The District Line
Maybe, of a moment: ratty brown hair parted heavily to the left that almost curled but only managed to look uncombed and slightly greasy, grey cups of skin between cheek and eye, black woollen stockings, short boots with buttons on the side, stripy jumper dress, cocaine habit, love letter crumpled in feathery long fingers. She could have melted away into the soft, suffocating dustiness of the northbound District and Circle platform at Notting Hill Gate.
She was looking for a Tube mouse.
Tube mice are no larger than a breath; you could fit an adult in your palm, curl your hand around it, and feel only a whisper of fur. They look a bit like field mice: same tiny teardrop ears, creased neatly on the head, same glassy black eyes, same shape—like a ball of cotton wool—but Tube mice are the colour of the grime they inhabit, some nothing-colour between grey and brown and black.
Not many people know about the mice, not even Londoners, not even though there are photographs, videos, even a children’s film about their little lives, all easily accessible. It’s strange: if you query the average Londoner about them, he’ll look puzzled and more often than not will wonder why you would ask such a thing. There are rats, he’ll tell you uncertainly.
Tube mice are a secret that belongs to London commuters. Not all of them, mind—only the ones who’ve gone past boredom, music players, magazines and free newspapers into a state of walking daydreams, the ones who compose symphonies around the off-tempo of their steps, who find landscapes smudged into the white space of adverts. A gift from the city that understands what they really are. They daydream—and at the back of their minds, they look for a small bustling in the dirt.
Even as she listened to her friends nattering away at the back of the platform, Maybe stared—past her legs and feet, the yellow line, the white cement tiles with the bumps, crisp packets and oily brown grime—at the black eyelets under the rails. The mouse would emerge, if it ever did, from there.
“Oi! Step back,” said a voice behind her. “There’ll be a train in a minute.”
The mice were a strange gift from this utilitarian, filthy place. When one came, Maybe was always frightened for it: people had such large feet, so many times larger than a mouse—but the mice tumbled over boots and sandals like acrobats, coming out of the crush unscathed. She’d lived in London for most of her life, had taken the Underground nearly every day—and had spotted them fewer than a dozen times.
“May-may,” said the voice, “did you hear me? The sign says…oh. Two minutes now.”
Maybe moved behind the line, glanced over her shoulder. “Yeah, sorry,” she said. The speaker, a blonde girl, put her hands on her hips. For a moment she tried to suss out what was going on, but gave up quickly.
Maybe glanced at the sign. One minute. She went back to looking. There was a rustling at the far dip in the tracks—the mouse stopped, mid-step, and looked at her from one eye.
They stared at each other for a breath—until the train swept into the station, severing the mouse from view, and threw Maybe’s hair over her eyes. She pulled it behind her ears with sticky fingers.
“Getting on, Bea?” she said to the blonde, without turning around.
“Yeah, all right,” said Bea. She turned to face the girls sitting on a bench next to the vending machine. “See you—oi, pay attention, Stacey, I’m saying goodnight to you, you stroppy slag. I’ll make it up to you, spilling that drink. I’ll buy you that handbag your dad wouldn’t get you, yeah?”
“No you won’t!” said Stacey, from the other side of the platform. “And I have to wait for the next District train, as well!”
“Why can’t you take this one? Go on.” Bea was now walking backwards to the train, her arms out in front of her, supplicating.
“Because I’ve got to take another branch to get to Ealing, haven’t I?” said Stacey.
“I swear I will buy you that bag,” said Bea, from inside the train. Maybe stepped in after her.
“Yeah, all right,” said Stacey.
Drunken shits, thought Maybe as the doors closed and the girls made faces at each other through the glass—but she showed the love letter to her companion, who squinted at it.
“Is that…that letter? From Bertie, yeah?”
“God, what a fucking bastard,” said Bea. “Do you have any idea who it’s for, darling?”
“Want to sit down?” They moved to the nearest seats. “I told you, I dunno. To be honest with you, it could be to anyone, even you.”
Bea looked shocked.
“No,” said Maybe, “I don’t mean it’s actually…look, there aren’t any details, so I can’t know, can I? He hasn’t addressed her once by name, not even a nickname, just gorgeous and babe. I don’t even know whether he met her recently or not.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you, and neither would Stace, nor Clemmie, you know that, don’t you?” Bea became serious quickly, to a depth only alcohol could achieve in her. “Maybe. Bella. My Mabsie. You know, you know we wouldn’t do that to you, right? I mean, we’re your best mates. Right?”
“I don’t even care, Bea,” said Maybe. And she didn’t care. Bertie was a placeholder. “Whoever it is, she doesn’t matter. What matters is that Bertie wrote it. And it’s not to me because bits of it are about me. And he left it in his jacket pocket, the one he lent me, so he obviously thinks me stupid. Good on you—said Bertie was a slut before I even started with him.”
“Yeah, I did say.”
Maybe looked at her friend, closely. “You want me to walk you from the stop?”
“Yeah, all right. It’s not too far, is it?”
“Want to sleep on the sofa?”
