Underground, page 1
To my family, with much love.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’
1 Electric Ladyland
2 Red is the Colour
4 After the Candle
5 Alice on the Underground
6 Squirrel Cage
8 The Feeling of Sight and the Feeling of Sliding
9 The Low Road
12 Out of Depth
A Note on the Author
By the Same Author
‘Mind the gap. Please mind the gap. Please –’
The echo of closing doors goes along the Underground platform. The train creaks with stress as it begins to move. Its half-empty carriages fill with the sounds of motion, tunnel air loud against the dirt-streaked windows.
In the first carriage sits a large man in station worker’s clothes. He rests with his eyes shut, arms crossed heavily, shoulders down. The skin of his face is tight against the cheekbones, smooth and reddened where he has shaved without water. The tunnel smells of car exhaust and human hair. It is familiar to him as the smell of his own rented room, which is the smell of himself.
First he is sleeping, then he is not sleeping. London passes overhead. He dreams briefly of catch pits, tunnels of white tiles, tunnels of dark grime. His hands lie twisted together in his lap, the tendons drawn clear towards the raw skin of the knuckles. Between his feet rest the black boxes of a cellular telephone, a track voltage tester and a waterproof torch. He keeps his feet and ankles touching them, like a cautious traveller in a foreign country. The groundwater on their scuffed rubber dampens his socks and working trousers.
The tunnel air sighs, open-mouthed: Haaaah. Where the structure widens or joins other tunnels, the sigh hollows out. Like water underground, the man thinks. He has not eaten or drunk this morning and the image of water makes him thirsty. He thinks of the city. Rain against shop windows. The smell of low tide near the river, in the plaster in the walls of his room on Lower Marsh. It makes his head hurt.
He knows the Underground line and that he will be awake when he arrives at work. It is not necessary for him to open his eyes. At each station, the rumble of the train doors cuts off fragments of platform announcements and the distant sounds of escalators in the miles of halls and concourses. Twice there is a movement of people in the carriage, their bulk blocking the light on his eyelids.
But it is early morning and there are few passengers. When he is asleep, the man still feels his hands against each other, the palm of the left slightly warmer than the heel of the right. When he is awake, he listens to the sound of the tunnel, how it deepens out at junctions and abandoned stations.
After some time he becomes aware of a voice. There is someone sitting to his right, singing. The voice rises and falls, loud for a moment and then quiet, humming against closed lips. He opens his eyes.
‘There must be some kind of way out of here. Said the. Too much confusion. Can’t get no.’
He has never liked music, the ways it changes what he feels. But the girl in the next seat is singing to her Walkman. Her voice is very young, musical even without the music. A beautiful voice, the man thinks. He tries to listen without being seen to do so. It is something to know about the girl, what music she likes.
She has her headphones turned up loud. He can hear the hiss of a beat over the Underground’s roar. He listens with his head leant a little to one side, tie pulling tight against his throat. He keeps his eyes fixed on the yellowed strip lighting, the row of grey hand-grips swinging on their springs. Cha, cha, uh-huh. Her fingers beat on the armrest between them.
He wants to turn and look at her but does not. It is the same instinct which makes him cross the road at night if he is walking behind a woman. Because he is strong, he doesn’t want to frighten people. He keeps to himself. But he has never heard a girl singing down here alone. Only the junkies. She doesn’t sound junked-out. This is part of what interests him.
He looks along the carriage. This is the first up-train of the day, the 5.39 under the river and the West End, out towards the North Circular and the Green Belt. He can see two black men in tunnel-cleaner overalls, a boy dozing with a backpack on his knees, a woman reading the morning business sections.
There is no sound of people except for the girl’s voice. Clear but out of tune. No one looks up at her. He watches her hand on the armrest, at the periphery of his vision.
‘Have you ever been have you ever been to Electric Ladyland?’
She has been eating oranges while he slept. He can see the yellowish pith under her nails. Around her is a litter of peel, small bits torn off and thrown across the stained and corrugated wood floor. The sour smell of fruit mixes with those of rain and urine.
She smells of homelessness. He wonders how old she is and where she sleeps. He looks back at her hand.
There are ink marks where the prominent bones run to her index and middle fingers. A jumble of red and blue words and symbols in smudged print: UNDERWORLD, ΩHM. His eyes narrow as he tries to understand.
He looks down at her small boots. The left sole is coming away; she has tied it on with a second pair of shoelaces. He wants to tell her to use glue, glue would be better. The beat of her hand is regular as a pulse. He imagines what it would feel like, reaching out and covering that movement.
Instead he watches her in the window opposite. Against the dark of the tunnel walls, her skin and the scuts of her dreadlocks are white-blonde. The curve of the glass lengthens the angles of her cheekbones and chin. He doesn’t remember seeing her on the first up-train before. But she is familiar from somewhere on the Underground. This also interests him. Her head is leant back, her eyes are closed, the eyebrows raised. She looks like she is dreaming. He wants to know if she dreams in colour.
