A morning like any other, coffee and tooth paste, followed by cologne, my briefcase wheeling out behind me like a gull, a mad dash to the tube station, flight of stairs, the slap of an oyster card at the barriers. Moving so slowly on the dirty escalator, then, mind the gap rush, and into the carriage. The capsule was packed with hot bodies, well, that’s a given this hour of the day. However, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled - I paused, and a wiry old woman slipped down into the seat I was going to take. This left me no other option. I’d stand side by side with strangers, grasping a plastic straps, swaying like puppets on strings. Or not. At the heart of the carriage there was a gap, a seat untaken. A perfect position, a luxurious throne! I wondered if it was booby trapped. A bizarre image of a whoopee cushion entered my mind, and I almost smiled. I elbowed past a boy with some rap garbage spilling from his ears, and seated myself, shuffling to make the most of the naturally uncomfortable perch. I felt uneasy, and for a moment I couldn’t work out why. The British move in patterns, they can’t help it. They bring a shape to crowds, an order in queues and utilise every inch of a tube carriage. In most cases, anyway. There was an empty area around where I sat. Nobody had migrated into it, instead crushing themselves closer to the doors than was necessary. I wondered, almost audibly, why? My eyes caught the girl seated opposite, and I felt a sensation in my gut similar to the sudden force of a knee.
Sure, she’d pulled off the commuter’s uniform; grey, and black, with uninspiring shoes. Yet there was something alien about her and I couldn’t pick out exactly what that was. I wasn’t the only one who’d sensed it, that something improper about her, an inexplicable vulgarity. The silent majority voted with their body language to ignore her. Here, in London town, the final vestiges of that diluted, almost lost, British art of the stiff upper lip was playing out. Backs were turned, shoulders proffered, but all with a sombre, practical dignity. She seemed to exude a magnetic field, a disruptive north/north repulsion that pushed us away. We were travelling south. Feigning distraction, I peered at her over my Blackberry. A darkness was forming at the maw of her right nostril, which as I watched, disgusted – fascinated? - grew. A single scarlet teardrop. No emotion registered on her otherwise ordinary face. Her eyes were glazed over, as if she were in another place entirely - somewhere more than the usual commuter day dreams. She was too young to have such deep lines scored in her skin. Wrong, wrong, all wrong! Her expression was so terrible that I felt the sensation of cold fingertips running my spine. The droplet seemed to shake its head despairingly, then gave up its grip, sliding seductively down towards the apex of her cupid’s bow. I’d seen the process many a time, on car windows, as condensation on mirrors- but this time, the passivity of the movement made me uneasy. She was as solid as marble. The compartment lurched, drunkenly.
The blood paused, like a skier weighing up risks – then plunged, like taking a level crossing in the breath of time. Now, it continued to crawl, and I felt the tang of bile rising in my throat. Still her eyes were unfocused. It was like she was unaware of the crimson track traversing her face.
My stop and I couldn’t stop staring. As the train lurched to a halt, I swung my weight off the seat, blinking, eyes down, trying to avoid the dreaded traveller to traveller eye contact. I didn’t see it, but she must have also been racing to the exit, tasting cave air. It was metallic.
I knew she was moving because I saw her blood fall, spiralling onto the vinyl floor, where a man smudged it beneath his shimmering brogues. Exiting the tube train mere centimetres behind her, I realised what an ass I was being. I whipped my silk handkerchief out of my breast pocket and caught her arm, before she could evaporate into the surge of the platform. I remember thinking that yes, we do still live in an age of chivalry.
What happened next, happened so fast, that my mind has distilled it into three separate images. The first, my dark hand against the perfect white of the cloth, too white, expectant, waiting for a poppy to bloom within its innocent folds. Her heart-shape face twisted back towards me so sharply, the second trail of blood arcs like a semicircle drawn with a compass, across her cheek, until it mingles with her dark hair. Then, Japanese tourists, cameras raised like bayonets, a seething mass of tube maps and mangled syllables. My handkerchief is gone; I know she doesn’t have it. I can imagine it drifting away across the platform, into the hungry crack of the tube track, a white flag marked with a single ruby, so fragile in the dirt and squalor at our feet. She bristled like a wildcat; I let her go in shock. Such a ball of fury. I’d never seen hate like it up close. I imagine her face then to be what a scream looks like, if you were to faithfully transcribe the syllables onto paper.
For a minute, feeling quite taken aback, I, seasoned underground traveller, king among commuters, am nearly lost at sea, carried away with the tide of bodies. Eventually I hit air, delirious. I suck it in, it’s thick as honey. I’m late for my nine o clock.