The sofa was almost human; it reminded Maybe of a great-aunt on her mother’s side who smoked. It was covered in suede, and it caressed with the scent of old wine and cigarette ashes. Its love tended to be too indulgent, too soft, too giving, and not at all orthopaedic.
Every time she slept at Beatrice’s house, it went like this: Maybe would be covered in a thin blanket and she would be sleeping in her clothes. Her fingers would shake from the cold of the blonde’s flat. As they shook she would lift them in the air, and they would trace impressionist renditions of flies on the ceiling, all by themselves. She would think about how the line of her arm was broken up by elbow and wrist and finger bones, where the burnt olive oil colour of the street lamp collected in pools, around the little mounds of gristle that stuck out of her chicken-wing arms.
She wouldn’t bother to take off her shoes, and her makeup would eat away at her face. The next morning, perhaps a pack of fags would get her into class on time.
So she stayed on the train. Bea was too drunk to care, drunk enough to forget that she cared deeply not ten minutes before. She left saying, “Muah, not sure I’ll see you tomorrow but we must do something this weekend, darling, bye!”
Maybe thought about how solid her friendship with Beatrice was, given that Bea wouldn’t remember a thing from tonight, nor from most nights. She thought about how her feet were tired of fitting into her boots. She thought of the Tube mice—to Maybe they glowed. By carrying the colour of debris under the tracks, a colour that spoke of silt and oil and dirt and grease, they lifted it, made it soft and gentle. She thought of them with a stone in her heart.
She kept her knees together and her ankles apart, staring at the ground. The train swayed for what seemed like hours without stopping. She wondered why the old District Line cars had ribs of wood sticking up from the floor.
“What are you thinking of, sweetheart?”
“The mice,” Maybe said, and looked up—and there, across from her, was a wolf. He held in his hands an ebony cane topped with silver. He had on his feet patent-leather shoes.
“Which mice, dear?” asked the wolf. He grinned at her, decay on his breath.
“The Tube mice,” said Maybe. “Are you going to eat me?” There was only, she noticed, a homeless man asleep in the far corner of the car.
“But I wouldn’t want to eat you, dear,” said the wolf. “You look more like cured meat than fresh to me.” He threw back his head and laughed.
Maybe didn’t know what to say, so she smiled insincerely.
The wolf lowered his chin and, shifting his foot and the tip of his cane, said in a serious voice, “Now really, my love, why would you think such a horrid thing of me? I’m only trying to converse pleasantly on this autumn night.”
“Oh,” said Maybe. “I do beg your pardon.”
The wolf settled back in his seat and grinned jocularly at her. “I,” he announced suddenly, “am going to a party.”
“How lovely,” said Maybe, meaning it.
“It will be a marvellous party, my darling. It will twinkle with the laughter of ladies, shine with the lustre of gold, luminesce with the glitter of champagne, and glow with the aura of a thousand candles.”
He asked, “What do you think of that?”
“It sounds brilliant,” said Maybe.
“Oh and it will be brilliant,” said the wolf. “Brilliant as the stars and the sun and the moon.” He put the silver top of the cane to his right with both hands and leaned his head forward over his stretched left arm—to move closer without actually moving. “What about it, my dove? Will you come with me?”
Maybe put her chin in her hands. “Why, would you like me to come?” she asked. “I thought I was no better than cured ham!”
“Cured ham,” said the wolf, “can be quite delicate, and delicious when taken with figs and sweet wine.” He smiled at her.
The train was moving so smoothly that Maybe looked outside—and found to her delight that it had gone above ground and that the moon was glancing into the car. “I love it when tube trains go above ground,” she said.
“You love an autumn moon,” said the wolf. “Listen.”
There was a soft lolloping sound, like what might happen were a bowl of feathers able to sing, and Maybe saw owls—thousands and thousands of owls—lining the black trees outside from top to bottom. Some were occasionally perched on a rooftop, or a chimney.
“Look, aren’t they lovely,” said Maybe, wishing one would fly inside the car.
The homeless man was awake and rubbing his eyes. He had on a very old, very grubby hat and a corduroy suit, and when he sat up a multitude of plastic bags rolled or fell in various directions. He yawned, cast an impassive eye out the window, said, “Bloody owls,” and tipped his hat to the wolf, who grinned at him.
“Evenin’ squire,” said the homeless man to the wolf.
“Good evening, Arnaios,” replied the wolf. “Fine earnings today?”
“So-so,” said the homeless man, scratching behind his neck. “I’ve seen much better. They’re good to me at Christmastime. Hah! Christmas. Too bloody cold for me to have a good hols.” He peered at Maybe. “Why, hello there miss. Didn’t mean to offend.” He began to look quite worried. “I didn’t offend you, did I miss?” And the homeless man took his hat from his head and wrung it expressively.
“No, no, not at all.”
“Are you sure?”
“Quite sure,” said Maybe reassuringly. “I wasn’t offended by anything you said.”
The wolf laughed. “Really, my dear man, you needn’t get so worried! She’s not one to jump to conclusions. Are you, sweetheart?”
