By Alwyne Ashweth
© Alwyne Ashweth 2018
Bleary eyed he followed the throng through the ticket gates at Waterloo Station. Wide metal throats swallowed the steady stream of commuters in front of him, and he stood in line to wait his turn. He stepped over the tiny teeth onto the moving metal steps. Then he was descending beneath the streets of London without even noticing. Smooth concrete walls slid past, decorated with their shiny metal fixtures and gaudy advertising. He saw none of it. Subconscious programming guided his feet this and every workday morning. Peter Walliss was just another hypnotised drone.
Sensing the end of the ride, he let go of the rubberised bannister and trotted off the end of the escalator. He passed underneath a wide arch and into a marbled landing. Here was a crossroads with people darting in all directions. Like magic, none of them collided. It seemed as though some higher power guided their feet. Overhead signs pointed the way into other tunnels. Peter took his usual route without missing a step. Joining the line heading down even further. This time a single, wider tunnel held steps travelling in both directions. The commuters were mannequins, poised and mute as they passed each other by.
Two platforms lay at the bottom of this shaft. The crowd divided, each half travelling onwards in opposite directions. Peter glanced at the yellow digital clock on the wall to see if he was running on time. He knew that he was, but it was his habit. Then he joined the small group of people waiting by the glass doors at the edge of the tracks. These modern additions made it impossible to fall in front of a train. It happened every year, either an accident, or a suicide. He shivered at the thought. How desperate would someone have to be to throw themselves in front of a train? It was a stark sacrifice to the giant metal worms that raced through their under-city burrows. A tinny whine in the distance announced the arrival of such a beast. As it crowned the mouth of the tunnel, the squeal of brakes drowned out its preternatural song.
The train stopped. The doors slid open in unison, announced with a shrill electronic beeping. He stepped over the threshold. It was like entering a warm, moist tomb. Rush hour had yet to begin, so the carriage was not as crammed as it could be. Peter still had to step around unmoving bodies to find a space to stand in. He hung onto the metal handle above him, anticipating the jerk of the train as it set off again. His hand shifted, and touched the hand of his neighbour.
“Sorry,” he said, half smiling.
There was no response back. No one talked on the tube. Millions of people hurtling through the rock beneath London. And none of them saying a word to each other. It was an incredible feat of British reserve. For the first time his brain woke up from its dawn stupor. The man he had touched fingers with was taller that he was. Peter’s eyes were level with his unshaven chin, and he could smell stale garlic on his breath. He wanted to move away, but someone was stood right behind him. He closed his eyes and breathed through his mouth until the next station. At Westminster more people got off the train than got on, and there was room to sit down.
As the train moved off, he found he felt more awake than usual. His mind flitted from one random thought to the next as he sublimated his boredom. He took in the adverts that lined the spaces above the seats opposite him. Young, smiling, multicultural faces sold cheap phone calls and adult education. One rectangular missive said ‘Let Jesus into Your Life, NOW!’ There was a number to call. Peter smirked. He wondered if Jesus knew that his contact details were no longer private. How angry would he get?
Don’t be stupid, he thought. He would just forgive and forget!
His eyes moved downwards to the people sitting across from him. Dreary, drowsy faces stared into newspapers and books. Some nodded to the beat of music playing only inside their own heads. He looked from person to person up the row. Old Chinese woman; teenager in a business suit; orange-faced office girl; huge-shouldered biker…
He stared at the face sat right across from him.
And she was staring back!
Peter’s first instinct was to look away. He did so. There were unwritten rules about how you behaved on these trains. He glanced at his hands where they rested in his lap, and then at the grimy floor just beyond them. He could tell she was still staring at him. A primordial itch at his forehead told him he was being watched. He fought the urge to flick his eyes back to see if he was correct. The train reached the next station, and people moved in front of him on their way off the train. He looked back at the woman, quite sure she was still examining him. But he found her eyes closed, as if meditating.
There was something strange about her. She was not a conventional beauty, but he seemed unable to look away from her face. He realised that the feeling of being watched was still there, even though her eyes were closed. The noise of the train rumbling on its tracks receded. The sound of his own breath grew louder inside his head. The faint thud-thud of his heartbeat was there as well. It rose in volume as the noise from his external world diminished.
I see you!
The voice hissed out inside his head, and his pulse quickened. He wanted to look around him, to see who could be speaking to him so close to his ear. But his eyes were still locked on the woman. And then it seemed so obvious he almost laughed. She was speaking to him, somehow placing her words inside his brain.
Do you see me?
The question rang out between his ears in a honey-covered voice. With a start he saw the woman’s eyes were now open and looking straight at him. They looked strange. The light reflected off them as if they were in a much darker place. She seemed to answer this thought…
I see the truth through these eyes. It is always so much darker than we expect.
The train was coming to the next station, and she blinked a long, slow blink. He thought that she was going to get off, and he frowned with desperation. He wanted to ask her who she was, and how she could speak to him inside his head.
Follow me and you will see…
Again his question had been answered. The train stopped and she rose, looking away from him for the first time. Peter felt a sudden aching loss, and let out a small moan as confused tears spilled down onto his cheeks. She walked the few steps to the carriage doors with a fluid grace that belied the humanity she was feigning. Peter did not know who she was, or what she was. But he did know that he meant to follow her.
