The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, part four: 'Aware of a strange, almost physical hurt, it felt like a big punch in the stomach'

Author - Ruth ThomasAuthor - Ruth Thomas
Author - Ruth Thomas
In the fourth of six extracts from The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas, Sybil meets her nemesis.

It had a depressingly trivial cause, as arguments often do: I’d suggested, as we were washing up the previous night’s dishes, that it might save space in our tiny kitchen if we stacked all our saucepans under the sink with their lids inverted. And Simon had said actually, no, you should always hang saucepans by their handles from a rack above the cooker.

‘If you stack them,’ he explained, ‘you have to dismantle the entire stack to use them, and no proper cook does that!’‘Oh, really! So are you saying I’m not a proper cook?’‘Well, to be honest, you are pretty crap at cooking!’ He stared glumly down at the draining rack. ‘Also, I was going to let this go, but why did you use my rice steamer to steam fish in last night?’‘What?’ I said, blushing – because he was right, I had used his rice steamer to steam fish in, the previous night.‘The whole thing reeks of cod now!’ he said. ‘I’ll have to throw it out and get another one!’

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And somehow, within about 50 seconds of my quite casual remark about saucepan storage, our disagreement had escalated into something a lot worse: something intense and loud and hurtful.‘It’s clear to me you have no real interest in food!’ Simon was saying now. ‘I mean, all your cooking seems to be variations on a theme of tomato sauce!’‘Hah! Well, that’s because I don’t want to spend half my life fluffing wild rice!’ I yelled back, aware of a strange, almost physical hurt – it felt like a big punch in the stomach.We glared at each other. It was as if neither of us could imagine what we’d ever once admired. Then, sad and rattled at this new depressing turn in our relationship, I picked up mycoat and keys and barged down the hallway out of the flat.‘Don’t wait up!’ I yelled (even though it was only three in the afternoon) and I slammed the door and hiked off up the road.

The Snow and the Works on the Northern LineThe Snow and the Works on the Northern Line
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line

I headed to the tube station, walking fast but directionless, aware of myself gulping at the air like a fish. By the time I was through the ticket barrier I already felt contrite, depleted, but despite this I carried on, heading all the way into town on the Northern Line, all the way up to King’s Cross and out again onto the Caledonian Road, then up to the British Library, for some reason – and it was at this point, in the gathering gloom, that I first bumped into Helen.

‘Sybil!’ a voice called to me across the wet, paving-slabbed courtyard.

And I turned, and there she was: this woman, waving, beside the statue of Sir Isaac Newton. It took me a second, maybe two, to recognise her, to comprehend why I knew this impressive looking person with the big smile and the blonde hair and the smart coat. Then, when I did realise, I felt something happen to my heart: a kind of jump, a sort of lurching.Helen had already abandoned Sir Isaac Newton and his set of compasses by this point, and started walking across the square towards me. It was raining slightly and she was holding a navy blue umbrella – one of those big expensive ones that does not immediately buckle in the wind, unlike the flimsy telescopic things I was always buying.‘Come under my brolly,’ she instructed, and I did.

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I did as I was told. And I saw that she had hardly changed at all. Her hair was the same, and her smile was the same, and even the coat was like the one she’d worn around the corridors of UCL – although this one was new and even more expensive-looking. Also, she still had a very sassy walk and a confidence that seemed to flatten everything in its path.

We smiled a little over-enthusiastically and gave each other a hug beneath the spokes of her huge umbrella and went into the library through the heavy glass doors. We bought two coffees in paper cups and sat down at one of the round white tables in the foyer, even though by now I was already wanting to go back home to Simon, to apologise, to be apologised to.‘So tell me what you’ve been up to all this time, since our cosy tutorial-group days!’ Helen said, but I had begun to feel strangely pinioned by this point because I suddenly remembered just how un-cosy our tutorial-group days had been, and how much effort Helen had put into trying to scupper my 2:1.

A disappointing collection of un-referenced and historically inaccurate theories, she’d called my dissertation (I found out later), though oddly she’d been in the minority with this opinion because it had been contested that summer by the head of department, who’d described it as: A diverting and audacious comparison between the myths of Classical Literature and the facts of prehistory. (He’d said this during an exam board meeting, and it was his opinion which had won the day. Even though, secretly, I suspected Helenhad probably been right all along.)‘I mean,’ Helen went on brightly, smiling across the table at me, ‘where has life taken you, Sybil?’‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I hardly know where to start, Helen. Because seven years is a long time.’‘It is, isn’t it...’

Tomorrow: What Helen did next

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, by Ruth Thomas, published in paperback by Sandstone, priced £8.99

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