Edith patted her right-hand coat pocket as she walked into Sloane Square tube station. Force of habit. She knew her Freedom Pass was there, just as she knew her house keys were in the zippered section of her bag.
But it never hurt to check. Her friends so often regaled her with stories of lost keys and mobiles that she sometimes worried if forgetfulness was contagious, like influenza.
The play at the Royal Court had not really been her thing. Too much swearing, although she liked the young man with acute anxiety. Rather like her granddaughter, Flossie. Except that Flossie had so many therapists, prescriptions and mindfulness activities, and the boy in the play had nothing and no one.
Edith thought Flossie might be less anxious if she went to a school that didn’t push their pupils so hard, but she knew better than to mention it to her son Robert and his wife.
The train to Kew was due in five minutes. The platform was almost empty apart from a straggle of theatre-goers like herself and a couple of businessmen jabbing at their mobiles. Robert didn’t like her going to the theatre at night. “What’s wrong with a matinee?” he asked.
“Matinees were full of people just like me,” she replied. So boring.
She preferred an evening audience. The girl sitting next to her tonight had shaved half her hair off and had plaited the remainder with scarlet ribbons.
They had talked during the interval and the girl (probably about 25, but everyone under the age of 40 looked like a child to Edith) had offered to buy her a glass of wine. No one did that at a matinee.
The train pulled in. Just before the doors closed, a man jumped on board. He held a can of beer and it sloshed on to the floor as he slumped down opposite three women wearing tracksuits.
The harsh light accentuated the shadows under their eyes. They chatted quietly. Edith couldn’t quite place their language. They were probably about to start a night shift and looked exhausted already.
The train rumbled on. South Kensington. Gloucester Road. “You need to shut up,” said the man. His words were slurred. He drained the beer with one long swig and threw it on the floor. He produced another can from his backpack and opened it. “You’re making too much noise.” He was shouting now. The women looked alarmed.
The man opposite Edith lowered his Evening Standard and quickly raised it again. The young woman a few seats up adjusted her earphones and stared fixedly at an advertisement about income tax. “Surely it couldn’t be that interesting,” thought Edith. Not at 10.45pm on a Wednesday night.
At Earl’s Court, the businessmen got off. As the train pulled away, the man stood up.
“I told you lot to shut up.” He flicked beer at the women and threw the can at the window above their heads. The women cowered.
Edith looked up and down the carriage. Everyone sat silently as if nothing was happening. Suddenly she found herself standing in front of the drunk man.
“You can’t talk to people like that,” she said. The strength of her voice surprised her. It rang around the carriage. “Sit down. You’re the one who needs to keep quiet.”
She sensed the other passengers flinch. Over the noise of the train, she heard the crackle of a newspaper and the ding-dong ringtone of a mobile.
The man’s eyes were bloodshot. There was the stench of unwashed clothes and stale beer. Spittle dotted his chin. He moved closer and raised his hand. He’d cut it on the can and blood and foam ran down his wrist. Behind Edith, one of the women stood up. He pushed her back into her seat.
“Stop it, right now,” shouted Edith. Even as she shouted, she couldn’t quite believe that it was her – Edith McKenzie, 78 years old, a widow, a resident of respectable Kew – standing up to a drunk and angry man who was probably about to kill her within the next 10 seconds.
But she didn’t care. Her will was in order and she had no debts to speak of. Robert and her grandchildren would be sad for a while. But they would be grateful for the money from the sale of the house. Everyone had to go some time. Better to die on her feet doing something right than moulder away in some nursing home. Besides, she hadn’t felt this energised since she’d marched from Aldermaston to London to ban the bomb back in 1960.
“Sit down,” she shouted. “Or I’ll call the police.”
The man grimaced, holding the can up to her face and crumpling it.
“You wanna call the police, lady, go right ahead. Means nothing to me. I got out of prison today.”
The train slowed before Ravenscourt Park. He jabbed the can towards her face and just missed. Edith scarcely flinched.
She stared at him until he could no longer meet her eye. The doors opened and he fell to the platform.
The three women jumped up.
“So brave,” said one. “We were very scared.”
“So scared,” echoed the second woman. “Although… we do not engage. We are not brave like you.”
“It’s nothing,” said Edith, sinking into a seat, everyone in the carriage pretending not to notice.
Although on the way home, foraging for her keys, it did feel like something. It felt fabulous.
Suellen Dainty’s latest novel The Housekeeper (Simon & Schuster, £8.99) is out now. See Express Bookshop at expressbookshop.co.uk.