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Returning to work after the Christmas/New Year break is never a barrel of laughs in any year for any one, but this was not just any year and he was not just any one.

It was 2012 and here in London that meant digital switchover for television, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, but none of this was on his mind just now. He was much more concerned that, three years after the start of the global credit crunch, the world now stood on the precipice of economic Armageddon.

He was a senior official in the Treasury and his specific responsibility was scenario planning. It was his role to think of the worst that could happen in economic terms and to articulate the policy options that could be activated. As he told people at dinner parties, it was his job to think the unthinkable. These days, incidents like the implosion of another bank or a double-dip recession seemed almost normal. Before he had gone on leave, his priority had been options in the event of the collapse of the Eurozone. Right now he was thinking about the consequences of a conflict with Iran in the Strait of Hormuz through which a fifth of the world's traded oil passes.

His journey to work on the London Underground gave him the opportunity to study the 'Financial Times' before entering the office, but this morning he was finding it more than usually depressing reading, so he meticulously folded the distinctive pink paper and placed it neatly in his special briefcase.

For the remainder of the ride into town, he would indulge in some people-watching, always a fascinating activity in such a diverse city as London. He would glance around at his fellow passengers and imagine from which country they hailed and what sort of life they led. Blacks, Asians, Eastern Europeans. They were all represented in an ethnic mix that made London arguably the most cosmopolitan city on earth. Which was the way he liked it.

Each individual was a complex bundle of experiences and plans, worries and hopes, sadnesses and joys. All of them thought that they had a fair degree of control over their lives in the new year and might even have made various resolutions, but immensely powerful political and economic forces were at work that would profoundly affect their lives and over which they had no control or understanding.

As his eyes flitted from one character to another, he found his gaze settling on an astonishingly attractive young woman a little further down the carriage sitting on the opposite side. If he had to guess, he would have ventured that she was Polish. There had been so many young Poles in the country since Poland entered the European Union and the bright red hair was something of a give-away.

The eyes were sharp and bright with long lashes, the cheek bones high and pronounced with a dusting of make-up, the nose finely sculptured, the mouth alluring, the lip-stick pink. It was a mild winter and she had her coat open, revealing a shapely figure that could have graced a model. Long, leather boots completed the ensemble.

Then he noticed a feature that somehow had escaped him at first perusal. A bright, crimson scar ran diagonally across her face cutting across the right side of the high forehead, scraping the bridge of the nose, and scouring her left cheek. It was shocking, both for the brutality that the disfigurement represented and for the utter contrast with the beauty of the rest of her visage.

The woman caught him studying her and pointedly glowered back at him. He had not meant to stare but, in any circumstances, he could not have failed to be captivated by someone so incredibly pretty and the juxtaposition of such natural beauty with the savagery of that scar was simply mesmerising.

Somewhat reluctantly, he pulled his eyes from the woman and mechanically transferred his gaze from one passenger to another: the Middle Eastern man reading an Arabic newspaper, the young schoolgirl listening to music on her iPod, the Asian couple sharing a joke, the harassed working-class mother trying to keep two young children from thumping one another, the black guy seemingly asleep but with a smile on his face, the Japanese woman next to him doing her Sudoku.

All the time, though, he was thinking of the girl with the crimson scar. He sneaked another quick look. Although the gash was thin, like a knife blade, he was amazed that he had not noticed it immediately and saddened, even sickened, by the horrible way it spoilt such a gorgeous appearance. She flashed him another stare and he quickly averted his eyes again.

His mind was racing. How could such a disfiguring scar have been perpetrated? If she was Polish, it could have been inflicted by an angry lover. He was aware that it was a crude stereotype, but most of the Polish men he saw over here were hard-looking characters. They all had such short hair. It might be because many of them did manual or construction work; it might just be the fashion; but it made them look like Russian convicts. He could easily imagine a domestic argument, the grabbing of a kitchen knife, the slashing of the face, the blood, the horror.

The train stopped at a station at an interchange with another Underground line. Lots of passengers left but at least as many stepped on as the loudspeaker system urged them to 'Mind the gap!' Really, he thought, how absurd. Was there any other underground system in the world where there was space between the platform and the train? The price, he supposed, of London having the first such system in the world.

He stole another rapid glance at the girl who was still on the train but hoped that it was quick enough that she had not noticed. Perhaps his imagination was over-active. There was no reason to assume that Polish men are more violent than British ones and surely nobody would be cruel enough to inflict such an injury on someone so beautiful. The explanation for the scar was probably more prosaic. It was probably just a car accident and a smashed windscreen. Was she driving or was she just a passenger? Were one or both vehicles speeding? He could not understand why some politicians wanted to ease the maximum speed limit. More lives would be lost; more injuries like this would be suffered.

The train juddered to a halt in a tunnel. Almost immediately the driver made an announcement. Since the Underground explosions of 7/7, drivers were always quick to reassure passengers of what was happening whenever there was a delay. The trouble was that, either because of the sound system or because of the driver's accent, he had no idea what was causing the delay. All he caught was the word 'line'. He was not concerned. Public transport was safer than riding in a car and even then, as a Government official, he knew that Britain had one of the best road safety records in the world.

So perhaps her accident was not in the UK but in Poland. Perhaps, on further reflection, her scar was not a recent acquisition at all. It looked so much a part of her face. Maybe she had always had it. Perhaps she had it from birth. He had attended the birth of his two children, now both students. He knew that it could be a bloody and a slippery business. She would have been born shortly before the fall of Communism and standards would not have been high. Maybe it was a very difficult birth. He pictured the delivery theatre. He could hear the screaming. He could see the blood. He could feel the forceps. He visibly winced as he imagined the forceps slipping and one edge slicing the baby's tender face.

Two more stops to go. But at the next stop the woman rose to leave. She fastened her coat and tidied her red hair. He stared in astonishment. The scar had disappeared. He looked harder. It was obvious now. What he had thought was a terrible disfigurement had been simply a long strand of fine red hair that had now been swept back from her gorgeous face.

She did not take the nearest door but walked past him. As her body glanced against his knees in the crush, the mild frisson that he felt was immediately overwhelmed by an excruciating pain as the heel of her boot burrowed into his foot.

Perhaps it was time to have that cataract operation that he had been postponing.

That is, if the global economy did not collapse first.


Published on 5 January 2012

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