A Week In December
By Sebastian Faulks
Hardcover, 400 pages
List price: $27.95
Five o'clock and freezing. Piledrivers and were blasting into the wasteland by the side of West Cross Route in Shepherd's Bush. With a bare ten months to the scheduled opening of Europe's largest urban shopping centre, the sand-covered site was showing only skeletal girders and joists under red cranes, though a peppermint facade had already been tacked onto the eastward side. This was not a retail park with trees and benches, but a compression of trade in a city centre, in which migrant labour was paid by foreign capital to squeeze out layers of profit from any Londoner with credit. At their new 'Emirates' Stadium, meanwhile, named for an Arab airline, Arsenal of North London were kicking off under floodlights against Chelsea from the West, while the goalkeepers — one Czech, one Spanish — jumped up and down and beat their ribs to keep warm. At nearby Upton Park, the supporters were leaving the ground after a home defeat; and only a few streets away from the Boleyn Ground, with its East End mixture of sentimentality and grievance, a solitary woman paid her respects to a grandfather — come from Lithuania some eighty years ago – as she stood by his grave in the overflowing cemetery of the East Ham Synagogue. Up the road in Victoria Park, the last of the dog-walkers dragged their mongrels back to flats in Hackney and Bow, grey high-rises marked with satellite dishes, like ears cupped to the outside world in the hope of gossip or escape; while in a minicab that nosed along Dalston Road on its way back to base, the dashboard thermometer touched minus two degrees.
In his small rooms in Chelsea, Gabriel Northwood, a barrister in his middle thirties, was reading The Koran, and shivering. He practised civil law, when he practised anything at all; this meant that he was not involved in 'getting criminals off', but in representing people in a dispute whose outcome would bring financial compensation to the claimants if they won. For a long time, and for reasons he didn't start to understand, Gabriel had received no instructions from solicitors — the branch of the legal profession he depended on for work. Then a case had landed in his lap. It was to do with a man who had thrown himself under a Tube train, and concerned the extent to which the transport provider might be deemed responsible for failing to provide adequate safety precautions. Almost immediately, a second brief had followed: from a local education authority being sued by the parents of a Muslim girl in Leicester for not allowing her to wear traditional dress to school. With little other preparatory work to do, Gabriel thought he might as well try to understand the faith whose demands he was about to encounter; and any educated person these days, he told himself, really ought to have read the Koran.
Some yards below where Gabriel sat reading was an Underground train; and in the driver's cab a young woman called Jenni Fortune switched off the interior light because she was distracted by her own reflection in the windscreen. She slowed the train with her left hand on the traction brake control and, just before she drew level with the signal, brought it to a halt. She pressed two red buttons to open the doors and fixed her eyes on the wing mirror to watch the passengers behind her getting in and out.
She had been driving on the Circle and Metropolitan Lines for three years and still felt excited when she clocked in for her eight-hour shift at the Depot. She felt sorry for the poor passengers who sat and swayed behind her. Sideways on, they saw only bags and overcoats, hanging straps and worn plush under strip lights with suffocating heaters locked on Max. They endured the jostle and the boredom, with occasional stabs of fear when drunken, swearing youths pushed on.
From her view, Jenni saw soothing darkness, points, a slither of crossing rails and signals that glowed like red coals. She rattled the train through the tunnels at forty miles per hour and sometimes half-expected skeletons to loom out from the wall or bats to brush her face. Head-on, she saw the miracles of London engineering that no passenger would ever glimpse: the corbelled brickwork through which the tunnels had been cut or the giant steel joist that held up a five-floor building above the entry to the platform at Liverpool Street.
The week before Christmas was the worst time of year for people throwing themselves on the track. Nobody knew why. Perhaps the approaching festivity brought back memories of family or friends who'd died, without whom the turkey and the streamers seemed a gloomy echo of a world that had once been full. Or maybe the advertisements for digital cameras, aftershave and computer games reminded people how much they were in debt, how few of 'this year's must-have' presents they could afford. Guilt, thought Jenni: a sense of having failed in the competition for resources – for DVD's and body lotions – could drive them to the rails.
Books were what she was hoping to find beneath the tree. Her favourite authors were Agatha Christie and Edith Wharton, but she read with undifferentiated glee – philosophy or airport novels. Her mother, who had come from County Cork, had barely owned a book and had been suspicious of Jenni's reading habits as a teenager. She urged her to get out and find a boyfriend, but Jenni seemed happier in her room with 600-page novels with titles in embossed gold lettering that told how a Russian pogrom had led, two generations later and after much suffering and sex, to the founding of a cosmetics dynasty in New York. Her father, who was from Trinidad, had left 'home' when Jenni was eight months old.
After her shift she would return to the novel that had won the big literary prize, the 2005 Café Bravo, which she was finding a bit thin. Then, after making something to eat for herself and her half-brother Tony, if he was there, she would log on to Parallax, the newest and most advanced of alternative reality games, where she would continue to create the life of her stand-in, or 'maquette' as the game had it, Miranda Star.
Two years before, when she was still new to the job, Jenni had had a jumper. She was coming into Monument when a sudden flash of white, like a giant seagull fluttering from the platform edge, had made her brake hard. But it was too late to prevent her hitting a twenty-year-old man, whose leap had cleared the so-called suicide pit but not taken him as far as the positive rail on the far side. Don't look at their faces was the drivers' wisdom, and after three months' counselling and rehabilitation, Jenni had resumed her driving. The man, though seriously injured, had survived. Two months later, his parents brought a civil action against Jenni's employers, claiming negligence, because their lack of safety precautions had been responsible for the son's injuries. They lost the case, but had been granted leave to appeal, and the thought of the imminent second hearing — on Tuesday there would be another meeting with the lawyer, Mr Northwood — darkened the edges of Jenni Fortune's days.
From the book A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Reprinted by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of Random House. Copyright 2010.