It was on the Northern Line, between Tottenham Court Road and Leicester Square, that Lucinda felt an overwhelming urge to lick the ear of the man standing in front of her. She couldn’t see his face but he had a beautiful ear; well-proportioned, clean, hairless. There was just a trace of stubble at the edge of his jaw, like sea sand. His jawline was defined, decisive. She liked a firm jaw on a man, though Charlie’s had been misleading. She had always been the decisive one, although tonight she wished she’d made up her mind to start for home sooner; before the evening rush hour began. All of the men in the carriage seemed so young in their dark suits, younger than her sons even. They reminded her of sixth formers she had taught – men, but bashful in their man-sized clothes, unaccustomed to the authority in their own voices. The man with the ear shifted in front of her as he turned the page of his newspaper.
Excuse me, young man, would you mind if I licked your ear? It’s just that it’s such a good-looking ear. Lucinda smiled to herself and then tried not to. People would think she was mad, smiling at nothing. She wouldn’t have to move much at all to reach his ear. Their bodies were already pressed together. She would just lean her head forward and stretch upwards a little bit. She would open her mouth, place her tongue underneath the lobe, close her lips over it and then gently rake the front of it with her teeth. She wet her lips – she had the feel of it in her mouth already. She became afraid that the urge would overwhelm her and that she might actually do it. It would be awful to see the revulsion in his eyes, the shock of the other people in the carriage. She could imagine how Charlie would laugh at that story.
She had met Charlie at a picnic on Hampstead Heath in the summer of 1971. Her friends had gone for a walk and she had stayed behind to enjoy the sun and read her book. He was sitting with another group a short distance away. She had noticed him earlier: the clean lines of his jaw, his smile, his athletic build. She wasn’t sure how old he was though – too old to notice her perhaps. She was nineteen and still felt like a schoolgirl.
She caught his eye and smiled in a neutral way – friendly but not flirtatious. He smiled back then ambled over.
“What are you reading?”
The sun was behind him. As a child Lucinda used to dream that she was looking for something important but she couldn’t see clearly enough to find it – as though she had just woken up and her eyes wouldn’t open properly, however hard she rubbed them. She had that feeling now; squinting into the sun, knowing that it was vital that she see his face but not quite able to.
“Jane Eyre,” she said and then, thankfully, he moved so he was blocking the sun with his body.
“Ah – Mr Rochester, dark and brooding – is that your type then?” His hair was blonde but he was still smiling – teasing her.
“Preferably without the mad wife hidden in the attic.”
“Yes, the mad wife always gets in the way. I’m Charlie,” he said.
“Lucinda. Nice to meet you, Charlie.”
“You didn’t want to go for a walk then with your friends?”
“I’d just got to the exciting bit.”
“But, you’ve read it before?”
“Yes, but I’m always holding my breath, just in case she doesn’t find him,” she smiled so he would know she wasn’t taking herself too seriously.
“Shall I leave you to it then?”
“No, stay – I’m sure she’ll find him, she doesn’t need my help.” She shifted slightly to the side to make some space. He sat down on the blanket beside her.
“So what do you do, Lucinda, when you’re not reading Jane Eyre?”
“Nothing, I just read Jane Eyre over and over. Although I do alternate with Pride and Prejudice obviously, as you do.”
“As you do.”
“I’m studying to be a teacher actually.”
“Planning on indoctrinating a whole new generation into the delights of Bronte and Austen?”
“Absolutely. What about you? What do you do when you’re not having picnics and deriding the classics?”
“I work in the City, in finance – not very exciting but it pays for the mad wife in the attic.”
He was very easy to talk to and he seemed intelligent. She liked that he’d read the same books as her even though he teased her about them. And he understood her sense of humour – he didn’t look at her strangely like some other boys did. They talked until her friends returned. She was short with them, engrossed in her conversation. The friends smiled and whispered pointedly at them. She felt a little intoxicated by this mutual fascination. She wanted her friends to notice it. The warmth of the day was retreating with the sun. Lucinda’s friends packed up their picnics and stood about looking awkward.
“You go on, I’ll catch up with you.” said Lucinda. Charlie’s friends had already left.
“You don’t have pierced ears.” He observed, brushing her earlobe with his finger.
“No, I didn’t ever get around to it.” She was embarrassed about him looking at her ears – they always seemed awkward things to her, she didn’t like to draw attention to them.
“Now I should be an earring model, I’ve got space for five or six pairs.” Charlie indicated his own ears.
“Gosh, those are impressive lobes.”
“I’m part Basset Hound.”
