London as a Twenty-Something, Upstart Reprobate: Vol.3.
And now, casting a luckless glance around the carriage, I wonder if we are all going to die…
I’m well ahead of schedule. The Sun is proudly announcing that spring has finally sprung, and the yellow-brick walls of Bethnal Green are lit up gold to greet it. I sense the vibrant smell of new-cut grass as I amble through the park, and the ground is littered with cherry blossom that swirls upwards in the breeze.
I’m sporting a new pair of shoes and, as Paolo Nutini once amiably linked cause and effect, “suddenly, everything is right.” Actually, I suppose the correct term would be ‘up-cycled’ – they’re a pair I’ve recently adopted from beneath my table at work. Nobody knew how they’d got there (well, obviously there was some kind of primal office shenanigan that ended in a hurry, but corporate tact demanded everyone ignored this distinct possibility: it was far more astute to assume the previous owner has simply forgotten to put them on when leaving the office, commuted the entire way home in just their socks and never came back for them). Despite being a little scuffed, they were odourless, just my size and completely free, so I gladly took them under my wing. Right now, the wooden heels are making a satisfying clack on the cobbled pavement, and in the same way spring is breathing new life into the world around me, I am kneading new life in to these shoes. I turn a corner and see the Bethnal Green Underground sign levitating over its stairwell, like a full-moon impatient for evening to come. I’m homeward-bound on an especially good ‘Good Friday’.
Everyone on this train is a vacant face, dutifully disguising the hornets’ nest of anxiety buzzing furiously behind it.
I descend to the central line like I do every day, and look up at the familiar, golden clock above the westbound platform. It ticks away watchfully. A clock measures time, depicts it, keeps it, but if ever such mastery could extend to foresee the impending future, then this particular clock face betrayed nothing, and ticked ominously onwards. The rush of subterranean wind announces the imminent arrival of the train. I step on, take hold of the ceiling rail with one hand and pull out a book with the other. I turn a page, listlessly.
It’s getting a little hot now. I put my book down and wipe my brow; we’ve been waiting motionless in the dark tunnel for a couple of minutes. Far longer than anyone would want to incubate in the sweaty armpit of London’s infrastructure, but certainly not uncommon. A girl puts down her handbag, doffs her denim jacket and continues to stare languidly at her own reflection, which stares back at her, distorted and phantomised by the dark glass of the carriage. I pick up my book again and find my page.
They reach for their phones automatically, a device so habitually relied upon to provide answers but here incapable of displaying anything more than an indifferent icon, ‘no-signal’ .
They are mindless.
Why hasn’t the driver announced anything yet? Why are we being kept unaware? Maybe the intercom is broken. Well, that’s just incredibly unlikely isn’t it? Being told there’s a delay on The Underground is a lamentably frequent occurrence, and when it does occur I am constantly reminded of the inconvenience by one such intercom assuring me it won’t last much longer. I wait.
I feel the pores on my skin prick and beads of sweat roll down my back. I return my book to my pocket with finality. I think thoughts only to forcibly dismiss them. I wait.
Suddenly, with an electrostatic cackle, a voice fuzzes through a loudspeaker “khhzz-’adies and gentleman,” a fizz like a decrepit radio, “khhzz-’delay.” It cuts out: silence. Anxiety? No, silence. Fear? No: silence reigns, and I will wait.
Brussels three days ago. A morbid smear seeps across the map: Paris, Brussels and now London. Remember Brussels – no, don’t. Wait.
A hush of shuffling limbs lasts for one whole minute. The faceless voice gathers itself, redoubles its efforts, and bursts into the carriage once more.
“Ladies and gentleman, I’m sad to report that someone has been caught under the tracks at Chancery Lane,” and either the driver is new to the job or he’s choking back a panic rising in his throat, “and there’s a security threat at Liverpool Street Station.” The carriage takes a fearful intake of breath. The porcelain masks of those sitting around me crack and the hornets of worry crawl from their nests and scramble into an irate swarm.
