Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Egg (short story)

At 8:17 am on the twenty-third of July 2010, Marcus McGinn was sitting on a southbound Bakerloo line train that had just stopped at Embankment station. He was on his usual morning journey to Tranquil Mind Insurance, based in Elephant and Castle, where he worked as a junior broker. The train was crowded, as it always was at this time of the morning, but a number of people disembarked at Embankment and the seat to the right of McGinn became vacant. Some more people boarded the carriage, including a man of indeterminate age with matted hair and straggly beard who was dressed in filthy rags. This man took the seat to the right of McGinn. A number of passengers glanced at the man with obvious distaste and quickly looked away again. The door closed and the train pulled out of the station. At this moment, the man shifted in his seat and McGinn caught a whiff of an unspeakable odour emanating from this unsavoury man. McGinn hastily pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket and, unable to control himself, retched into the little monogrammed square of pale blue cotton. As he did so, the fried egg he had consumed that morning for breakfast landed in the handkerchief. Although it was true that he had got up a little later that morning than usual and, being in a hurry, had quickly wolfed down his breakfast with little ceremony, he certainly did not think that he had swallowed his egg whole without cutting or even chewing it – but there it was, nestling in his handkerchief, looking just as if it had come fresh from the frying pan! Horrified, McGinn hastily attempted to conceal the egg, wrapping it in the kerchief, which he now clutched gently in his left hand. He wondered if anyone else had noticed it; he felt sure that some of them must have done, but did not dare to make eye contact with any of the other passengers in order to find out. He knew that his face had turned crimson to the very tips of his ears. He suddenly became aware of how hot it was on the carriage and felt a drop of sweat trickle down his right armpit. McGinn continued to avoid any eye contact and attempted to look as nonchalant as possible, but he was convinced that everyone in the carriage – even the man who had caused him to retch in the first place – were now staring at him with a mixture of disgust and contempt.
     After what seemed like an eternity, the train finally pulled into Waterloo. McGinn normally would have travelled on to Elephant and Castle but, unable to bear the idea of remaining on the carriage under such circumstances for a second longer than necessary, he quickly bolted out of the door. Still clutching the egg, McGinn decided to head for the exit and find somewhere to dispose of it as quickly as possible. He would be a little late for work, of course, but his timekeeping was normally good enough that he felt he would be easily forgiven.
     McGinn turned a corner, nearly colliding with a young woman in a suit, and walked up the escalator quickly. There were people everywhere and McGinn wondered how he would be able to get rid of the egg unobserved. Reaching ground level, he remembered that, as a precaution against the planting of bombs, there were no bins inside Waterloo station. He looked around for inspiration but he could not shake the feeling that people were looking at him strangely; certainly, he was looking anxious and sweating more than was normal, even for rush hour during this time of year. And he was terrified that someone might see him furtively discarding the fried egg he carried in his handkerchief – how could anyone possibly explain such a thing? McGinn decided that his best option would be to walk to work from Waterloo; he was sure he would find a bin on the way in which he could casually ditch the egg and be free to carry on about his business as if nothing had happened.
     Exiting the station, he stepped out into a beautiful sunny morning where men and women hurried to and fro on their way to work, many of them clutching their morning coffee or yakking away down mobile phones. Everyone got in everyone else's way as they plunged along the pavement towards each other as if going into battle. The first bin that McGinn came across was situated at a bus top. A number of people stood there looking as if they had very little hope that a bus would ever turn up. Worried that one or more of these people would see what he was up to, McGinn decided to keep searching. Grease from the egg had by now well and truly soaked into the handkerchief and was making a runny mess of McGinn’s left hand. He could not let this go on much longer.
     At last, he saw another bin standing on a corner on the other side of the road. Dodging the traffic, he ran across and was nearly there when a garbage disposal man in a high-visibility vest appeared as if from nowhere, lifted the bin from its base with well-practised ease and began walking with it to the dustcart that was now making its way slowly towards him. Thwarted once more, McGinn continued on his way. As he walked quickly on, he heard a voice call his name from behind. Startled, he looked back to see a woman smiling and running to catch up with him. It was Cynthia from the office! McGinn liked Cynthia and had been considering asking her out. If she caught him with the egg, not only would that option be out of the window, but he would surely become a laughing stock at the office! McGinn had to think fast. He could hardly run away from Cynthia now that she knew he had seen her, so he stopped to let her catch up and then asked her for the time. She replied that it was 8:46. McGinn, feigning surprise, said that he had an urgent call to make before going to work and asked if she would be kind enough to let them know at the office that he would be a few minutes late. He then walked quickly off up the nearest side street with no purpose other than to get away from Cynthia in order to dispose of his egg in peace.
     Every time McGinn was about to ditch the egg he would notice someone nearby and have to give it up. He hated London. It was almost impossible to be alone here for a second. He was just reaching a peak of self-pitying frustration when he spied a little alleyway which he felt sure would be deserted; with renewed optimism and a sudden surge of relief, he strode towards the alley and entered. He had hardly gone two paces when a large, powerfully built man with a shaven head and heavily tattooed arms appeared from behind an empty oil drum and stepped out in front of McGinn. He smiled at McGinn as if sorry to inconvenience him and said softly, “Where do you think you’re going?” McGinn made no reply. The man then said, “Your wallet.” At this point, something strange happened. McGinn, without deciding that he was going to do such a thing, found himself with his right hand around the man’s throat and his left hand pushing the fried egg into the man’s face. Taken by surprise, the large man let out a cry of disgust and fell back. McGinn let go and watched the man trying to wipe the egg from his eyes. McGinn felt strangely detached from the scene before him but, after a couple of seconds, he came to his senses, turned around and made a run for it. He was not pursued.
     On his way to the office, McGinn dropped into a coffee shop that he often went to and used the gents. He scrubbed his hands as thoroughly as possible, trying to remove all trace of the egg. When he arrived at the office, he was twenty minutes late. He washed his hands again, but was unable to rid himself of the smell of fried egg for the rest of the day.

© 2011 Martin Dowsing. All rights reserved.

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