Some days it seems like the only thing she can remember about her day is the commute - day in and day out, Tooting to Kennington, change to the Bank branch, change at Bank, Central Line to Chancery Lane and then the reverse, over and over, yesterday and today and tomorrow forever.
Some days she sits, when she can get a seat, and realises she can hardly remember the day before: the emails sent, the emails received, the emails responded to. Breakfast - an apple and a coffee from Pret, the same every day. Lunch, a sandwich from Pret, eaten at her desk. And then home again, for yet another faceless, wholly unmemorable dinner: A sensibly sized portion of whole-wheat pasta, perhaps, with a grilled chicken breast spread across it, butterflied, a virgin sacrifice to the gods of watching one's figure.
Today she has a seat - her first in who knows how many trips back and forth across London, and she leans her head against the plastic partition that separates her from the doors and the arse of whoever's leaning against it on the other side, mashed flat at the level of her shoulder: pancaked butt-cheeks in faded denim blue. Did she send that email to Copley, and did he reply? At what point in the project are they? She can hardly remember, can't check her phone (there's no signal so deep underground) and is distracted by the way the buttcheeks mashed against the plastic partition are swaying with the movement of the carriage as it rattles down the track. They must be under the Thames by now, she reflects; she's pretty sure they just left London Bridge. She definitely remembers the train grinding to a slow, then jerking to a halt, the buttcheeks lifting away from the partition for a moment before mashing back against it again.
She often thinks about the tunnels that make up the Underground, that extraordinary feat of engineering that went into making the system that she and millions of others trudge through thoughtlessly every day: a marvel of planning, of engineering, of ego and of ambition. These tunnels, she reflects, are in their way even more extraordinary than the skyscrapers that tower over them, because somehow someone somewhere had to take all that weight into account; the constant unthinkable burden of earth and masonry and iron and steel and concrete and glass and automotive use and human life that presses down upon these delicate structures that crisscross so many feet below the surface of the earth, a subterranean spider's-web, strong as steel.
She wonders when she last saw the stars. She should take some time off; go visit her parents in Dorset. The sky is beautiful at night, especially in the winter; even now, in the body-odour-scented heat of the Tube, she can almost feel the cold on her face, the chill seeping up from the earth beneath her as she stands in the yard looking up at the sky. That was last Christmas. She'll be back at Christmas this year, but that feels impossibly distant from here, on this hot, humid, overheated train, buttcheeks mashed against the plastic next to her. A drop of sweat rolls down her chest, tickling her skin before being absorbed by the bit of fabric between the cups of her bra. Sweat rolls down her skin every morning, it seems, no matter what time of year. The train is always hot, humid, overheated, smelly, close.
Yes, she should go back to Dorset. She feels pretty certain she meant to go in the early spring this year, having promised herself not to let it go too long between visits this time. She didn’t, of course. Her last visit was Christmas, and even though it wasn't that long ago it feels like an eternity.
The train slams to a stop again and she rises reflexively from the seat, muscle-memory alone sending the signals down to her legs: brace, lean forward, push off, rise. She is now standing against a tall man, his back to her. She's surrounded by tall men; can't raise her head to look them in the face and wouldn't even if she could. They're just travellers, like she is; ghosts that haunt the periphery of her everyday life.
And now the doors have opened and the crush of the commute crowd has begun to push through. She doesn't know if Buttcheeks is moving with her or has remained, plastered against the partition, adamant that he won't move - he has a good spot, where he can brace himself against the movement of the train and still use his hands to read or drink coffee or whatever he's doing: perhaps it's no more than scrolling through his phone, the last page of whatever website he visited before the train last went underground.
She follows the crowd, or perhaps it carries her along: whatever’s happening, it’s some combination of following and being taken, like a fish in a river swimming with the current. Why expend any more effort than necessary? She could lift her feet from the floor and be taken up the stairs, along the connecting passages, down the stairs, along the platform, to wait for the next train and the next train after that.
It's night, and she's going home. She's in a middle seat this time - a seat during peak commute hours! The train rushing south, crisscrossing its network of hollow concrete webbing, a cobweb empty of cob. Or something. She wonders idily if there's a better metaphor: that kind of spider that lives in holes, and doesn't spin webs. but lines its den with soft, sticky webbing and then emerges, lunges to catch bewildered insects, drags them down underground...
No. She nearly laughs but no one laughs on the trainride home at night, so instead she smiles ruefully at her flight of fancy. She's a mole, or a flea on a mole, travelling a network of tunnels: nothing arachnid about it. Moles are cute. Annoying, according to her mother, who seems to spend her retirement fighting an endless war with them in her garden. But cute. Much cuter than spiders.
Did she send that email to Copley? Or is she still waiting for his email? She takes her phone out of her handbag without thinking, presses her thumb over the home button. The screen flares to life and she tries to open her email, but of course there's nothing there. No signal underground. She'll have to remember to check tomorrow. Her memory of the day is hazy: apple and coffee, email, sandwich, email, home. Meetings, there were meetings. She opens up the notes app and writes a new note: check Copely email? and saves. She checks her previous notes. Check Copely email? Check Copely email? Check Copely email?
