Something Untoward: A short story by Sophie Hannah

Something Untoward: A short story by Sophie Hannah

I hope the man sitting beside me is staring at my boobs, because if he isn’t, that means he’s staring at my book, which, today, would embarrass me more.  I’m used to sweaty creeps on the tube ogling my chest, less used to well-groomed professionals gawping at the book I’m reading in a way that makes me feel I’m doing something wrong.

Which I’m not.  I can read whatever I want, on the tube or anywhere else, and this is neither porn nor a collection of bomb recipes.  The title of my book – and it’s really no big deal – is If You Had Controlling Parents: How To Make Peace With Your Past And Take Your Place In The World.  For all the man next to me knows, I could be a family therapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology like the book’s author, Dan Neuharth, Ph.D.  I could be reading it for professional reasons.  Why doesn’t he get over it and concentrate on his own book?  A paperback lies closed on his knees: Heartstone by C J Sansom.  
 
This is ridiculous.  I can’t concentrate.  I turn to face him, hoping to shame him into turning away, but he seems not to notice.  Now that I’m looking directly at him, I can confirm that it’s definitely my book that has him so transfixed, not my cleavage.  Should I say something? ‘Do you mind?’ Or would that put me more in the wrong than him?  Do I have a right to object to him reading over my shoulder, given that he isn’t preventing me from reading?  Although, actually, he is; I can’t focus on anything but him. Maybe I should try a more snide, passive-aggressive retaliation: move the book closer to him and ask him to hold one side of it.  
 
I am angry with him for putting me in this position, but not embarrassed any more.  If an ordinary suit-wearing man on the tube is so interested in If You Had Controlling Parents that he’s willing to be this blatant, that has to mean it’s an acceptable book to read.  I should stop feeling squeamish about reading it in a public place.
 
The tube stops at Goodge Street.  I sigh pointedly, and stare out of the window at the jostling crowd.  I see a red sleeve, a hand waving.  At me?  Oh, my God.  It’s my mother.
 
Panic floods my body.  How can she be here?  Can’t waste time wondering.  In less than a minute she’ll be inside the carriage.  She’ll see my book.  Several thought pass through my mind so quickly that I’m not sure ‘thoughts’ is the right word.  They’re more like flashes: bag too small to stuff book into, can’t drop on floor in case someone picks it up and hands it back to me…
 
I can’t see Mum anymore.  Yes, I can.  Shit, she’s moved quicker than I thought she would.  She’s at the doors.  I have one option, as far as I can see, and I don’t care if it’s rude; he’s asked for it.  I turn to the man beside me and say quietly, ‘Swap books.  No time to explain.’  I hand him mine and take Heartstone by CJ Sansom from his lap. 
 
If he objects, he shows no sign of it. He seems neither disturbed by nor curious about my behaviour, which unsettles me. Thanks to my mother, from whose house I escaped long ago but from whose mind-control I will probably never escape, I am accustomed to my every independent action being met with a furore.  It rarely happens that I do a thing and there is no comeback: no interrogation, no emotional explosion.
 
I have this man’s book in my hands.  I took it without permission. Why doesn’t he mind?
 
And...I’m an idiot.  Why did I say ‘swap’?  I could have just given him my book.  He could have been a man on the tube with two books; Mum wouldn’t have suspected a thing.  
 
‘Hello, stranger,’ she says as she pushes through the carriage towards me.  I saw her last week and phoned her two days ago.  That’s her definition of estrangement.  ‘What’s that book you’re reading?  Looks a bit highbrow for you!  Where are you going?’
 
It’s not too highbrow for me.  It’s none of your business where I’m going.
 
From what little I managed to read of If You Had Controlling Parents before I was interrupted, I know that there are eight different styles of unhealthy parental control: smothering, depriving, perfectionistic, cult-like, chaotic, using, abusing, childlike. Mum is equal parts smothering and using, I think, with a dash of depriving.  According to Dan Neuharth PhD, it’s rare for a controlling parent to limit him- or herself to only one style.
 
I agree with Mum that, yes, Heartstone is probably too highbrow for me, and tell her I’m going to a seminar on digital publishing.  As I say all this, I’m watching out of the corner of my eye as the man next to me flicks through my book at great speed, as if keen to take in as much as possible before he has to give it back. Perhaps he too has a controlling parent.  
 
‘I thought your seminar was in Hammersmith,’ Mum says, eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘That’s what you told me. I’m sure you said Hammersmith. Which means you’re on the wrong tube.’
 
Mentally, I kick myself.  She thinks I’ve lied to her. She’s right. And wrong. My seminar is near Waterloo, but I did tell her Hammersmith, for no reason other than to feed her false information about my day-to-day life. Because she regards it as her right to know where I am, always, I like to pretend to her that I’m in places where I’m not.
 
