(First published in Aké Review November 2016 edition)
Victoria underground station seethed; our bodies clung to each other packed like sardines.
“Stand behind the yellow lines.”
Bags tucked tightly under arms, in-between thighs, suit jackets clad with sweat, autumn coats vacuumed the remaining air. The doors slid open and I saw his reflection, the hipster. Standing beside me he seemed like a tower with his black hood up, his hoodie open to reveal his plain navy T-shirt, while the ends of his dreadlocks stuck out gently, laying comfortably against his chest.
My eyes fixed on his reflection as the rushed air of bodies wriggled off and on.
Successive beeping, doors slammed shut, his reflection gone and we stand, heaving from congestion. Three minutes. We were the next set of sardines to be crammed into the London tube heading to Seven Sisters, Tottenham. The announcement board flickered, billboards that faced us were outdated, a faint whirring of the ventilation fan. No use. Sweat beads gathered at the edge of my hairline and I inhaled heat.
I closed my eyes and slipped into the contours of his face, the lining of his dreadlocks and recalled how his head bopped, slightly, to what I had heard as heavy bass. His hood cast a shadow over his face. I was able to make out the finest details from what the underground light captured. Full rose lips enshrouded by a black beard and moustache, naked beneath its fringe. A bulb nose staunchly shone a caramelised brown. His eyes were lowered to what looked like a guitar case gripped between his hands, his thighs. White headphones trailed from the front left pocket of his jeans and disappeared into the hood’s abyss. Its white was bold against his blacks and blues. I shifted my backpack between my feet on the edge of the yellow line, thinking of what it would be like to lose myself in them, his dreadlocks. Stems of oaken bark wrapped around my waist, my palms clammy with sap spewing from where my nails attempted to dredge its hidden source of nourishment. His rose lips sipping from my cupped clammy palms, showing me how life roams within the locking of his hair. I watched as he gently weaved his fingers through the locks, gathering them up in his right hand, to stop them from falling into my palms. Holding a handful up above his head I noticed his bulging bicep. My chest expanded and my tongue felt heavy. Feeling the rapid pace of my heartbeat, I opened my eyes. The Victoria roundel snapped me into the present with its matt rouge and screaming white letters. My breathing staggered. I attempted to look discreetly from the corner of my eye and saw his brown hands still gripping the guitar case, an index finger tapping. What was he listening to?
The announcement board blinked. I touched my forehead; immediately my fingertips collected a pool of sweat. Body odour and heat convoluted the air. Still, three minutes.
Trying to regain composure I shifted my weight so my hip swung to the right and lowered my gaze to trace the threading of my backpack caught between my thighs. Had he seen me? I wondered if he was curious to see me, like I was curious to see him. The type of seeing that went before the eyes, a seeing that spoke rivers into the deepest corners of my heart; insecurities flushed out, a beating renewed, afresh. Standing beside me he felt familiar, his reflection had ignited a cool flame within me that I could not extinguish. I shifted my weight to the left, my foot jutted out like a ballerina’s touching the edge of the yellow line. I scratched the cotton threading of my backpack listening for the friction. I wondered if minute details such as these mattered to him, if he shared an interest with me, this complete stranger. Two minutes.
My backpack’s zip gently latched itself onto my black opaque tights, now in-between my calves, suspended from the grungy tiles. Sweat dribbled down my legs colluding with intricate stitching. The zip tugged as my calves began to loosen its grip, lowering the backpack to the grime infested ground, my tights were sure to ladder. It was a teasingly slow process, its latching on and gradual unzipping of my tights. It tore through the stitching and bared sights of wet flesh, and the fuggy air encased it. My skin was irritable. The zip was warm. And I thought of his warm honey coated fingers, wrapped around the guitar case. Thoughts of him infiltrated my mind so effortlessly. I traipsed back into the forest of his locks, swinging on its vines, dreaming of a freedom they could grant me. Again I closed my eyes and imagined a life before this moment, where he and I exchanged stories, exchanged love. Where we fed each other sap from our flowing locks and wrapped our wounds with our caramelised skin. I saw him in me, and he saw me in him. A life before this moment where we breathed air free of contaminated heat, free of claustrophobia: tight spaces and bodies.
