"Please Be Good to Me": VS Pritchett short story winner 2018

Two women strike up an unlikely conversation waiting for a train. But there is a twist in the tale

January 25, 2019
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Sami Lieberman was walking up the escalator at London Bridge station, looking at her phone, elbowing past passengers standing on the right, her tights itching from the unexpected hot weather. It was Friday evening, and the stress of the day was beginning to recede. She was thinking about the 141 she would maybe just catch, how she’d go to Hackney lido if the rain held off. She was thinking back to last weekend, when she’d gone down to Sussex to see her mother, who appeared to have aged startlingly in a short span of time; she was wondering whether they were out of dried cat food.

Each day she marvelled at the new station. London Bridge gaped shiny and silver as the inside of a spaceship. Workers in hi-vis jackets could be spotted putting the finishing touches to beams and concourses. The gleaming caverns seemed too pristine to sully with passengers, quite unlike the dusty train halls of Sami’s childhood. Everything was different, but in a way that would be reassuring to the average British visitor, with its standard-issue shops: Pret a Manger, Accessorize, Paperchase. Sometimes she was thrown by a closed staircase or shuttered exit, and found herself cast out onto surprising streets.

The escalator tipped Sami off onto a dark, covered walkway that led to the buses. A blockage had interrupted the rush-hour flow of people, and in her peripheral vision she saw a group standing with suitcases, and a small, hunched figure on the outside. Engrossed in her phone, she picked up a snatch of conversation: "I’m not sure, we’re just visiting, have you asked the station staff?"

A voice replying, frayed with old age. "Yes, I have, I have asked. I asked two gentlemen back there and they told me to go left and left again, and now I’m here, and I don’t know where I’m supposed to go." Indignation failed to mask the speaker’s anxiety.

Sami looked up. An elderly woman stood talking to four tourists, who smiled at her apologetically. A discussion had been had. The old woman was lost and had asked for directions. The tourists did not know where to send her.

Sami considered whether to intervene. The 141 was about to leave, and she hated to miss it, even though she had nowhere in particular to be. Since moving to London, rushing had become a permanent state. Sami thought for a second and carried on past, towards the buses. Then she glanced back, to where the tourists were shuffling their feet, as if to say they had done all they could. The old woman looked around helplessly. She had short tufts of white hair and bottle-top glasses that made her eyes look buggy. She was very old, in her late eighties at least. Maybe ninety. She carried a black holdall and wore a shapeless rain-jacket dotted with pockets, unsuited to the radiant weather. She had on baggy grey trousers and comfortable, old-lady shoes.

Sami sighed and walked towards her. It would only take a few seconds.

"Where do you need to get to?" she asked, trying to sound non-threatening. The tourists dispersed. The old woman’s expression rearranged itself into not quite a smile, hostility almost, at finding herself such easy prey for a stranger’s pity. Her cheeks, nose, chin and forehead looked as though they might once have formed a coherent whole, but time had eroded their togetherness and now they hung loose, each feature drifting in its own direction.

"I’m going to Gatwick," she said. Skin bagged in soft creases at her neck when she spoke. "Gatwick Airport. You see, I asked the man in the station which way I should go, and he said go out and left, and left and then right, and I’ve done that, and now I’m all the way over here, and I don’t know where I need to go."

Something stirred in Sami: at the bafflement in the old woman’s face, the faint trace of fear. She too was incapable of following strangers’ directions, which she often thought vague.

"The platforms are that way," Sami said, pointing behind the old woman, into daylight. "So I think you need to go over there."

"But that’s where I’ve just come from," the old woman said. She stood rooted to the floor, unmoving, as hordes streamed off the escalator, staring into their phones. Sami understood she wanted to keep going in the direction she had placed her faith in. To retrace her steps would be to admit the tragedy of time wasted.

Sami softened her voice. "Well, I’m not a hundred percent sure where the Gatwick train goes from, because this station’s all new and I get confused myself, but if we go back that way we can definitely get down to the platforms."

