Achilles seems fearless

The train pulls away from the platform and slides into the tunnel.

The doors have hissed shut. Sharp elbows; vacant, hard-edged stares and tessellating bodies in rush hour carriages. And the disembarked flow in eddies through Russell Square Station.

Into the tunnel it slides. Trillions of particles, the mass of the station, the tiles on the walls, the curved walls of the tunnel, quiver. They move, infinitesimally, backwards and forwards like the folds of a concertina.

The sound wave.

It passes through the walls; through the earth; through medieval bones waiting to tantalise archaeologists; through the foundations above, through basements above and the galleries of the British Museum. 

Through the Ancient Greek pots on glass shelves it passes, and they too quiver. Too slightly to see, for here in the august galleries the sound wave exists almost in the realm of abstraction.  

And because every impulse in the city creates its own wave, the Greek pots are shivering constantly. And Achilles seems fearless as he slays Penthesilea, eternally, motionlessly bearing down on his victim on the belly of a vase. 

But really he’s trembling. 

He’s animated by the city. He’s moving in the false silence. 

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Deaf Ears and Sudden Assumption 

The wall is flooded with orange light. So hard that it forces the bricks back a millimetre or two; and it renders passing figures from the plunging shadows fleetingly two dimensional; and it dazzles them. 

Or it would have done, had they paused.

Drunken and hurrying in zigzags. 

Except one. And in the obliterating light her hair might be any colour.

Except red. If the orange light were to strike anything red (or, god forbid, actually orange), the object in question would ignite, dazzling the zigzaggers in the streets around Seven Dials into prone submission. 

And one of them suddenly bumps into her, and they spin together.

Hands on the other’s arms to steady themselves. 

“Watch out darling,” she says to ears still ringing with trance beats.

And had he refused the last four drinks he would have dwelt on that word: “darling.” It would have confirmed to him her position in the throws of kindly middle age.
Something about the tone. 

And he would have looked at her face and figure as hard as was politely possible. And the evidence of his eyes, her smooth skin, glossy hair and athletic figure, would have failed the test of sudden assumption. 

And she’d be middle aged and young at the same time. 

Jury service and sympathetic hair.

Fuck. It’s happened.

She nearly swore aloud as she opened the envelope and saw the imperious words in a big, disarmingly neutral font (and in a strange shade of pink).

Jury Service

The carriage shudders, like it’s laughing. Opening her post on the Tube has become a habit, and she feels it must have somehow tempted fate.

Somehow.

She skims the letter cursorily, but finds no mention of a crime. Maybe they tell you when you arrive at… Oh, they do, right there.

She exhales, blows the same strand of hair from her face that always flops down in sympathy in moments like this.

Fuck.

Time off work. A room full of fuckers. Public sector tea and a plate of stale biscuits. Bored deliberation.

Hopefully it’ll be open and shut. A nice, simple burglary.

But what if it’s fraud?

She sighs again. It’s bound to be. It’ll be financially complex and a billion degrees of obscurity.

The hair strand flops down again and she leaves it there.

Always check

“Bollocks” he yells in his head. There’s a moment of hope, when he thinks he feels it in his inside pocket, but no. Every other pocket has been checked and double-checked, and he pats his trousers yet again, but he knows.

His wallet is gone.

And he knows exactly when it happened. On the Tube he had pulled his phone out to listen to music, and the clump of entangled earphones must have dragged the wallet out with it. His momentary irritation at having to disentangle the wires must have clouded his senses.

He should’ve checked. Always check.

“Always fucking check!”

The wave of anger subsides now, and disappointment rushes to fill its place.

He spent £45 on that wallet, specifically because it was slim-line, no compartments, no possibility of accumulating handfuls of useless change, nothing unnecessary to bulk out his skinny jeans.

And now he can’t bear to listen to music. He’d rather have silence.

Alan

The carriage jolts and “the next station is Embankment.”

Alan can hear the woman next to him openly weeping. She’d been brewing for a while. He had followed the glance of the man sitting opposite and had surreptitiously looked at her on the pretence of turning to wiggle his phone out of his pocket.

She was puffy-eyed, took short, sharp breaths and, now, hearing her soft cries more loudly he feels panic.

They’re judging him, all the other passengers. They’ve all clocked her suffering, and now they’re sitting there passing sentence on him for not comforting her. He can feel it.

He catches the eye of the young man sitting opposite with a notepad balanced on his knees, and he quakes at the thought of his judgment.

The train is nearly at Embankment but seems to be slowing painfully.

“Come on!” he yells inwardly. “Hurry!”

Finally it grinds to a halt beside the platform and the doors slide open. He slithers through the crowd, shamefaced, certain they are all thinking ill of him, imagining what a poor excuse for a human he is. He makes his way out onto Villiers Street. His eyes and ears are burning with shame, and he wanders without thinking into the doorway of a coffee shop, before taking hold of himself and carrying on to the office.

Etienne

The carriage jolts gently, and the little world inside the steel tin rocks a little. Shoulders rub a little, knees touch and thumbs flick screens and eyes are fixed to them.

Except Etienne’s.

The woman opposite wears a peculiar expression. Her hands are clasped tight, her feet are pressed together.

Etienne knows she has a story, and as the doors slide open at Earl’s Court and passengers percolate between carriage and concourse he decides to tell it.

Her face is tight, he notices. Her mouth is set.

And it comes to him, not just her story, her anger, her decision to lay down the law to an underling as soon as she sets foot in the office, but the stories of everyone.

He decides to tell the stories of London.

He balances the notepad on his knees.