Christopher cannot even look at the lights. He wants to but he can’t, and there is a tearing in his ears. Everything is too loud, and everything is far too bright. It is louder here than it was at the gig, which doesn’t make any sense. He sits with his hands crushed tight against his ears, flattening the sweaty peaks of hair.
He is not supposed to be out this late.
Not because anyone gives a fuck, or will notice when he gets home. No one is time-keeping. His home is a one-bedroom thing in Stockwell, his home has exposed brick because no one cares enough to cover it up. His is the type of life that has one set of sheets. He sometimes wonders what it would be like to live a life like his mother’s, with rotating sheets, a life when you wouldn’t have to mind if someone suddenly had to get into your bed, caught ill or something. His mother wouldn’t have to explain the pizza sauce, and the islands of semen dried into iridescent scabs. There are always bits at the bottom of his bed, bits that he tracks in on the pads of his feet when he gets up for water, and for a wee. If he had a vacuum he could do something about it. He doesn’t even know where he would buy a vacuum. Amazon, maybe, but then you have to be the kind of person who knows when they might be home to sign for package, or live somewhere where a big brown box wouldn’t be stolen from a stoop.
He likes Stockwell because it’s not pretending to be anything it isn’t. The estate over from his is the second worst in London. That’s what an Uber driver told him, a few weeks ago, in the early morning, when he was trying to sleep. Sometimes he thinks he can will it away, the erratic thump of his heart against his ribs. He takes deep breaths and counts slowly, but he can’t slow it down. Besides, what does second worst mean? What does it take to be worse? More dead people, more stolen things. Sometimes people shoot up in his elevator, and he steps around them, and takes the stairs. No one gives him sideways looks in Stockwell.
How do you even decide which kind of vacuum to buy? You could be ironic and buy a Henry Hoover, with his red face and that black long nose. They might not even sell them anymore. Though if they’ve stopped, they’ll bring it back soon. Nostalgia is everywhere. The Henry had gone the way of the ironic Halloween costume, like a guy he’d lived with, who’d done the red face with his girlfriend’s red lipstick, and had to go to work 2 days later with a waxy red sheen still to his face, and he was a lawyer. He’d thought, with vacuums, they probably let you take them on a money-back guarantee, because that’s the kind of thing people fall for. You never send it back though, even if you hate it, even if it just takes up space. You buy it as an experiment and then if you hate it you pretend to like it anyway. Because boxing it up and arranging for it to be picked up is way more energy than turning that hate into tolerance. Besides, you can get cordless vacuums now. He’d like one of them.
There are two girls sitting opposite him, with one boy in the middle, holding hands with both of them, like he’s still deciding which one he’s going to take home, like he’d quite like it to be both. Christopher can’t bring himself to look any further up than their knees (the rushing wall of the tunnel past the panes, his own warped reflection, those bright lights) but they tell a story, all their angles, towards and away. The girl on the left has Doc Martens a bit like his, but they look better on her legs, the way they can’t quite close around her skinny shin. She’s a bit bruised, and he can see spikes of hair on her legs. He quite likes girls with hairy legs. He’d like to tell her, but his mouth had better stay shut (what might come out) and besides what would he tell the other girl? She has long socks and Converses, muddy at the toes, and he doesn’t like them as much. She wouldn’t want to know that. Nobody wants to know that they’re second best.
He shouldn’t be out this late. It must be 3, or 4, or 5, he dropped his phone about 20 minutes in, when he was too up to care, and now he’s come down and been sorry and made the choice to go back up again. Up instead of down is an easy choice. The taste is on the back of that tongue, the sweetness that is also acrid, that is like nothing else he has ever tasted. Nothing is as good. Once, at a festival, desperate for another hit, he’d bought some off a man in the crowd. He’d melted away like he’d never been there, and with the music throbbing underneath his feet and behind his teeth Chris had stuck a finger in the bag and tasted something else. The same wrong taste, the same chemical wrongness, but not the right thing. He’d kept taking it anyway, just in case, because fifty quid is fifty quid, but. It had probably been rat poison.
They’re just drunk, the three opposite him. He can tell by their movements, slow and lazy.The boy has moved his hand to the knee of the girl with the hairy legs, a bit further up than the knee. He likes hairy legs too, or maybe he just doesn’t care because it’s 3am, and you start to compromise with yourself at 3am. I will only stay another hour. I will go home in two hours, but I’ll make sure I get up and don’t waste the day. I’ll take a bit more but that will be the last of it and then I won’t take any for 6 weeks, maybe 7. I will stop. I will stop.
His vision is doing the juddering, cracking thing, and there is something welling up at the bottom of his eyes. He can’t see the hairy legs anymore, he can’t see much of anything. And he’s not sure if he’s sitting up straight anymore.
