Of course, Tony was intrigued. Even in the packed tube, he saw the girl come in. A plaid scarf was wrapped around her neck, edges falling in parallel lines over her chest. She had on a green beanie with a golf club logo, one of those dime-a-dozen caps sold at street stalls on Oxford Street, and only the tips of her shoulder-length brown hair peeked out. The girl wore a heavy coat similar to those used by manual laborers in South London, navy blue with large buttons. Rimless glasses brought out her large, expressive, also brown eyes. On her shoulder, a fake leather bag swayed as she tried to find a pole to hold on.
“Mind the gap,” said the disembodied voice spilling through the speakers. Nobody cared. The car was crowded. Most people focused on their own worlds, checking their cell phones, reading tabloids or paperbacks as the train left King’s Cross, sliding on the tracks with a screech.
Tony went back to the book on his lap. “Rebuilding Sarah Parker.” That was the title. It was a well-worn Random House paperback. The author, an Irish woman named Janice Burgess, dedicated the book “to all the victims of the July 7th, 2005 attacks, because hope for a better world will never die.”
Despite the corny dedication, the book was an undeniable hit. Because it dealt with loss and never-to-be-confirmed possibilities, well, because it translated typical British stoicism onto the page and, when it came out, it even outsold mighty Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling herself had confessed she’d enjoyed the book. That was why “Rebuilding Sarah Parker” had been on the Times’ Best Seller list for four years.
However, Tony wouldn’t have read that book if it hadn’t been for Paul, his best friend. “This will change your life,” he said, brandishing the book with his typical British accent, the one that sounds like hiccups.
“What’s the point of reading a story when you know the ending?” Tony tried to argue.
“Bloody hell, why are you so biased? It isn’t bad just because it’s a best seller,” Paul replied, incensed.
Paul loved saying “bloody hell,” just like everyone else in England, it seemed.
The truth is, Tony tried to stay away from “commercial hits,” preferring indie literature, cinema and music. He liked being different, unusual. London was unbeatable for that. Besides, the book seemed opportunistic, making easy profit out of someone else’s tragedy.
But Tony owed so much to Paul; he didn’t want to disappoint his friend. Thanks to him, he got a job as a dishwasher at a Jordanian restaurant called Petra’s Enchantment. It wasn’t, like, the job of his dreams, but there weren’t many other choices for illegal immigrants, especially those who hailed from Brazil. It was either that or scrubbing floors at some phony tourist-trap pub in Westminster.
So Tony caved and he’d been slowly ploughing through the book during his commute from his shoddy bedsit at Finsbury Park to the restaurant on Earl’s Court.
He was on page 56 and, up to that moment, nothing had caught his interest.
Nothing, until that girl walked into the tube.
She looked like a “living” version of Sarah Parker. Yes, the book described someone exactly like her. Well, it probably was someone who had read the book and, for one of those reasons that escape comprehension, decided to emulate the protagonist. Teenage stuff, thought Tony.
Anyway, it wasn’t hard to figure out why so many fell in love with Sarah Parker’s story and why, after all, the book had been so successful. Sarah was sweet, idealistic, the kind of person who picks up someone else’s litter and doesn’t expect public approval. At the same time, she was strong, resolute and idealistic. The friend everyone wants around.
He went back to reading. On that page, Janice Burgess described Sarah’s daily routine. Before the attacks, she had worked at Greenpeace’s office near Covent Garden and took the Piccadilly Line every morning, around 8:30, when she left her bedsit at Collier Street.
Tony smiled to himself. It was the same line he took. If he had moved to England five years earlier, he could have met her. He laughed at himself. Millions of people ride the underground. Running into Sarah Parker would have been as likely as seeing Prince Charles waiting for a cab at Heathrow.
Sarah worked at Greenpeace’s administrative offices, but hoped to be part of a mission soon, to go on one of their boats and live out her dreams of fighting for a socially just world.
Naive, Tony thought.