“No,” said Maybe. “Really, it’s all right,” she continued, standing up and walking to the end of the car, where she patted the old man on the shoulder.
He sniffed and smiled at her, and she could see brilliant white teeth, and she was puzzled.
“You’re a good girl,” he said.
The train slid to a halt. The homeless man pressed something into her palm, which she put in her pocket. “Here. You’ll need it before you’re home again,” he said. He lowered his voice and murmured in her ear, “And dun ask him his name.”
“Thass right.” The homeless man glanced at the wolf, who was paying attention to delicately removing lint from his suit jacket. “You’ll learn it when the time is right. But for heaven’s sake dun let anyone else tell it to you but him, and dun ask him for it.” He straightened up and patted Maybe on the shoulder. “You’ll have a lovely time. Party, is it?”
The wolf looked over at them. “The party to end all parties,” he said.
“That’s all right then, she’ll have a lovely time,” said the beggar Arnaios. “This is my stop.”
Maybe turned around and saw moonlit ruins, stretching out to an inky sea. The station platforms were partially buried in bone-coloured sand. The train slid noiselessly to a halt and the doors grated open. “Bloody sand,” said Arnaios.
Maybe waved him goodbye, but he was sitting on one of the benches, rummaging through a worn and battered supermarket bag. She turned to the wolf and arranged herself on the noxious orange and yellow and brown and black seats, choosing one a bit away from him, next to an empty sour cream and onion crisp tin and a well-loved copy of that day’s paper. She needed reminders of her own reality.
A full pack of fags would have been better than an empty crisp tin, she reflected. But then again, who leaves cigarettes on the Tube? And anyway, she had her own. She fished around her handbag and produced a half-pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
The wolf was wagging his finger. “Ah, ah, ah! No smoking on the Underground,” he said.
“Bollocks to that,” said Maybe. “I reckon no one will be able to write me up for it.” Then, more seriously, “And besides, everyone does it after midnight.”
The wolf shrugged, and sat back.
“Do you smoke?” she asked him.
“If the tobacco is sweet, and fragrant.”
“Would you like one?”
He took it with a smile and put it to his nose. “It’s a bit stale. I don’t like it, but I will smoke it for solidarity’s sake.” He produced a silver filigree lighter—its tendrils and fine leaves glinting—and lit Maybe’s cigarette, then his own. He blew smoke delicately, downwind, so as not to let it float into her eyes. “We don’t have much longer to go,” he said.
“Well,” said Maybe, “how do I get home?”
“You’re worrying about how to get home!” exclaimed the wolf. “Oh dear. Have you never been to a party before?”
“Of course I have,” said Maybe irritably.
“You must go as if you have all the time in the world to be there,” said the wolf, “even if you only plan to ‘make an appearance’, as they say. You must,” and here he began to gesticulate with his cigarette, “you must set the time for the party. You must be the party,” said he.
“Really,” said Maybe, unimpressed.
“My darling,” pleaded the wolf. “Really now. You’ll have such a good time. I’ll make sure of it.”
“We’ll see,” said Maybe. Her back was beginning to ache, the muscles to twist. Normally she would have a hot water bottle under it and a blanket over her head and some ibuprofen in her blood, but now all she could do was smoke. This, this was the downside, the payment for self-medication. The insidious sadness, the existential worthlessness, the contorting, cramping muscles, all this was chemical and by God she would wait it out and take her lumps. And for her, it was worth it, because twenty minutes of coke high meant twenty minutes of a blank slate, and no emotional baggage, and you could keep on doing it right up to the day you had a heart attack because you hadn’t had a drink of water for hours and you were dancing like a cat in a bag and you were chain smoking and your pulse was 200 bpm and your heart just went whump and that was it for you.
“Don’t put on that face,” said the wolf. “We’re nearly at our stop.”
“It must be four in the morning already,” said Maybe.
“Not at all!” he exclaimed. “It’s only midnight.”
“Not on your life,” said Maybe. “I left the pub at half twelve.”
“It’s always midnight,” said he, flicking his cigarette stub onto the floor and grinding it in with the tip of his shoe. “Until we want to leave, and then it’s exactly half past one.”
What the bloody hell am I doing in a fairy tale, thought Maybe. But she said, “Oh.”
“You don’t believe me,” said the wolf, matter-of-factly. He drew out his pocket-watch, and Maybe had to exclaim on it.
“What a lovely watch!” she said, for it was a lovely watch, detailed in gold, with separate dials for the day and month, and a third, larger dial that Maybe didn’t recognise, the face full of figures and animals painted in miniature and lacquered so that they shone like jewels.
“Look, please,” said the wolf. Maybe looked closer, and there! the minute hand was quivering over midnight.
“Why, it’s broken!” she exclaimed.
“Not at all,” said the wolf. “It works perfectly, and has done so for many years.” He leaned back and once more crossed his legs, revealing lilac silk socks. He put the watch back into his waistcoat pocket and looked at her thoughtfully.
