They come slowly at first. Viruses. Transform everything. Nothing’s the same any more. Then they disappear. But you know they’ve been. They leave a mark.
7.25.03. We make it inside the train. The same worn down seat covers where we sat yesterday and the day before. The line of shoes and boots hugging against one another, trying not to notice the invasion of space. The bags and briefcases, laptops and coats piled up onto laps, or looming overhead on the racks which fail to give enough space. The number above the door: 70720. The commuters who journey on the labelled train to the labelled city. We are marked. The glaring red triangles, No Smoking plastered on every window. A harsh reminder to those who eagerly puff their last drag before embarking onto a place called ‘nicotine hunger’.
Faces gradually disappear behind newspapers, books. Dim fluorescent lighting, outdated and oppressive, gives a shadow view of half lit faces and bodies. Platform number one slowly disappears with its flashing neon signs showing us the destination we face every day. 7.26.025.
The light begins to break – even. Through the grey clouds and smog filled air. Day breaks. I am yearning to go back in the other direction, home to bed. My nose, red and sore, encased with tiny particles of mucus which drip down my face incessantly. My fingers numb. Commuter morning and we are all mourning the loss of something: the lost father or mother, the friend who turned out to be a betrayer, the soul mate who was not even a mate. We all have loss to bear.
Please give up this seat if an elderly or disabled person needs it. But no-one moves. Dog eat dog in this, commuter world. 7.29.04. There are the rails that as children we wanted to swing on, but were not allowed. And now, they are yet another reminder of what’s missing. There are never enough seats. We are crunched up like squashed flies. People don’t care when they do it every day. At least it’s inside, out of the cold. No longer standing like a troop of soldiers at the edge of the platform, fighting for the one available seat amongst a pile of bodies steaming and breathing together. Squashed up like flies in a spider’s web.
We catch glimpses of the houses by the rail tracks, the ones that wake up hourly to the sound of the London trains. The ones that never get to sleep, to know peace. And below, the motorway traffic speeds ahead in a line that trails off into the distance. There is no space between cars, a train on the motorway where people have seats. No invasion of space. But the trails of carbon monoxide loom up into the sky, cutting holes in the ozone layer which now fails to protect. We all head for the same destination without knowing where it takes us or why.
There is a ghost in here. It smells of the past, of a service that never moved on to better times. The statue that still lives. And in this carriage, the quiet zone, we think our own private thoughts and feelings unknown to others. We are interrupted by the burst of mobile phone un-melodious melodies. We are no longer alone but connected via a machine to another human being.
Some of them cough. It’s that time of year. Bugs. Viruses. Difficult to escape when you’re enclosed in an oxygen-deprived space breathing in exhaled air from another’s mouth. Carbon Dioxide. Superficial air. Not enough to stay alive. But no-one looks alive in here. Not at this hour. Lack of REM sleep leads to insanity or dis-ease. Deprivation of unconscious processing. No time for sleep. Not when you’re hoping for a seat on the 7.25.
The morning kiss or slap on the mouth, the night time argument, missed breakfast, child who cried through the night, heated words, undercurrents of conversations, hangover, delinquent child, ADD, food intolerances and words that were never heard. These, our internal thoughts and wanderings through the mazes of our lives. We are in a space between home and the city. Nowhere zone. Feelings lurk beneath the newspaper reading human heads, on this, a November morning where we are all in mourning. Rain splatters on window pains. Pain. Mutual empathic tears. Global. Universal. The human consciousness.
The morning breaks yet it seems darker. The dark encloses us. We sit in a shell about to hatch open. And the thick, deep water of the river beneath us. Yet, we are already drowning. Buildings in the fog stand forgotten. Motionless. Yet, like a molecule they thrive with internal movement. The city begins to yawn and wake.
The man stands hunched up in a corner, alone, and unobtrusive against a steaming window. All black, except his face which is a darker shade of mustard. He stands quietly, no mobile phone. No quirky look as if to make a pass or a friendly gesture at a fellow passenger. He is an oblique still on the landscape. A pigeon on top of a high-rise flat. The voyeur.
He holds a black briefcase and a cheap looking umbrella. There is no sign of rain today. He is not going to the office or the shop. The sloppy way he dresses is a giveaway. But, the briefcase and umbrella tell another story. No-one notices him. Not now.
We continue to stick together like flies coughing a melody together in the steamed up carriage. And the coughing increases its pitch. Claustrophobia. Slowly the train oozes on through tracks that cannot take it any faster. Signalling problems. Congestion. Body on the tracks. They become agitated. You see it in their eyes. Fidgeting. Mobile phones emerge and a cacophony of voices repeats a unified monologue. Repetition of another day. Repetition.
Faces and bodies that live the same story every morning at 7.25. Take a dose of caffeine and search for the same cramped carriage they sit or stand in every morning. Seats are in short supply. This is not a war or poverty zone. We work in the city. Churning out money day after day and still sitting or standing in the rationed seating conditions of the carriage.
We wait for a space to breathe. The stale oxygenated air mingles with the smell of body odour, packed lunches, coffee, stale cigarette smoke and the waft of the clinical train toilet fumes. No-one can breathe in here. We all wait to depart the long commuter ride to our respective lives in city land.
