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Fiction

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Makes You Paranoid

Terry Hand takes an Underground ride into a psychological abyss.

Sleepwalking to work, Morden via Tottenham Court Road, Northern Line train, Charing Cross Branch – mind the gap, move down inside the cars, whoosh, thud.

“Excuse me.”

“Oi, mate, watch who you’re pushing!”

“Excuse me!”

“For Christ’s sake, make some room over there, it’s so tight here we’re all breathing at the same time.” There’s always a comedian.

The tube is packed as usual. I’m twisted completely off-balance, with all my weight on the toes of one foot. There’s an armpit in my face, a cocktail of fading deodorant and last night’s curry seeping through the pores. Jesus, where’s my hand wedged? Hold my breath. Squeeze past.

“I warned you already.”

“All right, take it easy, I’m sorry.”

At last I’m in the gap between the seats. Hold onto the overhead handrail and relax. Resting my head against my arm I close my eyes and wonder if I can sleep on my feet like this until the next stop, and shut out the raw humanity around me. My mind drifts to an old western I saw once about a gang of cowhands who had blown their pay packets on whisky and gambling. The only form of accommodation their meagre cents could stretch to was a rope slung across a crowded stable, over which they hung their arms and slept standing up. But it’s impossible: a fantasy dreamt up by some Beverly Hills director. Real life, as the saying goes, ain’t like the movies.

Suddenly there’s an elbow in my ribs. I turn to glare at a sharply besuited fellow-traveller with belligerently gelled hair who has also managed to push his way through to the cherished space between the seats. We jostle for position, shuffling this way and that, trying to cover as many seats as possible should any of them become vacant. A swift and deftly executed manoeuvre could gain you a seat right in front of another standing passenger. But it has to look natural: it has to look as if you didn’t really want it – it just happened to be there, so you took it... It takes years of practice to acquire these skills. I’ve probably got the edge on him in the experience stakes, but he looks young and fast.

“…the whole campaigns strategy led from the bottom up.”

“I’ve read the demographics, and it’s critical where we position the product.”

They’re now on either side of me, talking right across me. Amazingly, they entered from different doors and have wormed their way through the crush to the centre of the carriage – the sharp elbowed one and a similarly besuited, fresh-faced stouter man, trapping me in a pincer move of marketing babble.

I sense the tension in the seats in front of me before I look down. The big blonde girl sitting directly in front of me, whose skirt has risen up to the extend that I don’t want to look too closely – at least not in a crowded train – has accidentally jogged her rather prissy looking neighbour, who has been adding the finishing touches to her make-up. She has a shiny, airline stewardess, department store cosmetics counter look, and is squeezing her carefully plucked eyebrows together in angry, mock dis belief. My sympathy is with the big blonde. I think women should put on their make-up at home. Then I realise I am the cause, as the blonde is trying to look around me, to talk to her friend opposite. She’s now clicking her tongue at me! Stupid cow.

“What’e don’t get, right, is I’m only nine’een.”

She’s actually crouching right down in her seat and addressing her friend through the space between my knees. I shift my position to make it harder for her.

“You ain’t like twenny-nine.”

“I ain’t’ad me’air done in monffs, know what I’m saying.”

“We need to move in a different direction in order to consolidate the brand.”

I am beginning to feel like a radio mast, tuning in and out of the different conversations passing through me. It’s driving me crazy, an affront and an intrusion, drowning out my thoughts in an open sluice gate gushing with banality.

“I believe that they are underestimating the degree of visual literacy on a competitive intelligence level in that sector.”

“Shut the Hell up, and save that little gem for the fifty pages of drivel you will undoubtedly present to your poor, deluded, hapless client, along with the obscenely extortionate bill he will gladly pay!” Of course I don’t actually say this, but I am screaming it inside my head.

“So I says to’im right, you fink I don’t know what’s going on. But I weren’t born yesterday, know what I mean.”

“That’s right. What’appened?”

“You know what’appened last time’e went dahn Stevenage.”

She sits back in her seat, folds her arms and rolls her eyes knowingly. Don’t stop now, I’m interested. I want to know what happened in Stevenage. But instead she reaches over her shoulder to the ledge behind the seats and picks up the free newspaper that has been nestling there. She brusquely shakes it open and proceeds to read it with an expression of exaggerated refinement which would not be out of place in a seaside pantomime.

I can now listen without distraction to the slicker assassination of my mother tongue by the marketing idiots on either side of me. I feel like an innocent bystander caught in the middle of a hideous crime. I toy with the idea of offering to swap places with one of them, but that might be interpreted as an act of generosity, so I reject it out-of-hand. It’s then that I see him.