The man next to me hasn’t turned the page for a few seconds. He’s fixated on the ten signs. I don’t blame him. It’s a highlight of the book – well, the section of the book that I’ve read so far.  Ten signs that you may have had controlling parents: did they overscrutinise your eating, appearance, hobbies or social life? Did they pressure you with perfectionistic expectations or unattainable standards? Did they forbid you to question or disagree with them? Discourage you from expressing anger, fear or sadness around them? Violate your privacy? Did they intimidate, manipulate or overpower you?  Did they discourage you from experimenting and thinking for yourself? Give you no say in household rules and responsibilities? Seem unaware of the pain they caused you? Were they unwilling to admit they were wrong?
 
I tear my eyes away from the man who cannot tear his away from my book, and force myself to look at Mum. I expect to see outrage and impatience on her face.  Why am I not rushing to explain myself, she must be wondering.  Is the seminar in Hammersmith, and, if so, why am on the Northern Line heading south?  I open my mouth to tell a lie that will draw all my previous lies into a seamless, unchallengeable narrative of great elegance and falsehood, but I stop after the first two words. Mum has lost interest in me. She’s staring at the man next to me - at his book, which is my book , though of course Mum doesn’t know this. I think to myself, I’ve waited forty-two years for this: to go unnoticed by her, even if only for a moment.
 
But...why is she staring at him like that? He hasn’t noticed; my book has become his whole world. He’s hunched over it, as if he wants to get as close to the text as possible. Then Mum clears her throat loudly. He looks up, catches her eye, then turns away. 
 
This makes no sense. Why did he respond to the noise she made? And now he’s looking almost guilty. I pray he won’t make it too obvious that something untoward is going on between us.  We are in a conspiracy against my mother, this man and I. This might be enough to make me start fantasising about marrying him, except I haven’t actually studied his face properly; there hasn’t really been an opportunity. Actually, I don’t care what he looks like, as long as he hates my mother.
 
Did Mum want to break his concentration?  She would obviously disapprove of anybody reading a self-help book – ‘I don’t see why people can’t just pull themselves together and get on with it’ – but her attempts to over-control don’t normally extend beyond me, my father and my brother. The boundaries of our minds and lives have always marked out the full extent of her empire, and she’s been content to leave it at that.  
 
Is it possible that she knows, somehow, that If You Had Controlling Parents is my book? Can she sense it? Did I look at the man next to me once too often?  No, that’s crazy. No one, not even Mum, would guess that I stole a stranger’s book and forced mine on him. Besides, she wouldn’t think the Dan Neuharth book would interest me. According to her world view, I come from a happy family and am the very last person who would have any need for a book about harmful parenting. Suspecting me would mean suspecting herself, which she would never do. 
 
The man stands up suddenly and makes for the double doors at the end of the carriage. The train is pulling into Embankment station. I want to scream at him, Where the hell do you think you’re going? Give me back my book! This is unbelievable. This is theft. If he gets off the tube with my book, he’s a thief. I could go to the police. And what about Heartstone by CJ Sansom, the book that Mum thinks is too highbrow for me? Doesn’t he care about leaving it behind?
 
There is nothing I can do.  He’s standing by the doors, ready to get off.  He’s banking on my letting him get away with it. Sod it.  If he wants the book that much, let him keep it. 
 
As the flurry of outrage and bewilderment in my mind begins to clear, I become aware of Mum once more. She looks at me apologetically – something that has never happened before.  Then she stands up and calls out across the carriage, ‘Where exactly do you think you’re going?’
 
It’s clear who she’s talking to.
 
This is too weird.  The impossible is happening.  What the hell is going on?
 
The man ignores her.  He doesn’t turn his head. When the doors open at Embankment, he gets off the tube.  Without a word of explanation or a goodbye, Mum runs after him. 
 
I’m too slow. I want to follow them, but as I reach the doors, they close. The train starts to move. As I slide away from them, I see that Mum and the man who has my book are standing on the platform, shouting at each other.  About what?  I am on his side, whatever his side might be.
 
I fall into the nearest free seat. I do not get off the train at Waterloo. Life doesn’t make sense any more; there seems little point in attending a seminar on digital publishing. I open Heartstone because I can’t think of anything else to do, and find myself staring at a photograph that’s been wedged in between the pages. A photograph of me. I turn it over and find my address written on the back. There’s nothing else here apart from the book itself and a small business card that seems to belong to a private investigations agency. The name ‘David Coombe’ is printed in small letters in the bottom right hand corner.
 
Was that him? Did David Coombe just get off the tube with my book? 
 
A private detective.  I am not as shocked as you might expect me to be. I have formal confirmation of what I have known for ever; nothing else has changed. Mum didn’t trust him, clearly. She turned up to check he was doing his job properly. Ever the control freak.
If I hadn’t been reading that book, David Coombe would have followed me to Waterloo, and beyond.  He would have reported back to Mum that I attended a digital publishing seminar.
 
I approve of David Coombe. I don’t think it’s extravagant to hope that, by now, he approves of me too. As it is, I can go wherever I want to today.  I think I’ll probably go home. On my way, I’ll nip into West End Lane Books in West Hampstead and order another copy of If You Had Controlling Parents, since there is really no ‘if’ about it.
 
 
 
Sophie Hannah's Kind of Cruel is out now, published by Hodder.