Paths More Travelled

Entry by: meb

21st September 2017

The smog of London's North hung outside the window, suspended motionlessly in the frozen air. Small birds vocalised their delight at the morning sun that rose without the promise of warmth on this foggy November morning.

Her bed, as any bed, was whispering that the universe outside these covers would have to wait. It was that special period just after the first alarm is switched off, where time ceases to measure seconds and begins counting moments before sinking back into sleep. The dream recaptured: adopting a cat that multiplied into five identical cats. One of them started scratching at the sofa her landlord had emphasised was particularly precious. What would he think of her, for adopting cats without permission? A disaster! She ran to stop it, but her mind was violently pulled into reality by the 'ping' of her phone.

The audacity of it. These felt like the most essential minutes of sleep before facing the day. And it was Wednesday. Where the weekend was still an eternity away, yet the exhaustion of Monday and Tusday had firmly set in.

'Good morning, Poppy! Please bring my blanket when you come this evening, Annabel is staying overnight. Love, Mum.'

The blue light of the screen caused the details of the room around it to blur and fade. She distantly remembered a conversation in which her mother had told her about the family get together on Wednesday, November 1st. It was unfortunate that this was the first time she recalled it since agreeing to attend.

Dropping the phone back on the bedside table, she rolled onto her back and resolved to reply later in the morning, she had told Mum last week she shouldn't text before 8am.

Closing her eyes and taking in a deep, irritated breath, she gingerly lugged her weight upright and staggered to the window, throwing open the curtains. The first light of day forced its way into eyes still accustomed to darkness, illuminating the tangled curls that stood almost on end and the tiny cartoon sheep on her button-up pyjamas.

Living alone for the first time, silence had become a bittersweet friend that had long outstayed their welcome, so she flicked on the radio upon reaching the kitchen.

'- minor delays on the M25 clockwise, further east-' change station.
Some unbearable pop song. Change station.
'- although there were no deaths, the court has ruled the attacker -' change station.
'- you know who would be a great sidekick for you? Olly Murs -' change station.
'- here on More Music Breakfast, Classic FM.' Perfect.

The memory of her previous commute haunted weekday mornings. Although rather demining, bring the lodger in the centre of London with a more successful younger sibling had certainly had its perks. Deciding to live alone had demanded moving further out, something she did not regret so much as she willed her Archive Assistant’s salary to double. The dread of the coming journey festered as she poured semi-skimmed milk over bran flakes, glided a hot iron over her blue and white striped blouse and shouldered her new winter coat. She relived the thrill of spotting it in an RSPCA shop window three days before. The scarlet garment had been draped over a cheap mannequin towering over her as she pressed her fingers to the glass, like a child gazing longingly at icecream.

Switching off the radio, she turned to the mirror by the front door. Admiring her bargain, she peered over her left shoulder as though her reflection was a photographer for a fashion spread, smiling wryly to herself. It had so far successfully sheltered her from Tuesday's ferocious winds, and Monday's sub-zero evening.

Although the flat was not heated, stepping out into the naked winter caused immediate recoil, the biting breeze washed over her wet lips like a thousand tiny needles. Onward march. This time of year the morning shadows stretched out endlessly, cutting sharp lines against the pale, heatless sunshine. The cold seeped passed her coat and into her viscera as she took it into her lungs, the air rushed towards her face with unfaltering urgency, forcing her to squint against it.

Her hands pressed tightly against the inner seam of the coat's pockets, one a tight fist and the other grasping her mobile phone. As she walked passed the corner shops and bakeries in their first hours of business, the time it had been stolen came to mind. It was summer then, at a crowded bus stop on Oxford Street. She had felt it slide away from her body, and in an unexpected surge of adrenaline she had spun around to grab a wrist that had already snached away into the crowd. She shuddered at the deflating memory, feeling again the painful realisation that her pictures would be impossible to recover. The insurance her father had insisted on buying covered the theft, but those frozen memories would never be replaced. Now, she hung tightly onto it in the safe sheath of her pocket, the dangers of living in a capital city learned and bypassed from experience.