In the following days, the same scene repeated itself. The girl who acted like Sarah Parker boarded the train at King’s Cross at the same time, precisely 8:47. Coincidentally, just like Tony, she preferred the train’s first car.
Consequently, Tony began to involuntarily build expectations. From Monday to Friday she would come, dressed as the protagonist of one England’s best-selling books. Watching her every morning from a distance had become one of his life’s small pleasures.
Maybe this is why Tony began to like Sarah Parker’s book. The real one. At this point, he had already learned that she’d had a tough childhood in Newbury. That the complicated relationship she had with her parents, along with the need to protect her two younger sisters, helped her build the strong and resolute personality she was known for. When she arrived in London at nineteen, even though she didn’t know anybody, she already knew exactly what she wanted to do. And, in this, Tony identified with her.
He had come from Brazil without a dime to his name and worked hard to get what little he had. He’d soon get a real job and a residency visa and definitely wouldn’t be Antônio anymore. That he knew.
Damn Paul, he thought. And damn cosplay. Because of them, the book had him hooked.
One especially cold morning, Tony was huddled on his usual seat in the back of the car when the girl who acted like Sarah came in holding a book. Earphones that disappeared into her blue coat indicated she was listening to music.
Tony remembered a part of the book in which Sarah Parker’s musical preferences were mentioned. Driven by curiosity and partly because he almost believed he already knew that kooky girl, he got up and got closer. She usually stood and leaned against the pole near the door, right in the middle of the car, underneath an old ad that sold an improbable Bahamian holiday.
A little nervous, Tony approached her. The girl didn’t seem to notice him until the moment he touched her elbow. Looking annoyed, she put down her book and took off one of the earphones to hear him.
“Is it Beastie Boys?” asked Tony, doing his best to hide his South American accent.
“Is it too loud?” asked the girl.
“No, no… it’s just… I’m sorry, my name is Tony.”
“Oh, ok… Nice to meet you. I’m Sarah.”
There was a moment of incredulous silence.
“Really?” he blurted out. “Just like in the book?”
“Which book? This one?”
She showed him the book she’d been reading. “The Beach,” by Alex Garland.
“Oh, no… you know, the book…”
“I’m sorry. I don’t get it.”
How could she not get it? The book, damn it. The Sarah Parker book, the girl she emulated.
“Hold on,” he said, rifling through his coat’s pockets.
Before he could find it, though, the train arrived at Covent Garden and the girl disappeared in the crowd that left the car.
Tony laughed at the whole situation. Never mind, he thought. “Mind the gap” said the speaker. The doors closed and the train went on to Leicester Square.
That night, while Tony munched on a sandwich at Chelsea Kitchen, near his bedsit, he took the book out of his backpack. Distractedly, he resumed reading. The chapter that began on page 123 was called “Underground” and told the story of Sarah Parker’s meeting a stranger on her way to work.
Tony chuckled at the coincidence. There wasn’t much more, but it seemed like Janice Burgess was going to delve into Sarah Parker’s love life. Instinctively, he hoped they’d start a romance, but the guy wasn’t mentioned at all in the following fifty pages.
Around midnight, an Asian waitress told him politely that the restaurant was closing. Tony put the book away and drank the rest of his Guinness.
That morning brought a nonstop drizzle. Despite an unusual sense of urgency, Tony managed to keep to his schedule and took the same bus and tube at the same time, as he always did. First car, last bench. It had never taken him this long to get to King’s Cross, it seemed. Tony checked his watch at every minute, to make sure there wouldn’t be delays. He wanted to see the girl. Maybe, because of the book, he was becoming fond of her in a way.
At last, the train arrived at the desired station. Tony tried to remain calm, but he felt his heart beating madly. A crowd squeezed into the car, like a stampede in reverse; and then he saw her. Green beanie, heavy blue coat, invisible frame glasses. Sarah—if that was really her name—was truly pretty. Not model pretty, but real-person pretty, just how girls who like to travel usually look like.
