The New Life

He was close enough to smell the hairs on the back of the man’s neck. They almost tickled him, and he tried to rear his head, but found that he was wedged too tightly. There were too many bodies pressed heavily around him; he was slotted into a pattern of hats, shoulders, elbows, knees, feet. He could not move his head even an inch. His gaze had been slotted too, broken off at the edges: he could see nothing but the back of this man’s head, the white margin of his collar, the span of his shoulders. He was close enough to smell the pomade, streaks of it shining dully at the man’s nape; clingings of eau de cologne, a tang of salt. The suit the man was wearing was blue-and-grey check. The white collar bit slightly into his skin, fringed by small whitish hairs. His ears were pink where they curved at the top. His hat – John could see barely higher than the brim – was dark brown, with a band in a lighter shade. His hair was brown too, darker where the pomade was daubed. It had recently been cut: a line traced where the barber had shaped it.

John could not move his head. His arms were trapped at his sides; there were bodies pressing from right and left, from behind, in front. He flexed his fingers – they brushed coats, dresses, satchels, canes, umbrellas. The train carriage rattled in its frame, thudded on the track, underground. The lights wavered, trembling on the cheekbone of the man in front. John hadn’t noticed that, hadn’t noticed he could see the angle of the man’s jaw and the jut of his cheekbone. There was the hint of a moustache. Blackness rushed past the windows. The floor roared beneath his feet.

He was hard. The man had changed position, or John had. Perhaps it was only a jolt of the train. But someone had changed their position. The man’s jacket scratched at John’s stomach – he felt it as an itch – and his buttocks brushed against John’s crotch, once, twice, another time. John was hard. It was far too hot in the train, far too crowded. The man came closer, still just within the realm of accident, his buttocks now pressed against John’s crotch. John’s erection was cramped flat against his body. The man and he were so close it was cocooned between them. Surely he could feel it? A high, vanishing feeling travelled up from John’s groin, tingling in his fingertips and at his temples. He could not get away, could not turn his head, could only smell the hairs on the back of the man’s neck, see the neat line of his collar, the redness on the tops of his ears, could only feel himself hard, harder than before, as though his body were concentrating itself, straining in that one spot. Surely he could feel it? John felt panicked; sweat collected in his armpits. He dreaded the man succeeding in pivoting about, skewering the other passengers with his elbows, shouting something, the carriage turning its eyes, a gap opening round his telltale shame. And yet he knew that he did not want it to stop, that he could not escape the grip of this terrible excitement.

The man began to move. At first John was not certain, he thought again that it might be the jolting of the train. He had been willing the hardness away, counting from a hundred in his head, breathing slowly through his teeth, when he felt the slightest movement, as though the man were pushing back against his erection, as though he were gently tilting against it, rising and falling on his toes. John’s first sensation was a rush of dread, followed quickly by a rush of something else, that same high, vanishing feeling running through his fingers and up to his temples. He had no control. He was crowded on all sides – he was fixed at the centre of a mass of bodies, his entire consciousness constricted, committed to this small circle of subtle movement. This man’s buttocks, pressed so tightly against him it almost hurt, moving up and down. A bead of sweat, released from his armpit, ran quickly and coldly down his side. He tried to look about him, at the other passengers, but could not: instead he gazed frantically, surrenderingly, at the man’s collar, the redness on his ears. Was that a smile, creeping to the edge of the moustache? And still it went on, unmistakable now, the rising and falling, the pressure, almost painful, moving up the length of him, to the tip and down again. He breathed heavily through his nose, breathed heavily onto the man’s neck. He wished he could move his arms, that he could move anything at all: that his whole being were not bent so terrifyingly on this sensation, this experience, that he could for a moment place himself outside it. He breathed heavily again, saw how his breath flattened the whitish hairs on the back of the man’s neck. His face hurt. He felt a strange pressure under his ears. He swallowed, took another breath. Pomade and eau de cologne, cigarette smoke, salt. Up and down, the pressure dragged painfully to the tip, down again. He was sinking under it. He could barely breathe.

