a short story
Tafalgar Square is a heaving mass, an undulating sea of bodies in the late afternoon sun. Above them, around them, at their feet, like flotsam, peck a dirty multitude of pigeons, feckless now that no one can swing a fistful of cheap corn their way. It´s hot—stifling—and the lethargic crowds sway in the lion-clad sleepiness. The roaring breath from the mouth of the subway is hotter still, but at least it´s alive; sustaining, if not reviving. I am glad to have it against my face, laden as it is with grime and hostility, and frenzied Mind the Gap-Doors Closing. Like strange, sweaty fingers, it rakes the dampening hair from my face, and teases the ruffles on my cotton blouse.
I am escaping from the National Gallery, from its cultured confines, from its confining culture. Have you ever been there? A beautiful building. Infinite halls, galleries, collections, convenient phrasings of the old masters, each one rising phoenix-like thwarting relief. Philistine! What else is there? A few paintings, but more people. A feckless, drab multitude that flits from one brass plate to another, eyes skimming cursorily if the ridged canvas doesn´t extrude Rembrandt, Renoir, Renault from its fabric.
The real prize: this labyrinth, the progression of chambers, each one decadently clad in pure colour behind the framed distractions, each one drawing you to the next so that you might suddenly expect to find yourself alone, and scared witless, in Poe´s ebony vault, a scarlet masked figure suddenly hard by your shoulder.
What else? Frosted, flowered glass ceilings; an experiment in natural illumination that causes the dim lights to shine mischievously, to dance across the boarded floor. As for me, I stand guard beside The Surprise´, a young girl, snowy but flushed, half out of her gown. I wonder who was the more surprised? Shortly, I grow feckless myself, sick of bird-watching and of my own disconnection. I walk out, watching the rhythmic, blurred swing-swing-swing of my trainers, as I am borne by the departing hordes; they´ve ´done´ the National Gallery: a thousand mental ticks squeak onto the slate.
1 slide my ticket into its slot, and the metal arms of the stile grope me through, and then I am swallowed by the tiled gullet that leads down to the tracks. Standing on the platform´s ledge, the air is sultry—or perhaps is the collective breath of a hundred strangers wedged together in silent anonymity. Wrists and hips may brush casually together, amorously perhaps, but the stares remain ever divergent. One couple is conspicuous by doing just that, and I know that mine aren´t the only hopeful eyes watching them.
As usual, I don´t get a seat. Instead I am ever polite in the face of an Art College Miss, all thighs, boots and attitude, who nabs one of two empty seats with her bulky portfolio. Mentally, I make an uncharitable note about her mother, all the while demurely watching the evernight in the window. The Couple have managed to jam into the remaining seat, amoeba-like. It suddenly and overwhelmingly, pisses me off. I grimly maintain eye contact with my shadowy self, doubled and displaced in the reflections in the window.
More people cram in behind me, the carriage collectively breathing in until the rapid siren signals the doors closing. I find myself wedged against a metal pole, my back against that of a tall, black suit. As the carriage jerks into motion, the suit´s sleeve seems to pat my rump consolingly. I tense, but don´t turn, even as the low velvety voice moves against my ear in brief apology before gliding back to its conversation.
I have a long ride ahead that follows the track spiralling away from the belly of the city. Through the interminable stops (why, but oughtn´t they paint all the stations a different colour, too?) my mind lulls, and wanders more slowly, far from the worm holes through which we burrow. I think about…Tokyo, and how they have people who are paid to cram commuters onto trains, and hold them in place until the doors slide shut, the human equivalent of a helpful finger during an awkward bow. I think about that, and how I would like to be paid to squash-push the indefatigable mob that looms against my damned reserve. Art Girl swings her interminable legs in my direction, and boots me out of my reverie just as a hand brushes warmly against my wrist. The low voice, rhythmically brushing my ear in time with the train, drones on, and I think about…what it would be like to step in front of an underground train, and be whisked away from the station with utter finality: ´Ladies and Gentlemen,your next station stop will be—´ What? Not Earl´s Court, that´s for sure. The lights in the carriage flicker in alarm, and we enter a pocket of abrupt blackness. The hand at my side nuzzles questioningly at my palm, and then insistently slides around my fingers.
