One of them wears the bluest trainers I have ever seen, blue like the carrier bags given away at Brixton market which is about the bluest thing in this city during late October when the rain comes down.
The drunks board the tube train at Stockwell, five or six of them stepping from the platform. It is difficult to tell whether they are a group who have spent the whole afternoon together, or whether each is a lonely drunk, thrown into company by the kind of coincidence that is part of any large city. At first they rarely talk. They sit quite placidly. The other passengers— the tourists, the workers, the citizens, the voters— try to ignore them, staring forward with a bland, neutral gaze. The drunks are only demons on the periphery, static on a television screen. If the gaze is sharpened, the drunks will cease to exist.
At Vauxhall, one of the drunks leaves his seat and limps to the door. ‘You fuck!’ he shouts. ‘You fuck!’ After that he seems mollified, really quite content. He holds onto a light blue handrail and nods at the floor. A woman slides down from her seat and begins to cry.
‘Here we go,’ says a drunk with a grey jumper.
‘Now, now, now,’ says another.
‘Thank you!’ says another drunk.
‘Is this Green Park?’ says another.
‘It’s about time, all right. It’s about time.’
‘Oh yeah we’re going now. We’re going to run, run, run and there’s nothing you can do.’
‘I was . . .’ the drunk with the blue trainers begins. He loses the sentiment and frowns to himself.
To travel on the tube on a rainy night in October can feel like a kind of drunkenness. Victoria, Oxford Circus, all the way to Walthamstow: you are pulled through the darkness by an unknown power. You are hot, humid. You rock in your seat, a little nauseous from the motion. Sometimes, you can feel out of control. Sometimes, say when a person reads over your shoulder, or someone beats you to a seat, or a young student pushes his rucksack into your face, you can feel quite violent. It is expected, part of the experience. The Victoria Line is blue on the famous tube map, a light blue, like the blue of a vein.
‘Is this Highbury and Islington?’
‘On and on and on and there ain’t nothing to stop us, there ain’t nothing . . .’
‘Femme,’ one drunk says, snickering to himself. He has his eyes turned upwards, almost to the ceiling of the tube train. He is, presumably, reading from an advert above his head. ‘Tombe, lombe, saigne.’
‘I was once . . .’ the drunk with blue trainers says, but stops as the tube train squeals.
‘Voici les temps des assassins,’ says the drunk with the upturned eyes, who is still, presumably, reading from an advert above his head.
‘Is this Kings Cross?’
‘St Pancras,’ another drunk replies.
‘Finsbury fucking Park,’ the former drunk growls.
‘L’eau verte penetrs ma coque de sapin et des taches de vins bleus et des vomissures,’ the drunk with the upturned eyes says.
‘I was once an ordinary man like you,’ the drunk with blue trainers says. ‘I worked as a bureaucrat for a law firm in Pimlico. It wasn’t really a very good job. I had to enforce a number of unpopular procedures. I felt alienated from my colleagues. I had always drunk socially, perhaps a little too much, but nothing excessive. Besides, I always had friends around me. I enjoyed their laughter, their songs. When we were students we lived together in a huge house on Blackhorse Road. They were good people and good times. I think I drank because they had gone.
‘I shared a house with a woman. We lived together in Tottenham Hale. I do not wish to blame her. Things started to go wrong with our relationship. I turned, once more, to alcohol. This only made things worse. I was lonely. I would fall asleep on the sofa and soil myself. This is now embarrassing for me to admit. Eventually, the woman changed the locks on our house. She was scared of me. I would get angry and sometimes, I think, I became violent. I stayed with my friends once more, but my drinking was directing things now, the driver. When I was younger, perhaps, we all could have drunk together, but those days had passed. My friends’ thoughts had moved to children, careers. I did not fit in.
‘Gradually, I began to slip down the rungs. I lost my job through persistent lateness. You don’t think it can happen to you. You think you’re safe from such things, secure, as in a capsule, or in this train carriage, for example. Drinking gives you that illusion. Now, I realise, I drank because I felt so comfortable being self-absorbed. I relinquished control like this to protect myself from the outside world. It was easier than taking part.
‘I began to hang around the station at Euston, begging for money. To be amongst all the people on the station concourse, to look up on the great timetable the stands there and see all those places: it again made me feel involved. As though I were making choices, as though I were moving on. Sometimes, I would steal bottles from the supermarket in the station. I would drink them outside, staring up at the black office block that stands there, an obelisk of obsidian.
‘I died one night on a train heading out of Seven Sisters towards Hertford. It was an easy death, easier than I could have imagined. It was a rainy night in late October. The inside of the train was wet and humid. Whenever the train stopped, an automated female voice read out the names of further stops. Silver St, Broxbourne, Ware. These places are different stories. They would never figure. My breath fogged the glass. I had a bottle of vodka in the pocket of my coat. Because, even at this low point, I was still ashamed of my drinking, I held an empty can of coke in my hand. I would secretly fill the coke can from the vodka bottle and drink as though a normal member of society. A citizen, a worker, a voter. Now, I realise, that I fooled no one but myself. My attempts to hide the bottle were ridiculous. Everyone in the train carriage could see me. They were, perhaps, afraid. Eventually, the conductor came over. He warned me about my behaviour. I argued with him. I began to cry. I was thrown from the train at the next station.
