This is a prose poem transcribing a daily commute on the Central Line on the London Underground — the music nobody listens to.
* * *
I step over the threshold and find a place to stand.
It creaks into life.
A first strike
a grace note,
three times. 98 beats per minute.
A portamento, the note rises and stabilises — becomes invisible for its changelessness. The ears amnesiac, naive, believing the reservoir of alien engine and lever will endlessly endure. A hiccup, a hyena, hysteria for three seconds. The ears awaken, shaken, pass precedence to the eyes to search for an emollient. We accelerate. A lady sits under her hat hiding her forehead and her eyebrows. One of her heels catches the other. There is a change.
A first strike — clatter
a second strike — clttr
a third strike — clr. 136 beats per minute.
The next station is Stratford. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform. The first words spoken for nearly two minutes. A thankless task. We haven’t talked properly since as long as I can remember. The doors open on both sides to diffuse the situation.
Please allow passengers off the thistrainstationbeforeisboardingStratford. CallingpleaseatmindallthestationsgaptobetweenwesttheRuisliptrain and the platform. Change here forthisthetrainJubileeislinereadythetoDLRdepartand— The plait of female voices is cut short by an impatient exhalation and we are enclosed. Again.
A group of young people chatter — their patter patterned in imbricated neat parcels. One stops, one starts.
We start. Two rows of knees Newton’s Cradle. An arcuate yawn feels its way over us as wires and wheels are warmed, a humdrum hum — no drum, rolling over, rubbing eyelashes, wakey wakey sleepyhead, rise and shine, my love, hey now, see the sunrise. MORNING SICKNESS. Tunnel. Descent. Sparks spit right and left. I’m a capsule, a tablet, sucked through the pharynx. Down the gullet I plummet. At 116 beats per minute.
A thousand dissonant winds. An acidic embrace. A swarm of cold things.
The violence subsides. A man laughs through his blocked nose. A small choir of piccolo whistles dusts the rumble of axes below. The orchestra who seldom play together are in mutual diminuendo: its members, aware of their incongruity, folded and fled. What they had sculpted was ugly — a confrontation — but it was scarcely believable that it could exist at all, much less that the purifying ingredients were culled from the smorgasbord of grotesque offerings in the carriage. The next station is Mile End. Change here for the District and Hammersmith & City lines.
Getting off at Mile End always felt like being unhorsed with a lance. Greeted by the Tower Hamlets bridge, overgrown like an unconvincing toupee.
This is Mile End. Change here for the District and Hammersmith & City lines. This is a Central lineladiestrainandtogentlemenwestpleaseRuislipmove right down inside the carriages. There is another train right behind this one.
A man holds his phone in his hand, thumb poised above the screen. He doesn’t speak. Nobody speaks. All of the pressure on that first letter. Knuckles laced as if caked in crumbling mud, awaiting the freezing dimples of a rugby ball span about its axis with Sunday morning indignation. Thumb still poised above the glass; in the valley between them, yodels of mistaken flirtation not yet made.
It is the narrowest point to pierce the silence, to penetrate the portcullis. The thumb still poised, beginning simulations of first words. Trials in guillemets.
Before the thumb falls, coats burst in, their hosts with eyes locked onto empty spaces, fabrics forced together with unvoiced dental fricatives. Please move right down inside the carriages using all empty space tuts and coughs and grunts and throat clearings and feet feet feet no room for my heel you must be joking there is clearly not enough room for you.
I thought I was getting somewhere, trying to listen to the routine I instinctively shut out. The staves before me untravelled rail, and as the train went, the notes tumbled behind. I was the hammer, the plectrum, the reed. Now contaminated by the boring breath of life.
Like the clumsy recounting of multiplication tables, the effort in setup struck down by the misstep in answer. Please do not lean against the doors. Please do not lean against the doors. A shudder, sudden, glottal. Honeycombed hands nails and handrails stoic against the stutter. An otherwise stagnant and desultory silence, buttressed.