She shakes her head. She'll have to do something about the Copely account tomorrow; she's completely lost the plot. She kills her phone's screen and slips it back into her bag. Stares at the sea of legs, feet, torsos in front of her. Wonders, as she always does, how many people make this commute home with her every night. Her fellow passengers are ignoring her, of course; God forbid they not. Some are reading, some are playing games on their phones, some are listening to music, some are staring off into space, carefully not making eye-contact with anyone. There's a murmur of conversation over the all-consuming rattle of the train: wheels on tracks, the body of the train itself shaking as it zooms along, a soft cacophony of metallic clatter over a cloud of human noise. Sound. Smell. Heat.
Damn, another bead of sweat down her front.
It's winter, so it was dark when she left the house, dark when she got onto the Tube, dark when she got off and walked to her office, dark when she left the office. It'll be dark when she gets home. Summer feels distant. She should book herself a holiday, give herself something to look forward to. even if it's just a visit to her parents. Spring in the back garden, how nice. How long has it been since Christmas? It feels like forever. She pulls her phone back out of her handbag to check the calendar, but of course it's connected to her email and she can't get her email because there's no signal underground. She considers making another note to herself: how long has it been since Christmas. But that's ridiculous. She'll just check as soon as she's outside.
She puts her phone away again, stares at her hands, her legs, her feet. How many times has she worn this outfit? She should go shopping, get something new for work. She could treat herself to a new dress for her spring trip to her parents' house. Something in lavender. She feels like she's worn these clothes forever. Did she forget and wear the same outfit she wore yesterday? What did she wear yesterday? Yesterday is a hazy memory: coffee, apple, email, sandwich, email, home. The rhythm of modern life.
Holiday, she thinks to herself. Check last holiday. Book next holiday. She thinks again about her last holiday, that clear, cold memory of standing in her parents' back garden at night, staring at the stars. How can the one memory be so clear, when she can hardly remember how long it's been since Christmas? She looks around the train, tries to see faces, expressions. Wonders: do they feel like they've been here forever too? Is this the shape of their lives? Email, apple, email, coffee, email, commute, Copely email, holiday memory. Sharp cold winter nights, impossibly distant from the humid fug of the Underground during peak commute hours. She should get up earlier; try to get in tomorrow morning before the train is full.
But somehow she's failed, and she's back on the train, heading north, in a full carriage, sweat trickling down her back, sliding snail-slow down her spine, wondering about the Copley email again. She's standing this time. She rolls her shoulders back, tries to coax the sweat to roll faster. Her back cracks and she relaxes, lets her shoulders fall back into their normal rounded shape. Her mother, with her ballerina's posture, would be appalled. Her mother, who made her wear a coat when she walked outside on Christmas night to stare at the sky, when she wanted nothing more than to go outside in her too-thin clothes and feel the cold leech into her feet through her socks as the heat of her body melted the frost on the ground beneath her. To look at the stars, and not think about work, about her too-small flat in Tooting, her clients, her endless commute. Not to listen to her mother's gently probing questions about her love-life, her father's unasked for advice about how to get ahead in her career. Copley. Copley.
That reminds her: where are they with the Copley account? She pulls her phone out of her handbag, opens the notes app, adds another note. Check Copley email? Tabs back through previous notes. Laughs to herself at the endless stream of notes: infinitive-pronoun-noun-query, a depressing record of the depressing regularity of her humdrum daily routine. Commute. Copley. Apple. Coffee. Email. Copley. Lunch. Copley. Commute. Copley. She swipes her thumb across her phone's screen - aren't they talking about getting wireless on the Underground? Perhaps someone is using their phone as a hotspot and she'll be able to get online, finally check her email, put her mind to rest about Copley, move her thoughts out of this endless rut. But no, there's no signal underground. She puts her phone away.
Holiday, she reminds herself again. She remembers Christmas night so clearly, taking off the coat so she could feel the cold, even though her mother gave her the coat to keep her warm. The cold had felt so hard and sharp, so much cleaner than anything else. Trying to explain her job, the Copley account, to her parents and her aunt and cousins over dinner. Describing her commute every morning, trying to give its depressing regularity some flavour. To prove she was more than just this strange mole-creature, a speck on the back of a mole-creature, being ferried around metres beneath the city in the unimaginable infrastructure of London's spidery Underground.
She remembers: she took off the coat and laid it over a chair on the patio, walked out into the cold yard, her feet leaving prints on the blue-grey grass where her heat had warmed the frost just long enough to mark her passage. She'd stood staring at the sky, feeling the coldness of the deep, dark countryside, the frozen earth, rise up around her. Why had she lain down? She's certain she did, that she had some crazed need to see her shape - her whole form - warmed into the frozen grass as her footprints were behind her. A snow-angel, of frost and heat. She'd lie down for just a moment, close her eyes, feel that ageless cold seep into her. She'd stand up, look back at the form she'd made, laugh at her foolish conceit, go inside. Turn out the lights, go to sleep. Boxing Day. New Year's Eve. Work. She'd be back at work again before long - less than a week.
She had lain down, closed her eyes. Felt the cold, so different from the close warmth of the Tube. The emptiness of the sky. The quiet. The stillness. The cold.
She shakes herself out of her reverie. It feels like she's been on this train forever. Copley, she must remember to check on where they are with Copley when she gets to work. She pulls her phone out of her handbag again. She could book her holiday right now. She swipes over her calendar, but it won’t open. How can she have forgotten, again, that it's connected to her email? She can't get her email.
There's no signal underground.
Archie Black lives and works in London. Her published fiction includes stories about pigeons, bugs, fearsome maiden aunts, secret agents, Lovecraftian monsters and serial killers. Her previous appearances on Pornokitsch include 'A Study in Viscera' and 'Sackville Street'.