Before she reached the station, her pocket vibrated. Shit, Mum again. In her strategy to put off replying to her first text she had forgotten about it altogether. Her mother's blanket lay in a limp heap at the foot of her sofa. Too late now. She would have to pretend she had not seen this one, either.

'Please do get back to me when you get this, dear! Love, Mum.'

She rocked back on her heels in exasperation. No need for that, there was nothing she could do now. 'Just reply at work,' she thought, 'you won't be blamed, and she might even be happy thinking you don't look at your phone until you get to work.'

Peering into the main entrance of the underground, the characteristic crowd of jaded, semi-animate statues packed closely together in the wide passage to the escalators. When a train came, they glibly shuffled forwards, repeating four or five times before making it onto the carriage. Among the faces were furrowed brows, pursed lips and vacant expressions staring off into the distance.

Although her destination was the same, she did not break pace and instead veered into the next, narrower corridor that led to a spiral staircase connecting the over and underground platforms. She had been awfully pleased with herself when she worked out this shortcut a month into her tenancy. Here, she tapped her oyster on the wall-mounted reader and joined the crawling descent of those changing from the Greater Northern to the Victoria line: the same throng of grim faces, black expressions and frustrating periods of static as the other route, but only twice did this group lurch forward and stop before reaching its goal.

On the platform, the red of her coat blazed among the subdue browns, blacks and greys. WIth her hair swept up in a slick style and black leather handbag tightly pressed to her side, she felt like a French business woman. Sometimes, she fantasised she was on the Metro in Paris, en route to some billionaire CEO to close a deal that would make her hundreds of thousands of euros. Silly distractions, but at least she looked the part.

The familiar voice sliced through the uncomfortable quiet: 'Victoria line. The train now approaching is to Brixton. Please stand back from the platform edge.'

A gradual crescendo reverberated from deep within the tunnel, bringing with it gusts of chilly artificial wind. Then, the vivid headlights, followed by blurred carriages crashing through like a ferocious artery as it came into dock.

Poppy had managed to slip into the second row back, but even still boarding was not certain. The anticipative passengers swarmed around the doors with hundreds of tiny, insistent stops. The passive travellers utilised as much force as was polite, pulling themselves in front of those that could make it before then, each one determined their destination was most imperative. Apart from one man, she noticed, who shoved his way rudely onto the carriage behind her target.

She spied a small unfilled space. The frantic beeping that warned of departure spurred her to leap onto the train, the doors flying closed behind her.

Her heart pulsating in her ears, she leant back on the glass and lowered her face into the upturned collar. While the coat had managed against ghastly winds, it was no shelter from the anguish of standing at 5’4” on a packed tube. Here, cocooned in the necks, chests and armpits of ordinary-sized people, she faced an arm stretched upwards with a pit of body odour; an intoxicatingly perfumed neck at eye level; and the body of a 6’ man whose liberally applied aftershave radiated from his chest. The hot stench from each mingled inescapably in front of her nose. The next carriage over, the man she had observed worked his way to the middle of the mass.

A forest of fabric, limbs and faces loomed. After such eagerness to board, none ever seemed grateful for making it. The diverse group were uniformly dressed, suits, ties, shirts and blouses clutching briefcases and handbags, folded newspapers and closed books without enough space to open them. Poppy envied a younger man with close-cropped curled hair sporting a pair of expensive-looking headphones. She wished to escape this solitary crowd as he did.

The man began fumbling around inside his backpack.

“The next station is King’s Cross St. Pancras. Doors will open on the left hand side. Change for-”

An ear-splitting crack drowned the announcement.

Her feet were ripped from the ground they stood on. The scene in front of her swallowed by a blinding yellow light punctuated by brilliant silver lines.

Time slowed. Her body contorted as it was tossed backwards. Each nerve jolted and quaked. Passing milliseconds poured forth waves of madding agony. Mouth filled with iron. Hair come undone and soared around her head. Hands glided out of their pockets and towards her face.

The crack left behind it a deafening ringing that smothered wailing screams.

Hitting the ground again. Breathing is hard now. Yellow had turned to orange.

To grey.

To black.