She opens her eyes and looks back at him, first through the window’s reflection and then directly, turning in her seat.
He thinks how dull they are, her eyes. Blue like blood seen through muscle. The shock of them makes him sit up. He is slow to register that she is talking to him.
‘I forgot my Travelcard. I forgot it at home. It’s for a month.’
Her voice is too loud, compensating for the Walkman. All the lilt of the music has gone out of her speech. When she sang she had an American accent; now she talks with the stopped-consonant voice of London or its satellite towns. For a moment he doesn’t understand what she is saying. He turns to face her. She is looking at his uniform, not at him.
She has no ticket, he thinks. He shakes his head, tries to smile.
‘I’m sorry. I’m not a ticket inspector. You don’t have to –’
But she is looking away from him, eyes flickering across the windows. Outside the dirt-black tunnel gives way to a blur of posters, blue and white tiles, slowing past red-blue London Transport roundels and the station name, WARREN STREET. He turns back to her again.
She is no longer in her seat. He looks up and round, surprised at the quickness of her movement. She is by the door, staring back at him while the train brakes to a stop. He looks at her hands, balled into fists, the ink marks clear against the whitened skin.
He has a strong urge to get up and go to her, to tell her – what? That he finds it hard to look away from her or that he has seen her before? That he knows homelessness in himself, years old, still felt as if the bones are indelibly stained inside him? Instead he makes himself sit back. He wonders if he would be able to explain. The doors open and she steps out and
The train starts to move again. The man looks down at his large hands, thinking of hers. After a moment he turns quickly in his seat. The girl is walking along the platform, not hurrying. She has begun to sing again; he can see her lips moving. Her eyes are fixed ahead. She doesn’t look up at him as the train carries him out of sight.
‘So. Burton. Nice name. Where you from?’
‘That’s a way to come to Camden. What’s that, thirty minutes’ drive even this time of the morning, am I right?’
‘Not to worry. Anyway, I’m Mick Adams. I’m Super. The bloody great foreign geezer over there, that’s Cass. He’s Assistant Super. You’re trainee muck now, but one day all this could be yours. All you have to do is like being under six hundred square miles of London. OK? You must be a Hammers fan.’
‘Oy. Don’t diss my team, all right?’
‘All right. I was only asking. I didn’t say a word. Did I, Cass?’
He is by the escalators, down on his haunches. Something is caught in the machinery, he can hear it in the whirr and clank of parts as the steel-and-wood steps are carried round. Most likely it will be a plastic bag or a bag strap. Later he will check the maintenance chamber. The obstruction tears rhythmically, down in the works. He half-closes his eyes, trying to concentrate.
For the most part he is not thinking of the escalator. He is remembering the girl on the morning train. The bones of her hands, marked with blue ink. The skin was very smooth, almost without lines, as if she might have no fingerprints.
The sense of having seen her before is still with him. He grinds his teeth gently, trying to remember.
He straightens and turns. Adams is watching him, running fingertips across his side-combed scalp. A sharp, compact man, facial skin punctured with red pores and broken veins. The trainee is standing further off by the wall, very black against the white- and blue-glazed tiles. A pattern of stars is shaved into his hair.
‘I was just asking him, wasn’t I?’
‘Of course. You are the supervisor.’ He walks towards them across the tiled hall, which is also only a junction of corridors. Behind the station supervisor, dot-matrix boards begin to light up with the times of early trains to Morden and Bank.
‘This is Burton. He’s on Youth Training and he likes West Ham Football Club. Isn’t that right, Burton?’
The younger man is looking down at his palms. Where he has touched the concourse wall tiles, a glittering grime has come away on his coat and skin. He swears, face wrinkling back from his teeth, narrowing his eyes. ‘Look at this cack. It’s all over everything.’
Adams tuts his tongue against his teeth. ‘Force of gravity, Burton. All the dirt ends up down here. Don’t knock it, though, it’ll keep you in work for years. They should put it in government. Be like Cass here, he loves it. Still gets here an hour early for work, don’t you, Cass?’
The younger man is looking away, up the escalator shaft. Weak dawn light reaches across the upper ceiling. Casimir thinks it will be a fine day outside. Sharp and bright. Adams goes on talking behind him.
‘You’re not worried by a bit of dirt, are you? A bit of hard work? No. Tell you what, since you’ve come all this way. Go back downstairs and tell Mister Oluwo to show you the old cross-passages. It’s like the Cheddar Caves down there, all snickets and pope-holes. You can do a bit of cleaning, if you’re feeling strong. All right? Remember the way?’ A man in pinstripes heads past them, walking hard towards the City platform. ‘Chop chop.’
Casimir watches as the trainee goes, shoulders hunched angrily, rubbing his hand on his trousers. He remembers his own first few days on the Underground. The feeling of control in the tunnels and halls, their light and air and even life rationed out; and with that, the gradual calm of finding his own life under control. The darkness out in the open, all around him, so that although it could and can still bring him out in a cold sweat, he is always ready for it. The fear never takes him by surprise. The Underground’s great extent and age were things he learned later, but the sense of order has never gone away, not yet. It is something he needs, the control.