“Those aren’t…kid gloves, are they?” asked Maybe.
“Funny how some people can’t tell the difference between wolves and trolls,” said the wolf. As he spoke he adjusted his gloves by pushing a fingertip into the seams between his fingers, one by one.
“That’s right, sorry. It was a troll in that story, wasn’t it,” said Maybe, chagrined.
“I don’t mean you, my darling,” said the wolf. “Really, I can understand them—nobody wants to put their eyes close enough to either of us to find out for certain. I’m happy to let the trolls have credit for that one—who knows what would become of my reputation were I to admit of philanthropy?”
“What do you mean?”
“Those billy goats were an utter nuisance, my love. Gruff isn’t even the word. They were absolute pigs, trip-trapping about delicate historical sites just as careless as you please. They could have ruined a national treasure, just like that. Did you know, that bridge dated from the Norman invasion? Shocking,” said the wolf. “And speaking of pigs, don’t get me started on building-permit violations.”
“But you have done some horrible things,” said Maybe.
“Maybe,” said the wolf. “Maybe not.”
“My name is Maybe. Well, it’s actually Maybelle.”
The wolf sat up straight. “Really,” he said. “Then I shall have to tread carefully with you, my dear.”
“Don’t worry your lovely head about it,” said the wolf. “By-the-bye, what was it the old man gave you?”
Maybe ran her thumb over the package in her pocket. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with packing twine. “I don’t think I’ll open it just yet,” she said.
“Well, add this to your stash of treasure,” said the wolf. He dipped the first two fingers of his right hand in the inner pocket of his coat. Out of this pocket he brought a something gripped between the tips of his fingers, a something that shone gently, and held it out to her. Maybe took it from him and examined it. It was his business card. It said, in a red deep as antique port, in generously looping script: “Wolf, MD PhD FRS FRI c/o H.R.H. the Duchess of Kent. Lupus in fabula.”
“What are you a doctor of?”
“Philosophy,” said the wolf. “Cambridge. 1909.”
“And a medical doctor,” said Maybe.
“Oh, I lied about that one,” said the wolf. “Everyone sees a PhD and they assume you know medicine. I was simply exhausted from telling them otherwise, and so I just changed my card.” He reached out for the card with his left hand and took a fountain pen from his pocket with his right. Maybe handed him the card. He crossed out the “MD” very carefully in carmine-coloured ink and handed the card back to her.
“You’re a Fellow of the Royal Institution,” Maybe said.
“I’m surprised you recognise the credentials.”
“My father pays dues.”
“Of course I became a Fellow when becoming a Fellow was impossible,” said the wolf. “Michael Faraday had trouble when I’d been attending their luncheons for at least two years.”
Maybe put the card in her pocket.
“Be sure you keep careful hold of that,” said the wolf. “Show it to anyone and they’ll direct you.”
“Why does everyone keep giving me presents?”
“Everything is more pleasant when there are presents exchanged,” said the wolf.
“But I haven’t given you a present,” said Maybe.
“You have,” said the wolf. He flipped his fingers over, in a movement that might have traced a crescent moon, and there was the cigarette Maybe had given him, untouched, between his fingertips.
Maybe said nothing, only lit another from her pack.
“I wouldn’t smoke too many of those,” said the wolf. “And if you perchance smoke them all, do keep hold of the empty packet. Familiar things are so lovely and grounding.” He put the cigarette away carefully.
Maybe took a bit of tobacco from the tip of her tongue. “These are rubbish, anyway. They’ve been in my bag too long.”
“Not to worry,” said the wolf. “Just ask me for one instead.”
“I shall. Thank you.”
The train shuddered a bit. Maybe glanced up, then gestured at the window, astonished.
“Oh, are we at the bridge?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Maybe.
“The bridge” was a spindly web of rusted iron that plunged hundreds of feet into the blackness; Maybe could not see the bottom. A chasm extended for miles on either side of the train, which whipped along the track with the sole intent, it seemed to Maybe, of toppling over. The bluffs on either side were bare rock, their tops covered in tall grasses; there was not a tree nor bush in sight. Far away, across the gap, just visible in the moonlight, a structure of some kind had attached itself to the train track—a station, perhaps—the only blemish on that featureless plain.
She grinned at the wolf maniacally.
“Having fun, dear?” he asked.
“So much fun!”
“You’re a smart girl,” he replied.
Maybe opened her window and leaned out over the darkness, shouting. When she pulled her head back inside the train, her cheeks were rosy and her hair wild. “Amazing!” she said.
“You look very well, darling,” remarked the wolf.
Maybe leaned her head out of the window again. The wolf smiled, and checked his pocket-watch.
“Can you see the end?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Fast approaching.” A second or two, and she said, “There it goes. Did you see that? The bridge—swallowed up by the rock.” She brought her head back inside.
“Amazing,” she said again.
“Can you guess its name?”
“No,” she said. “I wouldn’t even like to try.” She sat down again and picked at her stockings, removing pills and tossing them on the floor. “How long ’til our stop, then?”
