One Stop on the Central Line.
By Roger Morris.
There was something odd about the train. Something jarring as it hurtled along the west-bound Central Line platform at Holborn. He registered it subconsciously, a reaction in his limbic system.
A chill, the beginnings of a creeping sensation in his skin.
And then he realised what was different, and almost laughed out loud at the simplicity of the explanation, and the absurdity of his reaction.
The lights were out. That was all.
Every car along the length of the train was in darkness. That was why the windows looked like the blacked-out windows of a drug dealer’s Humvee. Why he couldn’t see anyone inside.
And now he felt the habitual annoyance of the put-upon commuter. Another train out of service, and with no warning. Typical.
But no, as the doors opened, he saw that there were passengers inside. Their sudden appearance as startling as any conjuror’s trick.
He detected some peculiar emotion in the faces of those inside who bothered to look up from their screens. It might have been excitement, or a sense of daring. Resentment perhaps, at the inconvenience of the black-out, or the intrusion of new passengers.
It could have been a look of warning, even.
Whatever it was, there was something off-putting about it. He suspected he wasn’t the only one who felt a momentary reluctance to get on board. Maybe he would let this train go after all.
It was all very well now, in the station, when the light from the platform filled the car. But as soon as the train went into the tunnel, wouldn’t it be plunged into pitch blackness?
He felt an anticipatory discomfort. It was what dread feels like before you acknowledge it as dread.
He wasn’t afraid of the dark, or at least had never thought that he was.
But when you are confronted with it in a place and at a time when you are not expecting it, it is no longer an abstract consideration. It becomes an oppressive, inescapable reality.
No doubt there were some who opted not to get in. Those with a phobia of confined spaces, in particular dark, confined spaces. Who had been traumatised by childhood games of Sardines, and did not relish repeating the experience with a group of adult strangers.
But at the same time, he had to admit there was something enticing about the situation too. This felt like a unique experience. Balanced against his reluctance was the sense that he wanted to get on, because he wanted to know what it would be like to travel through the subterranean darkness in a blacked-out tube train.
And the strange thing was, as far as he could tell, no one got off.
No wonder. More than anything, he detected an air of privilege among the passengers already on the train, as if they belonged to a select club.
He overcame his reluctance and stepped over the gap to enter the last compartment. It was the decision of an instant. And it was only after the doors closed behind him that he realised he had been the only one to get on. By then, of course, it was too late to go back.
He was only going one stop. So he stood by the door. The car was not as crowded as he might have expected. There were even one or two seats free. The darkness must have put off quite a few commuters.
The train accelerated along the platform. Advertisements flickered by in a blur of speed, along with the blank-faced stares of the people they were leaving behind. It was strange to think that he was invisible to them.
The dread returned, sharper, closer to the surface than before.
His car travelled the full length of the platform, which all at once felt like the extent of all the light remaining to the world. Even the very possibility of light was diminishing.
The imminence of darkness overwhelmed him.
And then they were in it.
And it was not as dark as he had feared – or perhaps hoped – it would be. To be frank, it was a disappointment.
The screens that his fellow passengers were bent over silvered their faces in a lunar glow. Each existed isolated in their own pool of light, and yet there was something communal about the effect too. They seemed engaged in a joint endeavour of keeping the darkness at bay, as churchgoers in ancient days might have been united by candlelight.
They seemed like ghosts, of course.
Which was enough, just, to satisfy him that they were not.
And didn’t they all have the latest iPhones and tablets and laptops? These were not trappings he associated with ghosts.
He thought about getting out his Kindle but it hardly seemed worth it. He was only going one stop after all. Besides, he was happy just to take in the atmosphere of the car, which had begun to feel strangely comforting.
The light that spilled from the other passengers’ devices was given freely. He was welcome to share in it.
If they were a community, he was a part of it now, however briefly.
His body settled into the rhythm of the journey. The gentle rocking and familiar vibrations soothed him. The clatter and roar of a tube train ought to be terrifying. But it was part of the world to which he belonged. One of the things, now, after twenty or more years of living in London, that made up who he was.
He never resented the time he had to spend travelling on the underground, provided the carriages weren’t too crowded. He used the time well. Either to read or to prepare himself mentally for the day ahead. Or maybe to process whatever was going on outside work.
It was a buffer. A reprieve. Time to himself, despite being surrounded by people.
The day promised the usual routine crap. He had to be in for a status meeting at nine. He hated meetings in general, but status meetings most of all. Every project he had ever worked on got behind virtually from day one. And somehow it always seemed to be his fault, or that’s how everyone else in the meeting insisted on seeing it. He was always the fall guy, the scape goat. The disappointed gaze, the recriminatory fingers, they were invariably directed at him. And he was the one left to sort out the mess caused by other people’s laziness and incompetence.
And of course there was Davidson to contend with. Christ, that guy loved the sound of his own voice. And he always had something to say that had nothing to do with anything, and only succeeded in creating a whole load of extra grief for yours truly. It wound him up just thinking about it. And the way everyone always took Davidson’s side, sucking up to him, nodding as if he was this wise all-knowing sage, and not an idiot spouting nonsense. Talk about buzzword bingo.
He suddenly realised how tired he was.
Physically tired, down to his bones. He’d been awake till at least 3 a.m., going through it all in his mind. Making sure he had his ducks lined up.
