For so long have I promised myself this. And now here I am.
I am surrounded by women.
I first made this promise to myself in the summer of my fifteenth year, when I travelled to London via Leeds, with a change at Retford, to attend the nineteen eighty-eight Personal Computer Show. After arriving at King’s Cross, mother and I boarded a Piccadilly Line London Underground train to Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre.
Mother complained of sore feet. I had no complaints. The train was hot. Burningly hot. And I – I was surrounded by women.
Women with bare brown arms. Women whose necks gleamed with perspiration beneath dank hair looped and knotted into pragmatic summer chignons. Women into whose shallow tremulous cleavages I could peep to discern the leaching sweat turning from forget-me-not to navy blue the lace trim of a brassiere cup. Women whose cotton t-shirts and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts clung to their steaming skin. Women who panted. Sweaty women.
It was then that I said to myself: I will return to this place.
I stand in silence. No-one speaks to me, and I speak to no-one. I would stand even if there were seats vacant. I do not care to have to rise, shuffle, and with gesture and ingratiating smile ‘give up my seat’ should a woman wish to sit. By choosing to stand, I have already given up my seat. I have given up all the seats.
I do not ask for thanks.
For twenty years I travelled upon the buses of east Leeds. How I hated it! The unsteady elderly women with their sticks and cellophane hair-wraps. The free-sheets and bakery pasty-bags littering the seats. The interminable mounting and manoeuvring of truck-sized baby buggies. The back-seat louts with their f-words and tinny speakers. The bus-tickets they would screw up and throw repeatedly at the back of a fellow passenger’s head.
I bided my time. I saved my meagre pay. And then I travelled to this place. Again via Leeds. This time there would be no change at Retford. Only a short delay between Peterborough and Stevenage.
Anticipation thrummed in my groins as the escalator, plunging through its long steep steel column, drove me, thrust me into London’s warm penetralia. I considered mounting and riding the old blue Piccadilly Line, for old times’ sake. But this was a new beginning, not only the resurrection of an old flame, and so I adopted a new strategem: I did ride the Piccadilly Line, but only as a means to an end.
The train disgorged me at faraway Acton. Thence I travelled to West Acton. There I entered a train on the Central Line. I had timed my journey well: it was as hot as a Turkish bath, and it was full of women.
Men, too. But to them I paid no heed.
I will ride this long hot red line to its very end and then I will ride it back again. And I will ride it again, and the women, these women, will ride upon it with me. And again. And again. And again. And again.
I stand on the trembling, pulsating London Underground train. A woman is pressed against my belly. She is thus almost close enough for me to smell her scent (I am a man of formidable bulk). She wears her chestnut hair in a ponytail. The skin between her shoulder blades is freckled and damp. At my left flank, an older, fuller woman in a bulging flowered dress wipes moisture from her upper lip as she reads a magazine. At my right, a tall, red-headed woman blows a stray lock of hair away from her pink face.
I stand silently. I am hot. I am a man of formidable bulk. I am hirsute. I am sodden. My black t-shirt is now even more deeply black – ultra black, hyper-black – with sweat. These women – all of these women – can surely smell my musk. I can smell my musk. In fact I cannot smell anything else. The train rocks, and the women loll against my body. I stand silently.
It occurs to me that the train has stopped. The women murmur, sigh, and stir. The red-head, crossing one ankle over the other, brushes her bare calf against mine. We are stalled underground.
I am wearing knee-length shorts. The situation within them is verging on the drastic. While on my chin I wear a beard trimmed to a noble goatee (a nod to vanity, and civilisation), my lower beard – well, this is unfettered, almost illimitable. Even in temperate weather it is a fearsome beast. Now it is waterlogged and diabolical.
I say nothing. I stand silent. I watch the women. Do the women watch me? I intuit that they do. The woman in the flowered dress tuts at her magazine and crosses one arm across her chest, under her bosom, pushing into view a quarter-inch of humid breast and a sliver of pink lace. The woman with the ponytail lifts her hand to smooth an eyebrow. I see a glimpse of shaved, glistening, fleshly armpit. I lick the sweat from my moustache.
