The London Tube is an incredible feat of engineering. The synapses of the brain of Britain, without which the city would surely come grinding to a halt. The closer you came to the centre, the more packed with people the carriages become. Every ounce of space used for more people, every one travelling to their destination in a throng of others. Personal boundaries are gone, the very air you breathe recycled in a mass of bodies, sharing far more than merely your destination. The businessman’s arm against the small of your back. The old woman’s leg brushing yours. The teenager’s fingers against the side of your hand as he grasps his section of the handrail. Here everyone was equal in that everyone had the space they held, at that moment, and nothing more. Seats were a rare commodity that the lucky and the fast managed to snag. Everyone was packed, closer to more strangers in that moment than they would ever be anywhere else. Yet despite this closeness, everyone was silent.
It had once been difficult to hear one another over the clatter of the trains, the chak-chak of the rails underneath masking the idle chatter of the friends and companions that travelled together, while providing ambient noise of progress to those alone. Even squashed amidst the clusters of people in the rush hour, there were hushed conversations and laughter. But after the Tower Hill disaster, trains began to be replaced. Electromagnetic propulsion was introduced, the cars gliding along their rails in cold, reverent silence. Now nobody speaks. You take your place and listen to the soft hum issuing up from beneath your feet. Blank faces avoid empty eyes, and the spectral trains ferry their crowded passengers through the city.
Somehow, it made it worse. Surrounded by silent people, their faces expressionless masks, bodies gently rocking with each bend, it seemed to accentuate the soulless journey all the more. Advertisements made the only real movement between stops now, videos of lifestyles perfected by the right product or prize or pill. Everything was recorded, stale. I wanted to talk, I desperately wanted to speak to somebody, anybody, but forced the words down. The quiet was infectious, and to even think of breaking it echoed loud enough in my head to make me worry that the others could somehow tell. Jill had been right, if I had taken the tube yesterday, I’d never have kept quiet. Even now I wanted to speak, just a little, just to lift this heavy, suffocating silence.
“I-it’s a nice day today, isn’t it?”
I felt the words tumble from my lips like a landslide, and every person around me moved to avoid them, a slight turn to allow them to watch me peripherally, but not engage. The woman I had been facing looked at me, then away. She didn’t know me, nor I her. She edged away as if I wouldn’t notice if she did it slow enough. What did I do? I shouldn’t have said anything! What if there was an undercover officer here? I could be suspected… they might start wondering if I’m some sort of lunatic, capable of anything… there’s enough bombings in the bad news feed that someone might think… No, it was fine, I hadn’t done anything wrong. There was no reason to panic. Calm down.
Glances started to become more and more open, the passengers closest leaning away, into others. Did I look that suspicious? I felt eyes on me from all directions. Just that one phrase, and they’d become this paranoid? I only asked about the weather! A little strange when you’re underground admittedly, but stereotypically English enough to be excusable, wasn’t it? A small circle of space had formed around me, people clustered together into the corners, near the doors, exchanging glances with each other now as much as at me. This didn’t make sense. I’d said one sentence. There shouldn’t be such a reaction from just one sentence. Had paranoia increased that much in just a year? Had people become such sheep that anything that marked anyone out from the herd made them a threat? I wanted to ask them, to yell at them; I’d said one sentence, was that such a crime?
I had to get off. The way things were going things might turn nasty. Someone might call an officer on me, or worse, if I spoke again. I could feel my own fear, brought out by the sheer amount in the atmosphere. I needed fresh air. I needed freedom. Here I was trapped in another silent, inescapable box. At least there wasn’t music. Thank goodness there wasn’t music.
The train pulled to a stop, and the platform appeared through the windows behind me. The safety doors on the platform slid open in time with the train, and I tumbled out. The crowd forcing its way on ignored me, and I slipped into anonymity once again. I didn’t stop until I was back up, and outside. I needed to get to Ember’s. I had to talk to somebody who could explain all this to me. Nothing made sense any more. Things couldn’t have changed this much. It was just fourteen months. Barely over a year. But things had changed. The streets were spotless, and modern. The sky was clearer than I’d seen in a long time. Cars hummed their way down the streets, gliding along the road. They’d cleaned up this town, but what was the price?
As I walked, people glanced up at me, a sidelong look as if I wore something that highlighted me amongst everyone else. Almost unconsciously, they moved away, gravitating out to arms length distance, speeding past on their way through the city. Did I stand out this much? What could possibly attract such attention? I took my frustration out on the clean pavements, marching through the streets, determined not to notice any glances or avoidances. It didn’t make sense, and it wasn’t about to. The best I could do was concentrate on my destination. London was big, and since public transport was off my list of choices, I had to walk. But that was fine by me. Time spent walking would be time spent thinking, and I had enough to think about without hordes of staring people adding to the list.