Scream. Fleshless. Savage. Penetrative. Sibilant. Tumultuous belly. Turbulent. Burst, then fall. Emerging, then receding. Bronze buckles on her bag flung up and collide, she is uncomfortable, the tambourine choked as she stands awkwardly to reconfigure her pins and needles. The huge frenzied deluge, inseparable, pulling in everything, irresistible, affecting its colour, contagious, refracting and fracturing, emulsified. The next station is Bethnal Green.
Man’s drawl holds true as mechanical vocabulary abdicates approaching the stop. Boris Johnson, wildcard, blind-side, Brexit, vying for Prime Minister. Apophasis, rhetorical device — bringing up a subject by denying it, bringing up a subject by denying its bringing up. We should not even be considering Cameron stepping down as Prime Minister. Bringing up stepping down. Bethnal Green slowing down.
Microphone-obscured male. Imperative tone. Intonation: low low high low low low high
…move right down inside the cars please. Use all available space… low low low low high …next Westbound train is in one minute. This train is ready to depart. Stand clear.
Cough cough sniff more sniffs kicks a bag across the floor. It drags dust and sand with it like tiny caterpillar tracks. So Clinton’s appointment is less a coronation than a… Frustratingly cut by eructation. The train leaves the station.
Lady shuffles into a seat, sits on a paper. It protests, suppressed, beneath her bottom. Another newspaper, unexploited, dishevelled, leans against the glass partition. This newspaper unemployed as an instrument, unanimated by a posterior, a rear musician, in this toppling theatre.
Laughter, I think, my god, is that a laugh? An expression of joy. An intolerable expression of joy. Hard and… here… and high. Potent, pungent, pervasive. Plosives beneath my feet. 124 beats per minute. The perpetrator pipes down. Deceleration reveals a luminous echo, soprano, mezzo piano, it holds for a while and then falls, fades, anonymous and juvenile, vamoose, fly, head for the hills. The next station is Liverpool Street. Change here for the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines, and National Rail services. A pair of echoed punches, conversation, call-and-response, 87 beats per minute.
A female voice, African-inflected. Attractive. Please move right down, yes, move right down. Mind the closing doors. The same mellifluous voice, words, vehicles stripped of their passengers, turn into notes, something sung through heavy, closed tube train doors.
high mid mid low low high mid low low high mid low high low low mid high low
The journey between stations — the synapses — we flash through fluorescently. Variations becoming imperceptible. A repeated chorus. Ballistic trajectory, ballistic rage. Arctic gust bearing sleet, seagull, and frigate detritus.
The next station is Bank. Mind the gap between the train and the platform. Change here for the Circle, District, Northern, and Waterloo & City lines, and the DLR.
The next station is St Paul’s…
The next station is Chancery Lane…
The next station is Holborn…
Nothing of note. Aleatory carriage life. Quotidian.
… Tottenham Court Road…
Man repeats to his neighbour it will be okay. He runs his finger in circles on the glass as he speaks. His skin is adhesive, and the glass whimpers. He uses his fingernail, and the displacement of blood gives his nail-bed jaundice. He weaves with a thread of whispers and his finger is the needle, and I’m watching and I’m listening, and it is quiet, but I can hear it, just, barely, but it is there.
A calming exodus. Many sacrifice sure footing for the possibilities afforded by the central walkway.
cff cff cff cff ffc ffc ffc ffc
A palindrome as dirty wet shoes cff ffc their way over fallen newspapers.
Flirting girl laughs at flirting boy. I can’t hear it, but I see the shape of her mouth. I imagine a laugh on her behalf. He feigns shock as we are stopped at the station and she thumps his duffle coat, guffaws, and he affects to fall back. A yolk hitting flour. Potato hitting sack. Fingers his four-day growth chin, a scratching post for foreheads four inches further down; a cornucopia of face fruit and face flowers in bundles, she inspects. Flirting girl laughs at flirting boy.
This is me. Bend down, pick up, look left, walk out, step off, hit stop, pit stop, footsteps, footsteps, footsteps, footsteps, clip clop, tick tock.