1 Spring 2017
The branches outside my window are spindly and bare, and Tilda stands across the room looking like a waif woman, saying: “How can you stand it? All those broken fingers tapping at the glass.” She’s opening the door, is halfway out: “Anyhow, I want you to come to Curzon Street this evening. I’m ordering Thai food and a DVD. Strangers on a Train. It’s an Alfred Hitchcock.”
“I know that.”
“Come about eight. There’ll be someone else too. Someone I want you to meet.”
The invitation sounds innocuous, but it isn’t. For a start, Tilda always comes to my flat for movie nights. Also, it’s unknown for her to introduce me to her friends. In fact, she rarely even talks about her friends. I can name only two, and those are girls she’s known since childhood. Paige Mooney and Kimberley Dwyer. I’d be surprised if she saw them more than once a year; so I’m curious and am about to say, “Who?” but she’s leaving as she’s speaking, disappearing down the communal stairs.
• • •
At Curzon Street, I’m clutching my bottle of cider, knowing full well that Tilda won’t have cider. And I’ve brought brownies.
She’s waiting on the second floor, at the open door of her flat. Then she’s greeting me with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, kissing my cheeks, saying brightly, “Callie!” Behind her, a tall fair-haired man is in the kitchen area, sleeves rolled up, busying himself with things in cupboards. He comes to say hello, holding out a thin hand, and from the way he stands, so firmly inhabiting his space, I realize that he’s accustomed to being there. Tilda gazes at him proprietorially, glancing at his hair, his shoulders, his bare forearms. She says, “Callie meet Felix. Felix Nordberg.”
“I’m opening a bottle of white,” he says. “Will you have some?”
“No, I’m fine with cider.” I hold up the Strongbow bottle for inspection and take it to the kitchen counter, thinking that Felix seems to be in command of things. The kitchen, the wine. Then he starts asking me polite questions in a soft, moneyed voice that makes me think of super yachts and private islands. Where do I live? Do I enjoy my work at the bookshop? I ask him about his work, which is for a Mayfair hedge fund.
“I don’t even know what that means. Except that it’s a sort of gambling.”
He laughs. “You’re right, Callie. But our clients prefer to call it investing, so we humor them.”
I sense that he’s humoring me too, and I watch him pouring our drinks with precision, examining the label of a French Chablis, checking that the wine reaches the perfect level in the glass. And he’s careful with my cider, treating it like precious nectar, even though it’s in a plastic bottle with a gigantic red sticker that reads £3.30. He hands Tilda her wine, and she flashes him a half smile as their hands touch. Then Felix gets back to the kitchen cupboards, taking out plates and bowls, wiping them with a cloth and sorting them into piles, at the same time telling me how to short a market.
“Think of it like this, I’ll sell you this plate for the current price of ten dollars, agreeing to deliver it to you in three months’ time.
Then, just before the three months is up, I’ll buy in a plate for nine dollars. You see? I’m betting that the plate market will go down and I’ll make a profit of a dollar.”
“That’s an expensive plate.”
“Felix likes expensive things,” Tilda offers from her position at the end of the sofa. She’s decoratively arranged, her feet tucked up, hugging a velvet cushion with one hand, holding her glass with the other, and she’s observing us, wondering how we’re getting along.
I look at Felix, to see if he’ll say “That’s why I like your sister,” but he doesn’t. He just grins as if to say, Got me there! and opens the cutlery drawer, taking out the knives and forks and polishing them. I don’t comment. Instead I ask Felix where he comes from, and how long he’s been in London. His family is from Sweden, he says, but he grew up in Boston, USA, and considers himself to be a citizen of the world. I snigger at the phrase, and he tells us that he’s trying to get to grips with England and London.
“What, queuing and minding-the-gap and apologizing all the time, that sort of thing?”
“Yes, all that. And the self-deprecation, and the way you guys make a joke of all situations, and find it difficult to accept compliments . . . Did you know, Callie, that those dark eyes of yours are enigmatic, soulful even?”
Feigning a serious expression, he looks right into my face and I feel embarrassed because he’s so handsome and so close to me. But I feel he’s including me in the joke, not laughing at me.
I move away, hot-cheeked, and as I pour myself more cider, I think that he’s intelligent and funny and I like him.
Tilda says, “Come and watch the DVD,” so I pick up my glass and head for the other end of the sofa, intending to re-create the movie nights at my flat, when we sit like that, at each end, passing brownies back and forth and making little comments like “Keanu
Reeves looks sad in this,” or “Look at the rain outside, it’s going sideways.” Nothing that amounts to conversation, but enough to make things seem companionable, like we’re children again. But I’m too slow. Before I can establish myself, Felix has taken the space next to Tilda, making it obvious that I should be banished to the old armchair. So I flop down and put my feet up on the coffee table, while Tilda presses the start button on the remote.
