Lawrence was in an art gallery when he first saw her, standing rather gloomily in front of a landscape of the English countryside, one by Constable he imagined. She looked for all the world like she’d rather be anywhere else but here, and it dawned on him that no woman, no person for that matter, ought to spend their day feeling such a way. In hindsight, he did wonder if maybe he ought to have left her alone; Lawrence, of all people, knew the value of a moment’s solitude on a particularly terrible Tuesday, or the antidote to gloom that only an hour’s silence and the absence of other people can be. But these things did not occur to him, as he stepped up confidently, keeping a metre or so of space between them, and said, Do you not like the painting?
The woman did not turn to face him, or make any sign that she had even heard him, for several moments. Lawrence almost wondered if he should simply walk away and try to forget the whole thing happened – although he knew it would almost certainly keep him up at night – but just as he was about to move off, she murmured a quiet hum of acknowledgement. He did not move any closer, but he studied her a little more. She looked young, but her eyes were tired. She wore a cream-coloured trouser suit, and her hair was long and wispy, as if it had been tied up in some elaborate manner earlier in the day, and she had grown exasperated with the style and pulled the pins out just moments ago. Lawrence felt an almost insatiable urge to smooth it down.
I wasn’t really looking at the painting, she said eventually. I do not even remember how I came to be here.
Lawrence was struck into silence at that. He did not know what he expected from her response, but he knew it was not that, not at all. The woman’s eyes flickered over to him, and he saw they were pale and grey, almost washed out. Her skin was pale too, though there was a smudge of pink above each cheekbone. It was poorly applied, even Lawrence could see that. While her suit was rather stylish, her face gave the impression of someone entirely detached from their physical self, tired with life and wanting to get out, somehow.
Well, I say, Lawrence stammered in response. He felt his cheeks were growing a little warm, and he had quite lost control over his words. His mind faded to blank, as he scrabbled desperately for something to say. In that moment, he felt that all the responsibility for this woman’s cheer, the task of reviving her from whatever depths of gloom and despair she had tunnelled her way into, was entirely on his shoulders.
I think it’s funny that these places no longer exist, you see, and the place that Constable once painted is now likely a street of council-owned terraced houses with dripping taps and a Londis where you can buy a bottle of white wine for £4 and likely some stale crisps, he said in one breath. As the words tumbled out of his mouth, he felt his entire body clench.
But to his surprise, it seemed to do the trick. Something about the woman loosened, her shoulders visibly dropped, and the skin of her face, which seemed to have been stretched tight as a drum, fell into softer lines, like ripples of sand. Her watery eyes turned bright and wide, and the corners of her sullen lips turned upright, just a little.
There was a coffee shop outside of the art gallery, and Lawrence stood at the counter facing the shop girl. He had draped his coat over a chair by a table in the window, to claim it – he never liked going into a café and ordering drinks before finding a place to sit – and now the woman sat there, waiting for him. In the pale November sun, her outline was silhouetted against the glass, her neck straight and her hands folded in her lap.
Two lattes please, he asked the girl behind the counter, who said she would bring them over. When the drinks came, the woman placed both hands around the mug. For the first time, Lawrence noticed an oddly faded black mark on the ring finger of her left hand. He knew those sorts of marks; his sister had them all over her hands, when she wore cheap jewellery for too long and the coatings rubbed off.
I don’t come to London very often, the woman said, all of a sudden. She lifted the cup of coffee to her lips as she spoke and took a rather frothy sip.
Lawrence nodded. I live just around the corner actually, he replied, and I’ve lived here most of my life. Always wanted to move away, what with the expensive cost of living and the extortionate rent, not to mention the terrible politics and the tourists, but I’ve never quite managed it. There’s always work to do here. As he spoke, the woman watched him. He was beginning to feel less self-conscious under her gaze. When they left the art gallery, she stared straight ahead until they reached the coffee shop, and only when he asked for her drink order did she look him in the eyes again. He tried not to think too much of it. He was sure there must be a reason. Perhaps he would find it out, perhaps he would not. Perhaps this would be the only few moments they spent together. She was a stranger, after all.
