The banshee was waiting for me at the bottom of the escalator in Tottenham Court Road tube station. If I’d known what she was, I’d have run a mile. But I didn’t.
The tube station was packed with commuters, heads down and charging for the platforms, shoving aside anyone who got in their way. Still damp from the November night and blinking in the station’s light they funnelled towards the escalators nudging and shuffling forward. Pressed together, there was something comforting in our shared heat and wisps of steam rose to the vaulted ceiling.
Amongst the commuters were squeezed crowds of babbling Italian children, each one carrying a backpack bearing the logo of a language school. Small groups of tourists, neat Japanese and badly dressed Americans, stopped in all the wrong places and looked hopefully upwards, perhaps hoping for the hand of god to direct them to The British Museum or Leicester Square.
I was one of the commuters. I tutted at the tourists and glared at the Italian kids, and I played the eye contact game as I rode down the escalator. I shifted my gaze along the lines of those riding up the other escalator, looking for a pretty girl, any girl, and trying to catch her eye. I liked making contact, maybe getting a smile. I’d never try and follow it up, I just loved the little thrill it brought.
No one looked up tonight. There was no thrill.
The escalator at Tottenham Court road ends in a hall in which the crowd divides. Some dive down further into the hell of the Northern Line. The rest go straight on to the Central Line. There is a tight press here, crowds grunting and struggling from the open space of the hall into the tight tunnels that lead to the trains. Eyes narrow. Teeth are bared. People become cruel in this space.
I was almost through the hall and into the tunnel leading to the Central Line before I noticed the old woman staring at me. She was leaning against the dirty cream tiles of the tube station’s walls between a poster for Les Miserables and one for female sanitary products.
I assumed, at first, that she was one of those Romanian beggars who seem to have taken over all the best spots on the Underground. Her black shawl, rough skirt and age-lined face made her seem like a refugee from something.
“This one is for you,” her voice was a thick Dublin brogue. Her eyes were fixed on mine. She pressed the play button on a portable stereo and started to sing.
The song was Have I Told You Lately That I Love You? It was the song Nuala and I danced to at our wedding. We chose it because it was next to our song, Brown Eyed Girl, on a Van Morrison album I owned and was slow enough so that we could shuffle together around a dancefloor to it.
The banshee didn’t sound like Van Morrison. She crooned in the style of a Vegas cabaret act but her voice was high-pitched and warbling, like Whitney Houston on helium. I stopped and, like a tourist, stood and stared. I ignored the tuts and glares and shoves from my fellow commuters.
She didn’t sing the whole song, just the first verse and the chorus twice. Then the song just kind of petered out, as though she’d forgotten the words but the taped music seemed to splutter and fade as her voice died.
We stared at each other, ignoring the rush of people between us. Then she grimaced, displaying rows of broken, black teeth.
“Fuck off!” she shouted and dived into the crowd towards the escalator.
I stood for a moment, bewildered, then made to follow her. I was suddenly certain that she knew something. Something I needed to know. But she was gone. She wasn’t on the escalator. I couldn’t see her anywhere. Confused, I shrugged and rejoined the flow of commuters to the train and the slow crawl back to Ealing Broadway.
That night, sitting in our little flat in Webster Gardens, I told Nuala about the weird woman and the singing.
“You are an eedjit, Dermot, so you are,” she said. Her Cavan accent had never softened even after years in England.
Then she laughed. She laughed really hard. And the laughter turned into a coughing fit. And the coughing fit brought up blood.
Six weeks later, Nuala died.
In a way I was glad.
It was cancer. It probably started in her lungs. I could never get her to give up smoking. It was already in her intestines and in her marrow by the time it spread to her throat and became obvious.
Nuala went downhill so quickly that within weeks she had stopped being the woman I had first loved. She no longer resembled the pretty girl who looked at me from the wedding picture on our wall. She no longer laughed or smiled. She hardly ever spoke. All she could do was suffer.
They blamed cancer but the radiation and the drugs killed my Nuala long before her body stopped working.
When they couldn’t pump morphine into her quickly enough to dull the pain, they gave her just enough to make sure the pain stopped forever.
Nuala wanted to be buried at home, in Cavan, so her parents organised all that. They even held a wake.