I have had conversations with people who have been on board when someone has ´caught´ the train in that other sense. It´s funny that the aura that hangs over such reminiscences is one of annoyance, a registering of how damn inconvenient it is. The fingers of this unknown hand gently interlace with my own, and caress me in time with the deeper, inherent throb that travels along these underground lay lines.
It´s damn selfish, too, apparently. The father of a friend of mine had once had to walk down a stalled line with only a flashlight, looking for the severed head of some unfortunate. I shiver. Who knows what hooded figure might be at your shoulder in the dark? I suddenly remember that I never asked if they found it; the head, I mean.
A congregational moan, and I realise we´ve stopped. The orange lights in the carriage grow dimmer, and dimmer, and then seem to recede into the inky tunnel outside, as if the train has disgorged us all, and goes racing on regardless. The ever-present dull roar has stopped, and instead the fervoured collective breath rises, hot and foul, and edged with panic.
The Suit edges closer, his other hand anchoring against the pole, just beneath mine. Still the hushed conversation continues in the dark; now and then it intermingles with my hair. They´re talking about opera. He smells expensive. His hips ridged against mine, his caressing hand lightly up the soft inner skin at the crease of my arm he apologises, repeatedly. The darkness, the closeness of humanity makes me light-headed. I look down the carriage and out, searching for flashlights that wave semaphore into the abyss.
I think about: how it might feel to be rammed in the artificial night by another train in that circular, underground groove. How we might hear it, the far away roar gaining until it rushes upon us, and through us, and over us, leaving us mangled and twisted in its wake, a groaning symphony of metal and flesh. I wonder what the shadows are thinking about, and how ridiculous it is that death rushes upon us while we are thinking about what to have for tea, and, did I switch the cooker off, or, I think my husband´s having an affair. And then—all these unfinished lives lying on the track, these unfinished sentences hanging heavy in the air over them. Then I realise that it is still silent but for the low hum of the track, and the intermittent everyday small talk, and that there is no train rushing upon us in the dark like a malevolent angel.
The Suit is taller than I am. He bends his head, and grazes his lips against the nape of my neck, blowing my hair away from the path his lips seek out. I wonder what The Couple are doing. Is the dark a silent accomplice in their furtive union? In the dark, does she rock and strain, interminably, on his lap? I know nothing about opera, and wonder why on earth the Armani suit is nuzzling the short, brown girl.
I think about my father instead, who died one lunch time in the Cumbrian fells, succumbing to a heart attack, wham! Just like that. Odd, how these real-life incidents impinge onto the every-day narrative of a tube ride. Death has its own circular time, which intrudes upon an otherwise linear track. Birth ´n´ Death, Birth ´n´ Death, Birth ´n´ Death: a double act, a package deal, a composite offer, like Bed ´n´ Breakfast. And then, the circles of time afterwards, for those left behind. Life then always rotates around the rhythmic re-occurrence of anniversaries, of death, would-have-been-birthdays, altered Christmases and vacations, each one a marker of absence.
A ghostly strumming echoes through the tunnel, and an impatient whinny hums and wakes the train. We´re moving again, slowly, now in a sickened half-light. The |vindow has been eased open beside my cheek, and I am fanned between a cool breeze on my burning face, and the steady, warm suspiration on my neck. His lips trail exquisitely, promisingly, to my temple, wordlessly parted, and so soothing. His communicating hand grips my waist, and steadies my hips against the nudging of his own; his arm seems to harness the electricity running from the overhead wires outside, and channels it to my quivering core. The random jolting of the train is incorporated into our nameless swaying, in time with the ever-increasing pace of the tube as it slices through the night-not-night. The lights grow brighter, and brighter, and he shifts his head reluctantly, but still rocks against me. My shirt is slick against my skin. The lights seem too bright, the faces of the crowd indefinite and blurred around the edges, far away and too close. The collective breath unites with the roar outside: in my ears, crashing through the veins in my head, palpitating in the backs of my knees. Into the melee rushes the crackles of the PA, and a stream of thick, fuzzy words. The racing train lurches to the left, something sparks and spits overhead, and then blue flames are tonguing the window languidly.
As the spent train is sliding into the bright, humming station, I disengage my hand, and weave shakily through faceless strangers, cutting a swathe through the taut electric stasis. I nearly turn around, to search out his face. I think about Job´s wife, and then jump lightly onto the platform, and dissolve into the heady aroma of the herd.