They walked towards the station entrance, the old woman following Sami reluctantly. She walked with great effort, and a pronounced limp that rendered her gait jerky. Sami felt for her, being bounced back and forth across the station like a ping-pong ball for God knew how long. When Sami’s mother had come to see her in February, she had waited an hour for the 43 bus at London Bridge in the snow because someone told her to, not realising that the 43 was on diversion that day, or that London buses never took an hour to arrive.

Eventually her mother had answered her mobile and obeyed Sami’s instruction to get a taxi, she would pay. She had caught a streaming cold that left Sami tormented with guilt.

"Here, let me carry your bag," she said, gesturing to the old woman’s black holdall. Apart from a small handbag strapped across her chest, it was the only thing she carried.

"I’m afraid it’s very heavy," the old woman said.

"It’s not too bad," Sami said, hoisting the holdall onto her shoulder. It was, in fact, surprisingly heavy.

They walked into the daylight, a hundred-metre stretch that took three minutes. People rushed past on either side. The old woman limped slowly beside Sami, dragging her right leg like a nuisance extra weight.

"So, are you flying somewhere?" Sami asked as they walked.

"Berlin," the old woman said, after a pause. "I’m going to see my son in Berlin." "Berlin’s great!" Sami said. "Such a fantastic city. Have you been before?"

Sami had been once, aged sixteen, on a German exchange where she had learnt to smoke rollups and danced badly in hip-hop clubs and bought a pair of algae-green corduroys in Ku-damm, which when she got home her mother said made her look fat, and she had shouted horrible things at her mother and never worn them again.

When she didn’t respond, Sami looked to the old woman, but the effort of walking had exhausted her, and she made several breathless false starts before she said: "Yes, I’ve been to Berlin once. Four years ago."

Sami chastised herself for not realising it would be difficult for the old woman to walk and talk at the same time. She made an encouraging noise that required no response, and tempered her stride.

Inside the station, they gazed up at the black departure boards, eight screens wide, flickering with trains going all over England. The old woman looked at the board and then at Sami. It was as though she were in a foreign country, Sami thought, but she wasn’t, she was just old. Standing close to her, she could smell buttermint on her breath, and lily perfume.

"What time does your flight leave?" she asked.

"Eight o’clock," the old woman said, in a voice that wasn’t quite sure.

"Eight o’clock, and you’re going to Berlin, that’s short-haul and you only have a cabin bag, so you should be fine.’ She really didn’t have much time, Sami thought.

"That’s right, only a cabin bag,’ the old woman said proudly, looking at the holdall on Sami’s arm. "It’s a heavy bag, though." Sami squinted at the departure board. "There’s a train leaving in four minutes," she said. "The 18:01 to Three Bridges. Platform five." She scanned the station. "Just down there."

Alone, Sami could have dashed the distance in thirty seconds. She saw an expression of profound exhaustion cross the old woman’s face.

"We might just make it," Sami said brightly. "And if not, the trains go to Gatwick all the time." They sailed down on the escalator and started making their way to the ticket barriers in the same slow shuffle, the old woman limping behind. "If we don’t make this train, you’ll get the next one," Sami said. She felt a tug of tenderness towards this stranger, who followed her with blind faith, like a child. She strained to think of questions that demanded only short responses. "What’s your name?"

"Betty," the old woman said, eyeing her suspiciously.

"Betty," Sami repeated. "Lovely to meet you." As they walked, her limp seemed to become more pronounced. Sami looked at the station clock: 17:58.

Betty began to speak, sounding tired and frustrated. "I’ve just been going round and round in circles. They sent me this way and that. I’ve been walking around this station for hours." Her breath heaved. She mumbled something.

"I’m sorry?" Sami said.

"Do you work around here, or live here, then?" Betty managed to get out. Sami felt the glow of trust. "Oh yes! I work at City Hall. For the Mayor, you know."

