Six Stops Underground
by GS Smith
This is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste of others' bread, how salty it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes ascending and descending others' stairs
Dante Paradiso XXV
The dim white glow at the foot of the staircase was the sole light ahead of her. Even then to see it she had to bend double like a pensioner in winter winds, ducking down to peer under the descending slope of the ceiling, the underside of the pavement upon which the feet of weary walkers burdened with heavy bags and thoughts traipsed home in the cold Prague night. As she looked into the subway she mourned the loss of the escalators, paralysed by the same electrical fault that had plunged the staircase into darkness. She walked down the stairs into the station alone.
On her right were rows of advertising posters housed in tough plastic frames embossed to advertise here call xxx. Although unable to see them she recalled what each one looked like, salvaging what little comfort came from this familiarity: the first was for a gym - membership offer, arrays of treadmills and tiled pools supervised by tanned biceps and pert breasts straining against neat polo-shirts - then glaciers in ice-blue and an upstanding bottle of water - then dinner deals in restaurants baited with roast meats, oil-laden pasta and impossibly delicate desserts. The images were burned into her mind's eye by hundreds of glimpses - two each day, five days a week for the past six months. She would notice any change immediately: a hotel opening, a poster corner crumpled by a hasty replacement by a tired hand in worn gloves, graffiti scrawled all initials and invective. The same type of posters appeared at the same time of year - year in, year out – designer leather jackets and turtle necks replaced by historic attractions and magnificent views usurped by Thailand's Hidden Islands and Discover America in red, white and blue covered over by roaring fires, smiling families and the perfect gift for him to be cloaked again by the jackets. A cycle. Anyone choosing to live underground would experience a change in the season without ever experiencing weather.
Nearly half way down she quickened her steps towards the subway's signature reek of people, machinery, damp clothes, old newspapers, and the light. With each step she could see more of her surroundings, feeling the tension leave her shoulders as it all came in to focus. She thought that in most people, in some way, a fear of the dark still remains - a quiet neurosis from childhood hidden away in the recesses of adult minds like forgotten toys in an attic. The childhood the fear of the dark is a fear of the unknown, especially unknown people or beings: ghosts, mysteries in cupboards, strangers under beds. In adulthood the dark is populated with known threats: the fear is one of imagined muggers, violent drunks or stealthy attackers. In this way you may be violated but you may never be surprised. You know what lies in the dark, you take appropriate action: slip your watch out of sight, stay away from the underpass, keep your eyes down. As a child you hide under the blanket with your eyes closed.
Heading down a second, shorter and lit, staircase she arrived at the platform to find more people than she had expected. The other entrance was obviously more popular.
She looked down the platform at old men draped in overcoats coming home from jobs where they counted the minutes until the end of shifts during which they counted down the years until retirement in single digits - students shuffling in satchels, withdrawing their books in preparation for a journey withdrawn - determined, deep-wrinkled faces of Romany women travelling without tickets, undeterred by fine or threat. Opposite her, across the track, the wall was tiled with square metal panels, each with a circle in the centre. In the dull artificial light she couldn't tell whether the circle was indented or protruding - concave or convex? Did the tile have a dimple or a pimple? She turned her head to see if viewing the tiles side-on would let her see its design when the wall darkened with the shadow of the approaching train.
She sat in an aisle seat, placing her bag on the seat next to her which was covered in synthetic blue fabric, worn through to the plastic underneath. Opposite her sat a tall man with a shaved head, his knees uncomfortably bent in washed out jeans, accompanied by a young woman wearing a tight leather-effect jacket which grazed her t-shirt covered midriff. She wore a pair of skin-tight jeans and achingly high-heeled boots. Stripper heels. Suppose she could be. A possibility to which Bea had had to adapt over the past months. Bea gazed up at the woman's face to be met with a blank expression, empty staring eyes like a racehorse run into the ground and let out to pasture all too late. The couple sat in silence. The man surveyed the carriage, perhaps looking at the map above the seats, at the yellow, red and green lines like the wiring of a plug representing the subway tracks, working out how many more stops until his own. The girl stared straight ahead at Bea.
