I know it sounds stupid, being afraid of trains. When it comes up in conversation, people look at me like I’m crazy, but everyone’s got their shit, OK?
A friend of mine once told me that her cousin was afraid of coconuts. Like he couldn’t be in the same room as one without breaking out in a sweat. Bounty was completely banned from their house and even the smell of tan oil made him uncomfortable. What I’m saying here is that is weird. That is an actual problem.
Staying away from trains is understandable. If it had been you, you’d think it was, too.
I’m alright with the overland ones, but I haven’t been on the Tube since I was 12. I used to try to explain to people, but these days, I don’t talk about it unless someone brings it up. Most times, you can pass it off as claustrophobia, but not everyone takes it seriously.
It’s hard to hide when you live in the city. You beg off and catch a cab, you learn the bus routes, but eventually it comes up, or it just slips out. Someone will get it out of me drunk. Not the whole story just enough to know why the phrase ‘mind the gap’ always gives me a bit of a shiver. Most people just shrug it off, some roll their eyes, and every now and again, someone will think it’s fucking hilarious.
“Tilly doesn’t like the trains,” Veronica said, loud enough that it could be heard clearly over the music.
It didn’t get the reaction she was expecting, just a couple of raised eyebrows and a few looks my way. One guy in an crisp shirt and a loose pink silk tie even tried to start a chat with me about it. Said he didn’t like closed spaces either, even the lifts at work made him uncomfortable.
He had nice eyes, deep and brown. Slightly crinkled at the edges, like he laughed a lot. “Did you get stuck in one once or something?” he asked, while I was wondering what made him laugh.
A chill went through me like someone had just poured their drink down my back. I hadn’t been on a train since Jo.
“Something like that,” I said, with pinched smile. It looked fake, but he ignored it.
The lack of attention wasn’t sitting well with Veronica. She ordered more drinks, and decided not to let the topic die.
“Come on, it’s just a bit of fun. Tell them!” When I didn’t she continued, “She cried once when we tried to take her down. Threw up on a turnstile and we got kicked out of the station.”
I had been drinking that night. I remember looking at the escalator going down a half dozen stories, with the feeling that it wanted to swallow me. I almost cracked my skull open trying to get out of there. Veronica thought it was hilarious. She’d printed out a picture from her phone that stayed up on the fridge for a fortnight before I threw it out. A copy turned up in the break room at work and HR had a word about it.
“I’d just rather not take it, if it’s all the same to everyone,” the gagging, swallowing mess of tunnels under the city had wormed its way into my mind now. My voice came out high and shrill, chafing my throat. I knocked back the rest of my drink and slammed the glass down a little harder than I should. It smashed on the edge of the bar just as the songs changed, and in my rush to recoil, another round of glasses resting on the bar went tumbling over the edge. The sound of shattering glass and swearing filling the empty air for a moment.
Everyone in the place turned to look and I swore a blue streak at the sudden vivid streak of red on my palm. The stinging came a moment later, along with the next song.
The staff were already mopping up. I got a bar cloth for my hand and a dirty look for the rest of it.
That was enough, I decided. I threw enough money on the bar to replace the drinks and the glasses and left with my coat only half on. I stood in the cold for a moment, someone else’s stale beer clinging to my skirt, and I wondered if Jo would have grown up to be this pathetic.
I started off under the orange street lights with the sound of high heels close behind me.
“Where are you going, Tilly?” Veronica caught up with me, wrapped in her oversized coat. “It was just a mistake, come back inside. No one’s upset.”
“Go back yourself, I’m going home.” I kept walking.
“There’s no bus stop down that way.”
“I’m taking the tube, aren’t I?” I snapped, rounding on her. For a moment I wanted to reach out and grab a chunk of her hair. She looked like she only just swallowed a laugh.
“Hey- girls? Everything alright out here?”