Converse laughs, and it enters his ears like music. “That dude is fucked. Man, you’re fucked.”
He is not sure when he became a man. In his mind he is a boy, acting out, trying something new. It’s not that new anymore, it hasn’t been new for seven years. Is it seven? He can feel his mouth moving. He’s grinding his teeth. They’ll hurt tomorrow. If he was still at the rave someone would have given him gum. No one one on this train is going to give him anything. He should have stayed in that dark warehouse, with other wide-eyed kids jumping around him. He is just a kid.
“Dude. Dude?” The boy opposite is leaning over to him. He has his hand on his shoulder.
“Dude, sit up. You might swallow your tongue or some shit.”
He would like to tell him to fuck off. He is a man, he does not need help, but he does need help, the lines of the train carriage aren’t staying where they should and he feels, more than ever, more than before, that he might have entered somewhere strange in his mind, somewhere he hasn’t gone before.
“Should we stop the train? Pull the thing?”
“No, all the signs say wait for a station. We can’t just stop in the middle of a tunnel. What would we do if he passed out?”
Doc Martens stands up and shouts down the carriage. “Is there a doctor on here? Something’s wrong with this guy.”
A voice from his left, older, replies, “Perhaps you should have stopped your friend from speaking to men on street corners.”
Doc Martens cocks a hip. “He is not our friend. And don’t be a cunt. Might be you dying on a train one day, you old bitch.”
Chris would like to smile. More than that, he would like to be somewhere else. He does not miss Australia very often. It is too hot and too loud. It is too outside. There are not enough bits of it that have been closed off, it is like a big uncovered scab. But he misses it right now. He would like to be seeing the sun. Then he would know which way is up.
He is lying on the floor of the train carriage, and the guy is putting him into recovery position. Converse is admiring, scuffing a toe. “Where did you learn that?”
“Rugby.” Chris is not that heavy but the guy is panting with the effort of getting him into position. “Guys choke on their tongues after tackles. Or some shit. I never saw it happen.”
Australians play rugby. A lot of sport. Chris hasn’t played rugby since he was at school, but he was good at it once. Big, and dense, and low to the ground. You can be good at high school rugby without being fast. When he moved to London he thought he might join a football league, to meet people, but you do have to be fast to be good at football, and tricky, with mastery over your toes. Chris only played two games, and then they stopped texting him to join. Cunts. But then, that left more time for other things.
If only there were music. Music always helps when people have taken too much gear. They start to come up and they freak the fuck out, but then the music gets into their blood, the thud and bang of it, and the drugs mix with the music, and then it’s magic. He likes watching first timers begin to sway with it, and close their eyes to it. He was at a gig once where a girl just shut her eyes the entire time. You never know whether you’re hearing the same things. Probably not.
He could still be at the rave right now. It won’t be over. Those things, they go until past dawn, for as long as the light can be blocked out, and there’s always another little bag. Rat poison, rat poison.
His heart is going with the rhythm of the train, as it barrels through the tunnel, underground. He can feel each railing. Do they even run on railings?
Doc Martens speaks again. “We’re slowing down.” There is relief in her voice. She is very young, he thinks. It’s too late for her to be up. She will have school soon. Not tomorrow – today – but soon. “James, we can call for help at the platform.” James, Converse, Doc Martens. His companions on this very wild ride.
Converse chimes in. “And then we’re going fucking HOME, rather than spending all night taking care of a deadbeat.”
It is hard to argue that he is not a deadbeat. The swimming in his eyes has come again and the floor is moving in pulses. His heart is hard against his ribs. The train stops, and he waits for his friend, the big guy, the guy with his hand exploring Doc Martens, to lift him, but nobody moves.
“Fuck’s sake.” It’s the old lady again, clutching her plastic bags around her, one on her knees, one hooked between her feet. He can hear them moving. She’s kneading her fingers like he’s grinding his jaw. “Where are we?”
“Why have we stopped?”
“I don’t know.”
“FUCK.” Chris’ saviour stamps his foot, like a kid in a movie. He has nice shoes on too. Chris tries to think of the word. Brogues.
“James,” chides Doc. “Fuckssake.”