The train slowed. They were coming to a stop. He gasped onto the man’s neck. He longed for escape, for it to be over. Up and down, up and down, pleasure lancing through his body. The light changed; he saw over the man’s shoulder the brighter lights of a platform. He tried to step backwards, could not, yet. He heard the doors being opened, heard the aggravated noise of the platform, waited for the pressure to ease, for movement in the carriage, for people to depart. He longed to turn his head. But more people were pouring in, more darkness, black pressure: umbrellas, canes, satchels, dresses, coats. He and the man were forced even closer than before; he could feel the full warmth of the man’s body, the climbing curve of his back, the shoulders braced against his. And his lips were nudged onto the man’s neck; he felt the hairs on his lips, tasted the pomade and the eau de cologne. The man was still tilting against him; they were moving together now, in a slow, crushed dance, rising and falling in time.

The train pushed off, the lights quivered. It was unbearably hot. He felt faint-headed, almost in pain. And then he felt the man’s hand, a hand, unbuttoning him, felt the slight opening, an access of air, his erection pressing forward to fill it. Panic, a terrible excitement. And then the man’s hand, a hand, wriggling into the gap, struggling into it; he felt the wait of seconds to be unbearable as the hand fought through the stiffness of the tweed, found the second opening in his drawers. And then it was in, the hand, was closing round it. His eyes were closed by fear; the man’s neck was slippery beneath his lips. The carriage rattled in its frame, the lights shot darts behind his eyelids. The hand closed round it, he felt each finger find its place, begin to pull the flesh tight, to release, to guide it down into some sort of tenderness, to draw it tight again. He could barely breathe. He felt stretched tight, stretched beyond endurance. His body ached. Up and down, up and down. Fingers spanned the length of him, pulled tight, pulled faster. His hands were suddenly free, he had them on the man’s hips, was reaching up into the damp warmth inside his jacket, feeling his ribs beneath his shirt. Then down, fumbling with his buttons, cupping the swell of his cock. His hand was in the man’s trousers, the cock warm in his hand, he rubbed the head with his thumb. It was happening so fast now, up and down, faster and faster. Rising in him, through his fingertips, up to his neck, under his ears, at his temples. He was gasping. The man’s neck was wet beneath his lips.

It was like the pumping of blood from a split vein, a deep wound. He was woken by the violence of it, helplessly halfway. He squeezed his eyes shut. Air seeped past his gritted teeth and escaped at the corners of his mouth. He lay still a long moment, waiting for his nightshirt to be weighted onto his leg, for the slime to settle on his skin and begin to trickle. He was far too hot – his legs were slick with sweat, wet behind the kneecaps. Catherine was asleep, her face composed against the pillow. He peeled back the coverlet and swung his legs over the side, spreading his toes on the floorboards. The mess on the front of his shirt seemed almost to gleam; he could see one large patch, and other, smaller ones, a succession of smears. He pinched the fabric to hold it away from him and then with his other hand pulled the shirt forward from the back, over his head – this was the method he had developed after too many times pulling it up over his face, dragging the mess into his beard – and sat naked on the bed. His cock, struggling to keep its shape, drifted drunkenly between his thighs, sticky at the tip. He held it a moment, letting it cool between his fingers. The darkness in the room was filmy, as if the small amount oflight leaking through the curtains was slowly percolating it. His body was luminous; his legs and arms, even his shrinking, sluggish cock, had a greeny Renaissance sheen, like some dying Christ. He felt obvious, transparent, sacrificial, sat naked on the bed. His head hurt; his eyes were sore. Emissions exhausted him.

It must be early in the morning. Too early for the servants, who might otherwise be heard scuttling on the corridor. He looked at his nightshirt, puddled on the floor, and thought again of them having to wash it, stiff and yellow, starched with their master’s seed, four or five days a week. A succession of pungent patches, smears. He could hardly bring himself to look at Susan, who he knew collected the dirty things. If they talked about it downstairs, it was possible only that they chuckled over Mr and Mrs Addington’s honeymooning still, but he felt sure that they would be able to tell the difference between marital possession, even excessively practised, and incontinence. Servants knew.


Grondwerker, George Hendrik Breitner, 1897 © Rijksmuseum



This is an excerpt from The New Life by Tom Crewe, out with Vintage. Crewe is shortlisted for the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. The winner will be announced on 19th March, 2024.

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