“Not long,” he said. “Move closer to me, please.”
Maybe looked up. “What?”
“This is the last stop before ours. Move towards me, please.” The wolf had his arm draped over the back of the seats.
Maybe did not like the tone of his voice, and so did as she was told. The wolf, who was holding his cane in his right hand, tilted it down, so that it came to rest on the edge of the empty seat on Maybe’s other side—as if shutting her in, away from the carriage. The doors slid open.
A woman drifted in over the floorboards. She was beautiful: ragged flaxen curls like corkscrews poking out of her head in every direction, pale, nearly translucent skin, and spidery, delicate arms.
But Maybe pressed the back of her knees against her seat and her feet against the floor; she gripped the cushion with both hands and felt dizzy. The beautiful woman’s eyes were so rolled up in their sockets that only a faint, quivering shadow could be seen of her irises, and the corners of her rosy lips pulled down so violently that all that could be seen of her teeth were specks of pearl rising from her gums.
She did not step but moved, like mist, to the seat directly opposite Maybe, where she sat. Maybe sobbed once, then bit her tongue to hold it in place. The woman drew the hood of her deep red cloak over her face, so that not even her chin could be seen. Her hands moved gently in the air—a maiden’s hands.
“Who are you?” said the wolf.
“Pruh…preen…sssss,” said the apparition, in a whisper.
“A princess,” said the wolf.
“Eh…ehyeh…sss.” The fingers fluttered.
“Funny things, the creatures that come from that stop,” said the wolf, to Maybe. “Perfectly harmless.” But he angled his cane so that it rested across her knees.
“Have one of your cigarettes,” he said.
“I shouldn’t use them up,” said Maybe.
“Go on,” he said. “You have a few left.” He was right; her packet didn’t look much emptier than when she first got on the train.
Maybe nodded, and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. She did not let a single part of her body pass the barrier the wolf had created with his cane. The smoke surrounded her in a stale, soothing cloud. She brought the cigarette to her lips but did not breathe in—then lowered her arm again, letting it burn merrily away between her fingertips.
The package from Arnaios lay heavily in her pocket. She picked it up and held it, rubbing her thumb over the twine, but did not take it out of her pocket, lest the woman see it and take it from her.
The train entered a town. The strange woman twisted towards the shining lights, as if her dead eyes could see through the heavy fabric.
“Princess,” said Maybe, and the apparition turned.
“Are you going to the party?”
“Good. I hope we see each other,” said Maybe. The wolf looked at her in astonishment.
The woman tilted her head to one side. “Th…aht…is…hluv…lee…for…hyuh…to…say,” she said. She turned back towards the window.
“Well my dear,” said the wolf, under his breath, “while that sort of conversation is indicative of some very admirable sentiments on your part, I must ask you to refrain from it in future. You should not speak to her. It is not good for you,” Maybe opened her mouth to protest, “and it is certainly not good for her.”
“I shan’t, then.”
“Good,” said the wolf.
“You are very peculiar,” said Maybe to him, at a normal volume.
“Originality,” he replied, “is an art that becomes more difficult to achieve with each passing day.” The train began to slow. “Come, sweetheart. We’re at our stop.”
The town that Maybe had seen twinkling behind the dirty glass of the Tube train was, according to the signs, named Wildenmere.
The other woman was the first out of her seat, springing up like a sapling, gliding over the floor to the exit without once stumbling or faltering, where she stood waving her fingers until the train jerked to a halt.
The wolf let her pass, like a gentleman, and held out his hand for Maybe, bracing himself against the movements of the train. Maybe took it, noticed how horribly soft his gloves were, grimaced, and stood, gripping the pole in the middle of the aisle for support. As she passed the empty seats, she did not see that the newspaper and the crisp packet that she’d clung to for comfort not an hour since had vanished.
She made her way to the doors the way every Londoner does: planting each foot during a moment of relative calm, holding on grimly during rough patches.
They waited silently for the doors to open, the strange woman’s arms still absent-mindedly tracing shadows in the air, and it was here that Maybe, holding fast to the wolf’s hand, bent down to look through the window at the station signs.
“Yes,” said the wolf. “Wildenmere.”
“But that’s not a town,” said Maybe.
“Know all the towns in Britain, do you?” asked the wolf. They moved to the open doors.
“No,” said Maybe. She stepped down to the platform. “But it’s not on the District Line.”
“Quite,” said the wolf. “Would you like a pasty?”
“Yes, in a minute, please.”
The wolf waited patiently for her to finish gawking. After a lengthy pause, he said, “Anything interesting?”
“No,” said Maybe.
It was a train station, that’s all: an ordinary, open-plan train station, laid out like a million other train stations. There were the shops, closed up for the night; over here, a few stalls still open. There were some very normal trains, on their very boring tracks. A perfectly normal railway station.
“That’s a pity,” said the wolf. “You’ve become quite dejected, darling.”
“The passengers are a bit funny,” said Maybe, “but on the whole I’d say this place is rather disappointing.”