Betty nodded. She did not smile. Sami wondered what she thought of Sadiq Khan, if she even knew who he was. She seemed nice, but even nice old people could be racist as hell.

They shuffled towards the barriers. The station clock said 17:59. Sami was trying to go as fast as she could, but not so fast that Betty would feel panicked, or struggle to breathe.

"Do you have a train ticket?" she asked.

"Oh yes, yes I do," Betty said, triumphant at having accomplished something unaided.

"Great," Sami said. She swiped her phone against the barrier, which instantly sprung open. She looked back through the gate, where Betty was groping around inside her handbag. Sami looked at the clock: 17:59:45.

Sami felt suddenly, desperately anxious. As if it were her flight she might miss. As if she were about to miss a thousand flights, all bound for unmissable events on unknown continents, like funerals, or saying goodbye to the dying.

On the other side of the gate, Betty produced a multi-part plastic wallet with orange train tickets inside. She extracted a ticket and examined it. "Do I just press it there like that?" she asked, copying Sami’s swiping movement, trying to press the cardboard ticket against the yellow pad, as analogue and useless as a Dead Sea scroll.

The futility of the gesture tugged at Sami. She had an image of her mother sitting exasperated in front of her laptop, a gift from Sami and her brother, trying to navigate an indecipherable system of boxes and passwords, full of shame at not understanding; her mother the nurse who knew more about the human body than most doctors, who had guided Sami through the maze of childhood with such moral clarity. A toddler could have done more with that laptop, which had been given in kindness but had come to seem cruel, which in seeking to overcome her mother’s fear of technology had merely reinforced it.

"I can’t," she had said finally.

"You just put it in the slot like this," Sami said to Betty hurriedly, demonstrating the scooping movement with her hands. Betty turned the ticket upside down. "Other way up," Sami said, looking around. 18:00:15.

Betty glared at the ticket. "Oh that’s the return," she said. "Silly me." She fumbled in her raincoat pockets and pulled out another ticket. As she did, it fell from her hands.

"Oh, blast." Pain flickered in the creases of her face as she looked to the floor. A rapid queue gathered behind her, making impatient noises. People sensed difficulty and moved quickly to other gates, gliding through. Sami felt heat rise in her body. "Can you pick up her ticket?" she shouted over the barrier at a young man.

Trembling, Betty took the ticket from his hands and carefully angled it towards the mouth of the machine. The gate opened. They walked towards the escalator. Sami looked at the clock: 18:00:30. She prayed the train would be late. When she had gone down to see her mother, the train had been delayed by ten minutes. Betty sensed her desperation and moved faster. She mumbled something.

"I’m sorry, what did you say?" Sami asked.

"Is he nice to work for? He seems nice."

"Oh the Mayor, you mean? Yes, yes he is. He is nice," she said. "He’s very nice to work for." She thought of all the things she could say to that question if only they had time, and wondered whether the old woman would want to hear them.

The escalator was tantalisingly close. "Betty, I’m going to run ahead," Sami said, not able to bear the pace any longer. "I’ll try to hold the train," she yelled behind her. "Platform five, just over here, OK? That escalator there."

"Yes yes," Betty nodded, looking frightened.

Sami darted across the concourse and took the escalator two steps at a time. "Don’t leave don’t leave," she begged the train. At the top, a few people stood around. The monitor displayed some bland security information, about saying something if you saw something.

"Train to Three Bridges?" she shouted at a station guard in a yellow jacket, knowing already that it was hopeless, over, done.

"Just missed it, I’m afraid, Miss." He gave her a look that said, you young people, always cutting it so fine, this’ll teach you to leave more time.

"Shit," Sami said. "Shit." She had a tremendous sense of a dawning failure, realising the recklessness of her actions. She ran to the top of the escalator. A few seconds later Betty emerged, gripping the side of the escalator with both hands as it crested onto the platform.

Hope was written all over her loose features. Her white tufts of hair were askew, and she was panting.

"We missed it, I’m afraid," Sami said.

Betty’s pink face crumpled in despair.

