The train came to a stop and Maria held her breath and made herself as small as possible so that other passengers could dismount around her. She slowly edged her way into the middle of the carriage and grabbed the vertical hand rail for support. New passengers blended with old passengers and the silent reverie of morning remained undisturbed and muted. There was little sympathy at such an early hour of the morning. Compassion and kindness was displaced by urgency and haste, requirements to be punctual and precise. Details missed. People forgotten and faded. The doors closed and the huddled group of individuals returned to ignoring where they were and why. The words returned in print or tunes or minds and life drifted despite its confined and concrete course. She watched the cables pass on the other side of the glass and tried to ignore the newspaper that was inches from her face. She could smell the ink and paper and it reminded her of art classes at school, of her carefully crafted sculptures and youth and freedom. The train jolted to a sudden stop and she fell forwards into the newspaper amid exasperated tuts and sighs. The man reading the paper looked down on her and shook his head. He pointed at the rails above and resumed reading. Maria looked at him and felt an overpowering urge to knee him in his groin, but she resisted and grabbed the rail before the train took off again. The man turned a page and pressed the paper in her face but she pushed her hand into the pages and pulled it down. ‘Do you mind?’ She said and stared at him as hard as she could.
‘What?’ He replied.
‘Do you mind?’ She said again.
‘About what?’ He asked.
‘Your paper. You keep pushing it in my face.’ He looked at her as if to say, ‘so?’ They stood staring at one another as the train moved through the tunnel. Each of them irritated and angry. ‘It’s really annoying.’ She said.
‘Well…So are you.’
Maria was taken aback. Momentarily caught off guard and shaken. What? How is this…How am I…What…What are you…But the man was already reading again and she knew there was no point in trying to talk to him any further. She looked at him and wondered who he was. Where he came from and what aspects of his past made him so unpleasant. She wondered whether he had kids. A wife. A stable life. Whether he liked his job. Whether he liked his life. Whether he liked anything. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t change anything. He could tell that she was still watching him so he folded the paper in half and turned around. She noticed he had something strange in his hair at the back of his head and a dirty white stain on his shoulder. Looking closer she realised it was bird poop. She smiled and turned away to look for something else. The carriage was soundless bar some muffled music and nobody spoke or shifted. All eyes were on the floor or lost their focus on items that couldn’t speak or question.
Maria held onto the rail and looked around the carriage. Though she had travelled on the underground many times before, she was not prepared for this exact existence, these routines and rails and linear repetition. This was something altogether very different. It was only the third day of her new job and already the doubt was spreading. She had never believed the rumours of suffocation and sorrow so tangible on trains and tracks. She never really thought it possible. At least not in her life. And yet there she was within it. Part of it. Taking her place among them and wondering how she got there. Running things over in her head. The last few years. The move from Guildford to London. The friends she missed. Her family back home in Spain. The room she rented in Acton. Last night in the Red Lion and the guy who asked for her number. The fact she gave it to him and wanted him to call. It was all she had to keep her company, despite the presence of hundreds of other humans and their hopes and dreams and dangers. A woman pushed her way into the aisle and stood on someone’s foot before deciding where to stop between the seats. She brushed her suit jacket down and looked at the seated individuals to try and assess who might be closer to their destination. A man opposite her was making the same calculations and tucked his newspaper under his arm in preperation of his own attack. Their eyes met. She straightened her back. He stiffened. She looked harder and he eventually looked away. She’d won. She was happy and proceeded to assess as the person on whom she’d tread continued to look up at her, waiting for an apology, but it didn’t come.
Having moved to London to complete a degree and find work that might provide for a better future, Maria studied hard and successfully achieved a distinction. Throughout this time she landed jobs in various restaurants and cafés but she was tired of waiting on people. She wanted a proper job. Something that would prove her degree was worth it and all that money had not been wasted. She was the first in her family to go to University and was commended for her effort and determination. She remembered the pride shown by her relatives as they sat in the crowd, watching her walk across the stage in the traditional gown and hat. They smiled and cried and cheered as she shook hands with the Chancellor and waved at them. Years of hard work rewarded. It was a special moment, one that she would never forget, but now that it was over, she wondered when something similar would happen again. Weeks passed. Months. Then finally she found this new job and it wasn’t until she got there that she realised it was in a call centre. It was a travel agency, but it was still a call centre. A sales job. Exactly the kind of thing she hated. A position based on profit. Upselling and lying and cheating. Bullying clients with tales of missed opportunities and regret. Price rises and fixed rates and cunning cost cuts and fraudulent discounts. But she needed a job. She needed money.
Maria noticed a small child dressed in a school uniform pressed up against the glass at the end of the row. He was surrounded by sombre people twice his size, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was looking beyond the windows. His eyes were dark and distant. He wasn’t bothered by any of it. He was somewhere else and Maria wondered where that was, whether that was the trick of how to get through this. A man leaned against the vertical railing she was holding onto, and the weight of his body pushed against her hand. He didn’t seem to notice, or care, and so she pulled her hand forcefully free and hit the woman behind with her elbow. ‘Sorry.’ Maria said, and looked back at the man who had still not moved. Looking for any available support she realised she was too far from the hand rails above so she spread her feet as best as she could and tried to fix them into positions which would provide her with the best balance between the bumps and blows. The train moved slightly and she leaned with it trying to force herself to focus on that something else she hadn’t yet identified.
It was her first time in among desks and vending machines and chocolate biscuits and gossip, but despite the initial novelty, there was something familiar about it all. She spent the morning learning about systems and software and company policies and practice and the afternoon shadowing those already well-rehearsed and ready. They took calls and pretended to care about their clients as Maria sat beside them and tried to understand. They worked around the numbers and lied about the costs as they added to their profit and commission. It was a new experience. Offices always seemed to be where the better jobs were, at least that was what she previously thought, but now she wasn’t so sure. It all seemed to be the same. The train stopped again and the man beside her spun around to make his way towards the open doors and hit her in the chest with his rucksack. She lifted her hand and pressed it down hard between her breasts. She closed her eyes and breathed. The sound of clothes scraping and bags being pushed and pulled filled the acrid air around her. Her head was sore and there was a distinct pounding in her chest. She felt her veins throbbing. The doors closed and she opened her eyes and took hold of the railing again now the man was gone. It was hot and uncomfortable. No matter how many passengers disembarked their numbers were soon replaced and people came and went and took their places beside each other. There was surprisingly little conversation or care taken in those that shared such confined spaces. She recognised an old man from yesterday morning and wondered whether they would ever exchange pleasantries. She wondered whether anyone did. It seemed odd to think that this was probably the closest most people permitted other individuals to get, apart from friends or family or lovers, but there was no love here. There was discomfort and resentment. Defeated acceptance and disgust. There was fatigue, age and boredom. And despite the very many of them trapped together, loneliness. They lived like cattle, confined by barriers built by human hands, staring out at all the beauty beyond their reach and dreaming of a better, different life. Raising their young and preparing them to one day take their place on the pavement of the platform. Through the same doors. On the same train. In the same carriage. Beside the same people. Together again. Maria felt overwhelmingly sad and wondered why she ever wanted this. She wondered why she left her parents’ house in Cadiz by the sand and sea and sun. She wondered why she sought to replace it with concrete feet and tunnels and maps and lines and timetables and delays and defeated days before they had even begun. Maria thought about everything she gave up and whether it was worth it. She looked at the boy and then outside the window. The cables continued to pass.