IT IS LIKE BEING SWALLOWED WHOLE BY A SNAKE'
A strange encounter has Valentine longing to return underground
I run down to the métro platform to see this woman who looks so much like me from above.
I begin to approach her. I am not entirely sure why. Of course I am curious. But there is something else. It is like my heart is a magnet and it is pulling me to her. I can't make out her face. But I want to get a glimpse of it. She is the same lanky height and build as me. Her clothes are so different than anything I would wear. She has a long black tailored coat that she must have bought brand new at one of the fancy, expensive stores on Sherbrooke St. She is wearing a pair of leather boots with heels. Her hair looks perfect and smooth. Whenever I take my tuque off, my hair always stands straight up over my head. I have a condition I like to refer to as Permanent Static Cling.
The métro starts approaching. I can feel the wind coming down the tunnel. It rushes ahead of the métro like a baton twirler who comes out in front of the marching band. Her hair lifts right off her head and reveals her face. And there I am, looking at my own face, as though I have come up against a mirror. As though I am no longer myself, but instead this person. And who is this person?
I open my mouth to call to her, but at that moment the métro rushes up behind us. The sound of the métro comes up behind me like a wave that breaks and crashes against a beach. My words are drowned. I might just as well be calling out “au secours!” on the deck of the Titanic.
The métro doors slide open and she steps inside. Without even thinking and knowing I am supposed to return to work, I hop in the door closest to me.
The métro fills up with people. It is hard to get a glimpse of her. Other heads and bodies keep moving in the way. I cannot speak to her on the métro, so I will have to wait for her to get off. I sit down at the opposite end of the car as her. When she suddenly gets off at Snowdon, I jump up and get off at the stop too.
I know I should stop following the woman. But I am too curious. She looks so much like me!
But as I stand on the platform at Snowdon, looking around, I cannot find her. It's as though she has disappeared. I hurry up the escalators, thinking I can catch up with her, wherever she is. I find myself by the turnstiles, not knowing where to go.
“There you are!” says a voice in a heavy Russian accent. I turn. There is a very large middle-aged man, dressed in a sheepskin coat that does not seem as though it could fit around his belly, and holding a briefcase. “Am I ever glad to see you! Come on.”
I follow along behind him as he leads me out onto the street. The sunlight hits me at the same time the noise does. The noise outside is so different. The cars make so much noise. There are too many sounds at once. It is as though someone pulled out a drawer of utensils and dumped them on the ground. Everybody is standing around yelling at each other to be heard over the cars and traffic. I have to remind myself they are not at all angry. They are all in a good mood, but this is the way people communicate when they are above ground. And everybody is in everybody else's business. The quiet and distance they give each other in the métro is gone. I would be terrified, if it were not for the man I follow behind.
I do not know what to say. He is breathing so heavily, I am worried the effort of making conversation might push him over the edge and he will have a heart attack. And I don't know if I am strong enough to give him CPR.
He steps into a bakery. They seem to know him in there. He orders doughnuts and coffee in a cup so tiny, it makes him look like a giant. He sits at a small round table, and I take the chair across from him.
“What is this you are wearing today?” he asks as we move on. “I usually find you quite elegant.”
“I just put it on. This is my lucky jacket.”
He delicately shakes a pink sachet of Sweet'n Low into the cup.
“I need this for my heart. Gives me a little bit of a will to live. I'm on a diet,” he says.
He daintily stirs the coffee with the spoon. He puckers his lips as though he is going to kiss an absolutely beautiful baby, and sips it. “You will take this briefcase up to Apartment 561 in that building across the street. You will need a special knock for the door.” He makes a special knock on the table. He repeats it.
“That is a pretty tune,” I say. “You should write it down. You could have an entire orchestra play it. It could be performed by a xylophone player who could travel the world playing it in sick children's hospitals.”
“Sure,” he says, rolling his eyes. “You are in such an interesting mood.”
“Why can't you deliver the briefcase yourself ?” I inquire.
He pulls a pill container out of his inside pocket. There is a tiny painting of yellow flowers on the ivory lid. “It will kill me to go up those stairs.” I understand because I lived so many years with my grandmother who was also convinced stairs were actively out to kill her.
“When I was a child,” he says, “I was on the gymnastic team. Hard to believe, but I looked magnificent in leotards. I would practise in my backyard. I wanted to travel.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Sometimes I dream I am in my leotards and they are suffocating me. And I wake up screaming.”
I take a sip of my own cup of coffee.
“A girl should never drink black coffee. It is terrible luck. It means you will never marry.”
“I don't think I will get married. I can't even get a boyfriend.”
“What are you talking about? You have so many boyfriends.”
He starts choking on one of the doughnuts. He pulls a silk handkerchief out of his inside pocket. He shakes it in the air as though he is going to perform a magic trick. And then he wipes his mouth with it.
“Who knows? Maybe you will do for me what you do for all the other men one day,” he says and winks. I am unsettled by his words. I pick up the briefcase and head off, accepting the assignment only in order to move on.
I carry the briefcase into the highrise. The elevator has an “hors service” sign, and I have to walk to the fifth floor. I peek out the door. The hallway is empty and is lined with doors. I pass a dentist's office. Then I arrive in front of 561. I knock the magical knock and stand there, not knowing what to expect.
I am surprised when a little girl opens the door. She is beautiful with straight black hair cut into a bob. She looks up at me, and then turns and hurries off into the apartment, leaving the door open. I walk into the apartment. I see her disappear down the carpeted hallway and into a room. I follow her quietly. I always feel as though I am in a silent film when I am walking on plush carpeting.
There is a group of men sitting around a large dining room table. It is covered with money and they are counting it together. They all freeze as though in mid-sentence, and look at me. The little girl has slid under the table already. I wouldn't have even known she was there, if it weren't for the fact that two little feet wearing blue leather shoes were peeking out from under the tablecloth.
“Give me the briefcase,” a man says and he waves his hand toward me, indicating I should deliver it to him immediately. “Why anyone would do favours for such a jackass, I cannot know. Tell us. Does he not seem as repugnant to women as he does to men?”
I do not know what to say, but another man hands me an envelope. I slide it into my inside breast pocket. “I will be going now?” I say, and not knowing whether it is appropriate, I turn and run out the door.
I don't feel safe until I am back in the métro and the turnstile lights up green, allowing me to pass through. I go to the platform of the train that will take me back to work. The tracks are in front of a mural that looks like a river bed. Indeed, the wall makes me feel as though I am at the bottom of the river. And I have been attached to a cement boot and have been thrown into the water by mobsters. And I will have to spend the rest of my life watching fish and belugas passing in front of me. My hair waving over my head like seaweed.
But then the métro slides in front of me and I forget my reveries altogether.
I take the Orange Line. It is like being swallowed whole by a snake. And I let my body move along to get right to the spot where I am all wrapped up and then let myself be digested as I fall into a meditative trance. I remember the envelope and pull it out of my jacket. It is stuffed with $100 bills.
The next instalment of Heather O'neill's Mystery in the Métro, with illustrations by Arizona O'neill, will be published online Thursday, June 8 and in print Saturday, June 10. Subscribers can sign up for the weekly newsletter at montrealgazette. com/newsletters, and we'll send you a reminder every week as the next chapters are released.