She carried a cello case. Tony saw his chance and took it. He waved at her but, at a few feet away, she couldn’t see him awkwardly beckoning, until a fat, scruffy guy poked her and nodded in his direction. Sarah hesitated, but came over when she noticed he was giving her his seat.
“That must be heavy,” he mumbled.
“Not really,” she responded, without removing her earphones.
“Do you play?” he insisted.
“No. It’s for a friend.”
A bit later, she glanced at him.
“Have we met?”
Tony considered mentioning the book and their quick first encounter, but he figured it was best to let it go. He didn’t want to come off as an awkward teenager. Besides, it might sound ridiculous. It was easier to talk about ordinary stuff, like fights between the Gallagher brothers’ from Oasis, or reasons why The Verve was the best British band of the past decade.
When they got to Covent Garden, Tony got out with Sarah. He’d be late for work. Sod it, he thought. I’ll make up an excuse later.
Feigning nonchalance, he offered to take the cello wherever she needed. She eyed him warily, but agreed. They walked to Bow St, chatting about music, until they got to a red brick building.
“It’s here,” she said.
“Ok, then,” said Tony, handing her the cello.
She shook his hand quickly and left.
Tony turned away, already berating himself for dawdling.
That image would be engraved in his mind forever. Her smile. Her perfect teeth, mouth and eyes composing the most enchanting tableau he’d ever seen. Not even surly Mr. Mohammed, who’d be all up in his face when he finally made it to work, would erase it. Not in a million years.
That night, once more at Chelsea Kitchen, he opened his paperback. And, as if it were a journal, Janice Burgess wrote about Sarah Parker hitting it off with the guy she’d met on the tube. The same who had approached her the previous day and offered to help her carry a cello to the Greenpeace headquarters on Bow Street.
Tony read that passage three, four times. He felt a chill. That was much more than a coincidence. He closed the book and examined it as if it were a mystical artifact.
He picked up the phone and called Paul.
“I’m in the book!” he blurted out.
“Bloody hell, what time is it?”
“I’m in the book, Paul. I’m the guy with the cello.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Sarah Parker’s book, the one you lent me, remember?”
“Oh, right… the book. Haven’t you finished it yet?”
“No… it’s just… I’m in it. I’m part of the story. I meet Sarah every day on the subway. I said…”
“Hey, hey! Calm down, bloke. Are you going mental?”
“But Paul… You have to believe me! It’s me…”
“Tony-boy, I have to go back to sleep. Really. I don’t have time for this now.”
“It’s just that…”
“Mate, this book was written five years ago. Sarah Parker died. You know that. She died in the bombing.”
“Then I’ve been seeing a ghost.”
“Your words, not mine.”
Then there was silence for a few seconds.
“Talk to you tomorrow, Tony. Go to bed.”
Obviously, Tony couldn’t sleep. Anxiety had taken over. He read a few more pages until the Asian waitress approached the table. Resigned, he put his book away and walked to his bedsit. It would be a long night.
“Wanna go to Hyde Park?” Tony suggested the moment Sarah walked into the tube the next morning. “I mean, if you could, it would be brilliant.”
“Now? You mean, right now?” she said, startled.
Tony nodded. The look on his face was bold and confident.
“What about work? I…”
“Call in sick.”
Sarah eyed him doubtfully.
“It’s the perfect excuse,” said Tony “It always worked in school.”
Sarah gave it some thought.
“You know what? Sod them.”
On they went to Hyde Park Corner. There, they took the path to the lake, until the Lido restaurant, where they asked for a table. The waiter brought them cappuccinos and Sarah lit a cigarette.
They talked for hours. Sarah told him about her Newbury days and how hard she’d worked to get a job at Greenpeace. Tony listened, rapturously. He was bewitched. Whether she was real or a ghost, he didn’t care anymore. He talked about his life, from his childhood in Brazil to plans for a residency visa in England.