"I’m so sorry," Sami said, and in that moment she had never been sorrier for anything in her life. "We just didn’t have enough time. But it’s OK, you’ll get the next one." She turned and shouted to the train guard, who was walking into an office on the platform.

"When’s the next train to Gatwick, please?"

Betty stood helpless, her head slightly bowed. The guard walked over. He took in the old woman and his face softened. "Three minutes. Platform ten. You’ll make it if you hurry."

Sami looked around. "But platform ten’s all the way over there," she said accusingly, gesturing over a sea of train tracks. "We’ll never get there." The guard looked at Betty, standing bent and stooped, and his face acknowledged Sami was right.

"Can you call them and tell them to hold the train?" Sami said.

He shook his head. "Sorry love, they won’t do that."

"When’s the one after?" she asked.

"Just one second." The guard took out a hand-held machine. He had eagle-like facial proportions, dark brows that slanted inwards over a beaky nose. The bow in his top lip was so sharp as to appear carved with a knife. "Six thirty-four, platform five. The driver’ll make an unofficial stop at Gatwick. It’s not on the board, but he will stop."

Betty looked at Sami for guidance.

"It’s definitely stopping at Gatwick? You’re sure?" Sami asked the guard.

"Yes," he said. "But it takes forty-five minutes. What time you got to be at the airport, ma’am?"

"Forty-five minutes? No way," Sami said. "No way. Oh God." She had deceived this old woman into rushing across the station with the promise of a train, or if not this one, then the next, but the next would be too late. She tried to beat back rage, the same hideous rage she felt when her mother failed to do things. Her slowness made Sami desperately sad, but anger was easier.

"Well, I did think it was eight o’clock." Betty pulled a plastic sleeve from her handbag and extracted a sheaf of black-and-white printouts stamped with easyJet logos. "Let me check what time the flight goes out," she said. "Maybe I’ve got it wrong."

Sami peered over at the printout in Betty’s wrinkled, veiny hands. Gate closes: 7.25pm. Departure time: 7.55pm.

"It’s not enough time," Sami said desperately, gesturing to the printouts. "She’d only have five minutes to get through the airport. She’ll never make it." She realised she was speaking about Betty as though she were not there. It pissed her off when others did that, to people in wheelchairs, especially. The old woman could be a physics professor, for all she knew. She turned to her. "I’m so sorry. It’s just, you won’t get through the airport."

Betty took off her bottle-top glasses and sighed. Without their structuring force, her face seemed to sag and droop. "It’s my son," she said, shaking her head. "He’ll be so angry."

"I’m sure he won’t," Sami said. "He won’t be angry." The holdall weighed heavy on her shoulder.

"He will," Betty said. "He’ll be so angry with me." Something in her posture seemed to sink a few degrees.

Sami felt herself go into emergency mode, into whatever-it-takes mode. She had never missed a flight, despite coming close several times. Once, going to see an ex-boyfriend in Italy, she had been rushed out onto the tarmac by an airport worker who said with relish that if the pilot had closed the cabin door she was a gonner. Somehow, she could always make things happen by the sheer force of her will, or by throwing money at the issue. She opened a travel app on her phone.

Betty looked down at the papers and shook her head. "My son’ll be so angry," she said. "I was supposed to go to Berlin yesterday, see, I came all the way to the station, but I missed the train. Well, they cancelled it," she corrected herself. "Southern Rail, they cancelled it. I’ve walked so many miles around this station. I just don’t think I can walk any more."

Sami looked at her phone. "All right, listen. We’ll go to Victoria and get the Gatwick Express," she said. "You should just make it."

Betty shook her head. "I can’t," she said, and there was a firmness in her voice almost approaching relief. "I just can’t. I can’t do any more travelling."

The guard looked genuinely sorry.

Shame welled up in Sami and threatened to burst out of her eyeballs. "I’ll get you a taxi," she said, thinking how her boyfriend complained that she spent money like water, and got too involved in other people’s problems. A taxi to Gatwick couldn’t be more than sixty pounds. She’d find a way to justify it.

