Short story – Signal Failure

I wrote this a couple of years ago for a competition – my first, and until recently last, attempt at a short story. I posted it briefly at the time, until my husband emailed me a news article covering a story about a man who had just done pretty much the same thing as my “hero”, only in a different location. I have no idea what his back story was, but it didn’t seem right to leave my – entirely fictional – version in place at the time.

Anyway, here it is. With a  bit of distance I can see a few things I’d change – but that would only be displacement activity to keep me from editing book 2…


Signal Failure

The entrance to Euston Square station had always reminded Simon of a mouth. It was the way it yawned open at that rakish angle to the street, disgorging commuters and students and confused tourists through its great, big, dentist-wide smile onto the pavement outside.  You couldn’t say that about every tube station.  He liked it. He’d always liked it.

That’s why he’d decided to start there.  That, of course, and because it was the place he’d met Zillah for their first date.  To go for their first date, rather.  Not even he would ask a girl to a tube station for a date.  Not the first one, anyway.

It had taken him weeks to pluck up the courage to ask her out.  Weeks of going into that coffee shop on Bedford Street where Dave had got the part-time job with the thirty per cent discount.  It was the discount, of course, that had taken Simon there in the first place.  Dave had stood in the student union bar, celebratory pint in hand, and promised to extend it to his mates – mates’ rates he’d said.  Simon wasn’t sure he was supposed to do that, but Dave wasn’t the sort to worry. Standing in the queue, Simon had decided on a hot chocolate: the deluxe version, with cream and marshmallows and chocolate sprinkles.  If he was going to get a discount, he figured, he’d better make it one worth having.

And that’s when he’d seen her.

She was doing something complicated with nozzles on the coffee machine, long, tapered fingers twisting and releasing and reattaching.  Her wrists were narrow and delicate and he could see the bones moving beneath the coffee coloured skin with every neat, deliberate movement. A large silver ring on her right hand clunked against the nozzles as she worked.

Dave had been serving the customer in front, but he shot Simon a glance that showed he’d noticed him eyeing up the talent, and with a wink turned and mumbled something to the girl before disappearing into the kitchen. She sighed and turned to the till, barely looking up.

“Can I help you?”

Her accent was south London: a proper Londoner then, not an interloper like Simon. She sounded a little bored.  God, to think he’d been considering ordering a hot chocolate! Her eyes were chocolate coloured too.  Chocolate coloured eyes and coffee coloured skin…

“I’m sorry, can I help you?”

He’d gone for an Americano, thinking that sounded more masculine.  She’d asked him what size and he’d thought small because he knew by then he wasn’t going to be able to bring himself to ask about the discount; but then he thought that would look stingy and perhaps he should ask for large instead; except that that might look extravagant, or worse, like he was over-compensating for deficiencies elsewhere; so he decided on medium, but it wasn’t called medium, it was called something else; and then before he knew it he’d said “massimo”, and too quickly for him to correct himself there was this enormous, steaming china bucket in front of him and he’d had to shell out nearly four quid for a bloody coffee.

He had no idea how much he’d spent on coffee since then, hanging around to exchange a few words with Zillah.  She was quiet, polite, sparing with her smiles. Dave said she was “snooty”, which probably meant he’d asked her out himself and she’d given him the brush off.  Simon harboured un-PC fantasies of her as an African princess, holding court dressed in something long and diaphanous, surrounded by palm trees and fan-waving servants, beckoning him into her presence with a long, elegant finger.  (Did they have palm trees in Africa?)

After three weeks he’d asked her out. He’d tried to keep it casual: he had a couple of tickets to a comedy night at the Bloomsbury Theatre, he said, and the mate he’d planned to go with had let him down.  He could hear the words coming out too quickly, obviously rehearsed; but she looked him straight in the eyes, and smiled one of those rare smiles, and said she’d love to join him.

Zillah didn’t know the theatre so they’d agreed to meet at Euston Square and walk there together.  It was raining and Simon had stood in the corner of the station entrance, trying to avoid the sodden travellers scurrying in and out in the breathless, bustling way people put on with their coats when it’s wet.

He could still remember the moment he’d seen her stepping off the escalator.  It must have been dry when she’d started her journey because she carried no sign of the weather except for a black, business-like umbrella dangling from her wrist.  She was tall amongst the other passengers, even the men, and sure-footed in her flat shoes.  Simon had always thought he liked high heels but that evening, watching Zillah glide gracefully towards him, he’d changed his mind.

The show hadn’t been as good as he’d hoped. He’d kept sneaking sidelong glances at Zillah, noting with concern that she wasn’t laughing much.  But afterwards they’d gone for a drink at the bar around the corner and, despite his nerves, it had been easy to talk.  She’d asked him about his degree, why he’d chosen architecture; and listened, apparently interested, as he’d talked about the importance of place, and architecture as a way of making it easier to live well, and finally, honestly, about the house in the Cotswolds where his great aunt had lived, and how as a little boy he’d thought it was beautiful and full of secrets and how, after many years when she’d died and it was being sold, he’d realised that it was possible for a building to have a soul.