When Tony opened the book that night, he knew what he’d find. There it was, in exhaustive detail, Sarah’s date with the tube guy in Hyde Park. In the book, his name was Anthony and he was Argentinian, an inaccuracy that only confirmed the evident truth.
His story with Sarah Parker was there, on the book’s pages.
A cold chill ran down his spine. Automatically, he checked how many pages were left. Only a few. Very few.
“Sarah died.” Paul had said. Tony knew that. Everyone knew that. This is why the book sold like hotcakes. But now… God, how could you read a book knowing the ending and that it’ll crush you? No, Sarah couldn’t die. There must be something he could do or change, so she’d survive.
Maybe if he stopped reading… maybe that would save her. But, he pondered, that wouldn’t work. She was only alive here and now because she sprung out of the yellowed pages of the battered book every time he read. If Tony put it away or hid it, Sarah would just disappear.
“Bloody hell, what happened, happened. Nobody can change it.” Paul was agitated.
“But I think I can save her.”
“Enough with this rubbish… I’ve had it!”
“I won’t let her get on the train on July 7th, 2005.”
“The book is a time machine, Paul. Every time I read it, I’m transported there. To 2005. This is why I can save Sarah, got it?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake… What part of “it already happened” don’t you get? Time travel isn’t real.”
“Why won’t you believe me?”
“Because it’s ridiculous. Will you stop? Have you got Back to the Future syndrome?”
“I thought you were my friend.”
“Don’t be such a sentimental prat. This isn’t about friendship. This girl you’ve been seeing is just a kook who dresses up like the real Sarah. Can’t you see it?”
“But why is everything we do in these pages?”
Paul took the book in his hands.
“This is all there’s left?” he asked, holding the bookmarker.
“Well, I have to tell you. I’ve read this book five times. Sarah Parker always dies. I know it’s hard to believe, but all you have to do is keep on reading…”
“I won’t. Our story won’t end there.”
“If you stop reading, you won’t meet her anymore. Isn’t that your theory?”
Tony said nothing.
Paul let his words sink in. “It has already happened, Tony. You can’t change it,” he added, adopting the patronizing tone one would take with a recalcitrant child. “In twenty pages, she’ll be dead. So will he.”
That morning, Tony waited for Sarah at King’s Cross station, at 8:30.
He hadn’t slept for a single second the previous night. He had read up until the moment that Sarah Parker boarded the train at 8:47, on July 7th, 2005. Of course, Janice Burgess gave the book a climax ending: the explosion, when the underground is taken by flames. The moment Sarah dies.
Tony closed the book when there were two pages left. He didn’t want to face the facts.
Now, he gazed at all the people waiting at the station. In a few minutes, it would all go up in flames and there was nothing he could do.
For a moment, he held on to the idea that Paul was right. It was all just a coincidence. Him, Sarah, everything that took place in the book, just an unhappy coincidence. This was his reality: 2010. He had never time-travelled. It was all a delusion. A longing, maybe, but it wasn’t real.
He glanced at his watch again: 8:45. No sign of her, however. There he was, waiting at the place where the first compartment would stop. Sarah would come in through that spot, but she wasn’t there yet. He could hear the train approaching. In a way, Sarah’s absence made him feel better. It was all a coincidence. That’s what he told himself.
“Mind the gap,” blurted the speaker. The doors opened and people spilled out of the car. Tony glanced sideways, but he didn’t see her. People were boarding. Not Sarah, though.
A chime sounded; the doors were about to close.
That’s when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a girl running to the third car, the one closer to the escalator. Someone who was late.
Without thinking, Tony got in, too. He pushed through the crowd and, unconcerned with politeness, elbowed his way to her like Moses parting the red seas, again and again, until he saw Sarah leaning against the door.
He checked his watch: 8:49.
When she saw him, a smile lit her face. He couldn’t avoid feeling an instant of happiness.
He hugged her. A minute of love. The most intense love possible. He thought of saying he loved her, but it would have been pointless.
Closing his eyes, he allowed himself to be swallowed by the ending scene.