Friday, 25 April 2014

End of the line

Shouldering her backpack and digging a book out of her bag, Mary stepped onto the escalator heading down to the Metro platform heading for Downtown Athens. She’d made the same trip so many times, her feet knew the way, freeing her eyes to focus on the page open in her hand. She wandered up the platform and planted herself exactly at the spot she knew would put her at the foot of the Up escalator when she arrived at Monastiraki. She glanced up to see when the next train was due. Four minutes, not too bad.

Around her was the usual collection of subdued wage slaves, still smudged with sleep as they made their way to the office, or the shop, or the factory, to earn their daily bread. World weary and dead-eyed this early in the morning, none complained – they knew they were lucky they were to still be working when 27% of the population weren’t. Each was shrouded in their own personal exclusion zone, essential for survival on public transport, even when packed in so tight that a crowbar would be handy to get off at your stop.

Further along was a sprinkling of students on their way to morning classes, obstinately clinging to the hope of a decent future when all evidence pointed in the opposite direction. The noisy buoyancy of their youth added a spark of life to the strangely silent collection of Greeks, usually so garrulous but oddly quiet when riding the underground. One young lad with the unmistakable cock-eyed grin of one who’d got lucky the night before. His friend wore the hopeless gaze of one who hadn’t. A gaggle of girls giggled and compared manicures in the corner.

The train slipped into the station and shuddered to a halt. Doors opened with a whisper and they all piled in. Vacant seats were quickly grabbed before a black clad pensioner clutching a carrier bag bulging with papers and a large X-ray envelope had a chance to reach them. She planted herself next to the upright pole, hung on and stared at her feet. A young man of about 20 sporting dreadlocks, a straggly beard and a skull tattoo on his wrist jumped up and gave her his seat with a shy smile. She beamed her thanks and sat down with a sigh.

Mary scuttered to a convenient corner by the door, leaning her backpack up against it, and turned her attention back to her book. She was at a crucial point in the plot and she was hoping to reach the climax before she had to negotiate the crowds to change trains and head down to Piraeus.

The carriage jerked and swayed its familiar dance to the next stop, spilling out passengers and letting yet more in. The long, penetrating ‘baarp’ sounded, the doors slapped shut and they were on their way again. At the next stop, a handful of severely-barbered young men in dress uniform and fatigues joined them. Hardly surprising – it was the station next to the Ministry of Defence, after all. Doors thumped shut and the passengers braced themselves for the movement that would follow. None came. The train sat obstinately where it was, hermetically sealed and sulking by the platform, like a puppy that didn’t want to go for a walkies on a rainy morning.

Mary looked up briefly, but paid little attention. There was probably some glitch up ahead. It would soon be sorted out. Hopefully. She furtively crossed her fingers beneath her book and hoped there hadn’t been another suicide on the tracks at Ambelokipi station. That’s where the city’s central courts were. Where many a broken householder had received the final ruling that would cost their families their homes over the past five years. If one of those unfortunates had decided throwing himself in front of a train was better than the shame of returning with the news that he had lost everything, things tended to get messy. And she’d almost certainly be late for work.

Three more minutes passed. Some passengers started twitching at the corners of the shroud of silence covering them. Exasperated exclamations, pleas to get moving and good old-fashioned moans started to fill the carriage.

After ten minutes there was still no movement, announcement or opening of doors. People started exchanging worried looks. A feral-faced young girl, no more than eight, clung to her mother and whimpered softly. The beggar who been trawling the carriage, selling his dignity for the hope of a few spare coins, started mumbling wildly beneath his breath.

Mary reached the end of her chapter and looked up. Great, she thought, now I’m going to have to stay late tonight to get all my work done.

A communal sigh of relief rose from the crowd as the train jerked into action and started speeding forward. Normality had returned and everyone settled back into their safe bubble of isolation. Everyone except for the wild-eyed girl and the mumbling beggar who seemed more disturbed than ever.

As the train sped through Katahaiki station without stopping there was a groan of protest from those who had planned to get off there, but no-one else paid any mind. One missed stop would get them where they were going faster, after all. 

That changed as it hurtled past Panormou and Ambelokipi.

The walls of the tunnel were a rushing blur, the stations a strobe of illumination as they hurtled through them one after another. Panic spread through the passengers as they train gained yet more speed.

Mary dropped her book and stared in bemusement as the old lady with the X-rays slumped in her seat. The dreadlocked youth bent down to push her upright, whispering something in her ear as he did. The young girl clutched desperately to her mother’s breast, fiercely sucking her thumb. The beggar waved his arms and shouted drunkenly.

Something was not right. Something was so very far from right that it had crossed to a different time zone from the ways things ought to be.

With no warning, the lights went out, bathing the passengers in darkness and the screaming whoosh of the train as it sped its way to….  who knew where? 

Mary thought she could see dim shapes in the gloom moving from one row to another, but she couldn’t be sure.

An unexpected metallic voice on the public address system crackled through the the buzz of fear and confusion.


“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the inconvenience.
Please brace yourselves. We are approaching the end of the line.”

No comments:

Post a Comment