“Ensouled,” she’d nodded; and then, when he’d looked confused, “It’s a lovely word. It means what you’d think.” She’d paused and then smiled at him again. “So you want to give buildings their souls.”

He tried to remember what he’d asked her.  Perhaps it hadn’t been very much.  Perhaps that had been the problem right from the start.  He’d imagined he knew her somehow without ever having to bother with any of the boring question and answer routine of other dates.  Probably he’d just squashed the real Zillah beneath the weight of his own imagined version. Perhaps she’d been waiting patiently ever since for him to realise.

He stepped onto the escalator, riding down into the bowels of the earth and the circle line, the reverse of Zillah’s journey six years ago. The posters were different now: glaring electric rectangles that shifted and changed every few seconds, now an advert for deodorant, now an exhortation to visit Wales.  (The scenery looked pretty, Simon thought; a shame, really, that he’d never visited.) He’d preferred the old posters, though. You didn’t have to worry that if you looked away for a moment they’d change and you’d never be able to work out what they’d been trying to tell you.

The air on the platform was warm and treacly, even though it was lunchtime and the commuters had long since left. The indicator confided that another train would arrive in three minutes, destination Monument. Over the tannoy, the voice Zillah had told him the tube drivers called Sonia (“because her voice gets on yer nerves”) announced delays on the Piccadilly line owing to an earlier signal failure; a good service was operating on all other London Underground lines.  Good.  He’d left himself plenty of time, but still.  Delays brought uncertainty.   There was no room for that today.

There was a disturbance in the air and a gentle hum told him that the train was approaching.  The handful of other travellers stood a little more upright, shifted slightly.  Why did people do that, Simon wondered, that little buzz of movement.  Maybe they felt the need to celebrate the approach of the thing they’d been waiting for. There should be a name for it, he thought: the Underground Shuffle.  But no, that sounded like a card trick.

The wind rushed through Simon’s hair as the train pulled into the platform, and he waited for the self-consciously academic type in brown cords to step down before boarding.  The carriage was mostly empty and he was able to take his favourite seat: the one at the end of the row, the same side as the open door.  Perhaps that was everyone’s favourite, but today it was his turn.  That seemed only right.  From inside his jacket he took out the paper and a bill in an envelope to lean on, and began to write.

The train rattled its way through the tunnels, through Great Portland Street and Baker Street, pausing as usual at Edgware Road.  Simon looked up instinctively then, noting the interchange with the district line; Zillah’s line, though she wouldn’t be there yet. The number of passengers thinned still further and then picked up again at High Street Kensington.  Women travelling in pairs held carrier bags that knocked into Simon’s legs as they passed; a middle-aged Asian man in a jumper sat opposite, reading that month’s ubiquitous paperback and bending back the cover in a way that would have annoyed Simon had he noticed. No-one took the seat next to him.  Once he felt a pair of eyes and looked up to see a woman in her early twenties looking down at his writing through the glass partition.  He turned over the paper and glared at her, and her look of concern changed instantly to one of embarrassment.

He would get out at the next station. It was Notting Hill Gate; nothing there of interest, but he couldn’t bear to stay there under the prying eyes of that girl. Such an anonymous city, London, but still someone had to intrude when he needed privacy.

There were benches at Notting Hill Gate, the old, long, wooden kind.  He sat at one end and looked along the platform.  A sign half-way down directed him to the central line. It was his least favourite: long and dull and leading always to Gants Hill, the home of Zillah’s parents.


At the end of that first date, he’d asked Zillah for a second. She’d agreed and then, to his astonishment, had taken his hand and told him she’d be staying with him that night.  He hadn’t expected that, couldn’t believe his luck, and when they’d got back to his room in the halls of residence, he’d been so nervous he’d barely known what to do.  But it had been okay, somehow – Zillah had made it okay.  More than okay.  From then on, they’d been inseparable.

Dave was surprised, Simon knew that.  He wasn’t the only one. They thought Simon wasn’t good-looking enough or stylish enough or witty enough for a girl like Zillah.  He knew they were right but Zillah didn’t seem to agree.  He’d asked her once as she lay on his chest, their skin sticking damply together like a steamed envelope, what she saw in him; not in self-pity or neediness, but in sheer stupefaction.  She’d gazed at him for a moment, her expression impossible to read. Then she’d laughed, and kissed him on the nose, and said she couldn’t resist a man whose nostrils flared when he talked about buildings.

