Short fiction: The Line

Standing. Eyes on the rough yellow-painted line that runs down the platform from the far end which slopes up at thirty degrees out of rubble and grass and this end that slopes back down again just as the tunnel begins. The demarcation between smooth, pale, cold, grey tarmac and the blistered strip that signals the abrupt fall to the rails. Wednesday. Just after eleven in the morning. Sunny.

Why are you here?

You are here because this is the right one. Quarter of an hour ago you looked down from the safety of the enclosed footbridge which hangs across the rails from one side of town to the other. On platforms one to four the Tube trains. Over ground here like maggots in the light. (They were how you arrived here. You also are not used to the light.) Five the board said was for Clapham Junction, for Vauxhall and London Waterloo. Eight for Surbiton and Sutton. And six and seven for the fast services only; not scheduled to stop at this station, stand well away from the edge.

From the footbridge carefully you took the white-painted, wooden stairs down to platforms five and six. Mind the steps. Do not run. Eighteen accidents this year. Poster of a woman in sluttish red heels. Belongings scattered across the floor. You took the smooth handrail; you did not want to trip. You looked, you thought, completely normal. Like anyone waiting for a train. You glanced down at the rails which shone in a narrow line where the heavy wheels spun past but either side of that were black and dull. You peered into the tunnel waiting for lights to show as the engine came round the bend. You squinted up against the sun at the electronic board which showed the first, second, third trains for the platform and where they were going and when they would come.

A train is due now. Ignore the making-ready which is going on around you. Watch; watch it come. There! Deep in the dark tunnel brightness on the inside curve of the rail and then two round headlights. Into the sunshine the windowless engine, fast, and, too fast, is that one, two, three carriages in a rush, and then – four, five, – they are slowing, – and, six,- coming into line with the platform, fitting their joints neatly to its curve and they are stopping, and still stopping, and then with a jolt all eight are here. (You watched the moment. You saw it take place.) There is a pause, a two-toned electronic signal. Doors open and passengers are interchanged from train to platform and back again. Another pause, timed by the fluorescent-jacketed man on the platform whose eyes too are on the electronic screens; and then he waves a baton and the doors hiss shut. Inside men and women are easing down the carriage, choosing their seats, settling themselves down. Outside pulling cases and pushing pushchairs or, faster, unencumbered, bodies move all like drawn iron filings towards the narrow stairs. There is a whistle and the train sidles away, begins to gain speed. And with a hoot all of a sudden it is gone. You are still on the platform. (Platform five.) People flow around you as though you are bolted to the ground. This does not register with you. You are not a passenger. You have nowhere to go.

Why?

Last night on the whole you lay awake. There was a skylight above your bed. You had not drawn the blind. Early in the night the glass protected you from what they’d said on the forecast would be torrential rain. It landed above you not in single drops, but in floods of replenishment of what had already fallen and what otherwise might have dried away. The streetlights became diffused pools and not spots. But that was not why you did not sleep. And later it was drier, and you saw the streetlights again, and if you peered carefully even the hint of the stars. Stars that you rarely saw in London. Stars that had other places to go.

You move across to platform six. Nonchalant. Not in a hurry. Nowhere to go. Can you see enough of the rails from here? Can you see from far enough away? You look down the arched tunnel, peer as far as where it bends left. (There are weeds by the rails, green to start with, a couple of feet tall, some of them, and, yes, still there distant in the darkness though by then you cannot distinguish their colour, cannot really see.) Your glance is casual. Then again you wait.

The announcement is useless, simultaneous with the train. And it is meaningless; individually-recorded words distort the syntax into particles identically repeated and repeated through the day. ‘Stand. Well. Away.’ And then in a rush: ‘From-the-edge-of-platform (pause) Six’ and the stern voice is drowned by the rushing suck of air and the roar and the light of the people who a few feet away are passing you by encased in curved sheets of coloured steel and are smeared across your vision and are already gone. Again you are still standing here. Litter that was shifted settles, dirtied, onto the rails. You release your breath. The weeds come swaying to a graceful halt. Inside the tunnel again it is dark. No movement on the platform with this one passing. No need.

Last week. How far were you away from this?

Last week? Same numbness. Feels like a backward extension of today.

And, no; you do not see enough from here. The tunnel is a problem. Decisive, you walk back to the stairs. You take the handrail. You transport your heavy body back up to the hanging footbridge. Looking down from the windows you walk along and then step by step down to the next concourse. Platforms seven and eight.

Platform seven. Trains coming out of London. (Well away from the platform edge.) A clearer view down the line from here. Coming out of the distance and in light from the start. Difficult to judge the true distance and speed. Like crossing a motorway. Are you ready?

Here’s one; you see it. Watch. But already here. Too fast for you to read the destination on the front. An effort to count the coaches. Pale green with white. Nearly empty inside. Past.

You are not ready. There is a hole inside you. A yearning. Quash it.

Yes. Walk over to the vending machine on the other platform that shares the concourse with this one. (Platform 8. Stopping trains to Sutton.) Irrational sense of freedom as you put a pound into the slot, press D2 for a caramel chocolate bar, watch the slow curl of the coil and then the tip and slither of the chocolate into the well. Existential feeling of freedom. Nothing matters. You reach into the well and you take hold of the bar, brushing old empty wrappers out of the way.

Another train through fast on platform six. More people heading for town. But not standing there anymore. Let them go. Focus now on here.

You knew last night that you were coming here. You knew. (You are used to knowing by now.)