He has never been this close to a floor before. Nobody has. He is puddling against it, or he would be if he wasn’t rigid with the chemicals jolting his nerves wide. A bad pill, he thinks, but the only difference between a bad pill and a good pill is where you take it, really. He has been called, on occasion, bad. His mother has called him a bad influence, his father, with an amber whiskey in one hand behind whitening knuckles, didn’t bother mincing words. “You’re never going to grow up, ya idiot. Never gonna be much of anything, are ya. Came out a bit fucked in the head, gonna stay that way. We should never have taken ya on. Shoulda known. ” They’d had that conversation (would we call it a conversation?) 9 years ago, and no conversations since (some messages, from his mother, who’d plainly got Facebook for this very purpose, written in the kind of tentative prose that comes from a woman who’d spent her life peering over the shoulder of a much larger man, ‘Love, I just want to know you’re alright’, ‘Hun it’d be lovely to hear from you, ‘Joan down the road got married, they did their first dance to that song you always played, what was it called, gem?’. Strange, when you consider the kind of woman she is. Of course, she’d deleted them later). Bad.
Bad, and now that swimming was gone, and instead a halo around the corners of his eyes. He might have chewed all the teeth out of his head by now. He pictures bits of his teeth dropping out the sides of his mouth, chalky on his tongue, spitting them out likes bits of peanut.
James was hovering by the door, forehead pressed flat against his own black reflection. “Can’t see shit.”
Doc was doing the same, through the window to the other carriage. “Can’t see anyone in the next carriage. Might be a few a bit along.” She tried the handle.
Converse jumped. “Don’t! It’ll start soon. Don’t be dumb. Don’t get stuck.”
Doc moved away from the door, scuffing the boot again. “When, though. Where’s the fucking driver? Why’s he not saying anything?”
“Might be a woman, though.”
Converse laughed. “Sorry. Can we just fucking be in bed already?”
James stayed where he was. “Maybe we’re stuck. Maybe someone’s coming. Can’t see shit, though? Are there usually lights in the tunnels? I can’t remember.”
How long has it been, 10 minutes, more? Christopher can’t remember the last time he was lit so brightly and so lost in time. It could be 3am or 5am or 7am, but it wasn’t 7am because there were no tradies, no men headed out to shifts knocking through loft apartments. Just one old lady with a pile of plastic bags. He’d like to ask her where she’s going. Where she’s been. She’d probably tell him to fuck off though.
If there had been other passengers in the carriage, Chris couldn’t remember them. He can’t remember anyone from on the platform, or even where he got on. He could barely remember the colour of the seats (blue, alright, so he could). There was just him, and James, and Doc and Converse. And the old woman who was pretending none of this was happening, sat with her bags clutched about her like something that might be stolen. She looked a bit like his mother. HIs real mother. Maybe. Maybe she just looked old.
He couldn’t see. James would probably want to know that, if he could tell him. The shoes, the lines on the floor. There’s nothing.
There is the sound of a door opening and closing. “Hello, did you – oh.” There is a quick movement near him, and someone drops down to her knees beside him. He can tell it’s a woman because of the smell of her hair, which flicks down over him like a shawl, like a blanket, like he’s come home and laid down on the couch and passed out and someone has draped it over him. Her hair is very long and it has the smell of freesias, like a lawn in summer, and he feels quite calm. She’s lifting his eyelids, he can feel that, but he still can’t see her, except in his mind’s eye. She probably looks like a primary school teacher he had, who always had dog hairs on her sweater.
“How long have his eyes looked like that?”
“Looked like what?”
“Where’d you come from?” asks Converse, which makes Chris feel better, because he’s pretty sure it had only been them, those three, and the old woman, and she hasn’t moved.
“Through the door. There’s a woman through there with two kids, after some water. One of them won’t stop crying, she reckons he’s a bit hot.” She speaks very fast, clipped, fitting more words out than most. “This guy, why’d you put him down here on the floor like this?”
“He’s fucked,” says Doc. “On something. He looked weird before.”
James speaks. “He was leaning off his seat a bit, I thought he might fall and hit his head. Put him on the ground.” He’s proud of his work.
She nods, and puts her hand around Chris’ jaw, pulling it open. It’s a struggle. “I’m Annette. Anne. I’m a nurse.”
They make noises of relief. “Now, what has he taken? Just tell me. I can help him.”
Converse is mad, she spits her words, she wants to be in bed. “We don’t know the old cunt. Never met him.”
32. Not so old. Too old for this, but not so old.
James nods. “It’s true, didn’t even see him get on.We just noticed him when he started moving around funny.”
There are hands pressing down on him but no one has moved and so they are rave hands, the kinds of hands that lift you up and out and up and away. They can take all your weight and carry you on. Annette, he says in his head, through the pain, Annette I can’t see. And then he is moving, what’s the word, he is convulsing, he is retching, someone is shouting and he wants to tell Annette, it is alright, Annette you have lovely hair and there are worse things than being held by a stranger on the floor of the night tube, but he can’t fit his tongue out through his lips and his clenched teeth, and he is James, with his forehead against the window, staring out at a black tunnel.