subterranean world

Subterranean World


I am inside a door, painted blue, with a metal slit for those letters asking for money. I step on the letters on my way out.

Outside on the ground I see a small plastic pot. It’s from the pizza shop. Someone threw it down on the ground, a plastic pot of garlic butter. If I were starving, I might scoop out the contents, but I’m not starving, yet. I see the pizza shop on the other side of the road – red bikes like sentries, parked up, waiting.

Out on the pavement, I scour the road with my tired, squinting eyes – the sidewalk is empty, devoid of forms thus far. I melt into the grey morning mist and roll a cigarette, turning the paper with my thumbs and forefingers, licking the resinous sheet, sliding it into a tubular shape, placing it between my lips. The flame from the lighter is way too close – I smell the acrid scent of tiny fibrous hairs, burning.

The street is empty, calm, and quiet Рthe shops are girded with metal, no commerce, no consumption, not just yet. A male presence, filled with importance, strides toward the bus stop. He is wearing a long black coat and carrying a knapsack on his back. A white male, of around forty winters, grim-faced, screwing his eyes up to search the street for a sign, a screw-faced man, stony, implacable, taking up residence in front of me at the bus stop. We remain, the two of us, watching, waiting. I look at the tall row of buildings opposite, the carpet shop with its array of rugs perched in the window. I stare up at the old Victorian mansard roofs. A face looks out, illumined by an orange table lamp. Eyes, at a table, looking out onto the street. A double decker bus creeps along the road, wheels inching  toward the bus stop. I toss my cigarette. The man in the coat steps forward, blocking my view. A long, tall body. The bus swirls into place Рthe doors swish open. Faces stare as I enter the cabin, worn-out expressions that lose interest, returning to their smartphones, tapping like pigeons at the symbols on their interfaces.

I take a seat. The man in the coat stands, immutable in the rear section of the bus, he turns and glares. I look away, my eyes recaptured by the scenery unfolding en route. Shops, pubs, houses, cars. A village green. A woman sits on the seat in front of me with a pale green scarf encircling her neck. She is wearing a white raincoat. One splash of gaiety. The other passengers are somberly dressed. The time is 6.30 am.
The bus slows at the roadworks. I see a light flashing red. The driver knows, he sits and waits.
The bus shakes and vibrates – my flesh quivers, tiny trembling movements of face and hands while the engine turns around. No one speaks. The light turns green and the bus lurches forward. It is 6.40 am.
The bus stops again outside the train station. People heave toward the exit, carrying their bags and mobile phones. The man in the coat strides across the pedestrian crossing – I think of an uprooted tree, venomous at the loss of its place in the forest – I think of “Great Birnam Wood”.

On the train station platform, bodies huddle together, amoeba-like, waiting for the non-existent train. An announcement comes over the loudspeaker, “The 6.50 train from Reading is delayed by approximately ten minutes”.

Bodies break away, disrupting the viscous structure of the crowd. New bodies appear to replace the old. The breakaway group drifts toward the coffee shop where it queues and waits. A strange, sad silence permeates the crowd.

When the train roars into the station, the crowd breaks formation again, encircling the doorways of the carriages, the individual bodies taut but with tensile strength. After a long wait, the doors swish open, bodies step out of the carriage, another block of bodies shoves forward. The time is 7.05 am.
A loud, crackling voice cuts into the atmosphere. “This is your guard speaking. May I remind you that passengers in first class carriages must have a valid ticket”.

The train shuttles down the tracks – the crowd huddles in the bowels of the train, unable to escape the verbosity of the guard. “Move down along the carriages, making use of every available space.” The amoeba mass is silent. No one speaks though faces are close enough to kiss, arms to embrace, feet to dance.

The mass tightens, resistant to pain, to discomfort. If one scream broke loose, the whole would disintegrate. No one screams, no one speaks. At the mainline station, the train shudders to a halt. The uncoiled crowd surges toward the exit. One by one, the commuters push through the turnstiles with their prepaid cards.

The mass descends into the tunnel, I think of the Eloi, obeying the call of the Morlocks. It travels down the steel escalator, heads turned as one, sets of eyeballs pinned to the hoardings that are placed at cunning intervals along the wall. At the bottom of the stairwell, the crowd hurtles through the labyrinthine passageways, accompanied by the rumbling sound of subterranean engines. Along the subterranean passages more announcements pour out over the tannoy. The voice gives warnings, instructions, information, imperatives.
“Due to signal failure…”
“If you see anything suspicious…”
“There is no service between…”
“Hold the handrail…”
“Please do not give money to beggars…”
“Move down along the platform…”
The amoeba mass pulsates along the underground – the air fraught with congealed anger and hidden aggression.
“We apologise for the delay to your service…”
The time is 7.45 am.

The man in the coat appears in front of me. Same train, same tube – the nucleus restored, a tiny cumulus – blind, raging and silent.
“Stand well away from the platform edge…”
I step beyond the yellow line, pushing past the man in the coat. He turns and eyes me with curiosity – I stare down at the tracks. I read somewhere that the tube tracks are full of discarded hair, human hair that has to be swept away each night – burning human hair.






Photography by Ron Frazier from the Keyhole Gallery sessions. Keyhole Gallery

Alice F Wickham

Modest megalomaniac, and chief bottle washer of New London Writers;thinker, dreamer, and milk chocolate eater. Co-creator of a brave new world where poetry comes before profit, and you always get a seat on the train.

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