He stood, feeling clumsy and unworthy as he stumbled out onto the platform. She walked a few steps ahead of him, hips swaying, never looking back. Robbed of the sight of her face, he took in the rest of her. Rich auburn hair curled its way between her shoulder blades. It lay atop a white shirt tucked into a professional grey skirt. She held a small purse in her left hand while the other hung at her right hip. She passed the tunnel marked as the exit, and now walked into the crowd of commuters. They gave way as she approached, moving as a flock flowing around an unseen obstacle.
When he reached the throng he had no such luck. Jostling shoulders and cases on wheels slowed down his progress. He panicked as he lost sight of her. The train pulled away from the platform, and the people in front of him thinned until the way ahead was clear.
No one was there.
She wasn’t there.
Peter heard the last of the footsteps die away, and he spun on the spot to look behind him. The entire platform was deserted, apart from himself. There was a silence that you only heard this far underneath the city. A few snatches of movement caught his eye. The clock at the far end of the platform clicked out the seconds. A dirt-covered mouse scampered underneath the electrified third rail of the tracks. The electronic display just in front of him changed to say the next train would not be for thirteen minutes.
Where the hell had she disappeared to? He turned back to his original direction, and walked on. Somewhere in his head a small forgotten voice was telling him to turn around and go on to work. But he hardly heard it. The real world seemed distant now; slyly ripped from under his feet as the last human sounds left his senses. This was a dream world in which he was alone, and he felt he had only one purpose: To find her again.
His footsteps echoed against the platform as he made his way towards the far end. There were no tunnels leading out that he could see. There was only a large ventilation shaft that made a black circle on the otherwise bright wall. He remembered standing in front of these in the summertime when the tube became like an oven. As he approached he saw that its metal gate was standing open. He peered through the bars into the gloom, but could see nothing but the light from a distant platform.
He paused again, looking back towards the yellow glowing exit sign so far behind him. There was still a way out. All he had to do was walk towards it.
She was there inside his head again, repelling his brief thought of retreat. And there she was in front of him. He could make out her shape, standing near to one of the walls in the blackness of the ventilation shaft. With nary a thought, he stepped over the threshold of the door into the blackness beyond.
She beckons him forward with her mind and she moves away from him, melting into the wall. He sees the outline of a doorway there, a black arched mouth in the gloom. He shuffles towards it, soon reaching the edge of all light. He stops, the fear of the unseen taking hold.
He reaches forward with his left foot, and feels no solid ground in front of him. His breath quickens as he pictures a dank abyss ahead, ready to engulf him. He takes hold of the edge of the arch and feels about with his foot, stretching his leg downwards and to the side. There is a step here, and another in front of that. He is soon walking down them, still in pitch-blackness, hugging the wall to the left for support. He moves slowly, expecting any moment to find the next step gone. To tip forwards and downwards into the deep. The steps run straight, and he climbs down them with no concern for the passage of time. The brickwork of the walls turns into clay underneath his grasping fingers. Then hard rock as he dives further underneath London. His world has shrunk to this thin diagonal tunnel of existence, and he is pulled ever onwards by her voice.
Slowly, a dim orange light grows. He can make out the surface of the rock walls that surround the steps. He can see his hands again, and he watches his feet as they manoeuvre each step. The light flickers as if cast by a fire, and looking down he can see the glow spilling through a second archway. He reaches the bottom step, and walks through the doorway.
The light comes from a bonfire burning in the centre of this circular room. A wide chimney leads up from the centre of the domed ceiling, carrying its smoke upwards into the real world. He walks around the edge of the room, glancing at the statues that line the walls. All of them are her. She stands in various poses of divine grace. Arms outstretched in welcome. Hands clasped in prayer. A leg raised to the side as if dancing. He rounds the fire, and sees an old man sitting against the wall. He is staring at Peter with a strange expression. It is a mixture of relief and anger. Peter kneels down beside him, and thinks the man looks frail and near death.
“Who are you?” Peter asks.
“I am what you will become. I serve my Lady in these halls.”
An image of the woman flashes in Peter’s head. He feels utter love for her. He will do anything for her.
“Who is she?”
The old man grunts. “She is one of the lost Mothers, worshipped in ancient times. Once called goddess, she is now as nameless as she is beautiful.”
He reaches into his shirt, and takes a pendant from around his neck. “Here. This is for you.” He holds out the gift to Peter, and then collapses back against the wall.
It is a small thing in Peter’s hand. A silver circle containing a seven-pointed star in relief. He moves his thumb over the design feeling its texture against his skin.
“Your first task will be to burn my body.”
Peter’s mind reels. “What? What do you mean?”
The old man smirks as if remembering something. “I am dying. You are to take my place. When I am gone, you must give me to the fire. Then you can continue your duties.” He lets out a deep sigh, and leans back further into the wall. “Put it on.”
Peter opens the chain of the pendant, and slips it over his neck. The metal star falls against his chest, and he realises he has become hers for good. The old man slumps back even further into the wall, and breaths a last breath.
Peter lifts his body like a sleeping child. He is feather-light and he has no problem carrying the load to the base of the bonfire. He looks down at the wrinkled face only once, wondering for a second at the strangeness of all this. Then he heaves the body forward with a grunt. It lands atop the burning pile of wood with flash of sparks, one arm dangling down the side. It catches fire in an instant, and the smoke turns black as a sickly sweet smell permeates through the air.
Come to me.
The voice in his head is hers, and he hears her as if she were whispering right into his ear.
Come to me, vassal, and do my bidding.