He’s sitting in the end seat and pressed up against the glass panel by the doors. A rivulet of sweat is running from the side of his temple, coursing its way down cheeks pockmarked from childhood acne. His forehead glistens in the harsh strip lighting. He is silently mouthing the words of a song on his MP3 player; only his headphones aren’t plugged into it. His eyes are narrowed in an expression of intense concentration, fixed on a point in the space in front of him. But most ominous is the heavy, overstuffed black rucksack he’s clutching to his chest. Images flash through my head – the newsreader’s grave face, then an out-of-focus photograph of an earnest young student, taken in more innocent times. The newscaster reads, “A young man of Middle Eastern appearance…”

“I really feel that we’ve got all of our ducks in a row on this one. The only outstanding HR issue…” For God’s sake, haven’t they seen him? But nobody has. The big blonde is engrossed in her newspaper. Her neighbour is peering into her make-up mirror with utmost suspicion, rotating this way and that as if it’s pulled a fast one on her, and really her flawless lipstick is crooked and her eyeliner is spread over her face. They’re all lost in their private worlds, anaesthetised from their surroundings, blissfully unaware that in what could be moments they’re going to abruptly merge into one big bleak world, as twisted metal and broken glass merges with soft vulnerable flesh. Not that I’ll know anything about it – at this range my own tiny world will come to a premature full stop the instant he pulls the fuse.

I’m momentarily engulfed in a cloud of unreality, almost as if my consciousness has run for cover when faced with reality in it’s starkest form. I envisage a scenario in which I grab the terrorist’s hands whilst the portly marketing executive, no doubt a rugby man, throws himself across his body and pins him down; but the words have stuck in my throat and I gaze on in silent disbelief. Time has slowed to a standstill, and the conversations around me have become a far-away echo from a different channel, lost in the roar from the tunnel. Then suddenly time accelerates forward as in one swift movement he unzips the rucksack and plunges his other hand deep inside it. The shout comes easily now. “Look out he’s…!” I scream. The words die on my lips as he removes a sandwich from the rucksack, neatly packaged in its cellophane wrapper. He proceeds to delicately unwrap it.

I look straight ahead, aware of the stir around me. A few passengers have stolen a surreptitious glance in my direction, but most have continued to read their papers or books. The marketing babble, halted for a moment, starts up again.

I am not fooled by this show of indifference. I have now been assigned the role of carriage madman – the obligatory Northern Line loonie. The temperature seems to have risen by about ten degrees, and I can feel my shirt sticking to my back. A space has grown around me, perhaps only measurable in centimetres, but perceptible, as the marketing whizz-kids raise their voices to cross the chasm my outburst has created: “Product differentiation is crucial to the strategy of the overall mission…” It’s just white noise now, as disembodied words float around the interior of the train, at times absorbed by the swaying wall of bodies, to reappear in my thoughts like ghosts. “Crucial mission. Strategy.” A distinct smell of raw onions has reached my nostrils, separate from the smell of stale air and unwashed clothing that permeates the tube in summer. The terrorist in the corner is rapidly devouring his sandwich in large anxious mouthfuls. Between bites, his lips still move in silent recitation. Maybe he’s learning a language, or practicing his lines as Hamlet, I optimistically decide, although it is hard to imagine him treading the boards in doublet and hose – Iago perhaps, at a pinch. He finishes his sandwich, and just lets the cellophane wrapper slip through his fingers to the floor. It’s the act of someone completely alienated from his surroundings. Any self-respecting litter-lout would have stuffed it down the side of the seat or left it on the ledge. It could be a last meal, or a quick snack to tide himself over before despatching himself to his allotted seventy-two virgins, and us with him – although we don’t get the virgins. Outside the window, the tunnel wall is uniformly lined with dust black, as intestinal cables rush past in a headlong dash toward oblivion.

“The next station is Goodge Street,” blares in my ears from a loudspeaker. There is a welcome screech of metal upon metal as the brakes fight for purchase on the wheels. This time I don’t have to push to get past the crush: they want me out of there A.S.A.P.

I almost stagger out of the doors. The air on the platform is as foul as anywhere in this city, but compared to the soup I was breathing in the train it’s pure mountain ozone. I stand rooted to the spot, taking a dozen long luxurious breaths, and let the rush of commuters brush past me. The big blonde bustles past and shoots me a darkly hostile glance. “Makes you paranoid,” I hear her say to her compliant companion.

Gradually the platform clears as I watch the train disappear into the darkness of the tunnel. I wait for the explosion, followed immediately by the cacophony of falling debris, then two seconds later the scorching blast of hot air as a wave of litter pushed out of the tunnel floats in the air momentarily before dropping down between the rails. A mouse, blown on to the platform by the force of the blast, staggers in erratic circles at my feet, its tiny eardrums perforated by the force of the explosion, then it is motionless. Fire alarms wail all around me, triggered by automatic systems.

But none of this happens. Instead the rumble of the carriages and the turbine whirr of the electric motor fade into the distance, sucking a thousand heartbeats and irrational fears into its slipstream with the dust of the city.

© Terry Hand 2008

Terry Hand is an illustrator but is concentrating on short stories, although he claims the creative process is the same. He’s interested in the strangeness of everyday life and the border between black comedy and tragedy. To view some of his illustrations, go to terryhand.com.

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