“Mm,” said the wolf, and patted her on the shoulder. “Can’t be helped. Pasty?”
“Yes please,” said Maybe.
“You’ll have to show your ticket,” said the wolf.
“It’s a Travelcard, actually,” said Maybe. “Just Zones One and Two. Will I have to buy an extension?”
The wolf smirked. “That depends, my darling, at how clever you are with it.”
There is an art to flashing tickets at stations without stiles. You must find your ticket distractedly and without fuss, preferably whilst speaking to somebody you’re travelling with. You must hold it up without looking at either the person checking the ticket or at the ticket itself, and carelessly place your thumb over the invalid bits. It should be in a battered ticket sleeve that’s hardly transparent anymore with a photo ID that has tea stains and bits of grime and pencil lead smudged all over it.
The guards that were on duty were standing about with coffees and croissants, gossiping to one another. They couldn’t be bothered to look at tickets; Maybe could have held up a blank bit of pink card and still gone through, but the wolf gripped her shoulder tightly and propelled her forward. “Bloody great fines,” he said in her ear.
The pasty stand was surrounded by the soft, heavy smell of baking pastry. In the smart little window where the pasties were displayed—on plates, labelled with small cards—there was a notice.
We source all of our meat from Hinterland, it read. The wolf pshawed when he saw Maybe looking at it. “An affectation,” he said.
“Is it worth it?”
“Oh, the meat is tender and flavourful,” said the wolf, “but it is a marketing gimmick, all the same.”
He turned to the scrubbed young man behind the counter. “From whence do you source your vegetables?”
“Oh er, we get all of our veg from er, from local farmers,” replied the boy. He smiled nervously and put his hands behind his back, lifting one shoulder and tilting his head, as if to scratch his ear with his shoulder.
“I do like this particular brand,” said the wolf to Maybe. “What would you like, dear?”
“Something warm and filling,” Maybe said.
“Yes please. With meat or without.”
“I am quite fond of the Forest Venison,” said the wolf.
“What does it have, please?” asked Maybe.
“Well, er, besides the er, venison,” said the boy, “obviously the venison, sorry, um—there’s wild mixed mushrooms and potato and fiddlehead ferns, butter and cream, wild onions and garlic, red wine, and er, some forest honey. It is two course, though. You’ll have to pick your dessert. Um, miss.”
Maybe bent over and looked at the glass case. On a plate painted with pinecones, leaning against a pasty marked with deer horns, was the Forest Venison card.
It said, “Forest Venison – Bl.br. & Bl.Ch.; St. Toff.; Date, Bac. & Br. Sug.”
“What does that mean, please?” asked Maybe.
The young man scratched under his paper hat with his shoulder. Maybe caught a glimpse of brilliant green. “You have a choice between blackberries and black cherries, sticky toffee pud, and dates, bacon, and brown sugar.”
“Try the dates,” said the wolf.
“I shall. Excuse me though,” said Maybe. “Do you have feathers in your hair?”
“Ah! My dear,” said the wolf, before the flustered youth could answer, “He doesn’t have feathers in his hair, you see, he has feathers in place of hair.”
The young man stopped in the middle of wrapping up Maybe’s pasty and looked a bit uneasy.
“I know you can’t take your hat off because you’re working,” said Maybe. “What little I saw was just beautiful.”
The young man smiled. He said, “Well, miss, er, my mum was such a lovely colour of blue, or green, sometimes. I was lucky to get it. My dad was only plain grey. I’ve been told, um, that it’s pretty.” And the young man blushed a fetching shade of pink.
“Might I try the Chicken Sweet Pea?” asked the wolf.
“Yes sir. That’s also a two-course pasty. Would you like to choose an after?”
“I’ll have the apple and clotted cream. Thank you.”
The young man began to wrap up a second pasty. “Would you like any drinks, sir, miss?”
“Water, please,” said Maybe.
“Elderflower,” said the wolf.
“Do they accept pounds sterling?” said Maybe, to the wolf. He waved her aside.
“Think nothing of it,” he said.
The pasties came wrapped in brown paper, and the drinks in generous glass bottles, stamped with Morvely Pasty Cmpny, est. 877 B.tD.
“They seem quite old,” said Maybe.
“Who, dear?” asked the wolf. He was scouting for a taxi. Carriages cluttered the station yard, and long cars lounged about like dozing great cats—sleek and idle, but with haunches folded, ready to run.
“The pasty company,” said Maybe.
“Oh,” said the wolf. “Yes, they’ve been around these thousand years at least.”
“Aren’t we going to be late for the party?”
“Not at all, dear,” said the wolf. “We have plenty of time.” He hailed a taxi—a black beast with a stripe of lilac silk along the passenger door, and a long, low snout.
Maybe got in first, and moved to the window. She put aside the curtains. “What a lovely vehicle,” she said.
“Lilac taxis are reserved for gentry,” said the wolf.
“Oh, you’re a Lord, are you?”
“Where to, sir?” said the taxi driver. He wore white gloves.
“Elkton,” said the wolf. “No, my dear, I am not a Lord, although you’ll find I am something quite similar.”
