She speaks with a strange intonation, a peculiarly-located rise in her voice as if the person who taught her English had overlaid the rhythms and inflections of an entirely different language: French, or German, or Pig Latin. It also seems she has never acquainted herself with the full set of letters in the alphabet; some are intermittently missing, certain combinations utterly compromised. And occasionally, unsure she has got her meaning across, she replays whole phrases – most often with no alteration in the words she uses or their sequence – as if repetition is the guarantor of understanding.
“I ‘ad chips for dinner, I did. Chips for dinner. Those wavy ones. The ones like waves. But if you cooks ‘em for too long they gets crispy on the outside, and I don’t like crispy chips. Not when I ‘ave ‘em for my dinner.”
Her voice accosts him from over his shoulder. Sitting at the front of the tram, he places her perhaps four rows behind him, the tone of her voice slicing through the air between them as if it were no distance at all, as if she is almost in his ear, intruding. He wants to turn and look, to assign a physical form to the voice. Perhaps doing so will remove the threat.
“Me boyfriend, he likes chips an’ all. But not those wavy ones. So I ‘as to do two lots when he comes round for dinner, ‘cos he don’t like those wavy ones. Says they’re a waste of space, whatever that means. They’re just chips, ain’t they? Chips for dinner.”
It is a voice that defies age. He imagines it belongs to someone who is younger than himself; there is a lazy, slovenliness about it he can only attribute to youth. Yet there is also something else. It is not wisdom – how could it be?! – but an undercurrent which suggests not maturity but experience; experience in the sense of having lived for many years, nothing more. He roots the notion in the way she says ‘boyfriend’. It is not spoken with the caution or flush of youth, but with a brashness suggestive of someone who, in spite of all other evidence, is cognisant they are crossing a boundary, stealing a word from another vocabulary, one to which they should not be party.
“Sausages ‘e likes. Beef ones. It’s ‘ard to get beef sausages these days, ain’t it? ‘E don’t like all those fancy sausages with fancy flavours, me boyfriend don’t. Not with apple or onion or whatnot. ‘E likes beef. And it’s ‘ard to get your ‘ands on beef sausages, ain’t it? Used to be easy. Used to be all there was when I was a girl, beef sausages. Got ‘em from the butchers at the end of our road; the one wot ain’t there any more. Lovely sausages ‘e ‘ad, that butchers. Me boyfriend would ‘ave loved those, ‘e would.”
It is a turn which places her in time. She is older than she sounds, older than the language she uses. And he wants to turn around even more as a result. He finds himself guessing. She is probably older than thirty based on what she has just said, and he instinctively feels the need to bestow more years on her but is unable to do so without evidence.
It is another voice; a companion piece. And he wonders if the unbalanced exchange is one in which this second person has been innocently trapped; as if they simply took a spare seat on a tram and found themselves adopted. It is a ‘yes’ delivered by someone without choice. Hidden in that single word is an implicit desire for the tram to go faster – or for the voluble woman to get off at the next stop. It is a ‘yes’ that contains more of the ‘no’ in it; a ‘yes’ that is a plea for help, an unspoken desire to be rescued.
“I don’t mind ‘em, sausages. But I likes fish fingers better. ‘Specially with wavy chips. But me boyfriend, ‘e don’t like fish fingers; so when ‘e comes round for dinner I ‘as to cook two lots of chips and sausages and fish fingers, ‘cos if I didn’t what would we eat, eh?”
Attempting to block her out, he tries to focus on the city centre as it subsides into inner suburbs: a terrace or two, the hint of a new development, tired offices, a park and a school beyond. The tram stops three more times, and even though he tries not to listen he is unable not to collect the words she insists on repeating. ‘Boyfriend’ accosts him like a slap round the face, as does ‘shopping’ when she makes a seamless segue from the subject of her dinner.
“I likes Asda, I do. Sometimes I goes to Morrison’s ‘cos there’s one just round the corner too, but I likes Asda better. And B&M. That B&M’s good for some things too. But not sausages. Asda’s good for sausages. My boyfriend likes ‘is sausages from Asda.”
And even though the topics have varied a little, the way she relays them creates a blur, a noise lacking any distinction.
The ‘ding’ of the bell causes him to look up to where the ‘Stopping’ sign has been illuminated once more, and as the tram slows he realises he can no longer hear her. He is aware of the second voice saying ‘Bye’ as if he has time on replay, and cannot help but register the relief embodied in the word.
When the tram stops it is outside a small parade of shops. Ahead, he can see a supermarket – Morrison’s – squeezed between two charity shops, a Clinton’s cards, a bookmakers. One shop’s window is whitewashed and boasts a ‘To Let’ sign that hangs slightly askew. He waits.
A woman appears by his window, pauses before crossing towards the shops, and he knows it is her. He catches her in profile for a moment and is surprised. She is at least fifty, if not much older. She has a face worn down by living, the naïve juggling of the everyday. Cocooned in a too-familiar grey raincoat, she tugs a dilapidated shopping trolley behind her, its left wheel slightly out of alignment. Her walk is a shuffle; she stoops a little; her hair, grey and wispy, looks too thin to be controllable.
As she reaches the far pavement, the doors of the tram slide to a close, and he feels the soft jolt of motion. In safety now, he can turn his head to watch her, and just before she disappears from view he sees her accost a pedestrian who just happens to be heading her way, and he imagines a story about chips and sausages being re-told as if buried within it are the secrets of the universe.