It was six weeks after their first date that Zillah suggested he meet her parents.  They were a bit old-fashioned, she said, and always wanted to meet her boyfriends.  Simon hadn’t liked the use of the plural but he hadn’t said anything and, before he knew it, everything had been arranged.

He’d never travelled outside zone two before and it annoyed him that the tube, surely London to its core, should extend to Essex suburbia.  Without Zillah, who’d promised she’d meet him at the other end, the journey was tedious and nerve-wracking.

Mr and Mrs Sam-King lived in a 1930s terrace with a red roof and plastic double-glazing.  The visit was tense from the start.  Simon was nervous and fidgety and had forgotten the flowers he’d meant to buy for Zillah’s mum. She had met them at the door, a tall, slim woman, her pale skin the product of generations under London’s slate skies; and Simon, surprised, found himself instantly burbling about the forgotten flowers, and how pretty the garden was, and how he’d never visited Gants Hill before.

It was his accent that caused the problem, he saw that now.  He’d sounded patronising, and his comment about Gants Hill was taken as suggesting that he’d never expected to find himself so far, well, east. Things didn’t improve with Zillah’s dad, the stiff introduction performed by his wife communicating more clearly than any words that Simon hadn’t got off on the right foot. They’d sat in the living room, and Mrs Sam-King – “Please, call me Sandra,” she’d said, without sounding as if she meant it – had brought tea in mugs on a tray.  Simon had placed his mug on a side table, but Zillah had nudged him and he’d realised his mistake and slid a coaster quickly underneath.

Mr Sam-King – Simon knew his name was Victor, but he hadn’t been invited to use it – quizzed him on his degree and his parents: where did they live, what did they do.  Simon had hoped that a doctor and a teacher living in Surrey would be sufficient pedigree, perhaps even restore a few points in his favour; but Mr Sam-King was inscrutable.

Two uncomfortable hours later, Zillah announced that they needed to leave to meet a friend of hers for birthday drinks.  Not “a friend of theirs,” Simon noticed – she was protecting him from blame for their early departure – but he thought Mr and Mrs Sam-King looked as relieved as he was.

Zillah had taken his hand the moment they’d got outside, both of them turning and waving to her parents, who stood watching them from the door as they made their way down the street.

“Well,” said Simon, “That could have gone better.”

“Why do you say that? They loved you.”

Simon turned to her in disbelief.  For a moment, she looked serious, but then the corners of her lips twitched and by the time they’d reached the station they were laughing so hard that people were turning and looking at them.  On the train, they’d sat in an empty carriage and kissed enthusiastically until a man walked through from the neighbouring carriage and came and sat opposite them.  They stared ahead, avoiding each other’s eyes until they got to the next station and then, giggling, moved to the other end of the train.

She made everything okay, Zillah, that’s just what she did.  But he’d still wished he’d remembered the flowers.


Another train was pulling into the platform.  Simon looked down at the paper with its fresh, wet stain, but he’d been writing in biro and the ink hadn’t smudged. He folded it in half and joined the cluster of people waiting to board.

The train was busier this time and he didn’t get a seat.  He stood at the end of the carriage where someone had lowered the window and felt the cool air rushing over his neck.  He realised he felt cold all over.

At Westminster, his favourite station, he stepped off the train and followed the signs for the Jubilee line.  Around him, all was grey concrete and stainless steel, industrial and yet somehow smooth and calming.  Even the sound was different here, a low, gentle hum; he’d always imagined it like being inside a spaceship.

Down the first escalator – standing, not walking today – then the second, then the third.  He’d ridden these escalators with Zillah, telling her about the awards the architects had won for the design.  At the bottom, they’d sat on the floor out of the way of the people hurrying back and forth, and looked up at the soaring concrete walls, the coolly glowing lights, the banks of escalators.  He’d turned to Zillah and noticed for the hundredth time how thick and dark her eyelashes were and, without thinking about it or asking, purely as a statement of fact, told her he was going to marry her.

They’d waited until he’d finished his degree and got an internship with a small firm of architects in Hackney before announcing their engagement.  By then Zillah was working full-time too, as a station assistant on the underground.  Simon had worried for her, wondering aloud how she would cope with the drunks returning home from the pub, or commuters enraged by delays; but Zillah’s response was quiet and firm, pointing out that the money was reasonable and that, in a year or two, she could train as a tube driver.  She loved the idea, she said, of sitting alone in the cab, watching the tunnels rushing past, seeing the mysteries that ordinary passengers never saw.

Their wedding had been small and simple, at Zillah’s insistence.  Simon would have preferred something more extravagant, an opportunity to parade his beautiful bride before all his family and friends; but Zillah said her father would insist on paying and she didn’t want him to bankrupt himself trying to impress Simon’s family.  “Besides,” she said, “A marriage is an intimate thing.  We should share it only with people we love.”