Betty looked surprised. "No no," she said. "You can’t do that." She waved the papers. "You see, I tried to go to the airport yesterday," she said. "But Southern, they cancelled the train. And I’ve walked so much today, with that heavy bag. I just can’t walk any more."

Sami had opened a taxi app on her phone. "I’d get you a taxi but it’s saying two hours," she said, despairing. "Friday night traffic. You’d be no better off."

"It’s all right," Betty said. "It’s just my son, he’s going to be so angry with me."

"I’m sure he won’t," Sami said.

"Oh, he will," Betty said. "He’ll be so angry."

Sami could not bear the idea of this old woman being shouted at. She wanted to shake her son, to explain that it was her fault that Betty had missed her flight, or the fault of this succession of strangers who had failed her, in a station where no one could find their way.

"Do you want me to call him?" Sami said, realising how intrusive it sounded.

Betty didn’t seem to mind. "Oh no. No no. I’m to blame. I thought I’d left plenty of time, but I got so lost, you see. Miles, I’ve been walking around these stations today."

"What are you going to do?" Sami asked.

"I’ll have to go home, I suppose," Betty said. Then, firmer: "I just can’t do any more travelling."

It occurred to Sami that perhaps Betty had never really believed she would make the flight. Sami made every flight, however late she was, but that was just the bravado of youth, and one day she would be as old as this woman, and society would rush forwards with its young people catching trains and flights to Berlin, and she would be stranded on a platform, waiting.

The guard looked at them questioningly.

"I’ll get that one, then," Betty said, with a glimmer of renewed energy. "It’s worth a try."

"The six thirty-four?" the guard asked.

"Yes, that one."

"Are you sure?" Sami asked. She did not want Betty to go all the way to Gatwick only to miss the plane, forcing her to walk further with her heavy bag. She would be sent back to London Bridge, and she would have to find someone to help her all over again. It would be late and dark. The effort would be shattering. But then again, what if she made it?

"OK," Sami said. "OK, so, Betty, you just need to stay on this platform, and when you get on the train they might not announce Gatwick because it’s an unscheduled stop, but it will stop, and when you get to the airport you find the airline person and tell them to rush you through, OK? You say your flight’s about to leave and they have to rush you straight to the gate, you don’t have baggage, you might just make it. You tell them, OK?"

"All right," Betty said, standing a little straighter. "All right."

She would never make it, Sami thought. But maybe, just maybe, the flight would be delayed. And maybe she would find someone kind to help her. Then, even though this train was nowhere near fast enough, she might get to Berlin.

Sami had a vision of visiting the Kindertransport Museum with her mother in Vienna the year before. Eight decades earlier, Sami’s grandmother had been put on a train out of Poland to escape the Nazis. In the Vienna museum, she and her mother had stared at a photo of a Jewish child gazing earnestly into the camera, a crumpled sign pinned to her dress, reading: "My name is Margot. I am five years old. Please be good to me." There were thousands of Margots. Just children, packed onto trains fleeing the death camps, resting their hopes on an unscheduled stop.

"Aren’t you going with her?" the guard asked.

"Oh we don’t know each other," Betty said. "She’s just been helping me. She’s carried my bag and everything." She looked at Sami in mild disbelief.

"Do you want me to come with you?" Sami asked. She was tired, but she could go to the airport, it would be better than Betty having to miss her flight alone. "I’m coming with you."

"Oh no, no, thank you," Betty said.

"Are you sure?" Sami asked. With embarrassment, she realised she had begun to cry.

Betty looked at her in surprise. The guard cleared his throat.

"OK then," Sami said, touching her arm as she turned away. "Bye. Good luck." She was walking back towards the escalator when she heard a voice call out: "What’s your name?" and she turned, but her answer was drowned into oblivion by the noise of an express train rushing through the platform, lifting an old woman’s white hair into the air, moving so fast it would never stop.