A convulsion of thoughts collide, combine and form conclusions before rationality can rally itself: Brussels three days ago, East London a hotbed for radicalised activity, the fact today was a Christian holiday all seemed to point to one dreadful verdict.
I look into the carriage’s window with no view to see my own demonised features staring back at me. I see those black lips move and they whisper, “terror!”.
And now, casting a luckless glance around the carriage, I wonder if we are all going to die.
The mood drops like the scythe of a guillotine. A woman sobs. The heat intensifies a thousand times.
We’re already in a perverse corruption of a metal coffin, already sunk below the ground, already buried alive. Is my current depth underground anywhere near six foot? The undertakers have been robbed of a fortune.
Don’t think such senseless thoughts, I return to myself. We’d be blown away by now if that was true. I myself have many times contemplated suicide whilst being held up in a sweltering tube; I’d have detonated long before now if I’d the added insulation of a suicide vest. We’re safe. (Aren’t we?)
“Oh God,” quivers a panic-stricken voice over my shoulder. I turn and meet the eyes of the owner.
“We are going to be fine.” I hear myself tell her in a slow, deep voice.
“Ah, so you’re the cool one,” she replies, I think gratefully, but it is hard to tell. The skin on my back prickles and I swallow hard. I hear a quiet slam and a bang, a distant shudder of thunder, from somewhere further down the carriage. We wait.
Still the bangs get louder. We look down the carriage, observe nothing, and so choose to ignore it. It’s been over five minutes since we head from the driver. Has he encountered problems? I convince myself not, because if he has problems then so do we and that would be wholly intolerable. Hopefully it is just the intercom playing up.
I start talking with the woman, who is Irish, and an Australian student joins the conversation. We talk about a circus in Richmond, and the hen night happening there which the Irish woman is currently missing. She has the tickets for the whole group. The Australian tells us about her adorable pet dog. I offer a story about my dead pet fish, and find myself thinking that, if I do die, I really hope it’s not whilst I’m telling a story about my dead pet fish. We laugh because we need to laugh. Are we the only ones talking in the carriage? I feel the weight of attention as the other passengers eavesdrop on us. Just keep talking so we can all stop thinking. Good, the Irish woman is talking about home and no longer sobbing. I don’t talk about Brussel’s or Paris, but I do talk about my last weekend. So does the Australian, who is now also commendably calm: well done, like me you’ve tricked yourself into thinking this is an excessively normal situation. Join the ranks of those who’ve made the sensible decision to become insane. The carriage is stationary, still.
The unidentified banging crescendos, and I can sense the volume of our conversation rising with it as though to bury the sound and pretend it wasn’t there. The carriage door behind us flies open, we turn rapidly around to meet it.
It’s the driver. And, reassuringly, he is not armed with an AK-47. He addresses the carriage uneasily and informs us we will be reversing backwards to Bethnal Green station. He is quietly spoken, downtrodden and red-eyed. He is a not a leader. He departs eventlessly in to the next carriage. I resume making words with the Irish and the Australian, convincing them this is a good sign.
And at last, the train stirs, and as it moves so too does a wave of cool relief wash through the entire train. I feel like I no longer have to be calm and collected, and relinquish the responsibility as an alleviated air sighs from my mouth. Normal life will resume shortly. Minor delays on the Central, good service on all other lines.
We break above ground into the living daylight; a glorious resurrection. We open our mouths and drink in oxygen. The world teams around us, oblivious to the plights of the dark tunnel, some even stepping down into the same cave we just escaped from; none of us dared to interrupt a stranger’s intentions, though. The Irish woman, Australian student and I conclude that we will never see each other again. The former tells me to take it easy, and departs to hail a cab; I point the now hungry latter in the direction of Brick Lane’s bagel shop. After all that thought of dying, returning to such ordinary living seems a little too easy. I’m getting away with it though.
The walls of Bethnal Green are still lit with a golden hue, and the song of merry conversation flows from the open doors of the adjacent pub. My shoes start clacking warmly on the pavement once again. Easter is still on its way, and I feel as though, in stepping into the light of day from that grave, dark tunnel, I myself have been recalled to life.