Excerpt: The Tame Man

The Tame Man: Waterloo Clock

When They Met:

Rubicon Jones and Jennifer Bellweath met for the first time since 1981 beneath the four-sided clock in Waterloo Station, South London, at 3:45 in the afternoon. It was now November of 2004, and the American Presidential election was only days away. Rubicon didn’t give a rat’s ass about that; she hadn’t been back to America for years, and had long been embarrassed both of her nationality and her accent (though wasn’t above using either to intimidate those foolish enough to be bullied by such things). As for Jennifer, it would never have occurred to her that Bush wouldn’t win. She still lived in rural Illinois, it was war-time, and he was Our President. Plus, he was kind of cute, with those tight frat-boy hips and that nervous little squint.

They knew they wouldn’t discuss politics. Or money, in all probability, or how each awoke in the mornings all alone with their options draining away. Not that they felt the latter, but they didn’t need to—men and media conspired to keep assuring them their value was going down. Neither was wealthy and both were 40, after all. And it was the Bling era—spend, spend, spend to prove your value! Buy some Botox to freeze that brow in feigned surprise, and don’t forget to suck the fat out of your thighs before your market rate plummets, girls. Buy some Manolos, some Marchesa, some sparkle, some time. Max out your credit and we’ll find value in you yet.

But, and here’s where fate stepped in and got ingenious, neither Jenn nor Rubicon did any of those things, or at least, not yet. Instead, the two erstwhile friends from Illinois met up and had tea and shopped and went to a party and fought over a guy and eventually involved themselves in a murder that sold thousands of newspaper columns. So, ultimately, people became interested in what they talked about, who they fucked, how they lived. Instead of buying, they ended up selling (newspapers). Which goes to show you that even nowadays it can sometimes still be age before beauty, if you have a juicy enough story for the media. Cast your pearls before those swine and the gutter scribes will scramble to retrieve the opalescent rounds from the dust, then string them along the usual lines: Who’s the Good Woman? Who’s the Bad? Weight is involved, and hair color, and god knows it helps if you’ve got a man.

But the real problem, clearly, is with the whole concept of the Good Woman.

Who she is and if she exists at all.

Of course, there was much debate in the press. Many said that Jennifer, at worst, was a good bad girl. Which means she gets to be bad, but with approval. Yes, the papers admit, she killed. She’s admittedly a little dim, a God-botherer and a Septic (American); but she’s a mum doing her all for her kids. Plus she’s blonde and full-breasted. Which helps. And Rubicon? Well, no approval for poor lonely Rubicon. She had an affair with a married man and turned her friend in for murder. Also American, but small-chested. She doesn’t like kids (collective gasp of disapproval for that one) and then committed the ultimate sin of gaining weight. The press strongly suspects Rubicon is the bad one.

But in November 2004. Rubicon was still gaunt and chic, and waiting for Jennifer beneath the clock at Waterloo. Jenn was 12 minutes late, and every minute was giving Rubicon hopes she wouldn’t show up at all. Rubicon had taken the 2:28 train in from Richmond, keeping one eye on the trollied Irishman who was slumped next to her, exuding cider fumes and sandalwood. He’d slurred something in her ear as she slid into the beige vinyl seat, something about giving her a proper seeing to. “Promises!” Rubicon said to the Hyacinth Bucket type seated opposite, as the Irishman passed out on her shoulder, “They’re full of promises, right?” The older lady tightened her lips into a thin pink ribbon of disapproval, and Rubicon winked at her. Ah England, she thought. I love it so. Looking away from the pepperpot opposite, she saw the low brick buildings sliding slowly by the dirty, rain-splashed train window. Roofs of red clay and small round chimneys.

Low-ceilinged, cozy, angry, verbal, cynical, more-ish England.

Rubicon was not looking forward to seeing her old friend, who’d somehow tracked her down through the internet. She anticipated an afternoon of platitudinal boredom spent at the café of the National Portrait Gallery, being forced to look at photos of their 80s stomping ground, Southern Illinois. (And actually, Rubicon decided after seeing the photos, in southern Illinois it still was the 80s; everybody was older and enrobed in fat, but still gamely sporting mullets and slut-cuts and stonewash—oh my!)

The train slid on. The low damp roofs of south London contrasting with the modern architecture that was springing up near the City; the Gherkin gleaming like a glass tampon in the distance, construction cranes swinging slowly to their purpose. This town was taking to the blinging and terrorized 21st century—it rose again, shaking Thatcher’s dust off its feet.

Rubicon had left Illinois twenty-three years ago. She’d stood in O’Hare airport, a crooked-nosed brunette who was plump and awkward, wearing black leggings and a Siouxie and the Banshees sweatshirt. Listening to the roar of the departing planes, breathing in the thin burnt air of their fuel, she swore right there—next to Paw Paw’s Prettzel Knotts at Gate G4 (International)—that as boring-ass Baby Jesus and the Illinois Council of Goddamn Soybean Reports were her witnesses, she’d was saying goodbye to Illinois for good. She’d never work another hour on the soft-serve at the Dairee Freeze, never get cornered by another three-fingered farm boy, never listen to another high-pitched Illinois girl scream of excitement.

Which, she knew, was exactly how Jenn would greet her. . .

What would Jenn look like now? One of those who hit middle-age hard, or one of those who barely notice? Does she still smear her conversation with patronizing diminutives, or did life shove those “sweeties” back down her throat? Could go either way. Having watched her husband die a slow death, she might be worn down, flabby from hospital food and gray-skinned from fluorescent lighting. Jennifer had the disadvantage of being blonde, of course. Rubicon complacently flicked long fingers through her dark hair. One consolation of blondes is how badly they age; by their late 30s they seem aghast—pale eyebrows disappearing into sun-damaged skin, and their previously silken locks thinning from shock at time’s passage. Brunettes, Rubicon mused, just keep on keeping on. A little ropy in the arms, sometimes. A little gaunt around the cheeks or maybe the telltale droop in the neck. But basically, Rubicon felt she was still lean and wry and ready for the next impulsive leap. The one that’ll land her somewhere good. Somewhere permanent.

Or at least somewhere she felt important again.

It didn’t even occur to her that she’d feel loved.

Copyright Dana Burnell