If you believe The Pogues or Hollywood then Irish wakes are all mad, drunken binges filled with songs and dances and fights. Nuala’s family were professional and polite. Her wake was weak tea and egg sandwiches in a Laura Ashley living room, not whiskey and porter and a sawdust floor.
This was not a celebration but a social occasion with ritual and order. A wake is a way of coping not of remembering. People formed orderly queues and firmly shook my hand.
“Sorry for your troubles,” they began.
“Thanks for coming,” I replied.
“It’s the least we could do,” they said. And it was, so I’d nod. “Terrible thing to happen to such a young girl.”
“Terrible,” I agreed.
“Would you like some tea?” I’d ask.
“Grand,” they’d say. “Can we get you anything?”
“No thanks, I’m grand,” I said and nodded at the cup of icy tea I’d been cradling since the morning.
“Right so,” they said and moved on. Then the next one would shuffle up and we’d start again.
Then they’d all go and graze at the never-ending supply of soggy sandwiches and talk about the weather and take their turn at goggling at my Nuala in the open coffin.
I hated the wake, but it did its job. I survived. I made it through those days. And there was one good thing.
In the coffin my Nuala was back. She looked beautiful again and happy. The wig she’d chosen was a reasonable approximation of her own black hair and her lips were curled slightly into the hint of a smile. Before the undertakers closed the coffin, I asked for a moment alone.
I took a small wooden case from the inside pocket of my jacket. Inside were Nuala’s round, blue-rimmed glasses. I gave them a quick polish and then slipped the arms gently behind her ears and straightened the lenses so that they sat comfortably on the bridge of her nose.
She didn’t like anyone else to see her wearing her glasses, but I knew she’d be blind without them.
Then I kissed her goodbye.
I stayed with my parents in Dundalk for a few days then I went back to our little flat in Ealing and tried to live without my wife.
Eventually I went back to work and my friends and my colleagues were as supportive as they could manage.
First they consoled me. Then they told me that I needed to move on. Then they moved on without me. They didn’t want to be forced to worry about death. They had lives to live. I did my best to camouflage my despair. For my friend’s sake.
Each night I would trundle back to our flat in Ealing. With Nuala it had seemed busy and crowded and warm. Now it was cold and lonely and silent. I tried drinking but it did no good. It made the dreams worse.
The pictures on the wall showed my pretty, clever wife smiling and laughing. But my Nuala existed only in pictures.
When I closed my eyes, when I slept, I saw the real Nuala, cold and rotting, in a box in the ground in a graveyard. I saw a bloating corpse or a grinning skull.
The banshee was waiting at the bottom of the escalator in Tottenham Court Road tube station. I recognised her at once. And I knew what she was.
Terror stamped a heavy boot on my chest and I moaned softly. Who was I going to lose now? I thought. Why is this happening to me? I was going to be sick. I could feel my stomach twist.
She was just standing there, watching the passing crowd, picking at her teeth with the nail of a finger while in her other hand she played with the tassels of her shawl.
The steps dived away before me and I stumbled off the escalator. The crowd pressed behind me and for a moment I found myself forced towards the old woman. I looked up, staring right into her face.
She looked straight through me and did not speak.
And the crowd dragged me away. Elated, I let myself be carried into the tunnel that lead to the Central Line and out of her sight. No song had started. I wanted to cry.
Despite the press of the crowd I stopped. Battered by the current of commuters, like an exhausted swimmer, I grabbed the red barrier that divided the tunnel and clung on, panting heavily. Exhausted and exhilarated, I could neither move on nor go back.
Down the tunnel I heard the rumble of a tube. If I released my grip now the crowd would carry me to the train, and the train would take me home. Home was safe.
Music started. Tinny and harsh as though from a cheap tape player.
The banshee’s voice filled the tube station.
Home, I remembered, was empty.
The crowd pushed against me. They were filled with that commuter frenzy to be on this particular train and not the one a minute or two behind it.
Despite their pressure, I began to force my way back towards the escalators.
Over the heads of the crowd I could see a chubby ginger-haired teenager standing, mouth agape, staring towards the spot where the banshee slouched. I pushed on. People snarled and shoved and moaned and stamped, but in a moment I was out of the tunnel and into the hallway.
I recognised the tune. She Moved Through the Fair.