“Excuse me,” said Maybe.
“Can we eat in the taxi?”
“Why, yes miss,” said the taxi driver. “Only mind you use the trays.”
Maybe put the pasty bag on the floor. When he was sure she was watching him, the wolf pulled a dark wooden tray from the armrest under the window. Maybe did the same.
“Thank you,” she said to the taxi driver.
“Of course, miss. Would you like any music, sir?”
“Not for the moment, thank you Williams,” said the wolf.
“Gosh, you know him?” Maybe asked him, her mouth full of meat and gravy.
“I do,” he replied. He broke off a piece of pasty with a paper serviette. “I take cabs nearly everywhere.” He ate his bit of pasty, and raised his eyebrows. “Delicious.”
The city flashing past her window reminded Maybe of a dream she had as a child: round yellow bulbs illuminating dark stone buildings, wooden signs, and the occasional stoplight. There was no neon, and there were no glowing plastic storefronts with unappetizing photographs of kebabs.
“It’s lovely, this city,” said Maybe.
“Perhaps a bit backwards compared to your fast foods and your all night corner shops,” replied the wolf, “but I find the aura of craftsmanship that is missing from your modern cities to be quite sufficient compensation.”
“But there’s no such place!” said Maybe suddenly. “There’s no such place anymore.”
“Ah, well,” said the wolf. “There we come to the crux of the matter. Fill your belly first, there’s a good girl, and rest for a spell. Go to the party. The Duchess will be able to explain much better than I.”
“Then I shall wait to speak with the Duchess,” said Maybe. “Is she a friend of yours?”
“A very old, and very close friend,” said the wolf. “And quite lovely to behold.”
“You’re fond of her, aren’t you?”
“Oh yes,” said the wolf. “She is a dear woman.”
“Can’t I speak to her soon?”
“You could,” said the wolf. “I am sure she would oblige you. But really my darling,” and now his face was serious, “I beg you to wait until you are summoned. Her Grace should be with her guests.”
“In that case,” said Maybe, “I will wait, of course. But will the Duchess mind me attending?”
“Not at all,” said the wolf jovially. “I invite whom I please to her parties, under her strict instruction.”
“How lovely,” said Maybe. She yawned.
“Even the best and youngest of us need to rest,” said the wolf. He moved to the seat on the other side of the cab. “We have another half an hour to Elkton. It might be wise to get some sleep.”
The seat was overstuffed, and so Maybe was forced to sleep facing backwards, knees and forehead against the seat back—but she was so tired that it didn’t matter; falling asleep was like being caught in a velvet cushion. She didn’t have time to notice that she was losing consciousness before she began to dream.
She dreamt of rabbits in a field, living out their small lives. When the little ones were born it was quite sweet, but otherwise they were very boring. Months passed. The little rabbits grew up a bit and were tripping over their huge feet and generally making fools of themselves.
There was a ripple in the grass.
The young rabbits stopped eating, and stood on their hind legs. Their parents were already bits of fluff disappearing down the nearest hole.
A blur of grey and black, a swath of trampled green, and it was gone. A few of the young rabbits, the ones at the front line, were now lumps of flesh. Puffs of fur drifted in the air.
The beast paced, carefully gathering up his prey, and when he had a brace of young rabbit he departed, leaving muddy brown streaks in the grass.
Maybe woke to find that she was blanketed by a feather-grey woollen coat. The wolf was staring at her with yellow eyes.
“Do you like rabbit?” she asked him.
“My dear,” said the wolf, baring his wicked teeth in a friendly smile, “Have you ever known a wolf who does not?”
“No,” she replied. “Do you eat humans?”
The car’s wheels crunched on gravel. Maybe sat up, holding the wolf’s coat in her fingers to prevent it from falling to the floor. She held it out to him as the car pulled in between a fountain and a grand front door.
“Thank you,” she said. “For the coat.”
“Not at all,” said the wolf. He opened the door, and stood next to it, offering his hand. “No, I don’t,” he said.
“Don’t what, pardon?”
“I don’t eat humans, sweetheart,” said the wolf. “The Duchess of Kent is a woman. If I were to habitually eat people, she would not have been my dear friend for very long.”
Maybe took his hand, and stepped from the cab. She stared at the smooth white stones of the driveway until she felt a gentle touch on her arm. She looked up; the cab had gone.
“Come,” said the wolf. “Let’s go inside.” He rang the bell.
Maybe was far too exhausted to function properly anymore. “Okay,” she said.
“Do you have anyone you need to ring? I’d be interested to see whether or not your phone works.”
“Is there anyone expecting you home?”
“Oh,” said Maybe. “No, my flatmates don’t keep track of me.”
The door opened; in they went. The hall was grand, and was perhaps very large, but it was also very dark, apart from the small light that hung over the door. Behind the door was a butler, who carried a lamp. “They’re setting up in the Gold Hall, milord,” he said to the wolf.