He hadn’t cared, not really.  All he’d wanted was to be married to Zillah, to see her wearing his ring.

It was hard to imagine, looking back on that day, that they would have ever have come to this.  He wondered whether the seeds were inside them, even then; the small differences that he’d recognised and loved in her, but would change over time – for her at least – from objects of fascination and delight to something else, something more mundane.  Or was it just life, everyday, boring, irritating, obstreperous, life that had fidgeted its way between them and, so slowly he hadn’t even noticed, pushed them apart?

Perhaps it would have been different if there had been children, but he had never wanted any and Zillah had seemed content not to press.  They were still young, after all.  There would still have been time.  But not now. Not after that day.

It was three weeks ago when it happened, a Wednesday, the tipping point of the working week. For days, the roadworks outside the office where Simon worked had been causing difficulties. Even through the toughened glass, the noise had been unrelenting, and the vibrations had sent several of the technical staff scurrying down into the basement to collect equipment and take measurements (“Within safe levels,” was the disappointing conclusion.) And then, that Wednesday, as the later-arriving of Simon’s colleagues were still making their way in clutching their coffees, the workmen had drilled through a pipe and cut the building’s water supply.

At first, the inconvenience had seemed minor: the estimate was half an hour without water.  But the half hour had stretched to an hour, and then two, with still no sign of reconnection, and the loos couldn’t be flushed and Sebastian, one of the partners, had stood up from his drawing board and removed his rimless glasses and announced that this was simply ridiculous, and everyone would have to go home and get as much work done as possible there.

There was a holiday atmosphere as people packed up and left the building, thrilled at the prospect of the rest of the day’s unexpected leisure.  It was not yet midday and Zillah, working nights, would still be in bed.  Simon imagined creeping into their bedroom, still in velvety darkness from the black-out lined curtains her mother had made for them, removing his clothes and snuggling against the warmth of her back.  He would sleep again – as always, he was tired enough for that – and for once they would wake together.

He was quiet as he entered the flat, not wanting to wake her.  He took off his jacket and draped it over the banister, slipped off his shoes and left them in the hallway (forgetting, as he always did, how much both annoyed her) and walked into the kitchen to get a drink.  He turned the tap and smiled as he watched the water running into the glass – strange how such a small thing could cause so much disruption.  And as the cool water hit the back of his throat he heard the noise.

He knew what it was at once and really, looking back on it now, surely that was a sign that all was not as it should have been; for what man hears the creak of a bedspring and knows immediately that his marriage is over?  Who except the one who has told himself that the long silences, the cheek offered for kisses that would once have fallen on her lips, the disappointment in her eyes, were all part of a passing phase he could solve when he’d established himself at work, when they could spend more time together, when he could reclaim his sense of humour and laugh at himself again?

He didn’t need to see the leather jacket hanging behind the front door or the shoes placed neatly on the shoe rack to know.  He didn’t need to climb the stairs and open the door to the bedroom and see that monstrous, white, heaving back, encircled in Zillah’s long, elegant legs.  He didn’t need to meet her look of pure horror with his own blank eyes, or hear the shouted curses, or witness the pantomime springing from bed and grabbing of clothes.  He didn’t need any of it; but somehow he felt it was expected of him.

And later, when Zillah should have been begging his forgiveness and promising to do anything in her power to make things right, she’d said she was leaving him.  She said he had left her a long time ago.  She said she was lonely.

She said.

She said.


Simon couldn’t remember getting back on the train, but he was here now: Embankment.  People were moving out of the way for him as he moved down the carriage towards the doors, something in their eyes he couldn’t read.

There was no district line train on the board: he checked his watch and saw that he was still early.  Another ten minutes to go. There were seats, the plastic bucket kind this time, and he took one.  Surprised, he noticed that the paper in his hands was twisted into a long, wrinkled coil.  He smoothed it out against his knees and read through the words, then took out a pen.  He paused, read again, and replaced the pen in his jacket pocket.

The clock on the platform clicked each passing minute. Two trains came and went and then the orange letters shifted, reconfigured themselves in chains of light to announce the one he was waiting for. The district line: the line with the first ever woman driver, as Zillah had told him with pride.

A distant rumble confirmed her approach.  The tunnel here was long and straight as it approached the platform: plenty of time for her to see him, but not enough time to stop.  For the first time, he noticed the other passengers waiting.  There weren’t many of them.  No children; he was pleased about that.

He walked to the edge of the platform, picking a spot nearest the end where the train would arrive.  The noise was louder now, the pitch rising.  He folded the letter one last time and pushed it into his jacket, near his heart.  Down the tunnel, the tracks were lighting up.  As the glow of the cab burst from the darkness, he could already see Zillah.  He thought she looked sad, but perhaps that was his imagination.  He waited, leaning forward so she would be sure to see him.  And then she did.

He stepped.