But emotionally tired too. And that was a tiredness that went deeper than bones. If only he could pack it all in. Spend his days fishing in Norfolk. Or just pottering in the garden.
That wasn’t going to happen any day soon. The kids weren’t off his hands yet. Jess was in her A-level year, Nathan had his GCSEs coming up. Double whammy, or what? Did you ever stop worrying about them? That was the real reason he hadn’t got any sleep last night. He’d lain awake straining to hear the front door, the sign that Jess was home. Home and safe.
His mind had worked overtime imagining all the bad things that could happen to his daughter while she was out of his sight.
You heard such terrible stories. How could he make her understand without scaring her, or forcing her away from him? Partly, he knew, it was a way of warding off catastrophe, by contemplating the very worst that could happen. But it was wearying, and ultimately useless. To distract himself, he had consciously turned his mind to work matters. He edited spreadsheets in his mind. The dancing numbers ought to have been soothing. But they only stressed him out in a different way.
Then he had heard her come in. And he allowed himself to relax. That was when he looked at the clock and saw that it was 3. He must have fallen asleep some time after that. The alarm had wrenched him into the new day at 6.
There’d been the usual struggle to get Nathan out of bed. And then the announcement that his son needed twenty quid for a geography field trip, which would have been fine except he had no cash on him and neither did Beckie. Plus the slip needed signing right now and had to be in today but somehow Nathan had managed to lose it.
Before long, everyone was shouting at each other, not in anger, but in panic. And he’d run out of the house in a bad mood, feeling like he was turning into his father, who had veered between the two poles of grumpy/remote and over-protective/smothering.
He saw now that his old man had only ever been trying to do his best.
Until he had dropped down dead from a heart attack that no one had seen coming at the age of forty seven.
He was now a year older than his father had been when he died. It was a disturbing thought, and somehow made him feel like he was living on borrowed time.
His father’s early death had at least prompted him to take out life insurance, though he had never got round to setting up a decent pension. He had once joked with Beckie that he was worth more to her dead than alive. Surprisingly, she hadn’t found it all that funny. It wasn’t really a joke, anyhow. Just an observation. The plan paid out sixty grand a year if he died, which represented a pay rise. It was one kind of solution. An end to all the worrying at least.
The train began to decelerate. Then stopped mid tunnel. They must be just outside Tottenham Court Road station. Waiting on a red light for the train in front to get out of the way.
He didn’t mind the delay. Part of him wanted it to last forever.
But then he remembered his nine o’clock meeting. If he was late it would be another stick for Davidson and his cronies to beat him with.
He willed the train to start moving again. To no avail.
He sensed the mood in the car shift a notch towards anxious. Perhaps the thought had just occurred to these screen-addicts that if they were stuck in this tunnel for long enough, the batteries might start to go on their devices.
It seemed like everyone was collectively holding their breath.
And then he heard it, in that hanging silence of a suspended moment. The echoing slam as the door between two carriages was thrown shut.
He looked down the length of his car, through into the next car, which was lit by the same muted silver glow.
And then the second slam came. Closer than the first.
Was he imagining it, or had the glow in the next car dimmed?
Someone was coming up the train, passing through the carriages. It had to be the driver. He could only assume that one of the passengers had panicked and activated the emergency alarm. Which was annoying, and stupid, but also understandable.
Another door slammed.
His bloody imagination would be the death of him. Because now he imagined he could hear the echoing thud of the driver’s footsteps as he moved along the train. Impossible of course. It was only the blood pulsing in his ears. Just like when he was a kid, he had thought he had heard the bogey man coming up the stairs in the middle of the night. Until he had worked out that he could make the supernatural footsteps stop by lifting his head off the pillow.
The next door slammed and now he could no longer pretend that he was imagining it. The impossible footsteps were audible. And growing louder all the time.
Was he the only one who could hear them? Evidently so. Everyone else in the car was wearing headphones or ear buds. It wasn’t just the glow from their screens that cut them off from their neighbours.
The next door slammed. He looked down the car again. The glow in the next car was without doubt dimmer than before. And the heavy, echoing footsteps were louder than ever.
He closed his eyes and kept them closed as the next two doors slammed.
When he opened them he saw that the next was in complete darkness. It seemed the glowing screens had been extinguished along the length of the tube.
The echoing footsteps had stopped. The train was silent.
Whoever was approaching – he no longer allowed himself the possibility that it was the driver – had paused before the last set of doors.
He heard the click and ratchet of the first door handle turning, though he could see no one framed in the blank, black window.
Then the sound was repeated and the second door swung open inwards.
There was no one there. No one he could see.
The footsteps came into his car, and with them the darkness that had seeped through the rest of the train.
One by one, he saw the screens black out, and the passengers who were bent over them were absorbed into the spreading darkness.
He did not try to escape. How could he?
There was nowhere for him to go. He could only stand and wait for the thudding darkness to reach him.
Strangely, he accepted it. Welcomed it even. For he realised that it had been inside him all along.
His fear left him as the darkness overwhelmed him. For it felt like coming home.
The tube train disappeared. He was no longer in a confined space, but somewhere infinite and expanding.
It was not empty. He filled it. And it filled him. And lifted him. He was infinite and expanding.
It was not cold. It was not anything. After a while, it ceased to be even darkness.
One last conscious thought flickered and dissipated.
There is nothing to worry about any more.