Most of all, he remembers the Tube seeming like a hiding place. It felt as if he was coming to ground here, waiting for something to catch up with him. He doesn’t know what he is waiting for. Casimir does not understand where this sense comes from.
A lorry goes past overhead, the crash of its load and fittings filtered down. He turns away. He finds the distance of the sound soothing. Like rain through windows. He leans back against the wall. ‘He won’t be back tomorrow.’
‘Of course he won’t. Why should he? There’s nothing for him down here.’ The supervisor hawks and spits away.
They go on towards the platforms. Overhead in the city Casimir walks stooped, shy of his own height. But here in the passages he moves more naturally, the scooped curve of the tunnel leaving him scant headroom. He is always aware that people can be threatened by him, and not only because of his looming, soft-footed bulk. He is disturbing, in the way someone who has been through deep fear is disturbing. He imagines it coming off him like an odour: not fear any more, but something to be frightened of.
Along the walls, layers of old advertisements have been ripped off, strips hanging down loose where the poster hangers have left their night-work unfinished. Casimir looks up at the shots of blue sky, water beading black skin, car tracks on white sand. The slogans: ‘GET DOWN AT G-SPOT SNOOKER & BEER HALL!’, ‘MANY WHO PLAN to seek God at the eleventh hour DIE AT 10.30’.
The floor is uneven by the next junction of tunnels, scarred by heavy machinery. He stops and takes a spray can out of his work coat, then kneels to mark round the rough tiling. Later he’ll get a warning sign from the storerooms.
‘What’s wrong with that? Eh?’ Adams waits for him, impatient. Something of him is always moving, hands or mouth or eyes.
‘It could be dangerous.’
‘Dangerous! Did you hear what happened on the new line? The drum diggers went through into a cave. Eighty feet deep. So what they’ve done is, they’ve concreted over the top of it and gone and laid the track. What do you think of that? All those passengers thinking they’re going underground, when really they’re chuffing along eighty feet above it.’
The supervisor is looking up at the NO SMOKING sign bolted to the wall, the shine of black enamelled smoke. ‘No, you’re right to be careful. Good lad. Christ, I need a fag.’ He puts his hands in his pockets, keeping them still. ‘How are you, Cass? I haven’t seen you much this week.’
He shrugs. ‘We were on different turns. I’m well.’
‘You don’t look it. You look peaky. Cash flow all right, is it? No family trouble?’
‘No.’ He is surprised. Family is not something he and Adams have talked about since Casimir filled in his job application. Next of Kin: ‘none’, he wrote. Which was not true, although it is how Casimir lives his life. In eight years, the relationship of Casimir and the supervisor has never gone much beyond work. Casimir tries to remember if they have ever met above ground. He thinks not. Real friendship is never something he has wanted from the supervisor. He feels no need to be understood. He stands back up, clapping his hands clean. ‘No trouble. I have no family.’
‘That’s right, isn’t it? No offence meant, eh?’
Adams slows as they reach a flight of stairs. The steps are worn down at their centres, metal and stone uneven. He goes down with one hand on the ironwork banister. Two steps behind, Casimir tries to imagine him retired, in a room of his own. All he can see is Adams in the station office, leant forward over the stained plyboard consoles, face lit with closed-circuit monitor light.
At the bottom of the stairs, the poster hangers have put up a new film advertisement. The paper is still shiny with wallpaper paste. They stop together in front of the clean, blue-whi
‘Middle turn. With Sammons.’
‘So you were. You missed the news, then.’
Another commuter passes them, a young woman reading a paperback as she walks, hair blown into her face, skirt blown back against her ankles. Adams follows her with his eyes as he talks quietly. ‘There was a bit of fuss yesterday. An accident. Late turn, round about afternoon rush hour.’
Adams nods. They begin to walk again. It has been almost a year since the last accident at their station. A failed Bank Holiday suicide, a scrawl of explanation twenty pages long stuffed into his jacket pockets. Casimir remembers the man weeping, bloody and wretched. The hum of electricity trying to earth itself.
He requires the thoughts to be gone and they are. ‘A suicide?’
Adams looks back at him, half-smiling. ‘A suicide wouldn’t be an accident now, would it? Line Management reckons it was a fall. The platforms were crowded up to the white lines. Most likely someone got too close, pushing and shoving and that. This girl went down into the catch pit like that –’ He snaps his fingers. The retort echoes along the tiled corridor.
Casimir waits for him to go on. Adams adjusts his watch-strap, then looks down towards the platform. ‘Clean fall, but she tried to climb up out on the negative rail. Caught a bit of current and a bit more off the signal line. The bruises were worse than the burns and no blood to speak of. They’ve kept her in overnight for, you know? Just in case. It looked worse than it was. The way she fell.’
‘What was her name?’
‘Her name?’ Adams frowns, blue eyes staring. ‘Is, not was. She’s not dead, for Christ’s sake. Doesn’t matter anyway, does it?’
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