Still standing at the machine, still looking at the retro rows of chocolate. Blinking with confusion at your head suddenly somewhere else. No. Here. Another coin into the machine. D2, unthinkingly, and the bar from the well. Hold the chocolate. Tear a corner of the filmy plastic sideways and down. Hardened caramel splinters off the wrapper and spatters, already melting, across your hands. Splinters like snowflakes, but slower, stickier, brown. You lick each one, moving thoroughly across the ball of your thumb, the base of your fingers, the creases of your palm. Which crease to tell your fortune? You do not know that one. You run your hot tongue slowly down all three. Behind the sweetness the taste of different sources of dirt.

One coming in in front of you on platform eight. Stopping train for Sutton. Calling at half the world. But not so many people for this one. No need for you to move. You avoid them, looking down.

The bar. Inside out inside its filmy wrap. Must have got hot. Misshapen caramel like cooled lava outside the still-shaped, mechanically-shaped, chocolate. Hollow comb of chocolate like pods of seaweed. Like cheap plastic toys. Chocolate brown.

Announcements. (All the same now.) The trundle in the background of the above-ground Tube.

You put the chocolate into your mouth pod by pod. Its melt helps your dry mouth swallow it down. Then you walk halfway along the platform to where there is an empty bench. You sit on it. You put your handbag down at your feet. (What should you do with it? Where will it go?) Perhaps you need to think.

Another train. Fast. Noisy. Roughly eight minute intervals. Often enough. You can watch a few to get the measure of this place. Watch a few. Get ready. Understand.

Eat the other bar of chocolate. Not inside out, this one. Caramel trail from the pod out and onto your chin. Lick down to get it off. Rub dry with your hand.

Prepare. Your body hitting dead centre of the engine’s flat front. Maybe not enough if you bounce off, if you’re thrown, rag-doll, to the side. Fall on the rails. (Electric?) Right in front. To be sliced apart like jam roly-poly. If it only takes your legs? (Why you didn’t want to risk the Tube. Not enough momentum. Not enough weight.) If you are left, paralysed. Then you will not be able to try again and get it right. And maybe there is unbearable agony. But this way by the time you feel it you cannot pull away. Already in the air by then. Gravity pulling you. By then there is nothing left that you can fail to do. Too late even if you wanted to pull back. Not like the knife in the wrist. Cannot trust yourself to push in and past the pain and the resistance (getting jagged through the skin like preparing a shoulder of lamb), need to push in again and again to finish the job. Just weeping cowardice then, and a wrist bad enough that it needs to be bandaged. ‘And did you mean to kill yourself?’ they’d ask, biro hovering above the box. And you would say, ‘no, no, not really’, and they’d be relieved because there were no spare beds.

The letters (you check them) are in your handbag. Tempting to open them up, to indulge your dark will with what they say. No. Self-pity. Effort. You could leave the bag on the bench; surely they would look? No value in propping them on the outside. And you do not want to draw attention. They are good at retrieving things from accidents, at piecing them together. You’ve seen it on TV. But if the wheel went right across the middle. Cut across your middle. Blood. You do not want your husband’s memento covered forever in blood.

You chose this platform. This is the right one.

Looking up. A man at the far end where the trains come in. Walking slowly round in tight circles. His weight with each step tipping him, ungainly, forward. Round and round he goes. He’s been there for a while. Right at the end of the platform. If he jumps then that is it for you for today. That will be it for your chance. There’ll be sirens, they’ll usher you off the platform. Station closed. Sorry for the delay. But, no. Being silly. Not everyone here to jump. On his phone. Probably the office. Sorry about the noise. On the platform. Trains coming through. Yes, with you in thirty minutes.

When you were a child you once went on a steam train. That was meant to be thirty minutes. Just you and Grandma and you’d be picked up at the other end. But there was a problem with the traffic and they were late coming, and you arrived and got off and you stood there waiting, terribly brave, watching the trains like great beasts come and go. Grandma felt your shudder of excitement inside the curve of her arm. That’s a goose going over your grave, she said, and she laughed, and both of you blinked soot out of your eyes.

Another train. (You’ve watched for long enough. All the same.) And if you wait much longer it will be too late, will disrupt the rush hour. And more people around. So pull yourself together. (Stand away from the edge. Not scheduled to stop.)

No-one has noticed you sitting here. Wait. Relax. Let go your clenched jaw and lose the hum in your brain.

No-one has noticed.

So stand up. Loop your bag with the letters in it onto your shoulder (too much intent in leaving it behind). Move over and stand on that yellow line. An emotionless voice from outside your head. You do it. You turn your back to the oncoming trains. You line your feet up on the yellow paint. (Maybe eight minutes have passed now. Maybe one is due.) Innocent, you start to walk along the line. Heel to toe, heel to toe. As though you are a child. As though you are on an LA reality show proving to a policeman that you are not drunk. As though you are a normal newly-married woman, minding your own business, – oops, careful there, head a bit in the clouds. You walk. As you do the world goes silent around you. And into the silence what you say to yourself is this: that you have abdicated responsibility. That perhaps you are close enough. That perhaps the impulse will come, perhaps your body will know. That you have put your life now into Fate’s hands. That you are free like a child watching steam trains like great beasts come and go. And you are not surprised when the suck and roar comes from behind your shoulder, and there is the strangled announcement over your head, and your body sways and your bag on your shoulder swings sharp and heavy to the side.

And for ten perfect seconds there is nothing you need do.

But then despite it all you are still walking, did not make that one step out to the right side. You walked straight on and so are still innocent of murder. No-one has noticed either way. But your heart is beating fast that you have risked something. And perhaps that is enough for today.

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