Saturday 21 June 2014

'Quicksilver' by Joanne Fox

It is not the sight of Xanthe chained to the railings that snares him, but her voice. Like quicksilver it darts into Gerald’s veins, skims one circuit of his pacemaker, and arrives in a hibernating vessel of his heart.

He staggers back, treading on a Policeman’s foot.

“Steady, sir.”

“Sorry, Officer. I was just a little…”

Ah – Xanthe! White haired, but no less power to send him reeling.

“A little lost. I was looking for the Underground station. Have to get to… Oh, dammit. Place with the lions.”

“London Zoo, sir?”

“No, no. Trafalgar Square - that’s it.” Gerald straightens his tie. “Going to a lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery.”

“Station’s on the corner, sir.”

“Much obliged.”

Yet instead of striding off, Gerald remains transfixed by the commotion opposite.

“Save our Children’s Centre,” he hears the protesters chant. “Stop the cuts.” On the low wall, above women with pushchairs and men with infants papoosed to their bodies, Xanthe bears her chains like royal insignia.
Unconsciously Gerald’s fingers graze his jacket, at roughly the spot beneath which his pacemaker lies. “That lady, Officer. In the red and gold caftan affair. She the ringleader?”

“Couldn’t say, sir. Know her, do you?”

Gerald whistles through his teeth. “Rather doubtful.”
Oh – traitor! Proving Xanthe right, even now. How can he deny hot afternoons in his lodgings; windows open, curtains shut? Her hair, deepest rosewood then, tumbling from tortoiseshell combs.

She’d marched against the H Bomb. Boycotted South Africa. Supported War on Want.

“I can’t afford a reputation as a troublemaker,” he'd told her in the spring of 1960. “Not if I want a decent career with the Civil Service when we graduate.”

She’d continued holding the button sized badge towards him. He’d taken it, but as he’d dropped it into the ashtray he’d seen Xanthe’s face flare with the passion he envied.

“And I can’t afford to be shackled to someone so lukewarm,” she’d replied.

Gerald feels the Policeman touch his arm.

“You OK, sir?”

“Yes, Officer. Sorry. That lady over there. Maybe I do recognise her.”

“Watch your step there, sir.”

After a near miss with a cyclist, Gerald’s course is true. He feels a racing in his pulse that he hasn’t experienced since pre-pacemaker days. Might Xanthe have forgotten him? It’s been – oh, too many years. The familiar tilt of her head is reassuring. She gives a sharp cry, and falls silent. A hush descend on those around her, curious eyes on Gerald.
From the inside pocket closest to his heart, he removes his wallet. A disc is impressed into the leather. “Am I too late to join you?” he shouts, pinning the scuffed CND badge to his lapel.

He entertains a notion of Xanthe, running into his embrace. But she, who wanted to be unfettered, is still chained to the railings.

So, they stand, drinking in the miracle, as if all the time between was nothing more than quicksilver.


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