I reached the ginger-haired boy. He was oblivious to everything around him. His mouth gaped and his eyes were glassy and staring far away. Was this how I had looked when the banshee sang to me?
“Go home!” I grabbed the boy and shook him.
The boy looked at me, confused.
“Fuck off!” He shoved me away. “Y’mad hoor!”
The song was ending. I pushed the boy back, shoving him towards the trains.
“Please. Please. Go home now.”
He looked at me for a moment, then turned away.
I don’t know if it did any good, but he was gone. I turned back to the banshee.
“Fuck off!” she screamed at me. “This isn’t for you!”
I stepped forward.
She pulled her shawl over her head and leapt into the crowd.
She was quick for someone who seemed so old. She skittered like a rat in a drain. I saw her dive towards the escalators but when she ducked down and doubled back towards the Central Line I was ready and just a few paces behind her in the tightly packed crowd.
I watched from the next carriage as she rode the tube westward to Bond Street and I followed through the winding tunnels and down another escalator to the Jubilee Line.
As we twisted through the corridors and tunnels the rush hour crowd began to fade away. It was slow at first, so that I hardly noticed it, but as we went deeper into the warren of the station the crowd became thinner. Soon the bustle of the rush hour was gone and our footsteps echoed around the station. By the time we stepped onto the platform I was almost alongside her and we were alone.
A train was waiting. It was empty.
For a moment I was afraid. I swung around looking for the support of another living being. But there was no one there. I looked up into the lens of a security camera and knew that no one was watching.
The banshee turned to me and, with a wave of her hand, she encouraged me onto the train.
“This is what you want, Dermot,” she said.
I stepped onto the train and she followed. We sat across from each other and I watched as she reached into her a large cloth shopping bag, and pulled out a comb made of ivory or bone.
“Dead is dead, you know.” She ran the comb through her long white hair. “Nothing but rot and decay and worms.”
I looked away. Had I hoped for anything else?
“That is what you believe, isn’t it?”
I looked back, nodding mutely. She combed her hair and, with each stroke a gentle hum rose up as if she was combing at the strings of a harp. With each stroke, the transparent hairs of an old woman began to darken.
“She’s gone.” I found my voice. “I’ve lost her. Everything I loved about her has been taken away.”
“Loved?” The old woman stopped combing. Her hair was now raven dark. “Is that love gone?”
“No. But…” I shrugged. She reached into her bag and began picking out make-up. A lipstick. Blusher. Other powders. A brush.
“But you can’t believe that she’s gone somewhere where she can be happy without you. You’re too selfish to let her go.” She shrugged off her shawl and dragged a black leather jacket from the bag. Her face was smooth and soft. She looked years younger.
“No!” Was that true? “She left me. You took her away. I can’t even see her in my dreams. All I want is Nuala back.”
My fists were clenched. I wanted to hit something. I needed to do something. Anything. The train slowed. We were approaching a station.
“Look at me.” The banshee reached into her bag and took out a small, smoothly polished, wooden case. I recognised it. I reached into my jacket pocket and removed its twin. The banshee opened her box. Inside was a pair of round, blue-rimmed glasses. I knew my box was empty.
“This is Kilburn,” the driver announced. The train shuddered to a halt. “Stand clear of the doors please.”
“I get off here.” She stood up. “I love you. I always have and always will.” She brushed my face with a cold hand.
“Nuala, I need…” I reached up to take her hand but she stepped away, towards the doors.
“Did you really think anything could keep us apart?” The doors began to hiss. “We’ll be together again. I promise. But live now, Dermot, and let me go.”
She stepped onto the platform. The doors closed.
I wanted to call her back. But I couldn’t.
She placed a hand against the window of the carriage. I reached out. The train juddered forward. Nuala slipped away.
My dreams have changed. Nuala smiles and laughs in them again. Her eyes flash as they always used to before some wicked joke or cutting remark. She stomps through my dreams with her country girl stride, bringing back happy memories.
I remember the way she wrinkled her nose whenever I forced her to try something she didn’t think she would like. And the way her eyes widened when she discovered that she did like curry after all, or whiskey, or marmite. I can see her again, as she used to be. I have my Nuala back.
Am I happy? Have I let her go?
No. Not yet.
One day. Soon.