I have some bad memories here, the woman said, once Lawrence had finished talking. I am not planning to return, once I leave again.
Lawrence’s curiosity was piqued to such a high extent that he could barely contain himself. His mind was ready to implode with the pressure; he wanted to make the woman feel at ease, but he also didn’t want to be nosy, and he didn’t want to contribute further to that terrible gloom that was now finally beginning to lift, and he also didn’t want to let her go without finding out whatever was going on within her.
There was a moment of silence, and Lawrence perhaps did not realise how long he was contemplating these things before she was beginning to speak again. Your face looks a bit familiar, she said. I feel that I have seen you somewhere, perhaps on television or something. Am I correct?
Lawrence smiled; it had been a long time since someone had recognised him, and there was still rather a thrill to the feeling. His television show had been cancelled several years ago; all he knew of it now was the sporadic royalty checks in the post, and occasional glimmers of recognition from strangers on the Tube or those who passed him in the street. He had no desire to go back on television, and had quietly kept to himself since, doing consulting work for the BBC in the meantime to pay the bills. It was a calm, quiet life. There was nothing that was too badly missing, he thought.
You are, he said at last. But that was a long time ago. The woman looked at him closely, and he felt that he had suddenly become entirely naked, and she was studying every inch of his skin, every wrinkle, sag, mole, scratch and scar. But oddly, he did not feel that it was at all unpleasant. I knew I recognised your face, the woman said. I wonder if that was why I was willing to come with you. Perhaps I thought you were from my past, somehow. I don’t know.
If not the past, then the present, Lawrence said. Did you enjoy the gallery, anyway?
Oh, don’t let’s talk about these things, the woman said, suddenly sharp. Her eyes flashed a little, and her brows narrowed together. Lawrence was taken aback. She picked up a spoon from the table, and began to stir her coffee angrily; it sloshed onto the saucer and then onto the table, splashing the woman’s suit, the brown marks standing out like terrible sores on the beautiful cream material.
Oh, dear, I am sorry, Lawrence said, trying frantically to mop up the spilt coffee, although it was of course her fault for stirring it so carelessly.
Let me just pay for the pissing coffee, she said, in a husky whisper. I shouldn’t even be here. I don’t know what I was thinking.
Lawrence babbled and protested as the woman pulled her bag from the floor, and rooted around inside. You really don’t need to, he said in a panic, it was my treat, I just wanted to make you feel a bit better, you looked so sad in the gallery, it’s just a treat, please don’t feel you need to. She rooted a little more, the objects in her bag cluttering and clanking against each other as she did so. Lawrence heard something else rattling around, like a bag of coins or beads. Eventually, she gave up with a sharp, exasperated sigh. As much as I would like to pay for the coffee, I can’t find my purse, she said. Her eyes had become sad again.
Please, don’t worry. It was on me, Lawrence said.
They sat there for a moment. It turned into a few more moments, and then a few more, as the woman stared out of the window. People walked by. Lawrence saw a frazzled mother pushing a double pushchair, one child fast asleep and the other wailing and waving an empty plastic bottle. He saw a group of students carrying piles of books and talking awkwardly, one girl trailing behind the rest. He saw an older couple walking slowly, hand-in-hand, the woman in a long green coat and the man in a flat cap with a grey beard and round glasses. He saw two men walk by with brown paper bags, swaying as they went. He saw a younger couple with a small toddler, who walking very much like the men with brown paper bags.
All these people, the woman said, in a voice barely above a whisper. And all these lives.
Yes, isn’t it, Lawrence said, not quite sure what he was responding to.
Later, Lawrence would not remember quite when the woman decided to go to the restroom, or when he had a little nosy through her bag and found the velvet drawstring pouch full of buttons. He would remember the feeling of satisfaction as he slid his hand through the soft, smooth pieces, rubbing together in such a lovely, pleasing manner that he quite forgot himself. The thrill of looking through someone else’s belongings, the electric of the unknown – he would remember that. He would remember the confusion, when she did not return to her seat but instead walked out into oncoming traffic, leaving her bag and the buttons behind, and never knowing what it all meant.