I didn’t get a knight in shining armour riding to my defence. I got an old public school boy with nice brown eyes and that silly pink tie. In these hard times, you take what you can get. Truth be told, the best way I could have seen the night ending would be him and me on the way back to his flat together. Via cab, obviously.
“You need me to see you home, Tilly?” It occurred to me then that I didn’t know his name. I shook my head quickly, but I couldn’t find the words.
He couldn’t come. Not if I was going down there to face the nameless fear that had been watching me from basement windows and drains and grates for the last 20 years. I wouldn’t take him down there with me.
“She’s fine, mate,” Veronica said, her eyes narrowed and her feet planted apart on the pavement. “I’ll take her home, you go pick up some other drunk girl, yeah?”
Rolling my eyes at both of them, I continued down the streets, dousing myself in half the puddles on the way.
“I’m not drunk,” I said to Veronica when she caught up with me, but I must have been. For a second I looked back over my shoulder at the pink tie and considered letting him take me home. It was already too late. I could feel the thrumming beneath my feet of the London that live beneath. If you could really call it living.
Walking beside Veronica under the yellow lights, it was almost nice. We had some good times, but when I tried to think of them, they seemed far away and murky. They drowned under the flood of everything else, and I didn’t try to pluck them out.
I can’t be sure if I knew in those moments, walking towards the maw of the train station, what was waiting for me. Once we’d scanned our cards, descended into the neon-lit veins of the system, it might have become clearer. Somehow it was never clear enough that I turned back, closed my ears to the siren song, and took another way home. Whether entirely my decision or not, I steered into the rocks.
“You don’t have to do this to prove anything,” I think I remember Veronica saying that. She always lost her nerve when we were alone together. There was no one there to put on a show for, so for a moment or two, she was just her.
“I’m not,” I must have said. It was true, and it wasn’t.
Even after a few years of flatmates, Veronica didn’t know the story. Not even the version that I’d turned into the truth in my head. People who knew me before might have dodged around the subject, but I didn’t really see anyone any more, except for mum and Katie. They know not to talk about it.
I talked about Jo to therapists sometimes, but they changed at a steady pace and none of them quite got far enough. I went anyway; people insist that your childhood best friend being abducted was one of those things you just needed therapy for. One day I would be cured, they said. I could ride the trains again.
Walking through a tiled tunnel, I thought about telling her. Saying it more for myself then Veronica. The question was, which version would I tell? We were 12, we skipped school and ran around London all day. I don’t even remember what we were doing.
An announcement came over the speakers as a train rolled into the platform. There was something in me then, an instinct maybe, or just a part of me that had always been awake no matter how I’d tried to put it to sleep. Whatever drowsy, watchful state it had been in before, it roared to life in me now, kicking and stamping in the part of my brain where I’d locked it away. Maybe I already knew what it was trying to tell me, and at last, I didn’t care.
I stepped foot on the train.
It looked like it had that day with Jo. It wasn’t the same train, of course, not even the same line, but to my eyes it may as well have been. The fear turned cold in my stomach and the doors shut behind us. If I closed my eyes, I could have been 12 again.
The carriage was empty except for us, and it plunged forward to be devoured by the tunnelling darkness. In the white-grey light, I found it hard to breathe.
It had been a long time since Jo. Twenty years of explaining it all way. Someone had taken her, the police had asked me over and over again, and I could never remember. I can still see Jo’s mother screaming and crying that it was my fault we were ever out there. I couldn’t remember whose idea it had been to bunk off school that day, I still can’t.
I don’t know the exact moment, but somewhere between the train rolling in to the platform, and the tunnel swallowing us up, I remembered. Do you know how sure you are of everything in a dream? Things you never knew before are obvious by the tempered logic of your sleeping brain. That was what happened; something I had tried to forget had remembered itself. Suddenly, I could remember the thing that smiled at us from the darkness.
With a start, I looked up and caught my reflection in the window. The lights flickered as we sputtered through the tunnel. We weren’t alone anymore.
