I was killed at 6:15pm on a Monday in December. The week had barely started and I’d already been murdered by the insatiable hands of work. And then there I was, suited, a backpack strapped to my back, trainers on my feet; another lost casualty of corporate brutality making my way back home.
I joined the throngs of other broken souls at Paddington as they shuffled along the blackened platform, wrapping themselves with the worn vestiges of concerns to keep warm. And as the carriage approached, scraps of forgotten hopes fluttered from the darkness in the breeze, disturbed like pieces of discarded currency.
The London Underground doesn’t run on electricity, that’s just a myth. What courses through those steel veins that line the tracks is something far more dangerous: despondent sighs — sighs that will slowly kill you with dispassion rather than release you with a merciful flash of life.
I stood with my face pressed against the door — its obscene graffiti just out of focus — hemmed in, together with London’s dispossessed souls as we rode the Circle Line to nowhere. I stole furtive glances through somebody else’s arms, watching as they buried their heads in papers and books, releasing sighs that pushed the carriage on.
By the time we’d arrived at Notting Hill Gate, life’s displeasures had already bubbled over, I couldn’t face another night that would bring another morning. I was about to alight and cast myself to the tracks, to expire in a final moment of despondency when Elvis blocked my way. I stepped aside to let him in, his white, studded jumpsuit stained with soot, patterned with blue swirls that ran from his arms to his shoulders, he peered over his tinted aviators and said, ‘Thank you very much.’ just as the doors closed behind him.
Elvis found a seat at Gloucester Road as a grey-suited Jean-Paul Sartre shuffled in. He scrutinised me through his round spectacles, pursed his lips, and flattened his wind-ruffled hair; he peered into my soul in that moment as though he understood the anguish, abandonment, and despair that swished around with that afternoon’s late lunch. Sartre’s small frame disappeared in a collection of elbows and arms that held their Metro News tight like shields.
Until you’ve seen Marilyn Monroe up close, you can’t appreciate the strange, lonely vulnerability she harbours in those lidded brown eyes. But there she was, having squeezed onto the carriage in her cocktail dress and heels at Sloane Square. She winked at me and blew a kiss that traversed the bowed heads of our fellow commuters. I smiled and felt the sighs reversing; rather than expiring life, I was starting to breath it in.
Marilyn left with Sartre at St. James’s Park as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman squeezed on; cold winter rain dripped from their hats as they pulled the collars of their trench coats up.
‘When I said I would never leave you,’ says Ingrid.
‘And you never will. But, I’ve got a job to do, too,’ says Humphrey holding her shoulders nearer, ‘Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.’
I eavesdrop on their impassioned conversation, building up a faded picture of their love that collaged itself against this carriage’s scrapbook of sadness.
‘Someday you’ll understand that,’ says Humphrey as he raises Ingrid’s chin; he looks into her teary eyes for one last time, ‘Here’s looking at you kid,’ he says and slips away at Embankment.
Ingrid stretches out her arm through the crowds but doesn’t reach him.
Like everybody else, I’ve always been a prisoner of my commutes. Too blinded by the trivialities of work and life to notice the strange characters that exist in London’s Underground. And yet, there they were this whole time, like an ensemble of life’s absurd theatre, acting out their unexpected tales of love and mystery every day.
On and on the train streamed in and out of tunnels, releasing more despondent souls into the night, collecting more characters along the way. By the time we left Mansion House Gandhi, John Lennon, and Che Guevara were debating the relationship of the individual to society as Darwin sauntered past in his long, black frock coat. Darwin’s eyes danced around the carriage as he shook his head and stroked his long, white beard. I had the impression that sitting there among all the dreamless, dispassionate souls, Darwin had a sinking feeling that his theory of natural selection had broken down somewhere in these tunnels; that somehow priorities had de-evolved and splintered just as we raced on ahead, abandoning our hearts like suspicious packages on the dusty platforms.
He took out a small notebook and wrote with fervent consternation as Oscar Wilde made a grand entrance at Momument; Wilde pushed through the hordes of bags and arms, smiling, laughing, greeting everybody with a witticism. It was obvious Wilde had never travelled the Underground before, that he was unfamiliar with the unwritten rule that says you must not make eye contact and should definitely never speak — but nobody was going to tell him. Wilde was a huge, towering man and seemed drunk on something; he stoops next to me, leans in close, winks, and says: ‘Don’t forget, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ His breath reeked of life and I felt its intoxicating effects in that moment.
A solemn, bowler-hatted Winston Churchill strode on at Moorgate with a black Labrador on a leash. Without looking up from their papers and books, the souls parted and cleared a path as Churchill’s dog lurched, panted and drooled through its muzzle. Churchill sat locked in his own strange, silent world as his dog sniffed at the ankles of commuters. A momentary glance told me that Sir Winston had known more sorrow in these tunnels than most, most only fear it, Churchill has wept and dreamt it.
Harry Houdini appeared out of nowhere at Euston Square dressed in a three-piece suit and a bow tie. Everywhere I turned he was sitting or standing in a different place, peering over somebody else’s shoulder, staring back at me with his strange, piercing eyes. And as we arrived back at Paddington, he freed himself from a pair of handcuffs locked around a rail, just in time to brush past the sighing doors and wave goodbye from the platform.
In the forty-five minutes it took me to get nowhere, arriving back at that station I started from, I was no longer dead. And it dawned on me that I wouldn’t have to die every day. I didn’t know what else I would do, but life seemed too absurd to sit at a desk worrying about commissions and reports while it strode on ahead. If nothing else I would ride the Circle Line and write stories about its strange characters; who knows, maybe somebody would buy it.