I think of the louts and the old ladies on the Three-A bus in east Leeds. I think of how far I have come. My drenched perineum throbs as though in warning.
The red-head, pressed up against my right flank, sneezes sharply: hayfever, I suppose. I feel the sneeze run through the length of her warm, slender body like the quiver of contact through a steel blade.
Beneath my undershorts, which feel as though I am carrying within them a bale of boiled hay, I become aware of a sensation. My bearish inner thighs are already saturated with perspiration. The tickle that I feel now, though, emerging from my undershorts is – I fear – not sweat. It moves slowly. It stops against a fold of the fabric of my outer shorts – just long enough for me to register, first, its weight, the quality of its substance, its unmistakeable and horrid viscosity, and second, a feeling of relief that it has stalled within the outer shorts, and is not visible to the women – and then it starts moving again. Its movement is erratic as it negotiates the hairs of my thigh. It is as though it is lost.
The train doesn’t move. The train smells richly of my musk. I stand silently. The ghastly dribble continues to pick its way southward through the tropical and bristly terrain of my inner thigh.
I shift my weight fractionally to my left. My aim is to trap the dribble – no: this not a dribble; it is a globule – against the hem of my outer shorts. There it might be absorbed by the fabric, leaving only a discreet dark stain.
My gambit fails. The fabric of the hem kisses my thigh, yes, but it misses its intended target: the dogged globule has gone too far. It is now below the hem of my outer shorts. It is now surmounting the soft roll of my knee.
These women are not looking at my knees. I watch them: oh, they are aware of me – of my presence, of my manly bulk. These women feel my gaze on them as they toy with necklace beads that must be slippery with sweat and waft their newspapers to fan the the stifling air (one brief breeze causes a calico blouse-collar to flutter and disclose a glimmering clavicle). No: they are not looking at my knees.
Then the woman in front of me, the woman with a ponytail, drops her bag. Its thin black-leather strap must have lost its purchase on the brown, oily skin of her bare shoulder – but there is no time to think about that, because the bag has fallen between my feet, and the woman is stooping to gather it.
Up ahead, the train authorities must have cleared the obstruction or fixed the fault, because the train, with a jerk, once again begins to move forward – and the woman kneeling at my feet, in compliance with certain laws of motion, is pitched backwards. Towards me.
In different circumstances, having this woman’s soft, damp cheek pressed against the fleshy inner part of my left leg would have been an intensely sensual experience. For both of us.
As it is, after perhaps two or three seconds the woman rises in a fluster.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she says.
On her right cheek is a swirl or florescence of my coagulated semen. I am put in mind of the film of sugary icing that adorns certain top-end brands of Danish pastry.
The woman on my right extends a pale hand. She tentatively touches the naked elbow of woman with the ponytail.
‘Pardon me,’ she says, ‘but you’ve got something on your face.’
The pony-tailed woman lifts her hand to her face. She wipes her cheek, and then peers doubtfully at her fingertips. She sniffs them.
I watch silently. A part of me hopes that next she will perhaps touch her fingertips with her tongue. Another part of me wonders at the chain of events that have led us to this point, these women and I, and concludes with some certainty that this would never have happened on the Three-A bus.
The woman on my left, the older, riper woman, pipes up: ‘Is that – has he – ?’
She looks at me. A frown of bafflement or distaste puckers the matt surface of her skin, a fine-grained cake of powder and perspiration.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’m afraid I have.’
At the next stop the three women all disembark, one pawing in distress with a tissue at her cheek. At the stop after that, the train is delayed as two members of the British Transport Police come aboard.
They are both women. Their white blouses are lamb-grey at the armpits. They must be rather sweaty, I think, beneath their stab-vests. Yes. They must be terribly sweaty.