“Yes I can see that, do you think they enhance your hearing?
“Definitely. And with my super-ears I hear the sound of coffee brewing somewhere over the hill. Shall we go and look for it?”
The train pulled into Leicester Square station and disgorged a small proportion of travellers. Twice the number attempted to cram into an imagined space. Lucinda, grasping an overhead rail, was pushed closer to the young man’s back.
She remembered clearly the moment she had noticed that Alistair had Charlie’s ears. He was about three, she was towelling him after his bath and suddenly she had seen that his earlobes were proportionally long. In that moment it was as though a small miracle had taken place. Charlie’s ear, perfectly reproduced in miniature – cloned. He resembled Charlie in other ways but nothing so direct, so pure. When James was born, two years later, she spotted them almost immediately – the same ears. And she pointed them out to the midwife and to Charlie. As the boys were growing up she would rub their earlobes between her fingers sometimes as they passed her; intent on boyish crusades.
Lucinda wished, again, that she had started home a little earlier to avoid this crush, but she had lingered – lost in memory.
It was pancreatic cancer, not strangulation by earlobe as he Charlie had predicted, that eventually separated them. It was quick, relatively speaking. There were no false hopes of remissions and second chances.
“You’ll make sure I’m cremated.” Charlie had said.
“Yes, I know.” They spoke of his death often without ever actually saying goodbye to one another.
“Otherwise my ears might keep growing in my coffin, awful thought. I could donate them to science I suppose, or an ear museum? I can’t decide. You listening?”
“I’m listening, I’m listening,” she said and leaned over him, pulled his hospital gown aside and pressed her ear to his corrugated chest. He coughed weakly. She rested her head for a while, his hand in her hair. When she finally pulled away there was a neat imprint of her ear indented into his skin.
“You have an ear print on your chest,” she said. He didn’t respond – his gaze was fixed in the middle-distance, but she couldn’t see the thing he was looking at. So this was it. She didn’t want to be melodramatic, it’s not like it was a surprise. In some ways she was glad that he went first. Not like this, of course she would not have wished this on him. But she knew that if it had been her, he would not have coped. She was good at coping. She pushed the button to call the nurse.
“Excuse me,” she said, “I think…I think he’s gone.” The nurse took over – practiced in the administration of death.
She would still have the same dream sometimes, of not being able to see, but there was a new element. She would find a contact lens but it would be too big to put in her eye; the size of a Frisbee or a dinner plate. Firstly she would try to put the whole thing in her eye, which wouldn’t work. Then she would try to tear off a small piece very carefully that might just fit; desperate to find that thing she was looking for.
Lucinda had wondered when she’d left home that morning, if she should phone James and Alistair and tell them where she was going. But she had been embarrassed. Scattering Charlie’s ashes on Hampstead Heath felt a little sentimental; something that would happen in a Hollywood movie. She was not generally a sentimental person but she didn’t know what else to do. They’d already had a memorial service. Having Charlie’s charred remains lurking in a corner of the living room seemed macabre, or the back of a cupboard – even worse. Hampstead Heath felt appropriate but when she arrived there she had been furtive and uncomfortable, waiting for someone to come and tell her that scattering ashes was not permitted in city parks. She’d found a quiet corner and sprinkled him on the grass, feeling a little absurd. It had been a mistake to go alone.
She’d felt she should say something but, “Goodbye. Goodbye, Charlie,” was all she could manage.
The train lurched to the left and Lucinda leaned forward quickly and licked the man’s ear. He put his hand over his ear and his head made an involuntary movement in her direction, as though he might look at her, but then he didn’t make eye contact. Nobody else appeared to have noticed anything. And Lucinda was suddenly swallowed by grief – taken by surprise once again by its strange ebb and flow. Charlie was gone. She was alone. A small shrieking sob escaped her throat and she tried to cover it up with a cough. Several heads turned towards her then. She swallowed hard and focused on willing the tears away. Just two escaped and she was able to wipe them away inconspicuously while tucking a strand of white hair behind her ear. The moisture in her eyes clarified her vision, brought the carriage into focus with its squash of sullen commuters. The young man finally looked directly at her, his hand still covering his ear. His face was unattractive, flaring nostrils – she had always found an excess of nostril repugnant.
The man with the ear and the nostrils got off at the next stop. She thought about how she would tell Charlie about this when she got home, then caught herself. Don’t do that. She clutched her arms across her chest. The empty urn concealed in her bag felt lumpy and awkward – like her grief.
Copyright Rebecca Rouillard 2011