Felix and I haven’t seen Strangers on a Train before, but we both like it, the chilling effect of the black-and-white, the clipped 1950s voices and mannerisms, and we all have comments to make as the drama unfolds; but Tilda, being an actress, and some sort of expert on Hitchcock, chips in more than Felix and me. Hitchcock put his evil characters on the left-hand side of the screen, she tells us, and good characters on the right. I laugh. “So I’m evil, because I’m sitting over here, and you’re good, Tilda.”
“Except, silly, on-screen that would be reversed. So I’m bad and you’re good.”
“I’m the most interesting,” Felix says. “I’m in the middle and can go either way. Who knows what I’ll do?”
“Oh, look at Ruth Roman!” Tilda’s suddenly distracted. “The way her lips are slightly parted, it’s so suggestive.”
I say “Hmm” in a skeptical way, pouting, and Felix raises an eyebrow. But Tilda isn’t put off.
“And Robert Walker is incredible as a psychopath. He does that clever thing with his eyes—looking so calculating. Did you know he died just after this movie, because he was drunk and his doctor injected him with barbiturates?”
“The other guy is using his wrists,” I offer. “He’s doing wrist acting.” Tilda laughs.
“I like the plot,” I say.
“Patricia Highsmith . . . She wrote the novel that the film is based on.”
The idea is that two strangers on a train could swap murders. The psychopath with the calculating eyes offers to murder the estranged wife of the wrist guy, if, in return, the wrist guy will murder the psychopath’s hated father. The police will never solve the crimes because neither murderer would have any connection to his victim. There would be no discernible motive.
“It’s a brilliant idea for a film,” I say, “but it wouldn’t work in practice. I mean, if you were plotting a murder and wanted to do it that way.”
“What do you mean?” Tilda is nestling into Felix.
“Well, you’d have to travel on trains the whole time, planning to fall into conversation with another person who also wants someone murdered. It’s not going to happen.”
“Oh, everyone wants someone murdered,” she says.
Felix rearranges Tilda so that her legs lie over his lap, his hands resting on her skinny knees, and I notice that they are beautiful people, with their fine bones, smooth, translucent skin, and shiny blond hair, looking like they are the twins. They pause the movie to open another bottle of the same French wine and Felix says, “Of course you’re right, Callie, about the murder plot, but these days you wouldn’t have to travel on trains to meet another murderer, you could just find someone on the internet, in a forum or a chat room.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
“I suppose it’s true,” says Tilda. “The internet is where psychos find each other.”
• • •
We watch the final scenes, and afterwards I say I need to get home, but I’ll go to the bathroom first. It’s an excuse; I don’t really need a pee. Instead, once I’ve locked the door, I ferret around and find that there are two toothbrushes in a plastic tumbler, and a man’s shaving gear in the cupboard over the sink. Also, the bin is full of
detritus: empty shampoo bottles, little nodules of old soap, wads of cotton wool, used razors, half-used pots of lotion. I realize that Felix has been tidying up Tilda’s bathroom mess, just as he was organizing the kitchen; and I’m happy that someone’s looking after her, sorting her out. I reach farther into the bin, and pull out a plastic bag wound around something hard. Sitting on the toilet, I unwrap it expecting something ordinary, an old nail polish or lipstick maybe. Instead I extract a small used syringe, with a fine needle, and I’m so shocked, so perplexed, that I head straight back into the sitting room, brandishing it, saying, “What the hell is this?” Felix and Tilda look at each other, faces suggesting mild embarrassment, a shared joke, and Tilda says, “You’ve discovered our secret. We’ve been having vitamin B12 injections—they help us stay on top of things. Intensive lives and all that.”
“What? That’s crazy.” I’m incredulous, and am still holding the syringe in the air, defiantly.
“Welcome to the world of high finance,” says Felix.
“Really!” Tilda starts laughing at my stunned face. “Really. There’s nothing to be alarmed about. Lots of successful people do it. Actors do it. . . . Bankers do it. . . . Google it if you don’t believe me.”
Then she adds, “Hang on—why the fuck are you going through my bin?”
I can’t think of an answer, so I shrug helplessly. Tilda gives me a wonky face that says You’re incorrigible!, and then she says I’d better be getting home. She fetches my coat.
Felix says he hopes to see me again soon, and as I leave he gives me a quick affable hug, the sort that big rugby-playing men give to nephews and nieces.
• • •
At home, I open up my laptop and start googling vitamin injections. Tilda’s right, it turns out, and I’m amazed at the weird
things professional people do in the name of “achieving your life goals.” I decide to let it go and to accept that Tilda and Felix live in a different world from me. Then I start to make notes on both of them, working in the file I call my “dossier.” It’s a habit that I’ve had since childhood—monitoring Tilda, observing her, checking that she’s okay. I write: Felix seems like a special person. He has a way of making you feel like you’re in a conspiracy with him, sharing a joke about the rest of humanity. I’m astonished that she let me meet him, and, now that I have, I’m pleased that she’s met her match and that he is looking after her so well.