‘On the platform, I was greeted by a young woman with black hair and green eyes. We walked down a short flight of stairs. Away from the lights of the station, the night was like a pool of engine oil, like bright obsidian. A car was waiting for us down by the tracks. She held the back door open for me. I looked back at the station, where the electric train was pulling away. The lights seemed very bright on my eyes, and cold with it. I turned away and the shape of those lights remained on my retina, like a migraine. The girl had to help me into the back of the car.
‘I never even saw the face of the man who was driving. The road was in darkness, and not even the headlights could penetrate it. Occasionally, landmarks appeared on the road beside us, but they were always illuminated by their own light, like stars. A tennis court behind a high fence. A factory lot filled with plastic Christmas trees. A deserted office block. An empty football ground. A hospital. Another train station. Their lights broke upon the glass of the car windows like they were cut outs in a puppet theatre. They were that beautiful.
I asked the girl beside me, ‘Where are we going?’
She only smiled at me in reply. Her skin was very, very pale and her hair was obviously dyed. Her nose was small, pointed and crooked. She reminded me, inexplicably, of a girl from my childhood, although I could not give a name to this ghost.
‘But where are we going?’ I asked again.
The driver of the car began to speak. He began, it seemed, in the middle of a story. ‘And this guy I told you about, the one with the artificial leg. He came down. And the three of us, well, we were all, what are we meant to do about this, you know what I’m saying. It had gone too far. All four of us, the one with the leg included, were just kind of stuck and well, when you’re that way there is nothing you can do. So, I says, ‘Is this Green Park?’ And he just shrugs at me. It always has to be something like that. I mean, I’m like, ‘It’s up to you my friend, because don’t ever think that I’m going to let you ride me like that again.’ And he was all, ‘Well, if it’s yours, take it.’’
The girl beside me nodded as he told his story. Occasionally, she glanced over at me and smiled, but more often, she looked at the man. I realised that she loved him, that she would quite possibly give up her life for him. She was so devoted, a prayer in the shape of a woman.
‘But then, you won’t believe me. He takes off his leg. We were all like, ‘You got to be kidding, you got to be way out there to carry on with this.’ But he just gets down on the station platform and takes off his leg. And then he stands up, and he’s kind of hopping up and down, the loose legs of his jeans just like hanging there, just all wrong. And yeah, you’re right, there was a crowd looking now, just watching us. And he turns to us with this legs, and get this, he begins to unscrew the very top, slowly, unscrewing the top of his leg, with this kind of look on his face like it’s expected and everything, like it’s usual. And it takes him a long time, because he’s got this, I don’t know, cap on it that must be about a foot long. And finally he removes the cap from the end of the leg and he’s just standing there, and he’s hopping to keep himself upright. He asks me to hold onto the cap and to, like, pull it apart. At first, I’m all, what-do-you-mean, pull it apart? But when I take hold of it I can see that the cap is like the set of beakers, you know, pushed together. It was very incredible this little cap. It was, like, craftsmanship. Thin silver metal. Very light. Delicate is a word I would use. It was delicate.’
‘And we were all standing there, holding these beakers. And then, the guy tips up his fake legs, and he begins pouring liquid, sharing it amongst us. I mean, we are all like, ‘This has got to be it now, there’s nothing else going on.’ I mean it’s the end. And you, know, he fills up these beakers, one for each of us. And he like says: ‘I do this for you because you are my friends. We drink together and we comfort each other. The rest of the world only views us with scorn. They are not a part of us. They are not involved.’ I mean, it was incredible. It was like that, by the tracks of this tube station, on a rainy night in October. We were all alone.’
The driver paused. He hunched forward in his seat, his chin almost level with the steering wheel. It was as though he was deliberately trying to hide his face, as though, he knew exactly how much this terrified me. The girl in the seat beside me looked over with adoration. ‘One thing, I forgot,’ the driver said, eventually. ‘One thing I should have mentioned. We drank this liquid down. It was like silver, the drink I mean. It was like liquid silver. We said a toast to each other, right there on the platform. And the man, the man with the one leg, said:
I was travelling on a train on a night in late October when the rain came down. We headed into a long dark tunnel. The man with one leg poured us a drink. The girl beside me began to sing. The driver didn’t speak. There were no words to the woman’s song but I felt I recognised it. I could see the dark dye growing out of her hair. We were travelling very fast now and I was rocking in my seat. The man had the bluest trainers I have ever seen. The girl sang, trilling from the back of her throat. I thought of the moment when at the end, at the very end, the tunnel would run out, and the world would explode over us in light. It would be like something thrown over us, something to wake us from this long dark drunkenness of travel and being lost. But that would come later. The car blasted through the black tunnel, and a tube station flashed by us, like something white and iridescent discarded from the window, it flew past us so fast. I’m not sure, I’ll never be sure, but I think it was Warren Street.
Originally published: Dogmatika, May 2009.
© Daniel Bennett