“Very good, Mr. Graham,” said the wolf. “Would you be so kind as to show this young lady to a guestroom? Perhaps get a maid to look about for something for her to wear when she wakes? What sort of size are you, darling?”
“A six,” said Maybe. “Maybe an eight if it’s cut small.”
“You’re quite scrawny, aren’t you?” said the wolf, pleasantly. “A six would be about a D in our sizes, Mr. Graham. And fetch me a candle, would you?”
“Yes milord,” said the butler. He disappeared in the darkness.
“The Duchess keeps the entrance dark to discourage unwanted revelry,” said the wolf. “Don’t worry, he’ll be back soon.”
He was, and even though Maybe would have been glad to stay in the warm, comfortable darkness for a time, there was the lantern again, shining away merrily, illuminating Mr. Graham’s young and serious face. He handed the wolf a candlestick and a fresh candle.
The wolf lit a match and then the candle. He put the match on his tongue to extinguish it—Maybe would normally have been amused, but she was so exhausted that all he got for his efforts was an unpleasant and childish scowl.
“What’s unwanted revelry?” asked Maybe.
“Under normal circumstances, you are,” said the wolf. The luminous eye of his candle faded with the sound of his heels on the marble floor. “I’ll send someone to fetch you in a few hours.” The candle disappeared behind the sound of a shutting door.
“Come with me, miss,” said the butler. He began to walk up the wide staircase, which, Maybe now saw, was carpeted lushly in midnight blue.
“How far is it, please?” she asked.
“Only a minute or two, miss,” said the butler. “You’ll be in the north wing, with the other guests. The apartment doesn’t have a maid’s room, as all the suites with maid’s rooms are occupied.”
“I don’t have a maid, so that’ll be fine,” said Maybe.
“Normally you don’t need one, I’m sure,” said Mr. Graham, turning a corner. “But this house is so large, miss, you won’t be able to find anything by yourself.” He smiled at her.
“You can’t be more than twenty-five,” said Maybe. “How did you manage this swank job?” She paused and rubbed one eye with her knuckle. “Oh dear, that was a bit rude of me, wasn’t it?”
“Ah,” he said, “You can’t tell, but I’m actually a quarter Polyn.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Maybe, “I’m a bit stupid.” She felt that this was easier than saying that she was from London. “What does that mean?”
“Oh,” said Mr. Graham. “Well, if I were half Polyn, I’d have completely transparent skin and no eyes. We’re deep cave-dwellers, you see.”
“I see,” said Maybe.
Mr. Graham unlocked a thick wooden door with a large iron key and pushed it open. “Here we are, miss. So I’m only eighty-eight. My grandmam, she was a full Polyn, she lived to be five hundred years old. I’ll not make it past two hundred and fifty, not without some intervention.”
“I never knew that,” said Maybe.
“Ah, miss,” said Mr. Graham, lighting a lantern on the wall, “Don’t trouble yourself. Most people haven’t heard of Polyns. My grandmam only found herself in the city completely by chance.” He lit another lantern. “Now miss, if you want anything, there’s the bellpull, and when you want to turn out the lights, just snuff them with this. If it gets stuffy with the lanterns, here’s the handle to open the vent next to the window.”
He pulled back the bedclothes, and gestured at the door. “The loo is just down the hall, to the left, at the end. The party will start in about an hour.”
“Oh dear, only an hour to sleep?” said Maybe.
“Oh no, miss,” said the butler. “These things the Duchess likes to call parties, they’re quite elaborate. Last for days. Guests sleep in shifts. Someone will be by to fetch you in six hours, unless you’d like to sleep for longer.”
“Yes, please,” said Maybe. “Eight hours for me, unless there’s something particularly fascinating going on.”
“Eight hours, miss,” he replied.
“Thank you, Mr. Graham. You’ve been very kind,” said Maybe.
The butler bowed and left, latching the door behind him.
Maybe took off her boots and her stockings. She sat for a minute, wondering whether she could find her way back home, whether sleeping in a strange bed was really very different from sleeping in a strange bed in a strange universe.
She poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the nightstand, and drank a few sips. The room was not particularly spacious, but grand: there was a fainting couch, a writing desk, a wardrobe, and some other shapes in the dark—these she took to be bookcases and a second side table on the other side of the bed, which was large and musty, canopied in baldachin.
She took off her dress, not caring where it landed, and crawled between the sheets, where she fell asleep in her knickers.
“Maybe” was contracted before I’d finished the first draft. I actually wrote the book under a deadline. I felt extremely lucky; most authors don’t have the security that comes with a contract whilst they write, especially those of us whose commercial success is unproven.
But things went a bit pear-shaped; it was noone’s fault, just some bad luck. So I parted ways with my publisher on good terms. We’re still friends.
That’s the story! I’m querying. Wish me luck!
Okay! Hello! This blog will henceforth be exclusively about my book, “Maybe & the Wolf”.
Sorry to do this to you! I thought I’d move now, whilst my subscriber list is fairly small. Everything else is preserved, but there will likely be bad links over at the new address. I’ll fix them shortly. Thanks again for your patience!