What would that feel like?
I gripped the belt of my grey trench coat, its polyester fabric metallic in my sweaty hands. With my right hand I reached up and gently stroked the small tuft of hair on my head, from when I had recently cut off my locks after ten years. There was a fullness in his and I missed it. A new look, I had told myself, and I missed them. Refreshed approach, I said, and yet, I missed him. Bernard. I could feel an internal heat rushing to my eyes, the wetness it had gathered. Thoughts of this stranger standing beside me like a tower bulldozed by grieving memories of Bernard. Six months passed and all I could do was cut them, to severe the ties and move forward. But, of course, he was buried in the chambers of my heart. I brought my right hand to my face and touched my wet cheeks, mingled in sweat and tears.
One minute, before the next tube arrived.
A sudden movement caught my attention. A couple of mice with fur as black as soot scurried across the rail tracks. There was an eruption of movement: gasps and whispers, fingers poked through meagre gaps between coat collars and ear lobes, pointing at the spectacle in front of them. In live action they watched, with mouths agape, as the mice deftly darted through the two outer rails; one on the left and the other on the right, running along the concrete sleepers. The concrete sleepers were high platforms on either side of the hollowed centre holding up the middle rail. Everything a charcoal grey, resembling a microscopic city of grime. Camouflaged against the clips and bridge plates, thick wires and insulators, the rodents scuttled like miniature locomotives. Firm feet teetered behind the yellow line.
Bodies shifted, elbows jerked into other elbows, newspapers were folded away, suit jackets straightened, bags and briefcases lifted, heavy limps conversing: the sweat, the heat, the mice. ‘Mate, that stuff is nasty’, another disgruntled, ‘So this is where my money goes’, and another entertained, ‘They’re cute’.
The mouse on the left concrete sleeper carried remnants of bread most likely foraged from the tunnel’s abandoned crevices. In a peculiar pattern the rodent ran and stopped intermittently, nibbling at its meal. Its counterpart on the right concrete sleeper halted as though it were possessed, scratching away at one of the clips. Its tiny nails made soft, aggressive ticking sounds, it was deeply engrossed in its activity. We stood there, uncertain. Bags clutched close to chests, squeezed tightly under arms or slipped between the calves; guarded from imagined invasion.
Another soft muffling filled the space around me, thin scarves and sniffing. A foul smell wafted beneath our nostrils, our attention on the mice was distracted towards the direction of the smell’s voyage. I lifted my chiffon scarf to my nose to block the smell from venturing further.
“That isn’t going to help.” He spoke. I turned to face him, to see the dreadlocks which had haunted me for the past two minutes. But his eyes were lowered, and I could still hear faint traces of heavy bass.
“I’ve at least got to try.” And I attempted to laugh lightly, to be casual in my response. But the laugh ripped my heart asunder and stuffed it in my throat. Barely a sound left my lips where spit filled its corners.
Two strangers in limbo, I thought, one more invested than the other. I focused on the tiling facing me, on the meticulous curving of the wall, on its off-white in-fills, the posters peeling by the corner, the Victoria roundel, whilst listening to the faint traces increase to a loud pollution of heavy bass. I looked down, to the side, and to his battered trainers.
“Is that a guitar?” I whispered.
His eyes remained low and his music blared. My wet cheeks reddened. He continued to bop his head and I decided to lift my scarf to my nose, regardless of the smell sifting through.
My backpack shifted between my ankles, its zip still latched to my laddered tights. Sweat crawled down my back, surfed around my underarms and poured from the edges of my hairline.
“Train approaching, please stand behind the yellow line.”
It blew past us, the doors glided open, bodies wriggled off and we, in succession, wriggled on.