The train rattled over the rails and the figure that was now sitting across from us watched with tunnel-black eyes. He looked just the same as he had 20 years ago. Just like then, he wore an outdated suit of dark, chequered wool, a drab shirt and tie, a pencil moustache and hair parted and slicked neatly. Just like then, his feet were bare, covered mud and dust. There were no footprints leading to his seat. He had always been there.
His lips peeled back to reveal teeth as white as the fluorescent lights, and he smiled. Just like he had before.
I had noticed him first, 20 years ago. While Jo was still talking about which movie we’d sneak in to see, I had seen him. I hadn’t wanted to, but he was like an itch in the corner of my eye and once I saw him, I couldn’t look away.
“Bright girl,” he’d said. For a second his teeth looked sharp beneath the unfurling of his lips. He said it again now, in the same sweet tone.
“Bright girl,” the air in the carriage went cold and stale. “You’ve been up there a long time. I knew you would come back.”
Veronica sat still and stupid in her seats. She was looking at him, but not really seeing, just like the train was moving, but it wasn’t really. Just like we were still in London, but we weren’t really. Not the London we knew. This is an old city, and there are old things in it. Some of them run through the river, some of them beneath the streets. Some of them loathe us, and the others like us far too much.
“What have you brought me this time? So good to have a new friend.”
He reached all the way across the carriage towards us, but never left his seat. The space grew smaller, or he grew bigger. Perhaps he filled all the tunnel at once. I didn’t look closely enough to find out, I didn’t want to see.
Veronica’s eyes were all that moved. Her pupils were blown open and dull, there was a kind of animal fear in them. She followed the grimy fingers that tracked over the face, parting her lips, pinching her skin. And she looked at me. I think I shook my head, there was nothing I could do. She shouldn’t have come.
“I’ll take it,” he said in a voice like the screech of brakes, “And I’ll give it back, bright girl.”
The lights flickered, and when they came on again, I sat straight back in my seat. Jo was next to him, pale as death and watching me with empty eyes. Her feet were bare now too, covered in the dirt of a hundred winding tunnels, but the rest of her was just the same as it had been when she disappeared. She smiled, sharp and white, and I wanted to scream.
“We have a deal,” he said. I didn’t push, I didn’t disagree, just like I hadn’t before. There are old things under the city, deep and dark, and I can’t change their paths. Jo had screamed all those years ago, but I had found the door. “You’ll bring me another, yes?”
This time, when the lights flickered, Veronica was sitting at his side. Out of the corner of my eye, the thing that had once been Jo sidled up to me. It heaved a sigh and leaned a cheek on my shoulder. Through my winter coat I felt the chill of her dead skin.
“Another to make up for the time, yes. We get lonely down here. So many eyes, so few see. Go and bring us others, and we shall give you our gifts.”
Veronica’s eyes were fixed on mine, but I looked away. The Jo had threaded its fingers through mine, and pressed down sharply on my fingers. Cuts that had begun to clot since the smashed bar glass poured open again and I gasped, pulling my hand away.
The train rolled to a stop before I could speak and the doors slid open. There was no one sitting across from us anymore. One or two people trailed into the carriage. Veronica was gone. I stood up and turned this way and that, as if I’d catch a glimpse of her being hurried away down a tunnel. I’d done the same thing 20 years ago, and the result of it was clinging wordlessly to my arm.
I stepped off the train and she came with me, clinging like I was her mother. She made wordless whines and grunts when I tried to pull my arm away and people started looking so I let her be. We wound our way up the stairs towards the clear night.
Whatever she was, she wasn’t Jo. She took my hand again on the escalator, and when I turned my head to look to the top, she clamped her mouth around my bloody fingers and sucked. I jerked back and left a fresh red smear around her mouth which she licked away like it was syrup.
Sharp little teeth showed themselves when she smiled. She stepped past me, out of the turnstile, and into the crisp night air. She waited for me to join her, and I gave her my uninjured hand.
People would come looking for Veronica, I knew. They had come looking 20 years ago. I wonder what they’ll find.