Bea withdrew her gaze and drew out her phone, checking to see if there was any word from Paul, to see if he had remembered their plans for that night. Had the subway lights been out at his station as well? She wondered if he knew whether the tiles at Karlovo náměstí were concave or convex. She read row upon row of his name in her inbox but no new message. She returned her phone to her bag and worried. Paul was too reckless. It was not a judgement she gave rashly. She had been watchful of this for months. Ever since he had told her of the night he spent sleeping in the park at the foot of the metronome in Letna under the spring sky all because he had no money to get home and liked the other side of the river where it was quieter and he had decided that for one night he wanted to overlook the motorways and bridges and be up above looking out over the life of the city detached from time dictating that there is an hour for home and an hour for journeys and an hour for being outside. She hoped he remembered.
The man opposite her reclined in his seat and gave her a brazen look in the eye. He looked like a manikin from a high street store with his anonymous smooth head, square jaw and plain clothes which betrayed no age, trend or class. Bea looked towards the floor, catching the woman, out of the corner of her eye, still staring, unblinkingly ahead of her. Bea reached in to her bag, brought out her book and began skimming through the pages to find where she had left off in the morning. She began to imagine that the carriage was full of manikins, that she was the only living person on the journey, on her own amongst models. She imagined that all other faces were the grey-beige of pale plastic, some with irremovable lipstick smiles and rigid limbs hung with fur coats and black tights, others in swimming shorts and summer shirts, another behind them wearing an identical frozen expression wearing a long camel trench coat. No one moved in the carriage.
They had passed three stops. Bea's was another five away. She tried to focus on her book but her mind kept turning back to the girl opposite her. She stole a quick upward glance and again, she was met with a vacant stare. Dark glassy eyes looking resigned, her body slumped against that of the manikin man. Bea tried to create back-stories for the girl. In one she was an officer worker on dress-down day, dressed up to impress a colleague, one she has longed for ever since they shared a drunken kiss at the office Christmas party. Was her look one of terror? She could be on a journey home to her parents to deliver the news that she was pregnant - the man beside her a casual fling now ensnared in something more - her mind racing through rehearsed lines, carefully chosen after considering the questions that would come from her disapproving, conservative father and too often disappointed mother, who would make demands upon the fierce-faced man opposite Bea. The girl continued to stare at Bea as she conjured these narratives of her life based upon the still staring eyes in front of her. Then a low voice very close to Bea's ear said,
You're getting off with me at the next stop. Don't turn around, keep looking ahead.
Don't change anything about how you have been sitting, continue as before without
showing that you can hear me. At Invalidovna we are getting off.
The violence of the voice made her obey it unquestioningly.
We are approaching the next stop, when we arrive you and I will stand up and get
off through the same door. Don't move quickly. Get up naturally.
His hand was tight on her arm. Bea's eyes widened, hoping her panicked face would alert the man opposite though she saw that both him and the girl were oblivious. Every objection, every plea or scream caught in her throat. She complied with the voice and continued to scan her book, not taking in the words, flipping the pages quickly. The brakes of the train whistled like belaboured breath through dentures as it came to a halt.
Now. We are leaving the train.
Bea felt herself stand up and turn to face the doors. They slid open and she stepped out, the man close at her back, the attack on her liberty undetected by the other passengers. She moved forward without volition, feeling like a marionette, divorced from gravity suspended from above by a string. The hand upon her wrist was not rough but constant and firm as a shackle. They stepped forwards together on the platform, a perfectly simultaneous step, the choreography flawless as he whisked her from the train and sideways towards the exit, away from the trickle of people boarding. He pirouetted her around to face him and as she finally saw him she was startled by the absence of hostility.
Do you have a mobile phone I could use?
Bea began stuttering objections and gesturing wildly with her hands, which she realised
were now free, though before she could put together a response he interrupted her:
Sorry about this, I don't mean to alarm you but it is really very important, it could
have been dangerous, can I please use your phone? We have to call the police before
he gets off the train. That girl. He had killed that girl.
© The Treacle Well 2013