent. They always are, when something truly horrible has happened. Somehow I knew that we would be heading down in the lift, not up. The corridor which followed was cold and lifeless, and my thumb did not twitch. As we walked, the nurse spoke to me and I spoke back, about the way these things worked, about arrangements, but I can’t recall a single word that was said.
Finally, we stopped outside a nondescript door.
“Through here is the viewing room,” the nurse explained. “You’ll see her through the glass.”
“Right,” I said.
The door was lighter than I expected. The room the other side was barely big enough for me and the nurse to stand side by side. The back wall was brick, and the front was a window. Beyond was the mortuary, with a body lying on a shiny metal table. Somehow, it was this table, the pure functionality of it, which filled me with rage.
“Yes,” I swallowed. “It’s her.”
It was no better when we were in the corridor again, no better in the lift up to the daylit floors, and still worse in the nurse’s office. I struggled to breathe as she gave me papers to sign and pointed out certain details. Lacerations to the wrists. Contusions on the thighs. I might have stood up and called the nurse a fucking bitch; I might have politely thanked her and said goodbye; I honestly can’t remember.
Nor can I remember how I got to Hampstead Heath, but that is where I arrived two hours later. By then it was a beautiful July afternoon, so I had come to the last place in London where I might have found solace. I think I remembered taking Jessie there at some time when she was young; I can’t remember.
London has different rules in the summer’s heat. The women queued up for the ice-cream van with their tops off, slung over their shoulders, soaked with sweat. A little closer to me, a group of teenagers were having a barbeque, flagrantly against the rules. One of the boys was being chased by two of the girls, while his friends watched from their circle. Envious, obviously.
I felt a fierce pain in my knuckle. Drawing my hand out of my pocket, I saw my thumb jerking, writhing almost, throwing itself against my finger again and again and again. I watched it, fascinated, for almost five minutes until the spasm calmed to a flicker. And then intensified again. It would not go away.
Nor would it for any of them. The boy being chased, his friends watching on — I could see their thumbs from where I was. The sweating man at the back of the ice-cream queue — I couldn’t see his, but I could tell, just from watching him. All of them, tense, flickering, constantly watching, fixating, fantasizing.
And it would be harmless, wouldn’t it, except that it would be more than that. These men, these men who are everywhere, they want to possess, don’t they? They want to do damage. They might regret it afterwards, but in the moment, some primal surge overtakes them, and they do what men have always done. And it is stigmatised, drilled out of them, and perhaps things are changing, but not fast enough and never fully. And I hated them, each and every one of these men.
Suddenly that hate exploded out of me, and in a frenzy I grabbed my hand and stuffed it into my mouth, biting down into my thumb with awful force. Right there on a bench on Hampstead Heath, I tried to chew off my own thumb with all my might. Of course, I could not do it. The human mouth can sever a digit as easy as it bites a raw carrot, but my brain would not let me do it. It has impulse control — in some situations.
Perhaps some of the people noticed. Perhaps the men spared a thought for the sad balding fuck sat alone on a bench on Hampstead Heath, his thumb shaking and dripping with blood, before those men turned back to their thoughts of women.
Tomorrow I will bury my daughter, and I will know that I am exactly the same as them.