8.25.09. More stuffy now. A mass of black bodies looking ahead at nothing or nose dived into a novel or the Metro or the Evening Standard from the night before. And the vultures who grasp for a free paper lying on the floor or scrunched up on a seat. The others who look slyly like foxes over the shoulders of others to read the headlines: words that shout of an abusive world where killings, muggings, abandonment and the sexual deviances of those in power are common. And we trudge on with these words imprinted in our psyches, digging restlessly into our thoughts, tugging and pulling at the imaginings we call our own. Yet the words have taken hold, captured us with their allure. This is human we tell ourselves. To kill and rape and abuse is human. We can’t help ourselves. This is life. We forget what our own thoughts were. They disappeared with the rest of us in this claustrophobic journey.
We’re cooped up like chickens in a hen house. There’s a pecking order. You cluck and hope to be first in line. If you’re small you get trampled on. You are not heard. They peck at the windows trying for air, trying to breathe. Push against others for more space. If you don’t breathe you don’t lay. This hen house was full of hens trying to breathe so they still laid or got laid.
Mustard man stands in the same corner, mouth breathing hot air onto the window pane. Waiting for pain. A cunning fox about to pounce. Outside sound is obliterated, unacknowledged by commuters’ plugged ears. Reality is blocked while another sound pushes the internal world further inside. They who listen to other sounds do not hear.
Eyes remain half shut. Windows shut out the outside world. Doors closed. Enclosed in a cage. Battery hens with nothing to peck. The cold, dark outside air plummets through cracks in the windows as another train rushes past. A moment of disturbance. The closeness of another claustrophobic engine forcing windows to tremble with unease.
While the chickens cough and push against one another grasping for space and air, his hand moves slowly till his big paw grabs something inside the bag. Small black object. The chickens don’t see. Caught up in their plight to seek air, space and the obliteration of reality. The fox doesn’t bring air. He brings something else.
The air starts to change. Subtle. A waft of something. The chickens don’t know the fox is about to pounce. The air is thicker now, invisible to our unknowing eyes. We cough because we are already coughing. Half of us have some kind of virus, snot and phlegm oozing out of every nasal orifice, smell and droplets of mucus already in the air. Chickens can’t lay when they’re poisoned.
Air is thicker now. But we don’t see. We only feel – something. The fox is fumbling in the corner. A restless passenger. Some open the windows wider. Black air outside. Train in a tunnel. He edges closer. The fox with the black object. We are inside a dark tunnel. They look on edge – some of them. He almost laughs. I seem to be the only one who notices him. I see beads of sweat dripping down the side of his face. The size of his pupils enlarge. I feel his heart beat. Something is alerting me but I don’t know what. I clasp my briefcase with an urgency and anticipation. I think I smell something briefly but it is an unfamiliar smell. I loosen my tie.
Some are still restless. Mustard man wipes his forehead with a black scarf. Please remember to take all belongings with you. We have arrived. Platform number one. The train glides easily into its station. Flashing sign tells us it is 9.05.03. Seven minutes late. But we can move again. Frozen limbs through clutching onto rails and seats can stretch. We have air and space. We are free. Yet there is a feeling nudging at my throat. All is not well. This is not a normal day. I see two policemen walking the length of the carriage. Not that unusual. but somehow I am alarmed. Ill at ease. This is not a normal day. I wipe the sweat that has formed on my upper lip. My breathing is rapid. Nothing will ever be the same again.
I wake up in a white room. My head is throbbing. I have a bad cough but I cannot expectorate. I am hot. Boiling all over my wet body which writhes amongst clinical white sheets. A masked white face looms above me. She is smiling underneath her mask. This, my mirage in a wide open desert. I clutch my chest. A pain grips my lungs so tight I feel as if someone is strangling my insides. The air has all gone, siphoned out of my bronchial tubes. They tell me I have mediastinal widening – it’s written on my chart. I can’t breathe properly any more. This is real.
They haven’t found mustard man. Still investigating. Lucky I was a witness. No-one else noticed our slow push to death. I didn’t know for certain for a week afterwards. Doctor said it was flue. But inside I knew. I couldn’t forget his face. We were given antibiotics. High doses of chemicals. If you don’t die of one you die of the other. None of us will survive. We’re lined up here like bodies in a white sterile morgue. No-one can visit. They bathed us so many times. White diluted bleach. Now I know what it’s like to be a toilet. Showered down like sick animals. Everything here is white. They prepare us for heaven.
Thought I was getting better. After two days it goes away. The pain and the coughing disappear. Then it comes back again. Like a terminal illness. There is no cure. Viruses. They don’t go away.
I am choking. My throat constricts and calls out in unison with others but no-one hears. No voice any more. No sound. Death is in the air. Bacteria have invaded my lungs. The silent intruder. When there is nothing to hold on to any more you go somewhere else. No-one else is there. I can’t see inside or outside. Black everything. The fox has hunted down his prey. This is the new virus. None of us will reach our destination. Our throats are too dry.
The man in black disappeared or died. I don’t know which. We are in a real war zone now. We played at being dead day after day. Now most of us are. I left the black tunnel with the other targets. Millions of small particles of something so dangerous that it could kill a whole nation. We are fighting to escape this – death. No-one wants to die. We don’t know what’s out there. We don’t want to be forgotten. Please God, give me life!
There is no point to it all. No point. The drudgery of travelling up and down a line led to this. We battled for a seat every day for forty seven weeks of the year, tired out in our exhaustion to find comfort and ease. You have to fight. If you don’t fight you don’t get. Yet in our fight we died as human beings. We no longer saw or heard the world around us. We didn’t see the signs. We forgot what was most important. The end came and we never had the chance to remember who we really were and what we were doing every day in a cramped carriage which gave us no space and no air. We worked in a polluted city. We blocked out the reality around us for our own survival. Yet, we did not survive.
The chickens have been slaughtered.